As an RAF medical officer, Aidan MacCarthy served in France, survived Dunkirk, and was interned by the Japanese in Java, where his ingenuity helped his fellow prisoners through awful conditions. While en route to Japan in 1944, his ship was torpedoed, sending him into the Pacific. Miraculously, MacCarthy was rescued by a whaling boat—only to be re-interned in Japan. Ironically, it was the dropping of the atomic bomb at Nagasaki that saved his life, though it also meant being an eyewitness to the horror and devastation it caused.
Long out of print, this remarkable war memoir was rediscovered during a journey through Ireland by Pete McCarthy, author of McCarthy’s Bar, who describes it as “jaw-dropping.”
“Written in a straightforward, matter-of-fact tone, this book is marked by the author’s ability to keep cool under adversity and by his admirable sense of humor and irony. A wonderful, if chilling work.” —Publishers Weekly
“A gripping read.” —Evening Echo
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I was one of ten children — five boys and five girls — born to a gentle, retiring, deeply religious mother and a rather more extrovert father who owned a number of grocery shops-cum-bars, some farms and other property in and around Berehaven, then a small village in West Cork. I was educated first in a convent, where I was taught by Dominican nuns, and then at the Jesuit Clongowes Wood College, the Irish Catholic equivalent of Eton. Always more interested in sport than my lessons, I applied myself with gusto to games of rugby, cricket and water polo, to the detriment of my academic studies, and it was only with the greatest difficulty that I eventually passed the examinations necessary for entry into Cork Medical School, where I qualified at the end of 1938.
At that time it was very hard to obtain a medical appointment in Ireland, because all specialised appointments were controlled by local medical professional nepotism, and the jobs were very limited in number. The situation was not helped by the fact that these so-called dispensary jobs were occupied by doctors well into their eighties — settled, well liked, and with no intention of retiring. The result was that nearly eighty per cent of newly qualified doctors had to cross the water to England and Wales, where medical work was plentiful, particularly in the armed services.
In early 1939 I set off for England, intending to do some post-graduate courses at the Hammersmith Hospital. However, money quickly ran short and salaried work became essential. After some locum work in South Wales and in Hackney Wick, London (in one of the last of the old-time 'shilling surgeries' — an arrangement whereby the patient paid a shilling for a five-minute consultation, and sixpence for each additional three minutes), I became increasingly aware that I was simply drifting. It was then that I decided to try for a Short Service Commission in the medical branch of one of the three services.
The following day I unexpectedly met up with two doctors who had qualified with me in Ireland. They too were between locum jobs and were disillusioned with general practice. We sat in the garden in the centre of Leicester Square and argued the pros and cons of service medicine and the services themselves. The argument continued during a pilgrimage through the West End saloon bars, and ended in the Coconut Grove Night Club. Here in the early hours, one of the hostesses obliged by flipping a coin to decide between the Navy and the RAF — the Army having been eliminated early in the discussions. The RAF won.
The following morning, three weary doctors reported to the RAF Medical Directorate in Kingsway, and there, whether owing to a general shortage of applicants, or to the rumours of war, we were accepted, subject to interview and medical fitness. The interview took place almost at once, and we were asked questions such as 'Why did you pick the RAF?', 'Have you ever flown in an aeroplane?' and so on. I mentioned an ambition to fly, and expressed an interest in Aviation Medicine, a special branch of medicine about which I knew nothing. I assured my interviewer, however, that I was most anxious to learn. We all passed the interview, and much to our surprise, we also passed the medical.
Two days later the official letter arrived at the Shamrock Hotel requesting our presence at Royal Air Force Halton, near Wendover, in Buckinghamshire, and enclosing travelling warrants and joining instructions. After a hectic farewell party, we reached Wendover Station and were met by Service transport. This brought us the mile and a half to the Officers' Mess at Halton House. The joining party consisted of nine doctors and four dentists, and as it turned out, this was to be the last Short Service Commission entry into the RAF Medical/Dental Branch before the outbreak of war.
On Monday morning, September 4th, the air raid sirens wailed for the first time in our area. The time was 7.45 am and most of the officers were still in bed. But the tannoy system soon had everyone awake, with orders to proceed immediately to the basement of the Mess. We tumbled from our rooms, clad only in our pyjamas, dressing-gowns and slippers, waiting for a bomb to fall at any moment. At 9 am another tannoy order instructed all Medical Officers to be on parade, fully dressed in front of the Mess in ten minutes. Taking a deep breath we rose, solemnly shook hands with those who were staying behind, and in fear and trembling we went off to war!
Transports drove us half a mile to the south of the Mess, where the foothills of the Chilterns formed the southern perimeter of the camp. But this first operation soon proved to be a farce. Because of lack of air raid shelters in the station surrounds, hundreds of young apprentices from Halton had been dispersed up the steep sides of the Chilterns in full kit, at the double, wearing tin helmets and gas masks. The combination of fear, exhaustion, and over-activity of youthful imaginations had produced a mass collapse all over the northern slopes!
