State Registered Nurse’s memoirs serving during World War II
John Wilson has recently notated Mary Irish (nee Howard’s) memories of her time serving as a State Registered Nurse; they have both given their permission for these to be published on the Italy Star Association 1943-1945 website. Any attempt to reproduce all or part of this article will be considered a breach of copyright held by John Wilson.
John Wilson speaks to his grandma Mary Irish (nee Howard); State Registered Nurse, Queen Alexandra Reserves and Honorary Sister of the QAs for the duration of life, about her WW2 nursing experiences. Mary, 99 on August 4th 2014, trained at Gosport War Memorial and Royal Portsmouth hospital.
They had been sorted
“I often wondered why I didn’t see more German wounded and at Anzio our own orderlies told me when there’s an amnesty both sides sent out all their stretcher bearers to pick up any wounded. Now they didn’t go up to a casualty and look at him and say ‘sorry mate, you’re not on our side’ and leave him there. They picked up any casualties they came upon. And they had a long way to carry them to get them back to wherever they were carrying them…field hospital. And they’ll take them into a big barn, put the stretchers down and they would then have a cigarette and a rest. But while they were there the German stretcher bearers would be coming in the other side of the tent and they were doing the same thing, putting down their casualties for a rest but their eyes would be everywhere. Now some of our own orderlies from our casualty clearing station would go out and help pick up the wounded and they said having put these people down, they stood there, had their cigarette, had their rest and then they were going on. And all they did was, they didn’t pick up the one they’d brought in. They picked up one of their own nationality. Both sides did it and it was done without a word. No word was spoken between any of them and so there you’ve got your casualties sorted out before they ever got anywhere. Our stretcher bearers, where possible, in that barn, picked up their own men. And the Germans were doing the thing on the other side. And that’s why they were sort of separated before they ever got to us. They, it was a sort of….an agreement, an unspoken agreement, a voluntary thing or a natural thing for them to do. They just, any casualties that came upon them, they were allowed to pick up casualties, they picked them up, they didn’t say ‘we’re English, we can’t pick you up’ they picked up anyone and took them into that barn, put them down on their stretchers. They had immediate treatment of some sort, no doubt, if they wanted, bleeding and that sort of thing and then when it was time to go, they had their rest, they simply looked around and picked someone up who was in their own uniform. And took them off and the Germans did the same thing. And that’s why we didn’t see the prisoners coming, the Germans coming through our casualty clearing station. They didn’t get to us. They had been sorted”.
Air of tranquillity
“I was trained, I was affiliated, which meant I was trained at Gosport and Portsmouth. I took, you take your first exams and passed them at Gosport before you went onto Royal Portsmouth Hospital where you took your finals, another two years and I’ll say now that I never ever for one moment, in those hairiest of moments, I never regretted doing nursing and when I got out and mixed up all these other nursing people I realised that my training had been as good as theirs. And you could have put any of us on the stand together anywhere and we could have nursed together without any hitches of any sort because we had all had the same, very hard training. We had all taken the same exams and we were brought up as far as possible like that. But I can remember in the early days of my training, going into the women’s ward at about 3o’clock in the afternoon. This will seem strange because nursing was different then. The patients all had their lunch. They had all had bedpans, those who needed them. Their drawsheets had been straightened. Their pressure points had been attended to. They had been made comfortable in bed and they were sitting up in bed comfortably and those who had been so ill all seemed content and the air of tranquillity in that ward, at that time, to me as a very young nurse, is something I have never forgotten. And that was at Gosport War Memorial Hospital where the nursing was extremely good and where we were trained extremely well. And as for that air of tranquillity I have always had it. Every now and again I can feel that again. Sun was shining into that ward, patients were all comfortable. Even the ones in the most pain were most comfortable and they were lying back there, very peacefully and it was wonderful. Really wonderful”.
Gosport War Memorial Hospital Children’s Ward
Death can be beautiful – a reflection from the early 1930s
“Matron there was a very tough lady, very stern with her nurses. She always had lunch with us, always talked to us and told us funny stories about The Somme. She came along one day and said she wanted all the young nurses to go to the mortuary with her. She took us over to the mortuary and outside the mortuary she said, ‘you’ve entered a very hard profession. You are going to see much illness, much pain, much death’. She said, ‘I think you will make it’. She said, ‘but I want you to see that death can be beautiful’. And she took us into the mortuary. She said, ‘now this old, there’s an old gentleman lying out, still on his stretcher’. He was an old man. He couldn’t do any more gardening any more but he loved his allotment and every morning, bright morning, he went up to his allotment at about 8 o’clock in the morning and enjoyed just being up there and looking round and looking at his allotment as he did every day and he went up there this morning, on a lovely spring morning, the sun was shining, it was warm. He went up there and he died. She said, ‘now his family are mourning him, now should they be doing so?’ And she said, ‘this is what I want you to see. Death can be beautiful. That man’s death, this morning, up on that allotment, was beautiful and I want you to see that, as well as all the suffering, there can be beauty in it’. And that was a very tough matron we had at Gosport. She went to all that trouble to get all the young nurses together, to go and see this man and see how it could be, how he’d gone very quietly and peacefully up in a place that he loved and she said, ‘what more could you ask for?.’ True enough. True enough”.
