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  Paul  Rowntree 

Communiqué No. 23 by Paul Rowntree
sent from London during the first WW2 blitz

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Communiqué No.23

Barts, E.C.1

5 March 41

Thank you for letter. I think you had better hang onto the evening shirt anyway until I get to Friern. I have one but its collar band is too big to be comfortable. I doubt I shall want them. There is probably a rugger dance at Chislehurst soon, but I think it will be too expensive and not worth it.

Yes, it is the first time Gwen has sailed and she seemed to enjoy it very much. I have got my membership card and must be the first one to have paid it being no.1. I should like to have sailed last Sunday but was on day duty. Apparently it was too windy to sail on Saturday, even with two reefs. One boat turned over in the river.

Sat 1 March 41

Prof. Christie met us at St Alban’s Station and took 4 of us to Cambridge. We went to the famous “Dot” ( Dorothy) café for coffee but were unable to find a place in the big room where co-undergrads were having their coffee and Saturday sing-song. I don’t imaging the war has had much effect on Cambridge. They seem to be very much in a cheery colourful world of their own. We invaded Monkton’s room in the new Queens building looking from outside like Welwyn Garden City but with very nice rooms inside.

His father is a keen Dr. but Monkton wants to go straight into the Navy and is doing so I gather. At a pub, where we had lunch of beer and fish cakes, I did notice one undergrad sitting mournfully by himself and spoiling the impression that an undergrad’s life was all “beer and fishcakes”.

The Preclinical XV were quite good having played as a regular and unchanging team for some time. Although they beat us 15-0 ( they were unable to convert). About three of these tries were off forward passes. Also they were pretty dirty players and were offside most of the game. The referee was also a preclinical wet and was bloody as a ref. and spoilt what was otherwise a very fast and enjoyable game. Profs Christie and Hadfield watched with “all the gang” ( as Christie called the other Profs). The student hospitality was very lacking in the Barts tradition. Although we did get shandy we were not supplied with soap and towels at the few baths.

Prof Hopwood (Physics), however, supplied a terrific high tea in Erasmus for both teams (including sausage on fried bread with chips and 2 eggs each!).

I managed to come back to St Alban’s (where we caught a fast train to London) in Prof Hadfield’s 10 HP car. I managed to pluck up the courage and said that one of the nurses at the first aid post that I was attached to wanted to do pathology and what chance was there.

After saying about her, how she had always been interested in scientific work, how she was allowed to work alone in the labs and how her science and head mistress had been appalled when she went into the civil service (for other reasons). He said the requirements were “metric” ( so that they knew what a cc. was) and an interest in the work. Did she know what the prospects of pay there was as a livelihood ? He said the Ministry of Health had a trainee scheme and women were chosen in each sector. He had foreseen the shortage of men lab. technicians and the coming shortage of any technicians and he had 3 girls at Hill End and, as here was not room for anymore labs., he had no vacancies. After chatting he seemed to think Gwen would be just the sort of person they wanted (which she would be) and that he would try to get a job for her at Wellhouse Hospital St Alban’s. As however she would start with only £1 a week, she would probably prefer a job in a sector near Mitcham.

He asked me to tell her to write to him and he would write to Bamforth of Sector 12. at the Richmond Star and Garter. She should send a letter to coincide. He explained that otherwise ( in spite of the shortage) little notice would be taken of the letter when nothing was known of the person. In fact he didn’t remember Gwen had already written and he suggested she should write to Bamforth. I thought it best not to admit I knew she had written and he replied and had to keep up the pretence.

He also said that he had about 6 applications a week but as he knew nothing about them he just referred them to another sector. ( NB. being civil servants they can’t be sacked.)

Gwen has written again but has had no reply but a letter from Hadfield to Bamford would probably make all the difference. She is giving up as hopeless any chance of doing path work and could hardly believe what Hadfield had said about the chances.

It is rather complicated her having written to Bamforth already ( and not coinciding with Hadfield, but I hope it will be alright and that Hadfield will not loose interest or forget about her after seeming so keen about her.

Sunday 2nd March 41

Gram. Concert in evening attended by Barts intelligentsia ( including me and one lift boy).

Gwen told me that Goldsmith ( who had shrapnel in his tongue, wound in cheek and wound to chest on 11th Jan after the Bank do) had made a rapid recovery at St.Alban’s and everyone was very pleased.

She says he was discharged from hospital ( though I suspect the possibility in his case that he might be self discharged – he was the type).

