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  • Clare Backhouse

D-Day, mental health, resilience

1940s wellness under pressure

“It never occurred to me that it was something of an achievement to which in a small way I had contributed. I suppose like Byron I should have composed a sonnet, but being a common sailor I went on my way to get my cabbages in before dark…”

In the summer of 1944, Harold Hickling took charge of Britain’s secret artificial harbour in Normandy, Mulberry B. This was one of the floating harbours that enabled the D-Day landings.

Following heavy storms that nearly scuppered the whole Mulberry plan, Hickling’s predecessor had had a nervous breakdown. Presumably, a very steady nerve was a prerequisite for the replacement.

Hickling was sent over with three hours’ notice.

Harold Hickling was my great-grandfather, and my mother has a photograph of him at around this time, sitting in a small group with Winston Churchill. Everyone poses rigidly alongside the Prime Minister: formal, intent on the camera. Except Hickling. He’s just looking calmly out to sea. A 1940s “whatevs” if ever there was one.

His brilliant, funny memoir Sailor At Sea describes his D-Day activities: intensely demanding, ultra-high-stakes work from dawn to dusk.

How did he keep steady under all that pressure? As well as skill, courage and training, it turns out Hickling also had some excellent health habits up his uniformed sleeve.

Without a single wellness expert to guide him, he still makes time to “have a damn good laugh” with his fellow officers, get out into the countryside regularly for fresh air, and even plant a vegetable garden.

Decades before the formulation of Lifestyle Medicine, Hickling was engaging with most of its key precepts.

By fostering friendship, getting outside, taking down-time, growing his own food, and eating cruciferous vegetables, Hickling was doing several things that have been shown to support mental and physical health.

He was calming his nervous system, increasing 'happy' hormones and neurotransmitters like oxytocin and serotonin, supporting his circadian rhythms, diversifying his microbiome, and encouraging detoxification (which is just as well, since he mentions gin quite a lot too).

Today, I am typing these words at my great-grandfather’s old leather-topped desk.

We may not be overseeing brilliant manoeuvres, or winning a world war.

But we can, like Vice-Admiral Harold Hickling, prioritise friendship amidst pressure, fresh air amidst stress - and cabbages over kudos.

To your very best of health - and wishing Hickling-like nerves to all with exam-takers at home this month -


Clare Backhouse, dipION, Registered Nutritionist MBANT

Registered Nutritional Therapist CNHC


Photograph: Allen, E E (Lt), Captain H Hickling, DSO, RN, NOIC Arromanches, going over a plan of Mulberry "B" with Winston Churchill on the veranda of Navy House, Arromanches, 1944. Imperial War Museum, London.

Hickling, H., 1965. Sailor at Sea. W. Kimber.

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