An Operating Theatre Medic in Port Said
I was a twenty-two year old, married, corporal in the R.A.M.C serving my National Service working as an operating theatre technician at Catterick Military Hospital, Yorkshire, and my wife and I were expecting our first child on November 18. Life was good, my posting was reasonably near home, and I enjoyed working in the operating theatre. Sometime during September 1956, I was sent down to Mytchett, in Surrey, to take part in training exercises.
Get a Grip of Them
While I was there, the on/off political situation over the Suez Canal was brewing. R.A.M.C reservists were being called up to join us, which was very funny at the time, as some had long hair and objected to army discipline again. Because I was an NCO, I had to march them to and from different areas, which was not my scene at all, (as I acquired my stripes by obtaining my qualifications for my job in the operating theatre, and not by ordering personnel about) especially when marching past RSM's who were shouting at me to get a grip of them, as the reservists were slurring their feet and going out of step intentionally.
The Suez Situation
My good friend, Geordie Edmundson, a native of County Durham, (hence the nickname Geordie) and I were given a 48hr weekend pass to return home, and thereafter, because there was no immediate concern over the Suez situation, we could return to our unit at Catterick Military Hospital. On the Sunday I said goodbye to my wife and returned to Catterick. Monday was a normal days work in the theatre with several operations etc. at 24:00hrs that night, what happened next was to change my life.
Corporal Get Your Kit Together
I was about to get into bed when the orderly sergeant burst in and said, "Corporal, get your kit together, you have to be on a train to London at 03:00 hrs". I was joined by the rest of the theatre team comprising: a surgeon, Major Cowen; anaesthetist, Captain Thompson (I think his name was); a sergeant, Les Runeckles; Geordie and another private, (can't remember his name). We were bound for the depot at Mytchett, because some of our kit was in store there. As there was no time to organize us in f.s.m.o. (full service marching order), Geordie, I, and the third guy quickly grabbed as much as we could carry, I tied the laces of my second pair of boots together and hung them round my neck. We were in complete disarray. We then jumped into an armoured vehicle and were whisked to Lyneham airport, where we were then taken to a shed, which had an earth floor, where we were to spend the next few hours. We had a meal and then tried to catch up on some sleep, lying on the earth floor, until we boarded a prop plane to an undisclosed destination, which turned out to be Malta. The flight was a slow nightmare, and almost every one was sick, due to the turbulence. I fell asleep and somehow awoke with a badly sprained ankle. "Just my luck", I thought! The main concern for me was the fact that I was not allowed to inform my pregnant wife or anyone else of the situation before leaving, as every thing was top secret.
On the Way to Malta
Transport was awaiting us at Malta Airport to take us to the docks, so we collected our kit from the plane hold, boarded the army lorry that stopped at the side of a huge ship, which was the aircraft carrier HMS Theseus. With boots hung around my neck, holding various pieces of kit, and limping from a sprained ankle, I hobbled up the steep gangplank and was surprised to hear voices shouting, "Come on Tex, where the hell have you been"? These were personnel from Mytchett, who I was surprised to see were already on board and were looking down on us.
Life on Aircraft Carrier Theseus
As we boarded the ship in Valetta's Grand Harbour, we were surprised to see that 45 Commando were on board, as were other personnel. They must have thought that we were a real mess when we were walking up the gangplank, as they had also been looking down on us. So our life on HMS Theseus began, none of us knowing what lay ahead.
I was issued with a 'Welcome to Theseus' muster card, (which I still have). It stated: Mealtimes; breakfast 08:00, dinner 13:00, supper 19:30, and a cup of tea available from 15:30 to 16:30. Table number 41.
A stroke of luck that night enabled me to leave the ship and ask a Maltese man, who had a small boat, to take Geordie and I across the Grand Harbour to the NAAFI, where I bought a letter card to send to my wife. I wasn't allowed to disclose the destination, but told her it would soon become apparent.
Malta was heaving with all three military services. The gut was the place for all to be, as all the night clubs, bars, etc., were down this street, with military police posted at both ends. We ventured down together. As this was our first experience of nightlife in a foreign country, it certainly was an eye opener for us! We witnessed drunks, fights, and prostitutes. One lady of the night was trying to help herself to a very drunk soldier quite near to us - what a wild night!
Next morning the carriers, Ocean and Theseus, slipped slowly out of the harbour, and all the personnel were lined up around the perimeter of the ships as they left Valleta for the open sea, where we discovered that our destination was Suez.
