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Indian Army Medical Corps
Part 7 of the War Diaries of QAIMNS Matron Major Hughes where she undertakes a secret mission from Basrah and Ahwaz to Teheran in Persia during World War Two to an IAMC tented hospital to care for former Polish Prisoners of War who were forced to work for the Russians in Archangel
Read part six on the 28th British and Indian Combined Hospital Shaiba page.
Rumours began to spread that something was likely to happen concerning the Poles and Russians. The Poles were the prisoners of the Russians. The Germans by this time had arrived on Russian territory, and everyone was more or less wondering if the Germans would break through to the Caucasus. If this were to happen, we would be well surrounded and with a poor chance of escape. Then one evening I received a message warning me I might be wanted for a special mission in the west - probably not for some time, but to hold myself ready. Then in less than twenty-four hours I was on my way, complete with my little pal Judy, to join a convoy leaving Basrah at 5am. Transport arrived for me and my kit at 4am. In Basrah I found hundreds of troops, lorries, ambulances and despatch riders, also a matron and four nursing sisters. We checked on our water supplies and rations. It was all very exciting, especially with not knowing what it was all about. As it was a secret mission, the large convoy started out dead on time to get away before the natives started to move about.
Our first call was at Ahwaz after crossing over eight hundred miles of barren and unoccupied desert in terrific heat and through sandstorms. It was a lonely and dangerous journey. Quite a number of the troops expired en route through heat-stroke, and I wondered if we would make it. Two previous convoys had made this journey with the same results. Our transport for the trip was a canvas-covered ambulance and, arriving at Ahwaz at 6pm almost blind and deaf from sand, mouths and throats full, we could not speak until we had a drink. Feeling tired, dirty and sore with sitting for so long, we called at the military hospital for a wash and a rest. They thought we had dropped from the clouds, they were so surprised to see us! They gave a light meal and, best of all, a good cup of tea. They could not give us a proper meal, the rations being scarce.
Replenishing our water supply and rations from a depot, a train was waiting for us to take us to our destination - Teheran. The railway - a single line - was originally of German construction to carry goods from the Port of Basra to Russia. We had been allowed two very comfortable carriages, with seats that would pull down to make bunk beds. This journey took forty-eight hours and we arrived at Teheran at ten o'clock in the evening. This railway was a wonderful engineering achievement, going through range after range of mountains and gorges which looked in the moonlight like some gigantic fairyland, in parts glowing and smoking witches' cauldrons formed by the continually burning disused oil wells, through mud villages and crossing the one hundred and sixty miles of Lucistan Desert. Valleys and trees were in full bloom. This was March 1942. At ten o'clock on the first morning of the journey the climate began to get much colder and this meant diving into our kitbags for warmer clothing. There was a three-hour holdup on the track, a trainload of natives and cattle in front of us having crashed. There are no railway warnings, and the traveller just had to trust the Persian driver who thinks it is good luck on his part if he arrives at his destination safely. We were fortunate in having our driver under the observation of our guard who took it in turn to travel on the engine. About a mile further on, looking over a high viaduct we could see the remains of an engine and coaches lying smashed.
Arriving in Teheran it was bitterly cold with snow on the ground and we felt the change after coming from the heat of the desert. Strangers in a new land, with another language to get used to, we were feeling tired and our rations had finished. The people of the city resented us - they were unfriendly, scornful and looked on us with suspicion. They had no idea at this time what was going on or how near they were to being in danger. We were the first military nursing sisters they had seen. We did not know where to go, no instructions having been issued other than to make our way to Teheran. Having arrived unexpectedly, there was no one to meet us. By this time it was nearly midnight, so we sought accommodation for the night at one of the hotels, but they would not take us in. Eventually a patrol despatch rider came on the scene and he received rather a shock to see us. This part of Persia was officially out of bounds to the British, though many had tried to spend their leave here. They called it the Paris of the East. It is a gay, rowdy place with its night clubs, drinking palaces and gambling dens, and only seems to awaken at night. The despatch rider went six miles out of Teheran to inform an Indian Colonel of our predicament. He had been waiting with a Casualty Clearing Station unit in this area for six weeks. They were getting tired of doing nothing and it did not take him long to get troops and transport to us. The Colonel was very surprised and thrilled to see us, and he turned out to be a Pukka Sahib. The officers and personnel of this Indian Army Medical Corps unit were all Indian.
