By Malcolm Stening
Malcolm Stening was one of four brothers, two of whom served as medical officers in the RAN during WWII. His elder brother Samuel (Sam) served in HMAS Perth and later became a Japanese prisoner of war – Sam’s story has been told by Ian Pfennigwerth in his recent publication In Good Hands which is reviewed elsewhere in this magazine. Unfortunately, Sam passed over the bar in 1983 but Malcolm sails on and celebrates his 100th birthday in August this year. The following article has been taken from reminiscences provided by Malcolm, together with part of his war memories which were published by the Naval Historical Society in 2001 under the title The Class of ‘35 at War.1
For more than half a century the RAN’s permanent medical officers were posted to the Royal Naval Hospital at Portsmouth for a period of from twelve to fifteen months for service and training. Later, on at the initiative of Surgeon Captain Carr, the London Hospital was also included in this schedule.
The site for a naval hospital on farmland at Gosport in Portsmouth Harbour was purchased in 1745, following submission of plans by the Admiralty to King George II. While the first patients were admitted in 1753, building works were not completed until 1761. The name Haslar was adapted from the Hasler family who were the original owners of the property.
The original 1,300-bed hospital, designed by Theodore Jacobsen FRS, and situated on 60 acres, was the largest brick building in Europe. The site was surrounded by the Gosport Creek, with no readily available land access, said to be chosen to prevent the escape of press-ganged sailors. In the early days before the creek was bridged, access was by boat, which may have given rise to the phrase ‘up the creek’. A hospital chapel dedicated to Saint Luke was built in 1762.
A physician of note in the early years of Haslar was James Lind, sometimes known as the father of naval medicine, who discovered the use of lime and lemon juice in the treatment of scurvy. During the Napoleonic Wars of 1805 to 1815 patients from the battles of Trafalgar, Corunna and Waterloo were treated and the dead were buried in the paddock to the south-west of the hospital. While over 7,000 named graves are known to exist, it is believed an equal number may lie buried without known records, making this the densest burial site in the United Kingdom. Following the trial of the Bounty mutineers three men were sentenced to death and, as a message to others, on 29 October 1792 they were hanged from the yardarm of HMS Brunswick at Portsmouth. When they were cut down their bodies were ferried to Haslar for interment with the cost of 7/6 charged to the Crown for pine coffins and burial.
Upon the outbreak of WWII many recently graduated Australian doctors who had come to the United Kingdom for advanced training and higher degrees volunteered for wartime service. Among them was Malcolm Stening who was already commissioned in the RANR as a Surgeon Lieutenant. On volunteering for service in September 1939 he was sent to Haslar as part of a group of 25 young doctors for training in advance of posting for active service. These volunteers were mostly unmarried, had gained experience of surgery, and were on the brink of postgraduate study before putting their chosen medical speciality into practice. Their knowledge of war was scant and garnered from recounting the deeds of their predecessors and mentors who had predominantly served in the Army during WWI. Stening saw his duty as presenting for active service and putting on hold study for the final examination for the Fellowship of the Royal College of Surgeons which was being held
later in 1939. On 6th September he was interviewed at the Admiralty by Surgeon Captain Parker who had difficulty in categorising RANR medical officers, so Stening was designated RNVR with the characteristic wavy gold stripes. After this it was off to Haslar.
In 1939 the Royal Naval Hospital Haslar was the largest armed service hospital in the United Kingdom, then providing over 1,200 beds. The impressive brick buildings were arranged in a quadrangular fashion enclosing a church within. According to Royal Naval tradition the church was packed on every Sunday with the congregation seated relative to rank with the senior officers and their wives in the front pews and surgeon lieutenants, nursing sisters and Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) nurses filling the rest of the body of the church.
At the periphery of the spacious grounds, distant from the quadrangle, were rows of residential terraces. The buildings contained the wardroom and living but not sleeping quarters of the medical officers which were at one end of the quadrangle. The wardroom for Surgeon Lieutenants only was spaciously and elegantly furnished with an open-hearth fireplace and served an ever-changing population of young men awaiting sea postings. At the other end of the ground floor was the dining room containing an enormous mahogany table on which at breakfast on Sundays, a meal always eaten in silence, small lecterns were placed at each seat for reading the London Times or other newspapers.
The young doctors also spent a short term of residence at HMS Excellent, the Gunnery School at Whale Island. This densely crowded barracks was a veritable hive of activity and hub of the Royal Navy. Those on duty were recognised as squads of gaitered seamen with side-arms running with knees high in a half-jog with a Petty Officer beside them shouting orders. The course was chosen not for instruction in gunnery but to enforce the strength and discipline of the Senior Service, with a wartime composition of 865,500 officers and men and 3,470 combatant ships. In Nelson’s day the Royal Navy reached its maximum strength under sail when there were 625 ships in commission, 102 of them ships of the line, manned by 142,098 seamen and marines. During this time physical instruction classes were held in a well-equipped gymnasium at Pitt Street in Portsmouth. This was strenuous exercise and no half measures were adopted on the parallel bars, the vaulting horse, swinging on the high trapeze and changing trapezes in mid-air over the swimming pool. All without exception found the water of the swimming pool following the overhead interchange on the trapezes. These gymnastics were difficult for young doctors and one of their number drew attention to himself by vaulting the horse head first sustaining concussion and one week in hospital.
