Falklands 1982

The civilian P&O doctor who treated wounded troops during Falklands conflict

Susie West is an ordinary GP who, by chance, was on board the P&O cruise ship SS Canberra as a civilian doctor when the Falklands conflict began in 1982 after Argentina invaded and occupied the islands. 

The Ministry of Defence (MOD) had requisitioned the former ocean liner-turned-cruise ship to transport troops to the South Atlantic as part of the Naval Taskforce that had been assembled to liberate the Falkland Islands. 

Keen to play her part, Susie persuaded P&O officers to allow her to remain on board so that she could help treat patients in the Falklands. 

She went from being a junior cruise doctor looking after elderly holidaymakers and keen to have an exciting career, to taking blood from 3 Commando Brigade Royal Marines – of which there were about 3,000 – while sailing towards a war zone. 

Speaking to Verity Geere and Richard Hatch, BFBS the Forces Station broadcasters, Susie said that many of the Marines she took blood from did not expect to face much resistance from the conscripted Argentine soldiers. 

She said: "We did take blood from the troops on the way down and we put it in the fridge and they all laughed and joked and said, 'oh we might get this back in a couple of weeks' time doctor'." 

Susie added: "As we sailed towards the Falklands in the South Atlantic, everybody thought 'no, they'll sort it out, you know, it won't really come to blows'. 

"There won't actually be any bloodshed."

From the book 'An Ordinary Doctor: General Practice And Beyond' image shows Dr West in South Georgia CREDIT Dr Susie West
Dr Susie West pictured in South Georgia (Picture: Dr Susie West).

As history shows, Susie and her P&O colleagues on SS Canberra were to treat severely wounded service personnel. In all, 255 men died during the conflict.  

Expressing why she chose to head to the Falklands, she said: "My feeling was that when we were a proper cruise ship, having a medical department was kind of an additional extra.  

"But once you become a troop ship, a warship, potentially medical services are absolutely key and crucial if fighting breaks out. 

"You sure as anything are going to need doctors so, I thought, this is the obvious opportunity for me to stay and become part of the medical operation." 

Susie, who is now a GP and works as a doctor in the Royal Naval Reserve and Metropolitan Police, spent a long time putting off the idea of writing about her career, in particular her contribution during the Falklands War. 

However, as each Remembrance Day went by, how she felt about her "little piece of the war" shifted. 

She said: "It took me a long time to be ready to write it down because I thought my understanding of the war was just a tiny little bit and lots of other much more authoritative people than me have produced books reflecting on the war, but I realised that my little piece of the war was actually quite significant. 

"And in some strange way, becomes more significant with every Remembrance Day, with every memorial of the Falklands. 

"I really might have been killed and then everybody would be looking back saying 'oh, you know, Susie was a good egg – what would she have done if she had survived?'" 

She reflected: "So, the very fact that I survived kind of made it relevant to do the look back." 

From the book 'An Ordinary Doctor: General Practice And Beyond' image shows prisoners of war in the passenger lounge of SS Canberra CREDIT Dr Susie West
Prisoners of war in the passenger lounge of SS Canberra (Picture: Dr Susie West).

Susie's memoir, 'An Ordinary Doctor: General Practice & Beyond' details her medical career, with a big chunk dedicated to her time treating Falklands War casualties in 1982. 

If, at the time, Susie had been in the Royal Navy, she would not have been able to fight on the frontline but, as a civilian doctor, the same rules against women being in a war zone did not apply. 

Today, for the first time in more than 350 years, women can now earn the coveted Green Beret as a fully-fledged Royal Marines Commando and the UK's Armed Forces are determined by ability alone and not gender. 

As a little girl growing up in the 1950s, Susie aspired to be a nurse. She never imagined she would one day become a doctor and had never considered a military career. 

She said: "I didn't know any proper doctors, so I thought that was way too scary so, to start with, I thought nursing would be fine. 

"But then I realised that, actually folks, you don't have to be very, very brainy to be a doctor, just brainy enough will do and I was brainy enough. 

"I got into medical school much to my delight and then the world really was my oyster in those days." 

From the book 'An Ordinary Doctor: General Practice And Beyond' image shows SS Canberra's ship's company on the swimming pool turned flight deck CREDIT Dr Susie West
SS Canberra's ship's company pose for a photo on the swimming pool-turned-flight deck (Picture: Dr Susie West).

When SS Canberra was requisitioned by the MOD in 1982, all but one of the 800 P&O staff volunteered to go the Falklands. 

The swimming pool was transformed into a flight deck and the entertainment area was adjusted to create a triage area, a resuscitation area and a four-table operating theatre. 

The night club was transformed into a 50-bed recovery ward. 

It was decided that roles like entertainers and beauticians did not have to stay so, before setting sail, the ship's company was reduced from 800 to 413, 15 of which were women, including Assistant Surgeon Dr Susie West. 

From the book 'An Ordinary Doctor: General Practice And Beyond' image shows Dr West and her colleagues CREDIT Dr Susie West
Dr West and her SS Canberra colleagues (Picture: Dr Susie West).

Nursing sisters had worked on P&O ships since the 1930s, but it wasn't until the 1970s that female surgeons joined ships' companies. 

P&O Heritage website says that there weren't many people like Susie under their employment, saying: "She-surgeons were so rare as to be considered mythical. 

"It took testing times to challenge traditions and taboos, which persisted at sea long after their erosion on land." 

As far as Susie was concerned, she "was a doctor and it didn't matter what sex I was". 

Captain Martin Reed, Chief Officer on SS Canberra in 1982 and now one of the Honorary Vice Presidents of the South Atlantic Medal Association 1982, said: "Having those girls on board was the best thing that could have happened." 

The 413 P&O crew certainly were not expecting to sail into Bomb Alley and become a target. Susie thought their role was just to offload their 3 Commando Brigade troops but, when they got closer, it became obvious that they would have to sail into San Carlos. 

From the book 'An Ordinary Doctor: General Practice And Beyond' image shows a dawn in San Carlos 22 May 1982 CREDIT Dr Susie West
A dawn in San Carlos, 22 May 1982 (Picture: Dr Susie West).

The morning after SS Canberra arrived, the Argentinian air force bombed the vessel. 

"This was real war," Susie said. "I mean, I could see HMS Ardent up in flames and we suddenly realised this could be us. 

"We're big, we're white, the sky is clear, we could so easily have been sunk... and yeah, it was very scary. 

"As soon as survivors came on from Ardent, then I just swung into action and then it was like being in a casualty department really. 

"You start sorting them out. Waiting was over. 

"I got busy and I was just a doctor, just an ordinary doctor." 

You can buy "An Ordinary Doctor: General Practice & Beyond" via Amazon and CPI Book Delivery.

From the book 'An Ordinary Doctor: General Practice And Beyond' Image shows Beating Retreat on the way back 1982 CREDIT Dr Susie West
Beating Retreat on the way back in 1982 (Picture: Dr Susie West).

Head to our Falklands 40 page, where you can find our memorial wall, as well as more Falklands stories, videos and podcasts.

Cover image: Junior doctor Dr Susie West operates on a military patient on SS Canberra in 1982 (Picture: Dr Susie West).