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White Ship – Red Crosses: A British Hospital Ship at War

Nicci Pugh

On January 18th 2018, Nicci Pugh presented a riveting account of her experiences to the Torquay and District Medical Society.
Nicci joined the Queen Alexandra's Royal Naval Nursing Service (QARNNS) in 1980. She was selected to serve on board Her Majesty's Hospital Ship Uganda, as a Senior Nursing Officer, during the Falklands War, in April 1982.

Nicci Pugh signing copies of "White Ship - Red Crosses"

All images on page Copyright © Nicci Pugh

A Truly Amazing Achievement

The P&O Educational Cruise Ship Uganda had been requisitioned by MOD on April 10th 1982 to be converted into the hospital ship for the Falklands War.
In just 60 hours, in a Gibraltar dry dock, the ship had a helicopter landing pad built onto her stern. She had been painted white with red crosses, on her hull and funnel, to comply with Geneva Convention protocols. All the necessary personnel had embarked and a massive amount of stores had been loaded from dockside to ship.
Next, they set about converting Uganda to be fit for her new role.
The nurses quickly converted areas that Nicci described as, "looking like a disused garage".
  • A casualty reception area - accessed by a steep slope from the flight deck.
  • An operating theatre with 3 operating tables - 2 for major surgical procedures and 1 for more minor procedures.
  • An intensive care unit.
  • A high dependency burns unit in the Uganda's original ship's hospital.
  • A larger ward for lower dependency patients.
Everything had to be secured because of the rough seas in the South Atlantic.
The different specialities quickly melded in to an efficient team.
Somehow they set up an ancient autoclave; built anaesthetic machines; established a blood bank - to which everyone on board contributed.
The blood was stored in cold cabinets in the ship's former bar.
There was no precedent or handbook to follow. They combined their skills, experience and know-how to get the job done.
They had a 10 day sail to Ascension Island.

Nicci and the other senior QARRNS nurses used time to train up the junior nurses. There were 40 QARNNS nurses in total - christened "The Fearless Forty".

By April 29th a signal was sent that Her Majesty's Hospital Ship Uganda was fully equipped and ready for action.
They set sail for the Falklands.

"The Fearless Forty"

A Quite Incredible Outcome

Casualties were received from May 12th.
In the next 9 weeks, 730 cases were treated on board Uganda. More than 500 major surgeries were assisted by Nicci and the OT teams leading their QARRNS nurses.
The horrific injuries they had to deal with are difficult to imagine.
Because of the speed in getting casualties helicoptered off the battlefield to dressing stations ashore, or directly to the Uganda, and their immediate triage and treatment, most of the casualties that arrived on the Uganda survived.

The South Atlantic Medal Association

The South Atlantic Medal Association was formed after the conflict (SAMA82).

Nicci joined SAMA82 in 2002 and for some years has helped veterans make return trips to the Falklands which are so necessary in relieving the stress caused by their experiences in that conflict.

Nicci's account of the campaign, "White Ship - Red Crosses", is published by Melrose Books -
Any profits from book sales are donated to the SAMA82 charity.

Review by Lorraine Roberts