Captain Swinscow in Norway, June 1945

Captain Swinscow

Captain Thomas Douglas Victor Swinscow


Unit : Headquarters, 1st Airborne Reconnaissance Squadron

Army No. : 188263

Awards : Bronzen Kruis


Thomas Douglas Victor Swinscow was born at Stroud, Gloucestershire, on the 10th July 1917, the son of William Sprague Swinscow and Nellie Swinscow. He was educated at Kelly College, Tavistock, and then St. Thomas's Hospital Medical School in London, from where he qualified in 1940. On the 15th May 1941, he was granted an emergency commission as a Second Lieutenant in the Royal Army Medical Corps, and trained at the RAMC Depot at Crookham. At some point between the conclusion of his training and 1942, he served with a Field Ambulance unit stationed on the South Coast of England. He was then posted to the newly created 1st Army Headquarters, which was being formed in Scotland for Operation Torch; the invasion of North Africa. From May to July 1943, he served in Algiers as a Medical Officer with the Allied Military Government in Occupied Territories (AMGOT), and subsequently volunteered for Airborne Forces as he described in his book, "Reap A Destiny":


"On 12 May 1943 Tunis was captured and the German forces in North Africa capitulated. Their commander, General von Arnim, was brought to our unit for an initial interrogation before being sent back as a prisoner. The end had come for him, and a kind of end had come for me too. I called on Fred Turner "Sir, you can't really need me any more?" "All right, Doc, but don't do anything rash." So I applied to join the 1st Airborne Division and was accepted after a medical examination that showed nothing worse than a kink in my spine due, as was later discovered, to two fused vertebrae, probably as a result of an undetected fracture when I fell down some stone steps at school; and of course my slightly peculiar left foot, which gave no trouble."


He still, however, had to complete his attachment to AMGOT. "After six weeks of waffles and canned chicken, sometimes together and sometimes separately, often with maple syrup on top of both, and no medical complaints, I relinquished my charge of the unit to an American Medical Officer and was posted to a Field Ambulance in the 1st Airborne Division rear party stationed in Tunisia near Sousse. The main body was in Sicily. Then at the end of 1943 we were ordered back to England to prepare for what was now beginning to gain some definition in our sights, the invasion of Europe in 1944."


In January 1944, Swinscow was posted to the 1st Airborne Reconnaissance Squadron at Ruskington, Lincolnshire. "On returning from my disembarkation leave I had been posted to the 1st Airborne Reconnaissance Squadron as its medical officer. The commanding officer, Major C.F.H. (Freddie) Gough, had had a bold career in the First World War in the Royal Navy as a midshipman. By now in his early 40's, he was much the oldest officer in the squadron, and he looked more venerable because his hair had already turned white. When I reported to him, I entered the room and saluted. He turned to the adjutant sitting beside him: "There you are - why doesn't everyone salute like this ropey quack?" In fact the Squadron was both smart and efficient in the performance of the niceties to which the army attached importance, but Freddie sometimes liked to think, as a doting father will proudly declare of his young son "he's a bit wild at times", that it was apt to fall short of purely conventional and so rather trivial standards. It was essentially a fighting force: things like proper saluting were taken for granted. And if saluting were asserted to be a bit slack (even though it was in reality strictly performed), then it must have fallen off a bit because the fighting qualities of the Squadron had for a time taken precedence and were that much more keenly tempered."


