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

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