Leslie Gordon Percival Shiers
Adored affectionately by his daughters Kate and Sarah
A Surgeon in the Royal Navy
Article courtesy of WWII People’s War
It was about the month of October. I was
exactly twenty-three years of age, I was newly qualified as a doctor and I
was anxious to get out and get a job and earn some money after years of being
a poor student. Accordingly, I sought out the British Medical Journal and
looked for an appointment as a locum somewhere. There was a vacancy in
general practice in
In order to become a surgeon, one needed a hospital and therefore I applied for a post of a surgeon at the local hospital and finally was given the job of Casualty Officer. This in those days was the lowest form of hospital life. Shortly after I had obtained the post, the clouds of war were looming and the Ministry of Health, fearing there would be dozens of bodies lying in the streets from bombing sent a memo to all hospitals offering the doctors there a permanent post for the next three years during which time they were assured they would not be called up for any of the armed forces. However the idea of being out of the war did not appeal to me and so I resigned my post and, as an unemployed doctor, decided to join one of the services. The choice lay between the Air Force, the Army and the Navy. I knew nothing about flying so that ruled out the Air Force, and I loathed walking and marching so that ruled out the Army and the one place left, obviously, was the Navy. How did one get into the Navy?
Well, I had a friend who had been at prep school with me who was a Royal Naval Lieutenant and I wrote to him and asked him what to do. He told me I must write a letter to the Admiralty and he kindly dictated the format. The letter would read: "To the Lord Commissioners of the Admiralty. Sirs, I have the honour to submit my application for a Commission in the Royal Navy. I am twenty-three years of age, fully qualified as a doctor; I am a good swimmer and a keen rugby player. I have the honour to be your obedient servant".
In due course, I received a reply which
thanked me for my offer but pointed out that the Royal Navy was no longer
giving short service commissions, that the RNVR was full and that the RNVSR,
the Supplementary Reserve, was also full. However, they saw no prospect of an
immediate conflagration but thanked me for my offer once again. Six weeks
after receiving this reassuring message we were at war; the Germans having
I was now an unemployed doctor and wondered what was the next move. In the town, there was a shop which had been turned into a recruiting office, and in the window, was a poster of a fierce looking man saying "Your country needs you!" I decided that I must go into this shop and see how one got into one of the armed forces. I duly went into the shop and a scary looking man with three buttons on his sleeve who, for all I knew, might have been an Admiral but I learned later was a Chief Petty Officer, barked at me and said "What do you want?" "Please, Sir" I said "I have come to join the Navy". He looked me up and down and said "Seaman or stoker?" The thought of shovelling coal in a hot engine room below the water line did not appeal to me and so I decided that the proper answer would be seaman. I therefore replied "Seaman, Sir". He said "Fall in there" and pointed to a queue of men standing outside an open door. I fell in, as requested. The column of men shortened, as each one went into the room. I peered through the open door and to my surprise I saw the man who was standing next to me and the one who had gone in just before me, were standing with their trousers round their ankles while an elderly grey-haired man sitting on a stool was closely inspecting his private parts with the aid of a torch
I began to wonder if the stories I had heard about the Royal Navy were true. However, I decided I would not drop my trousers and have my private parts examined by a stranger, so I stepped out of line and went back to the scary looking man with the three buttons on his sleeve. "I", I said "am a doctor". "You are a doctor" he said, "and I am Emma Hamilton. Now, get back there". Well, I had always remembered my father telling me that when addressing a member of what he termed the lower classes you could always put them in their places by saying "Now look here, my good fellow". So, I said to this man "Now look here, my good fellow", his manner changed immediately. His face turned bright pink, indeed he was so suffused I thought it might be an impending stroke. However, taking of his cap, he tucked it under his arm and marched in to where the grey-haired man with the torch was still inspecting private parts. He whispered something into this man's ear and the man came out and taking me by the arm said "My dear chap, are you really a doctor?" "Yes, Sir, I am a doctor, and I am at the local hospital". "My dear chap" he said "you should not be in here. This is for ratings". I explained that I had written to the Admiralty and they did not want my services, so how could I get into the Navy? He said to me "Write down your qualifications, your age and I will see that due attention is given to your application".
This he must have done because ten days
later precisely, I received a letter informing me that I must proceed to a
In due course, I arrived at the house in
Now, this was the second time I had been
asked that and I really begun to suspect the Navy. However, I said "Sir,
your wife is here". "She has seen it all before" he said.
