‘Tallboy’ bombs hit the Saumur Tunnel

Vertical photographic-reconnaissance aerial

Vertical photographic-reconnaissance aerial, taken from 10,000 feet, showing the southern entrance of the Saumur railway tunnel following the attack on it by 22 Avro Lancasters of No. 617 Squadron RAF on the night of 8/9 June 1944. This raid was the first occasion on which the 12,000-lb ‘Tallboy’ deep-penetration bomb was used operationally. The target was marked by the Squadron Commander, Wing Commander G L Cheshire, who delivered his spotfires from an altitude of 500 feet, and the accuracy of the subsequent bombing, delivered between 8,000 and 11,000 feet, is attested by the 18 craters which can be counted within 220 yards of the tunnel mouth. One ‘Tallboy’ has pierced the roof of the tunnel, and there are two further direct hits on the railway tracks 100 yards from the entrance. The tunnel was blocked for a considerable period and, consequently, the movement of a German tank unit to the Normandy battlefront was badly delayed.

A 12,000-lb MC bomb

A 12,000-lb MC bomb (Bomber Command executive codeword ‘Tallboy’) seen immediately after its release from Avro Lancaster B Mark I, JB139, of No. 617 Squadron RAF over the flying-bomb store at Watten, France, 19 June 1944.

Wounded British troops, evacuated from the Normandy beaches, are helped down the ramp of a landing ship, 7 June 1944.

Wounded British troops, evacuated from the Normandy beaches, are helped down the ramp of a landing ship, 7 June 1944.

Meanwhile back in Britain the first large numbers of casualties had started to arrive. The government had cleared many of the civilian hospitals to accommodate them and the US Army had built several temporary hospitals out of ‘Quonset’ huts. Two American nurses were based at an old Victorian hospital at Southampton, which became one of the main receiving hospitals:

Helen Ramsey

We knew the ships were gathering for the invasion. It seems to me it took at least a week for all the ships to gather just outside our hospital in Southampton Water (the harbor). We could go outside and sit on the waterfront and watch. One day it seemed like the whole area was full of ships and the next morning there was not a single one. We knew the invasion was beginning. We were on alert. We could not leave and were on duty 24 hours a day. We didn’t know what we were waiting for.

And then the casualties came. It took about 3 or 4 days after the invasion before we started receiving casualties. I was an operating room supervisor. We had two operating room theaters, one upstairs and one downstairs. At first, we started out with one and then we required two because we just couldn’t handle all the casualties in one theater. When I say theater, I mean several rooms, each room with its own surgeon and nurse, and corpsman [enlisted Navy medical personnel]. It was one big unit. I was in charge of the one downstairs. The first casualties came into my operating room. I remember how busy we were and how they kept coming and coming and we had no place to put them. We put them out in the halls and everywhere.

We were only there as a receiving hospital. We received the casualties, took care of them, removed the bullets and shrapnel, did the debridement, cleaned them up, poured penicillin and sulfa into the wounds, wrapped them up, and sent them inland to the Army or to British hospitals inland, or by air to the United States, especially if they were bad burn patients. So we didn’t keep them very long. The operating room nurses would pitch in and help the doctors do debridements and remove bullets. Until recently, I had the first bullet I had removed myself and managed to keep it for many years but I have lost it.

Anyway, we were busy and we never thought about food or sleep or anything else. The doctors as well as the nurses and corpsmen were taking care of patients. We did not sleep for the first 24 hours, and then finally sleep had to be rationed because no one would leave their work. The captain issued an order letting certain ones go and get some sleep. And then when they came back others would go. Our food was brought to us in surgery. We lived on sandwiches and coffee for a long time. When we had a minute, we would grab a bite. And that’s the way we handled the first 24 hours. As the casualty load lightened, things got back to a decent pace.

I also got to use penicillin for the first time. We had these little tin cans that looked like salt shakers. They contained a mixture of penicillin and, I’m sure, sulfathiazole, and we would just use them like salt shakers and sprinkle it into the wounds. And I’ve read since, that it was that mixture of sulfa and penicillin used in those early days that saved many a limb and kept infections down to almost zero. They were both miracle drugs. Of course, we also gave penicillin intravenously.

We received casualties fairly steadily but not at the rate we did at the beginning. As soon as the troops landed on the beaches and went farther inland, the Army went right in and set up their field hospitals so they could do a lot of the immediate work that we were having to do at the beginning. And that took a load off of us.

Sara Kelley

All types of ships brought the casualties from Normandy. The ships landed in Southampton because our pier could only handle small boats. They brought them by ambulance from Southampton which was 5 miles away.

There was a railroad track right behind the hospital. We kept the patients for 24 to 48 hours and as soon as they could be moved, they were put on this hospital train and sent to the north part of England and we got ready for some more.

We treated mostly Army personnel, but there were also a few Navy men as well. I remember a lot of the casualties were suffering from “shell shock.” Some of them didn’t know who we were. They thought we were Germans and they wouldn’t tell us anything except their names and serial numbers. They were classified as mentally ill. Some of them were just farm boys and the shock of war was just too much for them.

Read the full accounts at Navy Department Oral histories

Wounded British troops, evacuated from the Normandy beaches, now back in Britain, 7 June 1944.

Wounded British troops, evacuated from the Normandy beaches, now back in Britain, 7 June 1944.

Sergeant G A Maynard of Yorkshire lighting a cigarette for Corporal Sidney Polls on arrival at Gosport, Hampshire on their return from the Normandy beaches.

Sergeant G A Maynard of Yorkshire lighting a cigarette for Corporal Sidney Polls on arrival at Gosport, Hampshire on their return from the Normandy beaches.

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