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Wounded and exhausted soldiers drinking and smoking in Nijmegen

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, Reap a Destiny, Swinscow elaborated on his experiences at Arnhem:

 

We had no difficulty in reaching our prearranged rendezvous at the corner of a wood. A few shots were fired at us as we came down, but fortunately nobody in the Squadron was hit... Most of the vehicles were successfully extricated on landing, among them mine, but a few could not be dislodged from the badly damaged gliders. Losses of vehicles on operations of this kind are to be expected, and the squadron's were no worse than those suffered by the division as a whole. In less than an hour we had formed up and set off over the heath towards Arnhem and its bridge across the Rhine.

 

To reach the city we had to traverse the nearby suburb of Oosterbeek with its attractive houses among tree-lined streets interspersed with woodland. Heathland runs along its boundary, and advancing through it we soon came under fire, for with their usual skill as responding quickly even when surprised the Germans had taken up strong defensive positions, while the Dutch ran for cover or came out to see what was going on. One of our troops of a dozen men had sustained casualties from machine gun fire, so I went out with two orderlies wearing Red Cross brassards and bearing a Red Cross flag to attend them. The Germans immediately fired on us so heavily that we had to lie flat on the ground to take cover.

 

Some confused fighting followed, and then in a second lull I ran down a hillside to a wounded man to give him aid. Quite near him I was pinned down again by machine gun fire and tried to merge myself inconspicuously in the heathland. Unfortunately, the slope on which I was lying was faced beyond a stream by a corresponding slope up the other side, at the top of which was a small wood concealing an enemy mortar bomb detachment who could see me perfectly clearly though I could not see them. As I lay in the heather pressing myself out of sight of the machine gunner, the mortar detachment dropped a bomb a couple of yards in front of me. I then heard the plop of a second bomb as it left the barrel, and after what seemed a long time it exploded the same distance behind me. How long is this going on? I wondered.

 

[After six bombs had fallen their fire had ceased] So I signalled to a stretcher-bearer to join me. Together we got our wounded man on to it and began to make a dash for the top of the slope. Unfortunately, worse was to come because we now got caught in machine gun fire again, and a bullet hitting the aluminium stretcher broke into fragments, two of which hit me in the back on either side of the spinal cord, by a lucky chance becoming embedded in the muscle and just missing the vital structures by millimetres. The hot stab bowled me over momentarily, but scrambling up again I was delighted to see that our unit on top of the slope was firing smoke bombs to cover our retreat to the woods above, though not in time to prevent a further blast from a machine gun hitting the wounded man on the stretcher again, this time in the back. Yet we got to the top, and that man, by now wounded three times, was taken back to a casualty clearing station that had been established - and survived. But to my great sorrow among the men killed in that action was one of my best friends, Lieutenant Peter Bucknall, together with many of his men.

 

The metal fragments had now become extruded from my back, leaving some small trouble-free wounds. So on 20 September I was ordered by the Assistant Director of Medical Services, Colonel Graeme Warrack, to leave my unit for an hour in order to examine some wounded German prisoners who were on mattresses in a hall... I entered the room and went up to the nearest patient, a boy of about 17 in SS uniform. Despite bullet wounds in one thigh he scrambled painfully to his feet, stood to attention, and said in English, "please do not shoot me." Inured as I was to the Germans' scant respect for the Red Cross on the first day, I was nevertheless taken aback by the thought that some Germans expected British medical officers to execute their wounded prisoners.

 

During a surprising lull one afternoon I went out into the woods to see if I could contact my CO, David Allsop, for though my aid post actually came to form part of the line across which the fighting was taking place I wanted to find out more about my friends and comrades at different places in the perimeter. It was then I learnt that another friend had been killed, Lieutenant John Christie, in a brave attempt to save a special gun when his troop came under attack.

 

In another reconnaissance through the woods I came upon a glider pilot... The poor fellow was alone in the woods, had lost touch with his unit, and was wandering about desperate for water because his lower jaw had been shot away and he was unable to drink anything. Raising his hand and throwing back his head in a drinking gesture, he made me understand what he wanted, for having no jaw he could not speak. So I entered a neighbouring house which its occupants had left untenanted for the time being and found a teapot in the kitchen, which I filled with water still available from the taps (the flow later ceased). By holding the spout to his throat I enabled him to drink through his wound and swallow the water down in gulps. The expression of blissful gratitude he turned on me haunts me to this day, a memory all the more penetrating as I suspect he failed to survive.

