181st Airlanding Field Ambulance RAMC was originally created in Dorset as 181 Field Ambulance in 1939. A section of medics from the unit formed part of the seaborne support force for the first Parachute Regiment action by elements of 2nd Parachute Battalion, the Bruneval Raid (Op Biting) in February 1942.
Then based at Wiltshire with a contingent of 12 Officers and 202 ORs, the unit joined the new Airborne Forces, and was initially redesignated as 181 Airborne Field Ambulance, before assuming the title of 181 Airlanding Field Ambulance RAMC at a new base in Chilton Folait, Berkshire in 1942. After a short time, the unit was commanded by Lt Col Graeme Warrack. They were assigned to the new gliderborne 1st Airlanding Brigade alongside the gliderborne 2nd Battalion, South Staffs and 1st Battalion Border Regiment, as part of the new 1st Airborne Division.
The unit was sent to North Africa towards the end of Operation Torch, onboard the SS Stirling Castle arriving in time to deal with some of the later casualties from the conflict. They moved swiftly to Tunisia in June 1943 where they were to join the plan for the invasion of Sicily. 181 AFA were formed part of Operation Ladbroke, at the spearhead of the larger assault, Operation Husky. Tasked with securing the Ponte Grande bridge over the Napo and Cliane rivers, and later the port of Syracuse North of the bridge and German defensive positions to the South. 181 AFA were due to travel onboard some of the first gliders to enter Sicily, allocated to six WACO gliders. This involved a rapid, scaled-down reorganisation of their support equipment (after training to travel by Horsa gliders) assisted by 16 PFA. The practical complications meant two Sections were attached to the Battalions with one Surgical Team committed to work between the two.
The glider insertion during Op Ladbroke on the night of 9 July 1943 itself was a minor disaster. Many gliders were cast off early and landed in the sea. Of the six gliders carrying men from 181 AFA, only one made it to land. The other five landing in the sea. Fortunately however, some the men who had been allocated to the battalions did make it to Sicily, so the situation was not as bad as it could have been. Cpt Rigby-Jones with his Surgical Team landed about 300 yards South-East of the LZ along with the 2nd Bn South Staffs. Abandoning their original role, they established a Regimental Aid Post (RAP). Around 30 casualties were treated by Cpt Rigby-Jones and his team over the next 20 hours or so. Personnel from 181 stayed in Sicily until 13 July, when they returned to North Africa.
After a period of consolidation in North Africa, 1st Airborne Division was briefed to join the invasion force for the Italian mainland in early September. Due to a lack of suitable aircraft the Division was despatched onboard a flotilla of transport ships to secure Taranto, on the East coast of Italy. Travelling with 133 Para Field Ambulance, 181 helped establish a Hospital at Rondinella, with 320 beds for the casualties. Shortly afterwards they returned with the majority of 1st Airborne Division to the UK in November 1943.
In early 1944, along with the rest of the Division, 181 AFA underwent further training at Bulford, during which time the Lt Col Warrack was promoted to Divisional ADMS and succeeded in 181 by Lt Col Marrable. The Division was finally prepared for Op Market Garden, to be sent to Arnhem. The main part of 181 AFA were due to be sent on 17 September 1944, with a reserve section under the command of the ADMS at Divisional HQ. 181 were initially tasked with establishing a temporary dressing station in the LZ/DZ area for the treatment of early casualties before moving on to create a Main Dressing Station(MDS) at the Municipal Hospital.
When the First Lift of operation commenced on 17 September, 181 landed successfully with only minor casualties at their LZ and were able to create a Dressing Station near the location in a building on Duitsekampweg, in the village of Wolfheze and cared for heavy casualties. On 18 September they moved on to Oosterbeek establishing an MDS at a series of Hotels at Schoonoord, later known as the 'MDS Crossroads'. Whilst initially fairly quiet, the abortive attempts to reach the Bridge meant 181 were unable to reach their own objective and also left these buildings exposed on the 'Oosterbeek Perimeter'. As the Battle progressed, these buildings were sometimes in dangerous forward positions which were difficult to defend for fear of further injuring casualties or Medical personnel.
In common with many of the Airborne medics at Arnhem, the contingent of 181 AFA (including Lt Col Marrable) who stayed to tend the injured were captured after the evacuation of the Division in the night of 25-26 November 1944. These medics continued to work tirelessly to protect the huge number of casualties in their care once transferred to the so-called 'Airborne Hospital' established at Apeldoorn. Eventually this was closed by the Germans in November 1944. Whilst notable numbers escaped, many became Prisoners of War and were held captive until the end of the War.
When the unit was reformed in the UK, with just 10 ORs returning from the Battle of Arnhem it was clear reinforcements would be required to bring the unit back up to strength. After the necessary recruitment and traning, 181 was transferred to billets at a grand house near Cambridge in Spring 1945 with a new CO, Lt Col Gilliland. 181 were deployed to Oslo, Norway in early May 1945 to assist in the disarmament of the German forces and stabilisation of the region.
A smaller section of 181 was sent to Sweden, taking wounded Russian soldiers home (becoming the first British unit to land on Russian soil since 1919 when they disembarked with their Russian patients at Murmansk) before returning on MV Stratheden from Oslo to join the rest of their unit in England in September, where the unit was temporarily based at Perham Down, Tidworth.
Following the decision to disband 1st Airborne Division however, 181 Airlanding Field Ambulance was disbanded on 15 November 1945.
With assistance from Niall Cherry - grateful thanks to the Student Volunteer Team
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