The Theseus was zigzagging across the ocean on its journey to Port Said, a tactic used by the navy, I was informed, because we were being shadowed by an unidentified submarines. As I learned some 40 years later, from the book 'Suez: The Seven Day War', written by A. J. Baker, the submarine was an American one, which popped up hoisting the US flag. The story was that the main assault force had also a brief interchange with the Americans that might have been more serious. The presence of a submarine was detected by one of the destroyer escorts, which promptly moved to attack. As it did so, the submarine surfaced and hastily hoisted a large United States flag before sailing on the surface down the convoy. Its presence was queried by the headquarter ship, HMS Meon, which signalled, "Why don't you come and join us"? To which the reply came, "No thanks, we're holding your coat this time"
The Helicopter Hanger
Life on board Theseus was an interesting experience. My sleeping quarters were in part of the helicopter hanger, which was later to be filled with the returning casualties, while during daylight hours the 45 Commando were busy target practicing into the sea, cleaning and maintaining their weapons and kit with very strict discipline involved at all times. Finding our way around at night was rather hazardous. Once outside the hanger we were in complete darkness, as no smoking was allowed because of the blackout. There had to be no visible light whatsoever, therefore avoiding cables and various equipment on the side of the aircraft carrier en-route to the ablutions was dangerous to say the least, as the carrier was heaving and rolling in the rough sea. Fortunately I wasn't seasick, as some were.
Our eating arrangements were in the same area as the Commandos and we alternated with them for each meal. One morning I was asked to report to the Commando sergeant, who gave me a rollicking because, one of my men had left a small spot of jam on the stainless steel table. This should have been left for them as they left it for us, always immaculately clean, as also were the floor and seats. Big apologies from me, "It won't happen again".
Everyone was speculating and discussing what the outcome would be, and wondering if it would be the start of the Third World War. You could sense the tension and concern of the personnel in the air, not knowing if they would return. It was a very frightening experience, especially as we were all so young. Theseus came to a halt during darkness, and all we could see were planes coming in low. The skies were lit up with fires burning, smoke everywhere, and guns firing. The smell in the air was like plot night back home, which was strange as it was November 5.
Next day, November 6, at dawn I went up on deck to take a look around and was absolutely amazed to see the huge number of ships of different types as far as the eye could see.
Port Said to be Shelled in Five Minutes
An announcement came over the tannoy that Port Said would be shelled within five minutes time and would continue for forty-five minutes. Big guns opened up from further out to sea and we could feel the vibration from the sea throughout the ship. After approximately ten minutes, a further announcement stated that the shelling would have to cease, as shells were bouncing on to the French who were round at Port Fouad.
RMC Prepare for Airborne
After the shelling ceased, the command was given for the Commandos to prepare for an airborne assault by helicopter. The tannoy was continually repeating messages stating, "Strictly no naked lights handling av gas, av gas, av gas, no naked lights" (aviation fuel).
The massive elevator was bringing helicopters up onto the deck from the hangers below, each one being fuelled and readied for the assault, the Commandos climbed aboard and with a deafening roar, one after another, they took off.
Within twenty minutes of them leaving, the helicopters were returning with casualties, and an order was given that we were needed below. This was the point where I witnessed my first real life war wounds. The first patient was one who had lost a lower leg; he was covered in sand so I did not know what nationality he was, but I think he was French as his language was different to ours. As he lay on the hangar bunk with forceps hanging from his arteries, he motioned that he would like a cigarette, which someone kindly gave him. As time went by there were so many casualties, that our sleeping quarters had to be used as a hospital ward. Some of them had terrible injuries, and after some time treating them it was alarming to discover our dressings were running in short supply. We wondered how this could be in a war situation, so consequently we had to remove dressings from some minor wounds, sterilise and use again, applying them wet.
In the Cover of Darkness
Later that day of the 6th November, in the cover of darkness, we scrambled down the side of Theseus, descending precariously down some kind of webbing ladder into a landing craft, which had pulled alongside. There were about thirty medics on the craft and an order was shouted, "Keep your heads down and wait for the next order". We were all silent as the craft pulled away heaving up and down, rocking from side to side, the front end blocking our vision as to where we were heading, and each one of us with his own private thoughts. I vividly remember the red glow in the sky, maybe from an oil terminal, the noise of aircraft, helicopters flying to and from ship to shore, and the rat-a-tat-tat of gunfire. The choking, foul smell of smoke was all around us. Next there was this grating sound underneath the front end of the LCA, the front was lowered, and the immediate thought was, is this going to be like the Second World War landings where you were likely to get shot on the beach? We were ordered to run up the beach to the road, cross the road, and go into the building opposite. With heads down, crouching low, struggling with our kit, stomachs churning, and hearts pounding, we made our way as quickly as we could over the soft sand. As we were running Geordie said very bravely, "I'll stick with you Tex". I replied, "Don't rely on me, I'm bloody scared too"!
