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 RAMC at Belsen – “Life can never be quite the same again for those who have worked in the Concentration Camp”.

This week marks the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Belsen Concentration Camp. The horrors found by troops who had overthrown the reign of Nazi terror shook them to the core. It fell to members of the Royal Army Medical Corps to undertake a programme of care which would save as many lives of the survivors as possible, whilst decontaminating the area for future use.

No. 11 Light Field Ambulance had crossed the Rhine in early 1945. By 13 April rumours began to circulate that Brigadier Glyn Hughes, the Chief Medical Officer of the Second Army had assigned the unit a special task, `something about a concentration camp infected with typhus.’
At 0015 hours on 17th April, orders were received to be ready to move within twelve hours and anxiety began to manifest itself in the men.

Having come through North-West Europe campaign virtually without a scratch and they were understandably wary of entering a typhus infected area with the war’s end in sight.
Belsen camp was closely camouflaged with wooded areas, and members of No. 11 LFA caught glimpses of huts and barbed wire fencing as they passed by the perimeter of the camp en route to the entrance. A detachment of Hungarian guards had been assigned by the Germans to act as camp guards, wearing a white armband.
11th LFA joined No. 32 Casualty Clearing Station under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel J.A.D. Johnston MC, the Senior Medical Officer at the camp. Later they would be joined by No. 163 Field Ambulance, No. 9 British General Hospital, No. 35 Casualty Clearing Station and the No. 29 British General Hospital. Assistance was also received from 567 Company American Field Service Unit.

Major D.T. Prescott of No. 11 LFA was shocked by the sight which confronted him:
The scene which met us as we entered the camp was one of utter chaos with dead and dying everywhere and an estimated 6-10 thousand people dead on site. The fitter ones seemed to be wandering about – a lot of them aimlessly – in the blue and white prison pyjamas which offered very little protection from the elements.
Captain Eric Godwin took a series of photographs of conditions at the camp. He recorded on the back of one `Belsen. We drove along the road & wondered what the people were. The local Germans must have known what went on.’

Photographs taken by Captain Ernest Godwin RAMC
(Courtesy of the Second World War Experience Centre)

Some prisoners could hardly shuffle, and Major Prescott saw some inmates collapse and die. Inside some of the huts, hundreds of people were crammed together without bunks. In the dormitories there were two to three people to a bunk, without a mattress. Often one of them was dead, with the survivors lacking the strength to remove the body. The vast majority were suffering from diarrhoea and typhus and tuberculosis were rife. People resembled human skeletons. Death and human excreta were everywhere.
Belsen’s inmates had not been sent there to be directly exterminated, but to be interned and to endure harsh forced labour. As well as Jews, there were many political internees. The camp possessed just one single-chamber crematorium, presenting a challenge in the disposal of the infected corpses. An attempt was made by British troops to raise the morale of the inmates by encouraging them to make small fires in the open, on which to cook the small amounts of food provided for them. Many inmates could not bear the smell of the Bengal Famine mixture (a rice and sugar mixture successfully used to address the 1943 famine) provided and rejected this fare.
It was decided that everyone would have to be evacuated and the camp completely destroyed. Bulldozers were brought in to dig enormous pits which could hold about five thousand bodies. The machines then shoved the bodies into the pits, which were marked by minefield tape. Members of the S.S. who had been running the camp prior to liberation were made to do a token burial of the dead by loading the deceased into lorries, taking them to the pits and throwing them in.
Jewish Rabbis who were internees spent their days conducting funeral services for those who had been recognised by friends of family. A hospital was established at a large cavalry barracks a couple of miles from Belsen. At its entrance a large stable was turned into a `human laundry’, in which the men of No. 11 LFA were dressed in anti-typhus suits, dusted with DDT powder and sent into the camp in ambulances to evacuate the sickest of inmates. Their clothing was removed and they were wrapped in army blankets and removed to the `human laundry’. Here, German female nursing orderlies worked, bathing and delousing the patients, who were then put into clean blankets and transported to makeshift hospital wards in the barrack area. Between 650 and 750 survivors were dealt with daily under this system.
RAMC personnel located German medical supplies, and these were brought together in a dispensary under Prescott’s leadership. He had working under him a German army pharmacist and a camp inmate who spoke five or six languages.

