On D-Day 1945, RAF Medical Officer Victor Tempest introduced his memoirs, Near the Sun: Impressions of a Medical Officer of Bomber Command (NRO, MC 2216/1, 928X7), with the claim that he had achieved a ‘history of how men overcame their own instincts of self-preservation… to preserve Freedom for those whom they thought worthy of it’ [Near the Sun, 9].
Tempest was, of course, rightfully referring to the fact of valance shown by Bomber Command pilots. However, the above still provides us with two enigmas worth exploring further: for one, ‘Victor Tempest’ was a pseudonym used by Elliot Philipp of 218 Squadron, RAF Marham (posted Summer 1940, lasting for ‘9 months’). For sensitivity reasons in the immediate period following the war, both his name and details of the base were concealed. Second, the statement does little to exercise the incredible sacrifice of medical officers, such as Elliot Philipp, alike.
Forever modest, Tempest had aligned himself as an inconspicuous friend -confidante at most- who watched from the sidelines; Philipp’s ‘few hardships’ dwarfed in the wake of men who were ‘carrying out the most dangerous of all jobs’ [Near the Sun, 9]. Although, a closer analysis of his work proves that Medical Officers carried the immense responsibility of their colleague’s lives, as well as the unique emotional trauma experienced by dealing with cases closer to home.
Using Philipp’s memoirs and an oral account Philipp dictated in the late 1990s of his time at RAF Marham (NRO, MC 2216/2, 928X7), this post will endeavour to give insight into the unique experience of RAF medical officers during the Second World War, in addition to the possible role played by RAF Marham and fellow East Anglian air bases.
Who was Elliot Philipp?
While the restrictions of his book prevented Philipp from disclosing too many personal details, his 1990s account acknowledges that his posting to RAF Marham began in the summer of 1940. Philipp stayed at Marham for nine months until a position as Junior Administrative Medical Officer at 3 Group Headquarters ‘fortuitously arose’. While certain events are attributed clearly to RAF Marham in Philipp’s 1990s account, we must entertain the possibility that Philipp was talking of other East Anglian bases in his role under 3 Group, such as RAF Mildenhall, in his censored 1946 book. Given Philipp’s absence from RAF Marham’s Operations Record Book (hereafter, ORB) for this time period, these other attachments appear likely.
On-Base Duties of a Medical Officer
Owing to its publication in 1946, Philipp’s account of being an RAF Medical Officer is told with voracity. Philipp’s accounts of personal relationships with a variety of other personnel, ranging from pilots to ground staff, serves to illuminate this point further.
One example of the connection between these officers is pertinent in the earlier sections of Philipp’s memoirs. Even before we are given an insight into the mundane workings of a medical officer completing his daily chores of sick parades and treating varicose veins, we are thrown into a remarkable account of how Philipp stood beside his colleagues to bring a distressed plane in to safety.
As a medical officer, Philipp would join the Women’s Auxiliary Airforce (‘W.A.A.F.’) in the control room -in this case, a young watch-keeper, who is whittling the time by drafting a letter to her boyfriend, and a nineteen-year-old radio operator, who ‘sits knitting for her sister’s baby’ [Near the Sun, 30]. This somewhat domestic idyll is interrupted by a plane radioing in to ask if it is safe to ‘pancake’ – the event of a plane stalling and dropping horizontally towards the ground. While the controlling officer informs the plane of what heights to fly, and the Station Commander is summoned to oversee the landing, it is the role of the medical officer to stand beside them on the runway and prepare himself to jump into action, should the worse occur.
Sadly, the worse often did occur. In one instance, many of Philipp’s friends were killed in a ‘terrible tragedy’, where a Wellington was ‘shot down within a mile or so of the airfield.’ While no accounts in the RAF Marham ORB match this description, there are many similar examples of Philipp’s trauma. On 26 February 1941, one Sargent Hoos of 218 Squadron was attacked and shot down only four miles from the base (ORB, 23). While no fatalities were reported on this occasion, an earlier recording of operations on 23 February 1941 document one Sargent Milton, who attempted landing in poor visibility and crashed into a tree, killing the entire crew (ORB, 22). While Philipp could have been referring to colleagues at neighbouring bases, it is undeniable that similar tragedies ensued at RAF Marham.
