Past Talks : April 2023

“HMHS UGANDA in the Falklands War” by Nicci Pugh

This was a fascinating talk by Nicci Pugh of the Queen Alexandra’s Royal Naval Nursing Service (QARNNS). She was called at short notice in 1982 as one of a specialist medical team to join the hospital ship Uganda, newly requisitioned from P&O. The ship had been in Naples during an educational cruise, with 940 schoolchildren on board. The team comprised RN doctors, 37 female nurses, paramedics and Royal Marine Bandsmen in their role as stretcher bearers, called to embark for an uncertain period in the South Atlantic. Nicci remarked that the female nurses of the QARNNS had been assured that at that time RN female personnel did not serve at sea! The ship was equipped in Gibraltar with an operating theatre and emergency rooms to a similar standard as military and civilian hospitals. In accordance with the Geneva Convention, the ship was painted white with red crosses on her sides and funnel. We saw a photograph of the huge rectangular steel plate that was to form the crucial helicopter landing platform being lowered into place on the stern. A high-dependency surgical ward, immediately beneath the flight deck, had to be fitted with steel stanchions to support the additional weight of the deck and its visiting helicopters. These stanchions came in handy as securing points for wheeled medical equipment not designed for use in a seaway. The RN survey vessels HMS Hecla, Hydra and Herald, were converted to ambulance ships to work with Uganda.

Her Majesty’s Hospital Ship Uganda sailed for the South Atlantic on 19 April and it became apparent that traditional nurses’ uniforms were not suited to seagoing conditions, especially in the South Atlantic. The nurses adopted the Number 8 Action Working Dress of naval ratings but experienced problems finding correct sized footwear. The “once-only” suits, donned for helicopter flights over the sea, were also over-sized for the female form. Nicci showed pictures of the various helicopters used to transfer patients, including an Argentinian Puma and the Chinook that was the sole survivor of aircraft in the Atlantic Conveyor. We also saw photos of Uganda refuelling at sea in the South Atlantic from a Royal Fleet Auxiliary vessel – an unusual procedure for a P&O cruise ship and her crew.

Before the land battles commenced, Uganda took on casualties from HMS Sheffield. On 28 May she moved to anchor in Grantham Sound, 11 miles northwest of Goose Green, where she became the first British hospital ship to embark casualties direct from the battlefield. The nominated role of the nursing staff was the treatment of the most severely injured patients, including many badly burned casualties. With a preliminary warning of their graphic nature, we were shown pictures of such casualties. They were treated with an antiseptic and soothing substance known as Flamazine and included the (subsequently well-known) Welsh Guardsman Simon Weston. Other types of injury included “trench foot”, caused by the arduous conditions of cold and damp suffered by the combatants.

Uganda’s staff co-ordinated treatment activities in other ships, including Argentinian hospital vessels, treating both UK and Argentinian casualties. Once British patients were fit to travel, they were repatriated by the ambulance ships to Montevideo and were then flown home by RAF VC 10s. By 14 July Uganda’s life-saving role was over – she was de-registered from the hospital role, the red crosses were painted out and P&O staff repainted the funnel in the familiar colour of their line. She became a troop carrier, embarking the 7th Duke of Edinburgh’s Own Gurkha Rifles and 16 Field Ambulance personnel, sailing for home on 18 July. She arrived at Southampton on 9 August 1982.

On the fifteenth anniversary of the invasion of the Falklands Islands, veterans of the conflict formed the South Atlantic Medal association (SAMA82) with the aim of maintaining and promoting a sense of pride and comradeship among all involved in the campaign. SAMA82 organises return trips to the Islands for veterans and Nicci showed photographs of several such trips on which she travelled to accompany and support former patients and others. Particularly striking were the recent pictures of albatrosses and penguins, birds which in their natural domain have little fear of human contact. Holders of the South Atlantic medal who wish to make a visit can obtain discounted flights, courtesy of the RAF. Details are available on the SAMA82 website.

Nicci Pugh is the author of a book entitled “White Ship – Red Crosses”, which contains numerous contributions from those who served or were treated on board HMHS Uganda and several SAMA82 and British Limbless Veterans Association (BLESMA, now BVUK) members. The book, now in its sixth edition, is available from Amazon. A proportion of the sale price is donated to SAMA82. Thank you Nicci, for a most inspiring talk.

Summarised by Malcolm Smith