Casino Palace Hotel
The partly destroyed building across the road was the Casino Palace Hotel. We entered very cautiously following orders by someone we couldn't see, who had a torch, as there were no lights because there was no power on in Port Said. I remember ascending a very wide, wooden staircase to a long corridor, with very wide wooden floorboards, which were covered in broken glass and debris and rooms were on either side of the corridor. The next order was, "Put your kit down where you are and put your head on it and try and sleep until daylight". During the night I was awakened by a door opening behind me and a figure appeared in a long white gown. I thought," Am I dreaming or seeing a ghost"? Then a female voice said, "I want to go to the bathroom". I then realised that civilians caught up in the war occupied the rooms. Next morning further investigations revealed dead people in some of the rooms, and the beds had been urinated on to prevent us using them
The night seemed endless, sleep was virtually impossible, the broken glass on the floor offered little comfort, and intermittent gunfire echoed all around us for most of the night. When morning finally arrived, I took a look outside. To my horror I saw several dead Egyptian soldiers scattered about in various positions. They had been fully armed and each wore a flat bag, which contained what appeared to be a large oatmeal cake.
Hanging Bulbs and Coffee Boiler
Our first job that morning was to find somewhere where we could operate on the wounded. The bar area was quickly adapted to an operating theatre, although the conditions were very bad. The windows were broken and covered in muslin. We were short of water, light, and medical supplies, so we improvised the best way that we could. Our power amounted to some bulbs hanging from two pieces of crossed wood, suspended from the ceiling, powered by a generator. The tea and coffee boiler on the bar top was very useful as this was used to sterilise the instruments. The water had been brought ashore in jerry cans and was very limited. Under those conditions we operated day and night treating both Egyptians, including women and children, as well as our own casualties - nationality did not matter and casualties were treated in order of condition, all on an equal basis. The surgeon (Major Cowen) was brilliant, whatever the casualty he handled it quickly and efficiently. Sergeant Runeckles and myself alternated between sterilising the instruments and assisting the surgeon. The large photograph taken by a war correspondent illustrates the set up. I am on the left. Note: no proper masks or headgear, as we had to improvise with muslin round our faces, due again to the lack of proper supplies.
Agony and Pain
All the wounded were in a big room to the left hand side of the bar, while most were laying on the floor, some were on stretchers waiting to be attended to, and the dead were taken outside into the large garden to await burial. I remember seeing about four dead Commandos on stretchers with their green berets placed over their faces in a separate corner of the garden. I don't know where they were taken, but they were certainly not buried by us. Their bodies would probably be taken home at some point.
A large deep trench had been dug out of the lawn and a few bodies had been placed into it. The most traumatic part of my service in Port Said was carrying a beautiful young woman, on a stretcher, outside to be buried. As we could not walk into the trench, we had to roll bodies off sideways, and the sight and sound of bodies hitting each other brought tears to our eyes. It is a memory that has stayed with me ever since.
A small flat back, red and white Coca-Cola wagon backed up to the trench with several rigor mortised bodies. One body, whose hand was missing, had a nice gold watch on the forearm. A person nearby said, "I am having that watch". I quickly intervened telling him all removable jewellery had to go in a special box for the deceased effects.
Towards the end of my stay at the Casino Palace one of the reservists said, "Hey Tex, I have just been across the road to the water bowser", which was parked across the road, "and some bugger took two pots shots at me from the direction of the Casino Palace". On investigation an Egyptian sniper was discovered and brought out of the cellars and disarmed. He looked relieved to be out of it as he seemed to be tired and hungry, and he must have been in there for a few days.
Lt. Anthony Moorhouse
At my time in Suez, there was a Lt. Anthony Moorhouse, whom we understood was involved in a situation that went wrong. Apparently due to his own ego, he was kidnapped and at a later date found dead. There was much speculation at the time about how this could have happened, and it was of special interest to me as his family at that time lived in the next village to me, which was only five minutes away from my home. Although I did not know him or his family personally at the time, we never found out the true story.
