Ordeal of the wounded in the ‘Bloody Forest’

In the next room, the litters lay on the floor so close to one another that the doctors and the aid men frequently had to step on the litter itself. Aid men quickly and efficiently appraised wounds and brought into play their first and most efficient weapon, a pair of scissors, which they carried tied to their wrists or waists by a piece of Carlisle bandage. A sergeant took a quick look at the wounded captain’s feet and, grabbing his scissors, began cutting the clothing from the knee down.

The struggle to bring up ammunition in the Hurtgen Forest, extrication the wounded was even more difficult.
The struggle to bring up ammunition in the Hurtgen Forest, extricating the wounded was even more difficult.

In the Hurtgen Forest the bloody battle that had been launched on the 16th continued. Casualties mounted on both sides, casualties that were extremely difficult to evacuate.

William S. Boice, a Chaplain with the 22nd Infantry Regiment describes the circumstances of just one wounded man, in an incident that happened a few days after the start of the battle. It didn’t matter how well protected your position was, fate decided whether you lived or died. Even with a survivable wound there were many more chances left for things to go wrong, as first aid men struggled over the impossible terrain of the dark and gloomy forest:

At 0200, a railroad gun had fired from Duren, some five miles away, and had hit upon a dugout occupied by three officers. The dugout had a heavy roof of two layers of six-inch logs, but the shell, having landed beyond the dugout, blew back in.

One officer was killed outright. Another, a TD officer, was wounded in the chest

The third, an infantry officer, had his right leg broken in a compound fracture, the shrapnel passing on through his left ankle, leaving a hole the size of an egg. Strangely enough, the pain came from the broken leg, and in the dark the officer put a tourniquet on the broken right leg, not even knowing his left foot was injured. And so he lay through the hours of the night — long, bitter, terrifying hours — while he constantly bled, growing weaker and weaker, and feeling the great grayness approaching closer and closer.

Nothing could be done, for in the hell of the inferno of artillery which continued minute after minute and hour after hour, no creature could move with impunity, and it would have been sheer suicide to attempt evacuation under these conditions. Indeed, the evacuation could not be effected until eight o’clock the following morning, when a litter party had to remove the two layers of logs in order to evacuate the two living officers to the aid station.

In the aid station, the battalion surgeons, working under strain, loss of sleep, and the pressure of increasing casualties, still continued to work quickly and effectively. Blood plasma, priceless life-giving fluid, was quickly rigged and administered. The wounded officer was given four bottles, and now for the first time some semblance of life began to appear in his ashen cheeks, but with it, stupefying and heartbreaking pain.

They were placed in the ambulance, these wounded, two litter cases, carefully slung in racks, with the wounded sitting on the floor and on the seat along the side. Then the ambulance started down the makeshift road toward the safety of the collecting station. A man with an arm off at the shoulder tried to sit erect. The ambulance lurched as it headed for the ravine and the bridge, which had been thrice blown out by enemy artillery.

The driver increased his speed, for he knew there was intermittent fire on this bridge and that it was by luck and a prayer that any vehicle got across without being hit. Ambulances, like any other vehicles, were fair prey for artillery. The increased speed over the rough roads, pockmarked by shell and mortar, had the effect of a medieval torture rack on the broken men within.

The collection station, set up in a German farmhouse, was busily working, since the wounded from the entire combat team were collected here. Every wound was quickly examined, and the wounded sorted into categories. The walking wounded sat in one room on the floor or on chairs or simply stood, staring vacantly at one another.

In the next room, the litters lay on the floor so close to one another that the doctors and the aid men frequently had to step on the litter itself. Aid men quickly and efficiently appraised wounds and brought into play their first and most efficient weapon, a pair of scissors, which they carried tied to their wrists or waists by a piece of Carlisle bandage. A sergeant took a quick look at the wounded captain’s feet and, grabbing his scissors, began cutting the clothing from the knee down.

The amount of clothing which the soldier wore was appalling. but he wore everything he could get his hands on in an effort to keep warm, since there were no blankets. The scissors cut through a pair of fatigues; beneath the fatigues, a pair of ODs [olive drabs]; beneath the ODs, long underwear and long socks. Now the sergeant saw the condition of the leg.

He cut the clothing completely open to the shoe, but the foot lay twisted in an odd and somehow horrible position. The slightest movement of the shoe or the litter caused the soldier to grit his teeth with the pain. The sergeant took a razor blade and began to cut the laces of the shoe and the pain became excruciating. It was necessary to remove the shoe from the broken foot, and the soldier fainted from the pain.

The sergeant had called sharply for plasma, and from a wire run across the center of the room between two windows, a T/ 5 had already hung a bottle and, with another stretch of bandage had twisted the tubing and had tried to insert the needle into the veins of the forearm, but the soldier had been through too much, and from lack of blood, the veins had almost collapsed.

