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Ken Hulbert, RAMC (1) - Battle of Britain

by Anne Richards

Contributed by 
Anne Richards
People in story: 
Kenneth Hulbert, Royal Army Medical Corps
Location of story: 
Chartham, Kent (near Canterbury)
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
12 July 2005

The diaries of Kenneth Hulbert (1912-2003)
Served in the Royal Army Medical Corp, World War II

This is the first instalment in a series of excerpts from the war diaries of my father, Kenneth Hulbert, adapted for ‘The People’s War’ website. Kenneth Hulbert served as a lieutenant, then captain and finally a major, working for hospitals in Egypt, the Sudan and India. I edited his diaries and published them as a book ‘I will lift up mine eyes’ just after he died in May 2003.

Part 1 - The Battle of Britain

Kenneth Hulbert qualified as a doctor in 1936. He began writing his diaries on the day that war was declared on 3rd September 1939, but we begin his story in May 1940 at the time of the evacuation of Dunkirk. At the time he was visiting his father, who was working as a Methodist minister in Redhill Surrey. One evening, towards the end of May a train came through the station and a note was thrown onto the platform addressed to ‘The Methodist Minister, Redhill’. It was from an army chaplain wanting someone to telephone his wife to say he was safely home.

The diary entry reads:
'The evacuation of Dunkirk was underway and this was the first we knew of it. All of a sudden, Redhill seemed to spring into action. A canteen was set up on the platform and volunteers appeared from all over Redhill to run it. My mother was one of them. They cleared the shops of food, and bought postcards and stamps for the men who were streaming through in their thousands. Altogether, 300,000 came through on packed trains over the next two weeks. The early ones looked tired but fairly tidy. But as it went on they became so exhausted and worn that they could hardly open their eyes. My father met many of them and one of the last evacuees, from the Irish Guards, poignantly said to him, “Father, pray for me”.'

Kenneth Hulbert signed up for the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC) in June 1940 as a Lieutenant. His orders were to go to Chartham Military Hospital near Canterbury. The hospital was a mental institution, with one wing converted for use as a military hospital.

7th July
'Today I did my first ward round. In the evening there were a lot of aeroplanes overhead — a new experience. I telephoned my mother and father and felt reassured. That night I resolved to keep a diary of hymns at the back of my Methodist hymn book, noting the number of the hymn and the occasion on which I read it.'

8th July
'My first experience of being an orderly officer. I had to wear my Sam Browne belt — formal wear for all army officers — and to inspect the wards, kitchen mess room and sanitation, then make a report. Every patient on the dangerously ill list had to be seen.'

9th July
'I went into Canterbury today and was in W H Smiths when an air raid alarm sounded. I decided to stay in the shop and read a book. The streets were completely cleared of all people very rapidly and one little boy began crying when everybody started running about. Then the ‘all clear’ sounded and things carried on as usual.'

The Battle of Britain — as it was later called — had already started, with German raids on dockyards and shipping. The entries in the diary were, however, written as they happened, not in retrospect. Kenneth Hulbert was unaware that he was about to live through one of the most crucial periods of the war.

10th July
'There was a lot of aerial activity today and the air raid alarm — a hooter in the hospital laundry — went off twice. We were to get very used to its sound.'

12th July
'A German airman was brought into the casualty room today. His plane had been shot down but the only injury was to his little toe. He was a short, fat youth, dressed in blue, who was very polite and did not look a bad sort at all. This was the first Nazi pilot I have seen. I wonder if all of them are so bad as they make out. We all seem to be caught up in some infernal maelstrom in which we do things without thinking.'

Activities were focused on preparing for an invasion. The officers, helped by those hospital patients (including mental patients) who were fit enough, had been building protective walls of sandbags in front of the strategic parts of the hospital. Sand was shovelled by a machine into a hopper and when a pedal was pressed it filled a sack underneath. On 13th July the hospital was ordered to be cleared of existing patients so that it would be empty and ready in the event of an invasion. All patients who could get up or were fit enough to travel by stretcher were put into ambulances to be taken to Leeds Castle and Orpington Hospital. Only those too ill to be moved were left behind. The fields all around had obstacles in them — farm carts, hurdles, fences and wires — to stop plans and gliders landing. There were a lot of planes overhead and the noise of guns at Dover could be sometimes be heard.

17th July
'This evening a boy was brought in with a gunshot wound of the chest. He looked nearly dead on arrival, but we put him under a shock cradle, gave him blood and, miraculously, he rallied. We decided not to operate on him. It was really remarkable how shocked he was and how quickly he recovered. This was the first injury of this sort we had seen. Whether it was accidental or suicidal I do not know.'

