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Communiqué No. 04 by Paul Rowntree
sent from London during the first WW2 blitz
10th September 40.
Hope you got the vulgar P.C. I have seen very little of the papers but quite a few hospitals have been hit and you would naturally think of the hospital.
Rain temporarily stopped the heat wave on Sunday morning 8 Sept. 40. Since then we have had quite a few showers and some cooler weather. Probably the explosions have had something to do with it. We have raids fairly regularly now - 'Before most meals and whenever I go to do photography. There was one on Sunday soon after I sent the last letter and nothing much happened. In the afternoon I set up the enlarger and got down to printing. After supper I went back to continue. The sirens went. As before I didn't hurry. I took some out of the hypo and put them, in water.
I collected sleeping things and set out along the well known route.. Aeroplanes were overhead and bangs were going pretty rapidly. Then they got pretty loud and I thought I ought to do something. There was no blue light to show a shelter. The street was deserted.
A louder banging. I turned into a side street. As I got off the bike I heard the loud whistle coming down - quite loud it sounded as if it was going to land near, (it sounded the same to people a mile away) . I leant the bike against the wall and thought well I suppose the thing one does is to lie flat, it seems rather silly though. There was no explosion. I thought I'd better get on until I came to a shelter, wait there until they'd passed on. It was silly to be all brave and cycle on to the post, there was no hurry. A warden came hurrying, across the street a little worked up and hurriedly suggested I should go to his post. We went to the building where the warden he was relieving said he should have been on time. He didn't seem in a hurry to get away though. Things became quiet after a while and I went on. I made a mental memorandum that I wouldn't be quite so unhurried, .when the sirens went in the evening. We pretty soon get adapted to varying tempos.
That evening the phone rang as a result of observations from the spotter on the roof. "A delayed action bomb has fallen in St. Mary’s Axe, (nearest street) and is smoking". No one noticed if it went off.
At about 3 next morning I was woken by bombs and they sounded shatteringly near. After one the Commandant came through to see if we were alright - it sounded like a direct one. I lay in bed - silence. Then a droning of engines getting nearer. After impatiently waiting came a quick succession of explosions, about three or four, then the droning died down to be followed by a droning getting louder and so on for several times. At times the bombs cracked out followed by glass falling and we in our deep shelter were rocked as if someone had shaken the bed rapidly a few times. On coming out for breakfast, out of all the facade of glass windows, only one here was cracked, we had no casualties through the night. That has been the hottest night. We had to come back a different way to breakfast, because of the comparative nearness and because of the fullness of press reports I thought I should send one of the P.C's I had done.
Last night and tonight (Tuesday the 10th) have been pretty quiet. The route between here and Barts has changed a bit. -You turn left, fork right and turn sharp right at the bomb crater (20 feet deep.) turn left and straight on past the fire on the left, sharp left, sharp right, sharp left and you're there. Cheapside is closed. Holborn by Chancery lane. Buildings are down to ground level (I expect you have seen the photos) A lot of stations are out of action, St Pancras, Liverpool Str, has been hit, Victoria, Waterloo I'm not sure. Thomas’ City Rd. (maternity) Mary's and other hospitals (Stepney?) have received bombs.
The streets that you can get along seem quite pre-war in the amount
in the day time. It is surprising, when you stop to think what damage has been done, how everybody takes it for granted almost. People tell stories how they took some photos to be developed or when they collected them the shop wasn't there or took the book back to the library, and that was bombed.
We had a case in this afternoon who had fainted six hours after concrete had fallen on his helmet. We found he hadn't had a meal for 24 hours and had been working for three days. He was a demolition 'bloke'. We have had incredibly few cases - I suppose London and Guy's have had more.
It is generally considered that the H.Es. that have been dropping are 1000 lbs.
I heard tonight more about our place. I am in bed in one of the shelters by the post (2 floors down) they cost 20 – 30 thousand pounds to build. I thought they were super strong rooms but apparently it was all done 18 months before the war, after the crisis. It is littered with strong doors, shovels, pickaxes, oxy acetylene lamps, about 3 brand new air conditioning motors. The firm is half German. One of the A.R.P. blokes had worked for them in an identical building in Berlin. I suppose that is why they were more prepared than most. The directors are a sticky lot and not very co-operative or helpful in a lot of minor ways.
