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Ken Hulbert - RAMC (2) From Liverpool to Alexandria

by Anne Richards

Contributed by 
Anne Richards
People in story: 
Kenneth Hulbert (Royal Army Medical Corps)
Location of story: 
Sea voyage round the coast of Africa. Then Egypt
Background to story: 
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
12 November 2005

People in story: Kenneth Hulbert, Royal Army Medical Corps

Location of story: A convoy sailing from Liverpool to Suez via the Cape of Good Hope. Then Egypt

Taken from the diaries of Kenneth Hulbert (1912-2003)

Served in the Royal Army Medical Corps, World War II

This is the second 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 2. Sailing to Egypt. Jan-May 1941

Kenneth Hulbert (28), a lieutenant in the Royal Army Medical Corps, had lived spent six months in a hospital in Canterbury during the Battle of Britain and dealt with some of the casualties. The next five months would be a stark contrast. His orders were to report to a depot at Beckett’s Park in Leeds. There were some lectures on tropical medicine and his fellow officers were also ordered to buy tropical kit. Several times he received orders to assemble and prepare for departure only to be told to stay put, yet again.

But on 18 March the orders were for real. But the destination was a mystery. The troops marched into Leeds before daybreak and boarded a train. As dawn broke Kenneth looked out of the window and recognised the Grand National course at Aintree. So it was to be Liverpool. Waiting at Gladstone Dock was the P&O Srathallan — a new 23,000-ton passenger ship that had just completed her maiden voyage to India. Originally built for 800 passengers, it was now being transformed into a troop ship carrying 3000 soldiers and 218 officers of which 50 were doctors with the Royal Army Medical Corps.

20th March
The tugs began to manoeuvre the ship out of the dock to the sound of loud cheering from other ships and the rousing sounds of an Royal Army Ordinance Corps (RAOC) military band playing ‘It’s a long way to Tipperary’. As each ship passed a band was playing, and there were cheers and counter cheers from the packed decks. We left our anchorage opposite New Brighton Pier in the afternoon and proceeded out, passing several wrecks at the mouth of the Mersey. There was a fighter escort overhead and three destroyers were in attendance. The sea was very calm and we all watched as the shores of England faded away. I remembered the last time I came this way was on a cruise in 1936 to celebrate passing my exams and getting qualified as a doctor.

Two days later, outside the Clyde, another convoy joined them. The ships were Pasteur, Empress of Australia, Stratheden, Strathnara, Strathmore and Orontes. They formed up into four lines of five with the Strathallen amongst the ships in the final line on the left side. Then, out of the mist behind, two strange ships emerged — HMS Nelson and HMS Ramillies. They parked themselves one behind the other in the centre of the convoy. Then a cruiser appeared in front, with a number of destroyers around us some distance away. In the end there were 20 large passenger ships in four lines — two battleships, four cruisers and six destroyers.

Truly it was a superb sight. Towards the evening the wind got up a bit and the battleships started plunging their long noses into the waves and out again, sending up a cloud of spray and signalling to each other by Morse or flags. By now all land was out of sight and we were out in the North Atlantic doing 21 knots. The convoy was steaming into the sunset with its escort of destroyers.

Life on board ship soon settled into a routine. After breakfast and deck drill the troops spent time walking on deck, reading and sitting in the sun. Kenneth would often get settled on deck with a book and his Kapok life jacket as a pillow, until a single blast on the ship’s siren would signal the first leg of a zigzag and he would be in the shade. Almost as soon as he settled in another spot in the sun there would be two blasts and the zigzag would take him into the shade again. The convoy always sailed in perfect order with military precision. There was no zigzag during the night, but every ship in the convoy kept its place throughout the blackout. Sunset was now 9pm and breakfast was eaten in the dark because the clocks had not been readjusted.

The food for officers was good — a full diet, which seemed unfair when people back home were all living on rations. The only thing that was rationed was water, which meant no baths. The blackout was strictly enforced and the convoy was under order to fire on any light seen at night. Living conditions for the officers were adequate, but for the ordinary soldiers they were appalling.

I was upset by seeing the comparison between their conditions and ours upstairs. This should not be. Segregation of officers, yes, but the same fundamental conditions should be the lot of us all. This is still peace time first class for officers and it made me feel uncomfortable.

1st April
We have been joined by two destroyers today. It is very windy but the sun is hotter and higher up in the sky. Tonight the moon is at first quarter. It is warm and the night is lovely. I spent some time on deck looking at the moon and stars and thinking of all of them at home, now further away than ever.

