Shortly after I finished my training in 1943 at Wrexham Memorial Hospital, I volunteered to join the Army as a QAIMNS/R or QAs as they were called. I was accepted and became I. Pritchard Sister QAIMNS/R P282706.
My first posting was to Kinmel Hall, Colwyn Bay, North Wales. Here, I was immunized against malaria and yellow fever and vaccinated against smallpox and, it seemed to me, all known diseases. Anyhow, after a few groggy days I emerged and found my head. I began to feel I was indeed a member of the Army – learning how to salute (I was never much good at that, but I did my best) and to always sign everything with one’s name and number.
In November 1943, I was posted to London, to the Tropical Diseases Hospital – a very busy and crowded place. I arrived to be greeted by fog – a thick pea-souper – but a cheerful Cockney taxi driver helped me with my bags and took me to the TDH. I had a small bed and locker, and along with 20 others in the ward, we made this our temporary home. We were all sent to the tailor to be measured for a uniform – a grey costume with red lapels and collar trim, two pips (for a lieutenant, no less) and a peaked cap which was always to be worn outside the hospital grounds.
We were now prepared to go anywhere in the world – at least it seemed so to me – especially after a great shopping spree at the Army and Navy store to pick up the canvas bed, bucket and bath which were to be my constant companions in the years to come. All our trunks had a great red “H” painted on them. I did notice a topee, a Kit bag and a steel helmet in my gear; I never did get to use any of these attractive pieces of equipment but they went with me wherever I pitched my tent.
Once my uniform was all complete, I was given 7 days leave. I arrived home resplendent in my grey and red uniform and my father proudly escorted me to chapel, where the congregation offered their best wishes and hopes of a safe return from a war – a war which was only going to last a year or so, everyone agree
After my leave, I was sent up to Scotland by train, meeting up with three other Sisters who were on their way up from South Wales. We then boarded a boat named the Orion. We sailed from Gourock, Scotland at midnight, I believe. I was fast asleep by this time having drawn the short straw and the top bunk. “Here we go” I thought, wondering if the “H” denoted on all our luggage stood for Heaven or Hell.
Up around the Hebrides it was extremely cold and the sea was very rough. Boat drill was “a must” daily – very uncomfortable with the life jacket under my chin and feeling very sea-sick. I couldn’t have cared less if I fell into the sea! However, I soon found my sea legs and was sent down to the Sick Bay to look after some of the soldiers who were patients – al with various complaints and all needing TLCM ( tender loving care from Mum) . We all had to do a few hours a day here and there were 20 of us to share the work. When the attack alarms went off, we all had to run to the designated spot with our little panic bags and our occupational therapy pieces! My occupational therapy piece was a sock on four needles and I never did finish it. My panic bag contained a lipstick, curlers and a comb. I’m sure the powers that be would not have approved, but when one is young, appearance is important! Enemy planes above were alarming but the ack-ack of the ship’s guns was reassuring. We didn’t get sent down (sink) and our days of journeying continued – now 3 weeks - past the Bay of Biscay, Gibraltar at then at last, the Suez Canal. Here I had my first sighting of Egyptian male youths – very pretty with eyes accentuated with kohl, walking hand-in-hand along the canal banks in their night-shirts. What a sight for a girl from Wales! whose furthest journey before this adventure had been to Rhyl or Chester. It was quite something to get used to – but we all did!
The heat was now a problem for us, as all we had to wear were our uniforms, complete with collar and tie – not the best garments for the tropics even though it was now December. The flies were everywhere, into our eyes and at the corners of our mouths.
We disembarked from the Orion and the 20 QAs were taken by truck to Port Said where we were served a delicious meal of corned beef and sweet potatoes. Not my favorite, but when you are hungry you eat it. The coffee was of the Turkish variety. We had to try it, as you do when you are young and curious. Not impressed Ugh!
We gradually got used to swatting flies and the sweating ++, but still longed for a decent cup of tea and a bath. We were all novices in this area. Not having much to occupy us, we were quite pleased on e morning when we were asked if we would care to go to Cairo. “Yes, please”, we said in unison. I went with the two girls from South Wales and a Miss Bagshaw from Yorkshire. A young sergeant from Durham took us by jeep some 50 miles to see the Sphynx and the pyramids. Here we rode on camels for what seemed like miles to me. Twas like being on a ship again, quite a pleasant experience. I asked the boy in charge of the animals for my camel’s name. “Claude Hulbert” he replied – a comedian popular at the time at home. We all climbed the pyramid steps – I wasn’t even out of breath!! I doubt I could do it now. A really interesting day.
