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QAs Journey home from Paiforce Persia and Iraq Force Middle East Second World War
Part 13 of the Second World War Diary of QAIMNS Lieutenant Colonel Hughes where she convalesces after her remarkable career as a Matron and returns to Britain for leave and then takes charge at the Military Hospital at Moretonhampstead, Devon and receives her Royal Red Cross from the King
Read part twelve on the 26th Indian General Hospital page.
Arriving at Baghdad, I again stayed at the YWCA for a few days waiting for further orders. This time I was destined for the United Kingdom. The second part of my journey was by Nian transport across eight hundred miles of desert, taking two full days and nights, and sitting up the whole way. The transport was an ordinary bus - and an Arab one at that - as it was, at this time, the only safe way to travel over this part, stopping for a few minutes at police posts en route for a stretch and cups of tea and coffee. We carried our own rations and chagils (canvas water bags) for drinking water, and though passing through sandstorms and terrific heat we were unable to have a wash.
Arabs selling goods in Ahar Iraq:
Arriving in Damascus, the authorities had booked a room for me at an hotel taken over for the reception of officers, and after having a wash and a good meal I was anxious to explore the town. Even though I felt very tired and did not know how long my stay would be. I did not want to miss anything. It is a wonderful place. The zuks being full of good things, but very expensive. The Damascus silks were very beautiful. During my walk into the town I met two charming young people from London, a man and wife. They had only been here a few months and had started a missionary club for the boys and girls arriving from the UK. They met all the trains, directing the boys to the camp outside the town, the girls they would look after in a large requisitioned house. They invited me to say with them, which I did, as it was much easier to look after and feed my little pal than in a hotel, although everyone was so kind to her and surprised to hear of all she had undergone. The wife supervised the cooking, which was done by native cooks, and the husband organised the club where in the evenings quite a number of our boys would congregate there for games, ending with the usual tea and snacks. I believe this good lady was shot and killed a few weeks later when she was returning from her shopping. This was very sad because they had just started on some good work which was appreciated by all the British troops, both officers and men.
I visited most places with an escort. I was invited to have coffee with one of the sheiks in a magnificent building. Cushions were set on the floor for us to sit on, and the coffee was served black, thick and sweet, but one had to pretend to like it. He was a most interesting man who had travelled widely outside his own country. Before leaving, he made me a gift of a settee he was using. He showed us some of the palace rooms, but it would take too long to describe them here. They were lovely, the walls of mosaic and floors of marble. As he had only just returned from Syria, he told us of some of his adventures, and he followed this up by taking us on a tour of the town and zuks in his own gharry, pointing out the most important mosques and minarets.
I stayed in the town for five days. Leaving Damascus one morning by the eight o'clock train my journey was continued, crossing the Syrian border and arriving at Haifa in Palestine at eleven o'clock the same night. Here I met a QA Sister making her way home. She had been ill and was being sent back to the United Kingdom. She had been told to look out for me - I could be recognised as I was accompanied by a small brown dog. She also had a sealed letter for me and in this the authorities asked me to look after her until we reached the UK, so we were put up at the YWCA in Haifa for the night. After an early breakfast we set off to catch the seven o'clock train for Kantara. We passed through storms and heat, but by now I was well used to these. Changing trains at Kantara, we arrived in Cairo at ten o'clock in the evening, to be met with transport and taken through the noisy, busy town where everybody seemed to be awake in spite of the hour. We crossed the British bridge that spans the river Nile. Here I remained the guest of the Scottish Military Hospital authorities, living in a luxury houseboat on the Nile for four weeks, and having good, well-cooked food. It was built for comfort, having a complete suite of rooms, even a bathroom. This was a treat for me after all I had been through. My servants were Sudanese, a clean and honest race always in great demand by British people out East.
In Cairo I met a few QA Sisters on their way home to the UK. This area was a transit camp where one awaited a troopship leaving for home. It was much too hot to go out between the hours of eleven in the morning and four in the afternoon, so I used to spend a lot of time sitting on deck and watching the native craft and fishermen at work. In the evening pleasure cruisers passed by down the Nile, filled with noisy people and music. They also held dances on houseboats, I took a pleasure cruise for about two miles, stopping for a short time to admire fields of water melons and cantolons, which we were forbidden to eat, the fields being fed with water from the Nile and in places were considered to be contaminated with Egyptian sewage.
