The Royal Army Medical Corps on the D-Day Beaches

As the living memory of the terror of the D-Day beaches sadly wanes as each anniversary passes, it is important to remember the role that members of the Royal Army Medical Corps played during that terrible, but ultimately successful invasion. The following extracts are drawn from my recent book Faithful in Adversity: The Royal Army Medical Corps in the Second World War

Faithful in Adversity

The men who sailed from the south coast on the night of 5th June as part of Operation Overlord and those who followed them in the ensuing days had been issued with a small folded card entitled First Aid for Fighting Men, `to help him to go on fighting and to aid his friend in that cold interval between getting hit and getting help.’ Men were reminded, `Wounds can look frightful. Be prepared for this. Remember modern surgeons can do wonders. Nature does her best to heal all wounds. But give Nature a chance. Stop wounds getting worse. That is your job. That is First Aid.’ Advice was given on prioritising treatment and avoiding exacerbating the injury. `There may be two or three wounded at once. Treat the most urgent first. Keep under cover. If mechanised, turn off petrol. Look out for falling walls. Any fool can be brave and get killed. Be brave, don’t get killed and save your friend instead.’ There was advice on how to stop bleeding by putting a fist into the wound, how to apply a tourniquet and how to tie down a broken limb.

First Aid for Fighting Men4
A potentially lifesaving card issued to all those who took part in Operation Overlord.

Behind this initial advice on self-help came a layer of trained medics, with at least one medical orderly in each landing craft. Seventy landing craft were reserved exclusively as water ambulances to evacuate the wounded. Dressing stations would be set up on the very beaches as men fell, staffed by doctors, stretcher-bearers and blood transfusion units.

RAMC Ambulance D-Day
RAMC Ambulances make their way across the Channel to Normandy

Four field ambulances sited across the Channel, three along the south coast and one on the Isle of Wight. Acting as ADSs, casualties would be resuscitated by men in these units. To compliment these dressing stations, hospitals at the Channel ports functioned as surgical centres for wounded troops who required an immediate operation. This arrangement was temporary, pending the establishment of general hospitals on the French mainland. During the early days of the invasion, all casualties were evacuated to Britain, except for a handful cases for whom transportation would have jeopardised their chances of survival.

One member of the RAMC who came under fire on D-Day was Private David Briggs, a conscientious objector who had managed to gain a transfer from the Pay Corps to the RAMC. Interviewed on the wireless on the 70th anniversary of D-Day, he recalled the stillness before the storm as he waited to set sail across the Channel:
The thing that has always stuck in my mind was the sound of nightingales, the most beautiful sound, which drifted across the water into our boat. Every night we’d hear these wonderful songs from the nightingales and it was very, very peaceful. And it was the contrast between that and D-Day that has stuck in my mind.

David Briggs
David Briggs, who survived the D-Day landings and would mark 75 further anniversaries of 6th June 1944.

Briggs had vivid memories of his first approach to the beaches, arriving around midday on 6th June:
There was of course an awful lot of air activity, planes all over the place and we never knew if we were going to be torpedoed or not. Although it was only a few hours after the invasion started, there was a kind of eerie quiet on the beach…The first thing I saw was a dead Canadian lying in the water…The landing craft was relieved of the tanks. The tanks rolled out onto the beach and then all the space that was left… we had brackets coming out of the walls to hold stretchers. Our job as medics was to go onto the beach to rescue the wounded of all nationalities; German as well as English and ferry them back to the UK. And then that job was finished and then we were discharged from the boat. We were told later that the boat was torpedoed and sunk.
The men from No. 223 Field Ambulance who were to land on Sword beach on D-Day were divided between two landing craft, in case one was attacked there would still be enough men to operate as a field ambulance.  Private Jim Wisewell and the man who was sharing a stretcher with him decided to sleep under one of the tanks the craft was carrying for shelter. Like many, he sought strength in his religious faith, I remember I wasn’t particularly anxious. I read my Bible before turning in that night and prayed for all of us and got off to sleep fairly quickly.’