The following day we were told to pack and be ready to embark on to a boat called The City of Paris to travel to ? Bombay. We did arrive there eventually, still clad in our grey suits, which we discarded as soon as possible when we arrived at our final destination – the No 3 Indian British General Hospital in Poona. This hospital was purpose-built; a very large, lofty building, spacious and cool with huge fans and spaces in the walls – no windows as such. It was much like a barracks.
I was detailed to take charge of two wards, M and N (no fancy names here) with 100 beds a side. Now I was clad in a white uniform – very formal – an all white dress with pearl buttons down the front (very difficult to fasten), white buckskin shoes and matching stockings, a cap of white organdy – starched very stiffly – and like everything else in the Army, at attention. My staff consisted of 2 male orderlies (one a plumber on civvy street and the other a builder), 1 Italian POW, and a female Anglo-Indian nursing aide who was very useful as my Urdu wasn’t all that good. However, it is amazing how quickly we communicated with each other. When the Indian soldier is sick, he looks quite pathetic with big, sorrowful, brown eyes. The British other Rank soldiers (BORs) were in fact, by contrast, cheerful and helpful once they began to recover from the disease that had brought them into hospital. They helped their mates when they could and a senior Sergeant kept an eye on things, made lists and rota’s, and generally looked after my area as my work was really to nurse the men who were very poorly.
I was impatient when time had to be spent on inspections. White wash had to applied to every corner (at least it was certain to be clean) and everything had to be “in line” , the mosquito nets, the red ties worn by the patients with their hospital blues, and even the highly polished black boots and the puttees (a sort of gaiter) placed at the foot of each bed! However, this was the Army and I had to get used to it.
I played tennis often before going on duty as it was cool at that time in Poona. We even had a Ball Boy! Swimming was also popular.
Our quarters and the mess rooms were about ½ mile from the hospital, so we all hired bikes to get to the wards and duty. We rang their bells like fury to avoid the goats that thought the paths were built for them. The goats also played a part in my next move. A major inspection was in progress on my wards when a herd of goats entered. I thought it was funny but the Colonel and the Matron were not amused. Next morning, I was summoned by the Matron. She asked me if I enjoyed being in the Army. I replied that I liked it well enough but that I did not like to be constantly preparing for inspections – spending precious time lining up bed wheels, counting blankets, checking the white washing etc when we should be spending time with patients. Matron said she understood, but the Hospital was a Base General Hospital and inspections were necessary in the Army. She asked me if I would like to go on Active Service. Lord Louis Mountbatten had given an order for Sisters and staff to be sent nearer to the Front in Casualty Clearing Stations and Matron pointed out that there would be fewer inspections there. I was pleased to volunteer to go to a CCS as it seemed to me that this was what I had really come out to do
I was posted almost immediately and set out via Calcutta and Dum Dum airport as far as Chittagong and then by boat and truck to a place called Panitola, in Assam, where there was a small tented hospital.. What a place that was! It was monsoon time and everything was very soggy and moldy. Even our shoes grew whiskers overnight and all sorts of creepy-crawlies were to be found in our wellies when we knocked them out in the morning, before we out them on.
Our patients here were those who remained of the Chindits , men who had served with Col. Orde Wingate – and a very bolshie lot they were too! They were given a free rein as they had been with in the jungle suffering extreme hardship for many a long month. They refused haircuts or shaves at first, but after a few weeks they submitted to the “short back and sides” cut and had their beards trimmed. They had very bad jungle sores, fevers and gunshot wounds, which kept us nurses busy. As they improved they were sent “down the line” to a Base Hospital in India.
We walked across fields of cotton to our quarters and inevitably found leeches embedded in our legs when we took off our Wellington boots. To these we applied salt or a lighted cigarette end if salt wasn’t available – and this removed them quite well.
