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Royal Victoria Hospital & Military Cemetery at Netley
Oral History - Support for Normandy June 1944
Recollections of nurses, LT Helen Pavlovsky, USNR, and LT Sara Marcum, USNR, stationed at Navy Base Hospital No. 12 (at Royal Hospital, Netley, England)
[Adapted from: "Navy nurses Remember the Invasion." Navy Medicine 85, no. 3 (May-Jun. 1994): 20-23.
[Mrs. KelIey:] While I was at Netley, we had lots of air raids. We were supposed to go to the air raid shelter, but we never did. I wasn't scared then. Now, I would probably be under a bed or a shelter. I checked the shelters out and they looked like a tomb or something. I thought that if I'm going to go, I'm going to go. It wasn't very good sense.
Instead, we would turn our lights off in our rooms and watch the fire works. We were surrounded by [twin-barrel anti-aircraft] ack ack guns which fired at enemy planes and the place really vibrated when they shot those guns. Of course, it made the patients real nervous. Some of them would get under their beds. But, as I said, I guess I didn't have sense enough to be afraid.
[Mrs. Ramsey:] After D-Day, the Germans began shooting V-1 rockets [relatively slow moving rocket-propelled flying bombs with stubby wings, that made a loud buzzing sound while in flight] known as "buzz bombs" at England. Although we had air raid shelters I don't think we ever used them. At the foot of every bed hung a gas mask and helmet--every patient had a helmet. If we were bombed we were to pull the patient off the bed to the floor and push him under the bed, putting their helmet on first. We would hear the buzz bomb whizzing and suddenly the sound would stop as its engine stopped and they fell. There would be a breathless pause as we waited until the explosion would be heard. Although parts of Southampton were destroyed, thank goodness we were spared. Then after the buzz bomb attacks were over the V-2s [guided missiles carrying a 1-ton explosive warhead, that flew high and fast and were impossible to detect or shoot down] began. One of the things that struck me so emphatically was the British people. They would be bombed out of their homes and they'd salvage what they could and go on with life. I was so impressed with that. They had been very nice to us and we had made friends. They were able to share with us what they had and I just admired their spirit so much.
The Hospital at Netley
[Mrs. Ramsey:] The Army had been there before we arrived. I think they took over from the British and then we came in and took over from them. I don't think the Army was there for any length of time because they weren't ready for us. The Royal Victoria Hospital at Netley was built during the Victorian era. It was a very cold monstrosity. The wards were huge. I have no idea how many beds there were in a ward. There was a fireplace at either end. This made the place terribly cold and damp and certainly not conducive to treating patients.
The Seabees [US Navy construction battalion personnel] came over and remodeled the whole thing to make it usable. They converted those wood-burning fireplaces--actually wood was at a premium so they burned a kind of coke [refined coal]--to gas and that kept us warmer.
[Mrs. Kelley:] The grounds out side the buildings were beautiful, with wonderful surroundings and the view of the water. Unfortunately, the hospital was not in great condition. The plumbing was atrocious. From the bathtubs and the sinks, the water drained into a trough that went half way around the room before it finally went into a pipe and out. Each room had about 30 or 35 beds, but the rooms weren't connected, which is not very efficient when it comes to nursing because you would have to go out into the main corridor and then around into the room. Usually you were just assigned to one room and then you would help out someplace else if you weren't busy.
Luckily, the Seabees came and put in showers. They also did some work on the nurses' quarters, so unlike the Army nurses who had to live in tents, we were able to live inside.
D-Day and Treating Casualties
[Mrs. 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.
[Mrs. 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.
Notes: Mrs. Helen Pavlovsky Ramsey grew upon the Eastern Shore of Maryland and Delaware. She joined the Navy in spring of 1943 and went to England in February 1944. She returned
to the United States in September 1944 and was at Mare Island until the end of the war. She then left the Navy, married, and raised a family in West Virginia.
Mrs. Sara Marcum Kelley was a ward nurse originally from rural Kentucky. After graduating nursing school in January 1943 she soon joined the Navy Nurse Corps. After serving at Bethesda Naval Hospital for a year, she went to England to take part in the medical care for the Normandy invasion. Departing England, she returned to the States and became a physical therapist. Mrs. Kelley left the Navy in 1950.
Taken from The Navy Department Library
I was prompted to contact you following Michael Portillo's recent programme on train journeys which featured Netley.
