by Madeline Shavalier
They say that a journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step. Mine began when I was called up for active service a year and a half after I signed up as a nurse with the Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps. I joined because I thought that I could be of some service somewhere in Canada. I certainly had no intention of going off to war.
But at age 25 I was a single woman–a registered nurse in good health, and that met the requirements for the military.
I soon became part of No. 14 Canadian General Hospital, a 1,200-bed unit that was activated June 23, 1940, at Westmount Barracks Military District No. 4 in Montreal. By June 12 the next year, the majority of nursing sisters had been posted to the unit. Included were 99 nurses, approximately 30 doctors, and many orderlies and stores men. Following two weeks of training at Pointe St-Charles, Que., we boarded the Stirling Castle for duty in the United Kingdom.
My father hadn’t said much after he heard where I was heading. My stepmother wished me well and hoped I would return home soon. Dad lent me the money for my uniform and managed a small bank account for me while I was away. Of the $5 per day we received, some funds had to stay at home. Many of my friends who signed up at the same time were on the same ship.
The first contingent of 129 Canadian nursing sisters under the leadership of Matron Agnes Neill had left for England in June 1940, nine months after the outbreak of WW II. Two Canadian general hospitals had been established six months prior to the nurses’ arrival. One was assigned to Taplow, west of London, where a new hospital had been built on the 300-acre Cliveden estate of Lord and Lady Astor. The hospital was well equipped by the Canadian Red Cross Society. The other was established at Bramshott Chase, south of Taplow.
After eights days at sea we landed in Scotland and took the train to Taplow where we spent about two months working at the hospital established on the beautiful estate. Most of the time was spent caring for soldiers who had been hurt in various training exercises. We also treated those suffering from pneumonia and other illnesses. During our time off we enjoyed the grounds and even punted down the Thames River.
Two months later we moved to an abandoned military base at Pine Wood, close to Aldershot. After that we moved into an empty hospital at Horley, five miles from the Gatwick airport. I remember the heavy nighttime bombing and how we had to make sure the blackout curtains covered our windows. Covering the lights from residences was part of the defence of the land to make enemy night air navigation more difficult.
We remained for two years at Horley, where a favourite watering hole was the Checkers Pub. Men usually found their way there for a pint, even those in wheelchairs or on crutches. While we did not go to the pub, we did enjoy the occasional party. A favourite break on days off was to take the two-hour train ride to London where we would stay overnight at a nurses’ residence. Coffee and hardtack cookies were available there and we often ventured out to see the sights, take in a concert or a play or just to window shop.
In October 1943 we were given 48 hours to pack our things and prepare to move out. We left Liverpool on the USS Santa Elena, one of 43 ships in a convoy bound for Naples, Italy, although we did not know that was our destination. There were more than 1,800 soldiers and nursing sisters on the Santa Elena.
U-boats were active and I remember how the ship zigzagged behind the destroyers. The convoy headed through the Strait of Gibraltar on Nov. 4 with planes overhead to provide cover. But once Gibraltar disappeared, so did our aerial coverage.
Our first warning of an attack came at about 6 p.m. on Nov. 6. A burst of anti-aircraft fire sounded and 10 planes came into view. Guns opened up and the air was filled with black smoke. We were ordered to go below deck, but our ship was struck near the waterline by a torpedo. There was a deafening explosion that shook the ship. The engines were knocked out and power was lost. Slowly the ship began to drift and take on water.
While we were below deck, the ship took a second hit when a bomb crashed into the deck near the stern. My friend next to me fainted, just as we got the call to go to our lifeboat station. The initial explosion plunged the ship into darkness and produced a noticeable list. I wanted to run, but instead yelled for someone to fetch water. I screamed that my friend had fainted. Two soldiers stopped and I yelled for one of them to throw water in her face. They did that and then dragged her up a flight of stairs to the lifeboat station where she soon revived.
The call came to abandon ship and the nurses were put into the lifeboats. We all wore life preservers and I remember seeing the soldiers jumping into the water. Many of them were clinging to the sides of the lifeboats. From 7 to about 11 p.m. we floated in the quiet dark with no shoreline or lights in sight. Then came the shadow of a ship. We didn’t know whether it was one of ours or the enemy’s. No one dared speak and fear filled us. Then the lights went on and we knew it was a rescue ship–the SS Monterey. Ropes were thrown toward the lifeboats and we began to row, two nurses on each oar.
