Ordinary people in extraordinary places

June 7, 2021

As chief executive of Newcastle GP Services, Christian Townend has played a crucial role in the region’s fight to overcome COVID-19. But his story goes much deeper. For the former Royal Army Medical Corps nurse is a decorated military veteran, who served with distinction in the Persian Gulf, Croatia, Bosnia, Afghanistan, Iraq and Belfast. He also spent time in Berlin at the end of the Cold War looking after Spandau Prison’s most notorious inmate Rudolf Hess. Here, Richard Dawson learns more about the fascinating life of the Royal Red Cross holder, how he and his team are continuing to manage Newcastle’s vaccine rollout, and why he’s supporting Step into Health, the charity helping service personnel find jobs in the NHS.

Christian Townend is chief executive of Newcastle GP Services, the member organisation that brings together all 31 general practices across the city.

He is also a former colonel of the British Armed Forces, who served in the Royal Army Medical Corps for 31 years before settling in the North East.

His journey to leading the GP federation responsible for Newcastle’s coronavirus vaccine rollout is truly the stuff of legend.

Christian’s decades-long experience in medical planning is also part of what has enabled such a fighting response to the pandemic in the North East.

Newcastle became the first city in the UK to fully inoculate its care home population and has so far given the jab to more than 110,000 residents.

However, for the distinguished war veteran, it has very much been a team effort.

“One of the things you do as a leader is appoint the right people to do the job,” says Christian.

“I have a chief operations officer in Rebecca Haynes, who effectively pulled an operational plan together for the vaccination programme, so to her must go the plaudits.”

Such a strong team ethos is something Christian describes as being “the strength of the army”, his ties to which date back to 1976.

“I joined the Royal Army Medical Corps as a boy soldier aged 16 with a plan to do nursing, which is what I did,” he says.

Over the next three decades, Christian would come to live and work in some of the world’s most hostile environments, completing multiple tours of duty for his country.

From Berlin to Belfast, Croatia to Kuwait, it seemed that wherever history was being written, Christian was there.

“Being in the services allows ordinary people to be in extraordinary places,” he says.

Endowed with a keen sense of adventure from a young age, Christian saw the army as his route out of hometown life.

The first two years of military service proved a baptism of fire for the youngster, though, who struggled to adapt to his new surroundings in Hampshire’s Aldershot Garrison.

“The army in 1976 was a brutal organisation as a young, fairly vulnerable person,” Christian explains.

“At 16, you are not equipped in the same way you are as an adult, and it was quite a hard environment to spend your youth in.”

Christian, who grew up on the outskirts of Leeds, was quite an unconventional 16-year-old in that he loved opera and classical music.

He would often be found listening to Tristan und Isolde on his record player, which raised a few eyebrows among his peers.

It also wouldn’t be the last time music would play an important role in his career. After basic training, Christian started

on a three-year nursing course, which he completed at a British military hospital in Germany in 1981.

The newly state registered nurse was then rotated back to the UK to work in an NHS intensive care unit before being sent to Berlin, where he would be tasked with the most extraordinary assignment of his career.

Between 1984 and 1987, Christian worked at the infamous Spandau Prison as the personal nurse of its most infamous detainee – Rudolf Hess.

The former deputy fuhrer of the Nazi Party and Adolf Hitler’s chosen successor, Hess was convicted of crimes against peace at the Nuremberg trials in 1946 and interned at Spandau for the rest of his life.

Christian says: “He was the last prisoner held captive there and he was guarded by the four allied powers – Britain, France, the United States and the Soviet Union.”

On his first day of work at Spandau, Christian arrived to see a group of Russian prison guards all stripped to the waist doing push-ups and lifting weights in an effort to intimidate him.

It was the young corporal’s first experience of the strange and surreal world of Cold War propaganda.

On his relationship with the former Reichminister, Christian says: “When you look after someone, you get to know them, so I got to know him obviously very well.

“I watched Boris Becker win Wimbledon for the first time on the TV sat next to Hess in his cell.

