Surgeon at Arms by Lipmann Kessel

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I tend to devour anything written that pertains to Operation Market Garden. It’s what got me into military history, and even when I’m in a nursing home myself I’ll probably still be reading my Op MG library. The funny thing is, I don’t actually enjoy the general histories – there are so many of them, and to be honest, since Martin Middlebrook none of them have really offered anything new. But there are a wealth of personal and micro histories out there, many of them under-published and little-known.

Captain Alexander Lipmann-Kessel was serving with 16th Parachute Field Ambulance during the Battle, parachuting in on the first day and leading a surgical team at St Elisabeths Hospital in the town until after the surrender. Not only was he a very brave man and a distinguished surgeon, but he was, miraculously, a South African Jew. As such, he had more to lose than most. And as he himself states in the text, he did look stereotypically Jewish. Heaven knows how the germans did not cotton on.

Having previously read Stuart Mawson’s Arnhem Doctor, I was very interested to read another account of battlefield medicine. The privations of running an operating theatre in action, under enemy occupation, using very basic equipment and a minimum of supplies, is very inspiring indeed. For much of the battle Kessel was working alongside Dutch civilian doctors and nurses, and under pressure from the Germans all of the time. Kessel has some interesting observations about the German doctors approach to battlefield medicine. The SS doctors refused to operate on any head or stomach wounds, preferring to administer a lethal injection. Lipmann-Kessel, on the other hand, decided to operate on Brigadier Shan Hackett’s severe stomach wound, with a casual, ‘oh I don’t know, I think I might have a go at this one’.

After the withdrawl across the Rhine, the Germans gradually evacuated the hospital – not before Kessel could have Brigadier Hackett spirited away into hiding, and assist the Dutch underground in giving a ‘funeral’ to a consignment of arms. Transported to a barracks in Apeldoorn, Lipmann-Kessel eventually escaped. Coming into contact with the Dutch underground, he took part in the abortive Pegasus II attempt to get airborne fugivites back across the Rhine. Lipmann-Kessel finally made it to allied lines by canoeing down a Dutch river, evading German patrols along the way. It’s stirring stuff indeed, the stuff of a boys own novel.

Although it doesn’t state so in the book, when Lipmann-Kessel died in the 1980’s, he requested to be buried in Arnhem civilian cemetery, close by to his comrades who were killed in September 1944. Having read his account of those dramatic days, such a gesture seems completely in character with the man.

Surgeon at Arms is published by Pen and Sword



Filed under Army, Arnhem, Book of the Week, Uncategorized, World War Two

8 responses to “Surgeon at Arms by Lipmann Kessel

  1. Catching up on old posts, obviously. Sounds like an interesting story. The good doctor might have benefited from later war German relationships – by late 1944 the Waffen-SS was gaining quite the negative view in the eyes of the German Army (Das Heer), mainly because the Waffen-SS units were getting all the new toys while the Army soldiered on with the old gear. Not to mention the growing distaste among career Army for the blood-thirsty tactics of so many Waffen-SS officers.

    • James Daly

      I always find anything medical and Arnhem interesting, as my Granddad passed through the medical chain there. Although I believe he was at the airlanding Field Ambulance at the Hotel Schoonoord in Oosterbeek rather than St Elisabeths.

      I know there wasn’t much love lost between the Waffen SS and the Heer in the latter years. In Robert Kershaw’s ‘it never snows in September’, we read that many l of c troops who were rounded up and put under the SS were very disgruntled about it. That’s a book you would enjoy John.

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  7. Susan

    Lipman Kessel was my orthopaedic surgeon for many years. I adored him; ever honest with me and always asked my permission to operate even though I was a young child. I have the first edition of Surgeon At Arms in which he wrote such a beautiful dedication to me. He also wrote to me after the birth of my first child. A truly wonderful human being.

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