Dr Bobby Headley interview: Italian Campaign

And then you sailed for Italy?

Anyway we didn’t see much so we came back here. In 1943, I was posted on HMS Somersetshire which was a converted liner as a hospital ship. A hospital ship carried nothing but nurses, patients, beds, doctors and the crew. We set off from Alexandria here up the Mediterranean, wary of going. We go along here. It was rather nice being on an empty hospital ship with nothing happening. A hospital ship, believe it or not, doesn’t have any lighting so it goes along looking like Brighton Pier on a holiday night. It was supposed to be safe from attack so we went along and put a hold on the ship and get off and have a bathe or a swim a bit further up. Then we began to realise we were going to Sicily where we understood the war had started as there had been an invasion of Sicily from here. There was very tough fighting going on there too.

Sicily was being attacked from here. The Germans had been here and the Italians there so we hadn’t been able to go through anything here [without] accepting enormous loss. So there was pretty well no traffic. Now, of course, we had opened it up because that was all in British and Allied hands so they had come across here and landed here near Catania. They realised they had really heavy casualties because the Italians put up a pretty good resistance here because it was their own country, you see. Added to which we didn’t realise that malaria was rather rife here. We had been told that malaria had been eliminated from the whole of Italy to Rome. The Pontine Marshes had been freed by the Italians. So we got quite heavy casualties from malaria which were no good for anything. Anyhow, they landed here and were trying to get through to up here. They had difficulty in getting the casualties off so they sent for some hospital ships including the one we were on.

A disaster happened in front of you?

In front of us was another hospital ship called the Palermo which was an Indian one. We had not gone very far along here when we heard that it had been struck. Whether it was a mistake or not, the Palermo had had a bomb go down the funnel and sank with pretty well everybody on board including some patients. So we realised then that no longer could we go along looking like Brighton Pier on a holiday. So we were in total darkness now. So we eventually put into Augusta, not far from Siracuse, and we took on a load of patients from here in the dark and we took them over to Tripoli. Then we did another trip. We did it twice I think. Then I think by that time we had got it over. We were then taken out of action and back to Alexandria. So our war was over for the time being. By this time they had started the war up here and they had the landings at Salerno.

There was a major force landed here with British battleships and everything. Quickly got a foothold and we thought that it was all over. At that point as soon as the British or the Allies appeared in Italy the Italians capitulated and gave in. We thought that’s easy and off we go. Not on your Nelly! The Germans sent two divisions very quickly, got here before we ever got going. We then had a major fight the whole way back up Italy which took two years.

What happened as you treated patients during the Italian campaign?

By this time I was back in Egypt and we were wondering what was going to happen there. In September/October we were taking the patients off. Then the Salerno landings were on. Then they pushed the Germans back a bit so we then possessed the bottom bit of Italy but not the top part. It was very heavily defended. So I found myself on a ship which proceeded to land at Taranto. Taranto was the scene of a major disaster for the Italian fleet because in 1940 a British warship of the Fleet Air Arm made a raid against the Italian fleet which was mostly harbouring at Taranto and sank most of them at their anchors.

They were still there. We ran a hospital there for quite a long time. We had a rather nice place which had been a tuberculosis sanatorium, all on the edge of the sea and it was really quite nice to work there. Nice and sunny, had a flat on a nice bay. We had a lot of patients coming down all the time from here and then they could be taken off by sea without much trouble. We had quite a long time there during which time I was lucky enough to have a chance to go around these areas here and then finally they managed to get hold of Naples and get through to Rome after that which was quite a way off.  It took years to get along here and we were mostly stuck down in this area here which had the advantage of being in Italy and you had lots of things to look at and nice countryside with a reasonable climate. Italy is quite a nice place to live in.

But you were injured in an accident?

I had been there for quite a bit of time and coming through to January 1944 I was transferred to another hospital there, No 22 General Hospital. We were beginning to advance up here. I never advanced up here, we remained static here at the hospital, catching those coming down and shipping them overseas back to Europe. I only had one disaster. I was up at this place Manfredonia. We were shooting pigeons. We were using cartridges that we had found in a hut down on the north coast of Africa, left behind by some duck shooters and somebody had booby-trapped it. Instead of shooting at a pigeon I shot myself and the gun blew up in my face which was rather a nuisance. I lost the sight of either eye for a time but luckily got away with it and survived it. That was the only injury I suffered in the war – self-inflicted wounds. You can’t really say that was anything to be proud of. I wasn’t to know. We shouldn’t have used ammunition that we found.