Katherine Constance ‘Kit’ Neale was born 26th January 1914, the eldest child of Harry and Jess Neale of Doonmore St, Penrith.
She began her nursing training in 1934 at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, alongside her friend Barbara Dalrymple-Hay (who would meet a charming young doctor at the hospital and be Mrs Charles Leleu by the time they graduated). She completed her training in 1937, and then spent a year in England doing postgraduate work at the Royal College of Nursing. She returned to Penrith in April 1940 and took up a position at the Dental Hospital in Sydney.
In 1941, she signed up for military service with the AIF and was assigned to the newly-built military hospital at Yaralla. In December 1941 she shipped out to the Middle East as part of the Australian Army Nursing Service, where she served with the Sixth Division, and later the Ninth Division. Her family were strong supporters of the armed forces – two of her younger brothers, John and Douglas, were already in the AIF and the third, Anthony, put his age up and joined the Navy in 1944. She was also following in the footsteps of her aunt Constance, who had been an army nurse during WWI.
On the front, she was known as Sister Kit, and remembered fondly by many of the soldiers she tended. One of them, from her ward at the 106th AGH at Gaza, described her as a ‘bit of bottled-up Australia’ and said ‘many a man owed his sanity to this wonderful girl’ (Australian Women’s Weekly, February 26, 1944).
In a letter to her family in 1942, Kit wrote about a trip up to Jerusalem organised by the Red Cross, and how lovely the flowers were in Palestine. She also met William Douglas Sturrock, a doctor in one of the Australian field ambulance units. They had known each other at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in Sydney before the war, and this time the relationship turned romantic – they announced their engagement in October 1942, but were separated almost immediately when Douglas was transferred to Singapore, and would not meet in person for another two years.
Kit returned to Penrith in 1943 and rejoined the staff of the Yaralla Military Hospital (now complete and officially titled the No. 133 AGH, Concord). She also joined the armed forces personnel campaigning for the Fourth Liberty Loan, travelling around the country to speak of her experiences at El Amein and other battlefields and urge people to raise funds for the armed forces. Her plainly spoken descriptions of the difficult conditions and the courage of Australian soldiers were deeply moving to her audiences.
“It’s the same wherever we go; she’s the star turn,” a loan campaign official said today of Sister Neale, “I think her success can be attributed to her quiet sincerity, backed by a low voice, which seems to turn a man over inside and a woman into tears.
“All I know is that the people rush the loan after she has spoken.”
(The Sun, October 14, 1943)
In January 1944, Douglas Sturrock (now a Major) returned from New Guinea, and he and Kit were married at St. Philip’s Church, Sydney. The service was officiated by Rev. J. Ferrier, formerly of St Stephen’s Church, Penrith, and the happy couple honeymooned at the Elenora Country Club, Palm Beach. Douglas was transferred to the 113 Concord AGH, where Kit continued to work, in between campaigning for the First Victory Loan now that the Fourth Liberty Loan had closed.
Despite her best efforts, she would never see two of her younger brothers again – John and Douglas would both die of illness in POW camps: Changi, Thailand and Sandarkan, Borneo respectively. Anthony, the youngest, would survive and return to the family once the war was over.
After the war, both Kit and Douglas were demobbed and Douglas was awarded a Nuffield medical scholarship. He travelled to England for two years to study, while Kit stayed behind to have their first son John Neale Sturrock – he was christened in St Stephen’s Church, Penrith, following the Neale family tradition. Kit and baby John joined Douglas in England once they were able to travel. When they returned in 1948, they settled in a house at Balgowlah, across the bay from Douglas’s parents at Mosman.
They would have three more children: David, Jane and Douglas. Though she was now a full-time wife and mother, Kit’s dedication to helping others made her an active part of her community, and she still did charity work with the Red Cross, an organisation she remembered fondly from her wartime service.
Kit’s family remember her as a warm, exuberant woman whose door was always open to friends and neighbours, and despite the hardships and horrors she had seen during the war, she never lost her sense of fun. She passed away in December 1996, having seen all four of her children grown and married.