The Germans were at this time shelling Stalingrad and the unit realised that a hospital was about to be formed, but the officers were very worried and kept reiterating they were not equipped for a large scale hospital, also that the unit was in tents on the plain under the Caucasus. Colonel Tandon soon realised that the British sisters were tough and used to active service conditions, so after pleading with him he gave in, and all except the matron and one sister, for whom he found hotel accommodation, proceeded on our journey. He issued orders for sleeping tents to be put up at once though we said we would manage until the morning. The officers got a meal of coffee and sandwiches for us and invited us to share their breakfast in the morning: it was a real Indian breakfast. When our tents had been pitched by a fatigue party, down went our camp beds and we lay down fully dressed as it was too cold to sleep and we had no lights. How glad I was to see daylight breaking! During the night there had been a sandstorm, and in the morning we found there was no water for us to wash with. The surrounding mountains were covered with snow.
The place selected for the tented hospital was called Dosham Tapu, a really salty plain lying under the shadow of the Caucasus. For several days we had to exist on Indian rations with only the tough flat cake called chapatti, these being freshly made each day by the Indian cooks. After breakfast we go busy, I asked the Colonel for more tents to be put up, some old oil tins and charcoal for lighting fires to warm us up, and a cook and servants to look after us. Here the quarter-master came to the rescue and found us bearers from the IAMC unit. By the evening of that day we had got ourselves dug in, even our rations, but as they were all in tins they would do until someone was able to get to the shops. The Indian officers could not get over the way we worked so hard, and said they had seen nothing like it, but they were to know us better in a few days!
The reason why we had been sent "up the line" was that the Russians had decided they could not support the Poles taken prisoner by them in the autumn of 1939, so, by arrangement, the British Government undertook to look after the Poles who numbered somewhere in the region of 120,000. In the spring of 1942 the Germans had advanced well into Russian territory. The prisoners - men, women and children of all ages - had been working as prisoners of war in the north of Archangel, in the west, in parts of Siberia and in most of the intermediate countries. Some, in scattered parties, had worked in mines and forests, also making roads, and some were from concentration camps. These Polish prisoners received rations in varying quantities according to the work they did. Some had been practically starved, and many beaten if they could not do the work and resulted in either no food or half a slice of black bread. Their drinking water had been obtained from polluted streams or ditches, hence the diseases that hundreds were dying from daily.
The hospital prepared for five hundred patients and we were told they would not arrive for some time. News leaked out that they would be transported to the shores of the Caspian Sea and shipped over at their own responsibility by the Russians to Pahlevi, a Persia port on the south-western shores of the Caspian Sea. At this point the British Government would take over. One big difficulty that our people had to contend with was that although the Russians were most anxious for us to take over the prisoners, they would not tell us how many to expect at a time, when they were likely to arrive, or what condition they were in. Owing to the bad weather it was considered fairly certain that we could not expect them before April 1942. The mountain roads in northern Persian are almost unpassable until late March. Thinking this would give us plenty of time, and with the help of the unit, we started unpacking equipment and putting up beds, preparing necessary drinks, nourishments and rations. All this had to be done by the Indian personnel and though it was new to them they soon got to understand what was wanted. They worked night and day; so did we. By this time a mobile bath unit of the Royal Army Medical Corps had arrived complete with officers and men, also a disinfector - not knowing what to expect, it was better to play safe.
Matron Hughes war journal continues on the Russian and Polish Prisoner of War Refugees WWII 34th British Commonwealth General Hospital page.
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