Things were going well for the 14th Army and soon the Japanese were being driven back along Dinapur Road. After big battles at Imphal and Kohima a Casualty Clearing Station was establishe
It was about October 1944 that I was posted to Kohima in Burma to the 16 Indian CCS there. I joined Miss Murison, Monica, Eileen and Janet (theatre) and together we made up the team of nurses. We were to work together for nearly a year. Miss Murison was a Major and had to keep us young ones in order. Our Commanding Officer was Lt Col Reilly, an Irish man, and a very kind and caring man.
This was a tented hospital, with a few long huts, (native built and cooler to work in) for patients with fevers. The CCS was essential to help the patients to recover sufficiently to be moved back to the Base Hospital. There were never-ending convoys of the sick and the wounded to replace each discharge. There were lots of forms to fill out at this time too, but it had to be done. Our days were never long enough to do all that had to be done. However, the comradeship and the cheerfulness of the men gave me a great lift and I don’t ever remember feeling sad. They set an example with their pure trust and faith that we would win through in the end and that victory would be ours.
We also treated wounds of the natives in this area which was Naga Land. These were hill people – short stocky men who were very fierce looking and who each carried a huge machete and a knife in their belts. The women were quite beautiful with long, black hair. They wore a longhi – a type of skirt – with a cropped blouse or sometimes no blouse at all – just scarves, bangles and beads but all “in the best of taste”.
The CCS did sometimes treat civilians who had been wounded by the Japanese, especially if the person had been helpful to the British. Such a person was the daughter of the Naga Chief Hillman. When she was fit enough to go back to her village, she was collected by her father who wore his red hospital blanket as his badge of office. After giving me, with great ceremony, a cabbage, some carrots and some other vegetables as a thank-you gift, they departed - all smiles and bows but not a word was spoken. It was amazing how we communicated. However, I was relieved to see them all go off peacefully.
The following morning we, that is Monica, Eileen and I, were detailed to visit Mission Church in the village up in the hills. We went with the Padre, complete with his concertina which he played with great gusto!!. We had discharged all our patients to the Base Hospital so had a few hours to spare before the next convoy arrived later in the day, to fill the wards – or the tents, depending on availability.
We underwent a tortuous journey in a jeep, up to the village high in the hills to attend the Sunday service. It was held in a very rusty corrugated iron hut, with planks of wood for seats and a plain wooden table on which stood a beautifully carved cross. The Padre gave a short sermon and led the prayers. We sang a few hymns; the Nagas, mostly women and children sang in their language and we in ours. We were giving our very best rendering of “Onward Christian Soldiers” when the rains began. The noise on the roof was horrendous, completely drowning out our melodious singing and the Padre’s playing on his concertina. He played with great verve and enthusiasm but alas we just gave in to the rain in the end.
We were invited to have lunch in the chief’s house afterwards. His house consisted of a long wooden building raised above the ground on stilts. Up the rickety wooded steps we all went. We have presented a very wet and muddy sight as we were welcomed by the Chief, still wearing his red blanket. He then laid the red blanket on the floor for us to sit on. The room was laid out for lunch, served on straw mats piled high with curried rice. In the corner was a suckling pig on a spit. It all smelled wonderful and we were all hungry so we enjoyed the food that was offered. We only sipped the rice wine as it was by repute a very strong alcoholic drink, even though it tasted quite pleasant and looked like milk. Hot water was offered to us to wash our hands before and after the meal
Time was passing on and after a polite interval, we all offered our thanks and good wishes before leaving. We returned by the now muddy track and soon arrived at the almost normal surroundings of our CCS. The new patients had not yet arrived thank goodness so we had time to find some dry, clean uniforms and could get the wards ready for the admissions, complete with all the necessary forms.
As the troops gained ground from the Japanese Army, we also advanced down Tiddim Road to a place named Meiktila. The tents and equipment followed by jeep with the ambulances and trucks. They all got embedded in the mud and we got out of the vehicles and pushed with the rest to help get us on our way. Eventually we arrived at the planned site. Soldiers put up the tents for us and we immediately transformed our trunks into dressing tables, adding a canvas bowl and bath and the always welcome canvas bed ! Home Sweet Home for as long as it takes.