The RAMC men (Mary in Egypt)
“We had a man in the tents at number one. I suppose it was the first battle casualty I ever saw. A young man. He had lost one and a half legs and half an arm. And, he was recovering as well as he could be recovering. And then one day I saw the orderlies carrying a bed out. I said, ‘what an earth are you doing?’ And this is to show you that these RAMC men can be as human, were as human as anyone. They said, ‘sister, he’s not going to get home, ‘cause there’s no way of getting him home. He’s going to spend most of his life, for a long time, inside a tent. So whenever possible we will carry him out on his bed. We won’t leave him out in the sun for too long. We’ll take him outside of the tent on his bed for so long then put him back in because the poor bugger is going to spend all his time, most of his life in a tent’. And that’s what most of those men were doing. And no-one asked them, no-one suggested to them. They just had this idea. That he would be spending so much time in a tent because there’s nowhere else for him to go. And that’s what those men did for him”
And that’s what those men were like to each other (No 1 British General Hospital in Egypt)
“I was on night duty and this chap was sitting prompt up in bed and I said, ‘are you going to get ready for bed?’ and he said, ‘Ah I won’t’. The chap next to him, a very young man, who had been in the same unit, they had been trying very hard to save his second leg. He had lost one leg. And in the end they had to take him to theatre to amputate the second leg. And this chap in the next bed was in the same unit as he was and he could not get over the fact this other leg had to go and I said, ‘well they’ve tried very very hard and done all they can and now you settle down’. He said, ‘oh no, I’m staying here. I’m watching him all night’. I said, ‘there’s no need to. I’m on duty all night. I won’t leave him. And we’ve got very good orderlies on night, they’ll look after him’. He said, ‘he’s my mate and I told him when he went to theatre that if you wanted anything, I’ll be in the next bed to him. He wasn’t to shout, he’ll just lift his hand and I would be there.’ And he stayed awake. The other men in the other beds realised what was going on and they all gave up pillows and things to make him comfortable. This man, he was going to sit proper in bed. He didn’t want to risk going to sleep. And the orderlies kept him going with cups of tea all night and he stayed awake all night to watch his pal. And his pal, all he had to do, was lift his hand and he’d be there to see what he could do for him. And that’s what those men were like to each other”.
No 1 British General Hospital in Egypt
“There were eighty members of the nursing community called together into Plymouth. We were called up and waited a long time and we were put on a troop ship and we were going up to Scotland to join a big convoy. We went very quietly and very mysteriously one night before Plymouth had its first very very big air raid. We went from Plymouth at night on a train somewhere and we got off and we were put onto some sort of ship. We didn’t see it. On board the ship and we were told we were going to join a convoy. Just out of the Bristol Channel and there was a bump. We stood still for quite some time. We didn’t know what it was. We weren’t worried. We thought we had hit a submerged wreck. And then after a bit the Captain said, ‘all was well and we were going on up to Gourock to join the convoy’. So we sailed on up there quite happily. When we got there, there were a lot of ambulances on the quayside and we were told they were there to pick up eighty sisters who had been shipwrecked and had been swimming in the sea (where else do you swim anyway?!) And I said, ‘make that seventy nine as this one can’t swim a stroke’.
We were sent off to Dalton School which is around Scotland. They didn’t know what to do with us. They’ve got eighty women on their hands. Nowhere to put them. They were costing a lot of money. We were all given leave and sent home eventually. And, anyway, so that was that. The ship couldn’t sail. The ship was sent back to wherever it went to, to repair them. And we didn’t know there was anything wrong with it. We just waited for another and then we went onto Georgic and sailed on the Georgic. And it wasn’t until we had been in Egypt some time that we heard that our ship had this torpedo in the bottom of it and we knew nothing about it”.
“And that’s where the Bismarck was running loose and sinking all our convoys and that’s where Winston Churchill said that the Bismarck had to be sunk and that no sacrifice was too great. And he got together with some old admirals up there and they decided that they would let the Bismarck sink one convoy so that they could get at her, to sink her, which is what they did eventually. And it wasn’t until years later that I read about that and that I was in that convoy that was going to be sacrificed”.