The T/ 5 appraised the situation and called sharply, ‘Captain!’ A tired, hollow-eyed surgeon raised his eyes and, without a word, immediately saw the situation. He came at once and, calling for a scalpel, he slit the skin inside the elbow, exposed a vein and expertly slipped the needle into the vein itself. Then he stood and rested his back as he watched the plasma drop by drop giving life to the almost empty veins of the captain.

History of the Twenty-Second United States Infantry in World War II (Compiled and Edited by Dr. William S. Boice, Chaplain)

A US medic tends Germans on the Italian front

By 8:00pm I am in a barn on a mountain ridge. There is no defilade, but at least I have a roof over my head. I wouldn’t stay here if the weather were clear. Visibility today is only about two hundred yards, and if the Krauts want to shoot us up, they must do so by map. I am directly behind our troops, which are once again having a rough time.

 Wounded Yank. Hit by German machine gun fire in the Fifth Army Advance up the Gaeta Peninsula. An American soldier is receiving help from Army aid-men. Signal Corps Photo 20 May 1944 (Italy)
Wounded Yank. Hit by German machine gun fire in the Fifth Army Advance up the Gaeta Peninsula. An American soldier is receiving help from Army aid-men. Signal Corps Photo 20 May 1944 (Italy)
Saving lives at the Italian front!. An infantryman has fallen and a medic is right there to help him. Working swiftly, under the enemy fire, the medic applies an emergency dressing on the soldier wounded in the head.
Saving lives at the Italian front!. An infantryman has fallen and a medic is right there to help him. Working swiftly, under the enemy fire, the medic applies an emergency dressing on the soldier wounded in the head.

As the weather turned wet and miserable again in Italy, the Allies were still slogging it out against the Gothic line. Progress against the prepared defence line was slow and casualties were heavy.

Klaus H. Huebner was a US Army doctor, this is his diary entry for 6 October 1944:

Several Germans are among our congregation of wounded awaiting us. The most seriously wounded is a German who insists that he is a walking case and not badly hurt. He has a hole in his back big enough for me to see parts of his lung expanding with each breath. He states that his company has had a rough night.

When only four men were left, something hit him in the back and he fell. He shouted all night but no one came to his rescue. By morning he saw our medics using this church, so he decided to walk over, give himself up, and be treated. Since he seems to be breathing better with the hole in his chest wide open rather than closed, I cover it only with a very loose dressing and fill him up with sulfadiazine pills. He says his pain is not severe enough to require morphine…

Frequently the narrow road crosses and recrosses the creek over small wooden bridges. These are usually demolished, and we cross the stream on debris strewn around them. I witness the entire battalion cross over one such obstacle, except for the last man, who is unfortunate enough to have his foot blown off by a shoe mine. How 450 men have crossed over the same path and avoided stepping on that mine is almost unbelievable!

By 8:00pm I am in a barn on a mountain ridge. There is no defilade, but at least I have a roof over my head. I wouldn’t stay here if the weather were clear. Visibility today is only about two hundred yards, and if the Krauts want to shoot us up, they must do so by map. I am directly behind our troops, which are once again having a rough time.

Progress is very slow. Sometimes they advance less than two hundred yards all day. Consequently, I remain here for three days. We treat at least fifty casualties per day. The arriving wounded are mud covered and rain soaked. The majority of wounds are gunshot and mortar shrapnel.

Our station is constantly harassed by mortar fire, shells exploding outside both day and night. There are almost as many German wounded as GIs.

One German non-commissioned officer is brought in with a palm-sized hole in his buttock. He had been lying in the woods for forty-eight hours. His wound is filled with leaves, sticks and dirt. What he desires most is a swig of cognac. I offer him my canteen filled with whiskey, and he empties one-half of it without drawing a breath between gulps. I loosely suture his buttock together without any anesthesia. He never says ‘ouch.’

See Klaus H. Huebner: Long Walk through War: A Combat Doctor’s Diary

Saving lives at the Italian front! A wounded Yank needs emergency treatment! Without losing a moment he is rushed to the operating table at the field hospital.
Saving lives at the Italian front! A wounded Yank needs emergency treatment! Without losing a moment he is rushed to the operating table at the field hospital.

The casualties mount inside Oosterbeek


24 September 1944: The casualties mount inside Oosterbeek

‘How is it with you ?’ I shouted. He shouted back ‘My leg is broken.’ I wriggled my own injured leg about. It worked. Something would now have to be done about his. There was a dull, singing little pain in my middle, as perhaps the nose cap of whatever it was that had burst had bounced up and hit me there. I looked around the safe and friendly little trench, reluctant to leave it for the chill, hostile world outside.

