Stunning colour images of wounded enemy on wartime Shropshire's doorstep
With all the immediacy of full colour, they are a set of stunning, vibrant images which bring back to life poignant wartime events on Shropshire’s doorstep as if they were yesterday.
In some we see wounded German prisoners-of-war, watched by their American medical minders, arriving by train to be taken to a major hospital just outside Whitchurch.
In others we have views of the rows and rows of hospital buildings which have risen up in the parkland surrounding Iscoyd Park, a grand mansion about three miles from the town.
The evocative pictures from 1944 were the work of an American officer, Major Quintus Nicola, who was a keen photographer who had top-of-the-range equipment for the day – ironically enough, a German Zeiss camera.
And they have come to light thanks to his son Dennis Nicola – known as Denny – who is making his first ever trip to Britain in which he and family members will be hosted by the Godsal family at Iscoyd Park and will visit some of the wartime haunts which will have been familiar to Quintus when he was so far from his Californian home over 70 years ago.
Today you would never know that that wartime hospital ever existed. Iscoyd Park, with its beautiful, peaceful grounds, is a country house wedding venue.
The hospital had sprung up during the war and was officially opened as the American 82nd General Hospital on April 29, 1944, with around 700 staff, and was quickly dealing with a flood of casualties in the aftermath of D-Day, admitting over 4,000 US Army patients in its first six months. But then from the end of September 1944, its role changed – and it dealt mainly with German prisoners-of-war, who typically arrived by train at nearby Malpas station, some walking wounded with bandages, others on stretchers.
More than 40 German women civilians helped out.
Between January 1, 1945, and the end of the war in Europe, the hospital had 3,940 admissions. It closed in May, with patients being transferred to other hospitals.
Major Nicola was the Executive Officer at the hospital and the photos he took are a remarkable legacy.
Denny, of Beaverton, a suburb of Portland in Oregon, said: “They have been in a box made for holding slides. The colour ones are Kodachrome slides, which are pretty rare from the World War Two era.
“They were in my father’s possession until he passed in 1972. Then I acquired them. I decided to do a little research of my father’s service. I knew that he had served in the United Kingdom during World War Two and that he was the Executive Officer of a general hospital. But I never knew exactly where he was and when I was younger I never thought to ask.
“I found a list of US Army medical installations in Great Britain in World War Two. I saw one that intrigued me. It listed a general hospital in Wales in Flintshire at Iscoyd Park in conjunction with a German prisoner-of-war camp. That’s what intrigued me because I knew my dad, after the heat of D-Day, had treated wounded German prisoners-of-war.
“I googled Iscoyd Park and this website came up. On the website I recognised the manor house in my dad’s pictures – or at least I thought I did. So I emailed the folks at Iscoyd Park trying to be very polite as I didn’t know who owned the property, and enclosed a couple of the slides and asked if they could confirm that this was indeed Iscoyd Park. They responded less than 24 hours later, very excited and said the family was not in residence during the war and this was very exciting to them. They had seen very few pictures, nothing in colour, and nothing of the Germans.
“So I sent them all the photos I had and we developed a little bit of a friendship.”
From that came an invitation from the Godsals to visit and be shown around should he ever come over to the UK.
And now that is exactly what is going to happen.
“We are starting our trip off by going to Iscoyd Park when we are going to stay three days as their guests,” Denny said.
“I decided to do this to honour my father’s service and the Godsals’ contribution. I will be there on July 24. It will be myself, my wife Lynda, my daughter Stephanie and her husband Alex Ness, and my other daughter Jennifer and her husband Jon Bletscher - six of us.We are going to spend a little over two weeks in Great Britain, with the first three days at Iscoyd Park.”
Denny’s father was born in 1905 and went to medical school, and then practised as a GP in southern California.
“He joined the reserves and after Pearl Harbor he got called to active duty. He was on active duty for five years, one month. He had to give up his medical practice.
“He was called Quintus because he was the fifth child. People who knew him would more frequently call him ‘Quint.’ During his time at Iscoyd Park he was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.
