D-Day in colour: From the beaches of Normandy to safety in England 

By Mehzebin Adam-Suter, Museum and Archives Curator

On the 80th anniversary of D-Day, Mehzebin Adam-Suter, Curator, British Red Cross Museum and Archives, spotlights the vital role played by British Red Cross volunteers.

On 6 June 1944, the Allied forces launched Operation Overlord, the largest combined naval, air and land invasion in the history of warfare. 

This historic event, known as D-Day, saw over 150,000 Allied troops land on the beaches of Normandy, France. It marked a turning point in the Second World War: the beginning of a long campaign to liberate Western Europe.

Despite the overall success of D-Day, more than 200,000 Allied soldiers had been killed or wounded by the end of the operation, along with a similar number of German troops. Around 20,000 French civilians were killed. 

Working closely with the American and Canadian Red Cross Societies, the British Red Cross was quick to respond, providing relief supplies, first aid and medical care, and assisting with the evacuation of the sick and wounded to England. 

Greaseproof paper and golf umbrellas

Red Cross volunteers—  from clerks to storekeepers, ambulance drivers, nurses, and welfare officers— were quick to respond. They arrived in Normandy to provide aid just after D-Day. 

Teams transported relief equipment such as surgical accessories and hospital garments, backrests, primus stoves, wireless sets, newspapers, and playing cards. 

There were also more unusual items. Heat-insulated trolleys to carry food to wards, ‘golf’ umbrellas to shelter the airborne wounded from plane to ambulance when travelling in wet weather. And greaseproof paper to wrap sandwiches for wounded men on their journey back to England.

Some volunteers were assigned to the field hospitals to assist in treating injured soldiers. Others distributed vital items and served coffee and chocolates to the patients. 

Recreation tents were also set up, where the men could play cards, socialise, and write letters to loved ones. All this offered a much-needed respite from the harsh realities of war. 

A 36-hour rainstorm

The volunteers worked tirelessly despite challenging conditions. The first teams arrived during a relentless 36-hour rainstorm and slept in cots below ground level to avoid shell bursts.

Their efforts went beyond providing lifesaving first aid and medical care; they also focused on boosting the morale of the sick and wounded, offering comfort and a sense of normalcy amid chaos. 

Youngest nurse on active service

Back in England, Red Cross teams got ready at a moment’s notice to provide relief to the injured men arriving in the country.

Among the volunteers in Portsmouth was Naina Beaven (later Cox). Aged only 16, she is believed to have been the youngest nurse in the UK on active service on D-Day.

On that June morning in 1944, Naina had no idea what was unfolding on the shores of Normandy.

She recalls the urgent moment when her Commandant burst into the office and said,

"Beaven, you must get permission to go home at once, put on your Red Cross uniform and report to the matron at Queen Alexandra’s Hospital”.

Naina immediately set off for the hospital. She describes her journey: "On the walk there, an unending stream of big army lorries passed me.

“I soon found out they contained either four or six soldiers lying on stretchers in a shelf-like fashion. These were the first exhaustion cases back from the French beaches."

I don't know how many people we helped, but when I looked outside, it was dark.

At the hospital, Naina was soon busy at work, changing dirty emergency dressings, washing tired faces and bodies, and providing warm and cold drinks to the soldiers.

"I don’t know how many people we helped, but when I had half a minute to stand up straight, I looked outside, and it was dark."

Reflecting on her memories, Naina recalls the German soldiers she treated alongside the Allied Forces:

"In a Nissen hut away from the others, about twenty German boys occupied the beds, all about sixteen to eighteen years old.

“The British guard told me they were all petrified and thought they were going to be poisoned. I got one to take a drink through a feeding cup; the tension eased a little."

By 26 July 1944, the total bed accommodation in Red Cross convalescent homes and auxiliary hospitals in England was an enormous 13,478.

Their care was driven by the unwavering dedication of women like Naina, whose tireless efforts demonstrated remarkable strength and resilience.

End of the war, but the Red Cross continues

The war in Europe lasted another 11 months, and the British Red Cross continued to support the sick and wounded in the UK and overseas.

While some services closed when the war ended, auxiliary hospitals and convalescent homes remained for some years.

The British Red Cross also formed new services for the repatriation and welfare of the servicemen who were finally returning home.

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