Prof Alex Crampton Smith trained at Inverness Royal Academy and Edinburgh University. After qualifying as a general practitioner and completing a six-month posting as a surgical house officer, he joined the Royal Naval Reserves and, aged just 24, was posted as the only doctor in a squadron of tank landing crafts. After the war, Prof Crampton Smith worked as a consultant anaesthetist at the United Oxford Hospitals and carried out pioneering research in artificial ventilation at the Churchill Hospital, helping to develop the Radcliffe ventilator. He was later appointed Nuffield Professor of Anaesthetics at Oxford University and became a Fellow of Pembroke College. As the civilian consultant anaesthetist for the Royal Navy, he trained doctors serving in the Armed Forces so they would be prepared for emergencies on the front line.
In this interview, Prof Crampton Smith discusses serving aboard the LCTs, and treating major injuries during some of the bloodiest battles in the Mediterranean.
The Landing Craft Tanks (LCTs)
Until much, much later, I only had sick berth attendants. They had a couple of years training, first-aid stuff really. So I didn’t have any medical help.
I was put into Coastal Forces and I looked after a squadron of tank landing craft, LCTs. Then they wanted some in the Mediterranean, so they send forty-eight out, a squadron, expecting to get about half of them there because they are a clumsy craft. They held a tiny crew, perhaps ten. They only lost, I think, six, but I had one bit of fun aboard the LCT.
We left from Bideford, which is on the north Devon cost, and about four days out we were signalled by another landing craft who said they had a man on board who manifestly had gonorrhoea. And I had some M&B 693 [suphapyridine] or something on board, and bugs in those days were not very sophisticated and anything would do. So we put these pills in a condom, we attached the condom to a lifebelt and we streamed the lifebelt behind us and the other LCT caught up, picked up the lifebelt and the man was cured. Funnily enough, many years letter, I met the skipper of the receiving LCT, who as able to confirm this story. That was quite fun.
Algiers & Salerno
“I was on my own for about twenty-four to thirty-six hours”
We were in Algiers for a while and then in a place called Djerba and then in Tripoli. And from Tripoli- Sicily was over by then- they mounted Salerno and that was my first action really. I was put on the beach at Salerno. That was, you know, surprising. There was so much going on that you just did whatever was next to your hand. I was only on my own for about twenty-four to thirty-six hours and then the CCS was working and I could deal with them. You can’t operate on people in these circumstances; it was just a question of first-aid. But our people I was with reckoned that they were at considerable risk and they didn’t see why they shouldn’t have a doctor, even though in a way a top-class sick berth attendant might have done as much as I could, but on the other hand I think it was a morale booster. And you know, I charged about and did things.
These were people who had been taken of the boats in a considerable state of shock… [with] all kinds of injuries. Mostly mine injuries actually, and mortar shell injuries. But as I say, I really can’t remember much about it. I think you block out things like that.
Morphia & Pearl Harbour
I became a bit of an expert on the use of intravenous morphia. And a really good dose of intravenous morphia pretty well puts the guy to sleep and that enabled them to get them out of the holes and get Thomas’ splints on their broken legs before they really begin to feel very much. And, of course it’s potentially dangerous- and Pearl Harbour showed how dangerous that was- but the people I was dealing with hadn’t really yet gone into true shock, so it wasn’t really risky to give them something.
“Pearl Harbour showed how dangerous [morphia] was”
At Pearl Harbour, the doctors were using thiopentone at that stage and they were giving normal doses of thiopentone to people who were seriously shocked and it just killed them. It became known as Pearl Harbour syndrome.
‘Seasoned Troops’ in Anzio
After Salerno was Anzio and that was a funny one. It was terribly badly managed. I mean unbelievably badly managed because we went ashore and there was nobody there. The place was mined of course, but I didn’t hear a shot fired for twenty-four hours. By that time the Germans had surrounded a very small bridgehead, only fifteen miles, and they could shoot across it, and it was very difficult.
I became what was known as a ‘seasoned troop’, and that means that I wouldn’t run through a minefield. I would dig a hole in the ground instead and wait for the ‘unseasoned troops’ to run through the minefield and get blown up. It was just crude as that.
The Croix de Guerre
“Elba was the worst… the first battalion lost every officer and a lot of men”
Elba was the worst. We were training a French Division, the Fifth Colonial Infantry Division commanded by General de Lattre de Tassigny who was very good. And they wanted to show them what beach work was all about prior to the South of France, so they put this wretched lot over open beaches defended by very good German troops, a lot of Africa Corps, and without air cover and it was bothersome. The first battalion that went ashore lost every officer and a lot of men, and we lost people, I can’t remember how many but I know we lost a few. [I was] awarded the Croix de Guerre. I haven’t the faintest idea why… it was nice that the French did it. I was very grateful for that.
The End of the War
I went up to the South of France and did the landing, which was not very much really because the Germans were already retreating. Then I got ill and nobody has ever diagnosed what was wrong. All my glands swelled up and my liver swelled up and my spleen swelled up. And the Navy were terribly good and they said, ‘Well, you’d better go home’, so I did. And then they were, again, trying to find out what was wrong. ‘Where would you like to go?’ So, I said, ‘I’d like to go back to my chums at Inverness’, which I did. And they took a gland out and there was nothing there, so I went back to the beach party and that was that… eventually just recovered naturally.
I was in a shore job looking after a lot of marines and then I was discharged. And I went back and did a little job in Inverness and then I started on the anaesthetic thing… It seemed to me from doing the very little bits that I did in the Field Surgical Units that it was a very interesting job, You had a certain amount of acute stuff to do, you know, things happen quickly and you had to keep your wits about you, but you also had to be a bit of a physician, and it seemed to me that part surgeon, part physician was a very nice thing to be.