“He returned to America in February 1946 and set up practice again in southern California. My eldest sister Shirley was two-and-a-half when my father saw her for the first time. My mother was a nurse and they worked at the same hospital.“I knew these pictures existed, but they were mostly put away. I don’t think we ever had an official slide show to look at them. I always intended to, and finally got round to it and ended up scanning them. One story of his I do remember is that the German prisoners were in no big hurry to go back to the POW camp even though it was right next door.
The American enlisted men were glad to have the Germans, as part of their rehabilitation, aid them in their jobs. In typical military fashion they would milk that as far as they could. Eventual these guys had to go back.
“Another I remember is that one of his main complaints was it was impossible to find a tennis ball. There is a picture of him playing tennis.” As it happens Denny is adopted. “My father delivered me.” Philip Godsal, whose son Phil and wife Susie live at Iscoyd Park and run it as a wedding venue, said: “We are really looking forward to welcoming them.
“Denny’s photos were a real eye-opener. He sent us all these fascinating photographs, none of which I had seen before. They were remarkable because we knew very little about the American hospital.
“When the Americans left in 1945 it was then taken over as part of the Polish resettlement programme and was a Polish hospital. We knew much more about that. My family were back living at Iscoyd Park then, but they weren’t there during the war. My grandfather was working in Yorkshire at the outbreak of war and remained there for the duration of the war, and the house itself was let to St Godric’s Secretarial College in north London which were evacuated there. It meant that when the park was requisitioned in 1942 the house was already safe in the hands of these ladies. They remained in the house until the end of the war – the house was therefore completely separately occupied.”
The British government started to build a hospital in the surrounding park, which he said was still being completed when the first Americans arrived in March or April 1944. “The thing I hadn’t realised is that I knew there were German prisoners-of-war involved, but I had always assumed that they were trusties employed as orderlies. What I had not realised until we got all these photographs was that it was a POW hospital, which is absolutely fascinating.
“There was a sort of compound where the prisoners who weren’t in the hospital were housed. I think it was pretty low security. I suppose the Germans weren’t terribly keen to escape.
“The pictures are absolutely fascinating and being in colour makes them more immediate.
“The Americans were quite popular in Whitchurch. They produced all these amazing things which were completely unobtainable in wartime in this country like perfumes and stockings and all that stuff.”
Another aspect of the treasure trove is letters Major Nicola wrote while at Iscoyd Park, although because of censorship there is no mention of it by name.
Writing home on May 7, 1944, shortly after the official opening on the hospital, he says: “I would like to be near some big city, but this country life has its advantages. And it is really country life too. I do not get to the town once in two or three weeks and there is not much to go for. It is very quiet here night and day.”
In a letter written on August 11, 1944, addressed to “Dear Fellow Rotarians” he says soon after arriving in Britain “we found ourselves here in a very nice British-built, brick hospital, brand new and as good as anything we could expect at home and much better than we had hoped to find anywhere.”
He goes on to tell of a visit to a “really typical, average English Rotary Club” in Whitchurch - again, he does not disclose the town by name.
“Our nearest town is about three miles away and is just about like most the towns over here, built around a nice big church and railroad station. It is a town of about eight thousands usually, but is a bit more than that now due to the evacuees and others from London that may have come to live.”
He tells how, as a Rotarian, he was invited to talk about his work at the town’s Rotary club.
“They met Tuesday noon at the Victoria Hotel and it is probably the most rickety and oldest hotel in town, so that, to an Englishman, makes it the best.”
He said he played safe and had a meal at the hospital before going “because eating over here is a real problem because of the shortage of most of the things we are used to and then the average Englishman thinks anything is good if he can drink tea with it. They are not very good cooks...”
Whitchurch’s Victoria Hotel no longer exists as a hotel - it is now Victoria House.
Major Nicola goes on to tell of his travels around England and also to Northern Ireland.
where he says the towns, streets, and homes were filthy and the people seemed mostly wretched and miserable.
“Our soldiers up there take a bar of soap with them when they go on a date and make the girls wash their necks before they will go with them. I did not believe it till I saw them.”
Going back to his hospital work, he said the men coming back from the front were the best soldiers in the world, and each wounded soldier was presented with a Purple Heart medal. Some had been known to pull off the tags marking them as casualties and hike their way back to their unit at the front, he said.