Two RAMC privates were given the job of decontaminating any visitors to the camp by spraying them with a gun filled with anti-louse powder on the head, arm and down the front of the trousers. Famous visited to be treated this way included Field Marshal Montgomery, Marshal of the Royal Air Force Lord Tedder, and Richard Dimbleby, the BBC correspondent who reported on the horrors of the camp to the British wireless audience.

After three or four weeks the tasks of decontaminating and treating were near completion. On 21st May 1945 Prescott witnessed the Royal Engineers using flame-throwing tanks performing a ceremonial burning of the evacuated huts.
A Special Order of the Day, issued by the commanding officer of No. 11 LFA, Lieutenant-General M.W. Gonin, referred to the work undertaken at Belsen:

You then undertook what, for this unit, was the thankless and unspectacular task of clearing Belsen Concentration Camp. Our American friends and yourselves…have moved well over 11,000 sic from Belsen. To do this, 63 if you have worked for a month amid the most unhygienic conditions inside huts where the majority of internees were suffering from the most virulent disease known to man. You have had to deal with the mass hysteria and political complications requiring the tact of diplomats and the firmness of senior officers. During the first 10 days of the Concentration Camp and before any organised attempt had been made to feed the sick in those huts you distributed 4,000 meals twice daily from what RSM Marno could scrounge by initiative and subtlety.
By collecting medical equipment from all over Germany you produced a dispensary which has supplied drugs for 13,000 patients a day and has met the demands of excitable medical officers of all races requiring the most exotic drugs in half a dozen different languages. You may have, without hesitation, acted as undertakers, collecting over 2,000 corpses from the wards of the hospital area and removing them to the mortuary – a task which the RAMC can never before have been asked to fulfil.
The cost has not been light; 20 of you contracted typhus – a disease causing great personal suffering. Thank God all the patients are doing well.
One of us will never leave Belsen – the dawn attack by the German Air Force on our lines was the price he paid to come here.
Life can never be quite the same again for those who have worked in the Concentration Camp but you will go with the knowledge that the l1(Br) Lt Fd Amb has once again done a good job.

The work of the Royal Army Medical Corps during the Second World War across all theatres of war is covered in my recently published book Faithful in Adversity: The Royal Army Medical Corps in the Second World War

Faithful in Adversity

Corporal Ron Dickinson, No. 11 Field Ambulance, RAMC

Barnsley-born Ron Dickinson was called up with the first batch of militia and in July 1939 began what he thought would be a six-month training programme. His immaculate copperplate handwriting recorded the information which he would then strive to commit to memory.

PIC1 Ron Dickinson Book
Ron Dickinson’s carefully preserved exercise books detailing his RAMC education programme

The syllabus of training for war-time recruits into the ranks initially comprised of 270 hours, nearly 100 hours of which was taken up with physical training and drill, and which also included lessons on Chemical Warfare, Anatomy and Physiology, First Aid and Nursing.

Dickinson had been a member of the St John Ambulance and had therefore been offered the choice to join the RAMC. The six-month training programme became six weeks as he was sent to France shortly after the outbreak of war in September 1939. “Pack your kit, we’re on the move”, Dickinson and his comrades in No. 11 Field Ambulance were told. Seventy-nine years later, when I interviewed him in his Barnsley home, later Ron wryly reflected, “I went for six months’ training. It took me six years to get back!”

Ron still carefully treasures the exercise books in which he committed to memory the training that would help save the lives of dozens of soldiers during his wartime service in France, North Africa and Italy.

PIC T Ron Dickinson
Corporal Ron Dickinson, No 11 Field Ambulance RAMC

Ron Dickinson’s is one of dozens of accounts of service in the Royal Army Medical Corps during the Second World War featured in the critically acclaimed book Faithful in Adversity: The Royal Army Medical Corps in the Second World War published by Pen & Sword.

