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Jack-of-all-trades: memories of a pharmacist dispenser in the 1939-45 war

By Tom “Tug”Wilson (7523775, Staff-Sergeant, RAMC 1940-45) recalls his days as a pharmacist dispenser in the 1939-45 war

The Pharmaceutical Journal Vol 265 No 7128p929
December 23/30, 2000 Christmas miscellany

Tom Wilson

In late 1940, I received a letter from the President of the Pharmaceutical Society which informed me that the Society had done a deal with the War Office. The Royal Army Medical Corps was expanding the numbers of its field hospitals and urgently needed pharmacists and similar trades. Any pharmacists who felt like volunteering would join with the rank of sergeant and be posted to a hospital. This seemed (on the face of it) an offer too good to refuse. It seemed likely - indeed inevitable  that our status as a “reserved occupation”would disappear sooner or later. I did not relish serving on a private’s pay in an infantry regiment; this way I would be able to “follow my trade”as long as the war went on. Weeks later, along with 20 other colleagues, I found myself in a training squad at Boyce barracks (now Queen Elizabeth barracks), near Fleet in Hampshire. We were all temporary privates until our three weeks’ training finished. My instructor, a “regular”staff-sergeant with 15 years’ service, possessed a ready wit.

“I gotter send you lot out of ?ere in three weeks, wiv three stripes on yer arms,”he told us. “In peacetime it’d take 10 years to reach that rank. You won’t ’ave a ruddy great D for Dispenser above yer stripes. People’ll look at you and think you’re real sergeants. So I’ve got to teach yez as much as I can before you leave here!”
The gnomic threat went right over my head. One year later, my mate (another Tommy) and I were struggling 11 hours a day to operate a medical stores and dispensary in an IP (India Pattern) tent on a barren field five miles west of Baghdad. We were serving a 200-bed tented hospital and also operating as an MI (medical inspection) room for the entire British garrison in the area. All at once, we were ordered to pack up, discharge all our patients to Indian army hospitals and leave Baghdad for an unknown destination (which afterwards was rumoured to have been Singapore). We never got to Singapore; the Imperial Japanese army beat us to it! Instead, we had a comfortable cruise to Colombo, Ceylon (Sri Lanka), where we were to stay for another three years.

On the voyage south, I had leisure to reflect how I had “followed my trade”during the first 12 months of my service. Yes, I did help out in the pharmacy of the 14th general hospital in Oxford for a few weeks, and there was my experience in Iraq. Otherwise, our instructor at Fleet had been correct. People did notice our three stripes; they had mistaken us for the genuine article. In that period, I had been employed in various capacities.

Medicine formulary

Tommy and I had assisted a senior officer to edit a revised edition of a medicine formulary for use in RAMC hospitals. We had taught foot drill and the use of stretchers to raw recruits in a nearby stretch of parkland. Aboard our troopship, we had stood anti-submarine watches around the clock; two hours on, four hours off. During a stopover at Cape Town, I went on an all-night shore patrol in the company of an armed corporal of the South African police and two infantry privates. Our main task was rounding up helplessly drunken sailors and showing them into taxis to be carried back to the ships in the convoy. On Victoria Docks, Bombay, we had worked alongside medical orderlies as lightermen, loading and unloading all the equipment of a 600-bed hospital on to and off ships whose destinations were altered almost hourly.
I recalled standing on the banks of the River Tigris watching Arab stevedores unloading hospital stores from barges at moorings. Only narrow wooden planks connected them with the shore and I was amused to watch one man who carried a cottage piano on his back, single-handedly navigate the footway!

Night pickets

At different times we had been warehousemen and surgical equipment suppliers, who did not know the difference between a bistoury and a trocar. We had been stores clerks, and cleared thorny acres of scrub from the hospital site, using our bare hands. (I got stung by some exotic insect and my arm swelled up like a vegetable marrow for 48 hours.) Because the Thief of Baghdad had not at that time earned an honourable retirement, we had mounted night pickets. We had stood our turn as bartenders (mess president) in the sergeants’ mess. I would never envy a poulterer, after I had taken a truck into the NAAFI stores to unload a cargo of turkeys for the company Christmas dinner - live turkeys, mark you. Their legs were tied together in pairs for easy transport; you could carry eight at a time and their sharp beaks bit your ankles as you walked. With squads of recruits as raw as ourselves, we had had to learn how to erect six-panel marquee tents to serve as hospital wards. We had had to put them up again in the middle of the night when a gale blew the darned things down.

Wearing those stripes meant that you were, like Habbakuk, “Capable du tout”. You were expected to do anything that would have been asked of a real sergeant!

Tom Wilson, now retired, practised as a pharmacist for more than50 years in London and the south east

Citation: The Pharmaceutical Journal URI: 20003902

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