The 181 Field Ambulance was raised at Beaminster in Dorset in 1939, using 132 Field Ambulance as a nucleus. During 1941, it provided medical services to the 31st Independent Infantry Brigade; a unit which, in October of that year, was converted to the glider-borne infantry role and was subsequently renamed the 1st Airlanding Brigade. In December, the Ambulance was moved to Hungerford in Berkshire, and it was here that the "weeding out" began of those men who were not up to the required level of fitness that the Airborne Forces demanded. 38 men were lost to other RAMC units in this way, leaving a total of 214 all ranks.
The Bruneval Raid
On the 27th February 1942, C Company of the 2nd Parachute Battalion were dropped over Bruneval, France, with the objective of seizing a radar installation and removing essential components of the new German narrow-beam radar. Although it was an operation mounted by paratroopers alone, the 181 Airlanding Field Ambulance performed its first action here. No medical units accompanied C Company on the drop, however a section of 21 men from the Ambulance were aboard the six landing craft which were used to evacuate the paratroopers from France upon the completion of their mission. The Raid came close to a disaster when two German E-Boats passed within a short distance of the silent and waiting craft, but they were not spotted and the evacuation process got underway. The Bruneval Raid was a complete success, although 2 men were dead, 6 were wounded and a further 6 captured. The wounded, however, were not seriously hurt and they received treatment on their journey back to England.
The 181 Airlanding Field Ambulance departed overseas with the 1st Airborne Division on the 15th May 1943, bound for North Africa. The invasion of Sicily loomed and the 1st Airlanding Brigade were charged with the capture of the Ponte Grande bridge, near Syracuse. On the 9th July, the eve of the invasion, the Brigade's gliders were towed into the air with several members of the Ambulance attached to individual units, however the main force flew inside six Wacos. Due to a combination of strong winds and inexperienced aircrews many of the gliders were released too early and 60% of them were forced to ditch in the sea at the loss of 326 lives. Five of the Wacos in which the 181 Field Ambulance travelled suffered this fate, however Captain Rigby-Jones and 9 Other Ranks made it to the Landing Zone and were able to set up a dressing station to treat the casualties amongst the small number of troops who had made it ashore. During Sicily the Ambulance earned 1 Military Cross, 1 George Medal and 1 Military Medal, at the cost of 17 lives and 6 wounded.
Most of the 1st Airborne Division disembarked at Taranto harbour on the 9th September 1943, however the 181 Field Ambulance did not arrive for a further three days. When they did land they set up home in the Naval Barracks from where they were soon treating the casualties that were coming back from elements of the Division which were pushing further inland. On the 19th September, the 4th Para Brigade was relieved in its forward positions by the 1st Airlanding Brigade, and two sections of the Ambulance were detached to accompany them, whilst those that remained in Taranto assumed command of the 320-bed Rondinella Hospital. On the 25th September a Main Dressing Station was opened at Canossa, and another at Cerignola on the following day. The Ambulance was distributed far and wide with the main force at Putignano, smaller sections posted to Taranto, Altamura and Foggia, 14 ranks accompanying the gunners of the Light Regiment, and 65 men had been left behind in North Africa as a rear party. The Division left Italy on the 20th November.
6 men of the 181 Airlanding Field Ambulance were killed at Arnhem and only 10 had returned. Their conduct during the Battle had earned them 1 Distinguished Service Order, 1 MBE, 3 Mention-in-Despatches and 1 Dutch Bronze Cross. In spite of the loss of almost all of their number it was decided to rebuild the Ambulance and bring it back up to full operational strength. Following VE Day, the 1st Airborne Division were sent to Norway to oversee the surrender of the German forces in that country, and the Ambulance flew in to accompany them on the 10th May 1945. One of their duties in Norway was to care for sick Russian POW's, and a section of the Ambulance became the first unit of the British Army to step on Russian soil since 1919, when they sailed to Murmansk to hand over 250 Russians who were suffering from Tuberculosis. The 1st Airborne Division was withdrawn from Norway some months later, and on the 15th November the Ambulance was disbanded.
This history has been compiled from "Red Berets and Red Crosses", by Niall Cherry.
Commanders of 181 Airlanding Field Ambulance
Lieutenant-Colonel Arthur Marrable