The Spanish Civil War

Page 5 – NZ medical support

In addition to those who fought in Spain, a number of other New Zealanders served in the war zone as members of medical teams.

New Zealand nurses in Spain

The only organised contingent from New Zealand to the Spanish Civil War was of three nurses recruited by the New Zealand Spanish Medical Aid Committee (SMAC). René Shadbolt, Isobel Dodds, and Millicent Sharples left New Zealand on 18 May 1937 and arrived in Spain on 15 July. They first served at a large makeshift International Brigade hospital in Huete, central Spain.

The nurses were a key promotional tool for SMAC in New Zealand. Their photographs were used on posters, and their letters home were printed in newspapers and in SMAC's regular newsletter. When Shadbolt and Dodds arrived back in New Zealand in January 1939 they continued to work for SMAC, embarking upon a six-week speaking tour to raise awareness of and money for the hundreds of thousands of Republican refugees in France.

Other New Zealand nurses made it to Spain independently. Christchurch nurse Dorothy Morris joined the University Ambulance Unit on the Costa Brava to help refugees fleeing the fighting, before working in a children’s hospital in southern Spain. She later worked in refugee camps in France before becoming a refugee herself when the Germans invaded that country in 1940.

Una Wilson, from Auckland, worked with an Australian medical unit during the siege of Madrid. Under horrendous conditions, including almost constant aerial bombardment, she and the rest of the unit treated up to 600 casualties a day. She attended the May Day celebrations in Barcelona in 1937, concluding that ‘if I hadn’t been there New Zealand would have been left out, and so I’m quite pleased with myself’.

An ‘excellent anti-fascist’

Doug Jolly was a New Zealand doctor originally from Central Otago. He arrived in London in 1932 to complete his training as a specialist surgeon. On the verge of sitting his final exams he left for Spain to join the Republican Army Medical Service. He took charge of a mobile surgical unit posted to Madrid in late 1936. Madrid had the dubious distinction of becoming the first European city to experience mass aerial bombardment and suffered heavy casualties. Jolly spent the next two years operating in various locations near the front lines. To minimise the threat from the air he set up hospitals in disused railway tunnels. During the battle of Ebro River in 1938 he had a cave modified to accommodate 150 beds and an operating theatre.

Jolly was an influential figure in the field of military medical practice. He refined the triage system to sort patients at the front-line clearing post into categories based on the severity of their wounds. Emergency transport then carried the most serious cases to a field hospital. He later published his experiences in a textbook, Field Surgery in Total War, which was later described as ‘compulsory reading for all young aspiring war surgeons.’

Jolly was repatriated when all foreign nationals were withdrawn from Spain in late 1938. He had earlier been awarded the Ebro medal for his work. His repatriation papers described him as an ‘excellent anti-fascist’. Jolly served with the Royal Army Medical Corps during the Second World War, being honoured with a military OBE for his dedicated service.

How to cite this page

'NZ medical support', URL:, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 20-Dec-2012