The Bombing of Preston Hospital

The damage, seen in daylight, was sheer devastation.

Preston Hospital and the Poor Law Institution Buildings (Holmlands) were bombed on the night of 9th/10th April 1941. I was a junior clerk at the Hospital at that time and a member of the Air Raid Precautions (ARP) team, all personnel being members of the Hospital staff.

The normal overnight ARP routine, in case of attack by enemy aircraft and consequential injuries to, or deaths of, Hospital patients and Poor Law Institution inmates (I use the terms and titles which were in use at the time) was that all staff, be they administrative, maintenance, porters, orderlies etc, with the exception of all nursing staff, were required to be on the premises in the Hospital and PLI areas for twelve hours overnight. A rota operated, and we slept in dormitories, patrolling the Hospital grounds whenever the air raid alarm sirens were activated.

On the night of the 9th/10th April, still nineteen days away from my sixteenth birthday, I was on overnight duty with porters Dick Lillico, Dickie Dawson, Dickie’s son, whose name escapes me now, work’s joiner Albert Turner, Mr J Anderson, the then Mayor of Tynemouth, and several others whose names I cannot recall. Around midnight, give or take an hour or so either way, we were standing talking outside the Porters’ Lodge and Rest Room when we heard the distinctive drone of an enemy bomber. It was guessed that it had become separated from the main group, possibly by allied fighter aircraft, or the anti-aircraft batteries, whilst on an intended bombing raid on Glasgow and was heading south towards the Northumberland and Durham coast and over the North Sea back to Germany.

It was standard practice that when a bomber failed to reach its target, it would start to head for home, jettisoning its bomb load as soon as possible to lighten the aircraft weight and so enable the aircraft to increase speed on the run back to base. Normally, when a bomber released its stick of bombs, the noise generated by the falling bombs was extremely frightening, as tubes were welded to the bombs to create a fearful whistling noise.

On realising that a bomb, or bombs, was heading in our direction we ran into the Porters’ Lodge, a very solid building. The mayor pushed me to the floor and he, a very substantial man, fell on top of me – a little bit painful!! Everyone else hit the floor, not unlike a rugby scrum. Strangely, I had not heard the whistling of the bomb on its way down, nor did I hear the explosion. I did, however, see the blackout light hit the ceiling and shatter. All of this happened within a few seconds, but felt like an eternity.

Fortunately for us, the bomb hit the Hospital ring-road, approximately 5 to 10 metres south of the Porters’ Lodge and away from the main buildings. The vacuum created by the explosion was rapidly filled by a powerful blast of air, and at this point I was sucked against the door to the Porters’ Rest Room and momentarily knocked unconscious, the dent in my steel helmet being a testament to the power of the air influx. We were all out of the Porters’ Lodge within a few seconds to witness the devastating effect of an estimated 500-pound bomb. The crater was approximately five metres deep by ten metres across, and already filling with water from the broken underground pipes.

I have said that we were virtually unscathed, as the bomb was travelling away from us. However, the buildings south of the Lodge, mainly to the north ends of the PLI Blocks and the Hospital Bakery and Workshops some fifty metres away, suffered severe damage. Additionally, three houses on Preston Road, almost directly across the road from the Porters’ Lodge suffered severe frontal damage and we had to rescue three elderly ladies who were badly traumatised. On searching the PLI blocks, the team found the bodies of Albert Turner, the Hospital joiner, and one of the PLI Inmates. The other fatality was a female voluntary ambulance driver, whose vehicle was blown apart by the blast.

Over the following years, everything which had happened remained deeply imprinted on my mind, excepting for the ambulance driver and her vehicle. Why that should have been I do not know. It only came back into my consciousness about a year to eighteen months ago, when an article about her was published in, I think, the News Guardian. She was, I understand, an Infants or Junior School teacher at Backworth.

My remaining recollection of the night was the search of the soft soil and garden areas of the Hospital, as it was thought that a second bomb had been dropped without exploding. The team members were issued with powerful torches. Mine, unfortunately, contained very weak batteries. It was a very scared young lad who searched his allocated area with arm fully extended and probably shaking violently. Needless to say, no unexploded bomb was found. The night ended for me when my Dad walked down to the Hospital from our flat in Lansdowne Terrace, having heard of the bombing. He took me home, shattered.

On my arrival for work on the morning on the 10th April, the damage, seen in daylight, was sheer devastation. The only consolation for us was that had the bomb been released a split second earlier it would have exploded in the area of the Hospital wards. Had that been so, the death toll would have been massive.

Now in March 2004, as I look back, I realise that, as I was then at least twenty years younger than any of my compatriots, I will, almost certainly, be the only surviving member of all the ARP teams.

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