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White Ship - Red Crosses

Published: 26 Jun 2022

With White Ship - Red Crosses, author Nicci Pugh has created a fascinating, comprehensive and historically useful account of the efforts of the medical teams and crew aboard the British Hospital Ship SS Uganda during the Falklands War in 1982.

In addition to the conflict itself, the book details in some depth the many transformations of the ship before she was ready to accommodate hospital space, as well as the trials of the Royal Navy Medical and Nursing staff as they fought against time to convert the P&O Educational Cruise Ship Uganda to operate successfully as a floating hospital working in The South Atlantic Ocean. 

As a veteran Naval Nursing Sister who served on board The Hospital Ship, the events are told first-hand.

As a result, against the backdrop of the conflict we have a story that is infused with empathy, nostalgia and camaraderie. Combined, they lend this fast-moving tale a level of compassion usually absent in factual accounts of war, where single characters are often lost in the masses.
The final few chapters bring the book right up-to-date, with comparisons to current conflicts, and the importance for 1982 Falklands War veterans to maintain their links with The Falkland Islands today.

The author has a flair for both technical and narrative-style writing, and she quickly encompasses the reader with an atmosphere of the events as they unfold. The contributions from the British injured servicemen who were treated on board The Hospital Ship at the time add an element of candour that is totally unique. Complete with maps, many unseen photos and relevant documentation this is a well-crafted work that will appeal to a very wide readership.

Thus goes the publicity for the book:  there is much more that can be said.

The sheer complexity of taking a small cruise ship, normally dedicated to school parties, and converting her to a floating hospital becomes clear when Naval Party 1830 (Naval personnel, doctors and nurses) - with of course the P&O crew who would operate the ship, were "presented" with a ship being remarkably quickly converted, for instance by fitting a vital steel helicopter landing deck, and replenishment at sea equipment, but which had severe shortcomings such as having no means of herself producing essential fresh water; this being but one example of the difficulties in part caused by the fact that Canberra, the first choice, became unacceptable for use as a hospital ship, having been used as a troop transport.  In the case for fresh water needs it would be well in to May 1982 before 22 cases holding the desalination plants arrived onboard Uganda (without any instructions as to how to set them up!)

For the medical staff there were also the problems, once having left Gibraltar, of the task of setting up a complete hospital from the dozens of unmarked boxes containing all the medical stores; also, arranging the procedures by which patients were embarked and later disembarked to the three Hydrographic "ambulances ships” HMShips Hydra, Herald and Hecla.

An early setback arose when the P&O ship’s captain/Master became seriously ill soon after the ship left Gibraltar. Following essential diagnostic surgery on board he was medically evacuated from Freetown, Sierra Leone, to his home in Cornwall for ongoing palliative care with his family nearby; a replacement P&O captain being flown out to Freetown. From here, the ship steamed south to Ascension for further re-supply and thence to the uncertainties of the South Atlantic Ocean. And so to operating a ship in a battle zone, under the rules of the Geneva Convention whereby there can be no military contact by way of signals etc but where the reception, treatment, recording, reporting and thence onward transport of seriously wounded personnel has to be carefully co-ordinated.  At the same time there was the fear that for one reason or another Uganda herself might be attacked.

This book is a quite fascinating record of an area of support in war to which few in those days gave much thought. Nor, at the time, could even those in the immediate battle zone around the Islands, who saw Uganda on her nightly travels with the day's wounded, steaming out to the relative safety of her "Red Cross Boxes", conceive the pressures and complications in which this dedicated band of military medical staff found themselves working.

This book is highly recommended.  It is a well written and fascinating read.  Nicci Pugh is to be congratulated on setting down in history the part played by the dedicated people who operated Her Majesty’s Hospital Ship Ugandain the Falklands War under very trying and the most difficult of circumstances.

The author is the daughter of the late Captain C.R.V. (Dick) Pugh CBE RN who served in the Royal Navy from 1916 to 1951.  A Dartmouth contemporary and close friend of Admiral Sir Caspar John and Prince George, Dick Pugh was a pioneer of the steam launch catapult system, flying Fairey sea-planes from HMS Norfolk to great effect in 1932. He later became Commander (F) in HMS Indomitable on her first Commission in 1941 (Operation Pedestal), CO of RNAS Crail (HMS Jackdaw), then CO of HMS Ravager (Ruler class escort carrier built in the USA).  He left the Royal Navy in 1951 having been twice Mentioned in Despatches and awarded the CBE in 1945. He was also a renowned musician and accomplished pianist, teaching all four of his children to sing the (less outrageous!) verses of The A25 song well into their teens.  His devotion to the Royal Navy and love of the sea and sailing are clearly inherited by his younger daughter, who has managed to weave a strong nautical theme throughout the narrative of White Ship - Red Crosses to great effect.

Any profits from book sales are donated by the author Nicci Pugh to the Falklands War veterans’ association, The South Atlantic Medal Association (SAMA82)          

Reviewed and updated by Peter Rickard for the 40th anniversary year of the Falklands War June 2022.

A revised and improved sixth edition of White Ship – Red Crosses was re-published in soft-back by New Generation Publishing 2019. Available via Amazon portal, currently £12.99p. (July 2022). Signed copies of a commemorative hard-back version are also available from the author for £25.00 (inc. p&p) contact: [email protected]  

Nicci has also created an equally fascinating illustrated 50-minute Power Point Talk which accompanies her book, to fund-raise for military-related groups of the host’s choice. For further information contact Nicci by email as above. Nicci will be presenting this Talk for SofFFAAM following the 40th anniversary year of the Falklands War at RNAS Yeovilton April 2023.


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