“The Geneva Convention means that whenever you are working in that kind of environment, you are obliged to offer the same level of care to combatants and that’s the approach I took with Hess.

“I purposefully didn’t read a great deal about him and there were some things that he wouldn’t talk about.

“But my passion for music was a common subject and every week on a Wednesday he was allowed to listen to a piece of music, so, we’d talk all week about what that was going to be, then we’d sit for an hour listening to the record and then we’d talk about it afterwards.

“It sounds a bit daft, but when you’re in a confined area, what else do you do?”

Living in what was then still an occupied city, Christian also had the unique opportunity to peer beyond the Iron Curtain and venture into East Berlin, often going through Checkpoint Charlie with his wife to see performances at the Berlin State Opera.

After spending three years living a life that sounds an awful lot like a John le Carré novel, Christian returned to the UK when Hess died and was commissioned and appointed to the rank of captain. It would not be long before he was back in Germany, though, preparing to be sent to the Persian Gulf.

“The five British military hospitals in Germany were united to form 32 Field Hospital, and we were shipped out to Saudi Arabia in 1991 just before the invasion of Kuwait,” explains Christian.

“Because of my background in intensive care, the ward I was given was called high dependency.

“We saw a lot of injuries.”

Christian recalls a tragic incident when a booby trap exploded injuring five Egyptian soldiers, one of whom sadly lost both of his legs.

He says: “I remember looking at the fella and thinking, ‘our health service is brilliant at supporting people with these injuries, but I wondered what sort of life he would be going back to when he was discharged from the army’.

“I couldn’t imagine what that would be like.”

During the Gulf War, the Iraqi military adopted a scorched earth policy while retreating from Kuwait, setting fire to hundreds of oil wells that took months to extinguish.

Christian didn’t have access to a television so didn’t know anything about the Kuwaiti fires – he just remembers waking up one morning and it still being dark because the smoke plumes had obscured the sun.

“That was a very scary moment because it felt apocalyptic, it felt like the end of the world,” he says.

After completing the first of what would be many tours of the Middle East, Christian was sent to Croatia as part of a UN peacekeeping mission during the breakup of Yugoslavia.

Once again, he found himself in the thick of the conflict, working in a place called Knin, which became the self- proclaimed Serbian Krajina during the Croatian War of Independence.

“It was an area of Croatia that predominantly had Serbs living in it and when the war broke out, the Serbs pushed the Croats out,” explains Christian.

The leaders of the Krajina were Knin locals Milan Martic and Milan Babic, whom Christian met many times, and who were latterly convicted of war crimes and ethnic cleansing at The Hague in the early 2000s.

Christian says: “The Croatian War was a brutal war and people forget that. I had a group of 25 soldiers, most of whom were under the age of 20, and they were exposed to complete brutality.”

As a medical support officer, Christian confronted the horrors of war throughout his military career, but it was in Croatia that his mental fortitude was tested most.

He was tasked with preparing the bodies of three French soldiers who had been killed when a bomb exploded and remembers literally having to piece them back together so they could be identified and sent home.

“We were able to repatriate them and afford them proper military honours, and we were thanked by the French authorities for doing that,” he says.

It was for his services in Croatia that Christian was awarded the Royal Red Cross by the Queen in the New Year’s Honours in 1995.

Only in his thirties, the young army captain had to pinch himself while waiting in the picture gallery at Buckingham Palace.

“It was a fabulous experience and I’ll never forget it,” he adds.

Having cared for the deputy fuhrer and been awarded the Red Cross for serving with distinction in multiple theatres of war, you’d be forgiven for thinking this is where Christian’s military fable ends.

But not long after meeting the Queen, he was back in the Balkans, this time as a subordinate commander in charge of a small hospital in Bosnia.
After that tour, he returned to Germany and was promoted to the rank of major while working as a head medic in a logistics brigade.

He was then sent to Oman in 2001 for the Saif Sareea 2 military exercise.

Christian was in the Sultanate when the September 11 attacks happened and remembers being huddled around a TV in the Omani desert watching the Twin Towers collapse.