Faithful in Adversity

Recruiting the Orderlies: The RAMC in the Second World War (2)

The previous post in this series examined the Army medical training infrastructure that had to be expanded during the early stages of the war. This piece will give an idea of the range of men who either volunteered or were conscripted to serve as orderlies in a variety of general and specialist technical roles. Some had already been members of the territorial army before the war,  whilst others had a general interest in medicine and first aid. Others were merely assigned randomly to the corps. A further group, the conscientious objectors, were posted to the RAMC on the basis that they would not have to bear arms against a fellow human.
David Jones, a cost clerk with a gas company, was already a member of a Territorial RAMC unit and therefore on the Monday following Chamberlain’s announcement on the wireless that Britain was at war he reported to Finsbury Barracks in north London. After a morning of some confusion as to how to organise the influx of what was now a regular army, Jones soon became one of many men who took a dislike to army drills and the way in which they were conducted:

When I arrived at the barracks there was chaos and we just sat around in groups waiting for something to happen. At midday they told us to “fall in” on the parade ground and then they marched us through the streets to the local ABC restaurant. We all sat down and had steak and kidney pie with vegetables and some sort of fruit pie with custard.
The next day was a little different and they were more organised. We were taken out onto the parade ground and a little squint-eyed Sergeant called Stanton put us through two hours of marching up and down. He soon got to know me and every so often shouted out “Jones, take that smile off your face”. Then he would have a go at someone else and it was not long before we all hated him.

Ronald Ritson had left school aged fourteen to begin work as a coal miner at Walkmill Colliery in Cumberland. The colliery maintained a branch of the St. John’s Ambulance which Ritson joined, competing with other local mines to win a shield for the most efficient unit. Ritson also availed himself of the option to join the unit’s Military Hospital Reserve, which afforded him additional opportunities for medical training, but also meant that in the event of war breaking out, he would be liable to an immediate call-up.
On Monday 4th September, on completion of his shift in the darkness of the pit, Ritson arrived home at 3p.m. to be greeted with the equally dark news that his call-up papers had arrived, and he was to catch a train at Bransty Station, Whitehaven at 7p.m. Ritson did not have the opportunity to formally give his notice at work, and had to say a hurried farewell to his parents and siblings.

Paul Watts, a resident assistant golf professional, had joined the local ARP and became a Gas instructor for his home village of Mundesley. He was also the local Scout Master and when interviewed for call up was told that unfortunately he would not qualify for the infantry as he had flat feet. As someone who earned his living from sport, this amazed him. However, he was not too sorry to miss out on the infantry and pointed out that he had been trained in first aid for his scout work, suggesting his skills could be used in the RAMC.

PIC S Paul Watts
Paul Watts

Jim Whitaker had worked in a shoe factory in Lancashire before the war. His employer wanted a qualified first-aider on the staff of the factory and had offered to pay the course fees of anyone who applied. Whitaker leapt at the opportunity and was able to gain experience of ambulance driving and treating patients in this additional role. However, as he was thus considered a key worker for Civil Defence, he was not permitted to volunteer from the RAMC, as was his wish, and had to wait for his age group to be called up before being assigned to the corps.

PIC9 Corporal Jim Whitaker Taken after the Relief of Brussels 1944. SWWEC
Jim Whitaker

Walter Hart, a printer and bookbinder from the Jewish East End of London was another territorial, like David Jones, who found his initiation into army food provisions a pleasant experience. Hart was part of the 1st Militia, the first batch of troops to be conscripted, and had been a member of the St John’s Ambulance before the war as well as serving as a sergeant in the Jewish Lads’ Brigade. Having signed on at a Labour Exchange in May 1939, he was passed as A1 at a medical and posted to the training depot at Crookham:

On arrival we were told to form a queue, so that we could be checked in. Just then a red tabbed colonel came by and said a few words of welcome. After being booked in we were led by a sergeant to a big mess hall, there meeting our view, were tables placed in pairs end to end. Each table was covered by a white sheet, serving as a tablecloth, and on each was a small vase with flowers. The kindly sergeant told us to sit down and we were served with tea and sandwiches by corporals who were present. The sergeant declared, “This is only a snack, you will get a proper lunch later.” 