 

The following day I myself had a lucky escape again. While going from my aid post to another in the next road I was knocked to the ground by a shell exploding near by. It slightly concussed me, caused an ear drum to bleed and left me spitting blood for a few hours. But again I had escaped serious injury and after 12 hours' rest was back on duty - though to just what duty would now be hard to say. My jeep with part of the medical stores had been taken for no doubt more urgent needs, and the water supply having failed we to take buckets to a well behind a neighbouring house. The most efficacious remedy in the aid post now was a bottle of rum.

 

The end was clearly approaching by 25 September, and an order came round that anyone fit to do so should rejoin his unit for an attempt that would be made to withdraw south across the Rhine. So once again in a sudden lull, induced this time by the RAF's rocket-firing Typhoons, I journeyed through the strangely silent woods - and how silent they seemed between bombardments - to obtain instructions from Divisional Headquarters. Should I stay with the wounded or go with the remnant of my unit? Seeing a slit trench with some earth-coloured soldiers standing in it, I walked over to ask them for directions, since I was uncertain of the exact whereabouts of the HQ. As I looked into the trench I saw that they were all dead, as though clay statues had been placed there.

 

[At Divisional Headquarters] a senior combatant officer retired to discuss the care of the wounded with General Urquhart. After what seemed a long quarter of an hour he came out and ordered me to rejoin the squadron. One medical officer, the one attached to the Divisional Headquarters, was in fact ordered to remain. Apart from myself only two others were left within the British lines. During the withdrawal one was severely wounded and the other taken prisoner. Thus I was the only medical officer to get back with the remnants of the division at the time.

 

 

For his actions during the battle, Swinscow 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.

 

T.D.V. SWINSCOW.

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

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

A.P.O. England.

26th October 44.

 

 

Captain Swinscow passed away on the 24th September 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.

 

 

The following is his obituary as it appeared in The Guardian on the 1st October 1992:

 

After Dougal Swinscow, who has died aged 75, had parachuted into Arnhem and found himself being shot at by mortar bombs he began to wonder why it was that German fire was so accurate.

 

"The thought flitted through my head," he later wrote, "that the Germans were so much more skilful than anyone else in their use of this particular weapon because, as I contended, they have a cultural affinity with the mortar bomb's parabolic flight, its trajectory having some resemblance to the Gothic architecture that they favoured and their elongated female nudes."

 

It was typical of Dougal that in such desperate circumstances his mind should be drifting to art, mysticism, and geometry. He liked too, always to see two sides to a question and was quite capable of seeing the battle from the German point of view. His experiences as a medical officer at Arnhem - where six times he came within a whisker of death - made him determined to get the most from his seventh life.

 

And, although he was an editor on the British Medical Journal for more than 30 years, Dougal knew that a fulfilled life was not to be had by devoting all his energies to the BMJ. Journalism, he wrote in his autobiography, Reap a Destiny: Divagations of a Taoist (1989), was "diverting, engaging, demanding - but distracting, yes all the time distracting one from the reality that lies between birth and death".

 

Despite his diffidence, Dougal edited every part of the BMJ - from its oleaginous obituaries to its sometimes aggressive editorials. He wanted to bring useful message to ordinary doctors, and he did this most successfully with his book Statistics at Square One (1976). A whole generation of medical students and researchers has grown up using Dougal's book, and it still sells as well as it ever did.

 

But Dougal's great passions were outside the BMJ: in his wife and three daughters, in his garden, poetry, Taoism and pottery collections and in particular in plants and lichens. He first fell in love with plants as a boy on Dartmoor, but it was under the tutorship of the botanist Francis Rose that his fascination grew into a scientific study that culminated in founding the British Lichen Society in 1958 and having three species of lichen named after him.

 

Dougal was proud that he belonged to the great British tradition of amateur biologists and he resented any suggestion that he was really a professional. He studied plants because he loved them and because he thought that the study of their genetic and social relationships opened a window into his own soul.

 

It was completion that Dougal sought. His mother was a crack pistol shot and heavy pipe smoker and she regularly consulted fortune tellers. Dougal described himself as growing up in discord. Probably as a reaction to this and his wartime experiences he believed that "more than most people, I have a deeply felt need to reach a final harmonious chord".

 

And he did. Shortly after the prostatic cancer that killed him was diagonsed, he wrote to a friend: "All flags will be flying when I go down because I'm conscious of having lived a completely fulfilled life and produced at least one work, on the east African lichens, by which I shall be remembered far into the next century."

 

My thanks to Kate Kaye and Bob Hilton for this account.

 

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