9/11 was the catalyst for the conflict in Afghanistan, and after a year in Oman, Christian worked as part of the medical planning team for the allied invasion.

It was a very difficult mission because the two main routes into Afghanistan – via Turkey and Pakistan – were not available to the allies.

“We ended up flying out of Muscat into Kabul and that meant every supply had to go by air,” says Christian.

“That’s why the planning was really important – if you don’t get things right first time, there’s no going back. “You can’t go back from Kabul.” Not long after his Afghanistan expedition, Christian found himself back in the Middle East planning for another allied invasion – this time of Iraq.

“My principal responsibility was around the three field hospitals we deployed into Iraq,” he explains.

“All in all, I did three years in the Middle East, my kids were at school in Durham, my wife was working as a nurse in Germany, and I was desperate to find some way of getting us all in one country.” A posting in Newcastle with the

Territorial Army provided the perfect opportunity.

Then in his forties, Christian decided to finally put down some roots, buying a house in the North East and reuniting with his wife and children.

A phone call and a promotion meant the reunion was short-lived, though, with Christian posted to do a tour in Belfast in 2004.

He says: “You can imagine that while I was delighted I was being promoted and was going to command a regiment, I’d worked hard to get this family time.

“So, I decided that Belfast would be my last tour.”

Christian left the army in 2007 as a lieutenant colonel of the regular army, though did subsequently join the reserves as a part-time soldier, ending up as the corps colonel of the Army Medical Services.

Leaving the regular forces wasn’t easy for the boy soldier, who had known nothing else his entire adult life.

But once he made the transition to civilian living, he soon found a new home working in the NHS.

Before joining Newcastle GP Services, and becoming its chief executive in 2017, Christian worked for ten years as an NHS practice manager.

It was the perfect job for the retired medic, who understood the language of the people he was managing and how to get the best out of them.

Three years into his current role at the GP federation, Christian was working with a committed team to put out a strong voice for general practice when the coronavirus pandemic hit in 2020.

It’s been a difficult 15 months for the NHS, which has required medical professionals to draw on the same kind of courage and resolve as soldiers do in wartime.

Christian believes there are clear parallels to be drawn between COVID-19 and conflict, the difference being, however, that when you’re on an operational footing in the army, you don’t have to worry about home life and can be absolutely focused on the main effort.

He says: “If you are away in Afghanistan or Croatia, for example, you don’t have somebody saying to you, ‘the dishwasher is broken’, or ‘the kids need picking up from school.’”

Christian’s reflections touch on one of the biggest concerns as we move out of the public health crisis – the impact it has had on people’s mental health.

As someone who’s dealt with more than his fair share of trauma, Christian has some sage advice for anyone struggling right now.

“There are a lot of anxious people out there and I understand that,” he says.

“My sense would be to say to them, ‘look for the small things that bring you solace and live for today.’

“Tomorrow will come along, the sun will rise, and everything will work out.

“My perspective may be naïve but that’s how I see things – the army produces optimists.”

Finding his feet in healthcare after a truly inspirational career in the army, Christian is now working with a charitable organisation called Step into Health, which supports people who are leaving the armed forces to find work.

There are tonnes of opportunities in the healthcare system that soldiers are perfect for, but many don’t realise the jobs on offer are suitable for them.

Christian says: “Remember, most soldiers only do 20 years, so they’ve already had a career, they’ve got good life skills, they’ve got a good fitness record, they can work as a team and they’re very forward thinking.

“I think they’ve done their best for their country, and we owe them a duty and to do our best for them.”

It’s difficult to imagine how anyone could follow in Christian’s footsteps, but the reality is there are thousands of British soldiers deployed all over the world who will one day return to the UK just like he did and find themselves having to navigate what can be a tricky transition into civilian life.

Step into Health is one of many organisations working to ease the load for the people who keep us safe.

Christian says the army puts ordinary people in extraordinary places.

But what his story shows is that they can also do extraordinary things.

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