Sheffield hospital nurse's vital work in Blitz

Frank Donnelly of South Yorkshire Aircraft Museum sent in the story of a nurse who worked in Sheffield during the Blitz.

In 1940, Edna Sherwin, whose family home was in Chesterfield, was an 18-year-old student nurse, working at the Sheffield Royal Hospital on West Street in the city centre.

The nurses lived at Tapton Court Nurses’ Home at Fulwood, about two miles from the hospital.

The working day for the nurses was a long one, from 8am to 8pm. They got a half day off per week, a half day off every other Sunday, and a full day off a month.

They could by arrangement also take two hours off in the morning or evening to get shopping done, etc. They were paid 28 shillings a month (£1.40).

The Blitz night, Thursday December 12, was Edna’s night off, having worked from 8am. They could eat in the hospital but were mostly served pasta. Pasta!

Leaving the hospital at 6pm with three other young nurses, they went to the Fleur de Lys cafe for tea, which was upstairs on Division Street. For 9d they could have beans or egg on toast, and for 1d extra they could have a bun or a cup of tea.

Just as they were finishing their meal about 7pm, two uniformed sailors rushed in, shouting: “They’re dropping flares” and flares were lighting up the sky like a bonfire party.

This was the start of the air raid by German bombers.

Edna and her colleagues rushed back to the hospital for safety.

The afternoon staff had gone home and the evening staff were in working. Edna and her colleagues got ‘collared’ for another 12-hour shift, where they worked all night.

Beside the old hospital was a new three-storey building provided by the Miners’ Welfare. The operating theatres were on the top floor.

The first thing that happened was a big bang from an exploding high-explosive bomb close by, which shattered all the windows in the operating theatres, and all the lights went out.

The nursing staff immediately started to evacuate the patients from the second floor, down to the basement. Anybody who could walk, walked down the stairs.

Those patients on traction had their strings cut and were helped to lie on the floor until they could be moved downstairs with the help of the porters.

Ambulances and fire engines were running about all night. All the staff could hear were big bangs from exploding bombs all around them.

One elderly patient wouldn't leave without their hat! “Where’s my hat? I can't leave without my hat!” she called.

All the patients were eventually taken down to basement level, where the staff opened the cellars, and were shocked to discover huge quantities of coffins in storage for the anticipated emergency situation as necessary.

For Edna and her fellow colleagues emerging from the hospital that morning was a stunning shock.

The hospital stood, surrounded by almost complete devastation - shops and houses totally shattered, buses and trams wrecked and burning.

The city centre was almost completely destroyed.

As there was no transport running, the nurses walked up to Fulwood for a wash, rest and food, before being called back to the hospital in the afternoon.

They had to walk miles further to avoid unexploded bombs which were all over the place.

The hospital had lost its water supply, so it was necessary to extract water from the swimming baths on Glossop Road.

One of the major tragedies of that terrible night was the direct hit on the five-storey Marples Hotel, killing 77 people.

Only seven people survived and only 14 bodies were identified. Edna said the search and recovery lasted for almost two weeks.

How the Sheffield Royal Hospital survived the bombing can only be described as miraculous.

The following Sunday, December 15, Edna tried to get home to Chesterfield. Her father used to buy her a return bus ticket, so Edna could always get home if she needed to.

However, the buses weren't running in Sheffield but Edna and a friend heard that a bus was going from Chesterfield from Meadowhead, four miles away, but when they got there on foot, no bus!

Whilst they pondered what to do, a gentleman noticed the two girls in nurses’ uniform at the side of the road.

He stopped and offered them a lift to Chesterfield, saying that if they were outside a certain cinema at 6pm, he would give them a lift back to Sheffield their return trip.

This had been the first opportunity for Edna to see and reassure her parents that she was alive and well and had survived, when so many had been killed and injured. Few had access to telephones in those days.

Edna’s parents didn’t want her to return to Sheffield because of the danger (Edna’s father, understandably wanted to know ‘who is this man offering his daughter a lift back to Sheffield) but Edna said she had to return to continue her training and to do her bit for the xcountry, like her father in a reserved occupation as a miner was doing.

When Edna returned to Sheffield that evening, so did the German bombers, who carried out a second air raid, but this time aiming their bombs more at the industrial East End of the city.

There were many fatalities as a result of this attack also, but not as destructive as the first night.

All people could do was put up with the occasional air raids and hope that they lived to tell the tale.

Edna survived, God bless her, and went on to have a happy and successful career in nursing, serving her community.

n Edna died about two months after Frank, the retired chairman of the museum, who lives in Totley, wrote this account. He interviewed her at home in Chesterfield in 2013.

n South Yorkshire Aircraft Museum is in Doncaster and is open Tuesday to Sunday 10am to 4pm in winter and seven days during school holidays. For more information, go to www.southyorkshireaircraftmuseum.org.uk or call 01302 761616.