Thursday, 11 December 2014

Dispatches from the RHC: Gerry Farmer on life, love and laughter

Blog post by Kate Monro.  Kate is an author, journalist & researcher and our current writer-in-residence. Her aim is to search beneath the surface of our traditional military history and tell more personal stories about the lives of our soldiers. 

Chelsea Pensioner Gerry Farmer

Gerry Farmer, as he is about to reveal, has special powers. If he shuts his eyes, he can relive any moment of his eighty-one years in full Technicolor detail. The funny thing is that if I shut my eyes and listen to Gerry, I can have an imaginary conversation with Michael Caine. Gerry was born in Bethnal Green, Mr Caine across the way in Rotherhithe. The similarity and cadence of their shared cockney twang is unnerving in a pleasing fashion.

But this is not all that binds these two characters together. Both Gerry and Michael, or Maurice Micklewhite as he was known, were born in 1933 and conscripted into the army in 1952. They both joined the Royal Fusiliers and at the tender age of 18, travelled further by sea than most of us will in a lifetime. It took five weeks to sail from London to Korea by boat and when they did, these two young men found themselves attending not just an ‘emergency’ but a full blown conflict.  The Korean War is often referred to as the ‘forgotten war’. Sandwiched between the Second World War and Vietnam, hidden from view in a pre-internet age, thousands of miles away in a country that people knew little about, a phenomenal amount of civilian and military lives were lost. So many different countries were involved that it is impossible to give a precise figure but let me put it to you this way: the figures are in the millions.

On a cheerier note, although they were not in the same company and their acquaintance was passing, Gerry remembers Morris Micklewhite revealing his acting ambitions to his fellow soldiers. ‘This seemed a bit funny to us’ Gerry recalls. ‘It was a lovely thing to want to do but it wasn't known to us’. Maurice Micklewhite may just have told his fellow soldiers he was planning a trip to Mars; such was their limited experience of life and the potential for exciting opportunities open to young men (or women) in 1952. One turned 18, became an adult and grabbed whatever job you could.

Speaking of work, Gerry might be an 81-year-old man now but he’s not sitting around twiddling his thumbs. He is a prolific writer. ‘I'm like a lending library around here’ he says of the growing collection of stories and books he pens and lends to his fellow in-pensioners, some of whom are quite irate when he kills off a character that they like.

‘I see the beauty in something like a flash of lightening and a thunder clap’ says Gerry. An ex-soldier with the heart of an artist, he also has useful information to impart about marriage. With 58 years practice under his belt, he knows what he’s talking about:

I was named after an actor called Gerald Du Maurier that my mum liked. I stuck with Gerry because Gerald wasn't the sort of name to go into the Army with. Well that’s what we thought. Bethnal Green was a poor area. We were poor. But would you believe it? We came from the posh part. The other side of the tracks and my mum really thought we were something. I was always in a sailor suit.
Gerry and his mother

I didn't want to go into the army. Not at all.  I’d started training to be a leather cutter but when you became 18, all the boys had to go into the forces and they kept your job open for you. We did six weeks training at the Tower of London. My father wasn't happy about that. He kept saying ‘wait until you get in the Army. You’ll be miles away’ because he was convinced my mum treated me too well. When the envelope come and it said ‘Tower of London’, he said ‘that’s not the Army. You can see it from here’. Which you could.

It wasn't a war to begin with. It was called an ‘emergency’. An ‘emergency’ is something that mothers didn't worry about so much and that’s what they said for a year and a half but it did become a war with a lot of casualties. We were never told we were going to Korea but we had an idea because we spent time in Germany digging trenches you could sleep in. We couldn't believe it. One minute we were young kids and the next I’d be out on patrol with four boys I was at school with. There were some tough boys in the Army but most of us wanted to do the job and go home.

I've never been in a lift since I came out of the Army. I used to blame it on my wife because it was terrible for a man to say ‘I can’t get in a lift’ so I’d say ‘my wife don’t like lifts’. She used to moan at me but I put it to her like this: I will get in but we have to take two spiders in a jar and let them out on the floor.