German reinforcements arrive in the Oosterbeek area.
German reinforcements arrive in the Oosterbeek area.
A paratrooper takes cover as a jeep burns during a German mortar attack on 1st Airborne Division's HQ at the Hartenstein Hotel in Oosterbeek, 24 September 1944.
A paratrooper takes cover as a jeep burns during a German mortar attack on 1st Airborne Division’s HQ at the Hartenstein Hotel in Oosterbeek, 24 September 1944.

Both British and German casualties were piling up inside the Oosterbeek area. On the 23rd Dr. Egon Skalka of the 9th SS Panzer Division had approached the front line under a white flag and negotiated for a ceasefire to allow for the evacuation of casualties. Over the following two days cease fires were organised at different times – and around 1200 men were evacuated to Dutch hospitals under these arrangements. These were only temporary breaks in the fighting however.

Brigadier John Hackett commanded one half of the British occupied part of Oosterbeek. According to a number of different accounts he had been tirelessly visiting every part of his sector, keeping a close eye on every aspect of their situation. It was probably only luck that had prevented him becoming a casualty earlier:

The blow came before the sound of the burst. I dropped on my knees, sick, bewildered and unhappy. It had not been a tree-burst like so many of them, detonating in the branches over-head. This violent thing had happened there on the ground, a few yards in front of me. Was it a mortar bomb or a shell? Had there been a whine before it? Had there been one of them, or two?

Anyway, whatever it had been there were probably more on the way. I crawled on my hands and knees to a shallow slit trench a few feet from me. I had taken refuge in this before and now tumbled into it once again, flattening myself against its side and thrusting a grateful face into cool sandy earth. The ground rang and shook as the rest of the concentration came down, spasmodic bursts in quick untidy groups. Then it was over.

I felt sick and shaken. I told myself not to worry: that would only be shock. What I had to find out was what was really wrong. There seemed to be a good deal of blood about, apparently coming from somewhere above my left knee. I carefully bent the leg: it was not broken.

This was almost a disappointment, since I felt so confused and sick. I shouted. There was another cry from the next pit. That would be the trooper from the Airborne Reconnaissance Squadron, Fred Gough’s people, the man who had come back with me after my own visit to the Squadron, to guide the newly arrived party of Poles to where I wanted them, which was in that part of the Brigade sector.

‘How is it with you ?’ I shouted. He shouted back ‘My leg is broken.’ I wriggled my own injured leg about. It worked. Something would now have to be done about his. There was a dull, singing little pain in my middle, as perhaps the nose cap of whatever it was that had burst had bounced up and hit me there.

I looked around the safe and friendly little trench, reluctant to leave it for the chill, hostile world outside.

Against one corner stood a branch, roughly trimmed as a stick with a forked top. I took it up.

Outside the trench the concentration, which had seemed to I be directed especially at our two selves, was over. The shells were still falling somewhere, as usual. I knew from the last few days of moving about the remnants of my brigade, which was holding the Eastern half of the Oosterbeek perimeter, how they seemed to follow you around wherever you went.

Divisional Headquarters in the Hotel Hartenstein was less than a hundred yards away. There was some sort of a medical aid post, I knew, in the cellars. I took the stick I had found and crawled wearily out of the trench. ‘All right I shouted to the man. ‘I’ll get help.’

It was queer to be walking again under the sad grey sky, over the well-known turf, with the torn limbs of the trees upon it, the wrecked jeeps and the occasional blood-soaked blanket. Bits of equipment were scattered around and here and there were men, some walking about, some digging, some just lying.

This was only a resumption of my journey, interrupted a few minutes back, but there was now a dreamlike quality upon it, as though I had passed out of one world into another. I felt very odd and was irritated that the feeling was not passing off. Perhaps it would soon. We were all rather tired.

See Sir John Hackett: I Was A Stranger

Infantry ride on Sherman tanks in Holland, 24 September 1944.
Infantry ride on Sherman tanks in Holland, 24 September 1944.

War’s grim reality – in the ‘Divisional Area’, Italy


9 September 1944: War’s grim reality – in the ‘Divisional Area’, Italy

A few nights later I was conducted through one of the wards, an experience I never wish to repeat. There were twenty or more men in that ward and all were unconscious. Many of the beds were steeply tilted, some bodies suspended on wires in strange positions and connected to tubes. They were all enclosed in white mosquito nets stretching to the ceiling, seemingly caught in ghastly cobweb.

