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World War 2- Nurses & The Nursing Corps

Updated on June 27, 2013

Who were the bravest women in World War Two?

I think this is an impossible question to answer - all women both at home and abroad gave their all in defence of their country. Some women though, were just that bit closer to the action. These women worked behind enemy lines.

This article is all about the nurses who served behind enemy lines in field hospitals, hospital ships and on war planes. They became part of the Nursing Corps doing invaluable work wherever they were sent in the world.

The Nursing Corps in World War Two could not hide - they travelled to wherever the troops were sent, providing vital medical aid. They were never far from the front line.

We should all admire the work carried out by these amazing women in World War Two.

Poster for the US Nursing Corps
Poster for the US Nursing Corps
US Nursing Corps coming to the aid of an injured soldier
US Nursing Corps coming to the aid of an injured soldier

"Calling All Nurses..."

In Britain, the Army already had an established nursing regiment. The QAIMNS (Queen Alexandra's Imperial Military Nursing Service) was aligned with other Army regiments to ensure that the nurses achieved some kind of ranking system, although none were commissioned officers. The QAIMNS became QARANC over the intervening years but in 1939, still with their old name, they became the main medical corps for the armed forces abroad.

Countries in which they served included Singapore, Burma, China, France, Italy and Malta.

They were stationed wherever they were needed and did a tremendous job of coming to the aid of not only soldiers but also injured civilians.

You will find an excellent account here of a British Army Nurse, Margaret Finley, who paid the ultimate price for her work whilst attempting to escape from Singapore under Japanese fire. She was not alone in this sacrifice, many nurses lost their lives or were badly hurt when their hospitals and aid stations came under enemy fire.

The poster girl for the US Nursing Corps looks so glamorous doesn't she? But of course, the reality of serving behind enemy lines was not very glamorous at all.

76th General Hospital,Liege,Belgium
76th General Hospital,Liege,Belgium | Source
A hospital train, France
A hospital train, France | Source

Where did World War Two Nurses Work?

World War Two was raging in Europe, Africa and Asia and the medical needs of such a conflict do not even bear thinking about and yet, it is clear that where men were sent to fight, medical staff were sure to follow.

Medical services were an absolute necessity in these 'theatres of operations'.

When the USA declared war on Germany, they had already established close ties with Britain, providing medical support in both England and Northern Ireland.

When the USA stationed most of its men in Britain, they knew that the medical infrastructure needed to be ready for the many thousands of wounded who would need to be treated after a military conflict.

US Military observers had already been to Britain to see if the British set up was correct. They were pleasantly surprised to find that the British were already prepared to deal with wounded in their own country but when the USA became involved in the war, they supported building more.

Abroad, different hospitals were set up behind the front lines. They had to be close to the action. They were very specific to purpose - it would be impossible to set up one or two hospitals to do everything. Often, already established hospitals were taken over by the medical corps but as you can imagine, there were never enough beds.

This meant that imagination had to be used - other 'structures' were used including trains.

Constance Curtis had just qualified as a midwife when she took the call to action. She initially worked in Britain but was then posted to Etaples in France, supporting not soldiers, but refugees from Belgium.

Constance worked all over the world, including France, Ireland and India. You can read about her amazing service as an Army Nurse here.

The Flying Nightingales
The Flying Nightingales

Flying Nurses

The WAAF worked both at home and abroad and one of their most dangerous tasks was to travel to battle zones and collect badly injured airmen and soldiers.

They carried out their initial nursing duties on RAF Dakota aircraft which had gone over to Normandy loaded with bombs. They then landed in Normandy and brought the injured soldiers home.

The nurses on these very dangerous missions were called 'the Flying Nightingales' and were a small band of WAAF operatives.

They were honoured for their work (albeit very long after the event) in 2009 with a Lifetime Achievement Award.

It is estimated that they helped to evacuate over 100,000 military personnel.

US Nurse supporting a POW from Japan
US Nurse supporting a POW from Japan | Source
Postage stamp commemorating Ellen Savage's bravery during World War Two
Postage stamp commemorating Ellen Savage's bravery during World War Two | Source

Nurses Working On Hospital Ships

Hospital ships had been used extensively in World War One and were also used in World War Two though air power was much more of a danger to those on board ships in WW2.

In World War Two there were 23 hospital ships sunk by the enemy with often terrible loss of life.

The hospital ship with the most casualties was the Russian HS Armenia sunk on 7th November 1941 with the loss of 5,000 on board. It was hit by German He-111H bombers carrying torpedoes.

The USA had a great many hospital ships in service and after Pearl Harbour, nurses were the only female profession designated as 'essential' by the War Manpower Commission.

The US Nursing Corps played a key role in the South Pacific, working both on land and at sea during the long Guadalcanal conflict.

One of the most important jobs was in the care of prisoners of war released from Japanese concentration camps.