‘No way would I get in with spiders in the lift’ she’d say. ‘Well that’s how I feel about the lift’ which proves it’s a phobia. The reason I got claustrophobia in the Army is because I went out one night in a jeep with four guys. We’d been hacking away some telephone wiring in a valley. It was dark and we couldn't smoke but suddenly we must have been seen because mortar bombs started flying over. I was the driver and we got blown off the hill, rolled over and landed upside down in the Samichon River. The jeep sank to the bottom and we were trapped. I know that’s what did it because I didn't have a problem before.  I never knew it had affected me until I came home, got into a lift and thought I was going to die.

Gerry as a young man

They call it PTSD now but they didn't know about that in those days. When I finished up, there was an officer sitting at the table and he said ‘you’re discharged’. I walked out, stood at the door and I felt funny. I didn't feel right. So I went back in and I said ‘can I ask you Sir?’  He looked over his glasses, he wasn't really interested and I said ‘I don’t feel right, I feel ill and nervous’. He said ‘it’s what you've been through. That’s what it is but my advice to you is pull yourself together and get on with your life’.

Do you know what Korea actually means? It means ‘land of the morning calm’ and in the morning it was just like that. There was a low mist over the hills. It was beautiful. It’s quite a barren land though and the winters were freezing. Literally 43 degrees below on the Christmas I was there. You couldn't touch metal. Lorries froze up. You would wake up in the morning and couldn't open your eyes because the moisture on your eyelashes had frozen solid.

The army was great in a way because you ended up doing things that you didn't think you could. I could be blindfolded and take a gun apart and put it back together again. It was part of the training so that you could cope with the darkness.

I also liked it because I was good with people. I can talk and I like a laugh and a bit of banter and we was all from the same area in that regiment. We used to have a lot of fun and jokes. It wasn't all bad. There was fighting but there were boring times when you laid about in the sun, and the Chinese were doing the same but when it came to night time, I knew I had to go out in the valley and patrol and meet something or have a fight.

One night we were out on listening patrol when we heard footsteps and as far as that wall is there (my story teller points less than two metres away), a Chinese patrol went by. Now if we had even breathed they’d have shot us. They would have sprayed the place. It was only the undergrowth that protected us.

We’re still friends today, me and the guy I had that experience with. When he sees me now he comes and gives me a cuddle and I tell you what, we bonded that night. He says ‘do you remember?’ It was terrible but what it did was make you a better person than you really are. It made me more of a man than I know that I am. I am not brave but I went through that and I came out the other side of it and that's good isn't it. That what it did for me. I can be in here and hold my head up because I've seen a lot of action in Korea and I can be with all these guys here that have been in the war and I can feel good about it because I did something – something from nobody. They say don’t put yourself down but I keep saying I was only from Bethnal Green and guess what? I shook hands with Camilla on Founder’s Day. 

Most of us left Korea in the July but on the 12th June 1953, I got blown up by a mortar bomb. I was called to drive the Company Officer at 04:00 on this particular morning. At 05:10 we were driving to B Company. The Chinese could see us from the hills and they started mortar bombs. They were gradually getting nearer and the next thing I know, we got a direct hit. Luckily I didn’t have a seat belt on because otherwise I would have been trapped when we went over. I blew 40 yards away and the jeep about 20. It was a total wreck.

I was picked up by an American helicopter. I was lying there in another world. I couldn't breathe. I couldn't feel my left leg. I still can’t feel it all now. Guns were flying over our heads. When I woke up I could hear people talking foreign and I thought I had been captured by the Chinese but it turned out to be Norwegians talking in their own language.

I spent three weeks in an American Army hospital in Seoul and then onto to Japan to a British Commonwealth hospital where it took skin grafts, 3 operations and 2½ months to recover enough to get home.

