A previously unpublished letter in the vaults of Birmingham Central library reveals the unsung heroics of a female ambulance driver during the Blitz, writes Richard McComb.
The old black and white photograph is attached to a crumpled green identity card.
The image on the national registration document shows a smart, middle-aged woman. Wearing a dress with a lace neckline and puff sleeves, she would not look out of place at a tea dance or a classical music concert.
But there is something about the eyes. They burn into the viewer and hint at a steely determination.
These are eyes that witnessed horrific scenes of destruction and carnage.
During the Second World War, Gwen Berry, a housewife living in Copthall Road, Handsworth, played her own uncelebrated role during the Blitz, just like thousands of other women in Birmingham. She worked as an ambulance driver, ferrying bomb casualties to hospital even as enemy aircraft dropped their deadly payloads on the city, night after night.
Gwen provides an evocative account of her duties and the harrowing events she confronted in a letter to a friend written 70 years ago. To read it is to be transported back to an era when bombs whistled down, flattening offices, homes and the landmarks of everyday life, snuffing out lives.
The letter, which has been uncovered in the archives at Birmingham Central Library, describes the impact of the opening months of the Blitz. It tells of the terrible duties ordinary people had to perform, such as collecting body parts. The bombings were so severe one night that all the city’s mortuaries and hospitals, except one, had to close.
But there are elements of humour too, and examples of the indomitable spirit of Birmingham, where shopkeepers replaced blown out windows, knowing they could be wrecked again the following night.
Gwen sat down to write the letter on New Year’s Eve 1940, just before the stroke of midnight, waiting to welcome in the new year “in the hope that it will bring us more peace & happiness than the last 12 months have done.”
She continued writing, in neat blue ink, over subsequent days, her final letter running to 14 pages. She tells of exhaustion, of being “physically unable to do anything but just sit,” but she thanks May, the letter’s recipient, who appears to be a close relative, for sending her a Christmas present – a pair of knickers.
"Bumping around in the ambulance, she says, has worn out a suit and two pairs of trousers and “every pair of knicks that I’ve got.” The knickers, therefore, are an “absolute God-send” although Gwen jokes: “Not that I intend to wear them in place of slacks but it’s great to know I’ve got a pair of something!”
The letter, extracts of which are published here for the first time, was donated to the city by a relative many years after Gwen’s death. Deposited with it were minutes of meetings that point to Gwen’s activities with the Hampstead branch of the Housewives Service. Established in June 1940, Gwen and fellow members were entrusted with specific duties during air raids.
They had to provide hot and cold water, blankets and hot drinks; open their homes to casualties awaiting ambulances; help the Warden’s Service; and “prevent and allay panic.”
Members needed to be “British women who are of the dependable type, have steady nerves and plenty of commonsense.” They held whist drives and teas, donating the proceeds to the Lord Mayor’s Distress Fund.
It is the letter though that provides a rich seam of information, detailing the work of one woman – aged 45 when pen was put to paper – as she toiled in the darkness, amid a firestorm of incendiary bombs, to help her fellow citizens.
She explains how she recorded her experiences of driving an ambulance in a small notebook she kept in the pocket of her ARP coat, saying: “If it weren’t for this little book I doubt if I could really believe all these things had happened.”
Mistaken for a nurse
Gwen recalls driving her ambulance to the scene of an attack in Alcester Street and her horror at being mistaken for a nurse. Guided round bomb craters and fallen masonry by a despatch rider, she is led to a men’s hostel:
“It appeared that 200 men had been having supper in an upper room at the hostel when a bomb went through the roof and wrecked the place. Miraculously only 10 were injured and one killed.
“Someone took me by the arm and said ‘Come this way nurse! Here is a nurse, doctor! Nurse!!!’ Horrors! I nearly died of fright. Thinking I’d better do what I could do I plunged down the stairs to the basement and the doctor hastened me away from the corner saying, ‘I shan’t want you now,’ so I suppose the fatal case had just passed out.
"We did what we could for the others and popped some of them into the ambulance. Before we left two more bombs came down which rocked the building & after leaving the General [Hospital] they started whistling down and landing with horrid crumps behind me. I think I did about 60 along Colmore Row & back into the depot! I felt glad to burrow underground.
“The next raid was on a Saturday night & this was a terrible night for fires. I had gone off duty and was at home in the shelter. Everyone was in their shelter & we got quite sociable in the quiet patches of the night – visiting neighbours & inspecting their dug-out etc.
"But after a time we all got perturbed by the terrible red glow over the town ... people gazed anxiously towards it wondering if their offices were going up in smoke & sure enough many who lived around our way were without work next day.
“I was on duty at 7am next morning & had to walk a good bit of the way. The whole length of Livery St was a mass of hose pipes, spraying water, smouldering buildings and crackling glass. The goods yard next to our depot had set on fire & nearly roasted our lot out. I found our place packed out with Reserve Parties, fireman & AFS [Auxiliary Fire Service] & first aid people from other towns. There have been two or three occasions when but for this extra help I doubt if we could have kept the town on the map.
“I was sent with an ambulance down to the goods yard. A Gloucester AFS man had collapsed after four nights of fire fighting. I took him to Harborne AFS station when the Gloucesters were stationed. Down at the good yards they pointed to a mountain of brick & rubble & said ‘Two of our chaps are under there – it will be bad going back without them.’
“I had to drive over hosepipes, duck-boards & rubble, so thank heaven my case in the back was not a fracture or haemorrhage. Everyone was marvellous at cleaning up the mess about the town & they soon had the place looking ship-shape.
"A lot of shops even went to the trouble of putting back their plate glass windows which was a mad thing to do for a few days later they were all blown out again & hardly a window was left intact in the whole of New St.”
