Vita, was owned by British India Steam Navigation Co Ltd, (a subsidiary of the P&O group of companies) and was completed in October 1914 by Swan, Hunter & Wigham Richardson Ltd, Wallsend, Newcastle-upon-Tyne.
She was 4,691 gross tons, 1,955 net tons, and 5,160 deadweight tons. Dimensions were 390.1 feet length, 53.3 feet breadth and 26.5 ft depth with a shallow Draught of 22.9 ft. She had twin props and two triple expansion engines giving 4,700 ihp and a speed of 15.8 knots (as measured in her launch trials). Her passenger capacity when new was 32 first class, 24 second class, and 2,694 deck.
Immediately upon completion she was put into military service as a troopship (SS Vita), and her first voyage was from Bombay to the Persian Gulf with troops, and her next voyage was to France. She carried on trooping duties until May 1916 when converted into a hospital ship (possibly at the Royal Indian Marine Dockyard at Bombay) with 405 patient berths.
In July 1917, the War Diary reports that its patient accommodation was brought up to 436 by replacing swing cots with fixed double tiered cots in wards 1, 2 & 4.
Period of Service as Hospital Ship or Ambulance Transport.
Date From: 27th October 1915
Date To: 24th February 1920
She was returned to British India in 1918, and in 1922 was put into regular commercial service on the Bombay-Karachi-Bushire-Basra run.
The VITA was an “Indian” Hospital Ship under the military command of the Indian [Army’s] Medical Services branch (I.M.S.). Consequently, it carried a large Indian staff along with the British one. There would have been as many as 100 Indian staff members on board filling a variety of roles such as sub-assistant surgeons, dispensers, Hindu and “Mohammedan” cooks, tailor, sweepers, dhobis, ward orderlies and servants. All of these men were under the command of the O.C. Troops, I.M.S. who in turn received his operational commands from the Assistant Director Medical Services (A.D.M.S.), Bombay District. Also under this command was a small female nursing staff made up of a Matron in Charge, Sister in Charge, Sisters, Staff Nurses and probationary Nurses from various nursing services from Australia, India and Africa.
Sailing the ship was the responsibility of the Merchant Navy Officers and crew who would have numbered around 100. Along with the Officers the crew was made up of Engineers, Electricians, Stewards, Trimmers, Firemen & Stokers.
There is an excellent book: Fifty Thousand Miles on a Hospital Ship, by Charles Steel Wallis that provides a fascinating glimpse into the life on board a hospital ship in 1915-16.
The VITA was under the Command of the Assistant Director Medical Services, (A.D.M.S.) Bombay District belonging to the Bombay Brigade of the 6th Poona Divisional Area:
6th Poona Divisional Area
Lines of Communication, ADMS (District), Bombay
By the latter half of 1918, RAMC non-commissioned ranks were then further placed under the command of the Embarkation Commandant and the No 42 RAMC Embarkation Company, Bombay.
Roles & Responsibilities
Medical Doctors and Surgeons were made up of personnel from both the RAMC and IMS. In addition to their hands-on medical responsibilities, these men also filled the roles of Adjutant, C.O. Office, Surgical & Medical Stores, C.O. RAMC, and C.O. Indian Personnel. In other words, they had both medical and administrative responsibilities.
Nursing personnel, organized under the command of an on-board Matron and a Sister-in-Charge, were made up of women from the Australian Army Nursing Service (A.A.N.S.), the Queen Alexandra’s Military Nursing Service, India (Q.A.M.N.S.I.), Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service Reserve (Q.A.I.M.N.S.R.), and the South African Military Nursing Service (S.A.M.N.S.).
Additionally, a small number of St. John’s Ambulance personnel were also on board.
Officer Commanding Troops, HM HS VITA (1917 – 1919)
The following men were O.C. Troops on the VITA during its time as a Hospital Ship:
Major S. H. Lee Abbott, I.M.S., O.C. Troops HM HS VITA
Major Lee Abbott was O.C. Troops from before June 1917 to September 10, 1917. It is likely that Major Lee Abbott was O.C. Troops from May 1916 when the VITA first became a Hospital Ship.