I fell in love with the back of my wife. Can you believe that? I went to the factory to say hello to everybody and in the corner was Alice. She had auburn hair so I suppose that’s what might have done it but I fell in love with her without seeing her face. In fact I didn't know what she looked like for a week and then one day she came down the stairs and I thought ‘I have to try and go out with her’. It was pretty hard work. You know what it was like in the 50’s. It wasn't like now. It was hard to get a kiss in those days. The best part was that it suited me because it was romantic. It was something to look forward to. It was lovely.

If I shut my eyes, I can sit up in my berth when I'm a bit lonely, close my eyes and relive a day of any part of my life in colour. I can go out with my wife, I can go to Hastings or over to Devon just by shutting my eyes.  I can still see the first day I went out with my wife on our first date. The first time I sat outside the post office for 3½ hours at Bethnal Green Road because she didn't turn up I asked her the next morning, ‘what happened?’ And she said ‘I had something to do’. I thought to myself I am going to leave you alone now and a funny thing happened. You might know about this being a girl. There was a flirtatious girl in our office. I’d be cutting the leather and she would come down and lean over me to look at how I am cutting. I knew what she was on about. This particular day I picked her up in my arms and she was laughing and screaming and Alice came down the stairs, got half way and turned back. This friend of mine, he was a married man. He knew all about the things of life and he said to me ‘you've got her.

‘When you first came into the factory I didn't think you were all that’. That’s what my she said to me when I asked her years after. Later, I said ‘when you started loving me what made you love me?’ She said ‘you made me laugh’ and that was it. You make me laugh and when you think about that its good isn't it. Fifty-eight years of fun, laughter and happiness, three nice daughters and do you know what? It’s sad but it’s not sad because after 58 years, her last words on this earth were ‘I love you’. What more can you ask for than to be married 58 years to a girl that you love and she still loves you? Isn't that nice.
Gerry and his wife Alice

Back to top

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Chelsea Captain writes new composition for the Festival of Remembrance

Major Phil Shannon is one of our Captains of Invalids who looks after the welfare of the Chelsea Pensioners, however he also has a musical side.  

Having been a former Director of Music for the Welsh and Irish Guards, he assists with the running of the Royal Hospital Band and also arranges and composes in his spare time.

In this World War One centenary year Major Shannon has composed a special piece of music to remember the fallen at this year's Festival of Remembrance at the Royal Albert Hall, inspired by a moving poem:

“Last year, I was sent a poem called ‘When Duty Called’ by John Foster, the Vice President National Memorial Arboretum Branch Royal British Legion.  Having had two great uncles who fought on the Somme, one of whom won an award for gallantry, I was keen in this centenary year to honour all those who served and set the words to music. 

“The composition quickly took shape and is due to be performed by the massed bands of the Household Division at the Royal Albert Hall as part of this year’s Festival of Remembrance.  It will not be broadcast on this occasion but will hopefully be enjoyed by all who are present for the live performance."

To hear "When Duty Called" please click here

To mark the 1914 centenary

When duty called, they played their part,
So filled with hopes, so bold in heart.
These pals in arms were men and boys.
Lest we forget.

When battles raged in filth and mud,
They gave their best and always would
In times of need, they stood the test.
Lest we forget, lest we forget.

On foreign soil, they wrote goodbyes
In silent spells, with muffled cries.
Each start of day could mark the end.
Lest we forget.

With losses high and grieving hearts,
When victory came there were no parts
Where pain was gone or left aside.
Lest we forget, lest we forget.

The poppy shows our aim is clear
For lasting peace, not lives in fear.
When duty called they played their part,
So filled with hopes, so bold in heart.
Our men in arms, they gave their all
When duty called, when duty called.  
                                Words by T. John Foster

Back to top

Monday, 22 September 2014

Chelsea Pensioners get behind the Invictus Games

Captain of Invalids Lt Col Rupert Lucas’ blog on the Chelsea Pensioners’ unwavering support for injured service personnel during the first ever Invictus Games.   

Chelsea Pensioners: '#IAM behind Invictus London'

“The Invictus Games truly captured the nation’s hearts and all at the Royal Hospital Chelsea were thrilled to see the wonderful support given to the young, courageous veterans.

