River Wissey Lovell Fuller


December 2005

Ron has come across some wonderful writings composed by soldiers in WWII and this is the first episode of what should be a fascinating series

Fred Highfield was called up for service in the armed forces in 1940, a carpenter by trade he was directed into the Royal Engineers. In 1941 he found himself among the sappers in North Africa clearing minefields in the desert by crawling forward and probing the sand with their bayonets. He witnessed his colleagues alongside him being blown up by mines. Later his unit found that they had been by-passed by the enemy and were trapped behind enemy lines, they were subsequently captured and Fred found himself in prisoner of war camps from then until the end of the war. Initially he was in a camp in Italy but later moved to Germany.

Fred died last year - he was in his late eighties - and amongst his personal things were pieces that had been written by fellow prisoners. As I am writing this it is near rememberance day and it seemed appropriate that I should share some of these writings with you, starting this month with the story below. Unfortunately he did not record the names of the authors so each piece must remain anonymous.

Ron Watts


A true story of Tobruk

No, they gave No.181682 Nurse Mary Martin no medal, all they did was to publish her name in the official role of honour under the heading 'killed in action' and notify her next of kin, regretfully of course, that she was killed during an air raid on Tobruk and that she died while serving King and Country. To the War Office she was just another casualty. Nurse Martin was one of 12 women who attended the sick and wounded in Tobruk hospital during those bitter months the British held that beleaguered port. The War Office must have been crazy, sending young women to work in that pest hole, the place was bad enough for a man, for a woman it must have been sheer hell. Not only were the Germans fiendishly bombing the town day and night with their screaming Stukas - the record was 21 raids in 24 hours - but Tobruk was a front line sector under artillery bombardment also. Wounded were being brought in continuously.

The nurses had to labour long weary hours, apart from the weather and desert to contend with, fearful hazards in themselves, the sweltering heat of the day, the freezing cold nights and, above all else, the Khamseen, that screaming raging whirlwind of sand and dust that scorches and blisters the skin and uproots and destroys everything in its path. When the Khamsenn blows, and it lasts for hours on end, all one can do is huddle under any shelter and wait for it to pass. The heat is appalling and the fine sand penetrates everywhere, the clothing, the hair, the nose the eyes. It is a positive nightmare and it sears the mind as well as having a most depressing effect on ones mental equilibrium. Add to the hazards the further drawbacks of sand storms, lack of good and plentiful water, bad food, wretched living quarters, flies by the millions, countless crawling insects and an occasional poisonous snake together with the unending monotony of the desert, and you begin to have some idea of what Tobruk was like at the time that I write. Yet Nurse Martin went about her job calmly and efficiently doing all those things a nurse must do in a hospital and, if she did find the going hard no one ever heard her complain. Some women have queer ideas, especially about King and Country and perhaps that is why Nurse Martin came to Tobruk. I still think it was a crazy thing to do, but then I never could understand women.

One night at about eleven o'clock the Germans came again dive bombing and machine gunning and it wasn't very long before they were bringing in the wounded once more. Among them was a young soldier, only about 18 years old, the doctor took one look at him and ordered an operation at once, so they wheeled him into the theatre and put him on the operating table. It was Nurse Martin's job to act as theatre nurse and to take the patient back to the ward afterwards. The doctor soon got busy, the kid's stomach was torn with shrapnel and it was a messy job, then, right in the middle of the operation a bomb fell directly on to the hospital buildings. Out went the lights in the theatre - 'lights quick' said the doctor 'at once or he'll die'- Nurse Martin remembered the switch for the auxiliary lighting plant at the end of the corridor and knew that all she had to do was go to it and press the switch to re-illuminate the theatre. She was seen taking a few steps along the corridor when another bomb hit the building, the explosion threw her violently to the ground. She lay there for a few seconds then struggled to her feet, her face was bleeding profusely and she clearly had an injury to her side but she pressed on holding on to the wall straining to see in the almost dark. Another explosion and again she fell but again she struggled to go on although now there was blood running from her mouth, all around there were cries and shouts and the noise of falling masonry. Swaying she stumbled on but again she fell, she lay for a while yet managed once more to get up, now she was covered in her own blood and her uniform in tatters, she finally reached the switch and, her strength failing, she pressed it before losing consciousness and falling to the floor, there she died.

How was she to know that the second bomb that had mortally wounded her had wiped out the operating theatre, killing everyone in there? No, they gave her no medal, she wasn't a heroine you see, she was just No.181682 Nurse Martin 'killed in action' at Tobruk - just one of countless millions who died so that others might live in peace.

PG 73 July 1943

Ron Watts

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