16 November 2015

Nurses at War -The True Story of Army Nursing Sisters' Courage in World War Two

Nurses at War -The True Story of Army Nursing Sisters' Courage in World War Two by Jean Bowden 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.

The publisher has kindly provided the following excerpt from the book:

The following excerpt takes place on No. 4 Ambulance Train, at a village siding outside Dieppe, just six days after the German invasion of the Low Countries.

By the time they were loaded, the train was crammed. There were between six and eight hundred people on board, many of whom were very ill. They had been brought, hurriedly and haphazardly, in the intervals between raids.
It was all so heartbreakingly different from the calm peacetime procedure of the hospitals which had seen Sister Breen, busy as always among her charges. But she and her colleagues had few minutes to spare for such comparisons. As soon as an engine could be found for their coaches, they would be off; in the meantime, they must make their patients as comfortable as they could.
They were standing, immobilized for the present by their lack of an engine, alongside the quay. Two hospital ships, the Maid of Kent and the Brighton, lay at anchor empty, a few yards away. Next to these was an oil tanker. Wrecked and shattered buildings formed a background to the scene, grim warning of what the enemy could do.
Miss Breen had been having a busy time with a very ill patient whose pulse worried her. She was bending over him, her hands full, when the first bomb dropped. The concussion threw her on the floor. She was scrambling up again to rescue her scattered equipment when a cry of ‘Stay there, Sister, for God’s sake!’ checked her.
She remained, crouching on the floor of the coach, while the entire load of the bomber shrieked down. The sound of splintering metal and glass was everywhere. The ambulance train shook, appeared to sway at each blow. Breen raised her head, to see what was happening to her patient, but he was out of her line of sight on his bunk.
The railway sheds had been hit. Shards of wood and metal were tossed in the air. The rattle of machine gun bullets hitting the sides of the ambulance coaches was succeeded by another salvo of bombs. Sister Breen had lost the power to count; she only longed for the noise to stop, for the last bomb to shake the ground, for the world to turn upright again. Incoherently she was thinking, ‘So long as they don’t hit the train, so long as they don’t hit the train.’
And then the sound of the aeroplane engines died away. And the train had not been hit. As she struggled up, Breen had one moment in which to breathe a thanksgiving for this.
Then she smelt burning.
Could it be the train after all? She ran down the coach on legs that trembled. She leapt down. The railway line was strewn with the dead and the dying. Walking patients who had jumped down from the train to seek greater safety in shelters across the yards, they had been machine-gunned as they ran. They lay now like dolls tossed out of a carriage window by a naughty child.
She stopped by a khaki-clad figure and was bending to examine him when she was recalled to the smell that had brought her out the smell of burning, now strong in the air. Smoke was drifting across the siding, veiling the sun. What was on fire? She raced down the train, but by the grace of God it had not been directly hit, only damaged by bullets and flying debris and broken glass.
It was then that she saw the flames from the tanker.
The fire was spreading rapidly. The tanker’s hulk was totally enveloped in red and black: the Maid of Kent was a holocaust: and as she watched, awe-struck, great tongues of fire licked out and swept the Brighton.
The ambulance train was directly alongside.
Miss Breen’s ward on the train was full of stretcher cases, men too ill to help themselves. With the heat from the blazing vessels already like a scorching breath on her cheeks, she half-turned and made a move towards the stationary, helpless ambulance coaches. But she could not handle a stretcher by herself.
‘Here,’ she called urgently to a man who appeared from the direction of the sheds, ‘help me with the stretcher cases.’
He hesitated. ‘But, Sister, I’ve no orders to
Orders? She could hardly believe her ears. ‘Orders or not, they’ve got to be moved to safety. Good heavens, man, the train will be on fire in five seconds!’
Reluctantly, his eyes on the spreading fire whose red fingers reached out to the quayside, he went with her. They took an end each of the first stretcher. Breen found she was trembling a little, but they hefted up the stretcher and manoeuvred it through the doorway.
‘I’ll take that,’ a voice said.
She relinquished her end to the waiting hands of the R.A.M.C. orderly. Sister Cullen was in the ward by this time, activated by an equal anxiety, so it was safe to leave her in charge of its evacuation.
The smell of burning and the sensation of heat warned her to hurry. She glanced along the train. Flames were blazing out of the coaches a few yards away, a pall of smoke was forming over it. The heat was more intense, the sound of crackling louder, the smell of melting paint, twisting metal, scorching metal, melting glass, all urged her to hurry, hurry.
Coughing and panting for breath, she hastened to the other wards.
‘Mind where you’re going, Sister!’ Her way was blocked. A private, his leg in a Thomas splint, was hobbling towards her by holding on to the sides of the beds. Others were crowding behind him, a sight that racked Breen’s heart, with their splinted and plastered limbs supporting them as best they might.
‘Don’t go in there, Sister it’s full of gas. And you haven’t got a gas mask.’
Gas! Everything for the last few days had been so new, so unexpected and so terrible that for a moment she really believed it. And she hesitated.
Her hesitation could have been the signal for panic among these wounded and bewildered men. But at once her strong common sense came to her rescue, and the momentary threat to morale was overcome.
‘It’s the fumes from the burning tanker it isn’t gas, it’s smoke.’ Nervously they eyed her, and seeing she was quite sure she was right they followed meekly when she said, ‘Now come along, back to bed.’
Coaxing, soothing, supporting them, she got them to bed again in the unwrecked part of the train. The rest had caught fire as she had foreseen. Once the smoke began to clear they felt completely reassured, these unsettled patients; Sister said it was all right, didn’t she? The wards were calming down again, but the roaring of the flames from the burning ships, the hurtling of red-hot metal from the tanker, did little to help.
The O.C. was having the undamaged part of the train uncoupled: in the sheds the M.O.s were attending to the men who had been wounded by machine gun fire. Breen found one casualty actually under the train, where he had fallen on being hit. If the wheels had moved, he would have been crushed to death. She called stretcher bearers and helped move him to safety while the wrecked coaches and the unwrecked were separated.
And then she straightened and drew breath. Grubby dress, smoke-grimed face, eyes rimmed with red, shoes and stockings soiled Those snowy wards of her peacetime years seemed far, far away now. And yet, she said to herself as she glanced about to see where else she might be needed, I wouldn’t exchange this for the best run ward in England: I’m glad I volunteered.
Next moment she was back at work, a busy, upright figure in a grey dress and a scarlet tippet.

Nurses at War is available in Ebook format only. Available from: