When Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands on April 2 1982, I was serving a five-year short service commission in Queen Alexandra’s Royal Naval Nursing Service (QARNNS) as an operating theatre sister.
The invasion sparked a 74-day war between Argentina and the UK, resulting in the deaths of almost 1,000 British and Argentine service personnel and three Falkland Islanders. One of 40 female QARNNS personnel, I was fl own by RAF Hercules to join a 120-strong naval medical team aboard Her Majesty’s Hospital Ship
Uganda – a floating hospital operating in the middle of the conflict zone in the south Atlantic ocean.
The QARNNS nursing personnel were the only military females serving in the combat zone, and our naval nurses were the first Royal Naval female ‘junior ratings’ in history to serve at sea.
SS Uganda had been fitted with a helicopter landing pad and was the first British hospital ship to receive severely injured casualties directly from the battlefields by helicopter. We had the capacity to treat 500 patients, with facilities for 20 intensive care unit ventilated cases, an operating theatre with three tables, a laboratory, X-ray unit and specialised burns units. All of these were used to maximum capacity. We divided ourselves into clinical teams according to the specialised areas in which we would be working and received our first British patients by helicopter on May 12 1982. All traumatic injuries were treated under the delayed primary suture (DPS) regime, a principle learnt during the Vietnam War. Burns patients were treated with silver sulphathiazole then early plastic surgery, techniques that are still the bedrock of treatment in the tented facility at Camp Bastion in Afghanistan today.
Although rudimentary, the hospital equipment was adequate and we soon adapted almost everything available
to help care for our patients, including wire coat hangers that served as drip stands. In spite of all the diffi culties, our infection rates remained notably low and cross-infection was negligible.
SS Uganda received only the most severely injured patients, both British and Argentinian – men at the peak of their military careers. Almost all had to face the reality of long-term injury and disability. More than 40 injured service personnel returned to the UK as amputees – some as double amputees. It was often our patients’ humour
and down-to-earth attitude that helped us through the darkest days. Serving as a qualified nurse in a war zone is
an almost surreal experience. It is not for the faint-hearted. You learn quickly that adaptability, flexibility and
resourcefulness are essential to working in such a fast-changing, clinical field.
The Argentine forces surrendered on June 14 1982. By the time we closed our surgical facilities on July 16 and returned to Southampton on August 9, we had treated more than 700 severely injured casualties and carried out more than 500 surgical procedures. Most of my colleagues and I say the Falklands War experience was one of
the most challenging but rewarding of our careers. Almost everyone from the hospital ship Uganda went on to achieve outstanding nursing and medical careers, both military and civilian NS
Nicci Pugh is a former NHS and naval nursing sister, and author of White Ship – Red Crosses – A Nursing Memoir of The Falklands War