Matilda Hospital 17th December to 4th January 1942
Christopher and I arrived at the Matilda at 7.30 in the morning on a cold, grey day with all our possessions in a bundle and one basket. Lise Huttemeier and her baby were with us. I was desperate for shelter – at any minute the shelling and raiding might begin. I went in, there was no-one about. At last I met Mrs Lee who told me I must see Dr Montgomery. I saw him and told him our plight. “Who told you there’s a crèche here?” he said. “Mrs Valentine” I answered. “Yes, but it’s only for babies,” he said. “The mothers are away nursing, doing their duty.” “My friend and I are willing to work, willing to help with the other babies, or in the hospital if we can stay. I am a nursing mother and we are both Volunteers’ wives and entitled to rations.” “But this is a hospital and not…” he began. “God Almighty, Dr Montgomery,” I cried, “we are at war, we have been shelled from our houses and have nowhere to go. It is your duty to give us shelter.” “I will take the nursing mother and baby,” he said. “The other mother can leave her child here.” “I accept gratefully for myself,” I said, “but my friend will not leave her baby.”
Poor Lise, she went with Iris and Raeder [Reidar Johannessen] and lived in Captain Svarrne’s packed house. I don’t know where she went after the surrender, but that house was looted properly, I took a tiny bottle of Haliverol myself and the floors were covered with nappies so they must have needed to get out in a hurry. I never saw her again which was bad luck on her, as in the bundle was a baby’s blanket of hers, her nightdress and three baby pants. I am very grateful for these things but I truly didn’t mean to keep them. It comes of collecting in the dark.
I was taken down into maternity and was greeted by screaming. I cannot forget what I saw. It was under the hospital in the cellars of which the only windows were blacked out save for one door. Beds and sleeping chairs piled with luggage lined the chief passage, two cots were in the dim light by a poor breakfast table with a dirty cloth. Several girls stood about in thick coats for the damp was terrible. I was shown a camp bed and a space in the passage where I could park Christopher. I cannot describe the dirt, the dark and the cold damp.
Everyone crowded round me for news. I told them of the scuttled ships, the Tamar’s mast just showing, the APC burning, the shelling. Of course I talked too much, I was overwrought and excited but it did no harm. However, up came Mrs Owen, very bossy in charge: “Don’t stand about gossiping, there’s plenty to do. And you’re here, Mrs Potter, to look after your baby. You’ve done more harm in the ten minutes you’ve been here than all the rest of the war.”
After one night I couldn’t bear the cold and draught in the passage. There was only the room where the washing was hung, not blacked out, so we could never have a light, and I moved in there. It was still damp and smelled of wet clothing, but it was private and not draughty. I can see the then Miss Ferguson going round at night now, with her shaded torch, like the Lady with the Lamp.
Now we felt the water shortage properly. We had to scrounge for two cups full to wash our babies and the napkin water was used over and over again till it stank. The amahs were still here, unpleasant, know-all women with no-one in charge of them. Mrs Owen set them (and us) all by the ears. Two of the children whose mothers were elsewhere had dysentery.
We were the step-children of the hospital. We had the worst and least food, no consideration, no expert care. I lost 10 pounds in the fortnight I was in the Matilda. We were on very short rations, and as there was no supervision of the kitchen, it was badly cooked. Had I thought of anywhere else I could easily have gone, I should have gone. But anywhere else I should have been a nuisance, so I bore it.
The damp and cold were appalling. I took Christopher on my back into the sun as often as I could when there was no warning and no shelling.
And then the military put a gun about a hundred yards away from our end of the hospital!