Most of Bart's patients have been sent off today in ambulances to St. Albans (& Friern) Our patients have gone back to the early war arrangement of going down to the casualty basement (instead of under the glass roof). It sort of seems an unnecessary change, but I suppose it is wise. I know of no more bombs in the day time. If they were there would be a lot of casualties - as it is I cannot understand from neighbouring damage how there have been so few, because there are a lot of wardens and police and watchmen at night. The police are very good at cordoning off a damaged area and moving traffic a different way, without being too strict or officious at all. The A.F.S. are being appreciated now. They used to be rather laughed at - why I don't know. They have an unenviable job now. The fires have been considerably worse than any of the peace time big fires. Today looking from the roof at Bart's you can see no evidence of damage at all. All the fires are I think under control, in fact I think they are out.
I hope this letter won’t depress you as to the state of London, If it does I have failed in describing it. It is so hard to describe the damage that has been done to buildings and the amazing ordinariness of everyday -life. You might expect people to be talking of nothing else but the bombs. Students talk as much shop as ever. Women after the warnings sound hold their men back while they look at dresses in shop windows, (this afternoon even bus drivers don't know where they are going). Bus conductors find it hard to punch tickets to a place they don’t know they will pass. Nobody minds. People are if anything better tempered. Perhaps everyone has suddenly become unconsciously adapted to the changes.
I know I would not wish to be any where else but London now.
I give up trying to explain how "ordinary” life in London seems and go to
Wednesday 11 Sept. 40.
No casualties in post last night, we all slept till 10 to 10 and missed a proper breakfast. Some people heard the nearest bomb they have heard - probably in Aldersgate.
A corner of Smithfield was hit by a bomb last night. The porters at Barts refused to be spotters on the roof at Barts - the result being that; students there are volunteering to take over.
Jim Merryfield is on tonight 12 - 2. He had said he wanted more excitement.
We have had quite a few warnings today - once with only 15 minutes between. Gresham Str. - the way we come in the daytime is full of traffic, parked cars and pedestrians. Going back after the last raid the entire student personnel of this post made a formation 2 abreast and charged the crowd. Even so the formation got rather split up. Finally we did a victory circle round the fountain.
Tonight after supper (& after listening to Churchills speech) we went for a drink. As the Vicarage is closed we went to the White Hart (just opposite Out Patients entrance)
It is interesting that all the Jewish students show signs of jitteriness - although if you did not know them you would not notice anything. Perhaps they have more imagination than the rest of us. Perhaps they realise more accurately what is happening.
When the siren finally went at about 9 tonight we hurriedly swallowed the M and B. I walked to the bike -and sped along Gresham Str. at a glorious rate. Soon after we could hear detonations not very near.
Everybody seems to be thinking that we shall receive some dirt and some casualties tonight, whether it is because the raids are beginning to have slight effect or whether Churchill's speech has filled people with slight apprehension, I cannot tell.
One of the A.R.P. blokes has been going round seeing that the picks shovels and hammers are in the shelters and checking over the oxyacetylene apparatus - but nobody really thinks we shall need them.
Thursday 12 Sept. 40.
The students are rather irritated that many of the part time nurses and personnel come and sleep at the post just to get a comfortable night - and they have the beds and mattresses we would normally have. Actually we sleep quite well (in fact very well indeed) in stretchers and umpteen blankets. At the beginning of the war students in city 1st Aid Posts were paid £3 a week. Now we are just kept ( and meals in catering Coy are often a fight lasting an hour) and we get blame for everything - and incidentally quite wrongly (no there have been no pregnancies yet - not likely). For instance while I was at home some students went on the roof. A curtain caught fire and the students were blamed. They proved that they were not even on that staircase. The firemen of the offices (not A.R.P.- blamed them and said that they themselves never smoked in the building. Just then another one strolled by with a lighted cigarette in his mouth.
