“I didn’t get the sack, I gave them the sack,” Penny emphasised proudly. Single and unemployed, she was approached by a “left wing colleague” who explained the situation in Spain.
Penny said, “I had no idea about politics. She told me that the majority of the nurses were nuns and they were on Franco’s side.” Twenty four hours after being interviewed by the Spanish Medical Aid Committee in London she was off to Spain.
As soon as Penny arrived in Albacete, in autumn 1936, her experience in the operating theatre was noted and put to service. Her first destination was a mobile unit near the front line in Tarancon, near Madrid. Penny said, “The Americans had brought big lorries with complete operating theatre units.
“We showed the ‘chicas’, local women, how to take the instruments apart, wash them, put them back again in the right box and give them to the man to be sterilised again. We were well organised.
“But when it started it was horrific. The lorries arrived and they were full of wounded men and you couldn’t cope with it all.”
They worked day after day and night after night but she couldn’t forget feeling helpless: “They were dying and you couldn’t do anything for them. You couldn’t get beds for them. They were lying on the stretchers outside in the yard.” During the Jarama battle, in February 1937, Penny got typhoid fever and returned to England.
Once she regained strength a few weeks later, she toured the country giving talks to collect money for the cause. On one occasion a right winger shouted, “Spain is red.” She answered, “Yes. Red with flowing blood.”
The solidarity talks were fruitful and she took new medical instruments back to the front. While in charge of the Italian Battalion, as a temporary medical officer, Penny managed to prevent the spread of a scarlet fever epidemic. She was rewarded with the rank of Lieutenant Penny Phelps of the Spanish Republican Army.
The scarce spare time was filled with long walks with the political commissar Roberto Vicenzi. Penny said, “He was a very handsome man who used to talk to me about his convictions and ideals, his fight for a new world where social justice would prevail.” However, Roberto’s life would end in a concentration camp in occupied France.
The war ended for Penny on the Valencia front. During a bombing raid she was seriously wounded and was taken to a hospital in the coastal town of Benicassim.
“I don’t remember what happened,” she said. “I only know that I woke up in a barn and I heard people calling out for water, ‘Agua, agua!’ I looked at myself and all I could see was red and white from blood and bandages around my chest. Someone told me I was one of the lucky ones.”
Penny had shrapnel all over her abdomen but she refused to be operated on until she got back home. She said, “I was very ill when I arrived in Hammersmith hospital. I used to hear flying planes over the hospital and would panic that they were coming to bomb us.
“They had to move me to a special hospital in the countryside. The nuns that ran it thought I was Spanish because I was very tanned. They got a big surprise when I started to talk.” Still recovering, she accepted an invitation to a guest house where she met doctor Michael Feiwel, a noted dermatologist, who she married three months later.
Penny said, “I would have liked to have had a baby but the wounds made it impossible. I’m sorry that I got my injuries but I suppose that it is still better than having your brain blown out.”
She dedicated her life to taking care of patients until she became her husband’s assistant in his private practice. Mick died eight years ago, soon after celebrating their diamond anniversary.
Penny said the two years she spent in Spain signify “a wonderful experience. When I think about it, it’s as if I was watching a film. It’s as if it was another world.” Her pictures, letters and documents from those days are stored in different folders in her 15th floor apartment of a building overlooking the English Channel.
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