Surgery under Fire: The Falkland’s Combat Medics



Imagine a hospital and you probably picture a clean and clinical building with wards and surgical theatres, staffed by doctors and nurses in clean scrubs. What you probably wouldn’t picture is a freezing cold, abandoned refrigerated mutton plant in a wet, windswept and desolate bay. That is exactly what the British Field Hospital in Ajax Bay on the Falklands was.

Surgeon Commander Rick Jolly OBE

Surgeon Commander Rick Jolly, the commanding officer of 3 Commando, Royal Marines medical unit, had initially set up a field hospital aboard the Canberra, a cruise liner that was requisitioned as a troop carrier for the Task Force.

The first casualties treated on board the Canberra were Argentinians wounded in the assault on Fanning head at the entrance to San Carlos bay, where the Canberra now lay. This would not be the case for long as Argentinian spotters began to relay British ship positions to Air Bases on the Argentinian mainland.

As the air raids came in, along with reports of casualties, Surgeon Commander Jolly, as lead medic, went up in a helicopter to search for casualties. Two men from HMS Ardent were spotted in the water, and despite the fact he had no life jacket or immersion suit, Dr Jolly volunteered to be winched down into the freezing water to rescue them. Twice he entered the water and brought bothy men to safety.

P&O Liner Canberra

By the time he reached the Canberra the decision was made to withdraw the Canberra to a safe distance because of the risk posed to the unarmed vessel by the Argentinian air attacks. The medical team would be landed in Ajax Bay by landing craft without delay. It is reported that even as the medics were going over the side, the Canberra was taking in its anchors in readiness to move.

On reaching land they were faced with freezing temperatures, boggy ground, and a dusty abandoned mutton plant with few windows for natural light. This freezing, grey, and uninviting looking building was to become the British Field Hospital, including accommodation and surgical facilities. A far cry from the sterile and well lit surgical theatres back home.

Abandoned Meat Packing Plant at Ajax Bay

In no time the medics and their accompanying Royal Marines set to work setting up surgical theatres, accommodation, and digging their own air raid bunkers outside, in which they would spend most of their time when not treating patients. The patients began coming in both British and Argentinian, injured from both sides being treated equally by the medics.

Eventually the inevitable happened, and Ajax bay came under attack from Argentinian Jets. The British had been unable to paint red crosses on the roof as the hospital was in the middle of a logistics dump, which was a legitimate military target, and to do so would have contravened the Geneva Convention. During the attack several bombs hit the ammunition dumps surrounding the hospital, and two landed in the roof space of the hospital itself. Both failed to explode but sat in the roof space above both the surgical areas and accommodation block. Throughout the whole attack, surgery continued.

HMS Ardent

Despite doubts over whether the unexploded bombs had time delay fuses, medical operations continued; there was nowhere else to set up. After 33 hours it was determined that the bombs had simply failed to explode, but this didn’t mean they no longer posed a threat. Despite the air raids, and unexploded ordnance, the medics of the British Field Hospital saved hundreds of lives from both sides; a demonstration of humanity in the midst of the horrors of war.

For his efforts Surgeon Commander Jolly was awarded the OBE by the Queen. He dedicated the award to all those involved in treating the wounded at Ajax Bay labelling it “Other People’s Bloody Efforts!” Ten years later during a visit to Argentina he was awarded their equivalent of the OBE for the excellent treatment of Argentinian airmen and soldiers during the conflict. This made Dr Jolly the first serviceman in any conflict to be honoured by both sides.

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