Geoffrey Wooler was born in November 1911 and studied medicine at Cambridge, before starting his medical career at London Hospital in October 1933. Having joined the Royal Army Medical Corps (Territorial Army) in 1938, Geoffrey was responsible for checking the physical fitness of new recruits to the second Battalion the Queen’s Westminsters. In May 1942 he was transferred as a graded surgeon to the 70th General Hospital and moved with the Hospital to North Africa shortly after the Torch landings. Here we display extracts from Geoffrey Wooler’s diary:
Friday Dec 11th 1942- During the late morning, we arrived in Bone and camped in a field about a mile from the town. I was asked to form a small mobile surgical team from the personnel of the 70th General Hospital in order to help the surgeons working with Field Ambulances at the front. I thought it would be a good idea to see what their conditions were like. So on Monday, Feb 1st, 1943, a Capt Porterfield from 185 Field Ambulance offered to take me to the front in his car. He had a Dodge 15cwt. truck with a solid roof covering the front seats from which you could spot planes. We drove all day Eastwards along the main coastal road which eventually goes as far as Bizerta and Tunis, but these towns were still in enemy hands.
After leaving La Calle the road passes through a desolate part of the country. There were many burnt out vehicles dumped by the side of the road and several German tanks in the surrounding fields. In many places the road showed signs of being mined. We arrived at Sedjenane at about 4 o’clock in the afternoon. The 185 Field Ambulance was billeted in a tobacco factory along with a number of British and French commandos. About every ten days front line troops came there for forty-eight hours’ rest.
Tuesday Feb 2nd 1943- After breakfast I went over to see the tunnel in which Gledhill had his Field Surgical Unit. It is safely housed in this railway tunnel and looks as though it would stop anything except a direct hit. The theatre has a wooden and lino floor. There is a resuscitation ward and one other ward with12 beds adjoining the theatre. They have an ample supply of stretchers. Electric lighting is from a generator or from accumulators. They have also a supply of Tilley lamps.
A mixed French and English commando force is billeted in part of the tobacco factory. Some of the French are very young – in their teens. They go out at night armed with Sten guns to shoot Arabs and anybody they see coming over from the Jerry lines.
Thursday Feb. 4th- One of the padres of the Field Ambulance wished to go up to the Advanced Dressing Station on a motorbike after breakfast. I was discussing with Gledhill whether it was fairly safe to do this and so avoid a night journey when Jerry planes arrived. We were in our room, Gledhill told me to duck. There was the sound of machine gunfire and cannon. The planes arrived with their engines turned off from the direction of the sun and dived on the tobacco factory shooting with their cannons. There was a colossal roar of engines as they pulled out of their dives and went away. They were quickly followed by a second wave of planes which bombed the factory. I counted at least six bombs which arrived without any whistle. The windows and doors of our room were blown in and both Gledhill and I were covered with glass and wood splinters. My left foot was cut slightly. A crack appeared in the wall above our fireplace, and a grate from the stove shot out through the door, which was difficult to explain.
The whole show lasted about five minutes. I kept to my corner of the room with my tin hat on. The house rocked on two occasions but withstood the racket.
There were signs of machine gunning and cannon fire on the wall of the passage outside our room. A bomb had hit the Main Dressing Station at the other side of the yard to our house, and all the patients in there were killed. An ammunition dump belonging to the commandos in our house was on fire and French commandos were rushing about telling us to get clear because it might blow up any minute.
Gledhill soon recovered from this shaking up and started organising things for the reception of casualties. Several of the Field Ambulance officers came into the tunnel to help. I assisted Gledhill with all the cases – there were twelve. Most of them had multiple injuries so we both worked together in order to get them out of the theatre as quickly as possible.
Friday Feb. 26th- After arriving at 19 Casualty Clearing Station a message arrived from Corps Headquarters ordering us to prepare all beds, because we were to expect a great number of casualties. They started to arrive in the late afternoon. I operated all the night, stopping once for food at 4 o’clock in the morning.
Saturday Feb 27th- Casualties continued to pour in every four hours. We had three operating tables going in my theatre and I operated and supervised all the day. I had two hours’ rest in the late afternoon and then carried on throughout the night until four o’clock. The Commanding Officer of the Casualty Clearing Station, Colonel Pern, kindly assisted me during the night.