Malcom Stening reminisces: The night-long task of being Duty Medical Officer in charge of Haslar would occur once or not at all because of the large numbers of Surgeon Lieutenants passing through and the short duration of their residence. It came to my lot one night which entailed occupying the duty quarters in the main building, with the duty nursing sister doing rounds of the 1,200-bed hospital in the snow and dealing with any emergency that may occur. Such an emergency arose at 0200 when a RAF Police detachment marched in: two Surgeon Commanders RNVR were under arrest. The charge was disturbing the peace and falsely raising the alarm that an enemy landing by paratroopers had begun, and resisting arrest. They had insisted that German parachutists were filling the sky and landing in Gosport and had alerted the RAF Station there. They were obviously confused and inebriated and the RAF Sergeant departed being satisfied that their safe custody was assured.
The large wards at Haslar were warmed by wood fires in an open hearth during this unusually cold winter. In such a ward was an overweight Able Seaman who had his ruptured gangrenous appendix removed by me. My patient when seen on the following day after the operation revealed an abdomen slightly distended associated with a mild fever. Considering the possibility of a developing peritonitis my treatment advised was for the periodic application of ‘hot stupes’ (fomentation packs wrung out in a mixture of oil of turpentine with hot water) applied to the abdomen. Returning to the ward later in the afternoon to assess progress, the sight of my sick patient exercising vigorously in front of the open fire by bending up and down confronted me. The Sick Berth CPO was standing next to the patient loudly barking his order of ‘Up Down, Up Down’. With astonishment and concern my entreaty of ‘What in the name of Heaven are you doing Chief?’ Readily and confidently came the answer ‘Hot Stoops, Sir, Hot Stoops’. From that time the improvement in the progress of the Able Seaman was uninterrupted and provided a firm recommendation for the employment of early ambulation which had not been practised in surgical aftercare before that episode.
Thanks to a chance meeting with a Surgeon Rear Admiral who happened to be a member of the Court of Examiners of the Royal College of Surgeons, Stening impressed the admiral at an impromptu viva voce and was given an immediate opportunity to sit for the final examination for fellowship of the college. He thus left Haslar at the end of February 1940 for his appointment at the RN Auxiliary Hospital at Newton Abbot, in the command of HMS Drake, with FRCS after his name.
From there he had an adventurous war career, serving in the heavy cruiser HMAS Australia in convoy duty in the Atlantic and Indian Oceans and in 1942 participating in the Battle of the Coral Sea, the landing of the 1st Division of the US Marine Corps on the shores of Guadalcanal, the Battle of Savo Island and the Battle of the Eastern Solomons. In March 1943 he was posted to HMAS Rushcutter for duty as a Surgical Specialist. In February 1945 and now a Surgeon Lieutenant Commander, he was appointed as SMO to the battleship HMS Howe. In April 1945 the British Pacific Fleet was engaged with the US Navy in the landing and occupation of Okinawa against the sole defence of the Japanese – the Kamikaze. Following further service at Rushcutter he retired in June 1949 with the rank of Surgeon Commander. In civilian life Malcolm Stening was to become an outstanding gynaecological surgeon. In the 2009 Australian Day Honours List he was awarded an Order of Australia Medal for his services to medicine as a gynaecological surgeon and to the community through the recording of naval history.2
Haslar survived the war. Although the nearby ports were a target for Luftwaffe bombing, it was suggested that Haslar was spared because its water tower was used by the enemy as a navigational aid. Operating theatres were set up in the basement where casualties straight from the battlefields were treated.
In 1996 the hospital was renamed the Royal Hospital Haslar, when it became a tri-service hospital, embracing the Army and Air Force. In 2007 Haslar became a joint public health and military hospital with the military wing reduced to a 21-bed ward. Together with the remainder of the facility this ward finally closed in 2009 when the site was closed pending redevelopment.
It would be interesting to know what became of the artefacts held in the small but important Haslar Museum which contained a wonderful collection of exhibits donated over the centuries by naval surgeons from around the globe which included specimens, instruments and reports. Also held here was a rare original subscription set of Gould’s The Birds of Australia; only 250 of this magnificent 7 volume set were produced with many volumes being later cut up for their valuable single plates. A complete set recently sold at auction for $A350,000.
- An expanded version of The Class of ‘35 at War containing Malcolm Stening’s reflections on his long life entitled Doctors at War was printed by the University of Sydney Medical School in 2011 for private circulation – an edited version is intended to be produced by the University of Sydney Press.
- The list of honours and decorations awarded to Dr Malcolm Stening include: OAM, VRD, MD, FRCS, FRACS, FRCOG.