Known as 'The Wizard of the Desert' for his speed of operating, my father, Christopher Shortall, served as an RAFVR surgeon during the Second World War in Aden, the Middle East, and Cyprus.

Christopher was born in 1905 to Milo Shortall and his wife, Catherine Phelan, at the family home of ‘Wood of O House’, near Tullamore, King’s County (now county Offaly). He received his education at Mount St Joseph’s boarding school, Roscrea, county Tipperary. He graduated with First-Class Honours in Medicine from the National University of Ireland, Dublin in 1928 and was appointed to the extern department of St Vincent's Hospital, Dublin.

By 1935 he was assistant surgeon in St Vincent’s Hospital, and in that same year he was appointed Medical Officer and Surgeon in Newry Union Infirmary and Fever Hospital (later known as Daisy Hill Hospital). In August 1936 he attended a surgical course in Berlin, Germany, and his Irish passport bears the Olympic symbol. In April 1939 he married Marie O’Hare from Newry, at St Peter’s Church in Warrenpoint.

During the early years of the war he was based in England, in 1939 at No. 1 Depot Henlow, 1941 at the Recruits Centre, West Kirby and later that year at No. 4 RAF Hospital, Rauceby, Lincolnshire, one of the pioneering burns and trauma units within the RAF. In January 1942, Christopher was posted to the Far East on the troopship, the Llangibby Castle. En route the ship was torpedoed by the U-402, a German submarine, killing twenty-six of the 1,200 people on board. Left without a stern and a rudder, but steering by her twin screws, the ship was escorted by destroyers, all the while fighting off an attack by a Folke-Wulfe Fw 200 Condor aircraft, to the Azores for temporary repairs, then to Gibraltar where Christopher was billeted on the Maidstone, a submarine supply vessel.

His next posting was to Egypt where he stayed for two months until he was sent to Aden from 1942 to 1944. After this he was in Syria, Jerusalem, and Cyprus. He took numerous photos of his time abroad, using a small Agfa Karat 35mm camera. 

My mother and I had been with my father at his various postings in England between the end of 1939 until the start of 1942. When he returned from the Middle East to RAF Uxbridge in 1945, we joined him there, living near the camp. I started school in Uxbridge. By the time the war ended my father had attained the rank of Wing Commander.

My father returned to his pre-war job at Daisy Hill Hospital and covered the south Down, Newry and south Armagh areas, and his Registrar was Mr Myles Gilligan. Christopher was one of the last ‘General Surgeons’, and he not only did surgery but also covered Medicine, Obstetrics and Gynecology, ENT and Orthopedics.

In 1948 Christopher’s appointment to the post of Surgeon at Newry General Hospital became a matter of controversy and was discussed in a Northern Ireland Parliamentary debate, as to ‘whether one man can perform the duties involved in supervising these major hospitals [Daisy Hill Hospital and Newry General Hospital]’. It was argued that the opposition to his appointment was due to the fact that he had served as a Medical Officer in the armed forces, and ‘If he had not joined the Forces this question would not have been raised’. At the close of discussion, it was pointed out that in Belfast there were surgeons employed in more than one hospital.

My father also did private work at Courtney Hill nursing home and saw his private patients at our home, Laurel Lodge, on the Downshire Road. He served on the specialist committee which was instrumental in establishing the National Health Service in Northern Ireland and despite his extensive commitments was a regular attendee at meetings of the British Medical Association (BMA) where his opinion was often sought by the committee of the Northern Ireland Branch.

Christopher Shortall died aged forty-five on 15th June 1950 from myeloid leukaemia and, in an obituary, written by Sir Ian Fraser in the British Medical Journal he concludes; ‘on this (BMA) and other committees there was no one more admired by his colleagues. He was a man of his word, without bias, and all that mattered to him was to do the right thing. Many people in Ulster will mourn his death from leukaemia, and to his widow and their four boys the deepest sympathy of his colleagues and friends will be extended’.