Surgeon Lt-Cdr Paul Houghton. RIP

Discussion in 'Memorials & Cemeteries' started by CXX, Oct 22, 2009.

  1. CXX

    CXX New Member

    Surgeon Lt-Cdr Paul Houghton - Telegraph

    Surgeon Lieutenant-Commander Paul Houghton, who has died aged 97, performed life-saving surgery on two wartime admirals who both went on to high appointments; he also found himself trapped below decks after his ship was torpedoed.

    In January 1943 on the battleship Nelson, flagship of Force H, Houghton examined the South African-born Vice-Admiral Neville Syfret in his sea cabin. Houghton found him looking ashen and diagnosed a burst appendix. Syfret had been in pain for four days and was ill with shock. Peritonitis had set in. Houghton decided to operate at once in the battleship's sick bay.

    Afterwards Syfret was nursed in his cabin aft, where the surgeon and Nelson's principal medical officer waited for the anaesthetic to wear off, larking about with the admiral's hat in the meantime. A sudden roar from the patient, who had begun to come around early, put an end to their japes: "Take that bloody thing off."

    A few days later senior officers gathered anxiously to ask Houghton whether the admiral was medically fit to command. None of them wanted to go near their irritable senior, so it fell to Houghton to relay the news that the Admiralty had ordered Syfret to haul down his flag and return home to convalesce.

    Houghton supervised Syfret's evacuation, by ship's crane, to the hospital ship Oxfordshire, while the admiral insisted upon the honours due to him and held his hat on his stomach as his stretcher was slung between the two ships. Though the surgeon's skill had undoubtedly saved Syfret's life, Houghton realised that his good deeds were likely to go unrewarded. "No hopes of a medal for me," he predicted, and Syfret indeed went on to become a member of the Board of Admiralty.

    Paul Winchester Houghton was born on September 30 1911 in west London and educated at Whitgift School. As soon as he was old enough, his mother marched him up to Bart's hospital to "do medicine".

    In 1938 he joined the RNVR after his father warned: "Here we go again." Houghton received no naval training and when he arrived at the naval hospital at Haslar at the outbreak of war found "a mob of doctors" being sent to sea as fast as possible, sometimes even without uniform.

    He worked in a naval hospital at Lowestoft before joining the destroyer Zulu in 1941, in which he took part in Atlantic convoys. As ship's doctor he was to treat everything from tuberculosis to burns victims. Missing limbs, head trauma, flash burns and splinter wounds from blast damage were among the worst casualties, but the most horrendous were survivors of Ark Royal who had flayed themselves while sliding down her barnacled hull as she sank.

    It was difficult enough in the small Zulu for Houghton to treat the wounded, and often he could only give palliative care to those men plucked from the rough seas. Even in the much bigger battleship, Nelson, which he joined in 1942, Houghton was surprised by the lack of facilities to care for injured men.

    In Nelson Houghton was appalled to be issued with long knives, saws and tarred string for tying off blood vessels, all in a brass-bound box, apparently as issued in the days of Nelson himself. He promptly wrote to the First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Dudley Pound, asking for modern equipment. This earned him a reprimand for not using official channels, but soon so much equipment arrived that he was able to share it with other ships.

    On September 27 1941 a torpedo blew a hole "the size of a double-decker" in Nelson's bows. The lights went out and Houghton and his assistants were stranded in the forward dressing station. Using a torch to check around him, he found that the bulkhead was holding against the water, but was alarmed about an hour later when he realised that the deck was sloping to the extent that he could hardly walk up it.

    He then heard a terrible roaring overhead, only later learning that this was his friend, the second-in-command, Commander George Blundell, organising men and machinery to haul the ship's vast anchor chain along the deck to the stern of the ship and use its weight to help trim Nelson so that the torpedo hole could be brought above the waterline. It was some while before Houghton was released: "The relief was wonderful when the watertight door was opened and the light came in." Nelson returned to Gibraltar drawing 40 feet at the bows and consequently capable of only 14 knots.

    In late 1942, while Nelson was in the Mediterranean, Houghton was secretly consulted by Rear-Admiral Philip Vian, one the war's most distinguished fighting admirals. Vian was run-down and had been relieved of command of Force A based at Port Said. Houghton's examination revealed a large subcutaneous cyst under matted hair, which had been hidden for some weeks and become infected. In Houghton's opinion it was life-threatening.

    The episode was hushed up at the time, but Houghton performed emergency surgery, dressed the wound and made the admiral his private patient. Vian made a complete recovery and went on to command part of the invasion fleet on D-Day.

    After the war Houghton worked at Shrewsbury General where he treated a pretty former Wren, Jean Hallam Swift, who had injured her hand in a yachting accident and was an orthoptist at the hospital. After two brief meetings she also became Houghton's patient. He quickly proposed, asking: "What about you and me getting moored alongside?"

    He was subsequently appointed consultant at Worcester in the new NHS, rapidly building a reputation as a fine general surgeon and as a man who kept patients informed of their prognoses. His watchword was "Never destroy hope." Houghton's calling was buoyed by his strong Christian faith. He would pray under his breath at work, but could send the surgical trolley flying as he got to work in a crisis.

    Retiring from the NHS at 66 he fulfilled a long ambition to work in mission hospitals in South Africa and the West Indies. Aged 75 he went as an emergency locum to Nazareth hospital, where he was awestruck to be in the town of Jesus's upbringing.

    Paul Houghton, who died on August 5, is survived by his wife and their daughter and son.
  2. Reccemitch

    Reccemitch Member

    Surgeon Lt-Cdr Paul Houghton. RIP


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