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Communiqué No. 11 by Paul Rowntree
sent from London during the first WW2 blitz
Thank you for the letter which arrived today./ Friday.
I hope you have the 10th comm. by now. I saw the YMC had been hit by the Tottenham Court Rd bomb. I am sorry about the Lowerdale boy. He is the first person that I have known to be injured by air raids. Thank you for quoting M’s letter I am glad he has a boat lucky devil. He seems to be the only one of the family to be working hard in this war. But perhaps salvage or graves are very strong – you don’t say.
Wed 16 Oct 40
Wednesday was one of the very quiet nights. In spite of this a B.I.D. came into the post at about 6 am. Being the first at the post it was all very secret and shrouded in mystery ( none of the nurses were allowed to come into the same room.) As far as I could make out in spite of the sacred hush hush it was a woman with heart failure from shock.
Thursday 17 Oct 40
I had heard from another student that you could go from Westminster to Woolwich and back for 9d. he said that they were very particular about cameras and that the docks consisted of masses of flat wreckage. As he had been, I was prepared and interested at the chance of seeing just how badly the docks had been demolished after the many and big raids. I was rather surprised that the public were allowed to see it all – which only goes to show how misleading even first hand information is. (later and sorry, it wasn’t 1st hand the student had been told 2nd hand).
We started of from Westminster Pier in one of the small pleasure boats ( late Dunkirk) and steamed slowly against the tide.
The bus conductor in bus uniform came up and clicked the return ticket cheerily and never even asked about cameras. I had mine with me but of course had no intention of using it.
The sun came through the gloomy clouds as we approached Billingsgate Pier ( there was a mine near Tower Bridge Pier ) and we changed into a waiting tug which except for the conductor and us passengers was just an ordinary tug.
A man and a woman sat in the stern over the tiller. The tug was far faster than the first boat and we surged forward overtaking and re-overtaking a patrolling naval vessel with a machine gun as we stopped beside landing stages on either side of the river. We passed through miles of dockland and never did we see the stretches of waste dock that I was expecting. There was of course some damage but it seemed terribly little. You had to look for it. In one place there was a complete line of warehouses that were wrecked. That was the worst I saw. Otherwise there were individual buildings wrecked or gutted by fire but most of the shore was line after line of normal dockland.
Haw Haw had said that the Port of London was closed and I wonder if that was true as it seemed quite possible but at one point I happened to count up.
Haw Haw refers to Lord Haw-Haw, a nickname applied to World War II-era broadcaster William Joyce, remembered for his pro-German propaganda broadcasts that opened with "Germany calling, Germany calling", spoken in an affected upper-class English accent.
Actually in sight were four large ocean going cargo ships going down to the sea on the hide tide, and four barges sailing down. There may have been more. I didn’t bother to get up and see if any were hidden by the funnel and bridge.
The only difference there seemed to be was that there were not so many tugs pulling barges ( but the tide may have been wrong ).
In the rough water a wave landed on the skirt of a woman sitting in the stern. I laughed.
At some of the landing stages were ambulance ships ( the larger pleasure boats).
The tide had changed when I came back on a different tug. There was an air raid at Woolwich and I heard something ( incendiary) drop fairly near but I didn’t see. I was rather disappointed.
One of the locals didn’t hear it and rushed me verbally into a shelter. I hadn’t seen inside one before. I saw a group of 8 planes flying southward in formation and two fighters banking and diving at each other. I thought I might have seen a really air raid. I have never seen a bomb explode yet or a bomber coming down in flames – but I was disappointed.
The journey though billed as two hours took little more than an hour. I recommend the trip as the best propaganda for tired morale. I was amazed. Although by peace time standards the damage was considerable, by war time standards it seemed almost insignificant. And seeing all the ships and barges and tugs and water and the sailing barges again – it was like a holiday. I enjoyed the trip very much and I think the other sightseers did too.
It was a quiet night. Bartlett received reliable first hand information that two Drs at Thomas’s ( which has received more than one bomb) had been arrested as fifth columnists. They had flashing car headlights outside in the street and had said something was wrong with the magneto or something. This is highly confidential and was not supposed to have been passed on by Bartlett to me – so please don’t tell anyone.
What appears to be rather a fanciful rumour has been widespread and has reached me from two sources. It is that Charlie Kunz was due to broadcast one night and they apologised officially that he was unable to take part. The next morning it was announced in the papers that a prominent dance band leader had been arrested for fifth column activities. The rumour is that Charlie Kunz was sending messages by playing the piano in a certain way. Well it could be true but I don’t believe it yet.
Friday 18 Oct 40
The raids nowadays seem to be less common and keep to the rush hours at morning middle and evening but they are not really regular.
The nurses and the ARP people of the Ports have got tin hats like ours now.
The usual strays and children. Franklin look rather a twerp but is very sound. He is very hot against purgatives for children at all – only make sure the stools are soft by regulating food and liquid paraffin. There was a very typical case. The mother had bad bowels herself and didn’t want her infant to be the same. Due to a misunderstanding of the principles and by misjudgements on training ( the child played with a dolls house and was allowed to do her pooh anywhere (eg by the wireless ) the child was getting a powder every other day which in fact contained calamine which causes constipation anyhow. There were two such cases.
Then there was a youngish girl who had been suffering from asthma attacks. Franklin ( when the mother was not there) explained that most asthma was present in an unhappy love atmosphere. The mother and father were separated and the daughter was all the mother had left and so suffered. After the daughter being in hospital and after long chats the mother realized that she could exist with out her daughter and that her daughter would be better with less attention from her.
