Hello, History: The London (Part 4)

In our Hello, History series, we turn back the clock to look at significant periods for the emergency services.

Laura Blott is an MA student in Public History at Royal Holloway, University of London.

She’s agreed to take us on a whistle-stop tour of The Royal London Hospital during the Second World War, detailing the impact of the Emergency Medical Service from 1939 to 1941.  Catch up on Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3!

The shock of the attacks in September prompted a hurried evacuation of as many patients as possible.  Attacks were not just focussed on the docks but on London itself. On the 7th of September 1940, a bomb was dropped very close to ‘The London’,

“A bomb fell at the end gates. Away went the windows of the long facade, and the great Elliot clock face, which told the time for one-hundred-and-eighty-three years, became just a large cavity.”

‘The London’ had its own physical problems as well as having to deal with the large number of casualties that began to pour in. The raid continued throughout the night and luckily, although the Alexandra and Luckes nurses’ homes were hit, no-one was hurt and the fire was quickly extinguished. Clark-Kennedy recalls how, “Water had got into the gas pipes and breakfast the next morning was cooked on a battery of primus stoves.” The efforts of The London Hospital staff did not waver and the spirit displayed was invaluable to those who were injured in the attacks. ‘The London’ had played its part in the Battle of Britain which eventually repelled the Luftwaffe.

While such raids were being carried out, it was difficult to resume the practice of evacuation under the Emergency Medical service. In a nurses review of air-raid casualties in 1941, ‘old Londoners’ were told of the interrupted routines, “We planned that the patients be brought in on the now familiar green wire stretchers, splints applied, tea and perhaps cigarettes distributed; and then outside there would be many Green Line coaches waiting to convey these very ill and badly injured patients to the sector hospitals; meanwhile, the air raid would be in progress and travelling by road most unsuitable and dangerous.”

Longer nights and shorter days favoured the German bombers so keen to damage the East End of London. Raids continued through the winter of 1940 with many bombs falling in the Whitechapel and Aldgate areas as well as on the hospital. One bomb, “had fallen through the roof, exploded on the concrete floor of the dissecting room – even empty of dead bodies – and blown the bacteriology department to pieces.”

Students’ hostels were hit as were the gardens and even St Peter’s Infirmary which resulted in patients being transferred to, rather than from ‘The London’. There were several serious events during 1941 including damage to The London Chest Hospital, and Mann’s brewery but the London was always there to cater for the sick and injured. It is a miracle that ‘The London’ survived to the extent that it did considering its location. A further miracle was perhaps Hitler’s change of focus away from the destruction of London and towards the invasion of Russia in May.

Although major challenges had been thrown at ‘The London’, it had, in fact, reigned supreme as a medical service. It had coped with being hit eight times with high explosives, two fires had been caused by incendiary bombs and still none of the staff from surgeon to ‘scrubber’ had been seriously injured. ‘The London’ had admitted one-thousand-one-hundred-and-thirty casualties and although this was a lot less than was anticipated prior to the war, it was nevertheless a grand case to deal with. The sector hospitals no doubt helped to relieve ‘The London’. Many serious casualties had been transferred for safe treatment.  The reduced number of beds meant that not only were patients in safer surroundings but that the hospital also benefitted financially as the ministry paid for all Emergency Medical Service beds used throughout the war.

As much as ‘The London’ was being knocked down by bombs, it was still on its feet and prepared to do what was necessary to improve the health of the suffering in East London and beyond to Sectors I and II. Horace Sanders very aptly commented on the attitude of ‘The London’. He wrote, “The physical aspect of The London is changed today by war, but its spirit is unchanged. Today with most of its great staff dispersed to other hospitals and centres, together with much of its wonderful scientific equipment, the hospital, dressed in its black-out clothes, stands in readiness…to receive civilian casualties.”

Part 5 will be published next week!

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