Preparation for Normandy Invasion Casualties
SNAG 56 / Naval Base Hospital No.
Arthur Altvater's Memories of the Royal Victoria Hospital, Netley, Hants, England (1944)
With summary of history based on Henry W. Hudson's book The Story of SNAG 56
Central Tower and One Wing of Royal Victoria Hospital (Photo 1944, courtesy Arthur Altvater)
Arthur's comments will be italic to distinguish them from general background and added comments. Comments within his text will be indicated by the conventional [comment] form.
In preparation for the Normandy landings, June 6, 1944, the Victorian era pile of elaborate masonary at Netley was taken over for the Special Navy Advance Group 56 (SNAG 56) to become Navy Base Hospital No. 12. This complex, the Royal Victoria Hospital, had quite a history. Architectually it was an example of how not to build a hospital and controversial even when under construction. It was somewhat notorious as overblown and poorly designed for the intended purpose.
Still, its history paralled the Empire's military history and casualties from its wars were treated here for the 81 years before the "Colonials" moved in to use its massive spaces to treat the casualties expected with breaching Hitler's Atlantic Wall and Fortress Europe. One must remember that the build up for this invasion stretched the very space of of the United Kingdom, particularly in the south and southeast. Arthur's comment ". . . barrage balloons. They were the only thing keeping England from sinking from all the yanks and their equipment being there" reflects a saying that was common at the time. Farm land, even in the dire shortages of the time, was taken as were roadsides. People got used to living with every spare inch seemingly taken with war materials, the troops and support people required to mount the invasion. Even the old, inadequate facilities of the Royal Victoria Hospital were needed.
Citation presented by Hampshire County Council to
SNAG 56 members at reunion in St. Louis, Missouri
(Provided by Vincent W.Cilurso)
A paper by Kathryn Morrison, a text reference now lost on the web, titled "English Military Hospitals: An Architectural History" gave details on the controversy over the hospital's design. The "suites of small, poorly-ventilated rooms which opened off Corridors" here echoes and explains comments in Recollections of nurses, LT Helen Pavlovsky, USNR, and LT Sara Marcum, USNR, stationed at Navy Base Hospital No. 12 (at Royal Hospital, Netley, England) found at Naval Historical Center's (NHC) website where Mrs. Sara Marcum Kelley comments: "The grounds out side the buildings were beautiful, with wonderful surroundings and the view of the water. [See map and page on the cemetery where some idea of the surroundings may be obtained]
Unfortunately, the hospital was not in great condition. The plumbing was atrocious. From the bathtubs and the sinks, the water drained into a trough that went half way around the room before it finally went into a pipe and out. Each room had about 30 or 35 beds, but the rooms weren't connected, which is not very efficient when it comes to nursing because you would have to go out into the main corridor and then around into the room." In any case it is clear from the references and particularly the English Military Hospitals article that this Victorian monster was something of a grand old problem. Still, before finding the words "Netley fiasco" one finds that the hospital's design was considered obsolete at the time it was built, but that its staff overcame the building's design defects to make it a highly respected institution.
