Haslar Heritage Group

Helen Vasto VAD

‘…there was something about to happen and then the casualties started to arrive’

Having recently returned after 2 and a half years in the Middle East where we had been nursing behind the lines of the Battle of El Alamein in Egypt we were sitting on the sea wall knitting long operation stockings, and sewing bedpan covers, face masks, flannels and many-tailed bandages. No shore leave had been allowed in the buildup to D-Day Haslar was a military zone.

The hospital had been turned into a casualty clearing station, all routine surgery was suspended. Pharmacists called up and trained as sick-berth attendants and instructed in basic nursing techniques and stokers detailed off to become stretcher bearers.

The next day a young nurse on duty on Zymotics (infectious diseases) looked out to sea and was suddenly aware that an unbelievable build-up of ships of all kinds had assembled. A patient walking to the heads (lavatory) passed by the window, he glanced out and moved away quickly, returned to his bed and said nothing. This occurred on D-Day minus one. The next day, every ship had gone and the grey sea was empty.


The first casualties arrived very late on the 6th June 1944 D-Day and Haslar was called to ‘action stations’ and was ready. Army, Navy, Royal Marines, American Army units and a few Germans.
Each grey-faced man was labelled with his diagnosis, treatment and details of drugs administered and the time given. Bloody field dressings around the heads of weary casualties indicated the area of injury. Many were still suffering from sea-sickness and all were exhausted and sand covered. Had no hospital ship been available they were transferred on tank or troop landing craft.

In our 2 underground operating theatres, there were 3 operating tables in each theatre, allowing 6 operations to take place simultaneously. Being below ground there was no problems regarding darken ship, but air raids were liable to bring the lifts to a halt between floors, and emergency lighting was essential. In the early days of D-Day before field hospitals wer in place wounds were first exposed when scissors cut through sandy uniforms stiff with caked blood and mud and razors cut away heavy bots to reveal the damage within for the first time.

Time was saved by laying instruments along a trestle table and staff helped themselves. The stench of gas, gangrene and burns trapped in the steamy atmosphere below ground was grim. So was the grittiness of sand from the Normandy beaches.

In an anaesthetic room a wounded German nearly throttled one of us. A petty officer who just happened to pass the door rushed in and prized the German’s fingers of her throat in the nick of time. The Germans, like some we treated in Egypt had been told that we would operate without anaesthetic before we operated. Unfortunately we dd not have the time to try and re-assure them, nor did any of us know more than a halting word in German.

One seaman arrived with the ship’s cat accompanying him on the stretcher and looked up at us. ‘He never set a paw on the beach – honest’ he assured us ‘So he don’t need no quarantine’. Time was found to treat both patients the moggie had a whiff of gas his fracture set and wound stitched and leg plastered and both were never seen again.

The injured were lucky to be able to benefit from penicillin kept stored in iceboxes in the galley as there were no refrigerators.  Those who had trodden on mines were given anti- tetanus injections and anti-gas gangrene serum. One sister on the wards was solely employed giving injections and monitoring many transfusions.

One special tool in use was a large electro-magnet in order to speed up locating fragments of metal, invisible but close to the skins surface and a lot quicker than x-ray. Every particle found on each patient was wrapped in a gauze swab and tied to the patient’s wrist.

A Hayes –Grove revolving bed for spinal injuries had allowed us to turn our patients upside down in a mattress casing. Some chose to remain that way up for long periods to relieve  pressure on wounds. The patient drank through a long tube down to glass on the floor, even smoked the odd cigarette, all knew but turned an eye.

During a busy operating session a Wren her condition barely hidden under her tight navy-blue skirt, was rushed in to us in labour. The theatre had been busy, was sandy and amputated limbs outside the theatre door awaited collection for disposal for incineration, in the midst of this a baby was born.

In the meantime a number of angelic patients showed their appreciation of us caring for them by darning our stockings and also mending rubber gloves with patches. They rolled bandages, rolled cotton balls and folded gauze dressings, which were sent to be autoclaved.

Note: Helen Long worked as an interpreter for General de Gaulle in 1940 before becoming a VAD for 6 years. After the war she became a freelance journalist and wrote the book ‘Change into Uniform’ telling of her time spent as a VAD. Extracts are taken from the Nursing Mirror 1994 and an article quoting Helen Long and written to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of D-Day.


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