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A Forestry Accident and the Plymouth Blitz

by Genevieve

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Archive List > Childhood and Evacuation

Contributed by 
People in story: 
Val B. Insley's father
Location of story: 
Near Plymouth
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Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
16 November 2005

A Forestry Accident and the Plymouth Blitz

My father, whose home had been in Brittany where he worked in a business with his father and brother to export farm produce to England, escaped from St Malo on the last boat to leave for England just two hours before the arrival of the German armed forces. On 22nd April 1941 he was working for the Forestry Commission in South Devon.

While he was overseeing the forestry gang in one of the plantations about 12 miles outside Plymouth, he was talking to two of the foresters when there was a loud shout from another man who had been preparing one of the trees for felling. A sudden gust of wind had caught the tree and blew this towards my father and one of the Norwegians. But there was insufficient warning and the tree crashed to the ground, with my father underneath! In those days there was no nearby ambulance, no National Health Service and few doctors in the country areas, as many were serving with the armed forces. The forestry gang carried my father to a ride in the woods and, by tying a tarpaulin across the back of an open lorry, they made a makeshift stretcher on which they were able to take him to the Greenbank Hospital in Plymouth.

On arrival at the hospital he was carried into a ward and the men returned to Holbeton with the news of the accident. At first it was not known exactly what he had suffered, but the men had seen his smashed face with blood coming out of his mouth. One of his legs was seen to be broken and at least some of his ribs were also thought to be broken.

The previous night Plymouth had suffered from another air raid and the hospital staff were under enormous pressure to deal with those who had been injured in the bombing. There seemed to be little point in spending much time with some poor man who had had a tree felled on him and who did not seem to have much chance of survival! He was gently ‘cleaned up’ and told that they would come for him later for X-rays, which would determine what part of his body needed priority attention.

A few hours later the air raid sirens sounded again to warn the local populace of the return of the German bombers! As the bombs started to fall, the Sister of the ward called to ‘all those who can walk’ to follow one of the nurses down to the basement, which had been converted into an air raid shelter. ‘Those of you who are unable to walk had better get underneath your beds — and those of you who can not move will have to stay where you are — and you had better say some prayers!’ Dad was one of those who could not move!

That night a wing of the hospital was hit and the hospital was at full stretch trying to deal with the injured from all over the city.

The following morning the nurses were, by all accounts, quite surprised to find my father was still very much alive, and when they took the X-rays they found that his injuries were not as serious as at first thought. He had a broken leg, but that could be put in plaster. The tree which had left him with a ‘smashed and bloody face’ had, fortunately, not done any damage to his skull - although it had broken several teeth and his right cheek bone. Much of the blood had come from this and he seemed to be able to breathe, albeit with a little difficulty.
When my mother telephoned the hospital at mid-day she was told the results of the X-rays and the steps which had been taken to put his leg in plaster and to bind up his chest and head. Having heard of the bad air raid during the night she asked whether he could be released if she could arrange to collect him and to care for him at home. The hospital staff were delighted to have another bed to offer those who were still being brought in as the searches continued for those who had been buried during the bombing raid.

At this point Eric Haslehurst worked wonders. He was able to find an ambulance of sorts and they drove to the hospital to collect my father and take him back to Efford House. But even that simple statement does not explain the problems which they encountered in weaving a way through the war damaged streets in the nearby areas of the city, which had suffered enormous damage during the previous night’s bombing.

I feel that at this point I should record that after the bombing of Plymouth on 21st and 22nd April 1941 there was yet another major bombing raid on the following night. Those raids were to be followed by two more nights of bombing the next week, which together resulted in the destruction of virtually every property in the City Centre. Plymouth had the unenviable record at the end of the war of being reputed to have suffered more bomb damage than any other city in the country, when comparing its population with the population of other severely damaged cities.

The City records state that in those five nights at the end of April a total of 590 civilians were killed, 427 serious casualties were detained in hospital and double that number of ‘walking wounded’ were treated at out-patients departments. The German bombers dropped about 1,140 high explosive bombs, 17 parachute mines and tens of thousands of incendiaries. On the first three nights the incendiary bombs started 1,378 fires while in the two nights of the following week over 932 fires continued the mass destruction.

As the incendiaries rained down on the city night after night the local fire-fighters did their best, but casualties were heavy. The fire-fighting forces of England had never been organised to deal with such mass destruction. When distant fire-fighting teams arrived in Plymouth to give support to the local forces they found that their equipment would not fit the City hydrants and the fires in the City Centre had to be left to burn themselves out. This story has been graphically told in the book 'Plymouth Blitz — The Story of the Raids'.

But during all of this Dad was brought home and to us, as children, he seemed to be all right. He was to be nursed over the following weeks by my mother and the housemaid, with occasional visits from the local doctor and nurse.

A few days later my sister and I returned by train to our schools in Shropshire and we had little knowledge of his recovery during the next ten weeks. When we returned to Devon for the summer holidays we found him able to walk with a crutch. His face was still discoloured and his right eye seemed to be of no use to him. His cheekbone had also been broken and this had resulted in the loss of support for his right eye, which had dropped slightly in its socket thus giving him double vision. To overcome this, the optician had fitted his spectacles with frosted glass to the right lens — or ‘lavatory glass’ as we teased him! Gradually however, over the next ten to fifteen years, nature helped and in time the facial muscles slowly exerted an upward lift so that his right eye was raised in its socket. The double vision ceased and he was able to do away with the frosted glass to the right lens in his spectacles. In those days, of course, nobody even thought of a claim for industrial injury!

Within a couple of weeks of his being fetched from the hospital he had insisted that one of the forestry workers called to see him every day to give him a report on the progress of their work and to discuss the work which was to be done during the next few days. It was an indication of the respect in which he was held by those workers that the production of the pit-props during his absence did not fall at all. Quite soon he was able to be taken in his car to the woods to see for himself how it was all going.

[For further accounts of this family’s life and times, read Val Insley’s book 'A Family’s History', privately published in 2001]

This story was submitted to the People’s War site by Becky Barugh of the BBC Radio Shropshire CSV Action desk on behalf of Val B. Insley and has been added to the site with his permission. The author fully understands the site’s terms and conditions.

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