“We’d not even started boat drill in those days. You all had your own boat station and as soon as there’s an alarm we always had to practice going to your boat station. You always had your lifejacket with you wherever you went, once you got on board the ship and you had these like little boxes, back and front. And we were told that if we had to jump, if we had to jump we must hold the thing down in front otherwise it would come up and break our neck. So you had the choice of jumping into the water and drowning or letting the thing break your neck. Simple as that. But we all arrived in Gourock and we all sailed on the Georgic”.
Do I play hockey?
“Well soon after I was trained I wanted to join the QAs. I applied to join the QAs and perhaps because my father was in the army I had to go for interview. I was interviewed by about three matrons and the first thing was:
‘Where did you go to school?’ ’Did you go to boarding school?’
‘No, I didn’t go to boarding school’.
‘Oh, where did you go to school?’
‘I went to a Church of England school’.
‘Church of England school!!’
‘Yes, a very good school too’.
‘What was your father?’
‘My father was in the army’.
‘Oh, what rank?’
‘A battery sergeant major’.
‘A battery sergeant major!!’
I said, ‘yes and he was mentioned in dispatches, for valour on the field. That was actually on the field. There and then. And no one had to hear about it or approve it. It was given right there and then’. I said we have the piece of paper to prove it. It’s signed by Winston Churchill’
And I said to these matrons, ‘you do know who Winston Churchill is, don’t you? He’s the Minister of War’. I got my own back and then the final question was, more or less, ‘do you play hockey?’ I knew I was out then. I said ‘no, I don’t play hockey’. So that was the end of me in the regular QAs.
Three weeks later war was declared. I was over at Netley at the military hospital being accepted for the QA reserves. I was in the QAs as a reserve although I still couldn’t play hockey. And I still can’t play hockey.
During this time I was with the casualty clearing station and I was posted to Anzio. I was told to get aboard a hospital ship in the Bay of Naples and go up to Anzio, which I did. Vesuvius erupted so we were a bit late getting away. We were on board the ship and we went up to Anzio. When we got there they couldn’t take any casualties off ‘cause there was too much swell but they decided to land the passengers. There was an American girl, there was a very high ranking medical officer and myself and we had to jump from the side of the hospital ship to a little boat down there somewhere. For some unknown reason I was the first one to jump and I was terrified. Every time I thought about jumping there was this big expanse of water. Anyhow, in the end, I thought the only thing to do was to close my eyes and jump and even as I thought of it I did it and I landed into the arms of this little naval man, lad, who says, ‘Sister Howard, what are you doing here?’ And he’d been a patient in Naples.
And I remember being on the boat and going across the water and there was a swish, swish plop, swish plop. I said, ‘what’s that?’ ‘Oh, that’s just the shells Sister but don’t worry they are not doing very well this morning’. And I don’t actually remember crawling up the beach. I remember being on the beach and the shells were falling. A lot of men sheltering under bombed out buildings and one of them said, ‘Christ. A woman!’ They didn’t come down and offer to help me. There I was on the beach, not knowing where I was going, what I was doing. Transport came for the American girl. Transport came for the high ranking medical officer. And I was still there. He said, ‘where are you going Sister?’ I said, ‘I was asked to get on a hospital ship and come to Anzio’. I said ‘I’ve done that. We’re a bit late because Vesuvius erupted. I’ve got here and now I don’t know where I’m going’. So he said he better take me up to a casualty clearing station. So he took me up to number two casualty clearing station, introduced me to Colonel. Colonel took one look at me and said, ‘do you play hockey?’ And I thought what does he want me to do fend off the shells with my jolly hockey stick? I’d just jumped out of the ship under shell fire, crawled up the beach under shell fire, terrified to bits and this man asks me, ‘do you play hockey?’ And I still don’t play hockey”.
“When the troops had landed on Anzio and everything was more or less under control the American (chap in charge) didn’t want to go on. He wanted to wait. The British men would have gone on but he wanted to wait. So there was a hold up of about a day. And during that that gave the Germans a chance to bring up a very big gun which they brought and put on the hills overlooking Anzio. The moment there was any activity the gun would start shelling. The troops had to call everything…everything they gave a name to and they called this gun Annie. And eventually she became known as Anzio Annie.
