‘A force to be reckoned with’ - D-Day nurse from Cromer dies aged 96
PUBLISHED: 12:20 12 August 2018 | UPDATED: 13:04 12 August 2018
She was a force to be reckoned with, a rarity amongst D-Day veterans, a woman who spent her time on Normandy beaches saving, rather than taking, lives.
As the nurses travelled in convoy to Bayeux from the shattered beach at Arromanches in northern France, people from the towns and villages devastated by German bombing cheered Margaret Dickinson and her colleagues through the streets.
After a rough sea crossing, Mrs Dickinson and fellow nurses had clambered down scramble nets into landing craft to discover that the fighting of June 1944 was still raging outside Caen to the point where the ground was shaking.
For Margaret, who died on Friday night aged 96, it was a baptism of fire, treating the wounded and the dying as the Luftwaffe bombers flew overhead on raids which would devastate her home town of Hull.
Mrs Dickinson, who was 22 when she arrived in Normandy, remembers basic conditions and new shipments of injured men arriving from the front lines on a daily basis at the field hospital.
Her training in Hull, where she had helped treat some of the 3,000 injured civilians, had stood her in good stead for what she would see in France when she served as a sister with the Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service.
“I wasn’t frightened because I had seen it before. It was terrible, seeing all these young men injured, but we had a job to do and we did it,” she said.
“There was no time to feel worried because that time could be spent re-dressing wounds and trying to make the soldiers feel comfortable,” said Mrs Dickinson, who As the war moved away from the beaches of Normandy, so did the hospitals used for treating inured soldiers, and Mrs Dickinson went with them, seeing at first hand the devastation left behind by the war in newly-liberated France.
One of Mrs Dickinson’s patients was a young German prisoner-of-war who she nursed from serious illness to health.
“He was only 18 and I was absolutely determined that he’d get well – and he did. One day, he looked up at me and said: ‘I want you to have this’. He gave me his mother’s medal, it meant such a lot to me,” she said.
“He said to me: ‘your bombs killed my mother but you have got me better and I am grateful and thankful and would be so pleased if you took this’. It was a moment that I will never forget – our countries were at war, but here was an act of kindness.”
Bearing the German swastika and Hitler’s signature, the medal had been given to the German soldier’s mother for her services to the Reich and he had carried it as a good luck charm before passing it to Mrs Dickinson as a reminder of how kindness can transcend war.
“I often wonder what happened to this young man who was only about 23, I think about him a lot,” Mrs Dickinson told me the last time she travelled to Normandy to take part in commemoration services in France, three years ago.
“When people talk about D-Day, they usually talk about the men who fought on the beaches, but of course there were women there, too. At the Normandy veterans’ meetings, I am the only female veteran and I often wonder where the others are.
“For me, being around people who know what we went through is very important.”
Mrs Dickinson was a lively member of the Norwich and District Normandy Veterans’ Association and was particularly close to fellow member and veteran George Gallagher, who served with the Royal Engineers and landed on Juno Beach in Normandy a few days after D-Day. The pair lived just a few houses away from each other in Cromer.
Jack Woods of the association said: “It is a sad day for us as we say goodbye to another member. Margaret was a remarkable woman and one of the last female Normandy veterans.
“When we return to France next year, she will feel very close to our hearts. We remember everyone who played their part in the Normandy campaign and Margaret’s role was absolutely vital. She seemed fearless. We will miss her.”
Mrs Dickinson kept her Légion d’honneur next to that medal given to her by a grateful young German – she died peacefully at home, a life well lived. We will remember her.