In addition to Philipp’s suffering upon the death of his close friends, it is also noted that he felt an agonising responsibility for the life of the men he treated:
Since mortality was huge I sometimes felt very responsible if I had allowed a crew member who had a minor complaint such as ‘tummy ache’ to fly. When that plane did not return I felt it was all my fault.
Of course, not every day was this challenging, nor emotionally charged. Philipp recalls that aiding pilots for specific ailments was only a fraction of his workload; Philipp’s biggest patient base was made up by the ground crew. According to Philipp, pilots were physically fit, with minor ailments such as ear and nose trouble. Fitness for pilots was easily assessed using the ‘Forty Millimetre Test’: blowing into a tube at a certain pressure, as measured by a column of mercury, and then having to maintain this pressure. Impressively, one of Philipp’s fittest cases was the effort of famous female pilot, Amy Johnson. Johnson far exceeded the usual 45 second target by a whopping 75 seconds; something Philipp regarded as the highest display of both ‘stamina and character’, coming from someone who ‘understood that the essence of good piloting in a woman was good health.’ [Near the Sun, 41]
Whilst Johnson’s resilience and good health set the precedence of pilot health checks, the checks reserved for the ground crew were dominated by cases of gastric issues and the fallout of standing for long hours at a time: foot problems and varicose veins. Luckily, the government-organised military health service was at hand. This boasted an airman’s ward, operating theatre, dental surgery, electro-shock therapy equipment and a rehabilitation centre [Near the Sun, 68-69]. Even in cases where there was no provision to have all services on site, the nearest RAF hospital was never a long drive away. For RAF Marham, this would have been Ely, with a handful of cases being taken to neighbouring King’s Lynn (ORB, 5).
Off-Base Duties of a Medical Officer
While the strain and responsibility of preserving life lay predominantly inside the walls of the base, Philipp recalls certain instances where cases required him to venture into the surrounding villages. He notes how wives of service airmen would often be housed locally. Despite this, contact between couples was minimised. As Philipp remembers fondly, a security ban was put on phoning the aerodrome during operations to avoid the ‘chaos’ of every wife ringing for an update [Near the Sun, 47].
Sadly, Philipp’s encounters with service men’s wives were not always remembered in jest. Philipp recalls many situations where, as a medical officer, it would fall to him to deliver the news that their husbands had not returned. Closely forged relationships with local residents and medical practitioners made this duty even more personal and, as a result, even harder to bear. Graciously, Philipp focuses his attention on the wives themselves. He outlines the strength and admiralty of military families in this emotive passage:
Who can but admire… what a certain squadron leader’s wife said just a few weeks before her second child was due, when told that her husband had been killed on returning from a mission. ‘How dreadful! I am sorry for you to have to come and tell me such a story. I know how dreadful it is for you, too.’ [Near the Sun, 47]
This stands as further testament to the unique relationship shared by medical officers and the locality, as well as the bravery of both in the face of adversity.
When speaking specifically of his time immersed in the RAF Marham community, Philipp stresses one detail which he insists was pertinent to his immediate area. Philipp bore witness to frequent minor venereal diseases and, as a consequence, the devasting fall out of unexpected pregnancies among W.A.A.Fs.
Despite numerous efforts to issue effective contraception, the lure of ‘leisure time’ in London proved the overpowering force, with Philipp documenting that many men refused to use what was issued to them. In a grievous tone, Philipp shifts his account to describe the traumatic duty of assisting W.A.A.Fs who had attempted to self-abort in a world which was unsympathetic to pregnancy out of wedlock. Understanding Philipp’s longer career as we do may suggest that this insistence on reporting pregnancy within his report has some bearing on his career in the field of maternity and gynaecology. However, at this stage, such theories on Philipp’s insistence are purely conjecture.
Philipp returned to RAF Marham in the late 1990s and was greeted by new aircraft and advanced methods of direction flying. The same was said of the aircraft hangers, yet Philipp’s old Mess and bedroom stood as capsules of time. To this day, RAF Marham is still able to boast numerous Second World War buildings preserved on base. Like these structures, the sacrifice of medical officers in aiding personnel and civilians alike still prevails with reverence.
By Tabitha Kaye.
- ‘First Hand Account Dictated by Elliot Philipp (Not Signed)’
- RAF Marham Operation Record Book, December 1940 – August 1941 (courtesy of RAF Marham Aviation Heritage Centre)
- Tempest, Victor. Near the Sun: Impressions of a Medical Officer of Bomber Command. Brighton, Crabtree Press, 1946.