[20 August 2001]
A 2001 book by Phillip Hoare, author of books on Noel Coward and Oscar Wilde, titled Spike Island features the Royal Victoria Hospital. The following is a review giving some idea of the subject:
"Nobody could describe the scenes of this hospital in a more evocative fashion than Philip Hoare. His history of Netley is alternatively poignant and brutal. In this book, the building comes alive, struggles, and finally dies. In what is partly an archaeology of place, partly local history, and partly childhood memoir, we are led into the corridors and darkened rooms and introduced to its innumerbale residents, including the author's mad grand-uncle. In the end, the destruction of the building comes to symbolise the end of an era." Joanna Bourke, Independent
Photo provided by Vincent W.Cilurso showing extent of
the facility and massive size of the Royal Victoria Hospital
(click here for full size)
I had long known of the Navy nurses' story as it was one I'd scanned for NHC as a volunteer converting hard copies into digital for the web site. When Arthur first contacted "Slowbell," who in turn contacted me about the USS Laramie, I found he'd been assigned to the USS Relief and pointed him to the CAPT Ann Bernatitus recollections as I knew they were aboard at the same time. Arthur came back with:
Hi Ramon you sure know how to bring back memories. I brought up the page Frequently asked questions and I couldn`t belive my eyes. When I saw the story Normandy Invasion, 6th Jine 1944 by LT.Helen Pavlovsky. I was part of that unit as a matter of fact I have a book written by Henry W. Hudson, Capt (MC)USNR, it is titled The Story of Snag 56. I knew both of those nurses. I don`t know how I managed to hang on to my copy after all these years. It was called SNAG 56 (SPECIAL NAVY AMPHIBIOUS GROUP). We left N.Y. on the H.M,S. AQUITANIA, arriving at Belfast, Ireland, and the story goes on from there to much to relate here. Will send you pictures later. I have a bunch of them
[Arthur corrected the meaning of "SNAG" as a result of web searches he got in touch with the unit association. Vincent W.Cilurso, an active member, reviewed this page and noted that "It is stated that SNAG means 'Navy Amphibious Group .' It really meant 'Navy Advanced Group.' We are hoping more information for this page will be provided by the association members. (R. Jackson)]
We left N. Y. on a troop ship the [HMS] Aquitania and arrived in Belfast, Ireland [actually Gouroch, Scotland, most members were then transported to N. Ireland for a time] on the most dark and miserable rainy night you could conjure up. Not having good food on the way over and we were all hungry [Remember, a Royal Navy vessel under the very severe shortages imposed by the need to fit food among the items being brought across the dangerous North Atlantic. I've read accounts of military people being very happy with a lard sandwich.]. Had a good hot meal and felt better before leaving for the hospital in England. We had to cross the Irish Sea and believe me that must be the roughest body of water in the world. What a bunch of sea sick sailors. Thank goodness I never got sea sick the whole time in the Navy.
Well when we got to the hospital you would not believe the condition it was in. The date escapes me when we got there but it is in the book I sent you. Of course it took us a long time getting ready for D-Day, but before that time everything was routine.
Arthur at Royal Victoria Hospital (1944)
What I do remember is laying in my bunk and hearing and watching the BUZZ bombs going over on their way to London [This is also mentioned in the Navy Nurse article, but it is clear Southampton (about five miles away) was one of the targets. The target of Arthur's Buzz Bombs was more probably Southampton.]. Also at night you could hear this German plane going up the river and that was pretty much a nightly thing. He would fly low to avoid the Radar. Plus he missed all the barrage balloons. They were the only thing keeping England from sinking from all the yanks and their equipment being there. Had Liberty on several occasions and went to London. What a mess, all the bombed out buildings.
Used to date one of the nurses, which was against the rules, but we got away with it.
The Story of SNAG 56 tells you the rest of it. Could you pick me out in the picture of us going to COLORS?
More Royal Victoria Hospital Snapshots
The following is a very brief synopsis of information in Henry W. Hudson's The Story of SNAG 56.
SNAG 56 organized in Lido Beach, Long Island, N.Y. in early 1944 using the old hotel and club facilities. On 22 January 1944 the Commanding Officer and some top staff departed, sailing on the Queen Mary, for the United Kingdom. The main body of about 720 personnel left by train (details) for Jersey City a few days later. Transfer from train to a ferry was made so as not to be observed.
The ferry transported the group to the covered Pier 86 to meet with the transport designated as N.Y. 40. Troops were also embarking, some 1,000 of them, and only when aboard was it revealed that the transport was actually the H.M.S. Aquitania. Normally the ship was the RMS Aquitania (be sure to see the wartime photo at this link), but requisitioned for Royal Navy war service. On 29 January Aquitania passed out of the defensive nets of New York and sailed alone into the North Atlantic where war was reality within miles of shore.
[Correction: Ian Moignard noted I'd perpetuated an error in the previous version of this page. He observed the comment "Titanic and Lusitania were Aquitania's sister ships" and noted "This is not true. Aquitania (45,647 grt) had no sister ships and was considerably larger than Lusitania (31,550grt) and Lusitania's sister Mauretania (31,938 grt)." ]
While aboard the passengers would be served two meals, morning and evening, and confined in very crowded spaces that when the ship was closed up became extremely smelly. "Action Station" drills were opportunities for fresh air and exercise, but toward the end of the trip there was AA fire against three German planes. On the evening of 5 February Aquitania moored off Gourock, Scotland.