However, this kindness was merely for the benefit of the attendant members of the press, out in full force to cover the story of the first batch of conscripts. After they had left, the tablecloths and flowers were removed and a sergeant barked, “Right twelve to a table”. The final two men to sit down were appointed mess orderlies for the week, assigned the task of dishing out the food and removing and wash the empty pots afterwards. During the meal an officer came round and asked if there were any complaints. Having been previously warned that if anyone complained, they would be `in for it, no-one raised any objection despite the awfulness of the food.’

Charles Quant had lost the use of an eye in a boyhood accident, and when he went for an initial medical examination to join the army, he was told by the doctor that he was unfit for military service due to only having one working eye:

I said I was a very good shot with rifle or shotgun, but he said that King’s Regulation said that nobody with only one eye could shoot. I was cheeky and asked him if he could shoot, he said he did. I asked him which eye he closed and he said the left. I said that my left eye was permanently closed, but he stuck to the point about King’s Regulations and sent me home.

Nevertheless, Quant was called for interview a few months later and told that there was an opening in the RAMC to train as a radiographer. Keenly, he accepted this offer and was sent to the training depot at Church Crookham, and thence to the training college at Millbank, coinciding with the during start of the blitz.

PIC H Charles Quant with Hypo the dog
Charles Quant with Hypo, the dog that would accompany his unit through much of the Middle Eastern Campaign

John Broom was a twenty-three year old furniture salesman from Colchester at the time of his call-up and appeared before the medical board on 24th February 1940, being classed as Grade `A1’. He was deemed to have enlisted on 15th March 1940, on which date his devoutly Christian parents gave him a pocket bible with the following inscription:

To my darling John
With fondest love
From Mum and Dad
March 15th 1940

And when He putteth forth
His own sheep
He goeth before them…
Kept by the Power of God
Peter 1.5.
In all thy ways acknowledge Him,
And He shall direct thy paths
Proverbs 3.6

This bible was to remain with him throughout the war, and indeed throughout the rest of his life. His mother Florence, like many women of her generation, had to send her son off to war just twenty-five years after seeing her husband depart for the horrors of the First World War trenches. On his arrival in Leeds, John wrote `Regarding my departure, you were very brave and the circumstances were the best possible. I realise how very much you must have been dreading it. Truly you all bore yourselves with conspicuous courage. I am glad you didn’t break down, though I should have understood it if you had’.
The stories of dozens of individuals who served across all theatres of the Second World War are told in my critically acclaimed book Faithful in Adversity: The Royal Army Medical Corps in the Second World War  published by Pen & Sword.

Faithful in Adversity

Training the British Army Medics: the RAMC in the Second World War (1)

As I write this, Britain and the wider world stands at the cusp of a medical emergency, with most countries experiencing partial or total lockdowns. Medical services strive to provide care for the increasing tsunami of Covid-19 patients, often with inadequate resources and equipment.

80 years ago Britain faced a crisis of similar gravity. This blog post will be the first in a series examining the ways in which the British Army expanded its medical provision in order to support the successful prosecution of the war.

At the outbreak of the Second World War, the strength of the Army Medical Services stood at just over 9,000. By May 1945 it had doubled to nearly 18,000.

In order to address the immediate demand for medical officers at the start of the war,  British Medical Association was appointed by the War Office as the instrument for recruiting from the medical profession.

All medical practitioners in the United Kingdom were contacted, and asked for details of their employment and commitments, and their willingness to undertake service with the fighting or civil defence forces. It was agreed that in the event of compulsory service, the committee would notify the War Office of their particulars.
During September 1939, the Central War Committee of the British Medical Association nominated 110 medical men for commissions as specialists, but only 98 were forthcoming during the subsequent six months. Therefore, qualification requirements were lowered so younger and less experienced men could take up appointments where they could work under the guidance and supervision of those more experienced specialist officers.