A Reception Officer at an Advanced Dressing Station examines a casualty wounded in the leg to determine whether a blood transfusion is required. One of a series of photographs showing the procedure when a casualty leaves the Regimental Aid Post. Field Transfusion Units working in conjunction with Advanced Dressing Stations saved many lives.
A Reception Officer at an Advanced Dressing Station examines a casualty wounded in the leg to determine whether a blood transfusion is required. One of a series of photographs showing the procedure when a casualty leaves the Regimental Aid Post. Field Transfusion Units working in conjunction with Advanced Dressing Stations saved many Lives. British Army Medical Services in Italy, 1944
A patient wounded in the leg is given a blood transfusion at a Field Transfusion Unit
A patient wounded in the leg is given a blood transfusion at a Field Transfusion Unit before being taken to the Operating Theatre of an Advanced Dressing Station. A blood pressure reading is being taken to monitor progress during the transfusion.

In Italy the Allied forces had crashed up against the German Gothic Line and were engaged in an intensive battle, as bloody and intense as the earlier struggle at Cassino.

Corporal John Blythe was a signaller with the New Zealand Division. At this time he was working a little back from the front line, providing communications in the Divisional Area. He was not out of range of shellfire himself but his memoirs, of this period during September 1944, recall a particular episode:

The Division was heavily engaged and suffering casualties and the field ambulance unit was the place to see them. They stitched up the bodies of the dead in our grey army blankets and laid them out in rows on stretchers to await burial. Under the tightly stretched blankets their shapes were unmistakable; they were like so many mummies. Down the driveway of the cement works came a gaggle of laughing young teenagers, all girls.

I watched them pass, speculating what would be their reaction when they reached the blanketed forms. They stopped, one girl stepped forward and leaned over the nearest body. Then she screamed. They all screamed and, turning, came running back horror-stricken, uttering keening cries from mouths held open. I thought, next time you’ll think twice before you go roaming through the Divisional area.

We had become involved in a grinding routine of artillery barrages and infantry attacks; pounding guns and the guttural thumps of the tanks, abrupt detonations of incoming stuff, the whoosh of flamethrowers and blackened German corpses.

Under cover of darkness we advanced to occupy a large two-storey building which previously may have been a hospital. We made it one and became an advanced dressing station-cum-operating theatre close up to the battle scene. It was near the town of Forli, Mussolini‘s birthplace, and there was all hell going on around us. The commanding officer and his staff were clearly worried at our proximity to the forward units.

A decision was made to lower the largest tarpaulins bearing the red cross they possessed from the top of the roofs on the side facing the enemy in the hope that at daylight the Germans would respect them. This they did and in all that bedlam not a single shot came our immediate way.

Our radio van was parked outside the front door. For some time we watched two orderlies digging a deep pit between us and the door. Perhaps it was a rubbish hole? In a way it was. As the attack mounted and the night wore on casualties arrived in jeeps and carriers. Some even walked. From time to time there would be a flash of light, a door banged, and an orderly came out and dropped something into the pit. By daylight it continued; the surgeons were obviously engaged in amputations.

A few nights later I was conducted through one of the wards, an experience I never wish to repeat. There were twenty or more men in that ward and all were unconscious. Many of the beds were steeply tilted, some bodies suspended on wires in strange positions and connected to tubes. They were all enclosed in white mosquito nets stretching to the ceiling, seemingly caught in ghastly cobweb.

It was weird. I had heard wounded screaming or moaning more than once, but nothing like the scream from this sedated silence. There is a verse in Les Cleveland’s The Iron Hand: New Zealand Soldiers’ Poems from World War Two. It’s from ‘Autumn 1945: Sparamagos: Riccione’:

The wounded strung on surgical wires
In wards like winter-bleached landscapes
Are racked on loving engines of repair
While pus drains daintily from deep wounds
And bone-scraping nightmare meticulously
Mangles them with blunt knives
Some die after months
Cursing Life.

The orderly showing me round was no ghoul, just interested in his job…

‘He won’t last to morning. He’s had it. That one might. This one looks as if he is already gone.‘ Acutely conscious of having all my working parts, I wanted to be out of the place. Almost all were dying, and the greenshaded lighting on the waxen faces already made them look like corpses.

See John Blythe: Soldiering on: A Soldier’s War in North Africa and Italy

A patient wounded in the leg is given a blood transfusion in the Operating Theatre of an Advanced Dressing Station while a plaster bandage is applied to his leg.
A patient wounded in the leg is given a blood transfusion in the Operating Theatre of an Advanced Dressing Station while a plaster bandage is applied to his leg.

‘Tallboy’ bombs hit the Saumur Tunnel


9th June 1944: ‘Tallboy’ bombs hit the Saumur Tunnel

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.

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.

Chindits: British forced to shoot their wounded


25 May 1944: Chindits: British forced to shoot their wounded

The doctor said, ‘l’ve got another thirty on ahead, who can be saved, if we can carry them.’ The rain clattered so loud on the bamboo that I could hardly hear what he said. ‘These men have no chance. They’re full of morphia. Most of them have bullet and splinter wounds beside what you can see. Not one chance at all, sir, I give you my word of honour. Look, this man’s died already, and that one. None can last another two hours, at the outside.

