Through the blood and thunder of the Normandy landings, nursing officer Harriet Fisher, in boots, leggings and helmet fought to save the lives of countless wounded men.
At 83, she now lives a quieter, but active life in Canterbury, where she has been for 43 years, working as a district nurse and midwife, and supporting many voluntary organisations.
Harriet was called up for action in September, 1939, at home in Scotland, where she was a member of the Dundee Territorial Army.
In the following months, she was installed on a huge floating hospital, which was to voyage through treacherous waters to visit war zones all over the world.
The three ships sailed first to India, then to Africa, and were constantly in danger of attack.
Despite the danger, Harriet has happy memories of that time. On board ship was a young soldier just back from Singapore, called Bill Fisher, who she was to marry a few years later.
“Anything could have happened to us – ships were being torpedoed all the time, but we didn’t have time to think of the dangers. I was very happy,” said Harriet.
After a stop in India, they set up a hospital in Cairo and nursed convoys of soldiers who had been fighting in the desert.
Although she saw some horrific injuries, Harriet remembers the characters she met and the jokes she shared with the soldiers.
“When they saw me coming up the ward, they used to say to each other, ‘Lie down Jock, the battleaxe is coming!’ and as they got better, they used to help me do the tea in the mornings.”
In 1944, with invasion preparations intensifying in Britain, Harriett was anxious to get on the front line. “We didn’t want to miss that.”
She remembers landing on the Normandy beaches and all the excitement and noise, but, armed with her nurses’ instruments in dangerous territory, her first thought was to help the wounded.
A casualty clearing station was set up in nearby Bayeux, and injured soldiers flooded in.
“I will never forget the bombing while we were there. At night, I used to lie on my tummy and watch the gunfire lighting up the sky,” she recalls.
She has been awarded several medals for bravery. The sense of discipline she learned on the front lines and her staunch love of the nursing profession have stayed with her.
After her marriage to Bill Fisher, the soldier she met at sea, she came to Canterbury and worked as a district nurse and midwife. She is now the vice president of the East Kent Normandy Veterans and is always busily engaged in voluntary work.”
There are some slight inaccuracies in this report. Harriet did not receive medals for bravery, but was ‘Mentioned in Dispatches’ twice for her service in North West Europe and the Normandy landings6,7.
Harriett also gave talks on her experiences in the Second World War and her family have some of her notes made for these. What follows is the first 12 pages from her notebook8:
I was called up in September 1939 & mobilised at Cruden Bay Hotel, Aberdeenshire, a beautiful golf course in a lovely setting. I left Aberdeen by train for Liverpool, on 22nd July, 1940. We then left Liverpool on the Aquitania on the 24th July 1940. Also with us was the Mauritania. We were escorted by two cruisers & three destroyers. We picked up the Queen Mary on the North West coast of Ireland. Altogether we were three large General Hospitals – the 15th (Scottish) General Hospital, the 23rd (Scottish) Peebles General Hospital, and the 19th General Hospital (Ormskirk).
It was a lovely morning when we set sail for an ‘unknown destination’. On the way out we danced, played deck quoits, chess, bridge, whist drives, had concerts & parties. The cabins were wonderful, 1st class & in ours there were three beds, WC & a bathroom (three nursing sisters). We had a wonderful shop where one could buy sweets, cigarettes, cosmetics etc. & there was also a hairdressers salon & we had our special stewards who did us well.
The Dining Saloon was exquisite, small tables which we had to keep too, all the way across, dressing for dinner etc. according to the climate. Meals were served at regular hours & the same stewards at every meal & they really were exceptionally nice. We went to church every Sunday a.m. having three padres, Church of Scotland, Church of England & Roman Catholic. We also had evening services, comunity singing & communion. Of course, in the evening on the ship, we had complete blackout, and one of the stewards, his duty was to go around all of the cabins, shut up all the windows & port holes & then they were opened again in the morning, same procedure. All the doors leading to, & out on to the deck, were covered inside by large black heavy curtains, as blackout was absolutely necessary & we were always having lectures to this effect, even the cigarettes were not allowed by anyone on the deck after blackout time. Two or three times every day we had boat drill, all at our special boat stations.
We danced nearly every night & as we were an all Scottish unit we danced every Scotch dance possible, Eightsome Reels, Quadrilles, Two-steps, Strip the Willow, Brown’s Reel, Waltzes, Flowers of Edinburgh, Dashing White Sergeant, The Gay Gordons, Highland Scottish etc. & even crossing the equator we danced Eightsome Reels with all the usual formalities. We used to get up every a.m. very early & walk around the deck six r seven times before breakfast. The meals were really wonderful, & of course, there were many fish courses & the bar as usual. Several of the Sisters were very sick for a few days, but it never affected me one bit.
