Dr Bobby Headley interview: Desert Campaign

What equipment did you have for the Desert Campaign?

The No 1 Mobile Military Hospital was not a CCS (casualty clearing service). There had never been anything like it in the army before. It had been a mobile surgical unit which had been paid for by the Friends Ambulance Brigade, Quaker people who don’t believe in war but will help in it. They were prepared to provide this splendid unit with wonderful equipment. An operating theatre on a sort of platform built up on a frame. On one side were theatre work, the instruments, on another side was the washing up, another side was patients in and out, another side was clothing. The whole thing was supplied with enough equipment to go anywhere. When it got as far as England there weren’t any air raid distressed to be relieved [in Europe] because it had all fallen. It was all under German control. So they put it back on the ship and took it out to the Middle East, to Egypt and unloaded it there to help out what had just been the worst retreat we had.

When the Germans marched through into Greece they didn’t capture Crete because Crete was in British hands. But the Germans completely occupied Greece. The Germans decided to take on Crete which they did in about 1942 and had the biggest airborne landing they had ever had. They captured it by entirely airborne troops.  They succeeded in driving the British out from the airport there, forcing them to pass over the mountains to the south side which was almost impassable to transport. They had to leave everything behind while the Germans occupied these three airports. After that airborne landing in Crete the Germans never did it again. They lost so many people. Unfortunately we lost Crete and several field ambulances. They all got back somehow or other on a destroyer to Egypt without any equipment at all. So one of them, Col Cross, who had had a field ambulance over that side, was given the mobile military hospital to run and he was the commanding officer when I joined it.

So there I was with No 1 Mobile Military Hospital. That’s the sort of soldiers we were in those days. That’s an idea of what things went on. Here’s us outside. That’s the sort of clothing we used to wear. From left to right Peter Simon, Jimmy Baird… Jimmy Baird became the Director General of Military Zones, field marshal. He had a field marshal’s baton. That’s the sort of crowd of types we had there. No 1 Mobile Military Hospital went up and down the desert, the war went here, it went there. In a retreat of course there was nothing our chaps could do except hope for the best but they were near enough to Cairo and Alexandria to have a night out. The Germans rather liked it when they went back there. There were some very lethal performers.

So what happened in the Desert Campaign against the Germans?

When I got up there they were on the point of organising the big push because at that moment the Germans had got up to the Qatar Depression. They were up here. The Qatar Depression is a sort of sand sea and you can’t get through it with anything. The Germans had just made their last push and were in striking distance of the Nile Delta and Egypt and all paths to the east. That was a terror situation altogether there. The last stand was at Alamein here. There was the sea this side and the Qatar Depression that side about 40 miles and that was where we were holding. When I arrived there at Suez I said to one of the stewards on the ship “We’re losing aren’t we here? Have you got to stay on this ship? Are you going back to Europe on it?” Because the ships were going backwards and forwards. All of these troops were out there. Some of them had been there pre-war but most of them had to come all the way from England all the way around there. England and the Australians, New Zealanders and South Africans. They were all in Egypt. Egypt was the key to the world. The only place with fighting going on really and that was the first time that we had any luck. But when we won at Alamein, which happened not long after I got there, that was the first battle we won. This was in September/October 1942 so we had been at war for three years before we had done any good.

The hospital I was at was stuck right on the middle of this delta here. The idea being that they were preparing to lose here and retreat over the Suez Canal into Palestine. The whole army was getting ready to retreat and our hospital was going to treat the casualties when they fell back from the desert. Well luckily the Battle of Alamein was a success and they didn’t fall back from the desert so we then made our way up north and sat on the Bay of Aboukir where the Battle of the Nile was fought against Napoleon previously.

You were not the first member of your family to be involved in an Egyptian war?

So it was another battle that the British won – the Battle of Aboukir where one of my relations was a captain on one of Nelson’s ships. He got killed like Nelson did but he was killed at the Battle of the Nile which was a more strategic one than the Battle of Trafalgar which we have just been celebrating 200 years since. Because there we defeated most of the French fleet there, Unfortunately, my great great uncle was sitting on the deck and he got shot and died. He was lucky. He got his statue put up at St Paul’s Cathedral. At least he got remembered.

When I was sitting on a bank there we were playing chess before going forward. So after that, what happens is that the Germans fall back quite quickly and we were putting up hospitals along the way as required. Not long before Christmas 42 we arrived at Benghazi which was a key point. The whole of the battleground depended on ports. There was only one road here or else you had to go over the desert which took a bit of getting over.