These were known as `graded’ staff, e.g. `graded surgeon’, `graded physician’ and granted a temporary rank of lieutenant. These new officers immediately replaced those who had been mobilised for field service, to reinforce military hospitals, but due to shortages of existing medical staff, some were used to address deficiencies in field medical units due to be despatched overseas. By mid-1941, 869 specialists and 187 graded specialists were serving with the Army Medical Services as a whole.
In addition to the efforts made by the BMA to recruit doctors into the military, in September 1939, around 800 medical practitioners volunteered for service in the army. Each one was medically examined, and then interviewed by a D.D.M.S. at the headquarters of a command. By the end of June 1940, due to the post-Dunkirk realisation that the war would be a long-drawn-out affair, this number had risen to nearly 3,000 professionals signing up for the duration of the war.
Despite this increase, it had become apparent that voluntarism would not be sufficient to meet the need for medical officers, so conscription was introduced. The practice of medicine was removed from the list of reserved occupations and medical practitioners became liable for compulsory military service under the National Service (Armed Forces) Act. The CMWC was informed of War Office requirements and established local medical war committees to determine the most suitable recruits from each district. The War Office then notified the individual, offering him a commission in the RAMC. He was informed that if he declined this, he would be liable to be called up for service under the normal arrangements of the National Service Act.
In the midst of this recruitment drive, the Ministry of Health had to be conscious of balancing the medical needs of the armed forces with those of a civilian population under immense strain. The ratio of medical practitioners per 1,000 of population was found, in early 1941, to be:

Civil – 0.82
RN – 4.1
Army – 2.8
RAF 2.9

The Royal Army Medical College at Millbank, London, had been reopened soon after the conclusion of the First World War as a teaching establishment for the postgraduate training of RAMC officers in areas such as military surgery, tropical medicine and hygiene. Other ranks were also trained for technical roles such as radiographers or laboratory assistants

An Army School of Hygiene was established at Aldershot in 1922, with the aim of promoting efficient hygienic practice across the army, as `nothing less would suffice than that every individual solider should be taught to observe the principles underlying a healthy existence and to live his life according to a regimen based on their application.’
The school featured laboratories and lecture rooms, and outdoor demonstrations including scale models of water supplies, sanitary appliances, disinfectors, mosquito breeding grounds etc. Officers from outside the medical services also received training here. Subjects included soldier welfare, dietetics, general hygiene, field sanitation and anti-malarial measures.

The school was relocated to Mytchett Barracks near Aldershot on November 13th 1939. Training for those officers wishing to work in specialist branches of surgery such as ophthalmic, thoracic, cranial and maxilla-facial took place in special hospitals and surgical units, and was augmented by attendance at lectures and demonstrations, and clinical instruction in wartime medicine and surgery was arranged by post-graduate teaching bodies.
A system for the training of medical orderlies; the men who would work as nurses, stretcher-bearers, theatre assistants, radiographers, laboratory technicians and a host of other technical and support roles within the corps, had to be established. The RAMC had two main training depots in England; one in the north and one in the south of England, in addition to No. 2 Depot at Newbattle Abbey near Edinburgh.

Beckett Park in Leeds had served as a military hospital during the First World War and had been a teacher training college up to 1939. On 1st December 1939 it was established as No II Training Depot RAMC, where recruits would undertake a special intensive course of training in technical subjects extending over two months.

The imposing buildings of Beckett Park, Headingley, Leeds

The remit of the staff was to turn civilians into trained troops within that period. Men came from all walks of life and all parts of the country. One of these was John Broom, a twenty-three-year-old furniture salesman from Colchester.

PIC Q John_Broom_2
John Broom 7374615 RAMC

Men were formed into platoons of thirty and were housed in the accommodation blocks, where they were issued with mattress covers, which they filled with hay and straw. Daily, they would be woken and breakfasted then be marched off to the main building where they would learn drill and medical training.

Each Sunday there would be a compulsory Church Parade, sometimes in the main hall, and at other times in St Chad’s Church, Headingley. One block at Beckett Park had a swimming pool where the men would be taught how to take casualties over the water. At the end of the training period there was a route march, over a twenty-mile route and taking a day to complete. At the end of the training period, men would be given a few days leave then receive their posting orders, being sent to different RAMC units as nursing orderlies. John Broom was sent up to Whitby to join No 7 Light Field Ambulance in December 1940.
You can read more about the RAMC across all theatres of the Second World War in my critically acclaimed 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

Captain Forde Cayley RAMC and the Fall of Singapore

15th February 1942 will forever be remembered as the day that Singapore fell to the Imperial Japanese Army, condemning tens of thousands of Allied troops to horrific years of privations and cruelty at the hands of their captors.

