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A Nurse's War: The Air Raid and the Victory Parade

by Genevieve

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Archive List > United Kingdom > London

Contributed by 
People in story: 
Caroline Wallis
Location of story: 
West Bromwich
Background to story: 
Civilian Force
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
01 December 2005

A Nurse’s War: The Air Raid and the Victory Parade

I was the daughter of a Herefordshire farmer, and at 18 I went away to train as a nurse at West Bromwich. I did my general training, qualifying in 1934 as SRN (State Registered Nurse) and then I got my midwifery certificate (SCM, State College of Midwifery) straight away. I had both certificates at 21.

I wanted to come back to Hereford and do private nursing, but no — they decided that I must go into the operating theatre at the District General Hospital, the Hallam Hospital, West Bromwich. I didn’t want to do theatre nursing but I was pushed into it. I was a theatre staff nurse, and then — again - I wanted to leave and come back to Hereford. But oh no! The theatre sister was leaving and we couldn’t both leave. It wasn’t fair to the men — you had to stay on. So matron sent for me and said ‘You’re the choice of the men. They’ve all been to my door and asked for you to be appointed theatre sister.’ I was only 23! So I took over that busy theatre in a 600-bed hospital.

During the war we used to have trainloads of soldiers coming in, with just bandages on. We had to repair them and send them to hospitals near their homes. One day one of the sisters came up and said ‘We’ve got a young soldier in from Hereford.’ I popped down to see him, and he said ‘I never thought I’d see anyone from Hereford again.’ I said ‘We’ll make you better and send you home. Where do you live?’ And he said ‘My parents have got a hairdresser’s shop in St Peter’s Square.’ That shop is still there, and I expect he’s now an old man walking round Hereford. I never saw him again - I was much too busy.

On the night of 19th November1940, West Bromwich had a terrible air raid. The planes were going over and we had an anti-aircraft battery nearby which was shooting at them all the time. The Cottage Hospital nearby got a direct hit. In the middle of the raid we had to take all their patients, eighty of them. We didn’t have beds for them all: we had to put mattresses on the floor for the rest of them. And all their staff — I shall never forget all those nurses coming in looking like a flock of sheep. You never knew when you went to your room who you would find in your bed — or who would be wearing your clothes! It was about three weeks before they could go back because the hospital had got a direct hit, and the laundry was smashed. We had to share everything and it did us good, I think - that was our bit towards the war.

I emptied the maternity ward and put the casualties in there: they were coming in at such a rate. Birmingham sent out two teams, a surgeon and anaesthetist in each. Two staff nurses scrubbed up in my theatre for one team to work in there, and I opened up the labour ward and theatre for the other team. We worked all night until 6.00 am. Then the surgeons and anaesthetists came over to my office. I took out the drawers and filled them with cushions so they could sit down. I made them mugs of tea and sent a nurse to get a loaf of bread and a jar of honey and one of lemon curd from my room. I served this breakfast on one of my glass-topped trolleys. The Birmingham teams returned to their hospitals.

Then my Medical Superintendent, Mr Wimberger, said at 9 .00 am, after we had worked all night, that we would do ‘the big ones’. He meant the seriously injured who were so ill they had had to have drips and transfusions before we could touch them. We worked till 12 midnight that day. Later, in April 1941, Mr Wimberger and I were presented with certificates in the Council Chamber in West Bromwich. Nothing had ever been held there except Council Meetings and we were the only two to be given the certificates. My certificate records that ‘The grateful thanks of the Council be accorded to Sister GC Price for her devotion to duty on the occasion of the air raid on West Bromwich on 19th November 1940 when she was concerned in the evacuation of the Patients and Staff of the West Bromwich and District General Hospital at the height of the Raid.’

Because of all this, at the end of the war the Medical Officer of Health came up to see me and said that I’d got to take part in the Victory Parade in London, because I’d had recognition. ‘I’ve never been to London,’ I said, ‘and I’m not going.’ I was a country girl. I wasn’t going to go up to London. ‘Sister,’ he said, ‘I’m sorry to tell you, but you’ll have to go. It’s all right — the Borough Treasurer is going to go, and one of his men, and two farmers from Coventry. That’s all there are going from the Midlands, and they’ll look after you.’ So I had to go. There were to be reserved seats on the train and, oh, it was all laid out wonderful. But when the train came in it was all full of soldiers and we had a job to get into the guard’s van, and had to stand up all the way to London.

I was taken to the Ivanhoe Hotel, up to a tiny little room at the top with another nursing sister. I never saw her again. Then we had to go and practise marching in Hyde Park from 6 o’clock until 8. Then we went back to our rooms, and next morning we were out there again at 6 o’clock, practising. We started marching at 9 o’clock. It took about three hours, all round London, and afterwards we were supposed to go back to the hotel, have a rest and a meal and then go to a party, then stay the night and come back on Sunday. But I’d got money in my pocket, and I thought ‘I’m not staying here another night, I’m off back home.’ So as soon as we had finished marching, I shot up to my room and picked up my bag — never told anybody, never said a word — and stood outside. I had no idea where the station was. I asked at the street corner: Was I going to Paddington Station? I eventually got to the station and a train came in, packed. A man gave me a seat. The next man to me was eating an apple and I’d have given anything for a bite of that apple, but he didn’t give me one! Then I thought ‘Well, when I get to Birmingham, I can get something.’ But no. It was all closed, nothing anywhere.

So I had to get a bus out to West Bromwich, and I went to some friends and rang their bell. One of them came to the door, and I said ‘Charles, give me some slippers.’ My feet were killing me. I went in and his wife said ‘Now, what would you like?’ and I said ‘Please, could I have two boiled eggs?’ So I sat down and had two boiled eggs, with bread and butter, and had a good rest, and then they said ‘We’ll take you down to the hospital.’ So they took me down to the hospital, and all the staff were with Matron in the big sitting room, having a party. I put my head round the door, and Matron said ‘Oh, Sister, would you like to join us?’ ‘No,’ I said, ‘I wouldn’t.’ She said ‘Would you like something to eat?’ ‘No, thank you,’ I said. ‘All I want to do is to go to bed.’ I was dead by this time! Next afternoon she came down to see me, and she said ‘Now, have you had a sleep?’ I said ‘Oh yes, I feel much better now.’ And she said ‘Well, I must tell you that at eleven o’clock last night I got a call from the London police to say that Sister Price had been reported as a missing person, so I told them she isn’t missing, she’s in her bed at home!’ Those two men from the Town Hall - in the afternoon they’d thought ‘We must go and find Sister Price now and look after her.’ And they couldn’t find Sister Price, so, of course, they had to report it to the police!

This story was collected by Laurence Le Quesne and submitted to the People’s War site by Graham Brown of the BBC Radio Shropshire CSV Action Desk on behalf of Caroline Wallis née Price and has been added to the site with her permission. The author fully understands the site’s terms and conditions.

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