We climbed the scramble net and I remember seeing at least two nurses fall off into the water. I was fortunate that I had pushed my gloves into my pocket before I abandoned ship. They came in handy and helped me grip the rope. There were also wooden crossbars along the side of the ship where we could rest. Remarkably, all but one on board were saved by the Monterey or other ships.
Relieved to be alive, we gathered together on the deck. The next day we watched as the Monterey attempted to tow our ship. But the Santa Elena could not stand the strain and through our tears we watched her sink off Phillipville Harbour, North Africa. It was Nov. 6, 1943. Gone were our possessions. Gone were all of our hospital supplies, surgical equipment and beds.
But God gave us the gift of laughter. There was one nurse who had been with us in England who had insisted on using a defective alarm clock all the time we were there. The thing had kept going off at all times of day and night and it wouldn’t stop ringing even after it had been shut off. Some nursing sisters would hide the clock, hoping the nurse would finally give it up, but she didn’t. When the same nurse married and left for home, she gave the clock as a gift to another nursing sister in our unit, and so the clock had made it into the Santa Elena. I remember as the ship sank, someone called out: “There goes that bloody alarm clock!” In that moment, we found laughter again. And so some things needed to be lost. But the important things were saved. We laughed with relief that we had survived the attack. The feeling remains–each Nov. 6, I speak with a girlfriend, and we remember that day.
The next day they tried to transfer us onto destroyers but the water was too rough. A destroyer that had rescued some of our people went to Africa, and while there they received a few supplies, including toothbrushes and lipstick. Eventually, No. 14 arrived in Naples Harbour, disembarked and proceeded to its destination at Caserta, Italy. While there we were reunited with the nursing sisters who had gone to Africa. Caserta is about 20 miles north of Naples. How we envied the combs, toothbrushes and lipstick that the other nurses had, although they were very good about sharing.
Before our hospital was equipped, I helped at Concello, working in a British hospital for about a month. It was really hot and the mosquitoes were fierce. We worked under nets, but malaria was common among the soldiers. We had to have so many malaria shots that our skin was yellow. The hospital stayed at Caserta for about eight months before it moved to follow the troops up the line. They were at Cassino in battle until then and were brought by ambulance to Caserta.
From August 1944 to March 1945, No. 14 CGH was located north of Rome in Perugia. Our home was an abandoned tobacco factory. While there I was reunited with three friends and I remember visiting a nightclub in Orange Grove with tables outside and a dance floor.
While in Perugia some nurses were needed at the front line in surgical teams. We served under canvas for about two weeks before reinforcements arrived. The fighting nearby was intense. The biggest battles were along the Gothic Line, followed by the Hitler Line. Finally the Germans retreated. Our team was made up of two doctors, two nursing sisters and one orderly–a sergeant. We worked long hours, all of it major surgery. The longest shift was two full days and one night. We stopped for food and coffee, and the work for the nurses also entailed cleaning the surgical theatre, boiling instruments and keeping things sterile amid the dust in between the surgeries.
The stretchers with the wounded were lined up outside the surgical theatre and on several occasions I spoke to the men before they went in. A good many of the boys were 18 or 19 years of age, and I felt they should have been at home with their parents. I would ask them where they were from and try to get to know a little bit about them. Often surgery was done through tears as limbs had to be severed. Sometimes the patient would be in surgery for two hours, only to die. Such a waste of life.
From the operating rooms on the front line the patients were sent to field dressing stations when transportation was available, then to the casualty clearing stations. Finally, when they were stable enough, they would be transferred to a base hospital.
My years in the medical service corps were so worthwhile and so essential. The patients were brave, respectful, grateful and cheerful. Through those years, there was a sense of family between the doctors, nurses, soldiers and officers.
The war years bound our country in a common cause, taking away the lines that divided one province from another. We were Canadians called to serve, and we travelled and experienced the world at a very dangerous time.
Our experiences gave meaning to our lives, because we were a small part of something that was larger than our own life, and there were unique moments. When a cousin of mine was receiving a medal for service at Dieppe, he invited me to come with him and meet King George VI. Members of the Canadian Armed Forces were also invited to the Vatican to have an audience with the Pope. The pope greeted each one of us personally. Although there was much grief and hardship during the war years, there was also a sense that we were not alone. As an army nurse, there were many times that will forever live in my memory.
* * *
No. 14 CGH was disbanded in May 1945. The author, who was known then as Madeline Fraser, returned home to Montreal that same year. She married in 1950 after meeting her future husband on a blind date in Niagara Falls, Ont.