For members of the RAMC attached the captured battalions as Regimental Medical Officers, three-and-a-half years of Japanese captivity would see their medical ingenuity stretched to the limit.

Captain Forde Cayley had been attached to the 5th Battalion, Suffolk Regiment, assigned to defend Pongol Point on the north-west coast of the Malay peninsula.


Captain Forde Cayley RAMC

Despite his non-combatant medical status as the Japanese moved ever closer, ‘I was issued with a service revolver and ten rounds and felt now I am really for it.’

Cayley had a dugout to shelter in and, when he considered it safe to do so, visited the
various companies on bike. On his return, he found the dugout had been bombed, leaving many dead and wounded. Withdrawn to the outskirts of the city of Singapore, Cayley’s battalion HQ was established at Raffles College, situated by the riverside quay, and he set up a Regimental Aid Post in the middle of one wing.

The post soon became filled with wounded men. Cayley recalled:

The mortar platoon were under a tree and the mortar hit a
branch above them and blew off an officer’s leg. Another
was hit in the arm and I had to take it off. The Indians from
the units on each side of us sent their wounded in with
bullets penetrating their bowels so the night was made
terrible by their cries for water. A Malay civilian came in
with his sternum ripped away by a shell so that you could
see his heart beating.

By this stage, the Japanese were just 100 yards away so, during a lull in the fighting, Cayley sent an ambulance with the most wounded to a hospital further down the line. Shortly afterwards, he witnessed Japanese tanks in control of the streets, then General Percival being driven along the road to sign the terms of the British surrender. For
Cayley, the war was over, but his nightmare was to last a further three
and a half years.

The moving story of how RAMC doctors like Captain Cayley helped to save the lives of thousands of their fellow prisoners is told in my new book Faithful in Adversity: The Royal Army Medical Corps in the Second World War

Faithful in Adversity

The Retreat to Dunkirk: Stanley Cross, George Mussared and 150 Field Ambulance

Men from the Yorkshire city of Kingston-Upon-Hull formed the backbone of 150 Field Ambulance, a territorial unit which had been formed in 1939. Based in Wenlock Barracks in the west of the city, this RAMC unit formed part of 50th (Northumbrian) Division. Nineteen of its cohort would lose their lives in the war, predominantly during the retreat from France in 1940 and the Battle of Gazala in 1942.

One of those killed was 19-year-old George Mussared. A former pupil of Kingston
School on Hull’s Boulevard, George had a posthumous school prize named in
his honour. During the Battle of Arras in May 1940, George was badly injured and was carried by his RAMC comrades, including Private Stanley Cross, as the unit dispiritedly made its way towards Dunkirk. However a German strafing attack pierced the side of the ambulance lorry in which young George was being carried, and he was killed on 22 May 1940.

George Mussared

Private George Mussared RAMC

Stanley Cross always remembered young George, as did many people in the tightly-knit community of West Hull.

PicZ Stanley Cross

Private Stanley Cross RAMC

For decades after his death, on the anniversary of his birth, 1 January, family members and friends would insert memorials in the Hull Daily Mail. Devout Christians, who attended the Boulevard Methodist Church The family also sought to understand their loss through their faith. For George’s gravestone, situated near Outtersteene on the Franco-Belgian border, they chose the epitaph


An RAMC comrade named ‘Cyril’ inserted a tribute in the Hull Daily Mail reinforcing George’s faith: ‘He died as Christ would have him die.’ ‘Charlie’ of the RASC wrote, ‘So we part sadly to meet in sweet Jerusalem’, and George’s sweetheart, ‘Emmie’, recorded that she felt he was ‘Safe in God’s haven of peace’.

A decade later, his cousin Tom would recall ‘The wonderful memory of his smiling face and loving disposition’ which ‘will ever be an inspiration to those who loved him’.

George’s parents, who like so many hundreds of thousands, had to carry the memory of their son’s life cut cruelly short, beseeched God to ‘Hold him, O Father, in Thine arms and let him for ever be a messenger of love between our aching hearts and Thee’.