A wounded Chindit is placed in a light aircraft for evacuation back to India.
A wounded Chindit is placed in a light aircraft for evacuation back to India.
An RAF wireless operator attached to a Chindit column with his equipment in a jungle clearing in Burma
An RAF wireless operator attached to a Chindit column with his equipment in a jungle clearing in Burma

In the depths of the Burmese jungle the Chindit’s 111 Brigade still hung on at the Blackpool strongpoint. 2000 men were isolated and under attack by a strong Japanese Force, well equipped with Anti-Aircraft guns that made re-supply from the air dangerous, if not impossible. The acting Brigadier, John Masters, had sent a Most Immediate message requesting permission to withdraw. He had still not received a reply.

Now Masters reached a decision. They would withdraw. The worst that could happen was that he would face a Court Martial for disobeying orders.

Yet this was not the last difficult decision that Masters faced, he had to face up to what to do with men who were too badly wounded to be moved. There must have been other Allied commanders who faced the same problem. Masters was rare in being a man who was subsequently prepared to write about it, in detail:

I went to the mule lines and saw Maggy quietly eating bamboo, a red gash in her belly and her entrails hanging out of it. She seemed to be in no pain and I hugged her neck, then Briggs shot her for me.

Henning reported 90 Column in position astride the water point. I looked through my binoculars at the westward ridge, which the Japanese had occupied during the first battles. If they held it now we would have a bad time, as it dominated the Namkwin for at least a mile. Mortaring from it we would have to grit our teeth and bear as we trudged past. No, I could cover it with machine guns, for a time at least. I sent a man back with a message to Alec Harper, to be sure to put strong protection on that flank of his layback.

The men passed and passed, walking, limping, hopping, supporting others, carrying them. Tim Brennan reported that he thought he could break contact when I ordered. The Japanese were not pressing their advantage, and at the moment seemed to be under shell fire from their own artillery.

A doctor spoke to me – ‘Will you come with me, sir?’ I followed’ him down the path. It was clear of moving men. The whole block was clear, except for a part of 26 Column.

A little way down the path we came to forty or fifty ragged men, many slightly wounded, who had carried stretchers and improvised blanket litters from the Main Dressing Station as far as this. Here they had set down their burdens, and now waited, huddled in the streaming bamboo, above and below the path. I noticed at once that none of them looked at me as I stopped among them with the doctor.

The stretchers lay in the path itself, and in each stretcher lay a soldier of 111 Brigade.

The first man was quite naked and a shell had removed the entire contents of his stomach. Between his chest and pelvis there was a bloody hollow, behind it his spine. Another had no legs and no hips, his trunk ending just below the waist. A third had no left arm, shoulder, or breast, all torn away in one piece. A fourth had no face and whitish liquid was trickling out of his head into the mud. A fifth seemed to have been torn in pieces by a mad giant, and his lips bubbled gently. Nineteen men lay there. A few conscious. At least, their eyes moved, but without light in them.

The doctor said, ‘l’ve got another thirty on ahead, who can be saved, if we can carry them.’ The rain clattered so loud on the bamboo that I could hardly hear what he said. ‘These men have no chance. They’re full of morphia. Most of them have bullet and splinter wounds beside what you can see. Not one chance at all, sir, I give you my word of honour. Look, this man’s died already, and that one. None can last another two hours, at the outside.’

Very well. I have two thousand lives in my hand, besides these. One small mistake, one little moment of hesitation and I will kill five times these nineteen.

I said aloud, ‘Very well. I don’t want them to see any Japanese.’

I was trying to smile down into the flat white face below me, that had no belly, but there was no sign of recognition, or hearing, or feeling. Shells and bombs burst on the slope above and bullets clattered and whined overhead.

‘Do you think I want to do it?’ the doctor cried in helpless anger. ‘We’ve been fighting to save that man for twenty-four hours and then just now, in the M.D.S. [Main Dressing Station], he was hit in the same place.’

His voice changed. ‘We can’t spare any more morphia.’ ‘Give it to those whose eyes are open,’ I said. ‘Get the stretcher bearers on at once. Five minutes.’

He nodded and I went back up to the ridge, for the last time. One by one, carbine shots exploded curtly behind me. I put my hands to my ears but nothing could shut out the sound.

See John Masters: The Road Past Mandalay.

