IWM Duxford shares stories of medical heroes during wartime

Captain Walker L. Boone, Flight Officer Manuel S. Martinez and Flight Officer Gerry E. Brasher, pilo

Captain Walker L. Boone, Flight Officer Manuel S. Martinez and Flight Officer Gerry E. Brasher, pilots of the American 78th Fighter Group, sit on the bonnet of a Dodge WC (weapons carrier) at Duxford air base, 1943. Picture: IWM FRE 282 - Credit: Imperial War Museum

As the country thanks NHS staff during the coronavirus crisis, IWM Duxford has delved into its archives to share stories of medical heroes from World War Two.

Standard US Army and USAAF ambulance of the Second World War, on display at the American Air Museum

Standard US Army and USAAF ambulance of the Second World War, on display at the American Air Museum at IWM Duxford. Photographic evidence shows them in service at Duxford from 1942 to 1945. Picture: IWM - Credit: © IWM

Medical staff treating patients during the country’s hour of need.

Ambulance drivers transporting people to a makeshift hospital. Sound familiar?

This isn’t 2020 though, but Duxford in the 1940s.

As the NHS continues to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic on the frontline today, the Cambridgeshire museum is celebrating the work of the medical community by delving into its archives to reveal the tales of medical staff who worked at the former RAF base during World War Two.

A P-47D Thunderbolt of the American 78th Fighter Group that flipped over and crashed at Duxford airb

A P-47D Thunderbolt of the American 78th Fighter Group that flipped over and crashed at Duxford airbase, 1944. An ambulance is on the left with a group of crewmen standing nearby. Picture: IWM FRE 12139 - Credit: © IWM FRE 12139

Stories include that of Squadron Leader Dr John Apley, a medical officer who treated fighter pilots during the Battle of Britain, administrative clerk Doris Hudson who served in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, and American Staff Sergeant Cecil Whitehead, an ambulance driver who transported patients from Duxford to a makeshift hospital at Thriplow House.

Although IWM Duxford is currently closed, Imperial War Museums’ online collection of around 800,000 items that tell the story of modern war and conflict can be explored at www.iwm.org.uk/collections.

• Building 10 – Duxford’s Sick Quarters

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Building 10, situated in the south-west corner of the parade ground at Duxford, served as the base’s main medical facility – known as the ‘Sick Quarters’ – during the Second World War.

Built in 1933, the single-storey ‘T’-shaped building was made up of numerous rooms that included an observation ward, consulting room, dental surgery, dispensary, wards for officers and airmen, and reception and waiting rooms.

During the Battle of Britain, wounded pilots would have been treated here, while the building also served the day-to-day medical needs of a busy RAF station.

Although the Sick Quarters had the capacity for minor surgery, more serious cases were sent to Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge.

Those convalescing from surgery, injuries or illnesses were often sent to Thriplow House, a Victorian manor just two miles east of Duxford that had been requisitioned by the RAF after the outbreak of war.

When the nearly 1,700 personnel of the 78th Fighter Group arrived in April 1943, the Sick Quarters was moved to the larger Thriplow House, with Building 10 remaining as the base’s primary care centre.

Read on for more about some of the people that served in Building 10 and at Thriplow House during the Second World War.

• Dr John Apley MD CBE

Squadron Leader Dr John Apley joined the RAF Volunteer Reserve at the outbreak of war in 1939.

From London, he had studied medicine at University College Hospital, London, and became a general practitioner in Pinner while also working at the Westminster Children’s Hospital.

Soon after war broke out, Apley was posted to Duxford, where he served as one of its Medical Officers for at least a year, primarily working in the Sick Quarters.

Apley’s service at Duxford included the intense period of the Dunkirk evacuations and the Battle of Britain, leading him to develop an interest in a possible link between the stress experienced by fighter pilots and peptic ulcers.

After the war, Apley became a pioneering paediatrician and led the British Paediatric Team in Saigon, Vietnam, during the Tet Offensive, continuing to run his hospital after it had been overrun by North Vietnamese soldiers. For this work he was awarded a CBE.

• Doris Hudson

Leading aircraftwoman Doris Hudson joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, the women’s branch of the RAF, in 1942.

Posted to Duxford in August of the same year, she served as an administrative clerk in the base’s Sick Quarters.

Her role was extremely varied, including everything from typing up medical reports to distributing contraceptives.

Although Duxford was no longer a fighter base during Hudson’s time there, she recalled the ambulances regularly rushing out to attend flying accidents, sometimes fatal.

She remained at Duxford when it was transferred to the US Army Air Force in April 1943, part of the staff that stayed behind to ensure a smooth transfer, before moving to RAF Newmarket.

• Cecil Whitehead

Staff Sergeant Cecil K Whitehead, from Shannon, Mississippi, was a 78th Fighter Group ambulance driver based at Thriplow House.

Whitehead would have been responsible for carrying patients from Duxford to Thriplow House, likely a regular occurrence given how active the 78th’s three squadrons were in the skies over Europe.

Ambulance drivers like Whitehead would also wait at the airfield when fighters were expected to return from an operation, ready to attend to any pilots that had been wounded.

• Dr Monty Shwayder

Captain Montimore ‘Doc Monty’ Shwayder, from San Francisco, California, was a Flight Surgeon for the 83rd Fighter Squadron, 78th Fighter Group.

He was based at Thriplow House, which had become Duxford’s main hospital under the Americans, and would have been responsible for treating injured fighter pilots returning from operations as well as the everyday medical needs of his squadron.

In September 1944, Shwayder narrowly escaped death when a Canadian Halifax bomber came in to make an emergency landing at Duxford but lost control.

Shwayder raced to the airfield from Thriplow House in an ambulance, hoping to attend to the bomber’s crew, but was knocked down when the aircraft’s bombs exploded, causing a huge shockwave that killed others near him.

Aside from his medical duties, Shwayder was also the founder of Duxford’s popular swing band, the Thunderbolts, in which he played bass saxophone.