“Chelsea Pensioners were fully behind the games as soon as they were announced, including pensioner Alan Lee who lost his leg in World War II.  He met Invictus Games Team GB team hopeful Mike Goody who lost part of his leg in Afghanistan, to give him some advice before the tournament.  Their meeting, which included them comparing their prosthetic legs, was filmed for the BBC 2 documentary ‘Countdown to the Invictus Games’.

Chelsea Pensioner Alan Lee talking to Mike Goody

“Alan and fellow pensioners Ray, Jim, Joe, Jim and Marjorie joined members of the British Team at the Invictus Games on opening night.  Highlights of this wonderful ceremony included a brilliant speech by the driving force of the games HRH Prince Harry.

“A few days later a group of Chelsea Pensioners were also delighted to watch some exciting matches in the Wheelchair Rugby competition between the USA, Australia, Denmark, Great Britain and Italy. Great Britain eventually won the Gold Medal narrowly beating the USA in a gripping final.

Chelsea Pensioners in the Copperbox

“The Chelsea Pensioners were delighted to be able to offer their support and backing to all of the teams taking part.  The huge success of the first ever games was testament to the bravery and determination of the competitors, as well as the visionary leadership from HRH Prince Harry and his dedicated team.

“We look forward to supporting the next year’s games.”

The opening ceremony 

Back to top

Friday, 4 July 2014

A trip down memory lane

This week 12 Chelsea Pensioners visited the Lydd Ranges in Kent.  Captain of Invalids Lt Col Rupert Lucas accompanied them.

‘As a Captain of Invalids I oversee the welfare of Chelsea Pensioners, helping them with everything from health needs to finance.

‘One of the most enjoyable parts of my role is accompanying the Pensioners on visits, whether it be for ceremonial occasions, fundraisers or military events.

‘On Wednesday 12 Chelsea Pensioners were invited to visit Lydd Ranges, a military firing range near Romney.  We were hosted by Majors Rick Beven, the Senior Range Safety Officer, and Pat O’Reilly who runs the ranges and has been there for 23 years.

Chelsea Pensioners with Majors Rick Bevan and Pat O'Reilly

‘Soldiers of the Grenadier Guards and Welsh Guards were training there and we were lucky enough to spend part of the day talking with them.

‘Chelsea Pensioners Skippy Teasdale, Alan Collins and Jo Shorthall were introduced to the SA 80 Rifles, and Alan Goddard also got an opportunity to meet members of his old Regiment.

Chelsea Pensioner Alan Goddard with his old Regiment 

‘We then went to the Individual Battle Shooting Range where we watched soldiers from the Welsh Guards conduct field firing training before joining them for a delicious Range Stew Lunch.

‘Pensioner Barbara Whilds especially enjoyed the visit and said it was such a wonderful opportunity to see the regular army conducting operation training.

‘For Pensioner Steve Lovelock, who in the 1960s had lived near the Hythe Ranges, it was a trip down memory lane – he was shown his old house by non-other than the Mayor of Hythe!  

The delicious Range Stew lunch

‘The Royal Hospital Chelsea would like to thank everyone involved in making the Pensioners’ trip to Lydd Ranges such an enjoyable one.’

Back to top

Friday, 27 June 2014

My father, a Prisoner of War

This is the story of the actions of Stanley Shuter, soldier and Prisoner of War during World War I, as told by his son, Chelsea Pensioner John Shuter. 

'Stanley Shuter, his brother William and father William Henry, joined the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry (OBLI) during World War I.  By 1916, all three were serving on the Western Front but in different Battalions, namely the 3rd, 1st/4th and 2nd/4th.

‘My father Stanley wrote to his eldest brother suggesting that it was unfair on his step-mother that she should be left without all of her men.  The boys got together and petitioned that their Dad should be sent home. I have no record of what my grandfather thought of this, but in the end this middle-aged man was eventually posted back to England.