In his book, Captain Swinscow goes on to describe in detail his action at Arnhem, where he parachuted onto DZ-X on Sunday 17th September 1944. He was quite seriously wounded on the first day, whilst trying to recover casualties from an ambush near Wolfheze. However, he continued in his tasks and set up an Aid Station within the Oosterbeek Perimeter, which he manned until the very end of the battle. When the remnants of the 1st Airborne Division withdrew across the Rhine on the 25/26th September, almost all medical personnel stayed behind to look after the wounded, but Swinscow was told to accompany the rest of the Squadron over the river. For his actions, he was recommended for the Military Cross but ultimately received the Dutch Bronzen Kruis on the 31st July 1945. His citation reads:


At Arnhem on 17th September 1944 9 Section C Troop had 3 wounded men lying out some 50 yards in front of a wood. Very heavy enemy machine gun and mortar fire was coming from the wood opposite only 300 yards away. Under withering fire the Medical Officer went out with 2 stretcher bearers to the wounded men. He treated the first and then despatched him with the stretcher bearers. He remained himself with the other wounded man still under heavy fire until the stretcher bearers return. During this time the Medical Officer was hit himself in the back. Having no regard for his personal safety he helped the second wounded man on to the stretcher and got him safely back to the wood. This Officers devotion to duty and personal gallantry was outstanding.


On his return, Swinscow wrote an official report on the activities of his aid station.


Subject:- Medical Reports.

Ref A/1. A.D.M.S.

1 Airborne Division.


Ref your M/530 dated 25 Oct 44, herewith report as requested:-

        (a) There were a few parachute casualties on the D.Z. and probably rather more glider casualties on the L.Z., in the first lift. Together, about 6 men from this unit were unfit to proceed with the operation.  I saw 2 casualties on the D.Z., one a broken ankle, the other with apparently some internal abdominal injury.  One of our Troops ('A' Troop) was going to recce the area of Wolfheze Hospital and I got them to take these casualties and hand them over to 181 Field Ambulance.  I believe this Field Amb cleared the L.Z. and D.Z. with the help of Dutch nurses and doctors, but I do not know when they did this.

        (b) My Dressing Station was first located in a house on the main road in Oosterbeek about mile west of where Div H.Q. was later established.  On the Monday morning I treated a number of casualties of 1st Para Bde that had occurred the night before and sent them back to Div H.Q., R.A.P. - not to 181 Field Amb because we were hoping to move right into the town and I could not risk being without transport for long.

        (c) Next day my R.A.P. was in slit trenches in a wood on the opposite side of the road to Div H.Q.  I remained there about 48 hours.  At about this time my trailer, containing most of the medical equipment was stolen from the unit lines while I was at Div H.Q. getting information.  It was thought to have been removed by a Corporal of 133 Field Ambulance. On the Thursday (Sept 21st), as I was getting no work to do, casualties from this unit being evacuated elsewhere - I went over to Div H.Q. and asked Lieut Randall, R.A.M.C. if he needed any help.  He asked me to go to a house in the Border Regt lines which he had filled with 30 casualties and deal with them.  As the road was under constant fire from snipers I waited until it was quite dark (about 1 hour) and then went to this house.  I left instructions that casualties from my unit were to be sent to Div H.Q. and Lt. Randall was going to keep in communication with me by Jeep and send on any more casualties that he wished.  I remained at this house for 48 hrs and dressed the casualties there as far as the very limited equipment allowed.  I could only evacuate 2 to 181 Field Amb as they were so full up, and the rest did not require urgent surgery. On Saturday, Sept 23rd, while going to the Border Regt R.A.P. which was the next house, I got blown up and remained as a patient there with blurred vision and a "doped" feeling for about 36 hrs.  On Monday afternoon I returned to my R.A.P. in the other house and the order to withdraw came through as I was preparing to leave the Border Regt R.A.P.

        (d) I have no idea of the general medical picture. In the course of the operation I probably treated about 100 casualties.  Collection and evacuation of casualties by Jeep seemed to be satisfactory as far as the constant shell and mortar fire in the later stages of the operation allowed.  Dressing Stations were very crowded, as no cases except those requiring urgent surgical treatment could be taken at the M.D.S.  Supplies of medical stores were very short, particularly at the M.D.S. (Major Rigby-Jones told me this on the Saturday morning).  He mentioned cotton wool and dressings, as being in shortest supply; also plasma. Re-action of enemy: on the first afternoon he was frightened and brought down mortar fire and sniping onto the medial orderlies and myself on a hillside near Wolfheze Station while collecting wounded, although we had withdrawn combatant troops.  Later, he respected the Red Cross well and allowed casualties to pass through his lines to the M.D.S., which was in his hands.  I believe the enemy deliberately shot up all the medical transport at the M.D.S. with an S.P. Gun, but did not shell the buildings or area.