I don’t quite know why I should be championing the case of students like this. We retain (especially at our post) our usual great independence (everyone else including the doctor has to sign on and off). They know they have no real pull over any of us and I expect that is why we get blamed for things. We get on very well with the 1st Aid people (especially the Commandant) but there is some rift between 1st Aid post and the representatives of the uncooperative directors, firemen, doorkeepers, etc. Not that it worries us much.
You could hear very little last night in the post so we went upstairs for a smoke.
I only heard one bomb but the ach-ach fire was pretty terrific. I imagine they were putting up curtains of H.E. and not waiting to single out a plane in the searchlight beams.
It is reported that H.M.S. Cossack was below Tower -Bridge and firing all last night. It is also reported and witnessed that A.A. Guns on lorries were in action last night, It is rumoured that naval 6ins guns were mounted on lorries and taking part in the fun. Gresham Str. was police blocked and we had to make a detour round an unexploded bomb. A bomb (not the heaviest) fell on the brick wall at the back of the nurses home. The wall is flat and a crater 8ft. - - 10ft deep burst a water main and flooded the nurses basement with 2ft of water. They were sleeping there too.- they moved.
Nurses sleeping there said the bang was not so loud as the one on Smithfield 300 yards away.
It is funny but very few of the windows above the crater are broken. These bombs are not the daisy cutter type at all but the piercing type exploding upwards, Lying flat is therefore of real value if caught.
Thankyou for the letter and the multifaced nurse that I got this morning. I am sorry the snap of C. looks skull like.
The lit side of the face is greatly underprinted and shows little of-the detail present in the negative. It is a very contrasty negative. I was interested that you appeared to be rather worried about London. I suppose it is only natural in spite of my Communiqués. If, however this state of things continues I shall have to change my letters from a really candid picture to everyday happenings spattered liberally with reports of all the worst happenings, to a cheering letter mentioning only the events likely to ease worry and keep a horried silence on destruction. That’s a threat. Personally I should hate writing like that. Please realise that these letters are completely freely written with no unconscious or conscious censorship on my part. Please realise this. If you begin to feel you can't take it, tell me and I'll stop them and I'll send P.C's. saying 'in the pink' and nothing else.
You see the situation as it appears to us here isn’t in the least depressing (and we're not kidding ourselves) and I suppose it is hard for us to realise that it might be worrying to people further away. I am all out to notice the first signs of nerves or jitteriness, far from minimising them, because I am interested in that side of it and in fact emphasise it.
Trying to look on London impersonally is as you would, I am amazed at the lack of real damage to life living or people’s minds. Will go to eat.
You may think that I am writing these long letters because I am slightly worked up and want to work it out. It would be a natural thing to think but it is quite untrue. I like writing and it seems a heaven sent opportunity to record an interesting time to people away from it, Though I must say that the newspapers are far from being blacked out and are pretty good competitors.
The students working in Barts at nights have been appreciated by the governors and they are to get 10/- each for giving unstinted service in evacuating the basement of the nurses home.
This afternoon Merryfield and I were going to see “Convoy” and “Rebecca” at the Dominion but they would not let us out of the Tottenham Court Road tube because it was cordoned off above ground around an unexploded bomb. We were irritated because there was no indication of this at all at Chancery Lane station, We went to a news flick at Leicester Square. They had a news flick of the Saturday fire and general destruction. It was so terrific as full of destruction as any news flick I have seen that before we knew what we were doing we were feeling, glad we were not in London. It gave the impression that half London was flat or in flames, which is not of course anything like the truth, as I hope you realise by now. Another warning this afternoon. Very little bangs (A.A.) Everyone pleased with last nights barrage.
Must post and then eat.
P. S Friday 13 Sept. 40.
Haven’t a stamp and didn't post last night. I was 'going out of the back gate when the sirens went. The now famous barrage started soon after I reached the post. Before going to bed I went upstairs to listen to the barrage which is nice and loud. Soon it stopped for about ½ hour. An A.R.P. 1st Aid post bloke who takes over from the door-keeper when the sirens go was obviously rather jittery. He was a little man and his main fear seemed to be that a big burley burglar would come in and he would be the only one to stop him. Doors would suddenly swing in and there didn't seem any wind. There is supposed to be a Gt. St. Helens ghost.