On September 5th, 1939, welcome news arrived in the form of our first postings away from Halton to RAF units elsewhere. I was posted to No. 2 Initial Training Wing situated in the Marine Court Hotel at Hastings.
It may seem strange that the RAF should take over locations well away from airfields, but the primary objective was to obtain pilots and navigators in vast numbers — all as soon as possible.
The induction stage for aircrew was an interview. Having passed the interview, the applicant was then required to do certain basic mental tests, followed by a medical examination. The impressive quality about all entrants was their utter determination to join the RAF and do their bit for King and Country. This, of course, was subject to their mental and physical fitness, and on the medical side every subterfuge known to man was attempted. Many colour blind men learned the Japanese Colour Vision Test book (Ishihara Test) by heart, relating to the pages by numbers. This also applied to men with lowered vision. They also learned the vision charts, especially the small print, so as to pass the Visual Acuity tests.
The candidate was then enlisted into the Air Force proper, and if selected for aircrew training, went on to the Initial Training Wings. Here they were drilled, kitted, inoculated and taught the fundamentals of navigation. There were about five hundred Sergeant Pilots in each ITW and they were eventually fed into the Elementary Flying Schools.
Soon we were moved to the genteel environs of Bexhill where we found, to our indignation, that the armed forces were highly unpopular. However, this attitude was abruptly altered when our Commanding Officer firmly told local councillors that a war was in progress, and unless they changed their attitude to service personnel he would have no alternative but to requisition the whole town.
There was also a memorable incident when all the combined officers were assembled on the pier to be inspected by Air Commodore Critchley. As Critchley walked along our serried ranks, he paused and turned to a Flying Officer with wings who was standing next to me.
'Haven't I seen you somewhere before?' asked Critchley.
'Yes, sir,' came the prompt reply. 'I was your Commanding Officer in 1916.'
Although the Bexhillians did alter their attitude to us, I found I was now desperate to get away from the woolly confines of this seaside suburbia — and involve myself in the struggle abroad. At this point, bad as it may sound, I was actually looking forward to the war.
In December 1939 I was posted as Medical Officer to No. 14 Squadron which was located in Amman (Jordan). However, as I was about to order some tropical kit, the posting was cancelled and I was reallocated Senior Medical Officer No. 14 Group somewhere in France. I presented in a newly built Officers' Transit Club, situated in the docks, but they had no idea of the Group's whereabouts, owing to its recent formation. I was told to cross the Channel, however, in the hope that I would discover the location of my unit when I reached France.
On arrival in Le Havre, I soon made myself comfortable in a newly built Officers' Transit Club, situated in the docks. Here I was able to stuff myself with French goodies such as champagne, cognac, cigarettes and a variety of food and wines. Two days later I reluctantly boarded the military train, laden with food and drink. This train made a round trip through Northern France, calling at Boulogne, Le Touquet, Abbeville, Amiens, Dieppe, Rouen and Le Havre. Then back through Rouen, Paris, Rheims, Arras, Douai, Lille, Calais and Boulogne. These were all towns in the British sector and the whole trip usually took a week. At every station my enquiries regarding the location of my new unit drew a blank. Apparently, because of its recent formation, the Rail Transport Officers had not yet been informed. Sitting in this train became intolerably boring, so when we pulled into Paris, I jumped out, booked into a Service hostel and gave myself a couple of days' leave. But, as was usual with me, I soon ran out of money and was forced to rejoin the interminable progress of the military train.
Three days later, still train weary and dirty, I decided to give myself another break. I disembarked at Arras and walked towards the welcoming lights of the Moderne Hotel. While having my first drink I made the acquaintance of some RAF officers whom, to my great surprise and joy, I discovered belonged to No. 14 Group. I had arrived at last. The officers gave me a lift to the Headquarters and bombarded me with questions as to where I had been. I remained tactfully enigmatic.
The RAF in France in 1939/1940 was divided into two separate operational formations — Advanced Air Striking Force (AASF) and Air Component Striking Force (ACSF). The former were located south of a line drawn through Paris, Rheims and the Lüneburg Corner while the latter (to which 14 Group was attached) occupied the area north of this, mainly in Northern France, including the Channel coast. The Group HQ, was situated in a village two miles east of Arras.
Our Group used a number of airfields previously occupied by the French Air Force, and the planes were a mixture of fighters, light bombers and army cooperation aircraft — including such planes as Hurricanes (wooden propellers), Gladiators (the last of the biplane fighters and operated by University Air Squadron pilots), Blenheims and Lysanders.
The distribution of the forces in this northern sector was a zonal one, with alternating French and British strips, extending from west to east. The troops that the French provided for this zone, the 8th and 9th Armies, were mostly reservists, veterans of World War I.
