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Communiqué No. 01 by Paul Rowntree
sent from London during the first WW2 blitz
St .Bartholomew' s Hospital, E.C.1.
27th August, 1940.
Had the late dinner in the train at 8.p.m. Then went back to my seat. About 20 miles out of London the train lights went out. Everyone assumed there was a raid again in London. The train moved slowly on at about 15 miles an hour, Nobody spoke - there was a calm silence while people wondered what it was we were moving so slowly and surely to meet. As I feared, some soldiers thought it necessary to sing sentimental songs rather badly in the next carriage. Finally the man opposite me- who had offered me the "Evening Press" earlier in the evening started talking - he seemed to want to. He said that he had travelled during a raid many times in the last war. It turned out that he had lived in St.Albans, had lived near the Blackwater and made a sailing boat there. Later it turned out that he was principal of the Leeds(?) Agricultural College between York and Tadcaster. His job had taken him a lot to Mental Hospitals, Prisons etc. Did I know the Retreat ? He thought an awful lot about it. Now and again we would peep out and see the cone of searchlight beams moving about the sky sometimes over the train. I told him when he asked me, that my father was in the F.A.U. in the last war - and (it turned out) so was he. He went out June 15 1915 and drove ambulances and he knew of Colin. His name was Hudson.
We were approaching London and taking more of an interest in the raid.. We could hear nothing, but suddenly little white dots shone and went out at the top of a searchlight cone.
It was the first "ack-ack" fire he'd seen this war, I'd seen ever. There were also flashes below the skyline of roof tops - bombs he thought. He was going to the Ministry of Agriculture for a meeting next day representing the North of England Counties. I said I hoped he wouldn't get hit there - he seemed amused and perhaps pleased at being thought a military objective.
After a long time we slid slowly into Kings Cross and got out into the lights of the station and said good bye. Everyone was being politely ushered into a shelter. I said I wanted to get to a 1st.aid post ( I was feeling a bit guilty at not taking over from Hill earlier). The policeman said he thought the buses were running - they weren’t. Nor were we allowed down to the tubes which were running. Some taxis were running but I could find none that would move. There seemed very little really happening so decided to walk. It was a very warm evening.
My footsteps clattered on the pavement along Grays Inn Road. Most doorways seemed to hold a silent man or woman, policemen with tin hats were posted all along the road - they looked at you but said nothing, cheery noises floated out from the entrances to shelters. I seemed to be the only person walking and I began to wonder if I wasn't breaking all the laws. Out of the darkness a stern voice in a uniform said “The all clear hasn't gone yet has it?” I stopped guiltily and explained hurriedly that I wanted to get to the first aid post. He thought I was mad. He turned out to be just a postman who wanted to know if the all clear had gone. The sirens went at 9.30 he said. He thought there had been some bombs out west - Croydon perhaps.
We parted friends after being told to be good.
Along Clerkenwell Road with the blue starlit sky above spattered with hundreds of searchlights and the noise of airplane engines. Along Farringdon Rd. An airplane with attendant beams was floating nearer. For a time by Farringdon Stn. It was rather unpleasant when the searchlights were pointing straight above wondering whether they would decide to drop a bomb or two. Would I run for a suitable doorway or drop undignified with a pack on my back into the gutter. There were no blue lights or shelter signs just there.
The searchlights moved over and no bombs dropped. All the time as I approached Barts everything looked normal and I was pleased to find Barts just the same with two policemen in the gate, What was my name? Would I be sure not to put on a light. Yes all the first aid people had gone out at 9.30. I took rucksack and mac and dropped them in my room returning with respirator and using my fountain pen torch with a hand round the bulb.
Barts itself seemed empty. I asked the policeman if I could get the usual way to Gt. St. Helens First Aid Post, wondering whether it or the route might be in ruins. He seemed surprised and said yes he thought so. Down Little Britain, past the ghost of a bus stopped where no bus has been before. At the Central Telegraph office I wondered if the continuous high pitched hum was a distant all clear siren - how annoying it would be to miss everybody now.
Along Cheapside, passed the Bank and into the archway leading to the first aid post.
Some people were outside the entrance - someone said “I believe it's Rowntree” and I found myself with Hill and Bartlett and some A.F.S. They told me they had been up the last three nights ( and that I should have slept in the W. Wing instead of coming along ). Hill had been outside Aldersgate station when he heard the screaming bomb falling - he dived into a shelter in the middle of a rugby scrum of 6 policemen. The bomb had dropped about 100 yards away ( Whitbreads was safe though).
Three warehouses had caught fire - one of them a wax model factory. The first aid post there only got one case that night- a sprained ankle I believe. Altogether it was said Barts laid had 3 casualties brought in so far
We stood and watched the searchlights which never seemed to get through the bits of light cloud onto the planes very high above. When overhead we were just outside the doorway where we could reach safety in ten seconds. Later we heard some ack-ack fire, about 6 rounds. Finally our necks tired and we went down to find a stretcher to sleep, where we slept till nearly four. On waking we found a patient had been treated for quite a severe head injury - caused by falling into a shelter - an old lady.
We were invited to sleep the rest of the night, but it seemed best to go back to Barts. I borrowed a medical couch mattress thing and undressed and slept in my sleeping bag till 8.15.
We couldn't quite understand what the Jerries were up to, they didn't (visibly to us) drop any bombs or flares - but they had made themselves a nuisance quite successfully. It was unusual seeing all the buses started again, taking people home at 4 in the morning.
Had out-patients this morning - not many- and E.N.Ts. this afternoon. The official bloke was away so we had a chance at examining patients - though we left the treatment to two housemen who had been roped in. After tea was a lecture - anaesthetic in quality - I found it hard to keep awake. The main thing now seems to be to get as much sleep as possible - in fact I've just this moment had a brain wave - I might take my sleeping bag to the First aid post if we’re out again tonight - and I expect we will be - maybe it would be too hot though. When they really start bombing and we have work to do I expect they will not hang around London so long.
Please don't expect such long communiqués in future, or every day (We'll probably get similar raids every day or night)
I did enjoy being at home and I expect I am very much better for it. Will post this and then go to dinner.
Much love, Paul.