Nurses went direct to Netley while the main body moved to Londonderry in Northern Ireland to wait. The advance party had meanwhile taken over from the Army, who had been resident for some three weeks, at the Royal Victoria Hospital. The following quote, from Henry W. Hudson's The Story of SNAG 56, "It is said that the Colonel, on being informed by Captain Brown that the Navy was to move in, commented, 'Well, by God, you can have it.' Just what he meant we were to appreciate" gives further confirmation of what this Victorian pile must have been like. The Army staff had lived in tents rather than the buildings. The advance party chose to use an adjacent hospital facility that had one warm room.
Meanwhile the main body had a rather difficult passage by train, boat, train again and finally marching, across the rough Irish Sea to the Beach Hill facility near Londonderry. They arrived in the first hours of 9 February. There they awaited movement in phases to Netley. The nurses waited in London for final assembly at the hospital whose foundation stone had been laid by Queen Victoria herself in 1856 and whose plans had drawn the assessment of "reproduced all the worst faults of an out-of-date and mischievous system of hospital construction" by Florence Nightingale during its seven year construction period.
On 1 April Naval Base Hospital #12 was established at the Royal Victoria Hospital, though there was apparently consideration of just moving out of the glorious building and into a mobile hospital erected on the playing fields. It is ironic that even Prime Minister Lord Palmerston, who took up Florence Nightingale's protest, had commented that "comfort and recovery of the patients has been sacrificed to the vanity of the architect, whose sole object has been to make a building which should cut a dash when looked at from Southampton River." SNAG 56, now Naval Base Hospital #12, faced a daunting cleanup, make-do, supply (nearly nil) and scrounging with D-Day only two months away.
With hard work and the help of Seabees they managed to get the hospital in some order to receive wounded from the Normandy beaches. The facilities were made more or less acceptable, though basics such as heating were still lacking. A pervasive air of "cold" comes through the accounts. Heating of the huge wards was by a small fireplace burning coal bricks in fuel short Britain. The patients at the time were British. The shortages, gloom and harsh conditions familiar, but to the Americans frightening. How were they to get this place ready for the wounded?
In a portion of The Story of Snag 56, "As Seen through the Eyes of One Navy Nurse," Helen Pavlovsky (also one of the nurses with the oral history at NHC linked above) describes the atmosphere:
The usual hospital atmosphere was absent. The corridors and wards were icy cold. There was no means of obtaining heat except from a two-foot square fireplace which burned blocks of coal. These were made from powdered coal dust and oil, compressed into block form. Whenever you remembered to look, they were out, either from lack of fuel or because the fuel would not burn. It was against the law to burn wood, and we were constantly being told to conserve fuel for tomorrow we might not be able to get any. The first bed, and perhaps the second, managed to keep warm; how the others fared must have been by the grace of God alone. But they were practically all British patients and used to cold weather. They spoke of their homes which were often entirely without heat, and felt that what they were getting was adequate.
The bed linen was soiled, what there was of it, for many beds were entirely without; and the patients themselves needed baths and clean clothes. We had practically nothing with which to work. Those days of improvisation left not only an ineradicable impression on our minds, but served as the beginning of a strong attachment to this old place; which already seemed like ours, for we were rebuilding it. We all scrubbed and cleaned everything we saw; patients, beds, equipment, decks and bulkheads. We had to work hard to get our ship in commission.
