Durban, South Africa
Surgeon Rear Admiral G. V. Hobbs, MRCS , LRCP
With the outbreak of war with Japan and the fall of Hong Kong on Christmas Day 1941 and Singapore on February 15th 1942 the Japanese were expected to turn towards Ceylon and India next. They made their move on Easter Sunday 1942, April 5th, when Japanese carrier based aircraft carried out an air raid on Colombo, Ceylon; their objective was to destroy the British Eastern Fleet in harbour. Forewarned by intelligence reports the fleet had been dispersed but the fact that the enemy had struck their home base demonstrated Ceylon's vulnerability forcing the Commander in Chief, Eastern Fleet, to relocate its main base to Mombasa, East Africa, from where his Capital ships could be deployed into the central and eastern Indian Oceans.
This new emphasis on basing the Fleet on East Africa highlighted the inadequacies of shore based hospital facilities in South Africa and East Africa to accept any significant number of casualties or sick personnel aboard ships of the fleet. In Mombasa a fledgling R. N Sick Quarters was expanded into a100 bed R.N. Auxiliary Hospital which opened in August 1942 with additional support from hospital ships. The facilities for the treatment and accommodation of naval personnel in Durban, had more capacity but were spread across a number of establishments, both military and civil. Early in the war an out-patient department at Defence Headquarters, Durban was capable of dealing with minor injuries, routine vaccinations and inoculations, and medical examinations. There was also a physiotherapy department, and a medical stores department belonging to the Army from which the Navy was able to obtain stores and equipment more economically than by local purchase. By 1941 beds were available at the Military Section of the Addington Hospital, the Oribi Military Hospital, the Townhill Mental Hospital, and Renishaw Hospital for Tuberculosis, and the King Edward VIII Hospital for coloured patients only. In 1942 further accommodation was available in Springfield Military Hospital, Durban, and inland at the Howick Convalescent Hospital, and Baragwanath Military Hospital, Johannesburg.
Prior to mid-1942 the majority of RN hospital beds were accommodating invalids sent from Ceylon for onward passage to the UK; the war in the Mediterranean meant the Suez Canal route was not safe so all medical evacuations went via South Africa. An early example of this transfer of patients being staged through Durban is recorded in May 1941, the Hospital Ship OXFORDSHIRE after completing a refit at Port Elizabeth, arrived at Durban on May 10th to embark a large number of military invalids, sailing for Cape Town on the 13th. She was returning to her station as Base Hospital ship at Freetown, Sierra Leone and on arrival her charges were transferred were transferred to the Hospital Ship VASNA to complete the voyage home.
Demand for hospital accommodation for the Eastern Fleet grew rapidly during 1942; a sharp increase in the number of invalid cases awaiting passage from Ceylon was putting a huge strain on the RN medical service in Ceylon and as a result the Fleets relocation to Kenya saw several new naval establishments opened in South Africa. In addition to the existing R.N Base and R.N. Dockyard Durban, HMS KONGONI, an R. N. Air Section was established at South African Air Force (SAAF) station Stamford Hill, Durban in April with its accounts in KONGONI; in July SAAF station Wingfield, Cape Town, was transferred to the Admiralty and commissioned as R.N. Air Station Wingfield, HMS MALAGAS; in October a Combined Operations training establishment, transit camp and General Drafting Office, HMS ASSEGAI opened near Durban.
H.M. Dockyard, Durban, employed 2,567 persons entitled to Service treatment, of which 984 were Europeans. Large numbers of H.M. Ships underwent docking and refitting for periods as long as six months, in connexion with which hospital accommodation had to be provided. In 1942 and 1943, 6,626 naval patients had to be accommodated in Durban Military Hospital, and 3,100 Service invalids were cared for while awaiting passage to the United Kingdom. The whole medical organisation at this time was controlled by three medical officers, one warrant wardmaster, nine sick berth ratings, and one nursing sister for duty with the W.R.N.S. A superintending pharmacist was appointed to building up a naval medical stores depot. Assistance was given from time to time by visiting hospital ships. The opening of the training establishment HMS ASSEGAI necessitated an increase in local hospital accommodation by some 200 beds, also provision had to be made not only for the reception of casualties, but for sickness among the large numbers of naval personnel in the area.
This large increase in demand for beds made the establishment of a dedicated naval hospital an obvious and urgent necessity. This necessity was confirmed by the Director-General of Medical Services, South African Medical Corps, who declared that he could no longer provide extended facilities for naval patients in military hospitals.
Building commenced on a 600 bed naval hospital in Wentworth, Durban in August 1942. Plans were drawn up based on the latest Army design for hospitals, modified by the Admiralty Superintending Civil Engineer. In December 1942 a senior naval medical officer arrived in Durban to supervise the final plans and building of the hospital.
In June 1943 an advance party of the medical staff arrived in Durban and had to be accommodated locally pending the completion of the building. Twenty-five nursing sisters waited for more than a year for the Royal Naval Auxiliary Hospital to be completed. During this waiting period the whole staff worked voluntarily in local hospitals. But with completion, the nursing staff was more busily employed, and gained valuable experience, particularly in the nursing of tuberculosis patients who were transferred to Durban from the Far Eastern Theatre.
The actual completion of the hospital was long delayed, the chief obstacles being selection of a suitable site, shortages of building materials and labour, and a low priority granted to the hospital in relation to other building commitments. It would take 19 months to complete the work; the Royal Naval Auxiliary Hospital, Durban, eventually opened for the reception of patients on March 15th 1944, under the command of Surgeon Rear Admiral G. V. Hobbs, MRCS, LRCP.
The hospital opened with a medical staff of 10 medical officers, 25 nursing sisters and 32 V.A.D.s (Voluntary Aid Detachment nurses). Rising to 13 doctors, 1 Dentist, 1 Principle Matron, 2 Reserve Senior Sisters, 22 Reserve nursing Sisters, 32 V.A.Ds., 2 Pharmacists, and 2 Warrant Wardmasters during 1945.
It is unclear when the hospital was closed down, but in the short period of its existence the hospital received and treated 3,957 Service patients. The site was sold in 1948 and purchased by the Natal Provincial Administration and reopened as the Wentworth Hospital.
Last modified: 15 September 2023
(1954) Surgeon Commander J. L. S. COULTER, D.S.C., R.N., ‘THE ROYAL NAVAL MEDICAL SERVICE’ London, Her Majesty's Stationery Office - Volume 1'Administraion'
Note: Formerly Surg. Captain in command of the Hospital Ship OXFORDSHIRE, April 1943 till August 1944. Promoted to Acting Surgeon Rear Admiral for service with the British Pacific Fleet.Close