Their finest hours: Hospitals that defied terror of the Norwich Blitz
15:00 06 May 2014
As a new exhibition prepares to open this week saluting the role of nursing in wartime, we look back to the days when Norwich’s hospitals were in the line of fire.
It was a night of high drama leavened by an unexpected transfusion of comedy. Even 70 years on, Ann Gibbs couldn’t help laughing at the memory of it all.
The setting was the Norfolk & Norwich Hospital at the height of the city’s blitz.
Incendiary fires had forced the mass evacuation of patients who lay, tended by nurses, on the forecourt while smoke billowed behind them.
As the rescue effort gave way to damage limitation, she recalled how tense hours fraught with potential disaster suddenly descended into farce with a scene that wouldn’t have been out of place in Carry on Nurse.
From somewhere amid the clutter of beds and stretchers covering the front lawn, she remembered hearing one of the patients call out: “Nurse, we’ve left our teeth behind!”
It was the signal for one of the most remarkable, if more ridiculous, acts of selfless devotion performed by nurses in wartime Norwich.
For within moments, staff who had only just escaped the blitzed hospital, wheeling patients out of smoke-filled wards without thought for their own safety, were heading back into the still-burning building not to save lives but to salvage a load of false teeth!
Ann Gibbs was one of those who dashed inside the hospital, its darkened corridors filled with smoke and swilling with water from the attempts to douse the flames.
“I went off to Ward 7 with a trolley and just rushed round, collecting all the teeth that were in enamel mugs on the lockers,” she recalled.
In her hurry, however, she neglected one thing. “I never thought to see what order I was getting them,” she explained. And she was not alone. The result was chaos. “No one knew whose teeth belonged to who,” Ann blushed before letting out a half-strangled laugh. “They were all trying on each other’s teeth. It was really quite funny.”
As an example of humour in the face of adversity, that scene, in the midst of the worst fire-bomb assault on Norwich during the Second World War, took some beating.
It has stayed with me ever since I heard it, while carrying out research for a book I was writing about the 1942 air raids on the city. Not merely because of its comic element, but because it seemed to me in a strange way to typify a selfless devotion to duty worthy of recognition.
That was why I was only too happy to oblige when asked to help with the staging of a new display at the Norfolk & Norwich University Hospital honouring the work of local nurses and midwives during two world wars.
Inspired by the commemorations to mark the centenary of the First World War and the 75th anniversary of the outbreak of the Second World War, the exhibition, timed to coincide with Nurses’ and Midwives’ Day, was the brainchild of Emma McKay, the hospital trust’s director of nursing.
As an augury to the hospital’s efforts to help honour the memory of Norfolk nurse Edith Cavell’s brave sacrifice, the display will focus on the wider work performed closer to home by hundreds of unsung nursing heroes.
“You can’t help but have a tremendous admiration for those nurses working with limited technology, under very difficult circumstances, yet determined to do the very best they could,” says Emma.
“We admire and can’t quite comprehend how they got through all of that, but then nurses are that sort of character. They make do with the best they’ve got available.
“When we plan for any big emergency or major accident everyone pulls together. So, while it’s hard to imagine what they endured, we can empathise with them.”
To Emma Jarvis, the hospital’s arts co-ordinator in charge of organising the display, the ‘then and now’ parallels are all too apparent. “What it shows me,” she says, “is that while much has changed, the essence of care has remained the same.”
But that doesn’t stop her marvelling at the dangers and hardships faced and overcome. “It really makes you think,” she says as she looks at photographs of Norwich hospitals reduced to ruins. “It’s scary, completely terrifying, to imagine having to try to carry on as normal with bombs coming down.”
Such images, together with documents from the hospital’s own archives and memorabilia loaned by members of the local Nurses’ League, help shine a light on one of the darkest period’s in the city’s recent history.
The First World War had been bad enough. Between its inception in April 1915 and the end of the war, the 2,500-bed Thorpe War Hospital, which was established on the site of the county asylum, treated 45,000 injured and seriously wounded troops.
Many more sick and less seriously wounded cases were dealt with in a myriad of smaller Red Cross hospitals which, together with an array of convalescent homes, sprang up all over Norfolk.
But, hard-pressed though medical staff were to cope with the volume of work, at least they were able to do so in relative peace and security, with only the occasional interruption from the enemy.
It was an altogether different story 25 years later. Not only were nurses faced with the challenge of treating servicemen wounded in the fighting, but they were increasingly called upon to care for men, women and children injured in an aerial onslaught that for the first time put their own hospitals in the firing line.
The air attacks, which gave a frightening new dimension to the 1939-45 conflict, began, so far as Norwich was concerned, on July 9, 1940. A daylight raid, carried out without warning, on riverside factories resulted in the city’s first civilian fatalities and 97 casualties, more than half of whom were serious enough to be admitted to hospital.