Major J. Husband, I.M.S., O.C. Troops HM HS VITA
Major Husband was O.C. Troops from September 10, 1917 to September 6, 1918.
Major J. J. Robb, I.M.S., O.C. Troops HM HS VITA
Major Robb was O.C. Troops from September 6, 1918 to after December 31, 1919.
The following nursing staff served on board the VITA during the period June 1917 – December 1918.
More than 2,000 Australian nurses served with the Australian Army Nursing Service (AANS) during the First World War, some of whom were assigned to Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service Reserve. Candidates for appointment in the Australian Army Nursing Service (AANS) had to:
(i) have at least three years’ training in medical and surgical Nursing in a duly recognised hospital
(ii) be aged 21 to 45 years
(iii) be either single or a widow
Matron JANE ELIZABETH BORBRIDGE MOLLOY, RRC
Sister Miss IDA VERA DESAILLY
Sister Miss ELIZABETH LAWRENCE HORNE
Sister Miss HILDA FANNY JONES
Sister Miss CHRISTINA RALSTON McKECHNIE
Sister MARY LARKIN MORROW
Staff Nurse Miss CAROLINE LOUISE BECKER
Staff Nurse STELLA IRENE BLACK
Staff Nurse IVY CORINELLA BRADSHAW
Staff Nurse MONICA MARIE BYRNE
Staff Nurse EVELYN ROSE MONAGHAN
Staff Nurse Miss ANNIE REBECCA MORRIS
Staff Nurse TERESA MUNDAY
Staff Nurse MARY TERESA PARNELL
Staff Nurse LILIAN WILSON PENROSE
At the outbreak of the War, there were 297 trained nurses of QAIMNS serving in military hospitals throughout the world, and despite the enrollment during wartime of nearly 11,000 members of the Reserve, the small size of the regular service was maintained throughout, thus avoiding a surplus of staff that would be difficult to get rid of when war was over. Although there had always been a small ‘Reserve’ of women who augmented the numbers of the regular QAIMNS, the effects of the War demanded that many more women needed to be recruited quickly. The figures for enrollment vary, but one reliable source shows that 10,404 women joined Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service Reserve between August 1914 and the Armistice. Like their counterparts in the regular service, these women were educated, of good social standing and had all completed a three year nurse training in a hospital approved by the War Office. They were, with very few exceptions, over 25 years of age and single, but as the war progressed a shortage of staff resulted in some married women being allowed to serve. Women were engaged on yearly contracts or until their services were no longer required, and most had been demobilized by the end of 1919, to return to civilian life.
QAMNS for India was set up to provide nursing services to the British military in India. They were a small service and, because the Indian government was so careful with money, it was reinforced from about 1916 with numbers of temporary nurses who served on 6 months contracts. As they were temporary, the Indian government did not have to worry about any pensions or other benefits for them. Some of these nurses served continuously on these contracts for years, even until the establishment of the Indian Military Nursing Service in 1926. Many of them served in Mesopotamia, which was considered part of the Indian theatre of war.
Sister SARA MAY BONSER
Sister M McINTOSH
Sister D HUNT
Sister Mrs OVER
Probationer Nurse Miss L FINLAYSON
After the First World War, in 1922, VITA was put into regular commercial service on the Bombay-Karachi-Bushire-Basra run. She continued in this service to 1939. Prior to this she had made some voyages to and from the UK. In May 1940 she was converted at Bombay into naval ‘Hospital Ship No 8’. She was unusual in that most Hospital ships came under the Royal Army Medical Corp. The medical staff were all Royal Navy, the Captain & other officers were mostly Merchant Navy. By September 1940 she was operational and her base port was Aden. In March 1941 she transferred to the eastern Mediterranean, and on 14 April, during the withdrawal of the British 8th Army, was attacked by German dive-bombers when she was leaving Tobruk for Haifa with over 400 wounded troops. A near miss lifted her stern out of the water and her engine room flooded, this put her engines and dynamos out of action.