Wednesday April 14th- The 70th General Hospital is under canvas in a field about half a mile from Thibar village. Got up at dawn and spent the whole day pitching tents and unloading lorries.
A Boche plane came over in the evening and bombed us – he dropped two 500lb bombs and a number of anti-personnel bombs, which did little damage.
Thibar monastery is situated between the village and our hospital camp site. It was built in the mid-19th century and houses Les Pères Blancs monks. Their toilets have been built over a crevice in the rocks and everything has conveniently disappeared for over a century – until our soldiers arrived.
One man was smoking a cigarette while he used the toilet, and as he got up to dress, he threw the remainder of his cigarette down the toilet and so into the crevice. Immediately there was an ominous rumbling sound, which alerted him, and he left hurriedly before adjusting his clothing.
I was in a field about 200 yards away, when there was a loud explosion like a bomb, and the whole roof of the toilet sailed into the air. Hydrogen sulphide no doubt.
A corrugated iron roof was immediately fitted; but this only lasted two days, when it went up – in spite of a notice on the toilet door: ‘No smoking’.
After losing a second roof it was decided not to replace it, as summer was approaching and the weather becoming warmer. Our men were not accustomed to roofs on latrines.
Thursday April 15th- We made a large red cross and I felt safer from air attack.
Wednesday April 21st- At about mid-day Jerry commenced a major offensive and casualties began to pour in. We were the only unit functioning because all the others had packed and were waiting to go forward. Later I learnt that our army had been preparing for a major attack, to force the Germans out of the remaining pocket in Tunisia. He must have received this information and so attacked first.
Thursday April 22nd- The most severely injured of our men arrived during the early morning. They came in hundreds and many of them died. We had three operating tables going and I worked hard all the day and night. Jerry is attacking in full force and determined to break through our lines. Col Coyte and Major Owen and many others from the 71st General came to help us.
Friday April 23rd- Wounded continued to pour in the whole day, all very severe injuries. I had three hours’ rest in the afternoon but otherwise kept going all day and night. Our nursing sisters arrived in the afternoon.
Saturday April 24th- We admitted 580 severely wounded cases yesterday.
Sunday April 25th- We are taking in hundreds of casualties a day, some have already been operated on at the forward Casualty Clearing Stations. Our attack is certainly on but Jerry is harder to crack than I thought.
Thursday May 6th- Our attack for Tunis has started and the air was never free of our planes, relays of bombers escorted by fighters passed overhead all the day long – making for the direction of Tunis. We took a few minor casualties in during the night but nothing in comparison with the show of a fortnight ago.
Friday May 7th- Planes continued to pass overhead during all the night and day. The men who have come back from the front say that there seemed to be thousands of our planes bombing the enemy. In the evening we heard that both Tunis and Bizerta fell today at about 4pm.
Monday May 10th- We were told to clear the hospital completely and to expect 2,000 prisoners. All British cases are to go to the 71st General Hospital.
Many more wounded prisoners arrived.
Tuesday May 11th- We took in over 1,200 wounded prisoners today and I was up until 5 o’clock in the morning treating them. The Italian and German doctors assisted us.
Thursday May 13th- The best way of annoying the Boche is to ask them if they are Italian. They dislike one another intensely.
We allowed the medical prisoners considerable freedom but soon learnt that it was foolish. One night the German doctors burnt our hospital tents saying they have not lost the war, a disgraceful thing to do – so they were taken to a Prisoner of war camp.
Saturday May 15th- Back at the 70th General in Thibar, German sick and casualties continued to arrive in their hundreds. They believe that we are going to fight with them against Russia after the war.
Thursday May 20th Victory day in Tunis. The American surgical team left at an early hour to fly over Tunis in the victory demonstration.
Geoffrey Wooler’s service in North Africa was, for him, just the beginning. He landed on an invasion barge in Pantelleria, before moving on to Sicily and subsequently Italy, where he operated on the casualties of the Monte Cassino battles.
Post war, Geoffrey Wooler operated for many years at Leeds General Infirmary, undertaking pioneering work in the field of Thoracic surgery. He wrote of his experiences in an autobiography ‘Pig in a Suitcase’ which is both informative and extraordinarily entertaining and the Centre is honoured to hold copies of Geoffrey Wooler’s extensive collection of photographs and his diary.