"She may have done, but she has never seen mine. Can't we go into your
surgery?" "Oh, well," he said "if you don't have piles or
a hernia that does not matter. So, you are alright, eh?" Then he put a
stethoscope on my chest and said "Take a deep breath", and that was
that. I said "Aren't you going to test my eyesight?" "Oh, yes,
yes, yes, of course" he said. And he marched into the surgery with the
usual white card, propped it up against the wall, took me by the arm, marched
me to the end of the room and said "Now read the bottom line". We
were so far away from this card that I said "Sir, I cannot even read the
top line". "Good God" he said "good God". I said
"Can you read the top line?" Covering one eye with his hand and
said "I can't even see the bloody card! How far away should you
be?" I said "Six feet, Sir". "Six feet?" So, we
approached the card and I duly passed the test by reading the bottom line. He
then said "Is there anything that you would like to ask me?" Having
passed the test, I said "Yes, Sir, I would like to have that
drink". Immediately the atmosphere thawed and we started to talk about
rugby. Having learnt that I had played once on the sacred turf of
Two weeks later I received a telegram
from the Admiralty which read "You have been appointed as Acting
Temporary Surgeon Lieutenant to HMS Drake and will repair aboard that vessel
at 0900 hours" and it gave at date just three short days away. Now, all
over the country there were posters saying "Don't say where your ship is
because Hitler is listening and there are spies everywhere". And how was
I, in the middle of
I arrived to see the streets literally
packed with sailors and, approaching one of them, I said "Can you tell
me where the barracks are?" He gave me the directions and I entered this
very large building, crossing the square, which again was practically was
sailors moving in every direction. I had been told that I should go to the
I thanked him and walked over, in a cubby hole in the hall was another man in uniform with three buttons on his sleeve. By now I knew the correct method of address was to call him Chief because he was the Chief Petty Officer and I said "Chief, I have come to join the Navy and I am commissioned as Surgeon Lieutenant". I produced my telegram, which was the only form of identity I had and he said "You ought to go up to the Billiard Room; there are still places under the billiard table where officers are sleeping, because all the cabins are full".
I duly went to a very large room in which there were four billiard tables and underneath all of them were sleeping bags. Just as I entered this room, I bumped into a very tall fellow who had two stripes on his sleeve, but one of them had obviously recently been taken off because you could see the gold thread hanging down. He said "Hello", and I said "Hello. What happened to your other stripe?" He told me his name was Miller and that he had been serving on a gunboat on the Yangtze, while his Captain was ashore he was entertaining a Chinese lady in his cabin when a Labour MP had come up quite unexpectedly to see what the Navy was doing. Subsequently there was a board of inquiry, which resulted in Miller losing six months seniority and the Captain being court marshalled. This was my introduction to naval discipline and also to the fact that the Navy drank gin and lime. I had always considered gin and lime to be a drink for tarts but Miller told me that it was to prevent them having the scurvy, which was why the lime was there. It was rather interesting that when I got to sea we always drunk pink gins rather than gin and lime in spite of the threat of scurvy.
I waited in the barracks for a fortnight, and each day all of us temporary lieutenants would go down to a box in the hall and look under our initials to see if there was any message for us. On the tenth day, there was a letter addressed to me informing me I had been appointed as Surgeon Lieutenant to His Majesty’s Ship Weston, which was a ship in the destroyer flotilla based at Rosyth and I should join the vessel forthwith. I drew my railway chit, in those days officers were given railways chits, indeed so were the men, so you would travel free, and I went down to Rosyth.
When we got to
H.M.S. Weston 1943
On arrival, I registered in an
Having boarded the ship, saluted the quarter-deck and being greeted by the sentry, I asked him where the Wardroom was and he directed me towards it. The ship was old, she was a sloop and this meant that, although she lacked the speed and the armament of a destroyer, she could stay at sea much longer, indeed while a destroyer would have to return for re-ammunitioning, and refuelling within the space of about a week, the Weston could stay comfortably at sea for three weeks at a time. Having entered the Wardroom, I was greeted by the First Lieutenant who told me how delighted he was to see a real doctor. I asked him what he meant by a real doctor and, pointing to my wavy stripes as opposed to his straight ones, he told me that most of the doctors in the Navy who were regulars were really young disreputable characters who could not get a decent job ashore. Having received this welcome, I was shown to my cabin which was down a hatch aft between two sets of watertight doors and whilst we were at sea these doors were closed and I slept on the wardroom floor in a sleeping bag. When asleep, like all the other officers, I merely removed my shoes and kept my life jacket close by.
