In 1938 Dr.Alistair C McLaren TD, an Edinburgh G.P. in partnership with his father, very much aware of the worsening international situation, decided to join the RAMC TA and was offered a post as a Regimental Medical Officer. Whilst waiting for this to be documented, he was asked to act as MO for a training camp at Irvine. Only after accepting did. he discover that he was looking after the first ever Auxiliary Territorial Service camp in the country.
The only other males were the adjutant and the quartermaster; we had our own wee mess. I enjoyed the camp very much. The weather was very good and it was wonderful to see the super enthusiasm of these women and girls. Many had been Girl Guides - most of the officers, I think. Everyone was learning, as they had no previous example to copy. My work was light as the girls were all young and very keen. I did the usual sick parades and a round of camp inspection. I had my pipes with me and I played along the lines at Reveille and Lights Out
(not very well, I know, but they seemed to like it!).
Shortly after camp, I got the chance to join the Gunners at Dalmeny Street as RMO. The parent regiment, 57 (Lowland) Medium Regiment RA, was forming a duplicate unit, 66 Medium Regiment RA. In the meantime, until my commission came through, recruits were examined by the existing RMO - gynaecologist Douglas Mathew! In August 1939 I was asked to go to Irvine again but this time as RMO to the Glasgow Gunners, 25 pounders, I think. While at this camp, I got my telegram to report to the Regiment on the embodiment of the TA on, I think, the 1st or 2nd September, and drove straight back to Edinburgh for the first time with the "blackout" shades on the lights.
The Regiment was in Balfour Street School, near to Pilrig, a small wooden-hutted school which could not accommodate anything like the full number, so most of us slept at home and came to the school every day. Few of the men had their uniforms even, and those who had battle dress had no great coats so came along wearing their 'civvy' waterproofs, of course, carrying their 'civvy' gas masks in their wee cardboard boxes.
Our first day was the day war was declared and we, the officers, sat round the radio and heard the announcement that we were at war - this was immediately followed by the sirens sounding the first air raid warning of the war. As we had no shelters, we just sat in the wooden hut and waited! The CO, Andy Lawson, very solemnly took off his Sam Browne belt saying 'I believe you should take off the belt in case a bomb blew the buckle into your abdomen!' I am afraid that was about the last time we treated the sirens with so much respect! The warning was, of course, a false alarm. After a short time we moved to Leith Links School which could accommodate more bodies and finally we moved to John Watson's School at Belford - now the Museum of Modem Art.
As RMO I had no equipment and had to get authorisation from Scottish Command to
purchase a few bits and pieces of drugs and dressings to get on with. Eventually my
equipment and stores all arrived and my commission had also come through. I ordered my uniform - service dress, which, needless to say, I got at Kinloch Anderson's where my school friends the Dummer brothers looked after my requirements.
The first duty as MO was to examine the men prior to their being embodied as fit for service - it was some job! In the usual way, the "parent" unit had got rid of many - officers as well as men - who they looked upon as not good enough! I got many a shock on examining the troops. Quite a large number had various heart conditions - mitral stenosis etc. One of my own patients had been accepted in spite of his very marked congenital heart condition - he, poor soul, was very depressed when he had to leave the TA. Another man had been accepted in spite of the fact that he suffered from the congenital absence of his left humerus! There were also many with bad feet.
Gradually we got organised as batteries from outside Edinburgh - Dalkeith, Peebles -
came in. This is where I first met Harry Borthwick (later.Lord Borthwick) and the Regiment settled down to training - although we had no guns! From Leith Links School I had inspected John Watson's and found we could fit in, more or less. Just after we moved in, I had to inspect the then Dean Orphanage which was occupied by a section of the Auxiliary Fire Service. Going round the building I eventually got out on the roof. While there a plane came over and, seeing puffs of smoke appearing behind it, I decided this was a plane towing a target for Ack Ack practice and thought they were making a poor job of it. I suddenly realized the plane was of an unusual shape - and had iron crosses on it! This was the first German raid on the Forth Bridge. (They did not get the bridge but I think they did bomb a destroyer and caused some casualties among the crew.) The air raid resulted in at least one plane being brought down and, I suspect, another where the pilot and crew were killed. A friend of mine, Dr.Laurence Carmichael (known as 'Nick') was the RMO who had to examine the German casualties and he was quite shaken by the youth of the dead airmen.
The Regiment moved into John Watson's School and started "training". It was a medium regiment but there were no medium guns in the country. In any case, we had no guns at all, so they could not even begin gun drill. Eventually we got two old howitzers, so we felt like gunners at last. By this time I had examined all the gunners, officers etc. and had got rid of quite a few. One was my patient with the congenital heart, but his brother remained with me as my batman/driver until I left the gunners years later. I then had to vaccinate and immunise the troops. This was a pantomime. They all lined up outside the MI Room in the main corridor of the school. Inside I had the medical orderlies preparing swabs with sticking plaster for dressings and in they came, with arms ready bare. I sterilised my vaccinator - in flame - none went septic! Shortly after I started I heard one of the boys outside ask "What's it like in
there?" and the boy who had just been vaccinated replied "It's hell in there, blood all over the place!" This was followed by a series of thuds as a whole crowd of those waiting just fainted where they were.
However, I eventually got everyone vaccinated -1 had to do myself. Then I had to start on the TAB inoculation. I now shudder to think what I did then - as did everyone else in those days of ignorance of hepatitis etc. The TAB vaccine was supplied by the Army Health Centre (at, I think, Colindale) but all I had to do the inoculation with was a 20 cc syringe and half-a-dozen large needles! I filled the syringe full. An orderly swabbed the arm with spirit. I stuck the needle in and injected the dose. This was repeated with the same needle, refilling the syringe as required, until the needle became so blunt that I had almost to lean on it to push it through the skin! As far as I know, there were no cases of hepatitis caused - and I was with most of the same gunners for a long time.
Everybody had to have TAB vaccine (anti-typhoid),
even the regulars - all of whom had had it before, of course. I think
it had to be repeated every year! At that time, the order was that after
TAB you got 48 hours off duty and were supposed to lie in bed and feel
ill. One of the regular sergeants told me how they were all used to
TAB so they could just go up the town -1 said they could do as they
liked as long as they were off duty, so a bunch set out immediately
after their injection and started up to Princes Street. They got as
far as Queensferry Streeet at the comer of Princes Street and started
one by one to collapse and had to be brought back to their billets!
This turned out to be a rogue batch of TAB - grossly over strength -
it was recalled by Colindale Lab! It shook the regulars up - and me,
too! Soon after that, the 48 hours off duty was stopped - you got your
TAB and that was that. Looking back on my early days in the Army I realise
that I was really the only officer doing the job for which he had been
trained as a civilian -1 was now the GP to a bunch of men instead of
a mixed practice. Apart from the Adjutant, at that time, all the officers
were Territorials, all earning their livings as lawyers, accountants,
business men, farmers etc. but had no real army experience at all -
and not much idea of man-management either in many cases. So many of
them were terribly nice people, delightful ones and very friendly -
Copyright © 2003, Chris Dunham . All Rights Reserved