Sq/Ldr. Iris 'Fluff' Bower. Born April 15th 1915 in Cardigan, Wales.
Died December 18th 2005. Age 90
Iris "Fluff" Bower, who has died aged 90, was one of two RAF nursing sisters to land on the Normandy Beaches in June 1944 to establish a field hospital; later, following closely behind the advancing armies, she arrived outside Belsen concentration camp shortly after it was relieved and tended the desperate survivors.
On the night of June 11 1944, Iris Bower (then Iris Ogilvie, known to all as "Fluff") and her nursing colleague, Mollie Giles, boarded a tank-landing craft at Gosport along with 200 men and their tanks. Just before dawn she scrambled ashore on Juno beach near Courseulles-sur-Mer; only her Red Cross armband and diminutive frame marked her out from the men as she became the first woman to set foot on the D-Day landing beaches. When the beachmaster saw the two women in the pale light he simply said "Good God!"
Her squadron leader was killed as he came ashore, and Iris Bower found herself plunged straight into the thick of the action, tending countless casualties amid chaos and enemy gunfire at a medical camp established a few miles inland at Cruelly. The sight of the two women was met with a great cheer from British soldiers. "Watch out Adolf, you've had it now," joked one of them.
Iris Bower was determined to look her best when she faced the Germans and commented: "I was not going to land in Normandy looking a sight."
She had put on her lipstick and carried a small waterproof bag she had made for her make-up. Once established ashore, she slept - as did her patients - in slit trenches, washed out of buckets and used a thunder box. Every morning, with shells flying overhead, she took care to apply her Elizabeth Arden lipstick before putting on her tin hat and battledress blouse.
Working out of a roughly-constructed field hospital, she tended to the 1,023 wounded soldiers treated in the first five days; she and Mollie Giles also escorted them to emergency landing strips from where RAF Dakotas flew them back to hospitals in England. She remembered some heartbreaking scenes, but realised that the sight of a pretty face and a smile were a great boost to the morale of the badly wounded.
She entered Caen three days after the city fell, noting that "the smell of death was everywhere". But her despair gradually gave way to elation as the liberated French came out to welcome them. The two nursing sisters were treated as stars by the British press, which ran headlines such as "Iris and Mollie shop in Bayeux". (In fact, they never went shopping, but it made rousing copy for the home front.)
Iris Bower was born Iris Jones on April 12 1915 in a hamlet near Cardigan, and was educated at Cardigan Grammar School. She had always wanted to be a nurse and moved to London to train at St Mary's Hospital, Paddington. After working at the East End Maternity Hospital, she joined the Princess Mary's RAF Nursing Service as a staff nurse in April 1939.
On the night of July 19 1940, Iris was the duty sister at the RAF's hospital at St Athan near Barry when bombs hit the hutted hospital. She groped around amongst burst water-pipes in the darkness and helped guide the wounded to safety. For her conduct she was awarded the Royal Red Cross (2nd Class), which she received from the King a few months later.
Iris Bower was bombed for a second time when she was serving at the RAF Officers' Hospital in the Palace Hotel at Torquay. Luftwaffe fighter-bombers had begun a campaign of "hit and run" tactics against the seaside hotels known to house RAF trainee aircrew and hospitals.
On the morning of Sunday October 25 1942, a direct hit on the east wing of the hotel killed 65 patients and nursing staff, including the VAD nurse to whom Iris had been speaking only seconds earlier. For the next 24 hours she was involved in the strenuous efforts to rescue the seriously injured patients, administering what aid she could. The following morning the hospital had to be evacuated to Wroughton, near Swindon.
Above: Sq/Ldr. Donald Gordon Ogilvie DFC. Further details on the loss of B-25 Mitchell II FL677.
In April 1942 Iris Bower had married Flight Lieutenant Donald Ogilvie DFC
, but he was killed on a daylight-bombing raid over Holland in June 1943. Later she recalled: "I was devastated. He had died for his country and I didn't care what happened to me. I knew I wanted to make some big contribution myself. I had a strong feeling that what we were taking part in was grand and noble."
She volunteered to join No 50 Mobile Field Hospital, in No 83 RAF Group, and was accepted as a senior sister. At the time she joined in August 1943 she was the only woman in the unit.
When the Allied armies advanced from the Normandy bridgehead, the Mobile Field Hospital followed closely in its wake. Iris Bower saw the liberation of Paris and tended the wounded after the Battle of Arnhem. Early in April she crossed the Rhine, and five weeks later reached an airfield on the outskirts of Belsen, four days after it had been liberated.
Some of the victims who were capable of travelling were brought to the airfield. She was stunned by their appearance and felt "very inadequate" as she and her nurses prepared them to be flown to hospitals in Belgium. She was deeply affected by what she saw, 50 years later remarking that "those moments with the Belsen victims, on that patch of grass near the Dakotas, will stay in my memory all my life". For her work since D-Day, Iris Bower was appointed MBE.
She remained in the RAF and served at hospitals in the Middle East, where she met her second husband, Major William Bower. They married in 1949, the year she retired with the equivalent rank of squadron leader.
Once her children had grown up, Iris Bower returned to the medical world, teaching psychiatric nursing at Harperbury Hospital, Hertfordshire. She finally retired at the age of 70.
During the events to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the D-Day landings she returned to Juno beach. She was one of the few to express the view that the Germans should be represented: "I think there should be forgiveness," she said. Ten years later, at the 60th anniversary, she recalled how proud she felt to have been involved; she also reflected that it was important that people knew about "the role the women played in the conflict".
Iris Bower died on December 18. Her second husband died in 1977, and she is survived by their son and daughter.
With thanks to Mark Ogilvie for bringing her loss to our attention in September 2015.
Reprinted with the kind permission of the Daily Telegraph obituaries column.
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Article prepared by Barry Howard.