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Kenneth Hulbert - RAMC (6) India and home

by Anne Richards

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Contributed by 
Anne Richards
People in story: 
Kenneth Hulbert
Location of story: 
Madras, on board ship and England.
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Contributed on: 
18 November 2005

People in story: Kenneth Hulbert, Royal Army Medical Corps
Location of story: India and England

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

This is the sixth and last 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.

Kenneth Hulbert (RAMC), now a major, spent the last two years of the war serving in hospitals in south India as a surgeon and anaesthetist. In the summer of 1943 he was sent to Bangalore to join his colleagues at the 18th General Hospital . The “hospital” was a series of tents. The operating theatre consisted of two medium-sized tents together, with another one for x-rays, a pathology lab and dental workshops. The mess tent was surrounded by small bashas (huts) where the officers and staff lived. The anaesthetic room was a small tent adjacent to the theatre tent. The anaesthetics available were mostly ethyl chloride and ether, with very limited amounts of nitrous oxide and oxygen. The latter had always been imported from the UK and they were only just developing a plant in India.

19th August
“I gave 11 anaesthetics today. Our patients are coming from the 70th Division that held Tobruk in the siege. They are now out here on jungle training and we are looking after them. We have a lot of Italian prisoners of war working as cooks and ward orderlies. They are very willing.”

By now the Germans had been driven from North Africa and had surrendered to the Russians at Stalingrad. On 10th July the Allies invaded Sicily and later that month Mussolini’s regime in Italy fell. Allied troops crossed into the Italian mainland and on 8th September Italy surrendered. It was in Italy that some say the British and American troops fought their toughest battles against the Germans. The day after the news came through, the little tent which acted as a telephone exchange put up a sign saying ‘Italy surrenders’. The Italians were very excited and there was jollity throughout the hospital. Fortunes were turning in our favour. By September air mail letter cards were arriving in 13 days instead of three months, as the Mediterranean was now open.

On 11th January Number 18 General Hospital arrived at a place called Avadi — a village 14 miles west of Madras. This was an ideal place for a hospital. There was a large camp that had been built to house coolies who were going to Malaya to work in the rubber plantations. There were a lot of open-sided pavilions that would make good wards and a large bungalow that could be used as the operating theatre. There were also a number of brick buildings. It was all part of a very large area that was a military base for the projected invasion of Malaya across the Indian Ocean. Kenneth was given a room next to Herbert Gallagher. They arranged their rooms so that one was a study and the other a bedroom as Herbert was working for his Edinburgh FRCS and Kenneth was plodding on with the correspondence course for the English FRCS.

As the hospital began to function the medical officers got their bearings. A cargo of bicycles had arrived from England and the government of India had fixed the price at 160 rupees. So Kenneth bought one from the market next to Madras station, put it in the luggage van of the train and took it back to Avadi. The hospital was so widespread that a bicycle was necessary to get around, but it was also useful for getting into Madras and exploring the area.. The circuit was lunch at the Connemara Hotel, shopping in Simpsons (the big store), and then tea at the Gymnkhana Club. Sundays were spent at Egmont Methodist church in Madras, which became like home from home.

4th May
I took over the care of a ward full of Indian patients. A lot of them are Gurkhas who never moan about anything, however ill or in pain they are. So I am now fully extended and very busy indeed.

The Anglo-American Burma campaign was underway, under the overall command of Lord Mountbatten. Much of the army was made up of Indian soldiers — a curious situation given the ferocity of the ‘Quit India’ movement in 1942. But, despite this hostility, the British managed to raise a substantial army from amongst the Indians. The Gurkhas also played a major part in that campaign. By the summer of 1944 the Japanese had been driven from their advanced positions in Burma and the tide of the war on the Eastern Front was starting to turn.

21st May
“Another large convoy of patients arrived today. The Africans have certainly livened things up. At first, we wondered what they would eat, as we have to be so careful never to give Hindus beef or Moslems pork. We were told that they ate anything — and they did. At breakfast they would have porridge, bacon and egg, all mixed up together. The other evening a group of them were sitting in a circle outside the ward tent chattering away. When the ward sister asked what they were talking about all this time, one of them said, “Sister, we are having an argument. If I was in a boat crossing a river with my mother and wife, and the boat went down in a storm, who would I try and save? He says his wife and I say my mother because you only have one mother and can always get another wife”. One of them with a plaster on kept us all amused by saying, “Dem bones him all broken, smal, small”. If one patient has a clean plaster on, the others all sulk. The sister once said to one of them, “If you do not stay in bed I shall smack you”. He answered “Sister, if you smack me I shall just sit here and cry like this”. He proceeded to cry so much that he had all the others laughing “.