The work of the hospital went on, much of it routine. Kenneth ran a clinic for injecting varicose veins and another for piles. Although it was only 20 miles to the coast where all the action was happening, the staff at the hospital knew little of what was actually going on. The press was censored and it was deemed important that the people of Britain were protected from knowing the reality of the predicament the country was in. If they had known the severity of the situation morale could have collapsed. Whilst Churchill was broadcasting his stirring propaganda speeches, saying “We shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds …. we shall never surrender” the situation was perilous. Rumour was that some soldiers, the Green Howards, who had been fighting at ‘hell fire corner’ down in the Dover area, had just three rounds of ammunition each.

The bombing of the coastal defences continued throughout July and early August. Then the battleground shifted to the skies overhead.

12th August
'At about 4pm I was in the medical inspection room when an unearthly roar shook the place. An air battle was going on over our heads. Pandemonium lasted for about an hour until all was quiet again. Then bombs began falling close by and the patients were put on stretchers on the floor. We received a phone call to warn us that bombers were heading in our direction, but although a lot of bombs fell around us, none hit the hospital.'

14th August
'Two German airmen and one American pilot of the Eagle Squadron of the RAF were brought in with burns to the face and back. They were exhausted and very scared. They thought that the black dye on their faces was a mark of prisoners of war, but were reassured when they found that they were treated kindly. We gave them an anaesthetic, cleaned them up and painted the burnt areas with silver nitrate, tannic acid and gentian violet.'

15th August
'This morning the sky was clear blue. There were five air raid alarms and a lot of activity high overhead. The planes were just little dots high up in the sky and the high-pitched sound of the engineers made a lot of noise. I went to see some patients in an army unit two or three miles away. Then the sky became overcast with a low cloud ceiling and a very large formation of bombers flew over, just above the clouds but out of sight. The noise was overpowering and very frightening. I said to one of the soldiers, “Are they ours?” “No”, he said. So I got into a slit trench until they had gone. We though that they were going for a radar station just a few miles north of Chartham. The Commanding Officer of Mansten Airport came in to see some of his men, saying that they were filling in bomb craters on the runway as fast as they were being made.'

23rd August
'The hospital was shaken all morning by gunfire from ‘hell fire corner’ at Dover. Two more Germans came in. They varied a lot; some were quite nice, but others were very arrogant, saying that Hitler would be over by the end of August. They go on from here in convoys to the Royal Herbert Hospital, Woolwich. Had game of deck tennis in garden.'

24th August
'Day of almost perpetual air raids. The old hospital siren was going all the time — repeated loud bursts from the alarm for raids and one long one for ‘all clear’. I gave an anaesthetic to a German. Some of them have been told that they would not wake up again if they had an anaesthetic in England. One wept when he came round and found himself to be alive and all right. Heard guns at Dover again for about an hour. Went to a singsong in the evening with the women from the voluntary ambulance divisions.'

The next day about 50 airmen were brought in, both Allied and German. My father commented on the difference between “the quiet earth, among the blossoms, where life went quietly on underneath the battle” and the conflict that was happening up above. The contrast between the turmoil in the skies and the ordinariness of life on the ground, where life went on as normal, seemed almost surreal. One minute they would be diving for cover and dealing with severe casualties; the next they would be drinking tea in the garden.

26th August
'Great aerial activity today, but nothing to see. Had supper of omelettes at the farmhouse.'

28th August
'Was having breakfast when there was machine gun firing overhead. Went out to have a look and saw two planes — a German fighter and one of ours — come out of a cloud with guns firing. All of a sudden a parachute opened and the German plane crashed. Our pilot did a victory roll over the hospital and then flew off. The German came down in his parachute into a hedge at the foot of the hill, where he was stuck fast. Then we saw men with pitchforks and scythes from all the fields around converge and surround him, until the army arrived to take him away.'

30th August
'Five air raid alarms today. Great air battles overhead. We had several Nazi airmen brought in who had been beaten up on landing. One had his front teeth knocked out. He had landed in a Kentish hop field full of hop pickers were from the East End of London, many of whom had been bombed out of their homes. We saw a photo of him in the paper the next day being taken away in a car by the police with a large woman shaking her fist at him.'

2nd September
'Saw a great flight of bombers to the north flying up the Thames towards London. When they got to the Medway area it seemed as if a curtain of bursting anti-aircraft shells appeared in front of them before they wavered, broke up and turned back.'

