Nurses at War remembers the brave nursing sisters of the Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service (QAIMNS), known with admiration by their grateful patients as the ‘Q.A.s’.
These dedicated women faced danger and sometimes death to care for wounded servicemen during the Second World War. They worked tirelessly in the field – their lives constantly at risk, but throughout they showed courage, spirit and even humour. Among tales of fear and heartbreak, there are also many moments of compassion and hope.
The inspiring nursing sisters worked in the most dangerous places of action during World War Two ‒ including Dunkirk, Malta, Hong Kong and El Alamein. They encountered death and disease on an unprecedented scale, suffered harsh imprisonment by the Japanese, and were bombed while on board hospital ships and trains. But wherever they found themselves, the sisters continued to carry out their duties with professionalism and a plucky determination.
First published to great success and acclaim in 1959 as Grey Touched with Scarlet, this book has been written based on the first-hand accounts of the army nursing sisters.
Nurses at War
The True Story of Army Nursing Sisters' Courage in World War II by Jean Bowden
The following excerpt describes what happened to a group of shipwrecked people, mainly women and children, who were fleeing Pom Pong Island in the Far East.
Then in the middle of the night a boat came in, the Tanjong Penang. Between two hundred and fifty and three hundred women and children were loaded aboard her, as well as most of the sick. In view of this latter contingent, the captain asked if he could have some of the nurses. Turner was one of those who went aboard, her borrowed grey dress in a filthy state and her neat dark-brown hair a mass of tangle above her angular face.
The woman doctor aboard had her work cut out. The Q.A.s were at her side for orders as soon as the little ship set sail, and worked without cease all day. Then at night, as a reward, they were allowed to stay up on deck to sleep.
It was nine o’clock at night. Sleeping figures sprawled about the decks. And then suddenly they were half-sitting up, rubbing their eyes and flinching away from the hard green glare of the light which blazed down on them.
Next moment, in rapid succession, two explosions. The little ship shuddered and keeled over.
What had hit them they never knew. Perhaps a Japanese destroyer had shelled them. All around Turner were dead bodies, limbless and shattered and horrible in the dying green light. A moment ago these had been her friends, sitting up and exclaiming, ‘What on earth’s that?’ Now ‒ jumbled and bloody flesh.
‘The hold!’ cried Turner, scrambling to her feet. The women and children were in the hold. Her long-limbed body sped along the deck to the companionway.
A V.A.D. in a ghastly, bloodstained dress was struggling up it. ‘It’s no use,’ she half-sobbed.
‘They’re all dead.’
‘But ‒ Are you sure?’
‘My own mother’s there. I’m sure.’
The deck was at an angle of sixty degrees. Together they slid down to the rail and ‒ literally ‒ stepped into the water. Why they were not sucked under when the ship plunged down, only God knows. They came up among the floating debris of the wreck and after treading water for a few minutes made for one of the rafts washing about to their left. After resting there for a space they caught another raft as it drifted past and tied them together.
During the night these two young women swam out and brought to safety no less than sixteen people, including six children. Two of the children were under a year old. Two people sat on the raft, back to back, each holding a baby, while all the others held on to the lifelines.
Turner did all she could to instil the importance of never letting go, but after dawn it was found that two of the survivors had gone. That left two women on the raft, each holding a baby; four children holding the lifelines, six, seven, eight and ten years old; and eight women.
The first day Margot Turner spent alternately swimming out bringing back people who drifted off, and trying to make contact with other rafts which drifted by on the currents. She never saw these rafts again.
The captain of the Tanjong Penang hailed them from a distance. He was in a lifeboat with one of the ship’s officers.
‘Can you keep afloat?’
‘For a little while, I think. Can you pick us up?’
‘This boat’s stove in ‒ it’s leaking like a sieve. If I take anyone aboard it’ll go straight to the bottom.’
‘What are we to do?’ Sister Turner shouted despairingly.
‘Try to keep afloat. I’m going to try and make it to land.’
‘Are we near land?’