The sunset over the river was very beautiful with wonderful colours. Just before sunset thousands of birds flying low, almost touching the water, would make for their island homes. They would fly in perfect formation led by a leader, and the noise they made in passing was like a lot of children let out of school.
The Egyptian coolie is very strong and can lift heavy loads. They work hard for very little money, and though treated almost like slaves, yet they always appeared happy. Another of my pastimes was dropping pieces of biscuit on to the water and watch the fish come up for it: they seemed to know when it was meal times. I paid a visit to Alexandria and Heliopolis, also to the Pyramids, doing some rough travelling for part of the way in a kind of chair fixed on the back of a camel, and it was worse than a switchback, the old camel swearing and grunting. I did not enjoy the trip very much even though it was interesting to see. It was too hot and the flies were troublesome.
I remained on the houseboat for a month so as to have a good rest. The authorities thought I needed a rest, and this I appreciated very much. Then news came through to make our way to Port Said, so we left Cairo by train. There was great excitement on arrival at Port Said and we received rather a shock to find the quay crowded with soldiers being sorted out to travel in the various troopers. It was one of the largest convoys to leave the Middle East. There were over forty ships, our trooper being the fourth in the convoy, a great Dutch liner called the Christina Hussan with a crew of Java cabin boys. The skipper was a Dutchman and a grand fellow, as also were the ship's officers. They made us very comfortable and served excellent food. My little dog Judy was privileged to travel with me, and she was put in the charge of the chief bosun and slept in his bunk at night, but during the day she was with me on the upper deck, this part of the ship being allotted to officers, the troops being on the lower decks. No one knew the reason for such a large convoy, but later on we understood it was carrying reinforcements in preparation for D-Day.
I was very amused to see the faces of some of the very senior officers when I arrived with my dog, all eyes turning on me, and some saying: "If she thinks the dog will be allowed on the trooper she is going to be unlucky." But I had made previous arrangements and had been given special permission some months previously by the authorities responsible in London, and arrangements with the port officials, by Sprats Kennels in London. One general approached me with a gleam in his eyes and stated it was not done, permission having been refused him to be accompanied by his dog. He had made no arrangements and had to leave his dog behind. I felt sorry for the poor dog, so went with him to the port officials to make arrangements for it to be shipped by the next liner that followed the convoy. My Judy was a great favourite with the crew, but they fed her too well. She was an excellent sailor and enjoyed the trip, and she would sit for hours watching the gunners using depth charges during the voyage.
The first port of call was Benghazi, then Canera, picking up more troopers which lay in the bays waiting for escorts, and bringing the total number of ships in the convoy to sixty. Passing Bezeti, Tunis and Malta, it looked like a great Armada. There was trouble with submarines, and enemy planes were chased by our aircraft which seemed to appear suddenly from the clouds. Depth charges got very busy and we had orders to stand by the lifeboat stations complete with lifebelts fixed ready for action. It was a terrible time waiting for the worst to happen. This made the convoy change its course for safety, crawling along past Gibraltar, Algeria, Oran and Tangiers, and along the coast of Spain. The sea was very rough, at times washing over the top deck. The boats were very crowded and most of the men slept on the deck, so very little exercise could be taken. It was interesting to watch the flying fish in the Mediterranean; I believe they are also called Portuguese Man-o'War.
Unfortunately we had a few burials a sea. Our trooper had quite a number of QA Sisters and Auxiliary Territorial Service aboard, they being returned because of illness. This was the first time for me to meet the ATS because where I had been none other than the QA Sisters had been allowed. The same applies to the Voluntary Aid Detachment they, I believe, doing duty somewhere in Egypt but not in a forward line. The result was that I, as senior officer on board, had to prepare a ship's hospital, and my hopes of a peaceful journey were dashed to the ground. We were lucky in that only a few went sick, but some of the Sisters had to be detailed for day and night duty.
