Sister Margaret Augusta de Mestre Australian Army Nursing Service (AANS) was the first Australian Imperial Force (AIF) nurse killed in action in World War II.
Sister de Mestre had always wanted to be a nurse and follow her aunt who had served during World War I on AHS Grantala. Margaret trained at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in Sydney, graduating in 1938. Enlisting in the AANS in 1940 Sister de Mestre sailed twice to the Middle East on 2/1st Australian Hospital Ship (AHS) Manunda.
When Japan entered World War II in December 1941 members of the AANS had already been posted to the Northern Territory and were based at the Bagot Aboriginal Compound approximately 7 kilometres south of Darwin from July 1940 to look after the troops training in the area: first as 2/5th Australian General Hospital (AGH) then 19th AGH and finally 119th AGH from April 1941. The Hospital's Matron was Sister Edith McQuade White who became the Principle Matron of the AANS in the Northern Territory. By early 1942 the 119th AGH had 1200 beds, distributed between Bagot, Kahlin Hospital (Darwin’s civilian hospital), and the new military hospital at Berrimah (aboriginal for ‘make sick fella better’), 7 kilometres south of Bagot.
During January and February 1942 there were several air alerts, and alarms were sounded, but no 'planes were sighted'. However, Bagot received its first battle casualties on 18th February when eleven very badly wounded men, who had been on a convoy bound for the Islands in the north, were admitted.
At 1045 on the 19 February 1942 an air raid warning was heard just as the enemy bombers and fighter planes came over Darwin. The first casualties were mainly from the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) aerodrome and were admitted to Berrimah from about 11.00am.
Having arrived a month earlier and anchored in Darwin Harbour with many ships was the 2/1st AHS Manunda. Expecting casualties, Sister Lorraine Blow was preparing her ward when… “There was a terrific blast which flew me off my feet into the air and down again”…, the bomb blast that wounded her, killed Sister Margaret de Mestre who was preparing her ward one deck below. Sister de Mestre died from shrapnel wounds to her back and abdomen, she was 26 years old. Her sacrifice is acknowledged by a commemorative chair in Christ Church Cathedral, Darwin.
One of 350 wounded, Sister Blow’s shrapnel wounds were so severe that she spent the next two years in hospital. Sister de Mestre was one of 243 people killed in two air raids on Darwin, twelve from Manunda. Killed on the hospital ship were: Robert Bevir, Corporal, AAMC; Arthur Connell, Ship’s cook; Margaret de Mestre, Nursing Sister AANS; Boynes Hocking, Dental Officer, AAMC; John Holmes, Ship's steward; Harold Humphries, Ship's steward; Victor Kane, Ship's steward; William McKay ship's greaser; Allan Scott Smith, Third Officer; Richard Smith, Skip's cook; William Spinney Ship’s steward and Robert Thom, Assistant Purser. Forty seven others were wounded.
Although damaged, the ship remained afloat and its nurses, though badly shocked, treated numerous casualties from other ships, many suffering burns.
"On the afternoon of 20 February the wharf was still burning, and as I waited with our four sisters from 119th AGH who had volunteered to help the staff of the Manunda nurses, the whole scene was one of devastation; bodies were washed up on the beaches. Men were collecting the dead and placing them on barges for burial at sea. It was so sad to see so many ships smouldering", Matron McQuade White.
Loading of the wounded was most difficult and took hours as patients were ferried by barges from land to the Manunda which was anchored a distance out. Several of the 119th AGH nurses went with their patients on the Manunda when she sailed for Perth at 11.30pm and safety.
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