        (e) I obtained none, and I do not know how much was obtained.

        (f) None; except for Major Rigby-Jones on the Saturday, that the M.D.S. was short of supplies, but that the situation was reasonably well in hand.



Capt., R.A.M.C.,

R.M.O. 1st Airborne Recce Squadron.

A.P.O. England.

26th October 44.



Captain Swinscow passed away in 1992, the following obituary was printed in a newspaper:


Dr Douglas Swinscow, who has died aged 75, was deputy editor of the British Medical Journal, an authority on lichen and behaved with remarkable gallantry at the Battle of Arnhem.


On September 17th, 1944 "Dougal" Swinscow was dropped outside Arnhem with the troops assigned to capture the Rhine Bridge and hold it until the arrival of the 2nd Army. Running down a hillside to reach a wounded man, he was hampered by machine-gun fire. Then a German mortar opened up, firing six ranging shots in a circle round where he was taking cover. Realising that the enemy had run out of ammunition, he and a bearer used the short lull to put their casualty on a stretcher and to run for cover, only to be machine-gunned again. The stretcher was shattered (though the wounded man survived), and two of the bullets entered Swinscow's back, just missing his spinal cord.


He spent the next few days treating the wounded of both sides, before being ordered to the Rhine. Back in England two lorries were needed to take him and his comrades back to their Lincolnshire quarters, compared with the ten that had taken them to the airfield a fortnight earlier. Swinscow was awarded the Netherlands Bronze Cross.


Douglas Thomas Victor Swinscow was born in Gloucestershire on July 10th, 1917 and educated at Kelly College. He qualified at St Thomas's Hospital in 1939. As a house surgeon at Woking Hospital he treated many air-raid casualties, including those from the Vickers factory at Brooklands.


In 1941 he enlisted in the Royal Army Medical Corps, but did not see action until the next year when, as a Medical Officer [attached] to the 1st Army, he went ashore after the first landings in Algiers. The troops were opposed by [Vichy] French forces hostile to the Allied cause. Later he served with Intelligence units. When the Germans capitulated after the fall of Tunis in May 1943 he volunteered for the 1st Airborne Division. As part of his further training back in the United Kingdom he completed parachute course number 112 in April 1944.


After the war he toyed with the idea of psychiatry, before landing an editorial post on the BMJ, where he was to stay for the next 45 years. He had already had a poem accepted by T.S. Eliot for the New English Weekly, and contributed to the journal Folklore. His versatility was urgently needed during the BMA's confrontation with Aneurin Bevan and the Labour government over the introduction of the National Health Service - and during the fuel crisis of the winter of 1946, when the government forbade the weekly press to publish. None the less two "pemmican" editions of the journal were published, using both sides of a single sheet of foolscap paper, cyclostyled by candle-light. He and the rest of the editorial team had to reduce most items to a single line, but the journal continued its unbroken publication since 1840.


His expertise also embraced statistics (he was a Fellow of the Statistical Society), and he advised the BMJ on this increasingly important aspect of medical research. His book, Statistics at Square One, has sold almost 100,000 copies. He achieved international distinction in lichenology, gave sterling service to the Lichenological Society, and wrote a highly regarded book on East African lichens. He developed, too, and extensive interest in garden design and history; his book The Mystic Garden explained the roots of these enthusiasms.


Dougal Swinscow was a well balanced man, with a scholarly and sympathetic interest in a wide range human activity. His autobiography, "Reap a Destiny, Divagations of a Taoist", was published in 1989.


He married, in 1941, Josephine Earle. They had three daughters.



My thanks to Bob Hilton for this account.


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