Dr. Martin Nichols – Stalag Luft I

(Posted: January 11, 2012)

 

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                                                     Captain W. Martin Nichols  -   “Doc Nic”
                                                     Camp Medical Officer at Stalag Luft 1
                                                     RAMC

By Judith Cameron:

           My father, Captain W. M. Nichols, landed in France on 13th May 1940. He was part of a brand new venture, a mobile neurosurgical unit to be deployed at the front for the first time in warfare. After a brief two weeks in action this unit was cut off by the German advance at Krombeke, not far from Dunkirk, while still struggling to deal with 800 wounded. The medical officers and wounded men were sent to captured hospitals in France and Belgium.

            From there Captain Nichols and his unit were sent to a group of new prisoner hospitals in Thuringia, and he began work there in October 1940. He was frequently in trouble with the German authorities (he had been court-martialled for the first time within a few days of capture, while still in Belgium) and was moved round a number of hospitals as a result -  Hildburghausen, Bad Sulza, Molsdorf, Rotenburg and Egendorf. He made many friends at this time and took a full part in the events of camp life. His letters describe the amateur theatricals (his transformation into a glamorous young woman), the sports ( cricket played with a ball of socks and a bat of a “young tree”), efforts to learn the violin from a tutor who spoke only Serbian, the parties, the Christmas meals, the library books (in one place he read 50 books in a month). All this is told in a highly entertaining style calculated to reassure his anxious family at home. 

           In the first week in January 1943, after yet another falling out with the authorities, he was sent to Stalag Luft 1, Barth, Pomerania, to be Camp Medical Officer. What he found there was at once disappointing and a great relief. There was no hospital and no surgical work, but the German camp staff was helpful and reasonable, and the camp numbers were small, only about 300.

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Medical Staff and Volunteers in 1945: Dr. Hankey, 2nd row, 3rd left; Dr. Nichols, 2nd row, 4th left; "Bunny" Fogell, front fow, 2nd right; Smythe, back row, 5th left

            At first he was the only medical officer there, but the camp grew very rapidly and after a year, he begged for help and a senior officer was sent to take over. Basically, Captain Nichols was a surgeon and though RAMC personnel had to turn their hands to anything, a physician and a dentist were also desirable. Col. Hankey (also captured in 1940) was both – a physician and a dentist. The two men got on well and made a good team. By the end of 1944, they had 5 doctors, about 6000 POWs and a hospital. A photograph in 1945 shows about 25 medical personnel, including orderlies. The camp numbers had risen by then to over 9000. The effort involved in obtaining essential facilities was unremitting, and the result of hours, days, and months of arguing, pleading, persuading and even bargaining with the authorities.

            A medical officer had certain advantages over his comrades. Firstly, he had a job to do; technically, he was paid; technically he was not a prisoner of war, but was in a category described as “detained personnel.”  Of course this meant little in practise. Secondly, he was working for his own people, infinitely preferable to forced work for the enemy. And thirdly, he had much more freedom of movement than most other POWs. Nichols had a pass which allowed him to visit all the compounds in Stalag Luft 1; he accompanied wounded or sick patients to Stralsund, Neubrandenburg, and Schwerin for hospital treatment; in Thuringia, there were inoculation clinics to run in work camps round the country; and there were regional meetings twice a year to present cases for repatriation . All this brought him in contact with many German officers, guards, and even occasionally civilians.   

surgery              To begin with, in Stalag Luft I, Capt Nichols had to operate in the most primitive conditions. He describes his first appendix operation, using improvised instruments – pot handles and pokers, sterilised in pots and pans on the barrack stove. In “POWerful Memories”, written by Augustine Fernandez, there is a vivid and affectionate description of such an operation from the victim’s point of view!  In “Behind Barbed Wire” by Morris Roy, the doctor is described as a “ dynamic and energetic personality”, and he took pride in making good the shortcomings of prison life, protecting his patients and boosting morale whenever possible. He relied on volunteers to help with the nursing and trained many non-medical assistants who became extremely efficient as anaesthetists and operating theatre staff. He spoke highly of the dedication of these men, many of whom had been patients themselves.            

              Nichols had made friends with the German doctors in the camp, and they greatly assisted him to equip his little hospital. One of them, Dr. Gunther Obst, gave the anaesthetic for that first operation (illegally, as permission to assist had been denied by Obst’s superiors). The two men became firm friends. Dr.Obst spoke good English, and they had many interests in common. They shared their enthusiasms, talked of books and mountains, languages and music, admired photographs of each other’s families, and dreamed of life after the war. A favourite daydream was to own a car with a radio, so that you could enjoy the freedom of the open road across Europe while listening to Bach at the same time – a dream in the realms of fantasy in 1943. Obst would unobtrusively admit Nichols to the German Officers mess to listen to concerts on records, and on at least one occasion took him to the Marienkirche (the church that could be seen from the camp) in Barth to hear the beautiful Buchholz organ which he played himself. Nichols was introduced to Obst’s fiancée, Ruth. Invitations to concerts were also issued by Oberst Scherer, the camp commandant, and the head of security was also a music lover, which indicates that at that time the officers of both sides were on good terms.

            Doc Nic tells how the German doctors conspired with him to go out with a lorry at night and steal a whole X-ray plant from a disused hospital. “The only drawback was that we couldn’t give away our theft by indenting for new X-ray film and I had to screen everything, drawing what I saw on paper in the dark”. This happy state of affairs was not to continue for long. Perhaps an officious Nazi began to complain about the co-operation, or perhaps the two men were not circumspect enough even for a sympathetic commander like Scherer. Dr. Obst found himself in serious trouble and he was dismissed from his post and transferred to Stettin as a disciplinary penalty.  Dr. Thomas Obst, Gunther’s son, thinks this took place at the end of 1943 as a direct result of assisting at the appendix operation against orders. This date is well before the major purge of German officers, including Scherer himself, which took place at the end of 1944. Obst’s name does not appear on the list of officers who were dismissed with Scherer. Nichols writes in home letters of German officers assisting in operations in May ’43 and again in September’43, but he does not name them.

