MEET THE WALKERS… From left, Ruth, Harold, Peter, Walter, Bee and Edward outside their family home
From bomb-strafed London to the killing fields of Europe and the Far East, acclaimed family saga To War with the Walkers tracks the remarkable tale of four brothers and two sisters caught in momentous world events. Lying on a straw mattress in the basement of the nurses’ home at St Thomas’s Hospital in London, Ruth Walker was unable to sleep. The day before, the Blitz had begun, turning the Thames orange with the reflected glow of the fires as the Luftwaffe pounded London’s docks and nearby streets with bombs.
When she came off duty the following night, September 8, 1940, another air raid was in progress. So Ruth took her matron’s advice and headed for the basement.
The incessant drone of bombers above and the answering staccato ‘ack ack’ of the anti-aircraft guns meant she was still awake at 2.30am when, with a massive roar, the whole building rocked and the top three floors collapsed in a tangled mess of masonry, water tanks and steel girders.
In the pitch black of the basement, Ruth lay amid the rubble. A steel girder had fallen across her, shielding her from the tumbling bricks and metal. She was hemmed in by rubble and although she was unhurt, there seemed to be no way out.
Worse, she could smell burning. Would this be her fate, to burn to death? She had been a nurse for less than a year and was only 21. She began to pray.
But some medical students heard her cries, forced a ladder through the rubble and helped her climb out.
Ruth was my great aunt and many decades later, she told me about that terrible night, the memory of which was still so vivid.
She spoke too about the man to whom she had been engaged when war was declared 80 years ago, on September 3, 1939, and about her four brothers and older sister, who had all played extraordinary parts in the war on the homefront and the battlefield.
The more she told me, the more astounded I became that so much had happened to one family. It was a story that deserved to be known and so, talking to Ruth, and to the sons and daughters of her five siblings, I began to piece together the extraordinary story of one family – the Walkers – at war.
DIRECT HIT…St Thomas’s hospital after the 1940 bomb
Like many families, WW2 engulfed them completely. Entire families were wiped out in air raids, some parents lost several sons, or had the agony of one returning from a prisoner of war camp, but not the other.
So the Walkers were not unique, but their wartime story is remarkable, encompassing romances, tragedies, and miraculous escapes, when death seemed to have its jaws into one or other of them.
The Walkers were an ordinary middle-class family. With six children, Edward, Bee, Walter, Peter, Harold and Ruth, money was often tight and Dorothea, my great-grandmother, guarded every penny.
Her husband, Arthur, had been a tea-planter in India and they had lived there in some style with their three children until, in 1913, ill health forced him to return to England where three more children were born.
They settled in Tiverton, Devon. Arthur had fought in the Boer War and the First World War, so had a small army pension which he supplemented by raising chickens and growing vegetables.
Family life at their home, Tara, was noisy and happy: the boys played cricket in the garden and Arthur taught them to box.
Ruth, the youngest, was a tomboy who loved to play with her brothers. They were not above treating her as a slave, making her fetch and carry, and act as goalpost for football. They even tied her to a tree when they played cowboys and Indians and fired rubber-tipped arrows at her.
But she had a white knight who would often come to her rescue. John Fisher was eight years older, a friend of Edward and Walter, and spent so much time at Tara he was almost a fifth brother.
One by one, Ruth watched her brothers leave home. Edward and then Walter joined the Indian Army, Walter becoming an officer with the 8th Gurkhas.
Peter followed his brothers to India, but as a tea-planter rather than a soldier and Harold won a scholarship to study medicine at London’s St Thomas’s Hospital.
The girls were simply expected to marry and beautiful Bee, with long, slender legs and a flirty manner, had no shortage of suitors. In 1934 she travelled to Hong Kong to visit Edward who was posted there, and became engaged not once but three times.
The Walker family’s war story encompasses romance, tragedy and miraculous near-death escapes
But each time she changed her mind and she returned to England still single.
Ruth, her younger sister, seemed destined to beat her to the altar when, aged only 18, she became engaged to her childhood hero John Fisher.
They planned to marry in Borneo, where John worked as a civil servant. But when war broke out, overseas travel became impossible, so the wedding was cancelled and the engagement put on hold.
Bee was now living in London and working as a model. Rather than remain in Devon, Ruth decided to join the war effort and applied to become a nurse at St Thomas’s Hospital, where Harold was studying.
Many departments had been evacuated to hospitals outside London because of the expected air raids, and in June 1940 Ruth was at Park Prewett Hospital near Basingstoke when casualties from Dunkirk began arriving.
Like many families, the Walkers were engulfed by World War Two
She had to cut off their oily, blood-soaked uniforms and comfort those who were dying. One disturbed patient, suffering flashbacks from the Dunkirk retreat, threatened to slit her throat with his cutthroat razor. She distracted him until help came.
She was later transferred to the plastic surgery ward where patients included pilots badly burned when their planes caught fire.
In August 1940, Ruth was posted back to St Thomas’s in London and had been there less than a month when the Blitz began.
After she was hauled from the bomb rubble in the early hours of September 9, 1940, she was given a cup of tea, a fresh uniform and told to report back for duty, in line with the phlegmatic British wartime exhortation to keep calm and carry on. “It was much the best thing,” she said.
With so many wards damaged, and no electricity, the hospital stepped up its evacuation programme, sending as many patients and staff as possible out of London.
Ruth and a trainee nurse in 1939
On September 11, three days after she had been trapped in the rubble, Ruth was sent back to Park Prewett. So she was not at St Thomas’s when it was hit again, on September 13. But her brother Harold was.
He had just finished assisting in an operation in the basement theatre and was walking down the main corridor with a friend, a house surgeon, when it was hit by a massive bomb. The other man was struck by a flying piece of metal and killed instantly.
Harold was hit in the head and lay under the debris for some time before anyone realised he and others were missing. His colleagues tunnelled down dislodging chunks of brick and plaster, risking their own lives to look for them.
When they finally found Harold he was motionless, but they found a faint pulse and managed to get him onto a stretcher.
He was unconscious, his skull was fractured and when Ruth visited him in hospital the neurosurgeon told her, in the blunt speech of the time: “You’d better hope that he dies, because if he lives he’ll be a cabbage.”
Ruth did not share this grim prognosis with her parents, hopeful that Harold would eventually recover. But for now, he was alive.
Don’t miss To War with the Walkers Part 2 in Monday’s Daily Express
Walter, Peter and Edward face the enemy in the Far East and Italy, Ruth’s fiancé is shot down and Bee finds true love at last.
To War with The Walkers by Annabel Venning (Hodder & Stoughton, £20.00). For your copy with free UK delivery, call Express Bookshop on 01872 562310, or send a cheque/PO payable to Express Bookshop: The Walkers Offer, PO Box 200, Falmouth TR11 4WJ or visit expressbookshop.co.uk