The destroyer HMAS Waterhen took off 432 patients (wounded Australian and British troops being evacuated from Tobruk) and 42 medical staff and towed the disabled ship back to Tobruk. After the wounded patients had been disembarked, Vita left Tobruk on 21 April for Alexandria in tow, and in the course of this voyage escaped damage in two more bombing attacks. From Alexandria, on one engine and without electricity, she limped back to Bombay for repairs. When repairs were completed she went again to Aden.
In 1942 Vita was based at Trincomalee, and on 9 April went out from that port to pick up survivors from the aircraft carrier HMS Hermes and her escort destroyer HMAS Vampire, both of which had been sunk by Japanese aircraft. When Vita appeared on the scene, the Japanese ceased attacking and she was able to pick up 595 survivors. In December 1942 Vita acted as a hospital ship for the landings at Diego Suarez, Madagascar. In the following year, and for 1944 she served, apparently without incident, in the Mediterranean and in the Indian Ocean. In April 1945 she was at the Burma landings at Kyaukpyu, and the following month at Rangoon. She was now based at Cochin, and operated hospital voyages between Madras and Chittagong. In September 1945 she was again based at Trincomalee. In May 1946, following a refit, she resumed commercial service, and this lasted another seven years. She was sold on 20 may 1953 to Tulsiram Bhagwandas for scrapping at Calcutta.
The P&O V-Class Ships
The VITA was the third of the V-class ships commissioned by the British India Steam Navigation Company to be delivered along with her three sister ships: VARELA, VARSOVA and VASNA.
VARELA. Built by Swan, Hunter & Wigham Richardson Ltd. in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, she was launched on March 27, 1914, and delivered on May 28, 1914 as “Varela” for the British India Steam Navigation Company at a cost of £119,200. She was the first of the V-class ships to be delivered, followed by her sisters Varsova, Vita and Vasna. The Takeover of the British India Steam Navigation Company by The Peninsular and Oriental (P&O) Steam Navigation Company
was agreed less than a month later.
The VARELA was the first British India Steam Navigation Company ship to be requisitioned by the Government for the war effort (two days before the official declaration of war). She was initially used as a supply and despatch vessel. Shortly thereafter she served as an Indian Expeditionary Force transport, and was the headquarters ship for the landings at Fao and Sanniya in Mesopotamia. In early 1915 she was used intermittently as a base hospital at Basra and in October 1915 she was converted into an Indian Expeditionary Force hospital ship, with 450 beds, at the Royal Indian Marine Dockyard at Bombay. She was employed mainly to and from the Persian Gulf for the Mesopotamia campaign. From November 1917 to 1920 she was transferred to ambulance transport service.
VARSOVA. Built by Swan, Hunter & Wigham Richardson Ltd. in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, she was launched on June 9, 1914 and delivered on August 11, 1914 as “Varsova” for the British India Steam Navigation Company at a cost of £119,000. She was the second of the V-class ships to be delivered along with her three sister ships: Varela, Vita and Vasna. She was requisitioned immediately upon her arrival in India and took part in the convoy from Bombay to Mauritius. In 1915 she served as an overflow base hospital at Basra and then as a transport to Gallipoli. From April 1916 she was made an Indian Expeditionary Force (IEF) hospital ship with 475 beds for the Mesopotamian campaign. From 1917 to 1920 she was employed as an ambulance transport.
VASNA. Built by Alexander Stephen & Sons Ltd. in Glasgow, she was delivered on June 30, 1917 as “Vasna” for the British India Steam Navigation Company at a cost of £139,600. She left the builder’s yard already fitted out as an Indian Expeditionary Force hospital ship (613 beds, 125 medical staff and 129 crew) and was immediately sent out to join her sisters (Varela, Varsova and Vita) in the Persian Gulf. She was the last of the sisters to be delivered and was used as an ambulance transport.
National Archives British Army Nurses Search Portal.
Australian WW1 Service Embarkation Search Portal.
Royal College of Nursing Search Portal.