 
Wisewell landed on Sword Beach at Lion-sur-Mer between 10am and 10.15 on D-Day. The precious tanks were unloaded from the landing craft first, then an officer said “come on chaps” and Wisewell went down the ramp and made for the nearest shell hole, under intensive shelling and mortar fire. As well as the joint responsibility for a stretcher, he carried a large haversack of medical equipment, including hot water bottles to help counteract the shock the wounded would experience.
Although Wisewell could see a wounded man in the next shell hole to his, but he was under strict orders to leave the casualties on the sand to a Beach Dressing Station, and to move inland to form a Field Dressing Station near a rendezvous point at Hermanville. It was on the road between Lion-sur-Mer and Hermanville that Wisewell saw his first D-Day fatalities. A mortar had landed killing three of the division:
One of them had practically dissolved from the waist downwards. The other one was in a kneeling position on one knee and he seemed to be unmarked. And the other one was just a shapeless mess. And I looked down at my foot and there was something which looked like a pound of steak, and this was obviously part of one of them.
As the casualties started to pour in at the dressing station, the doctor had to `play God’ in deciding which men could be treated and which left to die. Wisewell, having qualified as a Nursing Orderly First Class, was splinting fractures, dressing wounds and injecting morphia and anti-gangrene serum.
Captain Geoffrey Haine of the No. 49 Field Surgical Unit left Felixstowe at dawn on 6th June, eventually landing on King Beach at 2am the following morning. The water-proofed ambulance lorries started up and went down the ramp and through three feet of water without any issues. On the beach the drivers expected to find markers to indicate where steel mesh tracks had been laid down, but they were not visible and the heavily-laden lorries soon become bogged down, axle deep, in the sand. Having tried to dig the lorries out, an irate Beach Marshall approached the unit and informed them that, as the tide was coming in, that they should carry off as much equipment as possible and abandon the lorries:

Geoffrey Haine
Captain Geoffrey Haine RAMC

That did not sound like a very successful ending to our training and so seeing a Royal Engineer working with a Bulldozer, I persuaded him – or may be used my rank for I was then a Captain and ordered him to pull us out. Thanks to him he soon got us back on the track and we got into the little holiday resort of Ver sur Mer as dawn was breaking.
Haine then saw first battle casualty, a young man who had been shot and killed instantly. Rigor mortis had set in quickly and he was still in sniper firing position. Although he was to see many gruesome sights during the advance through Europe that young soldier remained in his mind.
Having proceeded to Jersualem on the road between Bayeux and Tilly, Haine was involved in a macabre episode. One of the first casualties was a man with abdominal injuries, suffering from severe shock. As he became more shocked during the operation, Major Tuckett placed an abdominal clamp over a bad injury in the bowel and returned him to the ward with the hope that after further resuscitation he would be fit for further surgery. After completing further operations on other casualties, it was discovered that the patient had died, and had been buried with the clamp still in situ. As the clamp was essential for medical operations, after consultation with the padre, it was agreed that the grave could be opened up and the clamp retrieved.

A fuller account of the actions of Royal Army Medical Corps personnel, both those serving with airborne and seaborne units during Operation Overlord, can be found in my recently published book. Faithful in Adveristy: The Royal Army Medical Corps in the Second World War

Faithful in Adversity

 

This post is dedicated to the memory of David Briggs, who died on 16th March 2020. I had the privilege of meeting David in Bedford in 2014.

Saving Lives under Fire: the RAMC at Dunkirk

For RAMC personnel attached to fighting units who had made the perilous retreat to the Dunkirk beaches a maelstrom of carnage awaited them.

Cundall Dunkirk
War Artist Charles Cundall captured the scene which greeted RAMC personnel in which they had to strive to save the lives of those who could be evacuated from Dunkirk.

Corporal Montague of No. 6 Field Ambulance took a wounded sergeant to a French hospital, where every corner and passageway was filled with the wounded and dying. Outside, the roads were blocked with abandoned and destroyed vehicles. Looking out to sea, Montague noted a Royal Naval destroyer with a broken back. On the sand, rows of men waited their turn for evacuation, vulnerable to wave upon wave of Stuka attacks. Montague set to work burying the dead, digging graves in the sand with his bare hands. `We stuck each man’s rifle into the sand at his head and tied his identity disc to the trigger guard.’
Sergeant Reg Gill, who had been serving as a radiographer at No.18 General Hospital at Étaples, experienced some difficulty in loading some of the French casualties who were evacuated from Dunkirk:
We loaded the stretchers and put the French and British walking wounded aboard. Many of the French didn’t want to go. When they were told we were going to ‘Angleterre’ they didn’t want to know. Some wanted to go back down the coast and join in the fighting again but most seemed to acquiesce and go reasonably well.
Just up the coast from Dunkirk, at La Panne, a large number of RAMC units had gathered and set up dressing and clearance stations in the remains of the hotels. Colonel C.M. Finny, the Assistant Director of Medical Services of 50th Division was present on 30st May and recalled:
The sea front at La Panne is a sort of military Harley Street. Nearly everyone seems to be in the R.A.M.C. In addition to my three field ambulances, Nos -, -, and – C.C.S. and – Field Ambulance are located in hotels by the sea. No. – C.C.S. is at Rosendael near Dunkirk and, I understand, is holding casualties prior to embarkation.