Anyway he was back on duty and was driving a car when he collapsed and was found suffering from bronchopneumonia and died.

This is not an official report of happenings ( only word of mouth) and I should like to see his notes. I don’t think we could have done anything to prevent his death during his 1st aid at St Helen’s. it sounds as if a lot more must have landed in his lung or something perhaps as a result of lying in bed. It’s rather sad though. I’ve since heard ( even more reliably) that he died in hospital.

Had a letter from Joan saying she is on 7 days leave from last Sat.

Wed 5 March 41

One of the students was asked to go to Fevers so I took the chance of deputizing for him and saw far more cases than we ever saw in the summer. About 3 bombs have landed in the grounds there. One ward is flat except for one wall with a door in the middle which had been calculated as being the safest place. Two nurses were standing there as the bomb exploded and so no one was killed? ( I suppose the ward was empty).

Hopeless trying to get an Ex A team as everyone is slacking off rugger with the event of spring.

Saturday 8 Jan 41

Sunday wandered with Gwen among docks below Tower Bridge (we saw A.P.Herberts “Water Jifsey” with white Ensign). There is a lot of damage about but “Prospect of Whitby” and the pub by Wapping Old Steps were still intact. We noticed a sound of aeroplanes and later tracks left in the sky as if about 3 were being driven off. There was no siren. We though no more about it. We were underground in a News flicks when the alert was signalled but it was not till we came out that we realized that things were hot.

Piccadilly ticket hall was crowded as Gwen rang home to Mitcham where the noise of gunfire was intense and Mrs Marshall was getting very worked up and didn’t want Gwen to return (even though she had to collect uniform for the next day). So Gwen told her father to say she would stay the night at the post but that actually she would return and that if I wasn’t needed at the post I’d come with her.

We got to St Paul’s and found everyone taking the raid very seriously there. They cleared the escalators and everyone was shooed onto the platform. A marshal politely advised me to wait as they were dropping bombs outside. I waited a bit but finally started off to get two tin helmets from my room and find if Mauve ( as I expected) had gone to the post and so make me free. As I reached the top of the moving empty staircase there was a loud crash and tinkling of glass down the outside steps. Apparently it shook the platform where Gwendoline was being cheered up by a kind but rather unconvincing marshal. It was quiet and I went out up the steps, passed a policemen in a helmet and a fire watcher or marshal ( without a helmet). It was half moon and fairly light as I ran towards Barts so as not to waste time. As I turned towards the G.P.O. along the side of the CTO (ex) there was a loud long drawn out whistle or scream as a bomb fell and exploded. As I ran into Barts gates the porter in tin hat exchanged pleasantries and remained standing unconcernedly at the gate. Down in C.C.S. there was little happening and a lot of people who hadn’t seen Mauve so I collected tin hats and rushed out again.

The sound of planes was loud overhead and some people said there was dive bombing. There was a group of about 8 flares towards the West End. Another 1 or 2 bombs whistled loudly down but fell harmlessly ( to me).

As I came opposite the G.P.O. I avoided what I thought was a man hole cover but from which a noise of rushing water emitted. I thought vaguely then and have since heard that it was made by an unexploded bomb which penetrated 30 feet down to the roof of an underground room (tunnel actually).

Sweating from running, I rejoined Gwen who had been shaking so much she had be unable to light a cigarette – she had been worried about the first explosion.

We went to Liverpool St. I was to go to St Helen’s and come back unless there were only 3 students there in which case she would come on after half an hour if I hadn’t returned. She promised she would not go home alone.

I met Commandant on the stairs at St Helen’s and she said they’d 3 cases in. There were only 3 students but after 10 minutes another arrived so I slipped back again to Liverpool St – it was very quiet then and found Gwen who had been looked after by a very kind policeman who had later handed her over to an RAF man with orders that he showed make himself scarce when I returned as I was “tall and came from Barts”.

The tube sounds were much more cheerful here in spite of 3 bombs in the Street.

We went to Bank, walked underground to monument, across London Bridge in company with several other travellers. On the other side pneumatic drills and a team of men were working on the road, they were quickly on the job on mending a leaking gas main – we could smell it.

The guns were still firing and bombs dropping in the distance as we descended into the London Bridge tube and trained to The Oval. I was surprised at the number of other travellers nearly all without tin hats. The raid which was general all over London, was cooling off as we walked towards the bus stop tramping as ever over the inevitable glass. We had tea in a blacked out coffee stall.

