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We shall remember them

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The Museum has many objects and taoka from the World Wars, all with their own story. Margot, Otago Museum’s lovely Health and Safety Manager, is going to share her family story for ANZAC Day this year.

Usually we would be in the Museum's foyer remembering those who served with a Rosemary for Remembrance event. This year will be a little different... but we will all be thinking of those who didn’t come back, just like Margot is here.



Ever since I can remember, I’ve attended the dawn parade, it’s just one of those things our family has done every year, remembering those who served: the returned and the fallen.

It was only when I was older that I truly began to recognise the great sacrifice made by New Zealanders to fight for our freedom and liberty. This year the 25th April (Anzac Day) will be strange, with no communal Anzac gatherings across the country. Instead, we’re asked to stand and remember them at dawn, while still in our bubble.

So, I thought I’d share our family’s story with you. It’s the war story of my Nana, and luckily for us she wrote down some of her memories from that time as a part of her autobiography. She, like most returned service people, didn’t dwell too much on the horrors of war which she had seen. She did, however, write some lovely accounts of her time stationed in the Middle East, which I will recount here.

I hope you enjoy it.


Born in 1914, Nella W McCartney of Portobello was the eldest child of nine and the granddaughter of James Seaton, one of the original settlers of the area.

At age three, she was sent into Dunedin to live with her aunty and uncle (the well-known baker, J R Brown). Unlike her siblings, she was privileged to be raised in a household with money and to receive a full education, including several years at Columba College.

In 1941, aged 27, she joined St John Ambulance, passed all her exams with honours, and was asked to go nurse aid at Hanmer Springs following a six-week training course at Dunedin Public Hospital.

I’ll never forget a funny story she used to tell me about this period, which was during her first interaction with a male patient whom she was meant to help to use a bed pan. Well, she had never seen a man naked before, so she got quite a fright to discover he had penis (of course she had never seen one). She was required to hold it into the pan… She managed the task more out of shock and surprise than any sort of professionalism!


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 Image: Scanned article printed in the Otago Daily Times, 15 April, 1942


At Hanmer Springs, she nursed servicemen who had returned form the war wounded and in bad shape. One day, the matron came in and asked for volunteers for overseas service. “There were 10 of us who volunteered, they wanted 200”, Nella wrote in her diary

 Enlisting on 13 December 1941, she was sent to Trenthem for military training, and then they boarded the hospital ship Maunganui for the six-week journey to Egypt, via Ceylon (modern day Sri Lanka), the Suez Canal, and on to Cairo.

“There were 45 in our dormitory, I had a top bunk and got a porthole. As we sailed from Ceylon, I looked out the window and saw a submarine. Quite a shock”.

On arrival, her two brothers Jack and Allan were there to meet her. She recalled them both saying to her “Nell, if we had known soon enough that you were on your way over here, we would have done our best to stop you, because this we feel is no place for a woman.”

She was given orders to go to Helmia, No.3 General Hospital on the outskirts of Cairo.


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Images: (left) Helmia No. 3 General Hospital nurses & matron, Nella back right.  (right) Helmia No.3 G.H. 1942

It was a tented hospital, and the nursing staff also lived in tents on the edge of the desert . They worked a half day and then a night shift, battling in heat of 40+ degrees Celsius during the day and cold desert nights whilst enduring regular sandstorms straight off the desert. They were paid seven shillings (NZ) a day, and another seven shillings to be paid back to a fund in New Zealand. They worked six days a week.

“We nurses did the usual patient care – injections, bloods, enema’s, we had to make 40 beds by 10am ready for Matron's inspection, this was back breaking work in the heat. One of the Dunedin girls developed Thyphiod [sic] Fever. We tried desperately to save her, but she died; and we were all so upset.”

On days off, she would take the tram into Cairo. She recalled, “Cairo was a very clean city filled with shops and restaurants.” They would visit the Muski (a local market) where they would barter for items.


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Image: Teaspoon purchased at Muski, Cairo.  1943


On one such trip, she was joined by her brothers and a cousin. They travelled down to the pyramids and sphinx by train, and were helped by a local to get up each of the enormous grey stonesvto the top of the Great Pyramid. “On another trip a Welsh friend of mine, Bill and I took a small boat and he rowed it across the Nile. Now King Faroch had a houseboat moored on the other side of the river and we found ourselves almost beside it. Suddenly down the side of the boat some Egyptian soldiers rushed up and pointed their rifles at us. So we made a hasty retreat, successfully.”

 By this time, the New Zealand soldiers had moved north all the way to Aleppo, which was then on the Turkish border, but in May 1942, orders where given to move to Beirut, (then considered to be in Syria). It was a colossal undertaking to pack and move the entire hospital, equipment, staff, and patients for the journey ahead. Travelling by train and bus, they arrived in Beirut where they took over a French barracks high in the hills, the wards were in long blocks of stone buildings.

“We had the enormous task of scrubbing all the floors until the hospital was spotless and our first 7 patients were admitted.”

No sooner had they set up there, the New Zealand division had decided to move back to the Western Desert and they were left nursing soldiers from other countries, including one Polish lad who didn’t speak English but had a dictionary and had managed to find two words, “Love you”.


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 Images: (top left) Nurses prepare to convoy towards Beirut.     (top right) View of Beirut from hospital.

(bottom left) Nurses Quarters – Beirut.         (bottom right) Nella in her ‘hut’ – Beirut.


“We hadn’t been working long at the Beirut hospital, when our Division (NZ) moved back down to the Western Desert. If I remember rightly, we nursed Colonel Freyburg while I was here.”

With two weeks leave owing, she and two colleagues travelled south in an ambulance convoy to Hafia Hospital. Following this, they took a bus all the way to Tel-Aviv.

