SECOND WORLD WAR
Written by Steve Lawes, CW+ Heritage Officer
“…we were up on the roof and an incendiary bomb came flaming down, so my colleague, he was quicker than me, got a spade and put it in a bucket of sand, put it out.”6
The Borough of Westminster was a hive of activity during World War II; due to its central location in national politics, the area was a key target for German bombers. During the conflict, over 1,400 bombs were dropped in the Westminster area alone, placing major strain on the hospital and its resources.1 The intense bombing still has an effect today – in 2017, the areas of Westminster and Waterloo shut down completely after an unexploded bomb was found in the Thames!2 Westminster Hospital itself was struck by three bombs during the War; two, amazingly, did not explode. The third landed across the road from the hospital and the explosion caused windows to blow out and a few wards to collapse; miraculously, there were no casualties.3 A large fragment of one of the unexploded bombs is still held in the hospital’s archive today.
St. Stephen’s Hospital – which sat on the site of the current Chelsea and Westminster Hospital – suffered substantial bomb damage but remained open for the duration of the conflict. The workhouse accommodation was used to house European refugees who had fled their homelands.4 St Mary Abbots hospital was also partially destroyed by bombing, as captured by this witness account from the BBC’s People’s War project. Around 20 people are thought to have perished during these bombings.5
At the close of the war, a group of 96 medical students from various London hospitals (including 11 from the Westminster Medical School) volunteered to go to the Netherlands to give medical assistance to civilians. At the last minute, it was decided that the group would be diverted to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in North-East Germany. The camp is best known as the place where Anne Frank lived out her final days. One of the group, Michael John Hargrave, kept a diary of his experience of the month spent at the camp, which was published in 2014. The medical students were tasked with cleaning the huts and converting them into liveable accommodation and temporary hospitals, separating the living from the dead, and healing the survivors alongside an international team of nurses. Of the 96 London students, four died from typhus and tuberculosis, both of which were rife at the camp. Hargrave estimated that around 17,000 people were in the camp needing medical assistance.7
Along with the trauma and catastrophe, the war brought the hospital community together. It was in March 1940 that a favourite tradition of the Westminster Medical School begun: the now famous Shrove Tuesday dinner. Since its beginning during the war, the dinner for final year medical students going into their exams has occurred every year uninterrupted. Each year at this dinner, a guest speaker – normally an eminent professor or doctor – gives a talk, and a member of the audience draws a caricature of them. All the guests present sign the caricature and it is hung proudly in the Lower Ground floor corridor of the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital today. The evening also features entertainment and a banquet.
Although, thankfully, there have been no more major conflicts around the globe in which medical teams from the Westminster Hospital, or Chelsea and Westminster Hospital, have had to assist. However, both hospitals have played a role in various local catastrophes and one-off events of national significance, including moments of civil unrest and terrorist bombings. These have included the 1973 Horseferry Road car bombing, the 1981 IRA bombing of Chelsea Barracks, the Victoria Train Station bombing and the 2005 London terrorist attack.
As we can see, the hospital has had to play a pivotal role in some testing times, both internationally and locally. The staff and volunteers from the hospital who have served during these wars are a credit to Westminster and should not be forgotten.
6 Dr John Brennan, former surgeon at Westminster Hospital, discussing his memories of incendiary bomb duty during World War 2.