‘I think so. Just try to keep on the raft ‒ keep afloat. I’ll get help, if this boat doesn’t sink under us.’
Turner wiped the salt water off her lips and called, ‘What happens if you don’t make it?’
‘Perhaps a Dutch plane will fly over. Otherwise … if we don’t make it to land, well, we’ve got to make it, that’s all.’
That was the last time Turner ever saw the ship’s captain.
Sister Le Blanc Smith had said during the night that she thought she was wounded, but not badly enough, so she insisted, to need to be put up on the raft. She could hold on, she said. At first light her deathlike colour so alarmed Turner that she hoisted her up out of the water ‒ to find that Sister Le Blanc Smith had an absolutely desperate wound in the buttock. Without complaint this gallant woman had hung on to a lifeline all night while others rested on the raft.
Now Turner commanded Le Blanc Smith to take a turn on the raft. But it was too late. Le Blanc Smith died that afternoon.
Two other women gave up their grasp on the lifeline and were carried away despite Turner’s efforts to hold them back. She felt she simply had not the strength to go after them. The heat of the sun was unbearable on salt-drenched flesh, and it was impossible to provide the least shelter for the babies. They were parched with thirst. Turner found a powder compact in her uniform pocket, in which she tried to catch some of the rain from the drenching tropical storms which from time to time burst over their heads. But the quantity she saved was so minute ‒ and the children were so thirsty.
And so the babies died. Turner examined them with desperate care before committing their small bodies to the sea. If, by any unimaginable luck, she ever reached land, she might meet an ill and broken-hearted woman who would say to her, ‘And my little boy? Did you see him anywhere?’ When Turner answered, ‘He was on the raft with us but he died on the second day,’ she had to say it with absolute conviction.
But they were dead ‒ from shock and exposure and exhaustion. One was nine months old, the other almost a year.
There were now ten people left ‒ four children and six adults. Two of the women were V.A.D.s who, with Sister Turner, did all they could to hold the others to the raft. But when the night was past and the third dawn flared up out of the sea, three more women were missing.
The children were pushed up on the raft, but they were in hopeless case. As the heat of the day increased, so their hold on life and sanity waned. They threshed about, falling into the water, failing to catch the lifelines. The women grabbed at them, trying to still the failing limbs and make them keep hold of the one hope of life, the raft. But their efforts were foredoomed. One by one they lost the children.
That afternoon there were only two of them left ‒ Turner and another woman. Turner’s lifebelt had chafed her chin until it was raw and weeping; she straggled out of it and tied it, together with her companion’s, on the raft. They sat back to back and watched the little green islands creep up out of the sea as the current swept them along. Hundreds of little islands, meaning dry land and comparative safety ‒ but how were they to reach them?
They caught two pieces of driftwood and with these began to paddle weakly towards the little feathery outline on the horizon which was a palm-fringed reef. The currents were overbearingly strong. They made no headway. It was hot, so hot.
Sister Turner’s companion let her paddle slip from her grasp. She gave a gasp of alarm and, to get it back, plunged into the sea. Turner was too late in her clutch at her dress. In a matter of moments she was gone, irretrievably, having in her lurching jump dragged the lifebelts with her.
Too weak to swim after her, Turner called and strained her eyes to catch a glimpse of the slip of white which was her last link with humankind. But there was nothing. Nothing but the blinding sparkle of the sea, the glaring sunlight overhead, and a long way off, the little dot of black towards which they had been paddling. By and by it vanished too.
She was guiding the raft up a tropical river. A cheerful English voice called, ‘Hello there, Sister! You’re in a state, aren’t you?’ The raft was pulled in to the shore, she was offered a cup ‒ could it be? ‒ a cup of tea. With trembling hands she took it, and the tea spilled and made her wrist wet ‒
She was trailing her hand in the sea. That was why her wrist was wet. She was still alone, and the sea was still vast, and the sun was still shining although it was nearing the horizon. She had been dreaming. What a pity she had woken up before she drank the tea.