We interrupt this news service to give you the hottest news.
8.30 Sat 19th Oct 40
A bomb (ail) has started a small fire in the 6th and 7th floor – they didn’t discover it on the first inspection in spite of the fire indicators. People have been rather going in small circles. One of the useless bunch of women (nurses) apparently nearly fainted. There has been a long procession of them to the ladies lav. on the 1st floor, a wonderful sight.
We thought the building had been hit by a smallish bomb and we got our tin hats and scarves and went through into the main part of the floor to await orders. Then we sere told it had landed in the street at the back. Now official news from Collier is that an ail bomb pierced the roof by a lift shaft which leads down by this room. It started fires on the 6th and 7th floor which were soon put out. One of the men got irritated with a desk which wasn’t really in the way and he chucked it out if the window smashing an incredible amount of glass on the way down.
Bartlett and I came down latish as the guns started and waited ¾ hour under the archway with the entrance in view. In spite of planes coming over we did not see any recurrence of the light at the door. Then we got board and went in.
Saturday 19th Oct 40
We had four patients in MOP’s – a good morning. Two were suffering from temporary weakness of a hand due to pressure, while sleeping on a nerve in the armpit.
In the afternoon we travelled by bus to Sidcup to play rugger. I was struck by the damage to southern London which was fairly evenly spread. Most streets had one building demolished leaving the rest standing. About half the houses had some broken windows. Several churches and one or two schools were hit and one military objective, a railway station. Blocks of flat stand up well. Only one street had glass in the gutters signifying a recent raid.
Stan Hewitt ( of the first ) saw one of the two bombers hit. The siren went. Soon after there was the first bang from a gun, then and explosion as the plane got a direct hit and fell in smoke and pieces.
We played on the ground of the R.A.P.C. and had a big audience of soldiers and A.T.S., officers and ladies and the C.O. himself. It was a very nice ground with a grandstand. Their ordinary changing place was damaged by a landmine which also completely destroyed four houses – so we had cold showers instead.
They said it was the best game they’d had and certainly we enjoyed it very much indeed. The first half was very fast indeed. There were some very nice manoeuvres on both sides but particularly by Allardice who became the idol of the crowd by scoring two magnificent tries. With two of their men, we were one short in the first half but our scrum was taller and heavier than theirs. Merryfield played very well and a new clinical student consistently kicked very well. They scored one try but won.
It is said that our ground at Chislehurst has been hit ( by a mine ?). The abortion of a grandstand which was first put up with so much fuss and money is down. We hitchhiked back though actually it cost us more in the end.
I was tired before the game – by the evening I had a stiff neck and a headache. One of our men put his knee out. On of theirs injured his collar bone. Allardice injured his forearm which is now splinted.
The night was fairly quiet but several incendiaries and bread baskets fell. We got our hit ( as I have written ). We do not really suspect the doorman but we took the trouble to chat to him and we found out where he was when the ail bomb fell.
I have come to the conclusion that the older people ( men and women ) seem to be more effected by bombs and air raids. People ( and those who have been thro’ the last war as well ) aren’t exactly nervous openly but they worry much more. You may say that they know better what can happen but actually I think “we younger ones” have a better sense of proportion and rather than being “devil may care” and scornful of the danger, we know and recognise only real danger.
I suppose marriage and a worried wife make people feel more responsible and we ( apart from parents who are not quite the same – being not so dependant on us ) are free of all that.
When you feel that someone else is really worried that you might get injured, their worry far exceeds you own.
Your worry is based on things happening at the time, whereas theirs is based on possibility and last longer.
Although it is nice to think that some people would be sorry if you were injured or killed, it is far more comfortable to be independent and free. I suppose that is how our fighter pilots manage to do their work better than older people would.
I am convinced too that loss of sleep and tiredness are the parents of worry fear and “defeatism”.
Then when you reach the end of life you worry even less than we do. Old people don’t calculate the possibility of danger but merely disregard it. They sleep on top floors at night.;
As we were going to bed there was another explosion and the lights dimmed down to a red filament and went out. They were on again five minutes later. We slept all night ( as usual )
Sunday 20th Oct 40
I heard that the Great Hall at Charterhouse had caught fire after an incendiary last night.
I went and saw it from the outside. The roof had gone leaving a charred wooden skeleton of supports.
Some of the big window was broken, but the slender pinnacles still pointed upwards and none of the stone or brickwork had been displaced.
There have been five small raids today – presumably reconnaissance. There was a dog fight traced in the sky as I went after dinner on the third alert. There was little gunfire and no bombs. I came back to tea after the fifth.
I think I can hear a plane so there may be another soon. I am on duty this afternoon.
Coming back from Charterhouse I was overtaken by a group of men and women ( from the flats ). Their cheery conversation was of the difficulty of water shortage. One could not iron her washing because the electricity was off. Many people have to fetch from the tap, some have to get it from lorries. Our cold water has reappeared in the taps and we have our usual baths again. But to hear the everyday conversation of your housewife in London, if you didn’t know English, you wouldn’t guess they were talking of difficulties. I noticed today a new phase of city life – a new form of Sunday outing. Normally the city on a Sunday is dead and deserted but today, walking about the streets or driving round in family cars were fathers proudly showing to their family and relatives the damaged buildings which they had seen during the week.
It is nearly 6.30, the siren hasn’t gone so I will post this and have dinner.
Thanks you for the P.C.
Much love Paul
PS I’ve had a bill for the fourth instalment ( £54-12)
PPS I’ve finished my book of stamps!