The sick bay contained two swinging cots
and had an elderly sick berth attendant He did not like the First Lieutenant
who had been acting as a doctor prior to my appointment and there was no
doubt he was delighted to see me. It is a strange thing but in the Navy the
sick berth attendant was known as the doctor and the doctor was known as the
quack. That is the sailors' particular sense of humour. However, we went to
sea and we were given a convoy to take out into the
One terrible night, out of thirty-five
ships filled with food and fuel we were escorting we lost thirteen to U-boat
attacks. At this time, the Yanks were not yet in the War but Mr Churchill
made a trip to
Thus, the whole battle of the
At night, the Germans flew over the
Nevertheless sufficient fuel and food was
getting through. These supplies of course coming from
It was customary for The Medical
Department of the Admiralty to give doctors after twelve months at sea in a
small ship a shore job. Sure enough, a signal came through that I was
appointed as a Surgeon Lieutenant to a motor torpedo boat based in
Now it must be remembered that the whole of Europe was occupied by the Germans and the fledgling pilots taking bombing raids for the first time were sent over usually to Lowestoft on the East Coast where, night after night, they bombed indiscriminately, sometimes causing dreadful carnage, especially one night when a bomb fell on the main hotel where officers’ wives, sweethearts and daughters were staying over a long weekend. There was very little we could do in the way of antiaircraft fire, all we could use were the first world war Lee- Enfield rifles, until one glorious day a Swedish anti-aircraft gun mounted on a moveable chassis came to us through the offices of Mr Winston Churchill and we managed to shoot down a German bomber in a raid over the North Sea.
However, after six months in this very
pleasant appointment, I began to feel that I was really missing the war and
as I had never been out East, I decided to go up to the Admiralty Medical
Department and ask for a ship going East. In those days, there was a rule
that any doctor passing through London would call at the Medical Department
of the Admiralty in Whitehall, would fill in the chit saying "On
duty", "On leave" or "Request" when he would be
ushered into the presence of an elderly Irish Rear Admiral Medical who would
ask him what he wanted. I was duly ushered in and met the Rear Admiral who
said to me "I suppose you want a shore job". I said "Certainly
not, Sir, I have had a shore job for the last six months and want to get back
into the war". He said "Very well, what would you like?" and I
said "Well, I spent the winter in the North Atlantic and the North Sea,
Sir, I would like to go somewhere warm, I have never been out East and I
would like to do that". He then consulted the sheet in front of him and
said "We have a cruiser which will be leaving shortly for
After a few days' leave with my parents I
went down to
Ten days after I joined the vessel, we slipped and proceeded down the Channel, calling at Gibraltar, which we reached having traversed a very smooth and placid Bay of Biscay and because it is the duty of doctors in the Royal Navy to be in charge of the wine cellar, I had a pleasant, really very pleasant three days as a guest of Saccone and Speed the wine suppliers, drinking sherry whilst putting in the order for the whisky and gin as requisite.
Three days later, because the
Mediterranean was too dangerous, we sailed for the
We set off to the great
and British merchant ships in the
after the French had surrendered on 13 May 1942.
The harbour at Diego Suarez could accommodate the entire British fleet as well as the German grand fleet. We arrived there in the company of the aircraft carrier Illustrious, the great battleship Warspite, a cruiser squadron, a Birmingham assault ship whose name I can’t remember and the Polish assault ship Sobeiski as well as four Australian destroyers.
It was decided that we would invade at
dawn and, as it broke we were close up at action stations wearing anti-flash
gear, with buckets of sand spread about the deck to cover any blood that
might be spilled and we anchored off the entrance to the harbour.
The Captain of my ship was chosen and as British ships do not carry white flags, the Wardroom table cloth was taken attached to a pair of crossed oars and this was mounted on the motor boat which proceeded towards the shore. It had hardly got two cables from the ship when the French opened fire with a machine gun. Immediately the entire fleet let go but hardly had got off more than two rounds before a Frenchman appeared with a white flag and hastily mounting the steps which circled the lighthouse at the end of the pier began to wave his flag. At this point an Australian destroyer went zooming past the lighthouse, let go of the aft turret and blew away the man, the flag, the steps and the top of the lighthouse. This brought the action to a close.