Along the Coast Towards El Gamil
After a few days we moved to set up hospital in a beautiful, big building with marble floors at ground level, which were immaculately cleaned by these tall men wearing long robes tucked between their legs, squatting down with a large cleaning cloth. On asking what nationality they were, I was told that they were Sudanese. This building, 2ccs (casualty clearing station), was further along the coast road towards El Gamil Airfield. The building backed on to the beach where there was much spare land at either side, and a high wall surrounded it. It had a large, sandy area between the building and the perimeter walls. The area was big enough to accommodate latrines, which were simply large holes in the sand with a plank across, and we sat there side by side. If you were not careful you were in the shit! On one side of the building the Catering Corps set up a small kitchen and dining area under canvas. This was good as we were provided with hot food, but the only problem was that you had to eat it before the flies did.
A large room containing a stainless steel sink was the ideal place to make an operating theatre, but we needed an operating table and a washing machine for the laundry. We visited a small local hospital nearby, which was partly demolished, but the operating table was in good condition, so we took it with us. Sergeant Runeckles and I were given permission, with an armed escort, (to prevent looting) to enter any unoccupied house to find a good washing machine, which we quickly found in the second house we entered. We then had a good set up to carry out the many operations. Casualties of one form or another came in every day, and one of the main casualties, I remember, was a high ranking officer, (can't remember his rank or name) who had been sprayed with bullets from an automatic weapon, from his lower legs to the upper part of his body. Amputated limbs were taken outside to be buried deep in the sand within the perimeter walls, and as flies were a menace, this had to be done pretty quickly. We worked in this manner up until the time we left.
Unfortunately, due to our location, which was some way away from Port Said centre, we didn't get the chance to visit cinemas or shops or meet any of the local people. We stayed in the grounds mostly, but towards the end of our stay we were able to take a dip in the sea, which was very nice. I remember the time when two reservists were wheeling and dealing through the bars of one of the locked iron gates of the perimeter wall. We had a surplus supply of green army blankets and these were passed out through the gates in exchange for English money. The blankets were in demand with the Egyptian locals and this was a good racket for the two guys, until there was an attempted stabbing of them by one of the locals. I'm not sure of the details and how this came about, but it certainly stopped the illegal trading! One day some of our guys on the roof of our building were throwing sweets down onto the road for the local children, when a donkey and cart passed by with some sacks of corn/wheat which were spilling on to the road, and the children began to scoop up the corn/wheat where it had fallen amongst the donkey dung, when a passing Egyptian policeman, on foot, pushed them away with his rifle butt very roughly - these kids must have been starving to do that.
The 22 November
A nice surprise for me was to receive an army telegram, to say that my son had been born on the 22 November. I celebrated with two mates, and we had some chocolate, hard tack biscuits and a bottle of beer each, which we had saved - one happy day.
The Evacuation and Christmas
We worked and lived there until we left Port Said on the troopship Dunera on the 22 December, but before departure we witnessed that the French had looted cars, motorcycles, bicycles, and everything that they could. They were loading them on to their ships, which they were allowed to do, as opposed to us, as from the beginning we were instructed to behave properly and nothing had to be looted. Witnessing a beautiful, new, undamaged Citroen and a Mercedes being hoisted on to the deck of a French ship, made me think that I would like a car like that back home in the UK, at the same time thinking if it were mine I would not want some foreign person stealing my car. Christmas and New Year were spent on the Dunera with parts of the West Yorkshire and Royal Scots Regiments. Needless to say, the Yorkies celebrated Christmas and the Scots celebrated New Year. This resulted in our New Year and Christmas being occupied stitching scalp wounds and other minor injuries caused by bottles and fists.
Get Your Uniform Cleaned Up Corporal
On arriving in Southampton, all our kit was checked for arms and ammunition due to the fact that some personnel had picked up various small arms. These were naturally confiscated and we were then transported to Mytchett Barracks for things to be sorted out and for us to return to our respective units, in my case Catterick Military Hospital. Before leaving Mytchett everyone attended a parade and were inspected by base personnel who hadn't left the base at all. One Sergeant said to me, "You are in shit order, you are a mess, get your uniform cleaned up Corporal". What this idiot didn't realise was the fact that the uniform I had on, I had worn continually for most of the time in Suez, consequently it was bloodstained and not up to army standards. Due to the lack of operating theatre clothes, the team and myself had to partly wear our uniforms. Back at Catterick life carried on as before and I stayed there until the end of my service.
After all these years have passed, I was only 22 at the time and my wife had our son, Christopher John, on the 22 November while I was still out there, so I can never forget where I was.
Jack (Tex) Halliday