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Author: Tamsin Smith

D-Day, the Battle of Normandy, and the British Military Nursing Services

Updated Wednesday, 29 May 2024

Operation Overlord, the invasion of Europe known as D-Day, began on 6 June 1944. 12,000 British military nurses served during World War II, many of these during the aftermath of D-Day and the Battle of Normandy. In this article, explore what it was like to be a nurse at this time.

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On D-Day itself, it was only male doctors and medics that took part in the landings onto the beaches of Normandy. The wounded were evacuated from the beaches using 70 landing craft adapted for medical work. They had the capacity for 350 stretcher cases and 150 walking wounded. Despite rough seas and the number of casualties, most of the wounded arrived back in England within 36 hours. It was here that nurses initially treated the wounded during those first hours after the initial assault with the first casualties receiving treatment at hospitals in the south of England.

From 8 June, hospital carriers were able to pick up casualties from the shoreline. Nurses from Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service cared for casualties during the two and a half hour crossing.

D-Day - Commandos of 47 (RM) Commando coming ashore from Landing Craft Assault on Jig Green beach, Gold area, 6 June 1944.

The first British nurses to land on the Normandy beaches were Sister Iris ‘Fluffy’ Ogilvie and Sister Mary Gillies of the Princess Mary’s Royal Air Force Nursing Service. They arrived on Juno beach the night of 12 June. That first night they had to sleep in a narrow trench dug in the ground in pitch darkness with the sound of the guns all around them. The next day, the mobile field hospital was set up and they worked with their male colleagues preparing more than 200 surgical cases requiring evacuation. They took it in turns to accompany men to the landing area where they handed their patients over to their Women’s Auxiliary Air Force nursing orderly colleagues who worked tirelessly crossing the channel in RAF Dakota aircraft caring for up to 21 stretcher cases at a time.

Nursing colleagues from the other services arrived from 16 June. Ten days after the initial landings, there was still significant fighting. German snipers were actively firing on personnel landing on the beaches and field hospitals were subjected to constant shelling. The nurses swapped their dresses for combat dress, boots and tin hats and their living quarters were under canvas. There was little privacy and nurses often found themselves sitting next to each other in the latrines and whilst washing themselves in streams.

The need to adapt also applied to how nursing care was delivered and what care they provided. This has had a lasting impact on the role of the nurse and shows just how innovative the nursing profession can be. From having to hang blood transfusion bottles from guy ropes in fresh air (when it was thought blood needed to be warmed first) with no adverse effects to the patient, to having to sterilise equipment in old fish kettles. It was in the Second World War that nurses started taking over the role of initiating and monitoring blood transfusions and prescribing and administering pain relief.

D-day Aerial photograph of ships of the Royal Navy massing off the Isle of Wight before setting off for the Normandy beaches.

The Battle of Normandy brought nurses closer to the frontline than ever before. Whilst General Montgomery had always been supportive of nurses close to the frontline, it was ultimately due to Major Edwards, the commanding officer of a field dressing station near the village of Hermanville that this happened. At the end of June 1944 he requested nursing sisters to work at the station as he had found that without nurses to deliver post-operative care, the operations they performed had limited success.

It is important to remember the only two women listed on the British Normandy Memorial and the only two female figures that have been installed at the British Normandy Museum as part of the 80th anniversary D-Day commemorations. Sister Dorothy Field and Sister Molly Evershed were on board the hospital carrier Amsterdam when she struck a mine. The two nurses were in a lifeboat when they realised there were still men on board, and they returned to the ship and brought 75 men from below decks to safety . Even though the ship was listing so far that they couldn’t walk upright, they went below one final time and unfortunately went down with the ship.

Paris was liberated on 25 August 1944. 30 August signified the end of the Battle of Normandy. It had been a gruelling three months for the nursing service, but during this time, 38,581 casualties were evacuated back to the UK by sea and 7,719 by air without a single flying accident. This is in no small part due to the heroic efforts and selfless sacrifice of those British nurses who took part in the Battle of Normandy.


  1. Harrison, M. (2004) Medicine and Victory: British Military Medicine in the Second World War, Oxford, Oxford University Press.
  2. Mackie, M. (2014) Wards in the Sky. The RAFs remarkable nursing service, Port Stroud, The History Press.
  3. McBryde, B. (1979) A Nurse’s war, London, Hogarth Press.
  4. McBryde, B. (1986) Quiet Heroines. Nurses of the Second World War, Saffron Walden, Cakebreads Publications.
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  7. Taylor, E. (1999) Combat Nurse, London, Robert Hale.
  8. Tyrer, N. (2008) Sisters in Arms. British Army nurses tell their story, London, Weidenfeld & Nicolson.



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