‘All survived the war, but my father was badly damaged. Here is his story:

John's father Stanley Shuter and his uncle William Shuter

‘The Allied attacks on the Western Front suffered unsustainable casualties in both the French and British armies in 1917. Thus, by the following spring, the British agreed to extend the line they held southwards into the longer line previously held by the French.

‘The latter, however, had not developed the continuous line of trenches so widely used elsewhere. The British 5th Army took over isolated redoubts, which were intended to support each other by fire.

‘However, on 21st March 1918, enemy shock troops stole through the foggy dawn to bypass the redoubts themselves and to press on far beyond.

‘The 2nd/4th Battalion of the Oxford and Bucks Light Infantry’s headquarters often sent out its signallers with orders for their own forward companies. On that day, Private Stanley Shuter was found to be suffering from Trench Foot, a form of rot which rendered him unfit for running messages. Thus when the big German breakthrough occurred, he was confined to telephone duties in the HQ dug-out.

‘The Germans, bypassing the Oxford’s HQ, broke through to the British Brigade HQ some miles in the rear who maintained phone contact until they themselves were overrun. This did, however, keep open the link with the Oxfords and the Divisional HQ several miles further until that too was overrun. Then they closed down and wished Shuter luck!

‘The few in Battalion HQ gradually faded away; even the Commanding Officer went off on a recce and was not seen there again. It later transpired that the CO had been wounded, captured and later escaped.

‘According to standing orders, Shuter, still at British HQ, smashed all the equipment and then came up to find German field guns at point blank range and aligned on the dug out entrance. He was of course captured, but in view of his condition he was after some delay sent to a German hospital.  Like thousands of others, he was reported ‘missing believed killed’.

‘After some five months, however, word reached the regiment and family in Oxford. He was alive – just!

‘Shortly before the war’s end, he, with other comrades, had been placed for farm work in detention near Freiburg, south Germany. Food was stolen from the fields and had to be eaten raw. Boiled stinging nettles were a luxury. The few who escaped walked some one hundred miles to arrive at Nancy, newly liberated by the Americans. Stanley quickly returned to England, he arrived weighing some six stone and having lost all his teeth at the age of twenty.

‘Stanley didn’t see active service in WWII, he’d retired from the army the year before it all started.  He was working as a printer in Oxford back then and spent a lot of the time locked up in a room on his own, printing secret codes for the Admiralty - a very important job.

John Shuter has been a Chelsea Pensioner for nine years

‘It took years for my father to tell me what had happened to him during the Great War.  Perhaps he told me because I went into World War II at 18 and a half, a similar age to him when he was sent abroad for the First World War.

'We were both awarded five medals each for our service in the Army.’

Labels: , , , , , , , ,

Back to top

Friday, 13 June 2014

“I’ve been moved from the seventeenth century to the twenty-first.”

Chelsea Pensioner Gordon ‘Sandy’ Sanders was one of the first pensioners to move into the newly refurbished Long Wards in the Royal Hospital Chelsea.   As part of the renovation programme all berths in the Long Wards are being updated from their original 1692 design of nine by nine foot rooms with only communal bathroom facilities, to newly refurbished rooms each with an en-suite bathroom, bedroom and study. 

Sandy, who served in the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers for 24 years, shares his account of life at the Royal Hospital and why he’s honoured to be staying in the Freemasons’ berth, which was officially opened by HRH The Duke of Kent KG last week.

HRH The Duke of Kent and Chelsea Pensioner Sandy at the Freemasons' berth opening ceremony

“My name is Gordon ‘Sandy’ Sanders.  I am 77 years of age and I am very proud to be a Chelsea Pensioner.  I’ve been at the Royal Hospital for about five and a half years now.  It was loneliness that made me come in; my wife died in 2007 and by the middle of 2008 I’d had enough of being on my own.

“We’d been married 48 years and after that length of time your spouse is everything to you.  After her death I was so lonely and I was talking to my niece about how was feeling and she mentioned the Royal Hospital Chelsea to me.  Her father-in-law was already here and she put me in touch with him.  That was it really; I came down, met Pat, did my four-day stay and moved in on 5 January 2009.