The Colonel decided the men needed some recreation. He got hold of a bulldozer and got a strip of land cleared so they could play football up there. But Anzio Annie sat on the hillside watching this all day. Didn’t do a thing. Didn’t take any notice of the activity on the beach or anywhere. And once that strip of land was cleared and absolutely flat Anzio Annie just dropped a shell right in the middle of it and that’s the end of their football pitch. But the men didn’t mind very much because they were dropping shells anyway and they didn’t really want to be chasing footballs”.
We didn’t volunteer
“We volunteered in the beginning to go in and serve but after that we just went wherever we were sent. You had no choice in the matter at all. If you happened to get to a place where things happened, well, they happened. The first lot of casualties I saw was 65 General Hospital in Naples and we worked as a casualty clearing station. People were being picked up, wounded at Anzio, straight onto hospital ship, straight into us and we had stretchers all-round the courtyards, all up the stairs, all round the corridors. Everywhere. ‘Cause there weren’t enough people to deal with them and not enough beds to put them in. ‘Cause they were coming really in…straight from the hospital ship to us…they might have had a tourniquet or something like that put on them. Otherwise no treatment. All started when they got to us. Very busy”.
“We had a patient came into us in Number One General. He had very badly wounded buttocks. He had probably been hit by a shell or a landmine or something. He had been left lying out a long time where he was found and they had all gone septic and they were in a very very bad condition. Been left on his tummy. And he had these dreadful wounds. And I heard the Colonel say, surgeon mutter, ‘if I get that clean, I could do a pinch graft’.
And in a flash I remembered some treatment we did at Number One General all these years before when I was a very young nurse where we had a very bad infection in his leg. They kept taking him to hospital, to the operating theatre, to amputate that leg and the surgeon wouldn’t do it and he came in one day and said get a hip bath, get a Higginson’s syringe and syringe that leg with saline, every two hours and we got that leg clear. And this was all these years before and when the Colonel said this at number one in about 1942 this flashed back to me. And I said, ‘I’ll get it clean for you’. My friend Jessie said Howard, ‘You’re mad. You’ll never get that clear’. I said, ‘No. I won’t. But we will. I’m a fortnight senior to you so I’m telling you now to get a Higginson’s syringe, a bowl of saline and you and I will start syringing it, that wound every two hours’. And that is what we did and we got it clean and the man eventually had a pinch graft. And he had that done in the desert. Those things are usually done in Cairo. Now a pinch graft..in those days, you wouldn’t take a big piece of skin to do a graft. You cleaned a big big area as well as the wound and then pinches of skin we would take and put into the middle of this wound all over the place and with luck, and with luck with this one, those pinches of skin would grow. The Higginson’s syringe was a syringe we used for washing out the wound and this pinch graft was done…I’ve never seen one done but I’ve seen the preparation and I’ve helped the preparation and the most important thing is to get rid of all sepsis because things won’t grow. But this man’s, it did grow. He had a 70% take, all these little pinches of skin”.
Rats in the roof (in Egypt)
When I went to this, one of the surgical wards, I was on night duty. The men said there were rats in the roof and they were getting in their bed at night and nibbling their toes. I just said to them, ‘don’t be ridiculous’. They said, ‘Oh yes they are sister’. There were Vaseline dressings on these very bad wounds. Then they would be put in plaster and stay in this plaster for several weeks. And they would get very very smelly and sometimes a new skin was growing underneath and they reckoned that’s what was bringing the rats out. They were getting in and chewing their toes. So I listened to, this for a bit and I thought ‘blow it’. And one morning…there was only one light switch in the ward, I went to the ward and switched on the light. It was 3 o’clock in the morning…scuttle scuttle scuttle, all these rats came running out of the beds. They were there all right. But I had just come from a ward, a medical ward, where we had had two of my patients had bubonic plague. So when I came to a ward like that, and we just had bubonic plague, no serums, oh, we did get some serum eventually, I mean that could have gone right through the Middle East just like that, it was a dreadful thing to have happened, so I sent for the Colonel but the orderlies all said, ‘but they are all asleep sister’. So I reported it about three times, nothing happened. I said, ‘Get the Colonel’. And after a bit he went and got the Colonel. I took him to the ward. I switched on the lights. All the rats were out of bed. He said, ‘Jesus! Did you have to get me up? Couldn’t you have written a report?’ I said, ‘I’ve written it three times and no-one’s taken any notice’.
About 10 o’clock that morning the roof was being cleared and the rats went. But to see rats running loose when we got bubonic plague in…and the Colonel said afterwards he knew nothing about the bubonic plague. I said, ‘Well, it was there and if you knew what was going on in your hospital you should know that there had been bubonic plague there’. Because they were moved to tents well away from the middle of the camp and nursed by orderlies wearing anti-gas gear. We weren’t equipped for nursing those type of people. Fortunately we had a medical officer who had been in West Africa and he recognised the bubonic plague straight away. We had a colonel who worked in laboratories who produced this anti-serum and he got a letter onto a plane about it and a serum was sent back straight away and serum was given to anyone who had been in contact with those people and it could have stopped a terrific outbreak of bubonic plague”.
