Nursing Sister Elaine Wright, No.1 Canadian General Hospital, Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps (RCAMC). Andria, Italy, February 1944.Credit: Canada. Dept. of National Defence / Library and Archives Canada / PA-213776 Restrictions on use: Nil Copyright: Expired
"And a lot of the boys, were at that stage even suffering from war exhaustion, as we called it."
So we were sent to Scotland. Here, there was really no training, it was more staging, in Scotland. And, we put in – well I’ve just forgotten exactly – just a short time. It wasn’t too long. When – we were all sent to Liverpool [England] and we embarked on a troop transport. Now we knew we were really on our way somewhere. Nobody knew where. There were, of course, a lot of rumours, and we were part of a huge convoy. Excited, absolutely excited – as I say, really, really – I knew that this is why I had joined up. I realized that something now was in the wind and of course, we all wanted it to start, and be done and be ended, and then we could all go home.
After a day in Algiers [Algeria], the next day, we sailed to Malta in convoy, and then on to Augusta on the east coast of Sicily, where we were to make a beach landing. I don’t remember actually a naval escort. I think the [RMS] Franconia, because of her speed, went there undefended. We figured the speed would protect us. But just about noon, as we were having lunch, expecting to disembark that afternoon, six German light bombers attacked. And, we all got – well, we were sent down below, first of all. We were all sent down below whenever there was any threat. So we didn’t really know what was going on. But, eventually it was quiet. We got our tin hats.
We now went to – we went on, of course, and landed on the 19th of July 1943. The beach, of course, was quiet. We got off. The British control officer was horrified to see 50 Canadian nursing sisters. Then I got this little historical fact, I thought was quite interesting, from a book that one of our doctors had written after we came home, one of our medical doctors. And, he said, “Historically, No. 5 Canadian General Hospital was the first hospital in the history of the British or Empire armies to make a beach landing in assault craft in an army of invasion.” No wonder the movement officer was aghast to see us land. Of course, they didn’t know what to do with us. Anyway, they quickly got trucks and loaded us on and took us south to Syracuse [Sicily]. That was the next stop. And all away along there, it was interesting you know. I guess, they know, the Italians you know, if we saw them, they were taken with these trucks. They would wave. They knew we were Canadians.
Now, we found that our supply ship had been lost. So here we were, a complete hospital unit with no equipment and no tropical kit. So, we were given the uniforms, the kit of the other ranks. So, you could imagine nursing sisters – what we looked like with the other rank equipment on. Eventually, of course, they came through with British ATS [Auxiliary Territorial Service] uniforms. We were finally given our tropical kit, eventually.
Of course, now, as I say, we had lost our supply ship, and they were desperate for medical supplies. But actually, one of the officers from the 1st [Canadian Infantry] Div[ision] learned of our arrival and he arranged for several tonnes of medical supplies from a captured Italian medical dump. So that’s what we started with. And, they sent us beds, or cots, and mattresses and blankets and sheets and towels, bedpans, and kitchen equipment, and actually any useful thing that they thought that we could use. No drugs. No tents, of course. We found the beds infested with bed bugs, which were pretty hard to get rid of, I remember that! And also, nearby though, on the shore, they discovered a British medical dump under the command of a corporal and the officers did manage to get a few useful drug supplies from that dump. The hospital was set up, in - it was actually just a dusty field. They had marked off wards in the field and two buildings in the middle of this property became an operating theatre and the other a ward. But, the shelter – we had a shelter, for less than one hundred, but managed to set up outside, stretchers, outside this one building that we had, for, well, about 600 stretchers. Actually, it wasn’t long before they started to fill up. And, of course, there was still bombing – this harbour at Augusta, so we were getting patients quickly.
Later - well, I must say that one night, they actually had come close, to shelling and to bombing where we were, and even some of the boys who were out on these stretchers were hit by flak [shrapnel from burst shells]. It was close enough that even on the stretchers, the next day we had to take care of them. I happened to be - the night that one of these bombing raids was taking place in, over the harbour – and Syracuse is close enough that we could hear it all – and, there wasn’t anything that we could do but, of course, the ward was full – I happened to be on night duty on the ward and there was nothing really, other than just to get up. And a lot of the boys, were at that stage even suffering from war exhaustion, as we called it. The only thing that you could do was sort of walk. So, the thing I did, was walk up and down, so that [they could see me]. And then, as I say, some of the boys were hit with flak outside the tents.
Interview with Nursing Sister Betty Brown FCWM Oral History Project
George Metcalf Archival Collection
© Canadian War Museum