4th September
'Lot of heavy air raids today, but nothing fell near the hospital. I was in the ward when a dogfight broke out overhead and empty cartridge cases rattled down on the roof of the hospital. One poor fellow who had come in from Dover because he could not stand the cross-Channel shooting broke down and had a fit of hysterics. We eventually calmed him down.'

7th September
'A very large formation of bombers went over this evening. The hospital has again been evacuated of all patients fit to move. Heavy bombing of London docks. We have two little black and white rabbits called Hurricane and Spitfire as pets. Some of the RAF fighter pilots in the ward like to play with them.'

The bombing of London — the Blitz — had started. The staff at Chartham watched planes going overhead. Then Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital was hit by a bomb. Kenneth had worked with some of the staff there when the hospital had been evacuated to Stanmore and it brought home to him the severity of the danger they were in. Winston Churchill spoke on the radio that evening and warned Britain that an invasion was imminent.

Until now Kenneth had felt like an onlooker, watching an aerial display overhead. But on 14th September that all changed. There was a growing feeling of apprehension and anxiety as if the testing time was here. The threat of an invasion was very close. That afternoon there was lot of aerial fighting overhead. Kenneth read hymns 375 and 376 in the Methodist hymn book and found them a real help.

15th September
'This was a day of great aerial battles. In the afternoon we were sitting in the garden of our house having tea when an enormous formation of bombers came over, the largest I have seen, all heading for London. Then, after a while, we saw them all going back in twos and threes, dodging in and out of clouds, pursued by the RAF. That evening, four very badly injured Nazi airmen were brought in. One died after an operation. What a futile waste of life this all is.'

The raids on London continued. On 19th September there was news of the advance of the Italian army into Egypt. That evening a British soldier was brought in from Dover.

19th September
'He was a flight lieutenant who had been machine-gunned from the air and his cervical spine was shot through. Captain James Ross [a fellow doctor] operated on him and I gave the anaesthetic. But the damage was irreparable and he died soon after I stopped the anaesthetic. Poor fellow! Then two Germans were brought in. This has been a day of great air battles.'

28th September
'There was a dogfight overhead today and we saw an RAF pilot bale out and come down in his parachute. I went out in an ambulance and eventually found him lying in a farmyard with hens clucking around him. He looked very pale and had a wound in his left shoulder with smoke coming out of it — probably caused by a phosphorus shell. So I put a dressing over it. We freed him from his parachute and got him on a stretcher and into the ambulance. When we got back to the hospital he was taken to the operating theatre after resuscitation. Ross was operating and as he opened up the wound in his shoulder the phosphorus burst into flames. The whole shoulder region had to be opened up and the phosphorous impregnated tissues excised. We worked all day to save him and, after his wife was sent for, he was transferred to an RAF convalescent depot, where he recovered and the wound healed. But then he developed pneumonia and died — alas.'

The pilot had been hit by a Messerschmitt. As the plane hurtled down, he had waited until it was above clear ground before bailing out. As one of the doctors cut away his uniform the pilot selflessly explained that he didn’t want to cause injury to innocent civilians by landing near houses. Perhaps if he had bailed out sooner he could have saved his own life.

13th October
'On as orderly officer today. Things are now rather quiet here, but Canterbury was bombed this week and every night we hear the bombers going over to London.'

The atmosphere was becoming a little calmer. Across the Channel Hitler had decided to postpone the planned invasion of Britain (‘Operation Sealion’). The reasons for this volte face are unclear. Perhaps they had been surprised at the force of the opposition. They had expected to be able to smash the RAF into submission — and failed. Perhaps they were concerned that the weather was worsening and rough seas could make invasion difficult. For whatever reason, it was a tactical misjudgement that saved this country.

Throughout October work continued amidst aerial battles. The noise of anti-aircraft guns could be heard, although none in the immediate area. The Germans were now attacking London with ferocity and by mid November the city had suffered 64 consecutive nights of bombing. Parts of the City of London around the Barbican were completely destroyed and the East End suffered immeasurably. But on 15th November it suddenly went quiet. The Germans had switched their bombing to Coventry.

Just before Christmas Kenneth received official orders that he would be posted to the Leeds depot of the RAMC — the Royal Army Medical Corps. He left Chartham and spent his last night with his family at home on 22nd December sleeping in the cellar sheltering from air raids. The next day he boarded the train for Leeds and reported to Beckett’s Park — then the main assembly centre for drafts of RAMC officers going overseas. No-one knew how long they would be there or where they would be going. What was to happen next would be a big adventure

The next instalment will be posted on the site in a few days.

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