|On 27th August 1940, the
20 years old medical student, Paul Rowntree, was returning from
his parents home in York, back to St Bartholomew’s Hospital in
London. The Second World War had been raging for a year. The
disaster, or success, of Dunkirk had occurred a few months
earlier at the end of May 1940. Hitler had been bombing
airfields for some time and had been incorrectly informed that
the RAF was defeated and so turned his attention to London and
other major cities of England. Recognised history suggests that
this started on 7th September 1940, however Paul’s return to
London on that late August evening was greeted with bombing
searchlight and Ach-Ach fire. After going to St Bartholomew’s,
he struggled to get to his First Aid Post at Gt. St. Helens were
he was due to spend the night either sleeping or working.
reason, Paul started the first of a series of 26 Communiqués to
his parents giving a detailed account of his experiences during
the Blitz. These Communiqués give us considerable insight of
what was happening at the time as seen through the eyes of an
enthusiast trainee Doctor, excited to be there and planning to
join the Royal Navy when he qualified. We are given reports of
the bombing as well as some lurid details of his medical
experiences in addition to reports of the normal day to day
activities of healthy medical students of the day. The early
Communiqués give considerable details of the bombing including
his return to the city from a day out at Hill End Hospital on
the 7th September 1940.
The 14th Communiqué is
interesting in that it is the first written after a two week
break in York, having spent two months working in blitzed
London. The tone of this letter changes radically, referring to
London as his home, which he is delighted to return to. His
mood, sensitivities and observations of that which was around
him are notable and are best understood in the light of three
letters he wrote from York to Gwen Marshall who was, within two
years, to be his wife. Gwen worked in the same First Aid Post as
Paul. It is unlikely that Paul met Gwen before August 1940. This
presumption is based on the fact that Paul was at St Albans
until about August of that year and that Gt. St. Helens First
Aid Post where Paul and Gwen met would not have been needed
until the first bombs were dropped on London on 24th August.
mentioned that he did not enter medicine because of a passionate
desire to help or cure people but because he was fascinated by
how the human body worked. This fascination extended to an
interest into their minds and how people operated as a whole.
This is clearly shown in his observations of the numerous people
around him during the time that these Communiqués were written.
But also, we see that this observational quality was flavoured
by the pointers to his attitude to injustice and suffering of
others and his anger at inadequate application of medicine by
those that should know better. These aspects of his nature were
going to be the hallmark of his professional life.
As an aside, it is
worth mentioning that during this period while Paul was in
London, other members and future members of his family were in
the area. His father in law to be, Alfred Marshall, who lived in
Mitcham, was working at the Central Post Office and doing fire
watch in the St Paul’s area. The future mother in law, Joan
Dibdin, of his daughter to be (born 1943) was working at a First
Aid Post at St Marylebone and unknown to most of us until after
her death, his cousin Betsy was working at Bletchley Park. Paul’s
father Colin who had worked for Friends Ambulance and the War
Graves in WW1, was later on active service, during WW2, in Leeds
while his mother, Mary, was active in York and Hull working for
The last date
mentioned in the Communiqués is 31st March 1941 and this was
probably a marker for the end of the first blitz in London.
Considerable bombing did occur throughout England in the next
few years and London was hit again with devastating results in
1944-45. This was a period of considerable evacuation
particularly of children because of the impact of the V1 flying
bombs and V2 rockets.
By this time, Paul
was either working in Enfield or York in General Practice. His
dream of joining the Navy was wrecked by illness in 1943.
The sequencing of
Communiqué 19A and B is a little confusing.
It seems that Paul
may have been writing Communiqué 19, to be called 19B,
progressively and had not finished when he felt that he needed
to send a quick letter on 20 Dec 40, the day after a very bad
raid. This letter, he called Communiqué 19A and then finished
Communiqué 19B in detail later. The story of 29th Dec 1940
continues in Communiqué 20 which is of significant interest
historically, as it is a detailed report of Paul’s observation
of the state of the City after the raid of 29th December 1940.
