I Was There - I Had a Live Shell in My Leg - and Didn't Know It
One of the most extraordinary experiences of the War fell to the lot of H. J. Coates, of Islington. A 20-year-old Probationary Electrical Mechanic in the Royal Navy; he has wrote this story of his amazing escape from death especially for The War Illustrated.
Life was placid enough at the training school in a South Coast town until that Monday morning when having nothing in particular to do for a few minutes, I strolled along to the "local" and there met some of my pals. One of them had a telegram in his hand and joy written all over his face. The telegram announced that he had become – a father of a fine bouncing boy. That called for congratulations and drinks, and we were about to celebrate when, above the buzz of talk, we heard the hum of a plane and the roar of A.A. gunfire.
Then came the shattering of glass and we flung ourselves flat to the deck, or rather the floor. There followed a short burst of what I took to be machine-gun fire and I felt a sudden sharp twitch in my right leg. Looking down, I was amazed to see a hole just above my knee. I thought I had been hit by a piece of flying glass or something, but I felt no pain-just the sudden twitch. I tried to get up, but my leg wouldn't work. I turned on my side to see if any of the boys had been hit: and there was my best pal, face down, with blood streaming from a big wound in the back of his head.
I let out one yell, and someone came along, lifted me on to a trolley and wheeled me to the sick bay. Others attended to my pal. In the sick bay, whilst they were dressing my leg and putting a splint on it, I asked what had happened to Andy, the proud father whose health we had been about to drink, They told me he had escaped without a scratch and that, fortunately, there were not many casualties. I still did not know what hail happened to my leg, and no one told me.
The dressing completed, we – the casualties – were driven in an ambulance to the Royal County Hospital, Brighton. At the hospital they lost no time in getting to the bottom of my mystery. They took an X-ray photograph of my leg, and when they showed me the plate I got the shock of my life.
For I realised then that nothing so common place as a bit of flying glass had hit me. It wasn't even a bullet. It was an aero-cannon shell, about three inches long and three-quarters of an inch in diameter, buried deeply in the flesh. The officer in charge of a Bomb Disposal Unit, called in for consultation, identified it as of the armour-piercing variety which explodes on impact; there were suspicions that it might even be a sub-variety whose explosion is delayed. So I had been harbouring live ammunition in my leg for at least two hours! I think the doctors were not a little astonished, too, but they made no fuss about it.
They wheeled me into the operating theatre and prepared me for the operation which would result in the safe removal of the shell, or disaster. It was liable to explode at any moment. They told me afterwards that if it had exploded my leg would have been shattered and I might possibly have "gone West". The surgeon and his assistant, the anaesthetist and the nurses, all faced very considerable risk. At the least they might have been blinded. But they just ignored that and got on with the job. I've asked myself several times since if I would have had the pluck to do what they did.
I was under the anaesthetic, of course, and knew nothing of what was going on. They told me the shell was lodged very tightly, near the knee joint, and that the surgeon had to do some cautious tugging to get it out. First he had to work down to the base of it, and then pull. It took him half an hour to complete the operation, described later, by the Chairman of the hospital as "the most delicate and the most dangerous of his (the surgeon's) career". When at last the surgeon held the live shell in his hand it was passed over to the bomb disposal squad that had been standing by in readiness.
When I opened my eyes again I was in a big ward, in a nice warm bed, with a rather stiff right leg and a slight headache, but otherwise none the worse for the experience. My first thought was of my pal who had been wounded in the head. I asked how he was, and they told me he was very bad. Poor chap, he died in the hospital that night. I was the lucky one.
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