“When we got to Egypt there’s this big hospital already ready for us. They had been receiving patients already. The medical orderlies were there. They were on duty on the ward. Now the Matron, not really knowing any of us, or anything about us, had to send us off to wards. If you had been trained in the operating ward, obviously she knew that or if you had done a lot of casualty work, or speciality work, but general nursing she knew nothing about the capabilities of anywhere.
So she’d have a ward. You call it a ward. There would be two tents with twenty patients in each. And you were just sent off. Go to…Medical Two or Surgical Two and you never knew where you were going in the beginning or what you were going to get. And I ended up on a Medical Ward of forty patients and you were in charge of them. You had no-one to turn to except the Medical Officer and you just took over and looked after them. They had high temperatures so you did what you did with anyone with high temperature, took the temperatures, gave them plenty of fluid and if you were desperate you sent for a Medical Officer. But literally you were in charge there. And you were responsible for getting people there in time, caring for them and you were getting all sorts of diseases. You might get yellow fever. You’d never heard of yellow fever let alone nurse it. And then see polio coming back. Or small pox coming back. All those things had to be diagnosed somehow or the other and sent to other tents for nursing. And that was where we had the Australians for a bit”.
“A troop ship came into Suez full of Australian troops. They either had chicken pox or had been in contact with chicken pox. And, what to do with them, no-one knew. You couldn’t send them to the desert so they sent them to Number One General Hospital. It so happened I had two empty wards. And I had forty of these Australian troops. And they were all very well. Extremely fit and wherever a chance they got out. They were always by their beds first thing in the morning with the medical officers round. All those things folded properly. Standing to attention. But the moment he left, wham, there was no-one left. They had all disappeared. They’d gone for walks. They got a lift to port side. They got a lift somewhere else. All over the place.
And then our quartermaster decided to do a spot check so the Australians said to me, ‘Oh, don’t worry sister we are used to this. Just give us your list. We will check your things’. Which in all innocence I gave them my list and later they were seen all around the camp at different places. Always outside. And a sister would say, ‘what are you doing there?’ ‘Oh, we won’t go inside sister. There’s chicken pox’. And they were saying, ‘Got a spare blanket? Our sister is a good Sheila but she’s down on her army blankets’. And they would go somewhere else and they would borrow a saucepan or a kettle or a spoon. Or anything I was short of they would go all around the camp and try and get it. So when the quartermaster did his check I was the only sister in the unit who had everything she was supposed to have. And the quartermaster was supposed to have said he couldn’t understand why it was that the Australians were the only ones who had everything intact.
The ‘Brand’ Brothers in Suez
“They were twins who didn’t look the least bit a like. Australians again of course. And the moment they came they went into different tents and they kept changing tents all the time. If one was missing, you didn’t know which one it was. No way of knowing. You didn’t know who belonged where and they were the Brand brothers and they would go off and disappear and they would probably go off to port side for the day, come back, bring me a pretty cup and saucer, ‘I brought you a little present sister in case you were worried about us’.
“Our men wanted to go into Rome. Our orderlies wanted to go into Rome, they had got into Rome and they were told they couldn’t go yet because we or the Americans had been promised they would be the first to go into Rome but various batches of men did get into Rome. We were sitting at a casualty clearing centre outside Rome. We weren’t doing anything. We weren’t receiving any patients and the men said, ‘can’t we go into Rome?’ And they were told no because the Americans had been promised, I suppose, that they would be the first troops seen. They weren’t going to fight. No-one was going to fight anyway. It was just the Americans had been told they could be the first”.
“Winston Churchill came to Sienna and met Alexander in Sienna. I didn’t see him ‘cause I was on duty. Quite a lot of sisters saw him and we imagined it was a hush hush, obviously it was a hush hush. We only knew about it about two hours before he arrived. Somewhere in that area there was an unofficial aerodrome and we think, we thought, Winston Churchill came in that way and we think he probably came to talk to Alexander about hurrying things up to get Cassino because before Cassino had fallen they couldn’t start the D-day. He wanted to get started on D-day and he wanted things hurried up but this was supposition on our part but Winston Churchill was certainly there before Cassino was bombarded and he met..and he’s in the car with Alexander for a high ranking conference I suppose. I didn’t actually see him myself as I was on duty that day but the other sisters saw him”.