Veteran Stories:
Robert Arnold Burden

Army

  • Robert Arnold Burden, Dundee, Scotland, 1941.

    R.A. Burden, MD
  • Robert Arnold Burden, MD, 2008.

    R.A. Burden, MD
  • Survivors from Sandbostel Prisoner-of-War and Concentration Camp, Bremen, Germany, April 1945.

    R.A. Burden, MD
  • Robert Arnold Burden, somewhere in Britain, circa 1941-1943.

    R.A. Burden, MD
  • Robert Arnold Burden standing alongside a Canadian ambulance, somewhere in Britain, circa 1941-1943.

    R.A. Burden, MD
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"At the breakout from the beach, after Caen, at the Falaise Gap, Carpiquet airport area, four of us in the admitting department were handling 450 to 500 battle casualties a day, every day."

Transcript

I was born in Springhill [Nova Scotia] on 28th of April, 1922. My dad was in the First World War and I figured it was just the correct thing to do. I was talking to a friend who got into the [Royal Canadian] Medical Corps and he told me that they were recruiting in the Medical Corps, so I went to Halifax and they told me after I passed the examination - I was still only 110 pounds, category "B" - told me to report to Cogswell Street Military Hospital. I told them, no, I wasn’t interested in going to a place that wasn’t going to move and I wanted to go to Aldershot Military Hospital, which I thought was going overseas. And they gave me a ticket and I went to Aldershot and on the fourth day of January 1941, I became F84526, Private Robert Arnold Burden.

It was sort of crazy when I first started out because they were just building the new hospital building and my first job was to take a rake and a shovel and clear up sawdust and chips and that from the ward. When I got that done - cleaned the ward - I swept the floor, scrubbed the floor, shined it and waxed it and after I moved beds in, I was taught how to make a hospital bed and a few more basic things and I became a medical orderly.

Maybe I caught on quickly, but soon I was put in charge of all the medical orderlies. They noticed that I had my grade 12 and the double-entry bookkeeping and a year and a half of typing and shorthand, so they moved me to the orderly room, where it was only staffed at that time by a major and one sergeant. A letter came in from No. 7 Canadian General Hospital in Debert saying they wanted a category "A"-trained clerk to join their unit to proceed overseas immediately. And I had gained the weight, so I weighed 120, so I asked the major for a medical exam, he told me, go see a Medical Officer. I was back in about 15 minutes with the category "A" medical papers. He looked at them and said, it might be better the next time I had a medical by a Medical Officer that was not on leave.

Anyway, he said he was happy with that, so I passed my transfer papers to No. 7 Hospital. He said, tear them up, and put up two stripes and I’d be a corporal. He said the sergeant would be promoted to staff sergeant the following month and I would then put up three stripes. So I would have been in the army only a few months and I would have been a sergeant but I refused that and was transferred to No. 7 Canadian General Hospital. And on the 11th of November, 1941, we set sail for England.

We moved to Marston Green, that was halfway between Coventry and Birmingham; No. 1 Canadian General Hospital had been running that and we took over from them. We stayed at that area for a year and a half looking after Canadian and British service personnel and civilian bombing casualties. In 1942, we also looked after about a hundred of the battle casualties from the Dieppe raid.

My job at that time was handling incoming casualties on the admitting. We were there from 1941 until the [Normandy] invasion [June 6, 1944]. We were the first hospital to go in invasion, first Canadian hospital to go in after D-Day. We needed a space big enough to put a 600-bed hospital, all in tents. That’s 250 of a unit, plus our tents and the operating room and X-rays, lab, wards - everything was under canvas. We had to get a field big enough, clear of the mines, before we could set up. When we moved in, the Beachmaster said, get off the beach as fast as you can but under no considerations go outside of those white tapes that were, it was still all mined. And we sort of went up this road and height of land and were sort of congregating there when an ME-109 [German Messerschmitt fighter aircraft] come streaking just over the treetops and you could see the flashes of the machine gun and the cannon from the wings as they were coming straight at us. But he was so low – and you could hear the snap of the bullets and that as they went overhead - but he was so low that the bullets were all coming horizontal above us. So they would hit somewhere beyond where we were; nobody was injured.

We handled the casualties right straight through until the end of the war. In fact we never stopped operating except for short times on the move. In fact, one time when we moved up into Germany, we moved 30 miles and never stopped operating. I stayed behind with a ward and so on like that and the rest moved up and I continued to admit the patients to the ward that was left and the next morning, I got on the field telephone, eight o’clock, and got through to them and I gave them admission numbers because they had to be consecutive. And when they got those numbers, they start open up and operating and I quit.

At the breakout from the beach, after Caen [Normandy, France], at the Falaise Gap, Carpiquet airport area, four of us in the admitting department were handling 450 to 500 battle casualties a day, every day. There was one time I remember, it was five days and five nights that the only time I left [the] admitting department in the tent was to go to the bathroom or get something to eat. I didn’t get back to my own tent to change my socks or brush my teeth in five days and five nights. At the Falaise Gap, we looked after a lot from the [First] Polish Armoured Division. For a few days, we had nothing but Polish casualties and then after that, they put the 25-pounders on then from the artillery, and the Typhoons [British fighter aircraft] would rocket the Germans and then we got mostly all Germans for a while.

At the end of the war, when we crossed the Rhine River, the Canadians went to the left and went up and liberated Holland. But my outfit was asked to go with the British and we went to the British, right to the North Sea. We went with them and we were just outside of Bremen [Germany] when the war finished. Just before the war finished, we were in on the liberation of one of those death camps. We brought them in on the stretchers, two to a military stretcher; two adult males to a military stretcher. See, we’d get five in an ambulance. Instead of getting five in an ambulance we’d get ten in an ambulance to move them down, they were [in] such bad shape. If you’d give them a cigarette, they ate it.

Sandbostel [Stalag XB, a prisoner-of-war camp which also held civilian political prisoners]: it wasn’t as big as the others but it was right in Germany itself, not far from Bremen and they had the bodies on the railroad cars, ready to be sent away to be burned. There was no crematorium or anything there. We treated them there. They [the prisoners] were fed a special diet every three hours, night and day. After two weeks, there were five of them out in the sun, out in the yard and I carried a camera all through the war. And I took pictures of five men, I took five pictures actually of those five survivors from that camp.

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