Chindit Operations - General: A railway bridge behind Japanese lines is blown up by Chindits
Chindit Operations – General: A railway bridge behind Japanese lines is blown up by Chindits

The cold wet misery of the Greek front line

I was never trained to do trauma surgery under such great pressure and in such primitive conditions. I have no time to think of alternatives; sometimes I barely have time to disinfect one trauma before I must deal with another more severe one. In the background as I hear the explosions of the guns and the mines, I think of the parents, wives and children of our men, who are agonizing about them without really knowing how great the dangers are — even the natural dangers of this wild and rugged terrain — and tears come to my eyes.

Dr Electris, centre, with his Greek Army nurses and his Albanian hosts in January 1941. At the end of January they moved into a tented camp high in the mountains.
Dr Electris, centre, with his Greek Army nurses and his Albanian hosts in January 1941. At the end of January they moved into a tented camp high in the mountains.

The war was turning into a disaster for Mussolini. His attempted invasion of Egypt had never got very far and the British were now reversing the offensive and pushing his forces back into Italian Libya, capturing huge numbers of prisoners as they did so.

His other major adventure, the invasion of Greece had seen a similar a reverse. The Greek Army had proved to be far tougher than he had anticipated. The front line now lay in Italian occupied Albania. High in the mountains the Greeks were still on the offensive despite the difficult terrain.

Dr Theodore Electris, a military reservist, had suddenly found himself mobilised into the Army. He had had to adjust very rapidly to the rigours of the campaign – and then rise to the challenge of dealing with many wounded that were brought to him just behind the front line:

February 4, 1941

It’s been four days since I’ve come to this camp and it has not stopped raining. The rain, especially today, is something I’ve never experienced before. It feels like buckets of water have been falling non-stop for hours on top of my tent.

As far as the mud is concerned, I can find no words to describe it: mud, mire, mortar—hell. The ground has been churned into a doughy muck by the soldiers’ boots and the horses’ hoofs and the machinery and artillery wheels; there isn’t a single untracked spot in sight. At some places you could sink in mud up to your knees.

On this dramatically miserable muddy stage the work and struggle of our poor soldiers is taking place. What effort, what agony and pathos — and how many victims! It will be such a pity if all is wasted.

I have to describe a couple of incidents that took place an hour ago.

Our 13th Infantry Regiment, with the support of our battery unit, had attacked and seized a hill near Bosketto (height near the village of Dodovece). There were many wounded who were being brought to us through the field just across from my tent, where the ground was as I’ve described it.

The stretchers with the wounded were carried by three, and sometimes by two, soldiers instead of the proper four — one for each corner of the stretcher. They struggled to walk through the mud in the pouring rain—slipping, sliding and falling and pushing, with their heads drooping like those in the pictures I have seen of the workers on the Volga River.

Sometimes as they walked they would slip and fall and would try to get up. The wounded would be screaming and grabbing onto the stretcher, if they could, with those parts of their body that were not wounded, so they would not fall into the mud. Sometimes all would fall and try to rise again, lifting the stretcher that was stuck and sucked by the mud.

At one point, I saw two guys trying to carry a stretcher with a wounded man who was screaming loudly. The carrier in the back of the stretcher was crying and his face was sheet white. He could not carry the stretcher because his hands were slipping; he would set the stretcher down and try to pick it up again. The carrier in the front would scream and swear at him and the wounded man would cry, beg and try to hold onto the stretcher to keep from slid- ing backwards into the muddy hell below.

Suddenly the carrier in the front dropped the stretcher, and both the wounded man and the stretcher splashed into the mud. This particular carrier then staggered towards the carrier in the back, who was crying as he was trying to get up. With his fist, he hit him very hard in the face. In fact he hit him so hard that the poor guy fell backwards in the mud, was knocked out and was not moving.

For a second the guy that did the hitting was scared, thinking that he had killed the other carrier; he bent over and grabbed him by the neck and started shaking him. When he saw that he was moving, he started swearing and cursing him again. The fallen carrier crept up out of the mud, continuously crying and ignoring the other one who was screaming. He started walking away from the whole scene as if in a daze.

Meanwhile the wounded man was lying in the mud and rain, crying. What could the poor carrier have done under all these conditions? It was hard for the horses to walk through the field; how could an overloaded man, with wet slippery hands, be expected to walk through it? These conditions are so undignified, humiliating, inhumane! Perhaps he was the one who sent six other carriers, who soon arrived and lifted the wounded man out of the mud.

Meanwhile, under these wretched conditions of mud and rain, the battle is raging. We are very busy taking care of the wounded, who are arriving nonstop with every imaginable trauma caused by artillery shell fragments, machine gun fire, but mostly mortars. Our poor soldiers patiently take their turns, silently, not protesting the fact that we cannot work any faster; some of them are even trying to help others and we, we the medics, try to do the best we can in primitive conditions, lacking both tools and, I dare to admit, expertise in trauma surgery.