Commandant saw what she thought was a female housekeeper with a light on a high floor weeks ago. There is no housekeeper. Two police men came in last night, (one carrying a hatchet) saying the 1st Aid Post had rung to say a light was showing on the 5th floor.
It must have been control who rung up. Apparently a light had been visible before. It is quite a likely place to get a fifth columnist: the ½ German firm has quite a few Dutch named people who speak English, etc., I haven't quite got the hang of the business side of the place.
It was rumoured that a man was flashing a torch from under a coat on his arm on? London Bridge and was stabbed by the Home Guard with a bayonet.
Some others came up and we told cheerful stories of what a Polish airman had done to a German pilot who wore a ribbon for bombing Warsaw etc.,etc., and other horrific tales to keep his spirit up. I was latish to bed after that.
The warning was on when it was time to get up in the morning so we gladly just didn't' get up. Office workers coming down to the shelters were rather perturbed at our method of being alert. You mentioned pleased that we were getting some sleep.
We are getting our normal sleep or rather more than our normal sleep in actual fact. I get to sleep quickly and only once have I been awake before getting up time (Pause while I listen to Langden Davies giving a talk on the value of sleep;
No, - we sleep very well indeed. Any lack of beds or mattresses doesn't effect sleep on blankets piled in a stretcher, even so it is nice to be luxurious. As a result of conversations six super soft -mattresses have arrived for the students' private use.
The wireless news said "there had not been sufficient tin hats to completely equip emergency hospital staffs". Utter bunkum - Barts has had none given to them, we are still waiting for ours, with shrapnel or rather H.E. barrages about they would be welcome. They are on the way we are told. One or two Students have bought ones - but you cannot buy then now. I have not heard shell casings falling yet, I've only seen a few collected pieces - very jagged indeed.
There was a lot of running about 10-2. I had just bought a 1/- lunch at the canteen at the 1st Aid post when the all clear went and I had another cold meal. Canteen provided extremely good ham and pickles and bread and lemonade. Very nice but not very filling.
This afternoon two loudish explosions went off soon after each other. We first thought them D.As. but they were close together and we heard a plane above thick clouds. I believe they were in the Strand near Somerset House. The alert went after and before I had got my cup of tea. I ate the cake, made a sandwich of the bread, butter and jam and got tea at the post.
I would have posted this tonight but after washing and shaving and doing my toenail the sirens went. It is cold and wet nowadays so I put my mac on before racing to the post. The sky was clear and moonlit and silent.
I believe the guns started after I got here - but you don't hear them with people playing cards, drinking tea, washing up, reading, making mosaic curtains (a student) and chatting - and the wireless which happens now to be on.
Living the comfortable and safe life that I do. I don’t realise the difficulties of travel. Not having to move far and having a bicycle (which is far the best transport) one doesn't notice the people who sometimes queue for buses after the all clear or search for a station that is working. Living in a bombed suburb and then having to travel long distances to work cannot be pleasant. But I don't really know. I haven't talked to anyone who does this sort of thing. The students don’t seem worried by it. But on reflection there must be people who are having a hell of a time. But you would not notice it in the London streets. I notice Gamages have been closing at 4 o’clock out of consideration for their staff. All other shops I know have normal times though.
Now to really represent the life and spirit of London I should be living in the slums of the East End among normal mothers with children instead of carefree students and people with definite jobs to do and that below ground.
Personally I shouldn't mind if life was 'a bit more exciting but perhaps you wouldn't think so.
I expect we shall see life (and death) soon enough yet.
It is just lively enough now not to be boring. I don't suppose it is so pleasant for people who have friends or acquaintances who have been killed or injured. That is Saturday 14th September 40
A quiet night ( no casualties as usual). Barrage was loud but not so concentrated before going to bed. After that I don' t know what happened, if anything.
Will really try and post this now.
Much Love, PAUL. ( 9am Sat.).