The wartime RAF had very extensive medical services. Most were located in the hospitals and rehabilitation centres, and in the research establishments which investigated all aspects of aviation medicine, including psychology.
However, all Bomber Command stations of any size had their own medical establishment, centred on SSQ, Station Sick Quarters. On the wartime built stations, these were housed in Nissen huts and space was extremely short, as can be seen in this photograph of a desk in a medical officer’s consulting room, the books arranged in size to fit into the curvature of the metal walls.
Medical Officers on a bomber station fulfilled two roles, which might be undertaken by one officer or by separate officers depending on how large the medical establishment was. The Station Medical Officer was primarily responsible for the welfare of everyone on the station, whereas the Squadron Medical Officer’s first concern was the aircrew.
Here is a brief summary of the Medical Officers’ duties:
- At SSQ, they ran what was in effect a GP’s surgery for all the personnel on the station, who could easily number between 1,000 and 2,000 people.
- They were in charge of all recommendations and inspections regarding environmental health on the station, including such matters as ventilation, heating, sanitation, and food.
- The Squadron Medical Officer’s central responsibility was the care of the aircrew on the squadron. He advised them on all aspects of aviation medicine, and in addition carefully watched their physical and mental health for signs of stress or inability to cope with operations.
- Medical Officers were responsible for supervising the rescue of aircrew from crashed aircraft, so that injuries should not be caused or existing injuries worsened. These crashes involved a very high risk of fire and possible explosion due to the aviation fuel, ammunition and explosives on board. It was the one real instance* in which RAF Medical Officers shared the hazards of aircrew, unlike their counterparts on active service in the Army and the Navy who experienced many of the dangers of the Service people under their care.
- SSQs were usually equipped with what was known as a crash theatre, which provided emergency care for life-threatening injuries, but it was only on the major RAF stations that there were full operating theatre facilities. The job of Medical Officers on the lesser stations was to stabilise the casualties and get them as quickly as possible to either a civilian EMS (Emergency Medical Services) hospital, such as Addenbrookes at Cambridge, or to one of the lavishly equipped RAF Hospitals, such as RAF Hospital Ely.
* Some MOs also flew occasionally on bomber operations to gain knowledge of the dangers which the men under their care faced. A few very notable Medical Officers also did so to further their research into improving efficiency in the air. For the Pathfinders, none was more important in this respect that the Group Medical Officer, John Cecil MacGown, the RAF’s leading expert in night vision, who despite being in his fifties flew operationally as an air gunner.