Stanley Cross managed to make it to Dunkirk, from where he was able to board a converted coal carrier. The combination of the water he had swallowed during his embarkation and the sooty conditions on the vessel meant that his medical category was downgraded upon his return, and Stanley saw out the remainder of the war as a nursing orderly at Edinburgh Castle, which had been converted into a PoW camp for
injured enemy servicemen.

Although Stanley was able to continue with a relatively normal post-war life, the young comrade who had been killed beside him in May 1940, Private George Mussared, left an enormous hole in the life of his devoutly Methodist family and friends.

One of George’s boyhood friends, John Hunter, forever felt deep anguish over the loss of his chum. Even 56 years later, on his birthday, he bemoaned the fact that he had had over half a century of life, an experience denied to George. One memory John would relive was a day spent on the River Humber in 1938, when a lifetime of promise awaited them. One of them would live to old age, whilst the other would never fulfil his ambitions, leaving decades of grief for the many who loved him.

John Hunter and George Mussared 1938 Humber (1)

John Hunter and George Mussared enjoying life on the River Humber, 1938
(Courtesy of John’s family)

George Mussared and Stanley Cross are just two of the many members of the Royal Army Medical Corps who feature in my book Faithful in Adversity: The Royal Army Medical Corps in the Second World War

Faithful in Adversity



Colonel Graeme Warrack RAMC

Colonel Warrack was the Assistant Director of Medical Services for the 1st Airborne Division at Arnhem. He had established a Dressing Station on the edge of the divisional perimeter near Oosterbeek, an establishment which eventually ran across ten buildings.

Graeme Warrack
Colonel Graeme Warrack

One of the premises used was the Schoonoord Hotel, into which Colonel Warrack moved his office on 22 September, working alongside the other medics to treat an increasing number of casualties in deteriorating circumstances. These medical facilities were often in the firing line and remarkably, in certain cases were in front of British positions so casualties had to be evacuated forwards rather than back down the line.

By the fifth day, no proper surgery could be carried out as the buildings had been wrecked, and by day seven it became perilous to admit more patients to the overcrowded dressing stations, so the wounded were kept in the more dispersed Regimental Aid Posts.

On Sunday, 24 September, a week after landing, Colonel Warrack was sent to a dressing station occupied by the Germans to request that the seriously wounded be moved
to their safe hospitals. Accompanied by a Dutch interpreter, he was taken to the German Divisional Headquarters, where General Blaskowitz agreed to evacuate all the British wounded and stop firing towards the dressing stations and RAPs. The German HQ staff then gave Warrack a bottle of brandy and allowed him to return to the perimeter.

Two days later, the hotel and other buildings were overrun by the Germans.
One of the wounded who had been evacuated by the Germans on Warrack’s request was Brigadier John Hackett, commander of 4th Parachute Brigade. He had been hit in the belly by a mortar bomb fragment and admitted to St Elisabeth’s Hospital. There, the surgeons opened him up and found he had fourteen holes in his small intestine.

John Hackett
Brigadier John Hackett

These were sewn up, the wound was closed and a drain left in situ. He was
given blood transfusions and put back to bed with careful instructions
given to the medical orderlies who were to tend him. By this stage the
Germans had completely taken over the hospital and one of their doctors
wanted to administer a lethal injection to Hackett because he thought
that the case was hopeless. However, he was operated on by Captain
Alexander Lipmann-Kessel, who, with superb surgery, managed to save
the brigadier’s life.
Ten days later, a member of the Dutch resistance visited the hospital and asked the British surgeon if he had any cases fit to travel and be cared for by them. Hackett was selected as being the most senior soldier there. Still weak from his wounds, he was not very keen to get up at first but made a big effort. He was dressed in civilian clothes and a
bloody bandage was wound round his head. He then walked out of the hospital on the arm of the Dutchman, who drove him away under the eyes of the Germans to a safe place. Four months later, Hackett returned to the British lines after a long and perilous journey.

Colonel Warrack summarised: ‘This I think is a great tribute to his personal courage, to
the efforts of the surgeon who operated, to the staff who nursed him and to members of the Underground Movement who sheltered him.’

The story of the Royal Army Medical Corps at Arnhem is covered in my new book Faithful in Adversity: The Royal Army Medical Corps in the Second World War

Faithful in Adversity