Memories of D-Day: Dundee nurse looks back to the front

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Allied forces landed on the beaches of Normandy 70 years ago this week in the D-Day invasion which heralded the beginning of the end of World War Two. Scottish nurse Phyllis Henninger, now 93, was among the first to serve in field hospitals after the landings.

Even today she remembers it as the "obvious" choice.

Having completed her nursing training in 1943 before working for a year at Dundee Royal Infirmary, Phyllis Henninger was faced with the choice of becoming a midwife, or joining the Army.

So the 22-year-old went straight to the recruiting office in Dundee and signed up - without telling her mother.

"I didn't see it as a choice at all," she said.

"My mother didn't want me to go - she said it would be too hard."

'Pitch darkness'

After a short spell training in Colchester, Phyllis quickly found herself heading for France, where Allied troops had just established a foothold on the beaches of Normandy.

"We all had to go down to Southampton, which was absolutely chock-a-block," she said.

"So many people were there, all trying to get across the Channel - everybody under the sun was there.

"We got on our ship, and started off. It was very dark, a very strict blackout, there were no lights at all.

"They stopped the ship and we had to transfer to this other craft which took us right up the shore - it was all in pitch darkness and it was quite cold.

"We didn't know anything. We knew were were going to the hospital, in the field, but that was about all."

normandy landings Phyllis remembers "everybody under the sun" trying to get across the Channel in 1944

In the two weeks since the Normandy landings, the Pioneer Corps had thrown up a forward nursing station - which was still under threat from German air attacks.

Phyllis saw aircraft flying overheard, but said she was always too interested in what was going on to be afraid.

And this was just the first of several hospitals she served in, in France and Belgium, as the Allied forces pushed the Nazis back across Europe.

"The conditions were very basic, of course," she said.

"Sometimes we didn't have enough beds and we had to put the patients on the ground in between the beds.

"That made it a bit tricky for doing dressings and giving injections and things, because you had to step over them.

"We were quite well-supplied, it was all very efficient, but we were hungry all the time. Not starving, but we were hungry - until the Americans came, and we got tinned everything, tinned spam and sausages."

'Wonder drug'

With new shipments of injured men arriving from the front lines almost daily, there was never a quiet moment at the field hospital.

The introduction of penicillin, which only came to prominence during the later stages of the war, made a big difference to the nurses - and their patients.

Phyllis Henninger old Phyllis served in France, Belgium and closer to home in the UK during her time in the Army

"I came down one day for duty and there was a bucket full of water sitting on a camp stove, boiling away, so I had a look in it and there were syringes and needles in it being sterilised," said Phyllis.

"They were boiling them up to try out the new drug - it was a wonder drug, it really was.

"The wounds started healing quickly, it was amazing really how quickly they started to heal with the penicillin."

As the war moved on away from the beaches, so did the hospitals used for treating injured soldiers, and Phyllis went with them, serving in Brussels and Antwerp.

'Absolutely flattened'

As they travelled through newly-liberated areas of France, the nurses were shocked at the devastation left behind by the war.

"We had church ministers in our company, and they used to take us out for little runs here and there.

"One of the places they took us was Caen, and when we came out of the vehicle it was flattened, just absolutely flattened. There was nothing standing.

"I was shocked, it shocked us all.

"They had a church of sorts though, on a little raised grassy area, so we all walked up there and were given hymn sheets, all in French of course, and we joined in."

Phyllis Henninger now Now 93, Phyllis says she still has very strong memories of landing at Normandy

While stationed in Antwerp in Belgium, Phyllis had a near-miss with a Doodlebug - a V-1 flying bomb, an early predecessor of the cruise missile.

"There was an officer's hotel we could go to, as all my patients at the hospital in Antwerp were officers.

"They had tea dances, and they were quite willing to take the nurses to the dances.

"One day a doodlebug hit the dancing place, but fortunately we weren't there at the time."

'Just a job'

Despite being stationed overseas at the time, Phyllis still managed to meet and marry her sweetheart, a fellow Army recruit named Freddie.

"When I was in Essex, doing this first lot of training, I met Freddie," she said.

"Later on a letter came from him, and there was an engagement ring in it - it came through the post!

"I should have had my head examined, but I accepted. I had two weeks leave, so I came home and got married - and then went back out again."

And it was Phyllis's marriage to Freddie that eventually spelled the end of her time in the Army, after 18 months serving abroad.

"We were moved to a hospital back in Scotland, in the Borders. We were told we'd be going to Norway, but they said that any married women who wanted to be demobbed could be," she said.

"So I had a big decision to make, whether to go to Norway or London - and I think I must have made the right decision, I was married for 50 years."

Looking back 70 years on, despite everything that happened during those closing months of the war, Phyllis insists that her vital work was never heroic.

"It was just a job," she said.

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