6th June
News of the opening of the Second Front and the Normandy landings.

Throughout June and July the hospital was busy with more patients arriving from the Eastern Front. Entertainment was limited — the occasional gramophone recital (a performance of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony was the highlight one week). Then Noel Coward arrived to entertain the troops.

“It was a brilliant performance, which went on for two hours with an interval at half time. It was very hot and at the end he said that he just had to sing ‘Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun’.”

It rained hard for most of November as more and more convoys arrived from the Eastern Front. By the end of the year there was still no news of repatriation and morale was low. The Normady landings had been successful and Japan was retreating in the Pacific. But the war was not over yet.

Them on 18th January, Kenneth was told to stand by for home. “It is almost unbelievable”, he wrote. So he packed a trunk and took it into Madras to the censor’s office.

On 5th February the big day arrived. HQ phoned with orders for Kenneth to be in Bombay within 48 hours. So he hastily packed up all his things, said goodbye to everyone and was off into Madras to catch the Bombay Mail. It was such a rush that he scarcely had time to comprehend that he was, at last, going home. The train got to Bombay the next morning and Kenneth received instructions that he was to board the ship City of Exeter the next day.

8th February
“Left the hotel in the afternoon, assembled at Ballard’s Pier and embarked on the City of Exeter — an old civilian coal burning ship of 10,000 tons. She was not a troop ship because most of the passengers were women and children. But the captain said he would not sail with all these children on board unless he had some army officers as well, hence our presence. Amongst them were a number of missionary families, some forestry people and some from the Indian civil service. We sailed 7pm out into the sunset, and I stood on deck watching the Taj Mahal and Gateway of India recede into the distance. “

And so the City of Exeter set off on the first stage of its journey back to England.
On 20th February they reached Suez and anchored.

“The Suez Canal pilot came aboard with his crew. Two of them went to the prow of the ship where they installed a searchlight powered by a large battery. Then, very slowly, we entered the canal. We proceeded at little more than walking speed in order not to wash away the banks. Every so often we passed a signal station and orders were exchanged between them and the pilot on the bridge in French. We passed the remains of several ships that had sunk in the canal, been hauled out and left on the side. By midday we were in the Greater Bitter Lake at Ismailia and in the late afternoon the ship passed the spot where Number 18 General Hospital had been situated, which made me feel very nostalgic. It then got dark and the searchlight at the front of the ship was turned on. This was quite romantic, with the light illuminating the desert on each side and beyond into total darkness. “

By the end of February the ship was sailing steadily east through the Western Mediterranean, with no escort, no zigzag and no blackout.

28th February
Woke up early and there, in the distance, was the Rock of Gibraltar. What a magnificent sight it is. This is the first time I have ever seen it and it arouses deep feelings in my British heart. We slowly turned, entered the bay and anchored at noon. The bay was full of ships of all kinds waiting to form up on convoys. We saw planes taking off and landing at the airport and there were several warships in the harbour. Over on the other side we could see Algeciras in Spain. Several men came over in rowing boats, trying to barter silk stockings for cigarettes. When they approached the ship they were warned off and threatened with a shower from a hose. The reason was that men had been caught swimming over from the Spanish side in the dark to place sticky bombs underneath the ships. As soon as it was dark all the searchlights were turned on Algeciras, floodlighting the town and the bay. Then, through the night, depth charges were dropped at 20-minute intervals. This would kill anyone swimming in the water and it also interrupted our sleep because it felt as if a giant hammer had hit the ship. It is now very cold and our ‘holiday voyage’ home is over. The war, however, is not.