“One of the best things about living here is the comradeship and the banter that goes with it.  The banter in the Army never changes; it really doesn’t matter if you’re 19-years-old or 90.  Like most people here I settled in very quickly because it’s a recall to a life you’ve already lived.  Once you’ve hit the route for a week or two, you’re in it forever.  We’re all completely and utterly Khaki institionalised.  

“I spend half of my week helping the fundraising team raise money for the Royal Hospital.  Otherwise I got out shopping or meet my girlfriend who lives nearby.  We also get invited out all over the place as Chelsea Pensioners, not just locally but nationally and internationally.  I’ve been to the Channel Islands a couple of times and got invited to a lot of events for HM The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee.   

“Wearing the scarlet uniforms we do get lots of attention, and to be honest I do find it a bit embarrassing sometimes.  The extroverts among us love it though.

“There isn’t anywhere else I’d rather be at this point in my life.  There’s nowhere else that compares with here; as a home and sheltered accommodation, it’s beyond reproach.  

“The new accommodation here is no less than fantastic.  I’ve been moved from the 17th to the 21st century.  It’s a different world compared to the old block, it was 87 paces to the communal bathroom from my room before.

Sandy in his newly refurbished berth

“I was very pleased when I was selected to go in the Freemasons berth at the Hospital, it really was quite an honour.  The Freemasons’ Grand Charity have been very generous and have given a number of donations over the years, including £50,000 for the Long Wards refurbishment.  

“I’m a member of the Freemasons myself; I joined when I came out of the Army.  It was a substitute fraternity to me and the nearest thing to the Army that I found from the friendship point of view and of course there was a lot of meaning to it too.  As a charity organisation itself, it is probably the biggest in the country. 

“I’ve tried to develop the links with the Freemasons and the Royal Hospital over the years and I am very grateful for their ongoing support.   Like most Pensioners here, there’s nowhere else I’d rather be.” 

Back to top

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

The Day a Deadly V2 Hit The Royal Hospital Chelsea

On 3rd January 1945, a German V2 struck the Royal Hospital Chelsea with devastating consequences. Here follows the first-hand account of that attack from a survivor; Ralph May. Ralph’s father, Captain Geoffrey May MC, who lost a leg at Gallipoli, was a Captain of Invalids at the Royal Hospital between 1931 and 1956.

Captain G. C. May MC pictured at the Royal Hospital Chelsea 

‘I was 17½ in January 1945. I had enlisted in the Army in York, from school, as early as I could (I think I was 17 ¼) as I did not want to be sent as a Bevin Boy down the mines. If you volunteered for the Army you avoided this. I was studying for Higher Certificate but I knew I would leave at the end of the school year in 1945, on a course which was to last two years, and I knew had little chance of passing. I had my medical and told the recruiters that they could take me into the Army now - but they told me that as I was still at school, they would not call me up until I was 18. In the meantime I was on the Reserve.

‘I started the Christmas holidays with a party of boys from the school, with Fr Jerome Lambert, at Watt's Sea School at Bursledon on the Hamble. We had been there the year before in December 1943 and learnt seamanship on a steam yacht on which we did various duties as crew, steaming around the Solent. There were two seagoing yachts at the school and, with Jerome, we also sailed around the Solent which was exciting as the area was full of landing craft and, although we did not know what they were for, Caissons for the Mulberry Harbour anchored in the Solent. On our second year, 1944, we spent most of the time in the yachts and went over to Cowes where we got fogbound (the same fog that came down over the Battle of the Bulge in Belgium). We spent two nights at Quarr Abbey, which at that time, was almost entirely manned by French Monks. Jerome had been sent there as a young monk to learn French. The Solent was almost deserted in contrast with the previous year, December 1943.