During this 'cold war' period, the French civilian population was restricted to its local areas, and every individual required a transit pass. When the German advance began in May 1940, these regulations were dropped and the people evacuated their homes and neighbourhoods in thousands. As they rushed panic stricken towards the south, they created an almost total blockage of the roads, as well as a severe food shortage. The Germans were not slow in infiltrating fifth columnists into this mass exodus in the guise of refugees. Later I was told of such cases as a 'nun' seen urinating in a standing position. When 'she' was challenged and shot, a small sub-machine gun was found tucked under 'her' habit. Other bizarre cases included midgets dressed as young girls, hiding guns and bombs under their skirts.
During the 'cold war' the French had ordered eighty percent of their civilian doctors to join the armed forces. This naturally left vast tracts of rural France without medical coverage. As a result we BEF (British Expeditionary Force) doctors had to take over in these areas and were medically responsible for the local civilians.
The BEF medical organization in Northern France at that time consisted of a number of Medical Receiving Stations and Casualty Clearing Stations run by the RAMC (Royal Army Medical Corps) because the RAF had none of these types of mobile medical units ready and these were scattered in the zones to cover local units. We in the RAF medical branch were reluctant to use these RAMC Medical Units for our 'psychiatric' cases — and I have apostrophised the word psychiatric deliberately, as it had become the established practice in France for our RAF doctors to send any pilot whom they wished to have rested to the nearest Army psychiatrist, who had previously been briefed to recommend two weeks' leave. The pilot was then sent to Paris to an organised leave centre, where he usually finished up physically tired but mentally refreshed. Our reluctance, however, stemmed from a highly unfortunate incident concerning one of the first RAF aces — Flying Officer 'Cobber' Kain. He had become famous for his strikes against 'cold war' German pilots, but the time had come to give Cobber a rest. Observing the correct procedure, he was sent to the Army psychiatrist in a local RAMG Medical Unit, where, unfortunately, a new man had arrived. When he examined Cobber, he diagnosed him as lacking in moral fibre — a diagnostic term which was then used medically for cowards. When the dust from the RAF seniors had settled, we managed to sort matters out and Cobber was sent to enjoy a well-earned leave in Paris. Tragically he was killed shortly afterwards.
Another reason for our reluctance to use these Army medical psychiatrists stemmed from the fact that most of them had been trained in mental hospitals. We, on the other hand, needed psychiatrists used to dealing with abnormalities in behaviour due to stress. Interestingly enough, early on in the war, the RAF Medical Branch used the controversial term 'lack of moral fibre' for aircrew who were obviously over-fatigued or who were becoming incompetent, however, after months of this humiliating labelling, the diagnosis was changed to 'Not yet diagnosed — Neurosis' (NYD — N).
From our point of view, looking after the medical side of the civilian population presented many difficulties, not the least being the language barrier. This, together with a shortage of civilian hospital beds and the minimum provision of laboratory facilities (for blood tests, etc.) were bad enough, but a greater problem was the lack of maternity coverage. These cases usually required previous medical examinations to ascertain the baby's position in the womb, the mother's history, her general health and so on. All this was denied to our British service doctors, because when we were called to a case, the woman had already gone into labour, and we had to start with no information. My only assistant on these occasions was my medical sergeant, who had to act as midwife. Prior to serving in France he had never seen a baby born, let alone been asked to assist in the actual birth. But he learned fast, was a great help, and gave me a good deal of moral support. We dealt with nineteen births in all, including a set of red-haired twins, and we never lost a mother or child.
The French had some strange customs at the moment of birth, such as squeezing lemon juice into the eyes of the baby. I tried, without success, to stop this, however one custom I definitely approved of was the opening of a bottle of champagne immediately after the birth, a tradition among even the poorest of families!
Payment for our medical services was not permitted, but the locals overcame this by lavishing on us gifts of food and wine. On one occasion a horse was presented to me by the proud father. It was tethered outside our makeshift surgery, but the problems of feeding and stabling it eventually forced us to sell the animal.
In December/January 1939/1940 there was a period of very heavy snow all over Western Europe. On the flat plains of Northern France roads were blocked and airfields rendered inoperative. We were confined to our HQ's Mess, and the troops to their barracks. Naturally the fear of a medical emergency loomed large in my mind, particularly as we were billeted out in the local village for sleeping accommodation. Each morning during the bad weather, we had to wait until a passage had been dug through the snow-drifts to allow us to go to the Mess for food. We spent endless days in the Mess, playing bridge, poker and backgammon, reading books, writing letters, drinking, smoking, dozing — and bored to tears. Fortunately we had plenty of champagne and cognac in the cellar, but two weeks of this enforced drunkenness made us lose our taste for both for months to come.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "A Doctor's War"
Copyright © 2006 Aidan MacCarthy.
Excerpted by permission of Grub Street.
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