Birmingham pubs targeted
Gwen recounts a “nightmare trip” as Birmingham’s pubs came under attack, revealing a “Hell’s Kitchen”:
“Another night I was sent out was also a night of incendiaries & high explosives – fires seemed everywhere. Whichever street I turned down there was a fierce red glow at the bottom of it.
"They seemed that night to concentrate on pubs. I had to go first to the Cobden Hotel where the fire watcher had been tackling an incendiary & it was one of the new type, the lower half being filled with dynamite, which allows you just enough time to get busy putting it out & then explodes.
“Later we had to go the Castle & Falcon, Digbeth & this seemed a sort of nightmare trip in every way. The crackling of broken glass under the wheels was such that I thought all four would puncture.
"The pub when we arrived had all doors & windows blown out & not a soul about. I noticed a light in the floor & found a trap door which led down to the huge public shelter cum beer vault. The place was crowded out with a fine selection of Digbeth’s own. It was a veritable Dickens’ Hell’s Kitchen crowded with Hogarthian faces.
"I’m afraid I felt that war wouldn’t be such a bad thing if it would just wipe out that & all similar places and things. However we hunted round for casualties & then headed for the General Hospital again.
“It was difficult to find a way there, so many roads were roped off because of craters. It’s a horrible sensation to feel yourself scrunching on the edge of a crater. I’ve done it once and hated it. But we hadn’t gone far when we got all mixed up with some live wires from the trams. The despatch rider boy had a great coil of it round the motor bike & a piece trailing under the ambulance. How the boy got off the bike safely I don’t know but with a torch he crept forward thanking Heaven for rubber boots.
“He said ‘What do we do now?’ I said ‘Well, in the book it says get a wooden stick with a crooked handle & drag the wire away.’ He said ‘Have you got one?’ I said ‘No, I rarely carry one!’ So he went one way & I another to try & find help. It was eerie to stand there in the pitch dark with the black ruins of burnt out buildings towering around & the distant sound of bombs & guns.
"A warden came running toward me & said ‘Don’t go up that street, there are live wires.’ I said ‘Why not put some lamps around?’ He said ‘Well we’d only got one red lamp so I put it at the other end of the street!’
“The flash & report when the wire was pulled away was such that I thought they had blown the front of the ambulance up but all was well & we arrived at the General Hospital at the same time that an oil bomb arrived on the roof & set the nurses’ wing on fire!
"When I got back to the dug-out I wasn’t surprised to hear that the order was given out that no more casualties were to be taken to the General & it was not long before every other hospital in the town was off our list except the Queen Elizabeth. Also most of the mortuaries. Driving home in the early hours of the morning & finding 47 Copthall Rd slumbering peacefully it was difficult to believe that it was not a mad dream.”
Lighter side of life
Gwen tells of the horror of the Blitz – and the lighter side of life on air raid duty:
“The naval guns at the back of our house on that little hill are terrific when they go off & seem to shake the place to the foundations. It’s as if the house were given a frightful slap across the face & on clear cold nights like tonight the sound of the shell travelling up & up & up goes on for minutes after the report.
“These land mines seem the latest horror & in the last raid or two Handsworth came in for a full share of them. We had three not far from us one night, one which blew out all doors and windows on the main road for some distance but the one nearer to us got caught by its parachute on a telegraph pole & was taken to bits by a Suicide Squad. Lucky for us.
“This war has its Nuisance side, its Pathetic Side, Gruesome Side & Humorous Side. Oh the darned nuisance of it, sitting & waiting to see what’s going to happen, trying to decide if it’s bad enough to go down to the shelter.
"Keeping suit cases filled with clothes ready to throw out in case of fire, filling the bath with water in case next day there is none, turning off gas & electricity having seen some of our Rescue Squad boys landed in hospital by this not having been done. And after a raid the misery of being without water or gas or telephone for days on end. Then after it all the whole town ordered to boil every drop of drinking water & milk for fear of typhoid.
“The pathetic side is accentuated by everyone being so wonderfully brave. One old man with terrible head injuries said to me ‘Miss, don’t worry about me, I’ve been through two wars so a bit extra won’t matter.’ And quite a young girl that I picked up in Bristol St with broken arm & injured spine was worrying every minute about a little wicker basket & finally apologised for worrying us about it but said ‘You see it’s all I’ve got left in the world now.’
As for the gruesome side – no need to dwell on that. A short time ago I was asked to get a car out & go to a certain place for some bits and pieces of a man who had been blown up.
"The superintendent said all the men were out so would I mind, the “pieces” were already packed up. As I started out one of the men returned so he was sent instead. I was glad later when I heard that ‘packed up’ meant having dumped it all in a potato sack which the man had to drag across a piece of waste ground to the ambulance as no one was there to help & when he arrived at the mortuary the mortuary men refused to take it in themselves & said anyone bringing that sort of stuff down must cart it in !!
“There are plenty of humorous incidents about this job too thank Heaven to relieve the situation. As for instance when our very exclusive lady driver was sent out to an incident – a very Edgbaston type.
"She found herself in a very slummy low-down quarter of the town & was just thinking to herself ‘How disgusting. It would be my fate to be sent to a filthy dirty district like this’ when a bomb came whistling down so close that she had to flop down on her face in the gutter the same as everyone else. A little latter she was more disgusted than ever & thought ‘This is a frightful place – I can smell fish!’
"She asked the others who said ‘Now you come to mention it, yes, we can smell fish.’ When it was safe to use a torch she looked down and there clinging to the front of her coat was a cod’s head gazing up at her reproachfully! He had evidently got to the gutter first!!”