I was never trained to do trauma surgery under such great pressure and in such primitive conditions. I have no time to think of alternatives; sometimes I barely have time to disinfect one trauma before I must deal with another more severe one. In the background as I hear the explosions of the guns and the mines, I think of the parents, wives and children of our men, who are agonizing about them without really knowing how great the dangers are — even the natural dangers of this wild and rugged terrain — and tears come to my eyes.

I feel for every soldier whose family is waiting at home for him, like my family, my sweet wife, my beloved relatives and friends, and I wish with all my body and soul for this war to end. It is an unfair, unjust war that we were dragged into, and it is going to fill the whole world with bitterness and pain. Will our poor nation be a nation of widows, orphans and lame men?

I send money and cards to Chrysoula, Mother and Sofia. Be- cause we have been moving we haven’t received mail yet. Oh, how I need the morale boost and the psychological high that a note from a loved one brings!

See Written on the Knee: A Diary from the Greek-Italian Front of WWII

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"The proper way to carry a stretcher"
“The proper way to carry a stretcher”

Welcome back to an impoverished Britain

‘Be grateful,’ I was told, ‘it’s far better than the place you’ve been at, by all accounts’. It was put to me straightforwardly and I understood. Unable to procure the longed-for privacy and medical care for lack of pounds, shillings and pence, I was obliged to accept charity.

View of St Paul's Cathedral and the bomb damaged areas surrounding it in London.
View of St Paul’s Cathedral and the bomb damaged areas surrounding it in London.

The war may have been won in Europe but it would take a long time before living conditions improved for many people. In Britain food rationing would continue for many years after the war. Almost every town and city had wide expanses of bomb sites, a daily reminder of the acute housing shortage that would also take years to remedy.

For the great multitude of people who had been damaged, physically and mentally, by the war, resources were scarce. Anthony Faramus had lived on the island of Jersey before falling foul of the German occupiers and being sent off to a concentration camp. Hopelessly emaciated, he was too weak to walk when he was finally liberated. He was to discover that his welcome back to Britain had much to be desired:

My reintroduction into civilization fell somewhat short of my expectations. Incredibly, there were times when I regretted my return. Flown to England courtesy of the American army, who treated me liberally, with compassionate understanding and without counting the cost of a boarder in their hands, I quickly became exasperated by British officialdom; first, when I was abruptly removed from a friendly cottage-type hospital in the peace and quiet of the countryside to a large institution for incurables and the terminally ill.

‘Be grateful,’ I was told, ‘it’s far better than the place you’ve been at, by all accounts’. It was put to me straightforwardly and I understood. Unable to procure the longed-for privacy and medical care for lack of pounds, shillings and pence, I was obliged to accept charity.

I was fed three times a day, bathed and given a book to read. I was not ungrateful, but I was tired of the bedlam and the emotional disturbances of unfortunate people on every side of me. I had some physical discomfort, a loss of power in my legs, but I was neither neurotic nor mentally unbalanced.

I had not informed my mother or any member of my family of my return from the grave. My intention had been first to rehabilitate myself, to put back the five stones I had lost and to see my hair grow to its normal thickness and length.

The institution with its system of rigid rules did not help me to improve. I did not believe the inmates were ever meant to be let loose on the streets, and I resolved to extricate myself from the trap. I made an urgent appeal to my sister, the wartime evacuee from Jersey island to Rochdale in Lancashire.

I was tied down to an invalid carriage, a ridiculous ‘granny’ Bathchair with two large wheels at the back of the basketwork chassis and a small one at the front steered by a long rod with a T-shaped handle. But I was able to move to a warm and loving pied-a-terre with neighbours, run-of-the-mill Rochdale people like the corner grocer and baker, brightening up my days.

‘You need fattening up, lad, those daft buggers at Welfare will give you nowt, not even the skin off a bloody rice pudding, they won’t.’ Young cotton mill girls were an inspiration too, knocking at my sisters street door and bringing me hard-to-come-by eggs and fruit, and pies baked by ‘Mum’. They offered to wheel me out to the park and, after a while, made passes and aroused my passions, breathing fresh life into me with the kind of kisses I hadn’t experienced since leaving Romainville.

But it was those ‘buggers’ at Welfare, the ‘gauleiters’ of bumbledom who gave me the hump. The to-ing and fro-ing, the waiting in line, the form-filling, the fatuous questions, all for a pint of milk, a loaf of bread, a jar of malt extract and a pittance in a warrant to be cashed at the post ofiice, not enough to cover what my sister was paying out.

Perseverance and strength of will put my wheel-chair up ‘for sale’. I took to a pair of crutches, an event ruled unrealistic three months before, and, before my first Christmas of liberty, I was standing on my two feet unaided.

See Anthony Faramus: Journey into Darkness.

