Lieutenant Michael Waddell: Wartime officer who was awarded the Military Cross for his heroism in rescuing 11 comrades from blazing tanks

 

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The Independent Online

The British were taking a hard pounding on the Catanian plain in Sicily’s sultry July heat of 1943, and Lieutenant Michael Waddell, 20-year-old liaison officer with the 50th Battalion, Royal Tank Regiment, was pinned down, his scout car knocked out. He managed by wireless to summon another, but moments later there erupted before his eyes an inferno – six tanks halted, four ablaze.

This was the first check in the onward march of Operation Husky, in which nine days earlier, the Allies had landed from North Africa on Europe’s southern shore. Even as General Montgomery, with Britain’s Eighth Army, and General George Patton, with the US 7th Army, raced for Messina on the island’s northernmost point to stop the now-retreating Nazis getting across the strait to Italy with men and materiel unscathed, a stubborn enemy rearguard had chosen this spot to dig in.

The daylight attack on 19 July at Gerbini, close to crucial airfields 14 miles from Catania and 40 from Syracuse, took the British forces by surprise, raining down, on the parched plain, 88mm artillery rounds and a hail of machine-gun fire. In an instant the sight of badly burned and wounded men escaping, barely alive, from the licking flames sent Waddell forward. Leaving his driver, Trooper Ronald Greenfield, in the armoured Daimler two-seater, he took to the tank-tracks through the fields’ wild asparagus and summer wheat, using them both as direction-guide and minimal protection to reach and pull his comrades to safety.

Three times he crawled out and back, convinced that even this enemy must possess some shred of humanity: “I knew they wouldn’t shoot me, when they saw me performing this act”, he said, many years later, of the turmoil of his thoughts at the time. He found himself cursing his own side, who lobbed smoke bombs to try to give him cover. These, he said, only made finding his way harder.

One of his journeys took him to the side of one of the knocked-out tanks, and close to the 88mm guns, yet – true to his own certainty – despite the heavy fire, nothing touched him.

“Lieutenant Waddell’s cool courage and determination at a most critical time saved the lives of eleven men. I have the honour to recommend that he be awarded the Military Cross,” his commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel GE Russell, DSO, wrote. Underneath is written: “Granted an immediate MC”. Montgomery himself presented Waddell with his decoration, personally affixing it to his chest in a field ceremony by the roadside.

But the sorrow of glory was to change the course of Waddell’s life. Haunted by the knowledge that more than half of those he had rescued soon died, the effect of their burns compounded by the shock of battle, he resolved to drop the agricultural studies he had been pursuing before the war and to train as a doctor instead.     

Waddell, who had volunteered for the Royal Tank Regiment and was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant in November 1942, was the son of an engineer, the elder of two boys, and had been educated at the Royal Grammar School, Newcastle upon Tyne. The study of medicine was to be his means, not only of a lifelong career that would take him all over England and to the US, but of meeting his future wife, a fellow medical student, Elizabeth Charlton, always known as Betty, when they dissected a leg together.

Waddell attended Durham University and qualified at Newcastle in 1952. They were soon married, and Betty, also a doctor, joined him, making her career, as he did, in general practice. They lived in Corbridge, Northumberland, before moving to Leeds, and then to  Thorpe Bay, near Southend, and had two daughters and a son.

But despite care for all under the National Health Service, Britain’s decline in the decades after the war reached what was for Waddell a low point with the advent in 1964 of Harold Wilson’s first Labour government, which he came to detest. He joined the “brain drain”, sailing with his family and their black Labrador, Bosun, to Montreal, from where they travelled to Vermont in the US.

There he passed examinations for an American MD, qualifying in 1967, and took up practice with two partners at the Green Mountain Clinic in Northfield, Washington county, Vermont, as well as being medical advisor to Norwich University and Military College nearby.

His duties included attending to injured skiers from the Mad River Glen resort, and he came to reckon on three broken legs per afternoon, to be treated in the first-aid hut. He relished making what he considered better use of his medicine than he had been able to do in Britain, doing much more hands-on work such as X-raying and setting limbs in plaster himself.

The whole family learned to ski, and would skate on frozen ponds, the children also helping their father’s work by mixing the necessary buckets of plaster. Waddell’s first call-out was to help a badly injured patient whose skis had become caught by a snow plough.

Nevertheless the couple returned across the Atlantic after a year and before long were known as “the Doctors Waddell”, with a practice in Dover, for 15 years. The return, in part to maintain Betty’s eligibility to practise in Britain, was not easy. At first unable to find a house, the family lived for a time in a caravan.

He and Betty eventually returned to the north-east of England, living at Wall, Northumberland. Betty, with their children and his younger brother Robert, a dentist, survives him. Waddell, a talented painter, particularly of animals, also made rocking-horses for his grandchildren, and built a catamaran which in retirement he sailed on the River Exe in Devon. He was father-in-law to Lieutenant-General Sir James Dutton of the Royal Marines, who married his daughter Elizabeth.

ANNE KELENY

Michael Osborne Waddell, soldier and doctor: born Corbridge, Northumberland 22 December 1922; MC 1943; married 1952 Elizabeth Charlton (two daughters, one son); died, Wall, Northumberland 22 May 2015.

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