‘We were home in time for Christmas and sometime before Christmas, my parents and I went to the theatre. London was being bombarded with VIs and V2s, but one never thought that anything would damage us. On the way home, in the black out, we caught a bus and were on the way down Whitehall, when we heard one of the V1s and to our horror the engine stopped and· we all, except my father, got ·onto the floor. The V1 exploded somewhere we thought in St. James' Park or that way and we all got up. My father said he could not get down on the floor with his one leg, and anyway if it was going to hit us there was nothing he could do about it. The driver lost his nerve and said he was going back to the garage and we all had to get out. So there we were in the middle of Whitehall, in the blackout, no taxis, and I wondered how I was going to get my parents’ home. By the Grace of God, another bus came along, a 39, and we got home! We spent Christmas Day at the Dower House and I have a picture of my parents getting into the car at the RHC to go.

The Mays setting off to have lunch with family 10 days before tragedy struck

‘On the morning of the 3rd January, my father had to go to the funeral of Captain Lockley, one of the Captain of lnvalids and left early in the morning. Elizabeth Mitchell (Now Lukas), was living with us and she had gone to work. So there was just my mother and me. We had had breakfast and she was hoovering the drawing room and I was washing up in the kitchen which was next to the drawing room. The kitchen sink was by the window on to the North Front, but I think there was only one piece of glass in the window. Most of our windows had been blown out. I just moved from the sink to a cupboard which was next to the sink, away from the window, when there was a flash and the floor gave way and I felt as if l was sinking into the ground. I thought at first that it was a nightmare. I think I must have passed out for a time. When I came to, I realized that we had been hit by a V2. I heard Paul Fitzgerald, the Secretary's son, asking if anyone was there. I told him that I was OK but my mother was in the drawing room.

A dreaded V2

‘I seemed to be in a pocket of space with a carpet holding up the rubble above me. I heard the people above me clearing the rubble and thought that they might bring the whole house on top of me. The dust must have settled, as I saw some daylight below me which was the cellar of the Dean's house next door. I was trapped by the hips and had to force myself out of the trap and managed to slide down the rubble into the Dean's nursery. The Dean's house was about to collapse as well. I tried to stand and found that my legs collapsed. I shouted that I was in the cellar, and they put a ladder down in the area which was between the houses and the road. 'Titch', the Hospital' electrician, arrived down and I remember saying to him that I was 6' tall and he was small and would not be able to lift me. But he got into a fireman's lift and got me up the ladder. He was very plucky to come down and get me.

‘I don't remember much after that. As I was on a stretcher, I saw Kenneth and Margaret Dean wandering around their ruined house but I don't remember the ambulance or getting to St Stephens Hospital in the Fulham Road. By now I was being doped with morphia and noticed very little going on around me. I was evidently in a large hall next to the hospital. In the bed was a heated cage which was burning me, and I got the next door neighbour to get a nurse to turn the heating off. I was put in a plaster from my ribs to my back which was not comfortable.

I remember my father coming in to see me, and tell me that they were still looking for my mother. It was the only time I saw him nearly break down. I felt so sorry for him and could do nothing to help him. It must have been appalling for him. How he stood up to it I do not know. I don't know how long I was in St Stephens Hospital, but I do remember Aunt Kathleen, my Nightingale Aunt, coming to see me, and evidently she was not impressed and anyway V2's were still landing on London.  She managed to get me moved to Botley Park Hospital at Chertsey. This was a Military Orthopaedic Hospital. It was at large hutted Hospital with each London Hospital having a ward­ so there was the St. Thomas', Middlesex, Westminster, Barts, QAIMNS wards etc. I was put into the Thomas' Ward. I don't remember the journey or arriving at Botley Park as I was still doped (Indeed I could hardly wait for the next four hourly fix!).

Captain Ralph May on his wedding day in 1957

‘I do remember a Surgeon saying by my bed "If you want this boy to walk again, get that bloody plaster off him". I soon got into the routine of the Hospital and found that I was in with a lot of soldiers who had been wounded in Belgium and Holland. Most were having bone and skin grafts and some were having amputations. They were very kind to me and soon accepted me. Sister was strict but kind and the nurses were super. We also had two Canadian VAD's who were not allowed to do anything but produce water and empty ash trays. They were both very pretty and much admired by the soldiers. I had a lot of physio by a large woman who had been an international hockey player and looked like it. I rather dreaded her torture. But for her I would not be walking. I progressed from a wheel chair to crutches and got around the hospital. I was made to go to have tea with a friend of Aunt Kathleen's who was the sister of the Convalescent ward. These were rather painful occasions, but she must have been kind to think of me.