In 1945 there was no ‘Welfare State’ and the National Health Service was just a manifesto promise of the Labour Party in the General Election that was now under way.

Bricklayers repair the front wall of a terrace of houses badly damaged by German bombs.
Bricklayers repair the front wall of a terrace of houses badly damaged by German bombs.

France – the Germans also have losses

Poor Vraz. Poor Vraz? No, brother. You are rich, immensely rich. You have given the best, the finest, the noblest for your fatherland. You have ‘Fallen for greater Germany

German war dead 1940
The Nazi regime claimed that some 27,000 of their troops had died in the invasion of France and the Low countries. Post war research suggests that this may have been a considerable under-estimate.

The German victory over France was stunning, taking just one month and 15 days to achieving what four years of bloody attrition had failed to reach in 1914-18. Total German casualties of 160,000 including around 50,000 dead, just less than half the casualties suffered by the Allies, were not insignificant. Yet they were a mere trifle compared with what would be suffered later in the war.

For the moment nothing could take the shine off the victory for ardent Nazis.

Wilhem Pruller was a German infantry man, posted to the Regimental Headquarters, who had fought in Poland and again in France. Despite the loss of his comrades he remained committed to the cause he believed he was fighting for:

Tuesday, 25th June 1940

The first day of peace in the West. We don’t expect any further advance today. Vehicles, weapons, machines are to be put in order. . . . I’ve still only one wish: to get to England. . . . From the 6th Comp. a parcel for Corporal Vraz [who fell] was returned to me. It’s firmly packed and tied up with several bits of string. Quite heavy.

I gaze at the parcel for a long time before I write on it, in red pencil: ‘Gefallen fur Grossdeutschland’.

Then I send it back to his wife. What can be inside? Perhaps a cake with lots of raisins, he used to like that. Perhaps some apples. Some pictures from his beautiful Styria. Perhaps some good cigarettes. Vraz smoked only on Sundays. Perhaps a letter in which she tells him she’s pregnant. Vraz has been married only a short while. Poor Vraz. Poor Vraz? No, brother. You are rich, immensely rich. You have given the best, the finest, the noblest for your fatherland. You have ‘Fallen for greater Germany’.

See Wilhelm Pruller: Diary of a German soldier

Wehrmacht soldiers pinned down by French troops, Sean, France, 1940.
Wehrmacht soldiers pinned down by French troops, Sean, France, 1940.

The Lancastria bombed and sunk, thousands dead

Although I had a lifejacket on, I still had my doubts about being in the water as I was a non-swimmer. We were all saturated with oil. I kicked off from the side of the Lancastria on my back. I kept thinking “got to escape the suction of the ship”. The Lancastria continued to roll over to port. Hundreds of men were now clinging to the upturned hull. Some of those standing on the turning hull started to sing “Roll out the Barrel”.

HMT Lancastria at sea
HMT Lancastria, a cross Atlantic cruise liner requisitioned as a troop transport April 1940
The Sinking of the Cunard Liner SS Lancastria off St Nazaire. One of a series of images taken by an unidentified photographer, obtained by a Press Agency.
The Sinking of the Cunard Liner SS Lancastria off St Nazaire. One of a series of images taken by an unidentified photographer, obtained by a Press Agency.

There were still tens of thousands of British military personnel in France even as it became apparent that the new French leader was likely to seek an Armistice. Once again a rapidly organised evacuation was underway. The circumstances were not as desperate at at Dunkirk but they were still impeded by German bombers ranging far and wide.

The Cunard liner Lancastria had been pressed into service as a troop ship. She now took on board as many men as possible, far exceeding her peacetime capacity. Amongst them were over 800 RAF maintenance crew, packed into the lower hold, as well as thousands of soldiers from a variety of Army support units, and an unknown number of civilian refugees.

Unfortunately they had not long left the port of St Nazaire before the bombers found them.

Walter Hirst was a Sapper with the Royal Engineers:

On the 17th we boarded the Lancastria late in the afternoon. We immediately grabbed a couple of life jackets which I thought would make ideal pillows. We were ordered below and shortly after witnessed, through a porthole, the Oronsay being hit. Both myself and another Sapper decided then, that it would be healthier if we were topside and so decided to climb the stairs, against orders.

Soon after the Lancastria was hit. It was a massive explosion. There was total panic and chaos. Soldiers, including some from 663, positioned at either end of the ship began to open up with Bren guns at the circling enemy aircraft. I managed to get myself into a lifeboat but as it was being lowered the ropes on one end became jammed in the davit. A panicked sailor suddenly jumped up and started to hack away at the ropes with a knife. Myself and others yelled at him to stop, but immediately we were all thrown into the sea. Continue reading “The Lancastria bombed and sunk, thousands dead”