About the Book - From Cairo to Perugia | Diary of a Nurse in WW2

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About the Book

Notes about the book
by the compiler
Rosie Tobin

We knew that our mother had kept diaries during the war. She had mentioned them sometimes, but we had never seen them. She had never talked much about the war or what she had experienced, either from the aspect of nursing battle injuries and the many infectious diseases in the desert and in a war zone, or the amount of fun, socialising, romances and activities there obviously were from reading her diaries. We knew that she had been seriously ill with malaria, typhoid and dysentery, and that her treatment with quinine had affected her hearing, leaving her with tinnitus.

When her grandchildren were at secondary school, they studied the Second World War as part of their history curriculum, and asked her about her experiences. That was when I talked to her again about her diaries, and suggested that she should write about her time abroad, using her diaries and photos as the basis for the project.

She agreed to this, but imagined she would do it when she was less active and wanting something to occupy her time. Unfortunately, when she finally became ill, she was unable to accomplish this herself, but as she left us the diaries, I am sure that she would not have minded them being used to inform others of the nurses' and doctors' roles in the army hospitals.

The diaries were in a shoebox on the top of the wardrobe in her bedroom, with an Egyptian leather photo album filled with snapshots and many other photos, as well as all sorts of other memorabilia from the war years with the 8th Army.

From reading the diaries, I learned an enormous amount about both my parents, but particularly my mother, and what an incredible life-changing experience it clearly was for her. They all had to be incredibly brave living so close to the battlefields, in danger not only from enemy attacks but also from life-threatening diseases. The conditions they lived in a lot of the time were extremely primitive and unpleasant, but they seemed to take them in their stride.

Her previous boyfriend, Peter Jenkins, had been hinted at, but very little detail was told about him, and nothing about any other love interest, such as Koffie Regulk from South Africa. We obviously knew that she and our father had got married in Perugia, and we had seen some of the photos, but there was very little detail about their time in Sicily or in Italy.

Although we knew that they had been with the 8th Army from 1941 until the end of the war, it was not until I read the diaries that I really appreciated what a very long time it must have seemed to them to be away for almost four and a half years without returning home. What changed people they must have been, starting off as youngsters who left home heading into the unknown early in 1941, when the enemy forces had the upper hand and the war was going very badly for the allies.

I also appreciated how very difficult it must have been for my grandmother, not long widowed, who had to say goodbye to her two eldest children, and only a month later she lost her youngest son in a car crash, in which her other daughter was badly injured.

After reading the diaries, I really wanted her grandchildren to read them, and also I felt strongly that the campaigns in Egypt, Libya, Sicily and Italy have been largely neglected since the war. Most people know very little about them, and what a crucial role they played in the final outcome of the war.

Also, the role of the medical personnel is usually overlooked, in favour of the soldiers and commanders, but all the medical personnel played vital roles throughout the war, facing exactly the same conditions as the men. The majority had no army training, coming straight from civilian life into a war zone. I feel this should be understood and appreciated and the North African and Italian campaigns should be given more prominence in history than they have up till now.

I have recently been communicating with 'Charlie Suet' Atkinson, who is still very 'with it' living in Melbourne with his children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. He must be about 100 years old now. I have sent them copies of the book, which I trust they have enjoyed.

I hope that others of his generation will find this book. I also think of nurses and doctors - it would probably be interesting to them. But also to younger people, for whom WW2 is distant history - may they learn something from this book about the real-life experience of being in a war like the Second World War.

Rosie Tobin

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