After being at sea seven days a sweepstake was organised; we had to guess at what port we would land. This caused great excitement. Orders were sealed until we were well into the Channel. The Scotch and Irish hoped it would be near their ports and the English hoped for Liverpool. Then one morning everything was quiet, the engines had stopped, so we all went up on deck to see what was happening, only to find the convoy anchored outside the river Mersey and waiting for permission to proceed through the booms to Liverpool Docks. The first thing I noticed was the top of the Cathedral, this bringing tears to my eyes, not knowing until now how badly damaged the city was after the blitz. Three military bands waiting on the quay struck up a welcome sound amidst a lot of cheering from the troops. There were no relatives meeting this convoy because only the military authorities knew of its arrival. The quarantine officer came aboard to meet me so that I could hand over my little dog for transport to Spratt's Kennels in Hucks Bridge, near London, for six months. I knew she was going to be happy as they were so kind and understanding. She was put into her special paw and nose proof kennel, this having been made for me by the boys of the Royal Engineers in Shaiba, and I was told it was the best kennel they had ever seen. There was no waiting about, and after she had had a good meal she was put straight on the train. When she looked up into my face she seemed to say: "Well, after all I have done you let me go away". It was very hard to part, but the time passed quickly and they wrote to me frequently to let me know how she was. What a reception she gave me when, looking very fit and happy, she was returned!
My one great wish was that when I returned to the United Kingdom that I should once again feel the rain and cool air. I had my wish, for when I was on the train travelling from Liverpool to my home a fearful storm arose, the worst for years, with thunder and lightning. There was no one to meet me and, leaving my kit at the station, I walked in the rain and enjoyed it. The War Office gave me one hundred and thirteen days leave on full pay, and when the leave expired I was appointed Matron of the Military Hospital at Moretonhampstead, Devon. This was originally a railway hotel, three miles in the country on the Dartmoor Road. It had at one time been a private mansion and was surrounded by woods and a stream full of trout. This was also the headquarters for all the Casualty Clearing Stations in Devon, Somerset and Cornwall, staffed by the Royal Army Medical Corps, Voluntary Aid Detachment and supervised by one trained sister in each station. I was also appointed lecturer and examiner for the RAMC. During my office at Moretonhampstead I had to visit all these places with a view to closing down quite a number. They did not like to see me because they had been having a real good holiday, all the CC Stations being large mansions and near the sea. On my visit to Cornwall I was invited to lunch and tea on St. Michael's Mount by Lady St. Levin. She took me through the great rock where rooms had been cut out as living quarters. It was a very wonderful place. On going I walked over the causeway from Marazion, but when returning the tide was in so I had to be carried over in their small launch.
During my stay at this hospital I received instructions to attend an investiture at Buckingham Palace. This was a great day. His Majesty King George VI pinned on my medal, shook hands and thanked me for the work I had done, hoping I would now take a rest. I thought he was looking very tired. Now the war was ended and there was only the clearing up to do. A niece and nephew came up to London and were present when this honour was given to me. At the time several naval and military officers were being decorated with the Victoria Cross and the Distinguished Service Order and other decorations for services.
These are two letters of the many I value. One was from the Town Mayor of Paiforce (Persia and Iraq Force).
Town Mayor's Office, Perrin and May. August 1943.
Please accept my congratulations on the award of the RRC which I have just seen in the List. I am awfully pleased and it is good to know that your good work has been appreciated. Jolly good show.
Major W.R. Bland RASC, No 6 Petrol Depot, Paiforce. August 11th, 1943.
My dear Matron,
I was delighted to find on reading the recent Special Supplement to General Orders that you have received the RRC. I am writing therefore to express the congratulations of No. 6 Petrol Depot. Not only does this unit consider you have deserved this honour, but all of us are most delighted because of the many kindnesses we have all received at your hands during the time you have been in Andimeshk.
With most sincere congratulations.
There are quite a number of things I would very much have liked to mention, but will end my diary of 1938 to 1945 appreciating all the loyalty and trust given me by Headquarters, and staff that worked for me. British, Indian and Polish.
Annie Hughes RRC SRN
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