But that was nothing compared with the challenges faced in the spring and summer of 1942 during what became known as the Baedeker Blitz, a series of retaliatory raids mounted by Germany against cultural centres in England in revenge for the RAF’s relentless bombing campaign.
Over the course of two raids in three nights at the end of April, Norwich sustained heavy damage and its citizens suffered more than 900 casualties, a figure that dwarfed the 400-plus beds set aside at the Norfolk & Norwich Hospital, the Woodlands Corporation Hospital, the Jenny Lind Children’s Hospital and the two psychiatric hospitals at Hellesdon and Thorpe.
Nursing staff toiled tirelessly to cope with the sudden influx of patients. At the Norfolk & Norwich alone, some 118 people, many of them smothered in dust and soot from their ruined houses, were admitted with a further 137 treated as out-patients.
Among those rushed off their feet in the hospital’s Casualty department was a 21-year-old newly-qualified staff nurse, Janet Hardingham.
“Everywhere was packed with people,” she told me years later. “We only had three little rooms in Casualty… so space was very limited. Some were very badly disfigured.
“One patient I’ve never forgotten had a dreadful spike of wood through his face. But the organisation was wonderful. Doctors would briefly examine them and say, ‘take him to the theatre’ or ‘take her to that ward’, and it was all done very speedily.”
The pressure was intensified by damage to the Woodlands Hospital. A former Victorian workhouse, it would have the dubious distinction of suffering the singular misfortune of being hit by bombs in each of the first three major attacks carried out against Norwich in April and May 1942.
The first of these was the worst. As well as wreaking grievous damage to the hospital itself, 10 patients were killed by a blast while nursing staff were in the process of shepherding them to safety.
Throughout the assault staff at the hospital had displayed courage of the highest order, evacuating patients and fighting fires at no small risk to themselves. It was a wonderful example of selflessness that would be repeated at the Norfolk & Norwich two months later when the city was deluged with 15,000-20,000 incendiaries in the space of 35 minutes.
On a warm June night when fires raged out of control across Norwich, the city’s hospitals suffered as never before.
In Heigham Grove, the City Maternity Home was demolished by a high explosive bomb which killed an air raid warden.
Mercifully, all of the mothers, babies and midwives had taken shelter in a specially reinforced room and were later led away unharmed.
Theirs was a narrow escape matched by the patients and staff at the Norfolk & Norwich Hospital in St Stephen’s. During the previous raids, the hospital had got off relatively lightly.
All of that changed, however, on the night of June 26/27, 1942. An estimated 150 incendiaries scattered across the hospital site sparked a series of unstoppable fires. In no time, the roofs above the central operating theatres, two neighbouring wards and a nearby nurses’ home were ablaze. There was no choice but to carry out a complete evacuation – no easy task.
Once more, however, the hospital staff, including many nurses in their early 20s, proved equal to the challenge.
Years later, Janet Hardingham summed up the mood: “You were just told to get people out as quickly as you could and you did it. Your only thought was to get everybody clear.”
Soldiers from a Scottish unit billeted nearby joined a rescue effort that included Civil Defence volunteers and an assortment of ancillary hospital workers.
Ann Gibbs, an 18-year-old trainee nurse at the time, recalled being woken to help. “There wasn’t time to think,” she said. “You were just concerned about keeping everybody alive. We had hurricane lamps to see us round and all those patients that could be moved were brought down into the basement.”
It proved only a temporary refuge. Amid fears that the burning building might collapse, and with water intended to quell the fires flooding in, a second evacuation was ordered into the open.
Yet again, everyone rallied round. With doctors and ward sisters organising, junior nurses and porters joined with soldiers and Civil Defence workers to lead and carry the patients to safety.
“I don’t remember any panic,” Janet Hardingham told me, “and I certainly don’t recall feeling scared. You had a job to do and you were doing it. You didn’t think about anything else. And, in any case, you don’t see fear when you’re young as we were.”
In the most adverse of circumstances imaginable, the entire hospital had been evacuated without further injury to any of the 200 patients, a feat that bore ample testimony to the cool courage displayed.
If ever there was ‘a finest hour’ for wartime nurses in Norwich, this was surely it.
By 4am, most of the patients, “begrimed with smoke and soot”, had left the fire-ravaged buildings behind and were on their way to new hospitals.
Some of them even had the right false teeth!
• The Nursing at War exhibition at the Norfolk & Norwich University Hospital runs for four months starting on Thursday and will feature in the East Atrium and in displays along the main corridor serving all the wards in the East, West and Centre Blocks on Level 1.
• Steve Snelling is the author of Norwich: A Shattered City, published by Halsgrove.