By now the men were wearing tropical kit and the convoy had reached the coast of north-west Africa.

On the horizon, we saw the outline of the hills and mountains of Sierra Leone — our first port of call. The convoy formed up into two lines and slowed down. As we moved into the estuary HMS Nelson stood at the entrance to the boom, counting us in like sheep. The ship moved to her allotted place and dropped anchor. We were soon surrounded by lots of canoes with natives diving for coins. They are very clever, but only dive for silver as they are unable to see copper. One in particular entertained us for two hours, diving in and out for coins, but when he retrieved a penny wrapped in silver paper and saw what it was he swore. For a fee he would say what he thought of Hitler with a flow of obscene language. One man was in the water having retrieved a coin when, from our ship, we saw the fin of a shark moving towards him. We shouted and waved, but he thought we were waving at him and he continued to play about in the water. He just saw it in time and was in his canoe in a flash. We have some of the Royal Corps of Signals on our ship and they have taken over some of the duties. We also have an anti-aircraft unit and they have fixed up some of their guns on deck, which are in addition to the ship’s big guns at the rear and it’s own heavy anti-aircraft machine guns. We hope they don’t have to use them.

News of the recapture of Benghazi in Libya by Rommel and the fall of Asmara in Eritrea.
By the end of April most of the British forces had been evacuated from Greece and around 20,000 troops were taken to Crete.

13th April, Easter Sunday
Was woken by the cabin steward with the usual cup of tea. I read the story of Easter Day. Father always used to tell us this story in his wonderful eloquent way every Easter as a sermon. The service was conducted on deck at 9.30am. The altar consisted of a pile of ammunition boxes and we knelt on our life belts. Sang the Easter hymn accompanied by the RAOC band. At night the sea was all phosphorescent and looked very beautiful. The Milky Way is now quite brilliant and looks totally magical: I have never seen anything like it. So ends Easter Day 1941 at sea. I feel better for this day in every way and more able to face the future, which appears to be darkening. If only I could hear how they are at home, it would not be so trying. I commend them all to the Risen Lord, however, and all will be well.

On 16th April they sighted the Cape of Good Hope and the ships filed into Cape Town harbour one by one. One half of the convoy (30,000 troops) then went on to Durban and the remaining 30,000 disembarked at Cape Town.

At the beginning of May they passed the Twelve Apostles — the rocky islets near the mouth of the Red Sea and watched the sun sinking behind the Nubian Mountains. Then the convoy entered the Gulf of Suez and, for the first time, Kenneth saw the brown hills, yellow desert, blue skies and blazing sun of Egypt. There were other ships there including the Queen Mary and the Queen Elizabeth. But the Suez Canal was blocked by sunken ships and full of mines, so impossible to sail through. The entrance to the Mediterranean at Gibraltar was also impassable because the Germans had control of the Atlantic French ports and there was a serious threat from hostile Italian ships.

So ended two months at sea. It was farewell to the Strathallen. Sadly, she was torpedoed off Algiers after the North African landings just a year later.

Kenneth Hulbert disembarked with the troops on 9th May at Port Tewfik on the Suez Canal and breathed in the smell of the East. As the troops disembarked they were besieged by men and boys trying to sell them things — anything from fake Egyptian relics to oranges (which they pronounced “orangays”).

As we left the ship the Commander said a farewell over the loudspeaker and wished us luck — a nice gesture. We all cheered back. We were hot, weak and thirsty. Thankfully, there on the quayside was a welcome sight — a big, black boiler full of tea. It was sweet and made with chlorinated water, but never had tea been more welcome.

The other welcome sight was the Union Jack. Although Egypt was an independent kingdom, it had been a British protectorate and there was still a strong British presence there. The 60,000 troops now split up and headed off in different directions. Kenneth was with a group that boarded a train for Alexandria. As the train headed north along the Nile Delta it passed floodlit prisoner-of-war (POW) camps which were holding the Italians taken by General Wavell’s army after his great initial success in defeating the Italian army. After the planned German invasion of Britain was postponed the focus of the war effort moved to the Middle East and the Mediterranean. The Italians had attacked the British forces in Egypt in September 1940 under Wavell who mounted a successful counter-attack in December. By February 1941 the Western Desert Force had routed 10 Italian divisions and captured 130,000 prisoners.
Their destination was a transit camp near a place called Amria — a small undistinguished village about 10 miles to the west of Alexandria, where the Nile Delta ends and the desert begins, on the southern side of Lake Mareotis. The camp was only temporary, as the intention was that they would soon be boarding a ship for Malta. The baggage arrived with camp beds, bed rolls and portable wash stands, plus all the paraphernalia of an officer at war. Kenneth settled in to his tent for the first night in the desert, sharing with six other medical officers. All tents were the standard dark brown canvas, not arranged in rows, but irregularly as this made it harder to see them from the air. There was a larger mess tent for meals. Kit was khaki drill shirt, shorts, topi and desert boots. The other essential was a fly whisk.