It was then agreed to enter the harbour, and my ship, the Dauntless, was chosen to lead the fleet in. I remarked to the navigator that this must be a high honour and he told me not to be so naive - it was merely that we were the oldest ship in the fleet and therefore the most dispensable. If the harbour had been mined we would be the first to get it and serve as a warning to any ship following us. In the event, we safely entered the great harbour at Diego Suarez where we were to remain swinging around a buoy for the next three months.
While preparing this article we came across the
following interview with L.G. P. Shiers. It was
conducted by (now Sir) Malcolm McBain and published
College, Cambridge. Sir Malcolm McBain was a distinguished Diplomat in the
Many interviews can be sourced simply by googling Sir Malcom McBain.
The interview continues the story.
Mr Leslie Gordon Percival Shiers FRCS
Interviewed by Malcolm McBain, on Tuesday, 4 February, 1997.
McBain interviewed Mr Shiers
because he was present at the invasion of
Mr Shiers, could you tell us something about your experiences at that time, perhaps starting off with the part you played in the assault on Tamatave.
Yes, at that time I was an RNVR Surgeon
Lieutenant in the light cruiser ‘Dauntless’ and she was a cruiser built prior
to the First World War and her main armament was 4 six-inch guns. Now the
initial assault on
Now we in ‘Dauntless’ had been swinging
around a buoy in Diego Suarez harbour as guard ship for something like two
months. Everybody was bored stiff so we were delighted when we were told
there was going to be a second assault. Now in due course the fleet assembled
off Tamatave, which is a port on the eastern side
So, we waited for half an hour, everybody
closed up at action stations and made another signal ‘would he please
surrender’ and back came the same reply in the
negative. So, the Admiral in Charge, Admiral Syfret,
decided to send in an emissary under a white flag and the Captain of
‘Dauntless’, my Captain, Captain Hewitt, was chosen. And he came down to the
Wardroom where I’d set out all my surgical instruments in case one had to
treat the wounded there, and said ‘What can we use for a white flag?’ because
the Royal Navy doesn’t carry white flags. And I suggested the
The barge turned around immediately and headed back to the Fleet and without further orders the entire Fleet opened fire. We’d got off three or maybe four rounds when a Frenchman came rushing down the beach and clambered up a sort of tower, it was a sort of lighthouse with a circular stair around the outside, and I remember looking at this chap and he was about halfway up with this flag on a pole on his shoulder, when an Australian destroyer, the name of which escapes me, went creaming along the shore and let go with her after turret and blew the entire tower to smithereens. And that was the end of the action, cease fire straight away, and then the landing craft went in with the various troops.
There was a slight hiccup because they went in on a falling tide and the landing craft were stranded on the beach and couldn’t get back for more troops, but happily the French had surrendered so that was the end of the action. Later on, we interviewed the French Supreme Commander and he’d been shot in the arm, a fragment had got him in his left arm, so he was able to surrender with honour and with dignity.
Now you mentioned to begin with that you had been present in Diego Suarez, the main harbour in the north, can you tell us why the capture of that harbour was so important to the British?
Oh yes indeed. The Japanese were
advancing rapidly, travelling westwards at frightening speed, and the Fleet
had fallen back, we’d fallen back all the way to India and then back to
Mombasa, on the East African coast, when it was decided at high level... Sir
Winston Churchill realised that here was this great harbour in this offshore
island, and if the Japanese could get there they could move their entire
fleet there, and then they could get up to the north of Africa, join up with
Rommel and really that would have been the end of the campaign and the end of
the war. So it was decided to take Diego Suarez, which was brilliantly done
by, really, fifty Royal Marines, because in the planning for the capture of
this great harbour, which is two horns, rather like the Sydney heads, and the
distance between the horns is one sea mile, and half the army were landed on
the western arm, and the rest of the army at the capital, Antsirane,
but when the army landed there to neutralise the guns on that cliff, they
found most of them were rusty anyway, but nobody thought of putting boats at
the base of the cliff to get the army back into the main action. So, half the army sat on their bottoms at
the top of this cliff and most of them got malaria, nasty malaria, malignant malaria, many of them died. Many of the
No, I think that sort of detail is fairly well covered in some of the other histories. But what is not covered to my knowledge and satisfaction is the part played in all this by the Japanese submarine crews.
