Jack in Tobruk hospital with jaundice

Jack was selected especially and sent to organise Tobruk logistics and supplies. He immediately fell ill with jaundice (?hepatitis) and was moved out to hospital. When he recovered the job he had gone to fill had been passed to someone else, so he was sent to Baghdad and then Tehran. When Tobruk finally fell we were told that this had saved his life as so many people were killed then.

Jack wrote:
“27/9/41   I am to be moved immediately to Tobruk. (followed by delays)

6/1/42   9th General Hospital.   Now at last I can write to you all about my week’s series of accidents. I wrote last from Cairo, which I hope Randolph took back to you, bringing you up to date so far. I went round to HQ to see various people and felt distinctly shivery, and thought I was starting a cold. I had to start by air, leaving the Hotel at 5.30 am.

I knew I was ill, but there had been such flap trying to get me a seat on the aeroplane and it as all so urgent and all that, that I thought it better to take aspirin and carry on. The aeroplane was four hours late — I felt like hell all the way — and went straight to bed as soon as I’d met my new colonel, who seemed alright and at least had the sense to see I was ill. That afternoon we drove over to Tobruk, where I went straight to bed again.

Next morning a doctor, who suspected jaundice. Next hospital, and next evacuation by hospital ship. Two days on board, one day (yesterday) on the train, and here we are. The Tobruk hospital was incredible. I’m sure they find it very difficult to get supplies and everything is sunk and all that, but nothing but deliberate sadism could excuse its squalor. It’s in an old but not badly bombed Italian hospital, with all doors and windows blown in. This has completely beaten them. They got as far as nailing a blanket over a door, but to nail two and put weights on their bottom was too much for them.

See http://ww2today.com/5th-august-1941-a-stay-in-the-infamous-bombed-tobruk-hospital
http://www.70squadron.roselake.co.uk/billparr.htm – photographs of Tobruk in early 1942

The day I arrived I was put into ward 9, a long room with about four doors and windows on each side, and everywhere blankets blowing horizontally into the room, and gaunt cowering figures trying to bore thro’ their pillowless beds to escape the pitiless draught. The medical inspection was pretty funny. Two doors were in a straight line either side of the room, (horizontal blankets of course). You wouldn’t credit it, but they placed the examination bed between the two and on it sat waiting patients. The food was minimal, not that I minded, the rain poured on to the bed next to mine, and it took actual physical threats to produce a cup of hot water to shave in.

hospital ship WWII after Tobruk hospital for diagnosis
Ward in a hospital ship in WWII

All thro’ sheer hopeless incompetence, — no ill will at all. In fairness, their job is not to treat, but to diagnose and evacuate. But all the same it was a bit over the odds. Evacuation was held up by an air-raid, and it wasn’t till 10 pm that we finally dressed and went down in an open ambulance to the docks. Here it was pouring with rain and blowing hard, and we had to get into open boats and be towed out to the hospital ship. By this time I was past caring, but when we finally got aboard we were treated to everything in the world. The ship was a real paradise, exquisitely run with charming people running her. Now I have a comfortable room to myself and am quite content to be apathetic and get well in my own time. I don’t feel well but not ill either.

Jack recovered and, in the absence of a job in Tobruk, was sent to Baghdad. He stayed there some time, not particularly enjoying the work or the people, but finally struck gold when he was transferred to Tehran for special liaison with the Russians. Although the Russians were our allies, most English and Americans feared them as much, if not more, than the Germans. Jack was a declared socialist, and had very nearly joined the Communist Party and fought in Spain. He had strong positive feelings for the Russians and got on well with them, which made him successful in this new job. My ex-husband was lunching recently with a well-known historian who specialises in this period and subject. At one point in the conversation the historian remarked reflectively that relations with the Russians in the war had been bad everywhere except in one place – Tehran – and nobody knew why things were so much better there.

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A Woman's War