There was nothing to do except wait. The next day several of the officers thumbed a lift in a lorry into Alexandria and went for lunch to the Hotel Cecil — patronised by such famous guests as Winston Churchill, Noel Coward, Lawrence Durrell,and Somerset Maugham. This became a regular routine. Sometimes they would have a hair cut and shave at the hotel, after which the barber rubbed their faces with a block of ice. Marvellous!

By now it was late May and Egypt was experiencing a heat wave, which meant it was even hotter than normal. This discomfort was compounded by sandstorms, which cannot be believed until experienced. Sand gets in everything — ears, eyes, food, toothpaste.

There was still no news of Malta and no one had received any mail for eight weeks. The frustrating thing was that there was a bunch of letters, addressed to Malta, waiting for the officers in the army post office in Alexandria, but no one was allowed to open them until they reached their destination because they had been sealed by the international postal seal.

29th May
News of the evacuation of Crete after the German airborne invasion on 21st May. A lot of patients arrived from Crete and were sent to nearby hospitals. Alexandria suffered bombing and the Windsor Hotel was in turmoil because the Greek Government in exile was arriving in force.

30th May
The air raid sounded at 1am. Shortly after, anti-aircraft gunfire began and soon became very heavy. It was probably a raid on the harbour, but the detonation came through to us in the water of Lake Mareotis. The war is getting closer and grim days are ahead.

21 June
Germany declared war on Russia.

23rd June
Heavy raid on Alexandria early this morning. From our camp we saw parachute flares coming down and then an immense barrage of anti-aircraft fire. A lot of ‘flaming onions’ were thrown up — a wonderful firework display, but this was for real. The searchlights caught a land mine coming down slowly on a parachute, following it with pencils of light until it landed with a big explosion.

27th June
During the night there was an air raid, so we got into a slit trench with our hats on. Several anti-aircraft shells fell around us. They had been set up in haste without wetting the fuses, so that they fell to earth and exploded on impact. We hear that there have been some casualties in the camp.

30th June
On as orderly officer, so stopped in the camp all day. There was another very heavy raid on Alexandria early this morning. The sergeant came to take me over to the men’s tents to see all was well. On the way, however, we heard the familiar sound of a giant sheet being torn in the air and knew a bomb was coming close. We both threw ourselves into a slit trench and the bomb fell a few hundred yards away in open desert. Fortunately, no one was hurt. Went on to the men’s tents, found them all in slit trenches and all well. Once again, several shells fell around us.

By now Kenneth had spent one year in the army and could assume the rank of captain. On 10th July they were told that Malta was off. A week later Captain Hulbert was sent
on a temporary posting to a casualty clearing station at a place called Ikingi, which is a bit further west up the coast towards El Alamein. There he did a medical inspection — the first job of work he had done since leaving Chartham seven months ago. It was good to be working again, but it only lasted three days. On 20th July there was a phone call recalling all officers on the RCILM mission. So they packed up and left for Cairo. Kenneth was not sorry to leave Amria.

4th August
Received news of a posting to the Sudan. Decided that I must not leave Cairo without having had lunch at the famous Shepherd’s Hotel, but it was rather ornate, dark and oppressive. Had quail for the first course. The second course was bread and butter pudding. Ugh! But after all, it is wartime.

On 6th August Kenneth received his travelling orders and warrants to travel up the Nile to the Sudan. A few days later the ship passed the temple of Abu Simbel, but the ship’s searchlight could not be turned on because of the blackout. However, in the moonlight Kenneth could just make out the dim shapes of the four gigantic Colossi of Ramses II.

That night, as he did on many other nights, he read Psalm 121 ‘I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills from whence cometh my help’. The title of the book from which these extracts are taken is the first line of that psalm.

End of part two

Next instalment. Sudan and the ambulance train.

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