Yes, I can tell you that, because one night in May, when during a dinner aboard ‘Ramillies’ and this was told me by James Powell, who later came to us as captain of Marines. They were dining when they felt a thud, no more, and they didn’t know what it was and they went on deck and then there was another explosion and our oil tanker slowly sank to the bottom. We found out later on that a two-man submarine, a Japanese submarine, had been launched from one of their great I-class submarines which were operating in the Mozambique Channel, and they’d come in. We had no boom then at the entrance, but we put one up rapidly afterwards. And they’d come in, quite brave fellows, and they’d fired two torpedoes, one of which hit ‘Ramillies’ and one of which sank the tanker. But of course, in a two-man submarine you don’t carry the full-size torpedo and no damage was done to ‘Ramillies’. They almost made their escape but they ran aground on some rocks towards the entrance to the harbour and they were, later on, captured on the island by Royal Marines and suitably dealt with.
So there were large Japanese submarines
actually operating in the
Oh yes, they sank a lot of shipping. It was estimated that some 94,000 tonnes of allied shipping were sunk to these. So, there they were, right on our doorstep.
Was there any indication that they were being based in Diego Suarez?
Not that I know of. They were never in Diego Suarez but there
was a rumour that they were in the Vichy-held ports right in the south of the
island. And remember the island is a
thousand miles long, it’s some island you see. But
later on, after the War, when the history of the thing came out, it appeared
they were being fuelled and victualled by Japanese
cruisers, rather like the Germans used to have their vessels out in the
There were no Japanese military soldiers
Not to my knowledge, no.
Do you have any recollection of what the French forces consisted of?
No, I haven’t, but it is itemised. I know they had a lot of Senegalese there. I know they’d recruited some Malagasies, who were not terribly keen on fighting. Indeed, the French weren’t keen on fighting. All they were worried about was their pensions. And once they’d surrendered having put up a fight, that was secure, you see. They weren’t at all militant. They weren’t really militant. But there was fighting, and I can’t remember the names of the regiments who came from the south and were force-marched through the jungle and there was fighting and they were wounded. But that is chronicled elsewhere. We in the Navy didn’t know much about what the Army were doing down in the south.
I think there are about 130 graves in the Commonwealth War Graves cemetery at Antsiranana, the new name for Diego Suarez.
What’s the new name?
Antsirane, but that was the name of the capital, Antsirane.
Oh, is it?
Yes, l30 graves there in Antsiranana.
Are they allied graves or are they...?
McB Yes, all allied graves. There are no French graves.
Well, they must be all Army.
Yes, all Army. And I have seen a quite impressive cairn put up by, I think, the Scots Guards, somewhere on that peninsula of land between that harbour and the west coast, Courrier Bay, which commemorates a battle in which there were quite heavy casualties.
Yes, I knew there was some action in
But the story about the Japanese mini-sub is quite fresh in your memory.
Oh yes. Absolutely no doubt about it.
In 2017, we received a communication from Kate Shiers, the daughter of Leslie Shiers the text of which follows:
I just wanted to let you know how delighted I was to see my father’s story on your website. I painstakingly typed it up and subbed it down for my wonderful meticulous father. It still sits on the BBC People’s War website which is sadly now inactive. It is great you are keeping these stories alive.
Kate was able to supply a wartime photo of her Father – he is on the right of the photo with an X above his head.
Kate's sister Sarah provided the portrait photo of her Father which appears at the top of the article.
Leslie G. P. Shiers (right) probably aboard H.M.S. Weston 1943
An interesting fact regarding Surgeon-Lieutenant Shiers (FRCS) is that he pioneered the first Total Knee Replacement (TKR) in 1954.
He refused to patent his invention, but chose rather to allow other surgeons to modify and improve on his ideas.
His funeral notice in The Telegraph reads:
Leslie Gordon Percival F.R.C.S. Aged 91, on January, 18th, peacefully at home with his beloved family. An extraordinary man.
pioneer in orthopaedic surgery, Total Replacement of the Knee and inventor of
the Knee Hinge.
And say to all the world, “This was a man."