“Bearing up under the strain of carrying respirators, tin helmets and our water bottles – how we curse to put it mildly in this heat… we found ourselves among Arabs and all sorts of people. Being military we were at once ushered into seats. We were helped by three Air Force boys and landed the back seat, so we had a jolly time bumping around about. The people here are such reckless drivers and the road was not in wonderful condition. Still we enjoyed the journey and I’ve not laughed so much for a long time. I’m sure these foreigners were thought of as quite ‘magnoon’ as they would say, judging by the blank looks we got.

“Arriving in Tel-Aviv, what a very modern place, just like the new Napier. We were put up by a German Jewess in a lovely room with the most comfortable beds, three of us in one room. We had a lovely time doing the shops (just like the ones back home) and generally tired ourselves out. The next morning we were up early and down for a swim, it was just perfect and how we hated the thought of having to leave. We tried all morning to find transport and finally found an open truck to take us to Jerusalem in the heat of the day. There is a long climb up to Jerusalem and a sharp decent [sic] called ‘The Seven Sisters’ – seven zig zag bends. Arriving at 3pm we found our rooms for the night and had a nice cup of tea.

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Image:   Modern Jerusalem, 1942


“My first impressions of Jerusalem as we arrived shall always live in my mind. It was a glorious day, not a cloud in the sky and the beautiful modern buildings stood out prominently in the burning and dazzling sun. The streets begin narrow and the houses are very tightly built together then the streets broaden out into the modern city with its very fine buildings, surrounding the ‘Old City’ still living on. Honestly one could spend weeks here and not see it all.”

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Image: (top left – right)) Mosque.  Entrance to the Church of the Nativity, Jerusalem. 
(bottom left – right) Approach to Bethlehem.    (bottom right) Wailing Wall in the ‘Old City’.


Not long after returning to Beirut from leave, she contracted Typhoid along with several other nurses and they were relocated to a rest home back in Cairo where she spent several months in isolation, then in convalescence. During the later period of recovery she was able to get out and about with the other nurses she was convalescing with, they called themselves the “Tyfordites”.

It’s at this point in the story that Nana admits she had developed three male friendships. Bill from Wales, Alan from Yorkshire, and Doug from New Zealand. The other Tyfordites would tease her and say “What will you do, if they all visit you at the same time”. Luckily enough, this didn’t happen and she was able to enjoy their company separately, lucky for her!

With a clean bill of health, she returned  to Helwan No 1 Hospital and resumed her nursing duties. On her birthday, in March 1943, she and friends went into Cairo to celebrate. On her return, the Matron called her into her tent, threw her arms around her and said, “I have sad news for you Nurse.” Her brother Jack had been tragically killed in action at El Hamer, on the Western Front. This was devastating news.

Soon after this, she wrote back home to her aunty that she would be returning to New Zealand. This however did not happen, and she stayed on and continued her duties.


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Images: (left) Doug & Nella just married, Cairo.       (right) Doug & Nella off duty, after visit to Muski (a market) in Cairo.


In October 1943, Nella married one of her suitors, Doug from Dunedin, New Zealand. They were married at St Andrews Presbyterian Church in Cairo. The reception was held at the New Zealand Club, and they took a three-day honeymoon in Alexandria. On return, she got in trouble with the Matron for wearing her wedding ring whilst on duty and she was confined to quarters for one week.

Later that year, “I was called before the Board and told I would be boarded home, this time on the Dutch Hospital ship called ‘Oranjes’. There was certainly a big difference between this ship and the old Maunganui. There were six of us to a cabin and no bunks! It took six weeks to get over and only three weeks to return home. Very pleasant sailing and we dined at the Captain’s table.”

Nella was discharged from military service on 28 July 1944. She was awarded the 1939 – 45 Star, Africa Star, Defence Medal, War medal 1939 – 45, and the NZ War Service Medal.

Doug arrived home one month after Nella, and they shifted to Invercargill, then Riverton, and started their family. In July 1944, she received the news that her brother Allan had been killed in Italy while liberating an Italian village. Again, more devastating news.

The war in Europe ended on 8 May 1945 (VE Day).  

Nella continued to be an active member of the Returned Service Association and was the president of the Returned Service Women’s Association for four years. She had four children and 11 grandchildren. Doug passed away in 1974, and she remarried, to a life-long friend. Nella passed away in 2002, aged 88.

In 2010, I attended an event in Christchurch held by the Italy Star Association for service personnel and their families who had served in Italy. The mayor of a small village (Comune di Tavarnelle Val di Pesa) in Tuscany was the guest of honour. He had researched the history of his village and discovered to his surprise, that, despite the village believing for more than 50 years that the Americans had liberated them, it was in fact Kiwis. He visited New Zealand to thank the service men for freeing his village form occupation in 1944 and held a memorial to honour them.

It was quite by chance at this event that I got to meet my great Uncle Allan’s batman (or orderly) , who told me the story of how he died. It seems that Allan was the ranking officer whilst liberating a village. He had successfully managed to take over the village and the enemy was fleeing. My uncle decided to go in chase, to reassure himself they had gone, his batman close behind trying to stop him. Sadly, one of the opposing officers turned and fired, killing him instantly.

In 2013, on a lazy hot summer Sunday, I visited Comune di Tavarnelle Val di Pesa and the site of the soldiers’ memorial, sitting in the quiet village square, not a soul in sight. It was hard to imagine what it was like that July some 69 years before.

We shall remember them, those brave men and women who served our country.

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Image: Comune di Tavarnelle Val di Pesa and the site of the soldiers’ memorial




Top Image: Nella in her nurses uniform, circa 1941.