‘I went twice to the Operating Theatre, but God knows what they did to me. People came round from the local area and used to put cigarettes at the end of the beds. I used to say that I was not a soldier, but it made no difference and cigarettes still appeared. I must have smoked a lot. Sometimes, in the middle of the night the lights would go on and the speakers would say that a Convoy was arriving. These Convoys had those who had been wounded that morning in Belgium or Holland. One night I had a Moroccan who had had his hands blown off by a booby trap that morning and the blood was seeping through his plaster. He was there for a night before he was moved on. For sometime we had a young night nurse from the Westminster.  She was very good to me when I could not sleep. She was a Catholic and wheeled me to Mass on Sundays. She also sometimes took me to concerts that used to come to the Hospital. She was very pretty and I rather fell for her. She didn't like working in a Thomas's Ward!

The memorial to those who died on 3rd January 1945 can be found on the colonnade at the Royal Hospital Chelsea

‘My father came down to see me.  It must have been quite a trek for him. He never showed how awful it all must have been for him. He was always cheerful. I was shielded from the shock of my mother's  death, the sorting out of the ruined house {and the looting that went on), the funeral and all the tragedy of it, by being in hospital and doped for some time. One of the first to come and see me was Fr Jerome from Ampleforth. This was very kind of him. Part of the 'Benedictine After Care'! The Officer's  Ward Sister was Alice Saxby who was Bridget's Matron at Sister Agnes' in the '50's. She had heard that there was an Ampleforth boy in the Hospital and sent an OA from the Officers’ Ward to see me. We had little in common as he was much older than me.

‘I left Hospital in late March. My father drove us down to a bed and breakfast near Osbourne House on the Isle of Wight. He had been in the Officer's Convalescent Home there at some time. There was a small golf course and I used to walk round with him, hitting the odd ball, which got me going. I told him that there was little point in my going back to school, but he was living in one room and sharing the small house with the Padre and there was little room for me, so I spent my last term at school, doing little work but enjoying the summer. VE Day came and there was a holiday and large bonfire in the valley, but I did not feel like going to the festivities. I found to my horror that I could not bowl at cricket. I tried but my legs would not stand me and my arm ached all the way down to the palm of my hand when I bowled. At the end of the term I went to Islay with a party from school - an adventurous camp in which we found a 'U' Boat stranded on the rocks which the RN were towing to the Clyde from Iceland and had lost it in a storm. We went to the Coastguard to tell him of the submarine, after we had got on board and tried to open the hatch which had been soldered. He told us that the RN was looking for it.

Captain Ralph May with his son Peter at The Border Regiment barracks, Carlisle Castle

‘By the time I got home, my father had been re-housed and we camped in the house doing our own cooking until his two sisters arrived to organise the place. I was called up two days after my 18th birthday on 15th August 1945- VJ Day! I never had another medical after the one I had had in York in October '44. I had to report to Brookwood Station with others and taken to the Barracks at Blackdown near Aldershot to the 29th Training Battalion. I was the only Public School Boy in my Barrack Room. It was medical after the one I had had in York in October '44. I had to report to Brookwood Station with others and taken to the Barracks at Blackdown near Aldershot to the 29th Training Battalion. I was the only Public School Boy in my Barrack Room. It was quite a shock to find how the other half lived, but they were the 'salt of the earth'. They all came from the North and were going into North Country Regiments from Yorkshire and Lancashire and some from Glasgow. I had a very painful time as a recruit going on route marches and assault courses, but my 'mates' were very kind to me and helped me when I was having trouble with my leg. So I started my Army Career.'

Reproduced by the kind permission of Bridget May, widow of the late Ralph May

Labels: , , , , , , , , , ,

Back to top