My husband Robert John HAYDEN, who was a young soldier during the Suez crisis, was badlyinjured. He had a badly smashed leg and was flown home to the Military hospital in London, Woolwich I believe - was it called 'the dirty hospital'? He recalls landing in Stanstead (?) and being transported underground on a sort of wooden trolley on rails - I have not been able to find out anything about this or a possible station location. After 18 months he was moved to the Netley Military Hospital for rehabilitation. He recalls being made to walk and run on the pebbles of the beach to strengthen his damaged leg. He also thought that the elaborate design of the hospital was a mistake and that the original designs were for a hospital in India? Throughout his life his leg never properly repaired and was always shorter than the other. He did say that a military surgeon re-broke his leg, without anesthetic, because it was not healing. It did no good except give more pain! Sadly he died a year ago but I do remember well his reminiscences of the
hospital at Netley.
From Diana HAYDEN
Thank you Diana.
Sybil LEEK a biography by C.Ravin Esq. WWII.
I became a nurse in the famous military hospital in Netley, near Southampton. Originally, when Great Britain had an empire in India, an architect was asked to design
two large military hospitals, one for India and one for Great Britain. Apparently the architect's plans got crossed; Netley found itself with a huge military hospital that was suitable for a torrid
climate and had a definite Indian motif about it. I ended up in the Netley hospital's Prisoner of War Department because I spoke French well and knew a smattering of German. It was a nerve-racking
experience, dealing with prisoners of war who were sick, many of whom had lost a limb. The Germans were aggressive and rude to all the female staff. They were not truly interested in living, and many
fought against medical attention. It was a great lesson in discipline to nurse the enemy and know he was still the enemy. We were told that we must not, under any circumstances, allow a prisoner to
provoke us. In theory, it was fine; in practice, very hard. We were all high spirited girls from good families, and every one of us had men from the family in the service. We had to withstand
barrages of abuse, physical onslaught, and sexual advances, and we still had to try to be pleasant.
One day I heard that my cousin Edwin's plane had been shot down in Germany. The telegram said he was "missing and presumed lost in battle combat." I entered the ward, which was at the top of the building, and was hit full in the chest by a large bouquet of flowers still in its bowl - it was a painful experience. I became glazing mad; I stalked over to the patient, and slapped his face on both sides. Many years later, when I saw the film Patton, I knew exactly the type of demon that got into the General when he slapped an American soldier. Of course, I was reprimanded and confined to barracks for a week. The soldier was moved to another hospital, which showed tact on the part of the Commanding Officer. All the girls felt that the slap was administered on behalf of all of us, for we had had a particularly nerve-wracking week. I was working on night duty at the time, but we had so many casualties that there was no distinct changeover for any of us.
We stayed until an entire hospital ship checked into the hospital; the operating theatres were working like mad. I used to leave the theatre dazed, physically and mentally sick, wondering when it would all end. On duty in the wards, when we were alerted that a wave of bombers was coming over, we always had to check the blackouts. Not a single window could be undraped. Many of the prisoners of war who could walk would cheer when there was a raid and would sing German songs as they tried to tear down the blackout coverings. We had to fight them off and sometimes threaten them. The German soldier was inclined to despise the female in uniform, but I learned I could scream as loud as he could, and I picked up enough swear words to start a new dictionary.
The sixtieth section of the London Red Cross may have started out in Netley as a group of young society ladies, but after a few months of campaigning like this, we had forgotten what the word "lady" meant. We were hardened Boadiceas, ready to be in the thick of battle 24 hours a day. We all came form families that frowned on girls drinking and smoking, but we learned both from the male members of the 101st Bridging Company of the Royal Engineers. We all had officers' privileges, which included using officers' mess rooms when we had time. We ate fairly well, but the elegant sixtieth section was given sleeping quarters in barracks that had once been condemned as unfit for use by British soldiers. We thrived on hard conditions, hard palliasses, rough army blankets, and no sheets, because they were needed in the hospital, where supplies of everything dwindled as the war progressed.
I saw a program on tv concerning Netley as i was a patient there in 1949 having suffered a severe back injury I knew what it was like, in the hospital I noticed no one had mentioned the dress code for all patients which consisted of a red tie,a white shirt, and blue trousers and tunic.We were given a lot of freebies as long as we had our hospital uniform on, life was good and the nurses did all they could to ease our pain and injury.Iwas in a plaster cast which the girls in Southampton really felt sorry for me ..
Albert Carter sent me these photos today 29/02/15. He is standing next to the lion statues which were on the front of the hospital. I wonder where they are now?? Thank you.