The wards were scattered over a large area. Several wards to a service required leaving the "Sister's Bunk" and penetrating the darkened, icy corridor. This was increased in gloom by the blackout shades and green lights, where you listened to the howling of the black cats and could practically feel the presence of the Gray Lady. We dared not move without a torch or a corpsman, for it was when you were alone that she crept up behind and tapped you on the shoulder. The Gray Lady was probably Queen Victoria herself, who couldn't rest after the Americans came, and therefore walked the decks at night to observe and protect. (I have yet to see her, though I worked nights.) In the central part of the building is a museum, which has not only stuffed birds of every feather, but Queen Victoria's wheel chair and shawl. The museum, the Gray Lady, the black cats, and the nightly air-raids all seemed to form an integral part of the atmosphere. [Another version of the Gray Lady legend is that she is the ghost of a remorseful volunteer who, while on duty with a dying patient, fell asleep. On awakening to find him dead she threw herself from the clock tower and returns to walk the wards when a patient is critically ill. -- Ed.]
The work was hard and conditions anything but desirable, but there was time for the countryside and recreation. (See a site "dedicated to Netley Abbey, a village situated between Southampton and Hamble in England" for some of the nearby points of interest, including the abbey and castle, mentioned by people in the SNAG 56 book as places to visit. There is also a photo of all that remains of Royal Victoria Hospital, the chapel as it stands today. "Related Links" leads to, among other things, Netley Abbey by Moonlight by John Constable now in the Tate Gallery.)
Meanwhile the build up for invasion was evident. Some new patients arrived as early as April, some the result of "E" boat attacks or bombs. They began to get patients who knew invasion details and had to isolate them from all others. Then the invasion was on, the mass of shipping was gone from the port, and the staff could even hear distant fire from France. Then the ships bearing casualties began arriving and the real work began. [See former patient's memory of the hospital] The air raids stopped and the buzz bombs began. At one point, when Southampton was apparently a main target, some 25 fell within miles of the hospital.
By late October the functions of SNAG 56/Naval Base Hospital #12 had been taken over by the Army and eight months, eleven days after commissioning the organization was disbanded. Many returned to duty in the U.S. Seamen, such as Arthur, were assigned to an amphibious force. The work of the unit was recognized by a Navy Unit Commendation.
The main reference is:
The Story of SNAG 56; ©1946 by Henry W. Hudson, Captain (MC) USNR; Harvard University Printing Office, Cambridge, Ma.
The book has much interesting detail and many photographs, but will be difficult to find. Even the Navy Department Library does not have a copy and knows the location of only seven copies.
Henry W. Hudson, Captain (MC)
Author of The Story of SNAG 56
Henry W. Hudson, IV, Captain Hudson's grandson, ran across the web page. Through him we now have additional details on the Captain:
He completed his active Naval service at Chelsea Naval Hospital (Boston, MA) as Chief of Surgery in October or November 1945. In addition to his service with SNAG 56 in England, he had served on the light cruiser Wichita at Guadalcanal and the invasion of North Africa at Casablanca. He did, indeed, see a good deal of World War II!
He continued in the Reserves and as a consultant at Chelsea through the 1940's and perhaps into the early 1950's.
The following are news reports reprinted in the book and they may be available in some libraries on microfilm:
Boston Herald, June 26, 1944, "Wounded Men Rail Over Leaving Fight" by Catherine Coyne. The "U. S. Naval Base Hospital in England" is Naval Base Hospital #12.
Buffalo Evening News, July 20, 1944, "Buffalo Officers Tend WNY Seamen in English Hospital" by Fred MacKenzie
Journal of the American Medical Association, September 2, 1944, "Naval Hospital in England Treats Hundreds of Wounded First Two Weeks of Invasion"
New York Journal-American, June 26, 1944, "Visit to Normandy Wounded" by Lorelle Hearst.
New York World Telegram, January 16, 1945, "Navy Nurse" by Carol Taylor
I would be interested in hearing from anyone else with SNAG 56/Naval Base Hospital #12 information. The story of adapting to the Royal Victoria Hospital facility is interesting in itself. It is an important piece of the D-Day story, but appears to be little known. Please e-mail me if you can assist.
Arthur Altvater's USS Laramie
memories at Slowbell (Story of the torpedoing of Laramie and
burial at sea)
USS Relief's Wartime Chronicle (provided by Arthur Altvater)
Arthur Altvater's Personal USS Relief Log
A page based on Arthur's USS Laramie photos - Supporting Greenland
R. Jackson's Ship Index