Recognition at last for the Norwich-trained nurse who died saving 75 injured men in Normandy
- Credit: (C) CHRISTINE CRANFIELD
'The bravest woman I know': Family share pictures of former Norfolk and Norwich Hospital Sister Mollie Evershed who saved 75 servicemen as ship sunk during Normandy and will be remembered 75 years later on new memorial.
A former nurse from the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital is one of only two women to feature out of 22,442 on the new British memorial in Normandy having lost her life helping to save 75 men to safety from a sinking ship.
Sister Mollie Evershed, 27, and her colleague Sister Dorothy Field, 32, were serving with the Queen Alexandra's Imperial Military Nursing Service and paid the ultimate price as they tried to save the lives of badly injured soldiers.
Mollie, who was born in Battle in East Sussex, had completed her training at the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital after leaving Ely High School for Girls in 1932.
She and Dorothy had been serving on the SS Amsterdam, which had carried US Rangers to Omaha Beach on D-Day but which was later converted into a hospital ship with wards and operating theatres which transported injured Allied soldiers from Normandy back to Britain.
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Both Mollie and Dorothy had helped care for huge numbers of terribly injured men who had been caught in the fighting which raged after June 6 1944, D-Day as part of Operation Overlord, which was the beginning of the end of World War Two.
On August 7 1944, as it made its third journey back to the UK carrying casualties, the ship struck a mine off Juno Beach, the second beach from the east among the five landing areas on D-Day where the Canadian 3rd Infantry Division suffered heavy casualties.
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The women knew that the ship was sinking, but they did not abandon their posts: they went below decks to help the stretcher-bound wounded on to a waiting lifeboat and, as the Amsterdam floundered, they were instrumental in saving many lives.
The last man that Dorothy helped had just had a leg amputated - she saw him to safety but it was too late for both women to escape. Within eight minutes of being hit, the Amsterdam had sunk - Mollie Evershed and Dorothy Field's bodies were never found.
Tragically, witnesses reported seeing a nurse, believed to be Mollie, desperately trying to squeeze out of porthole seconds before the ship disappeared beneath the sea - she perished alongside 55 casualties, 10 medical staff, 30 crew and 11 prisoners of war.
A crew member, Patrick Manning, later recalled: "The ship seemed to be broken in the middle, with one half listing one way and the other half the other. One of the funnels and the mast were down and the screws were out of the water. Only one LCA (landing craft assault) could get away to pick up survivors."
In the July 1945 school magazine from Ely High School for Girls, a memorial was placed: "All Old Girls who were contemporaries of Mollie Evershed will hear with great regret of her death at sea on 7th August 1944. Mollie was at the school in the years 1928-32. Afterwards she trained as a nurse at the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital.
"Practical, steady, and reliable, Mollie was always eager to help in any way. She was energetic, lively, full of fun and friendly and popular with everyone in the school, both Staff and girls. We, who knew her and remember her, were grieved to hear of the loss of a young life, so full of promise, but we are also very conscious and proud of the heroism, devotion and sacrifice which she showed in that hour of her supreme testing.
"We offer her parents, Flight-Sergeant R Evershed and Mrs Evershed, in their irreparable loss, the sympathy of all the members, past and present, of Ely High School."
Mollie and Dorothy were posthumously mentioned in Dispatches and awarded the King's Commendation for Brave Conduct while another nurse, Lily McNicholas, survived the tragedy and was awarded an MBE for her heroism.
Now, as part of a unique project by the Normandy Memorial Trust called 75 Stories, Mollie and Dorothy have been honoured for their heroism in the line of duty. And after seeing the publicity about her aunt, Mollie's niece Christine Cranfield has come forward with precious photographs from the family album.
They show an elegant young woman dressed in a nurse's outfit from the 1930s with a promising life ahead of her.
Mrs Cranfield, 75, from Soham, who was a baby at the time of Mollie's death, said: "She left school as a very bright pupil and then went on to train to be a nurse. I never knew much about her or her story until the recent news coverage. My family spoke little about her so although I knew she was my aunt there wasn't much more I could tell."
Christine's husband, Kenneth, went on to explain how they had been keen to put a face to Mollie's name: "We found a picture of Mollie and her sister Peggy in school uniform. Then a paper clipping from The Daily Mail I believe, which honours her as 'the bravest woman' by the captain.
"It has been incredibly interesting to find out more about her."
The foundation stone of the memorial was unveiled by Theresa May and Emanuel Macron on the 75th anniversary of D-Day - Norfolk veteran David Woodrow, from Topcroft, helped to officially open the memorial which is in the village of Ver-sur-Mer overlooking the remnants of the 1944 floating harbour at Arromanches.
At the opening, which was one of Ms May's last official duties as Prime Minister before she gave up the role the next day, she said: "Standing her as the waves wash quietly onto the shore below us, it's almost impossible to grasp the raw courage it must have taken that day to leap from landing craft and into the surf, despite the fury of battle.
"They belonged to a very special generation, the greatest generation, and they laid down their lives so that we might have a better life and build a better world."
Minutes from the spot where the new memorial stands, a Norwich-trained nurse put the lives of others before her own and in doing so, paid the ultimate price. We will remember her.