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Dr Bobby Headley interview: British 8th Army

You were supporting the British 8th Army under General Montgomery. Women had a significant role. Can you tell us about that?

Before Alamein, General Montgomery who was chosen out of all the … several generals got killed… Montgomery who had fought with distinction in the First [World] War was sent to take care of what was then known as the 8th Army which were our crack British troops. If you’ve been in the 8th Army that’s the badge you would get. The 8th Army always had its male orderlies in the casualty clearing stations and not until you got to the base hospital were there any females. Montgomery had heard that women were much better at treating the wounded after they had been attended to than the men. He said “Right ho, we’ll have some women.” So every clearing station – that included us - was given about eight or ten nursing sisters. They were called the Queen Alexandra Imperial Military Nursing Service.  So we then had these nursing sisters with us for the rest of the war wherever we were.       

The unit had got somewhere up here when Montgomery decided that and I was told to go back to Alexandria and collect these women. Col Charles was an awfully nice chap. I had got married in 1940 and within a relatively short time I had left my wife behind. I was about the only member of the officers there who was married. So he said “Well you had better be put in charge because you’re married. You’ll be safe.” Can you believe it? So I went back and collected these women and being autumn they were put in service dress. Those sisters in service dress, they looked absolutely ghastly. Ill fitting service dress.

There was only one road you could up and you couldn’t go off it because there were mines. So you couldn’t rest. Except very occasionally you got a clearing. All the troops, all the back-up staff and reinforcements and equipment all went up this road for miles and miles. It’s a long way – about 500 miles. We had to go past all these convoys of chaps who had stopped. Unfortunately they weren’t used to women. There had never been any women before. Unfortunately they had got accustomed, instead of using the sides, they just used the road for urinary purposes because it was safer and they wouldn’t get blown up. I used to say we are approaching a convoy there, avert your eyes. There was this woman. Her name was Miss Butler – a bit of a tyrant. She realised I was supposed to be in charge of them and didn’t like me. She said “I’m in control here, I’m a captain.” When eventually we came to somewhere where we would spend quite a bit of time, she said “Where can I let my girls go for usual purposes?” I said “I’m afraid I can do nothing about it, Miss Butler. The only thing you can do it to march them over the horizon. There’s nowhere else they can go.” That improved my relationship with her no end.