The ward tents took 100 stretcher cases – usually gunshot wounds of the buttocks. Very painful I’m sure and it must have been truly uncomfortable to have had to lie face down until the wound healed. Penicillin was the only antibiotic known then and we used that with acroflavine packs. The Medical Officer I worked with was a Swiss – Captain Issler – and we worked well together. He had his own Chest Clinic in Switzerland, which his wife was looking after until his return. At night we used hurricane lamps. Florence Nightingale had nothing on us. Even the fridge ran on oil I believe.
Our next move was to Magwe, with an airfield nearby that was used by a squadron of fighter planes and also some smaller planes which were used to fly us out to patients if they were too ill to move. These planes were L5s to us though I later discovered they were Stensen Sentinels. I don’t recall seat-belts or parachutes. The pilots were Americans and they and the acting pilots and ambulance men were very generous with gum and chocolates. Sometimes on a day off we’d have a lift with them to Mandalay to buy vegetables and strawberries in the market. I used to long for a decent cup of tea with real milk! I usually drank it with fresh lime, which was quite refreshing.
Lady Mountbatten paid us a visit here. We didn’t have corned beef that day! She was very charming and brought some very good coffee, I remember, and she gave us a pep talk about “flying the flag for England”. The Burma Campaign was going well, we were told, although the wounded and sick still arrived in large convoys and we were kept very busy.
When off duty in the evenings, it was cool but very dark. The only light we had in the mess was a candle or a hurricane lamp. We listened to music – some classical and some pop. Bing Crosby and Gigli, the Italian tenor, were popular. We had a wind-up gramophone with a large horn – the prize possession of my friend Monica – so she was a popular girl! I learned to play Chess and Liar Dice too, but Bridge left me cold. We read out aloud – poetry and a lot of the Classics. Anyone who had a book passed it around like a treasure to be savoured by all the team.
We began to move more often now and eventually I had to leave the CCS. It was very sad to leave my friends and colleagues when I was posted to Rangoon in May or June 1945. We weren’t allowed to keep a diary. I now worked at 38 British general Hospital, Rangoon – a huge purpose-built hospital. It was quite well equipped too, much like Poona. It had long wards of 100 beds or so.
Weeks went by, with a steady stream of patients in and out, quite frequently being sent to Base Hospital via Bombay. There were all sorts of rumours going about but no real news. However, there was no news of defeat so the mood was one of optimism. We were told that the POWs from the Burma Railway were to be sent to us soon, so I prepared the ward and myself and got as many goodies as I could get my hands on. When they arrived I was appalled at the state of their health - they were emaciated and very sick. I spent many an hour writing to their girlfriends, mothers and wives. They were very strange in manner too – they hid their soap and toothpaste as if they were great treasures. My favorite time of day was going on the last ward round of the day with a Brandy bottle and a medicine glass - a night cap. I felt very privileged to nurse them; they had been through so much. After a week or so they improved and began to trust again.
Fireflies and croaking frogs were now the familiar sights and sounds of the night – a lullaby to my ears you might say. Not that I needed much rocking! Once my mosquito net was firmly tucked in around my bed, I usually slept like a log despite the heat and humidity.
On September 9th 1945, I was summoned to Matron’s office and told that I would soon be witnessing the official Japanese surrender in Government House in Rangoon. This was to be on September 13th 1945. I was very interested to see history in the making. It was really impressive – lots of gold braid on show. Lord Louis Mountbatten was the only familiar face, with a high ranking Japanese soldier – Major General Ichadi, I believe his name was. [I made a note of it on my flimsy – the note of my detail – as my memory was not too good for Japanese names.] He handed over his sword with much ceremony. Much hissing and bowing went on – representing Japanese submission (symbolical) I presumed. When the speeches were given we dispersed, but I also had an invitation to a VJ Ball at Government House that evening. I danced an old fashioned waltz with Lord Louis Mountbatten – it was quite a night and I felt like a princess in new ball gown – made from a sari.
As the weeks went by, the POWs embarked on boats to return home – now back in uniform and almost unrecognizable to me.
There was now talk of demobilization, so too was embarked on a boat to go back to Bombay and Poona from where I had begun my journey down the Irrawaddy to Rangoon.
I stayed at No 3 IBGH until June 1946 and finally embarked on the Mauritania for Liverpool and home – a lovely trip and I remember it well. I was happy to see the Liver Bird at Liverpool Docks and so I began a time of adjusting to Civilian life!!