Hospital ships were anchored offshore and stretcher bearers struggled through the water to load men on to smaller transfer boats. Corporal Michael Adams of No. 11 Casualty Clearing Station was one of those at La Panne. As the doctors were working round the clock performing heroic stints of endurance with their surgical skills, orderlies like Adams were left to administer post-operative care. He recalled the delirium of one soldier, calling for his wife; to sooth the man’s distress Adams pretended to answer as his spouse. The pressure of the situation led him to wish the mortally wounded would die quickly, to provide relief from their mental and physical torment, and to free up space for those waiting for treatment.
Captain Richard Doll, whose research would later conclusively establish the link between tobacco smoking and cancer, was one of the later evacuees. Having been given the order to make a last withdrawal at 2200 hrs on 1st June, he headed for the mole at Malo-les-Bains before returning to report its location to the rest of his battalion. Not being able to find them in the confusion, he returned to the beach with the small party which was accompanying him, where they dug themselves a shallow shelter in the sand. An officer then walked past asking for a doctor, as there were reports of badly wounded men the other side of the mole. Doll went to investigate but could not locate any casualties, although on his return trip he found a man with a badly broken leg. All he was able to provide was a dose of morphine, and the advice to the man’s comrades to have him embark as soon as possible.

Richard Doll
Dr Richard Doll in later years

Realising that there was a chance that his party might not be evacuated before the Germans either overran the beach or caused much greater damage by shelling, Doll walked a short distance along the coast and found a line of men in the water, waiting their turn to board couple of small rowing boats transporting men onto larger boats.
We lined up in the water and, as the empty rowing boats returned to the shore, parties of us waded out to them…the water came up to my breast before I reached the boat…To the accompaniment of much swearing on the part of the two seamen, the boat gradually filled and was then pulled out to a paddle steamer lying a couple of hundred yards further on by a small motorboat.

Upon boarding the paddle steamer, Doll’s Dunkirk duties were not finished. He responded to the request of a naval medical orderly to assist with binding and splinting of wounds of some nine or ten men; `Some were terribly badly wounded, and I cannot understand how they got on board.’ One man, who had six separate fractures on both legs, died before the boat returned to the safety of England. By this stage Doll was utterly exhausted, but was sustained by traditional British fare, `I must have looked terribly done up, for the orderly looked after me like a child, continually giving me steaming cups of tea, and Oxo and pieces of bread and butter.’ He was then asked to treat some more wounded on deck, before being granted some much-needed rest. When he awoke he was in Ramsgate harbour. The only possessions remaining were a small haversack and a small kitten which had been his companion since he had found it lost and forlorn in Les Bergeurs.

Further accounts of members of the RAMC who were involved in the Battle of France and evacuations from Dunkirk and St Nazaire can be found in my recently published book, Faithful in Adversity: The Royal Army Medical Corps in the Second World War

Faithful in Adversity

 

The Alexandra Hospital Massacre, 14-15 February 1942

One of the most despicable acts of inhumanity committed in the Far East theatre of war  occurred on 14-15 September 1942.

Dozens of medical staff serving at the British Military Hospital, known as Alexandra Hospital, in Queenstown, Singapore were massacred, along with their patients. This facility, housed in an imposing white colonial-style 1930s building, had a normal capacity for 550 patients, but recent fighting had swelled this number to 900.

Alexandra Hospital Singapore

Alexandra Military Hospital, Singapore, taken in the 1970s

On 14 February, the hospital found itself caught between Japanese and British troops advancing towards each other. Due to the rationed supply of water and electricity, men from the 32nd Company of the RAMC were struggling to treat patients and corpses were being wrapped in blankets, remaining unburied.

At 1.00 pm on 14 February, the first Japanese soldier approached the building. Captain J.E. Bartlett RAMC walked out to meet him, his hands in the air, and indicated the Red Cross brassard on his arm. The soldier ignored this and fired at him at point-blank range. Amazingly, Bartlett survived and ran back into the building. For the next hour, three groups of Japanese soldiers went from ward to ward, shooting, bayoneting and beating up medics and patients indiscriminately, killing about fifty people.