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Doc Nic

            Even before his arrest, Dr. Obst had become unwell. Perhaps because of this, he was never brought to trial, and was transferred to hospitals as a patient, and then back to his home in Halle as his health deteriorated.

            Nichols’ work grew with the camp. At first he had been active with the orchestra, the plays, much reading and giving lectures, but as more and more American flyers arrived in the camp he had no time for all of these recreations. He took up swimming and fencing in an attempt to keep fit, fighting up and down the wards and over the beds with one of his orderlies, a man called “Bunny” Fogell – loud cheers from the poor patients as they hacked and lunged at each other Musketeer style!

            The workload now might include 100 patients a day on sick parade, and there was an urgent need for a new, or extended, hospital.  After months of designing and planning, this was completed in November 1944, and there are photographs of a visit by a German General, who was delighted to see such a civilised enterprise in this remote camp. An absolutely essential refinement to the new surgical theatre was the acquisition of linoleum for the floor. The floorboards of the hut were so ill-fitting “ that the Baltic sand simply spouted up when the wind blew, and covered equipment and patient in a gritty layer.” Before linoleum, “one did not operate when the wind was in the East.” By constant badgering and cajoling, a proper operating table, steam steriliser, and lamps were requisitioned to complete the workplace. In spite of this improvement, however, there were never enough medical supplies in the way of drugs, instruments and dressings. Nichols had to fight for every bit, and 80% was provided by the Red Cross, along with vital invalid food. The linoleum came from the Swedish YMCA, whose representative was part if the IRC Association’s inspection team.        

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Operating Room at Stalag Luft I

           Descriptions of surgical procedures include hernia, appendix, many American football accidents, and wound surgery. Of the two prisoners shot by the camp guards, Lt Wyman was moribund before he reached the hospital, but Nichols kept in touch after the war with George Whitehouse, the South African officer who survived.  He sent me a copy of a children’s classic, “Jock of the Bushveldt”, which I still have.  

            The last few weeks of the war and the two weeks which followed, were hectic. The medical officers were fully stretched dealing with the poor creatures found at the local concentration camp, as well as preparing the hospital for evacuation and also some work with the civilian population in Barth (including a maternity case). At home, Martin Nichols never spoke of the concentration camp and his work there, preferring to retell the many stories of amusing or unusual events that took place during his 27 months at Stalag Luft 1. The Senior Allied Commanding officer, Colonel Zemke, tells the story of honouring an obligation to three German civilians by smuggling them out with the wounded. These girls were on the camp staff as secretaries and translators, had been helpful to the prisoners and quite probably faced ‘a fate worse than death’ if left behind at the mercy of the Russian army. The Russians absolutely forbade the removal of any German citizen, but Nichols and Hankey disguised them in nurses’ uniforms, and they flew to Britain with Nichols on 13th May 1945, exactly five years to the day since he had set foot in France.

            On arrival, Doc Nic had to endure a good deal of teasing about bringing home not one, but three German women!  The girls were eventually returned home to Germany, not knowing what they might find. Miraculously, their homes and their families were still there to welcome them. Ursula and Irma were to remain friendly with Martin all his life. When, in 1958, the family visited them in Germany, it was obvious that they regarded Doc Nic as somehow personally responsible for their safe return. We were made wonderfully welcome.

            Martin brought home with him a mass of drawings, photographs, and other memorabilia, which became part of our childhood, as well as the many stories of his adventures. When I went with my brother and sister to visit Barth in 2005 to meet up with POW survivors and their families, it was the first time in our lives that we had met other people who shared these same stories and pictures – a most moving experience.

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Dr. Gunther Obst

            Perhaps the most precious thing he brought back was his continuing friendship with Gunther Obst. After the war, Gunther was able to get in touch with Martin, and the letters from Germany make for very difficult reading. Conditions there were quite terrible, and jobs almost impossible to find. That a highly trained ophthalmologist like Obst was driven to plead in his letters for darning wool and tobacco gives only the smallest indication of the situation then prevailing. The Obst family escaped with many starts and alarms from the Russian zone, but his circumstances were not much improved. In poor health, and without political influence, he had little chance of a permanent job.  Desperate for work and security, people would do almost anything and trample on anyone to achieve these things. Martin looked for a post for Gunther in Britain through the British Council. He was told that hundreds of people were trying to do the same thing for their German friends. Eventually an opening was found, but it was too late; Gunther was too ill to take it up. He died in 1952, aged 40.   By that time, Martin did have a car, though not the sort that sported the luxury of a radio, and he visited Gunther in a hospital just a few days before he died.

           Dr Obst’s son Thomas, has been in touch with the Nichols family most of his life, and he came with us on our historic trip to Barth in 2005. We feel that we share with him a significant small part of our fathers’ lives, and through both these courageous men, we lay claim to the defining events of Europe’s recent history.

           After the war, Martin Nichols returned to neurosurgery and in 1948 was appointed to the hospital service in Aberdeen, Scotland. There he set up a new neurosurgical unit, which served the whole of the North-East of Scotland, with satellite clinics in Inverness and Dundee. He was popular as a lecturer on many subjects, and his encyclopaedic knowledge can be ascribed in some degree to five years’ eccentric study in POW camps in Germany. He died in 1979.

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Article written by Dr. Martin Nichols’ daughter, Judith Cameron, and printed with her permission.

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