US Nursing Corps staff are represented in the musical 'South Pacific' in rather more pleasant and animated ways than was possibly the reality of war but the movie was not really about war but about racial prejudice so we have to forgive them for that.

For an excellent and youthful account of a nurse's adventure aboard USS Barnett, click here

A more intriguing account of the dangers of being a nurse aboard a hospital ship can be found in the example of the sunk Australian hospital ship, AHS Centaur which was sunk by a Japanese submarine just off the Australian coast on 14th May 1943.

Of the 332 on board only 64 survived. Among the medical staff on board, only one nurse survived, Sister Ellen Savage.

Ellen Savage had been badly injured, suffering broken ribs,a broken nose and palate, a perforated eardrum and some severe bruising. She was propelled to the surface and dragged out of the water. In spite of her injuries, she helped to create a raft from pieces of the Centaur's wreckage and provided basic medical help to other survivors. They were finally rescued 36 hours later by the USS Mugford. Ellen Savage was awarded the George Medal for her bravery.

Women In World War Two-Behind Enemy Lines - We Salute You!

So far, in this series, I have looked into the incredible work and sacrifice of four of the women's services in World War Two - the WAAF, the WRNS, the WVS and the Land Girls (WLS).

I hope you will agree that the work and service of the various nursing corps provided by the Allied nations deserve their place amongst these other amazing women.

In many respects, their sacrifice was of a different kind - when they began the war they were already professionals. Their nation called upon that professionalism and asked them to give of themselves not in their home towns but in foreign lands, in aeroplanes and on board ships.

They went to war knowing that they had the best skills to provide medical help to all of the casualties of war - they did so with little concern for their own safety and with a will to do everything they could to serve their country. Just another example of the amazing work done by women in World War Two.

Thanks so much for reading.


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    • Peter Geekie profile image

      Peter Geekie 16 months ago from Sittingbourne

      Dear Jools99,

      Thank you for a very interesting article on those who gave comfort and help in times of great suffering.

      Kind regards Peter

    • profile image

      Caroline 20 months ago

      This saved me on my last minute touches for my social studies project!Don't worry, evidence cited. :)

    • pearyb profile image

      Peary Brown, R.N. 4 years ago from Bullhead City, Az.

      I really enjoy reading about history and especially that of the unsung caregiver that ignores their own needs in place of others whom are fighting for their country.

    • Jools99 profile image

      Jools99 5 years ago from North-East UK

      Steve, thanks for the comment - I have a long way to go to be as good as Harald :o) but eventually......

    • Steve Lensman profile image

      Steve Lensman 5 years ago from London, England

      You and Harald the Unnamed should join 'forces' Jools, fascinating WWII articles.

      Voted Up and Interesting.

    • Jools99 profile image

      Jools99 5 years ago from North-East UK

      Rob, many thanks for stopping by and leaving a nice comment - I appreciate it.

    • Robwrite profile image

      Rob 5 years ago from Bay Ridge Brooklyn NY

      Hi Jools; More interesting information and another great tribute to the women of WW2.

      Well done,


    • profile image

      JThomp42 5 years ago

      Great Hub. Most people have no idea what an important role Women have played in all wars behind the scenes. Voted up.

    • Jools99 profile image

      Jools99 5 years ago from North-East UK

      UnnamedHarald, thanks once again for your visit and for leaving such an encouraging comment - I appreciate it. Researching these women has really inspired me (and also humbled me!).

    • UnnamedHarald profile image

      David Hunt 5 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      What a great article and series. So many women in countries all over the world toiled in obscurity. Thanks for writing these.

    • Jools99 profile image

      Jools99 5 years ago from North-East UK

      Gypsy, thanks as always for your kind comment.

    • Gypsy Rose Lee profile image

      Gypsy Rose Lee 5 years ago from Riga, Latvia

      Thanks for sharing. Voted up and interesting. A very fascinating read. Love these hubs. These nurses certainly need to be remembered. Passing this on.

    • Jools99 profile image

      Jools99 5 years ago from North-East UK

      Josh, you're right - these women need me to keep givin' em a 'shout out' so I'm going to keep going until I run out of superlatives :o)

    • josh3418 profile image

      Joshua Zerbini 5 years ago from Pennsylvania


      I definitely agree that nurses should be praised for their work in the war. In most situations, it is those behind the scenes who deserve the most praise! They don't always get it which is a shame, but they should. And this is an occasion which deserves the praise indeed! These nurses did so much to help with the war. Without these nurses pouring out their hearts and souls, things would have been much different ! Thanks so much for your role in giving tribute to the women in war! I have read each and every installment in this series, because I find this very fascinating! Keep it up Julie!

    • Jools99 profile image

      Jools99 5 years ago from North-East UK

      Billy, thanks so much for stopping by and leaving a comment - I am still not done, more great deeds to be reported :o)

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 5 years ago from Olympia, WA

      I love these hubs...the unsung heroes of the war. My dad had nothing but high praise for the nurses during the war, and you have done a great job of singing their praises....well done Julie!