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KC2 War Starts

by Charlie

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Archive List > United Kingdom > London

Contributed by 
Charlie
People in story: 
Kitty Calcutt
Location of story: 
on leave from Bart’s Hospital in London
Article ID: 
A1114985
Contributed on: 
19 July 2003

I was on leave from Bart’s Hospital in London when war broke out. Of course we all knew that it was a possibility but were still hoping that a miracle might happen. We heard that war would be declared on Germany if they didn’t stop annexing their neighbours in Europe.
I was back in Cheltenham with Mother and hoping for 2 wonderful weeks doing nothing. I had been in training for 3 years and just taken my hospital final exams that we had to pass before taking the state final (S.R.N.) in the autumn.
The deadline was not met and the dreaded statement was read out on the midday news on the radio to say that the war had started. Our hearts went into our boots but we had to do something. I phoned London and was told to continue my leave and I would be told where to go by the end of it. Mother was the senior officer of one of the Women’s divisions of the St John’s Ambulance, which at the time ran the civil ambulances of the town. She had to sleep at the ambulance HQ several times a week but was also told to continue as normal. This reprieve lasted a few days. We went for walks with her dogs and carried on as a normal holiday with lovely weather.
Then a phone call came to say that a train load of evacuees was coming from Birmingham all from old people’s homes and were to be taken up to Salterly Grange on Leckhampton Hill by a fleet of ambulances and cars. This was an isolation hospital for TB patients on top of the hill but had been closed and out of use for a period of several years.
I went down to Malvern Road station with Mother to help and we were allocated two old ladies to transport. Some of the St John men helped getting them into the ambulance. One was simply enormous and couldn’t move at all. She must have weighed at least 20 stone.
When we arrived at Salterly Grange, of course, all the staff had been hastily recruited and were overwhelmed. They asked us to get our people into bed. Well, we had to ask for help and this lady was finally rolled off the stretcher she had been lying on all the way from Birmingham. She sighed and thanked us for the relief of being in a bed and said, “I feel like I’ve been lying on wire netting”. She had. She had been put on a stretcher which had had the canvas removed and wire netting put in its place for use in case of gas attacks in which case it would have been easier to decontaminate than canvas.
The poor lady had the marks of the wire all over her back. I often think about her even now, many years on, but I never saw her again as I was recalled back to work.
Bart’s Hospital had been completely re-organised. Accidents and emergencies only were being treated in London and the main bulk of the patients had to join all the “Staff in training” at Hill End — an evacuated mental hospital, which we took over at St Albans.
I can still remember the amazing change from the city of London. We were out in the country instead of the city, with fresh air and extensive gardens. There were no patients yet, but a lot of cleaning up to be done. Some of the original staff from the mental hospital remained to help us, but their outlook on nursing wasn’t the same as ours. I remember one ward sister saying that all illnesses originated in the brain!
All windows were blocked to 6 inches of opening. All main doors locked. The bathrooms had removable taps and side rooms had no handles on the inside of the doors. Added to this, all windows had to have black out. Somebody’s good idea was to have three sheets of 3 ply to cover the window with ropes attached to lift them to hang horizontal in the daytime and drop at night. This was a very clumsy idea and caused some bruising if done in a hurry.
We had loads of equipment delivered which wasn’t quite applicable. The first was a load of children’s bedpans. Another, surgical instruments which were too big to go in the dishes they were meant to be sterilised in. But, on the whole, we got going and by October were getting patients ferried out to us from London.
There were funny moments when the press came and wanted to have photographs of us selling poppies to patients for November 11th. The only patients we had were rejects from the army who were not fit enough for call up and accident victims who had fallen off the back of army lorries or epileptics. We dressed them up with crutches and slings and I have the photograph, which they took, to prove it.
Eventually things settled down. Some of us went round the local houses buying old bikes so that we could get out when off duty. Then we had more patients straight from units stationed in our area. They were still accident or sickness, no war casualties.
All staff in training was now stationed at Hill End. I was in the set that had almost finished training, having taken the hospital final exam. We took the state final (S.R.N.) in the autumn. Luckily I passed, so was transferred back to London.
What a change.
Wards on the 4th floor were closed and the beds left made up in case of emergency. Also, the ground floor was the same, because of air attack. Only the 1st and 2nd floors and, of course, outpatients were working.
I was put on night duty and the windows were hung with heavy black curtains. There were strict orders not to go behind them. Any patients that were fit to move, were taken out to Hill End every morning to leave space for new ones to be admitted.
December came and with it the bombing started. One night a paper warehouse was hit near us, and the air was full of little burning bits of paper in a firestorm. The buildings of the hospital had flat roofs. All male staff not on other duty were up there with stirrup pumps putting out and preventing fires. Off duty doctors, students, porters and cleaners all did this job. Extra doctors were in casualty and so were nurses.
At the end of December there was the bad night, I think it was the 29th December when we were in the centre of a ring of fires. This was the night when St Paul’s was badly hit and the whole road past the hospital was clogged with hosepipes leading to the Thames which was at low tide and about a mile away.
I still have the letter that I sent to my mother to reassure her I was alright:

Bart’s, Monday.
Darling — Just to let you know that we are quite alright here. The hospital had a good many incendiary bombs last night, but all put out without damage. Masses of fires all around us and we had to evacuate one block at 3 am and sent over 100 patients out to the country by converted buses. There is only one road open away from here but we are in no danger as the fires all around are under control.
Don’t try to ring up anywhere in London as the central telegraph office has been hit and hardly anything except terribly urgent things can get through.
I have not seen the morning papers, if any, so don’t know what they say. But, I repeat, we are alright. Though we were minus lights and gas last night and water is very short.
Cheerio Darling — This is war and we certainly are doing something anyway.
All love darling. I hope the parcel gets to you alright.
Love Kitty.

The only way out was under St John’s Gate to the North and ambulances were called in the middle of the night to take any patient who was fit enough to travel. All these ambulances had been adapted for carrying victims of gas attacks which had come at the end of the 1914-18 war. They were very uncomfortable to lie on but all that was available. Their beds were taken by the night casualties.
The one I remember best was the man in charge of the toilets at the Bank Underground Station who had bad injuries. I remember he was in danger of loosing his leg. Most of the others casualties were men who were waiting to go in to the toilet
In the morning we heard tales of the chaos amongst the people who had spent the night with their families in the underground trying to sleep. The bomb had found the opening of the stairs to the underground and exploded at the bottom in the men’s toilets. All the platforms had been provided with 3 tier bunks and local residents came down when it got dark, bringing bedding and their own food. They all had to go home in the daytime and were glad of some fresh air.
During this time the nurse’s home was not considered safe, so day staff slept in the basement carrying their bedding down every evening. They had a very uncomfortable time as the ventilation was very bad and the makeshift beds very crowded. We were luckier as there was a bridge way from the top floor of the nurses home to the top floor of the wards, which had beds made up but not occupied so we were told to take our bedding and sleep over there in the day.

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