7th March
“Today, in the far distance, we caught a glimpse of the coast of England. This morning a notice was put up in the ship announcing that one of the escort ships would drop a depth charge at noon. It was dropped a long way off, but it felt as if a giant hammer had hit the ship, which shuddered from end to end. One of the Indian waiters, who could not read and so had not understood the warning, thought this was the real thing (an attack), dropped a tray of glasses that he was carrying and ran like blazes to get his life jacket. “

9th March.
“Woke up early, went out on deck and there were the White Cliffs of Dover on the port side. It was a bit misty but the sun was shining and it was a very moving sight. We passed St. Margaret’s Bay and the South Downs before the land fell away again as we sailed north. Then the great moment came. We swung round to the west and began sailing up the Thames Estuary, past the anti-aircraft towers on stilts across the river, past Canvey Island and, in the evening, we anchored off Gravesend with Tilbury Pier on the other side. It was a cold, dismal evening, everything was blacked out, but it was ENGLAND and HOME.”

Kenneth boarded a train for Fenchurch Street Station where, for the first time, he saw the awful damage wrought by the V1 and V2 bombers. There were some army lorries there and he asked to be dropped at King’s Cross. He looked for a telephone box to phone home, but then realised that he had forgotten the number. Taxis weren’t allowed to go as far as Barnet where his parents lived, so he caught an underground train to High Barnet and slowly walked up the hill.

“It was 9pm, pitch dark and I had some difficulty in finding the house. I rang the bell. Mother came to the door and said: “Oh Ken”. She was very excited and her immediate reaction was to hurry out into the kitchen and get a meal, which was my first taste of spam. Then she playfully reprimanded me for coming home like that, all unannounced. “I might have fainted”, she said. Father was away in the west country and mother had to get a message through to him. By this time I was exhausted from the effort of unloading the ship and the excitement of seeing my family again. But, although I was home, the call of India still kept coming. So I went to bed, read hymn no 427 and was soon fast asleep.

My father’s war diaries ended on 25th December 1945. I asked him what his war years meant to him and how those experiences have influenced him. This what he said:

“It was a great adventure and I was entirely thrown back on my own resources. I was able to see the world in a way that I would never have done in any other way. Then there was the comradeship, having to meet and mix with people from different backgrounds and, at the same time, maintain my Methodist roots. My friendship with Herbert Gallagher, in particular, is very special to me. The long separation from home was painful, but my home was all the more precious as a result. The long journeys, so often spent on my own, and the opportunity to see people of other lands have enriched my life ever since. Then there was that time at Chartham in 1940, after which I could truly say, with others ‘This was their finest hour’.”

Kenneth Hulbert became an eminent consultant surgeon, specialising in orthopaedics. He spent most of his career working for a group of hospitals based in and around Dartford in North Kent. Within orthopaedics he specialised in children, particularly those with spina-bifida (now less common), cerebral palsy and other congenital conditions. He retired in 1974.

These extracts from his diaries have been mainly factual. I have not included anything about his feelings or his Christian faith. Included in his diary entries were mentions of hymns and passages from the Bible that had helped him during troubled times. Psalm 121 ‘I will lift up mine eyes until the hills’ was one of his favourites — and we both chose it as the title of the book I wrote about his wartime experiences and early life.

My father says that his experiences during the war, working in very difficult circumstances with limited equipment, were an excellent training for working in less-than-perfect conditions in the National Health Service. His time in Egypt and India, in particular, helped him relate to fellow doctors from those countries, many of whom would become his colleagues. His special interest in paediatric orthopaedic problems and their management earned him wide respect within the medical profession. But, above all, what distinguished him was his compassion and understanding of the problems that people with disabilities, particularly children, have to endure.

He met my mother in April 1945 and they married in January 1946. I was born in April 1947, followed by my sister in 1949 and my brother in 1951. Kenneth Hulbert died on May 2003 aged 90.

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These messages were added to this story by site members between June 2003 and January 2006. It is no longer possible to leave messages here. Find out more about the site contributors.

Message 1 - RAMC INDIA WWll

Posted on: 18 November 2005 by happycrockers

I was fascinated to read Anne Richard's account of her father's experience with the RAMC in India.

My father served with the RAMC in India in 1945 working on Ambulance Trains from a base at Lucknow Hospital. I have been researching what he may have experienced there and have about 80 letters he wrote to my late mother. He never spoke of his experience, but I believe he must have experienced some horrific sights of the aftermath of the war in that area. The letters tell something of this but he still seems to have spared my mother the gory and sad details.

I wonder if the book based on her father's diaries is published and available. If not published, how can I obtain / buy a copy?

Malcolm Crockford

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