The small door to the left of the lift at King’s College Hospital is like a portal into a parallel universe. On the other side of it is the chapel. Here the light is muted and the mood reflective. People are sitting quietly, praying, mourning, giving thanks – who knows? It’s a little Edwardian outpost amid all the modernisation, and its aesthetic is recognisably Christian, but it is of course staunchly multi-faith now.
Plaques on the wall commemorate the contributions of hospital staff from the past, among them one citing the bravery of Dorothy Anyta Field, who ‘by her devotion and courage saved many lives’. Here was surely a story that deserved to be more widely known.
And what a story it is. There are 22,442 service personnel listed on the British Normandy Memorial, commemorating the lives lost during Operation Overlord (June–August 1944), which is due for completion later this year. Only two of these are women: Sister Dorothy Field, who trained as a nurse at Kings College Hospital, and her colleague Sister Mollie Evershed.
When the war broke out Field enlisted in Princess Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service, and was posted to the hospital carrier SS Amsterdam as matron (a rank equivalent to Lieutenant). On the ship’s third journey to ferry wounded soldiers back across the channel, early on the morning of 7 August 1944, it struck a mine off Juno Beach. One half of the engine room was completely destroyed.
Sister Field insisted on leaving the safety of the lifeboat she had boarded to rescue the wounded. Together she and Sister Evershed returned to the capsizing ship and helped 75 stretcher-bound men off the ship and onto lifeboats. The last of these men had had his leg amputated in the ship’s operating theatre minutes before his evacuation.
When Field and Evershed went below again, the ship was listing so severely they could no longer stand upright, and the sea finally closed over it barely eight minutes after it hit the mine. There were with 106 casualties, including the two nurses. Field was 32 and Evershed 29. Both of them were mentioned in despatches and posthumously awarded the King’s Commendation for Brave Conduct.
At the time of her death, Field’s parents were already mourning the loss of their son, a test pilot, who had been killed the previous year. Field of course has no grave, but she and Evershed are listed on the Bayeux War Memorial, and her name appears alongside that of her brother on the war memorial in her home town of Ringwood, in Surrey. But worth more to the parents of both women than all the memorials must have been the 75 letters that they received from the men they had saved, expressing their gratitude.
(Strangely enough, some thirty years earlier, Field’s namesake had volunteered as a Voluntary Aid Detachment nurse and tended the wounded at the Battle of the Somme. The pocket diaries in which she wrote her account of this period are kept at the Imperial War Museum.)