Remembering Penny Phelps, the last British nurse

Post date: 06/01/2016


6 January 2016 marks the 5th anniversary of the death of Penny Feiwel (Phelps), the last of the many British nurses who served in the International Brigades and other medical services duri9ng the Spanish Civil War. Here is her obituary, written by IBMT Secretary Jim Jump, from the 1-2011 issue of the IBMT Newsletter.

Penny Feiwel, the last of the British women who served on the side of the Spanish Republic during the civil war of 1936-39, died on 6 January 2011 at the age of 101. Like Feiwel, known in Spain by her maiden name of Phelps, most of the volunteers were nurses and worked in often makeshift hospitals in conditions of great hardship and danger. Phelps herself suffered serious injuries in a bombing raid that put an end to her time in Spain.

Born into a working class family of nine brothers and sisters in Tottenham, north London, she left school at 13. Following work in domestic service and in a factory, at the age of 18 she trained as a nurse, working in several London hospitals, including Homerton and Charing Cross.  

By her mid-20s she was eager to overcome her lack of school education, so spent 1934 studying English, history, economics and psychology at Hillcroft College, Surbiton, Surrey, which specialised in teaching working women from less privileged backgrounds. It was at the college that she began moving in more politically aware circles. 

Though after the Spanish Civil War she would play down her political activism in the 1930s, saying that she had been motivated more by humanitarianism, it was a politically charged incident that triggered her decision to go to Spain. In 1936 she took a temporary nursing job at a hospital in Hertfordshire where, with another nurse, she volunteered in her spare time to collect food for hunger marchers on their way to London and to care for the sick among them. One marcher’s feet were so shockingly raw that she rang for an ambulance and used her name to get him admitted to casualty. The following morning she was confronted by a furious matron: “Nurse Phelps, we don’t employ nurses who are ‘red’.” 

Taking this cue, she walked out and another nurse soon suggested that she should go to Spain. Within a few weeks Penny, aged 27, was on her way, leaving London on 6 January 1937 with three other nurses. Via Barcelona and Valencia they arrived at Albacete, the main base for the International Brigades, and from there she was sent to Murcia and put in charge of a 200-bed ward for French volunteers. 

Next she was attached to the German-speaking Thälmann Battalion. At Tarancón, east of Madrid, with New Zealand surgeon Douglas Jolly, a pioneer of mobile emergency surgery, and four Spanish medics, and while facing deadly bombing raids by fascist planes, she helped set up an improvised operating theatre.

At the end of February she was sent to the front at Jarama, south east of Madrid, where a desperate battle was raging as Franco tried unsuccessfully to surround the capital by cutting the main road to Valencia. “We were flooded with wounded men. It was ghastly. Inside the operating theatre we had no heating except a gasoline stove, and sometimes it was so cold that I would be glad to be in a room crammed full of people to share their bodily heat. I was working as an anaesthetist, assistant surgeon and theatre nurse. I had to decide which case was the most urgent for operation, and then at once set up tables for instruments.”

Moved to an international hospital at Colmenar Viejo, north of Madrid, she fell ill with typhoid, spending a month in bed before making the first of three brief visits to England to recuperate, collect medical supplies and speak at public meetings in support of the Republic. She would later recall being admonished: “But Spain is red.” “Yes,” she replied, “it is red with blood. Blood splashed over the streets and the gutters run with it. For weeks my fingernails were stained by the blood, and my arms were spattered up to the elbows with it.”

She was back in Spain in time for the Republic’s offensive at Brunete, west of Madrid, in July 1937. Her battlefield hospital at Torrelodones was regularly bombarded – despite a prominent red cross – as she and the other medics worked into the small hours every day, at times by the light of torches and cigarette lighters. Afterwards she was sent home suffering from shock after six of her colleagues were killed by a shell. On her return, she was posted to Quintanar, east of Madrid, and became the medical officer in charge of the barracks of the Italian Garibaldi Battalion.

Penny was badly injured in the spring of 1938, while attached to a mobile medical station in the mountains of Teruel, tending to the wounded in the Republican retreat eastwards. In a bombing raid by Franco’s planes she suffered lacerations to the arm, broken ribs and abdominal shrapnel wounds. She was eventually evacuated from the port of Gandía by HMS Sussex, taken to Marseilles and put on a train to hospital in London.

While convalescing from her wounds she met Michael Feiwel, a noted dermatologist, whom she married three months later. Unable to have children because of the injuries sustained in Spain, she dedicated herself to her nursing career, eventually becoming her husband’s assistant in his Harley Street practice. 

In 1992 she published her memoir, “English Penny”, under the pen-name Penny Fyvel. She also described her experiences in Spain in a chapter in Max Arthur’s “The Real Band of Brothers” (2009). She will be remembered by IBMT members as an active and cheerful supporter of the Trust, always ready to attend events and eager to recount her experiences in Spain and those of the people she worked with and cared for.

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