After the Allied invasion of Italy in September 1943, HMHS Newfoundland was assigned as the hospital ship of the Eighth Army, and was one of two hospital ships sent to deliver 103 American nurses to the Salerno beaches on 12 September. The hospital ships were attacked twice that day by dive bombers, and by evening they were joined by a third hospital ship. Concerned by a number of near misses, it was decided to move the ships out to sea and anchor there for the night. What happened then was recorded in the press around the world1:
Nazis Bomb Hospital Ship
German planes recently dive-bombed and set fire to the hospital ship Newfoundland off Salerno it was revealed today. There were no wounded aboard, but six nurses and also all the doctors and a number of the ship’s officers were killed. Volunteers fought the flames but the ship had to be abandoned and sunk by naval gunfire. Some of the survivors have reached a Scottish port.
An able seaman, aged 22, paid a tribute to British and American nurses who tended the men wounded in the attack, while German fighters were machine-gunning the decks.
“The Germans attacked the Newfoundland at 5 a.m. on September 13 when she was between 30 and 40 miles off shore. We carried huge, illuminated red crosses and a fringe of green lights. We could not have been mistaken for a fighting ship. One bomb scored a direct hit on the doctor’s quarters. The ship listed to starboard, but we managed to launch some lifeboats and rafts. The crew and medical corps men thought first of the nurses, but the nurses could not be convinced that they should get out of the danger zone.”
This report was from an American nurse also on the HMHS Newfoundland2:
I still don’t know if this will pass the censor but will try & tell you what happened the 13th of Sept. We tried to land in Italy all day Sunday the 12th but they were too busy fighting to worry about a hundred nurses on a hospital ship. Several bombs just missed us several times but we didn’t really realize what it was all about. Evening came & we had to go out of the harbor because our ship was all lit up. We taxied around in the sea off shore about 30 miles all nite—our ship & 4 other Hospital ships—at 5 a.m. we were awakened by a bomb falling very close to us—Some of the girls dressed then but most of us went back to sleep. (We all slept in the nood because all our clothes were packed & ready to get off the ship the next morning.)
At 5:10 we heard a plane & then that bad awful whistle a bomb makes & bang!—You’ll never know of the thousand things that flashed thro my mind those few seconds. I thought sure I was dying—could feel hot water falling on my face & body—Had heavy boards on my chest that had fallen from the ceiling—I shut my eyes & thought it was the end—Then the next second I thought “What the hell, I’m not dead—get out of this place”—then I could see poor Wheeler & Waldin without a stitch of clothes on trying to find anything to put on. I couldn’t see for the terrific smoke in our room—but was a mass of motion trying to find my coveralls which I had hung on the post hole the nite before. I found on the floor—all soaked with water & black with dirt—put them on & found my shoes—grabbed my helmet & water canteen & grabbed on to someone’s arm & followed the light that Claudine was holding. She coudn’t hardly find where the door was because the wall had all been blown out.
When we got on the deck we all had to get on one side because the bomb had torn away the other side of the ship. I’ll never forget seeing this one British nurse trying to get thro the porthole but was too large to make it. She was screaming terribly because her room was all in flames. One British fellow saw that she could never get out so he knocked her in the head with his fist and shoved her back in his room—She died but it was much easier than if she had burned to death.
We loaded in a life boat—70 of us in one boat that had a capacity of 30. Were taken on another hospital ship & given tea & hot coffee. I felt a darn good cry coming on so some British fellow took the 4 of we girls to his room & we drank a bottle of Scotch. I got “stinko” drunk—cried & when I snapped out of it, I felt fine. All the bruises I got out of it was a scratch on my knee, a cut on my left foot and marks & scratches on my chest where debree fell from the roof.
—Someday I’ll tell you more about it….
British nurses lost on the HMHS Newfoundland
Matron Agnes McInnes Cheyne QAIMNS
Sister Una Cameron TANS
Sister Mary Lea TANS
Sister Dorothy Mary Cole QAIMNS
Sister Phyllis Gibson QAIMNS
Sister Margaret Annie O’Loughlin QAIMNS
- Examiner (1943) Nazis Bomb Hospital Ship. Examiner, Launceston, Tasmania, 19 October 1943 p.1