Sample Chapter | Introduction - From Cairo to Perugia | Diary of a Nurse in WW2

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When this war is over it will be enough for a man to say “I marched and fought with the Desert Army”.
Winston Churchill, in an address to the Eighth Army, Tripoli, Libya, 1943

The War in North Africa

Churchill's words apply equally to the men and women of the army hospitals and the field ambulance, who were also on the battlefields to care for the wounded as they fell, take casualties back from ‘the line’ to the casualty clearing stations and thence to the hospitals, and who cared for them in circumstances it is hard for us to imagine.

The campaigns in the Mediterranean (North Africa, Sicily and Italy) are probably the least well-known of the Second World War, but were vitally important to the Allies. The fighting was prolonged, intense and conducted first in the extreme heat of the barren desert, and then in the mountainous and difficult terrain of Italy, during one of the worst winters for many years.

During the North African campaign, from 1940 until May 1943, Allied losses amounted to over 220,000 men. In Sicily, in less than two months during summer 1943, losses were over 31,000 men. In the Italian campaign which followed, Allied losses were estimated at over 312,000 men. At times there were even greater numbers lost due to malaria than from battle injuries. Fifty-five German divisions were tied down in the Mediterranean by the Allied armies; they could otherwise have been deployed in France and northern Europe and the outcome of the war might have been very different.

Nursing in World War Two

The Queen Alexandra Imperial Military Nursing Service was founded in 1902. Initially it was made up largely of women from military families, who then served in military hospitals wherever in the world the British Army maintained a garrison. Before the First World War there were only 300 QA nurses, and by the end of the war there were over 10,000.

The Second World War was the first major conflict to employ female nurses at the front line. Previous to this, casualties were cared for by male orderlies who were not trained nurses, and their care would often have been at best very basic, and at worst non-existent. After first aid, the injured might have had to wait until they could be transported to hospital miles away to receive any proper care.

The matrons in charge of the army hospitals were usually older, experienced women, but the nurses were young and single. As they were greatly outnumbered by the men, they were always in demand for any social occasion, and dances, sports events and parties were held as often as possible to keep the men busy, fit and occupied when they were not fighting.

The presence of female nurses was considered a valuable morale boost for sick and injured soldiers. Their nursing expertise undoubtedly saved many lives and their bravery and stoicism in war zones, where they faced the same primitive living conditions and dangers as the men, gave encouragement to the men.

The army hospitals were often accommodated in tents or structures which could be taken down, moved and re-erected in a matter of hours, as the armies moved around. This also included operating theatres, pathology departments and isolation wards for dealing with the many infectious diseases. As well as malaria, there were thousands who suffered from jaundice, typhoid, dysentery, sand-fly fever, heatstroke and even diphtheria, poliomyelitis and smallpox, while in Egypt there were still some cases of plague.

The Importance of Egypt in WW2

Egypt had for thousands of years been at the centre of the civilised world, both geographically and in practical terms, with the fertile Nile valley providing abundant food, and with the Red Sea and the Mediterranean coasts making it a centre for trade.

Britain had had strong connections with Egypt for many years, with trade, diplomacy, financial and strategic interests that were mutually beneficial. Many British people lived and worked in Egypt before the outbreak of the Second World War, and these ties were extremely valuable to the British Army and crucial to the outcome of the war.

If Egypt had fallen to the Germans, the war probably would have been lost almost immediately – not least because of the Suez Canal and Britain’s connections with India, Australia, the oil-rich Persian Gulf and the Far East. It was therefore vitally important that the British Army should prevail in North Africa. The Egyptians supported the British forces and were able to supply food and facilities such as hotels, social and sports clubs, accommodation and many other things, big and small, which all assisted in the struggle to defeat Hitler’s forces.

About Jeaf Brewer, Joan's future husband

Jeaf Brewer was the man Joan married in Italy in 1944. When Jeaf was called up for army service he was 24 years old, and he had just qualified as a doctor in Cardiff. He had been brought up in the mining valleys of South Wales and had never been abroad before.

He would have had no experience in treating battle injuries or the infectious diseases they would encounter during the war. Also, the men fighting in the army would almost all have been in their twenties, abroad for the first time as well.

In Italy, Jeaf was on ‘the line’ for much of 1944, during the fierce fighting in the campaigns of Anzio and Cassino, where he was giving first aid to soldiers on the battlefields. Joan was working in the casualty clearing stations, very near to the battlefields, where soldiers were cared for before being moved to hospitals further away to recover. After the end of the fighting, medical personnel still had to continue caring for the sick and wounded until they could be returned home; by that time, Joan and Jeaf had been away for four years and four months.

Introducing the people in this story

Kal, Jimmy and Joan

Jim or Jimmy Potter is the nickname for Joan Potter. She and Joan Lockyer remained friends all their lives. Jimmy married an American and went to live in USA. Joan visited her several times in America and, in their nineties, they travelled on holiday to Alaska on a cruise. Jimmy had no children but was still alive in 2010, aged 95.

Kal refers to Kathleen Morgan, probably Joan’s closest friend during the war. They worked together almost the entire time. Kal returned to UK just before the end of the war due to her father’s ill health. She did not marry. They stayed in touch until Kal’s death.
‘Charlie Suet’ Atkinson was the hospital Dental Officer, Jeaf’s close friend and ‘best man’. He married ‘Dickie’ (Lilian Dickinson) a nurse and one of Joan’s friends, in Benghazi in May 1943, and then they were posted separately. Charlie and Joan were stationed at the same places in Italy, enjoying many long walks in the countryside. After the war, Charlie and Dickie settled in Australia, where he became a professor of dentistry. He was still very well in his late nineties in 2010.


‘Koffie’ Regulk, full name not known, was a South African friendly with Joan during 1942-3, and Medical Officer with the S A Carbineers.

David Jeaffreson Brewer or ‘Jeaf’ was born on 12th June 1916 and died on 26th June 1972. Brought up at Tonyrefail, South Wales. His father was Leslie Brewer GP, believed to have been an army doctor in the First World War, possibly on the battlefields of Gallipoli, after the war becoming a GP in Wales.

Jeaf was educated at Porth Grammar School, then studied medicine in Cardiff. He was called up for service early in 1941 and travelled to Egypt in the same convoy as Joan. His name ‘Jeaf’ was often mistaken for ‘Geoff’, or Geoffrey. He appears in the diaries several times during 1942, and then increasingly during 1943. In December 1943 Jeaf and Joan were engaged, and they married in October 1944.

Peter Jenkins had been a friend of Joan's for some years before they travelled to Egypt. He was an army chaplain, and worked in the Ambulance Service. He had an ambition to do missionary work in China, and had asked Joan to marry him and live in China after the war, but she had turned him down.

However, he was still hopeful that she would change her mind in time, and he wrote to her and saw her as often as he could. After the war he did indeed go to China, married, and he had a family.

© Copyright Rosie Tobin 2014. Introduction from the book From Cairo to Perugia by Joan Lockyer, 2014.

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