We even played tug-of-war, Sisters & officers, & mixed teams etc. There was every possible regiment Royal Engineers, Royal Artillery, Tank Corps, Guardsman, Pay Corps, RAF, RASC, RAOC, RAMC, Hussars, Military Police, SIB & Intelligence etc.
The 1st port of call was Freetown on the East coast of Africa, a very nasty climate indeed, a highly malaria area. We stayed here only one night, but never were allowed ashore. We sailed from Freetown to Cape Town, as the ships being too big, we went on to the Naval art of Simonstown. We anchored & were taken ashore in small boats, having to climb down the rope ladders, which was really great fun. We stayed here for six nights, being allowed ashore every day. We had a wonderful reception & a really lovely time. One feature was the ‘darkies’ who used to jump in & out of th water from their little punts to find the English money we threw in from deck of our ship. We visited all the places of interest possible, at our disposal, the Table Mountain, hospitals etc. & enjoyed trips all around.
We sailed from Simonstown to Columbo, the capital of Ceylon. We stayed here for 4 days & from there transhipped, sailing to Bombay on a ship called the Talamba, an Indian boat, having curry & rice nearly every day & served by the Indians. We went ashore at Bombay, where we stayed for 6 days in the Empress Hotel, & I was lucky a nurse friend of mine awaited us & took us to visit her hospital. We did all the sight seeing possible, visiting places of interest & had trips all around on the rickshaws pulled by the natives, also visiting a Regular Army hospital. Our troops were stationed at the stadium, where they had a well-earned rest & further training. When we left Bombay there were 13 ships in our convoy, when we sailed on to the Suez Canal through the Red Sea, & the heat was absolutely terrific.
We eventually arrived in the city of Cairo where we started up the 15th (Scottish) General Hospital. It was a beautiful hospital belonging to the Egyptians, situated across the road from the banks of the Nile. The Sisters’ Mess being 3 magnificent houseboats on the Nile, & living accommodation too, Anglo-American houseboats. Each Sister had a single cabin with all conveniences, on one side, the Nile & on the other side the tram cars & traffic etc., & our hospital just across the road. We had a super dining room downstairs, sitting room & lounge upstairs. The waiters were all Sudanese & spoke English very little. They used to dress up elaborately for serving of meals. The food was really wonderful, & we had fresh fruit served every day such as:- bananas, figs, dates, grapes, mangoes. oranges, water melon, sugar melon, & many more foreign fruits. Every cabin had a bell, & if you wished tea in your cabin you ordered it, & the boy brought it to you, beautifully served. We could also have visitors to tea on the top lounge, small tables, & overlooking the Nile on one side, & the busy traffic on the other. We had two small boats, attached to our houseboats, for taking us across the river to the ‘Geizero Sporting Club’, which all Sisters could join if they wished to, payment of course. I used to play squash quite a lot, tennis, & riding, swimming etc. The swimming pool was excellent, & you could have tea by the side of he pool.
We used to visit the pyramids, & have our fortunes told in the sand. The best time of course to visit the pyramids was at twelve o’clock at night, when the moon was shining on them. The camels used to pass our hospital during the night, & all you could hear was the tinkle of the little bell around their necks, & see all the shadows. During my stay in Cairo I was a member of ‘The Services Choral Society’, which gave a performance of Handel’s ‘Messiah; in Cairo Cathedral, which was broadcast home. I was also a member of the Church of Scotland choir in the Scottish Church in Cairo. After the church service we used to help all of the soldiers possible & provide teas free. They also used to run dances for the troops. I also had the pleasure of speaking to my parents over the radio, to my home in Blairgowrie, Perthshire, & to my husband’s mother in Canterbury, & this was a very thrilling experience indeed. I stayed with my hospital for 2 1/2 years, where we worked exceedingly hard indeed, with all the heavy casualties from the western desert, nursing our wonderful & unforgettable 8th Army, having the pleasure of Lord Montgomery, & General Wingate, who used to pay a visit to the troops, the Duke of Gloucester, who paid us an official visit, & Sir Arthur Tedder.
I used to take parties of our patients who had been very badly wounded, to Cairo, by taxi & give them tea, ice cream & cakes. These were patients who had been badly disabled, perhaps one leg, no hands, shrapnel wounds, face disfigurements etc. I did this on my day off, or on my half day. I booked the same place overtime, which was the TOC-H, and where we received VIP treatment. It was run by a Scottish Matron, and she certainly looked very well after us. It was very private, & if the lads could not feed themselves it was my pleasure to do it, rather than to have the Egyptians watching us, as there was nothing they ever missed.
During my start in Cairo I had a vacation to ‘The Holy Land’, visiting Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Gethsemane, Balbex, & the Wailing Wall, & right up through Syria to Allepo, up to the borders …