The buses had stopped and we set out to walk the many miles to Mitcham [about 7 miles]. It was along a main road and we were dying for a lift but there were no offers. It was however a lovely night for walking.

At last a car with only two people in drew up to the curb and we rushed gratefully towards the open door. A woman poked her head out and said was much happening as they couldn’t hear whilst motoring. We said “not much now”. With a thank you they politely shut the door and drove off leaving us too flabbergasted to ask for a lift after that.

So we plodded on with ( I might tell you) Gwen getting more tired than me.

We had to do a detour round some older craters into which a landmine ? had landed lighting two huge gas flares and giving a brilliant glow in the sky for miles. We had been walking over an hour and the all clear had gone.

We were getting on our last legs and dropped into a small bar for “supper”. After starting out again we decided it best to take a taxi from Mitcham on as there was rank there. But it was empty and all the taxis passing were full. A car stopped for us with room for one in the front. We both got in. The man was going some distance. He had been near Buckingham Palace where it had been very hot and he was sure they had been specifically attacking the Palace. He told us he had already give 7 people lifts on the way from there. I think he was glad of someone to talk to after the bombing. We expressed our thanks for being the only kind hearted motorist and we had another half hours walk and we arrived at Abbotts road at 1.30 and crept in and I made a bed with blankets and coat in the dining room. The “parents” were awake and Mrs Marshall thought we were burglars.

I slept very well till breakfast time.

I got back to Barts to find Little Britain ringed with “Unexploded Bomb” signs and found that the Gaene [Gynaecology] Theatre – beside the block where the mothers and babies (in peace time) had been hit and damaged slightly and people weren’t sure if that too was an unexploded bomb. Another loud bomb had gone off at about 7 am.

The restaurant that was hit, with many killed, was the Café de Paris which had been considered pretty safe. There was also a cinema – I don’t know which.

I have just heard a rumour that is circulating and is supposed to have come via the leading Almoner. It is rumoured that a Barts student is dying from wounds received when a bomb exploded on the dance floor of the Café de Paris. His surname (for no good reason) does not seem to be known but his Christian name is Ian.

The first person to jump to our minds as likely to have been there is Ian McLean – the tall dark secretary of the U.H.S.C. who was at St Helen’s the 1st 3 months. But I hope, and doubt that that is true. (47 is the rumour no. of killed there – which is probably a great exaggeration).

During World War II, on 8 March 1941, the café was bombed soon after the start of a performance and at least 34 people were killed and around 80 injured. Two bombs fell into the basement ballroom down a ventilation shaft and exploded in front of the stage. The victims included 26-year-old bandleader Ken "Snakehips" Johnson, his saxophonist Dave "Baba" Williams, other band members, staff and diners. One survivor was cheered by the crowd outside, when, on being carried out on a stretcher, he shouted to them "At least I didn't have to pay for dinner". Wikipedia

In my detours round the “unexploded bombs”, I have been up Aldersgate St and have been very impressed with the great area laid flat by the A.M.P.s since the great fire.

The greatest area of devastation is, I think, to be seen from Newgate St, now open.


View of the devastation from St Paul’s

Standing by the shell of Blakes Ltd ( with its battered clock) which is an island in a sea of flat demolition, there is a grand amount of open space leading (but for a wall) to the foot of St. Paul’s. St Paul’s is thus greatly improved and I read that the Dean hopes it will not again be shut in.

The City now really is a sight, and again today, it was crowded with sightseers from London – one taxi man was giving a guided tour. If we leave it untouched after the war except for some tasteful hamburger stalls and “blitz milk bars” we should be able to pay for the war from the American tourist trade. ( some red paint here and there would help)

I was surprised to learn the other day (and I don’t think I’ve written about it) that for a longish time now we have been having oil burners every 20 yards, to give a smoke screen on the outskirts of London.

Today, Sunday, has been low cloud and no sign of raids ( Sunday 9 March 41)

8.15 raid now on – plane droning and some bursts of gunfire. – nothing much.

Thank for the P.C. I am glad you have been enjoying your holiday in Helmsley. Do tell me at once what sort of job “the Captain” gets when things come through. ( no letter from S.A.). are you going to send the other pair of pants?

Think I ought to go the post ( 1st aid) and post this letter. I have been reading some of the “Republic of Plato” which Perkins left in my room and which I thought interesting and easy to read.

Much Love Paul

8.30pm Sun 9 March 41