Captain Lance Parkinson, who had been posted posted to the Alexandra Military Hospital, having lost the toss of a coin with Captain Bill Frankland, was anaesthetising
Corporal Holden of the Loyal Regiment (North Lancashire). Holden was bayoneted while on the operating table whilst Parkinson was bayoneted through the abdomen and gravely injured. He escaped to a nearby corridor but collapsed and died less than thirty minutes later.

Captain Tom Smiley, who had been operating on Corporal Vetch – another victim of the Japanese bayoneted on an operating table – was lined up against a wall with several other men. He pointed to his Red Cross brassard and told the Japanese troops that the building was a hospital. In response, one soldier lunged at his chest with a bayonet, striking a cigarette case that had been given to Smiley by his fiancée. This deflected the blow onto his chest. A second soldier bayoneted him through the groin whilst a third attacked him, causing a hand injury. He collapsed onto Corporal Sutton and both men feigned death. Remarkably, both were left alone and survived.

Alexandra Hospital Singapore2 (2)

A light and spacious ward at the Alexandra Hospital, December 1941

Around 3.30 pm, 200 men were rounded up, tied into groups of eight and forced to march towards a row of outhouses some distance from the hospital. The gravely injured were not spared and were killed if they fell along the way. Upon reaching their destination the men were divided into groups of fifty to seventy and crammed into three small rooms. Here they were kept without ventilation or water, with no space to sit or lie
down, and many died during the night.

The following morning, 15 February, the remaining men were told that they would receive water. By 11.00 am, the Japanese captors allowed the prisoners to leave the rooms in groups of two on the pretext of them fetching water. However, as the screams and cries of those who had left the rooms could be heard by those still inside, it became clear that the Japanese were executing the prisoners when they left the rooms. The death toll numbered approximately 100 prisoners.

Alexandra Hospital Singapore Signaller Reg Holmes

Signaller Reggie Holmes, Royal Corps of Signals. One of the many patients bayoneted to death at the hospital

Suddenly, Japanese shelling resumed and a shell struck the building where the
prisoners were being held. This interrupted the executions and allowed a
handful of men to escape.

Following further cold-blooded murders by his troops, a senior Japanese officer arrived at the hospital at 6.00 pm on Sunday, 15 February and ordered all movement around the hospital to stop. Pointedly, Smiley, having had his wounds dressed by Corporal Sutton, defied the order and carried on tending the wounds of the survivors,
and was soon back operating. For this action, he was later awarded the Military Cross.

The stories of RAMC doctors and orderlies who served in the Far East and across the globe during the Second World War are presented in my recent book Faithful in Adversity: The Royal Army Medical Corps during the Second World War

Faithful in Adversity

Dr Harold Churchill

Prisoners on the River Kwai

 I recently read the book Prisoners on the River Kwai: Memoirs of Dr Harold Churchill: With extracts from the memories of ex-prisoners of war in the Far East. (Dereham: Larks Press, 2005)The book was collated by Dr Sue Palmer, who briefly worked alongside him in a GP surgery in Dereham, Norfolk.
Dr Harold Churchill

In 1940, Harold Churchill left his medical practice in Norfolk to join the army as a medical officer. He was stationed in Glasgow, checking the health of men boarding the troop ships. However this was not close enough to the action for him, so he put himself forward for service in India, and from there was taken to Singapore where he was captured in February 1942.

During his captivity he and his fellow-officers had the daunting task of caring for the sick and wounded among the many thousands of prisoners of war. He managed to keep a diary on rice paper which he buried in a tin to keep it from the guards. Had it been found, he would have been severely punished. Later he wrote this up as a memoir, as a form of therapy. Described as a `remarkable document, reticent, sensitive and poetic’, it displays calm, undemonstrative religiosity, but shows flashes of Churchill drawing on the deep faith of his childhood to sustain him in some of the darker moments.

Following the war, he attended church every Sunday, although did not overtly identify himself with fellow FEPOWs on Remembrance Sunday.  His medals, like my own father’s, remained in the wrapping they were received in from the War Office.

 Dereham FEPOW memorialDereham FEPOW Memorial
The second half of the book is a collection of memories collected by Dr Palmer from surviving Norfolk FEPOWs, and are a testament to the men’s bravery in the face of some of the most barbaric treatment meted out during the war.

In 2011 a gingko tree was planted in East Dereham, the town to which Dr Churchill retired, in honour of the FEPOWs of that town. http://www.edp24.co.uk/news/promise_is_met_at_last_in_dereham_to_honour_the_fepows_1_1124702