London was plastered with incendiaries and much of the city was
on fire. Paul and his student colleague roamed the streets
through the fire hoses and rubble and noted in great clarity the
state of the buildings.
the time taken from internet sources are included to enhance
much of Paul’s details. A map of the area showing key place
referred to, is also included. This Communiqué No. 20.
continues to give fine detail of the devastation of Saturday
11th January when a bomb went though the road into the ticket
office of the Bank Underground Station and Liverpool St. Station
was hit twice. Paul was left in charge at his 1st aid post,
without access to all his resources and had to apply himself to
“battlefield surgery” knowing that the hospitals would be
No. 20 stands out as it shows, in one article, the comparison
between the enthusiastic youngster enjoying the excitement of
the fires and bombing, almost to a callous degree and the
skilled doctor in waiting, taking immense responsibility and
showing compassion and respect for his injured patients. One
gets the impression that this repeated itself amongst many of
Paul’s student colleagues.
To help put these
Communiqués in context it is worth remembering that Paul’s
father, Colin Rowntree, worked near the Western front for the
duration of the First World War. For two years he was with the
Friends Ambulance dealing with injury, illness and the
transportation of refugees from the Ypres area and then for the
second two years he was a 2nd Lieutenant in Royal Engineers
working exclusively on war grave work, managing the digging up
and burying of the dead every day. He must have felt very proud
and supportive of his son’s work.
communiqué was posted on 31st March 1941. The first Blitz is
considered to have ended by mid May and by this time Paul was
working a Redhill Hospital doing maternity work, He delivered
his first baby on 7th May 1941.
From photographs taken during that month it can be deduced that
Paul and Gwen had developed quite a relationship.
The second blitz in
London that created havoc with the flying bombs that started on 13
June 1944 and the V2 rockets that started on 8
September 1944, the first landing in Staveley Road in Chiswick.
In the archive
with the Communiqués were detailed notes made by Gwen. They
include a detailed summary of the planes and bombs dropped on
London during this first blitz and some additional notes
regarding casualties. This work can be seen in the appendix.
these Communiqués, it is worth considering the lives of the
recipients. Paul’s parents, Colin and Mary, had got married on
30th Oct 1914, the very day that Colin left for France to work
with the Friend’s Ambulance Unit on the front line of WW1.
After two years he
left and join the Royal Engineers and worked for the rest of the
war on war graves work as a Second Lieutenant.
At this time Mary
was setting up house in Chiswick with the help of her father in
law, Fred Rowntree, and architect, whose contribution to the
world effort at that time included caring for and employing
Belgian Refugees and designing prefabricated houses to be build
in Holland, for assembly in Belgian after the war.
Communiqués written to his parents, living in Stonegate, York,
with details of death and destruction in London would be of
interest to Colin but one would expect did nothing but worry
Their elder son,
Michael, was working in South Africa initially as an engineer on
bakery machinery but later in munitions for the British
During the Second World
War it is unclear exactly what Colin was doing during this
period. In November 1939 he had received a letter from the
military as follows:
Colin had a letter
marked secret definitely offering him G.R.Unit No.4 (Graves
Registration) to Proceed somewhere in Southern Command on Jan
15th and Cross to France about 1st Feb. There was a list of his
Unit and we think it was a bit ominous that it says
"Captain 1 bicycle 1 Subalterns 2 bicycles 2 ! But as he
says he can probably snaffle a car as they had in the last war,
on the spot. The Unit consists of about 38 people Officers 3
R& F 35 ( Rank and File) . I suppose the idea is to have
them ready for the Spring Offensive.
But it is unlikely that
he actually did any of this, although it is recorded that
Colin was in Aldershot
in March 1940. Mary wrote to Paul on Victoria Hotel paper in
July maybe 1940.
I seems that Colin was
“on active service” judging for the remark by Paul in
Communiqué 23 about wishing to know what a Captain’s job
It seems likely that
after Aldershott, Colin then went to Leeds “On Active Service”
and in May 1941, we have
Colin tries to get home
to York for weekends but petrol rationing may cause a problem.
Mary exhausted from work with WVS. She has been in charge of
evacuation as well as two long and arduous days in Hull. She
opted out of marching on Women’s Day of War Weapons Week.
Colin is glad that Paul is keeping his peritoneum in tact so
And in June 1941
Mary went to Leeds for
the day meet Colin for lunch, then went with him to one of his
gun stations. The ATS are not to be at the stations after all.
In August 1941 Colin
went to Scarborough for “Training” and by
April 1942, Mary had set up home in a flat in Leeds so that they
could be together when Colin was off duty. Mary was still
working on relief work in York and Hull and happened to be in
York on the night of the York bombing in
“Early in the morning
of Wednesday, April 29, 1942, York suffered its worst air raid
of the war.”
The full letter that
Mary wrote to Paul about the event is in the Appendix.