Saving Lives under Fire: the RAMC at Dunkirk

For RAMC personnel attached to fighting units who had made the perilous retreat to the Dunkirk beaches a maelstrom of carnage awaited them.

Cundall Dunkirk
War Artist Charles Cundall captured the scene which greeted RAMC personnel in which they had to strive to save the lives of those who could be evacuated from Dunkirk.

Corporal Montague of No. 6 Field Ambulance took a wounded sergeant to a French hospital, where every corner and passageway was filled with the wounded and dying. Outside, the roads were blocked with abandoned and destroyed vehicles. Looking out to sea, Montague noted a Royal Naval destroyer with a broken back. On the sand, rows of men waited their turn for evacuation, vulnerable to wave upon wave of Stuka attacks. Montague set to work burying the dead, digging graves in the sand with his bare hands. `We stuck each man’s rifle into the sand at his head and tied his identity disc to the trigger guard.’
Sergeant Reg Gill, who had been serving as a radiographer at No.18 General Hospital at Étaples, experienced some difficulty in loading some of the French casualties who were evacuated from Dunkirk:
We loaded the stretchers and put the French and British walking wounded aboard. Many of the French didn’t want to go. When they were told we were going to ‘Angleterre’ they didn’t want to know. Some wanted to go back down the coast and join in the fighting again but most seemed to acquiesce and go reasonably well.
Just up the coast from Dunkirk, at La Panne, a large number of RAMC units had gathered and set up dressing and clearance stations in the remains of the hotels. Colonel C.M. Finny, the Assistant Director of Medical Services of 50th Division was present on 30st May and recalled:
The sea front at La Panne is a sort of military Harley Street. Nearly everyone seems to be in the R.A.M.C. In addition to my three field ambulances, Nos -, -, and – C.C.S. and – Field Ambulance are located in hotels by the sea. No. – C.C.S. is at Rosendael near Dunkirk and, I understand, is holding casualties prior to embarkation.

Hospital ships were anchored offshore and stretcher bearers struggled through the water to load men on to smaller transfer boats. Corporal Michael Adams of No. 11 Casualty Clearing Station was one of those at La Panne. As the doctors were working round the clock performing heroic stints of endurance with their surgical skills, orderlies like Adams were left to administer post-operative care. He recalled the delirium of one soldier, calling for his wife; to sooth the man’s distress Adams pretended to answer as his spouse. The pressure of the situation led him to wish the mortally wounded would die quickly, to provide relief from their mental and physical torment, and to free up space for those waiting for treatment.
Captain Richard Doll, whose research would later conclusively establish the link between tobacco smoking and cancer, was one of the later evacuees. Having been given the order to make a last withdrawal at 2200 hrs on 1st June, he headed for the mole at Malo-les-Bains before returning to report its location to the rest of his battalion. Not being able to find them in the confusion, he returned to the beach with the small party which was accompanying him, where they dug themselves a shallow shelter in the sand. An officer then walked past asking for a doctor, as there were reports of badly wounded men the other side of the mole. Doll went to investigate but could not locate any casualties, although on his return trip he found a man with a badly broken leg. All he was able to provide was a dose of morphine, and the advice to the man’s comrades to have him embark as soon as possible.

Richard Doll
Dr Richard Doll in later years

Realising that there was a chance that his party might not be evacuated before the Germans either overran the beach or caused much greater damage by shelling, Doll walked a short distance along the coast and found a line of men in the water, waiting their turn to board couple of small rowing boats transporting men onto larger boats.
We lined up in the water and, as the empty rowing boats returned to the shore, parties of us waded out to them…the water came up to my breast before I reached the boat…To the accompaniment of much swearing on the part of the two seamen, the boat gradually filled and was then pulled out to a paddle steamer lying a couple of hundred yards further on by a small motorboat.

Upon boarding the paddle steamer, Doll’s Dunkirk duties were not finished. He responded to the request of a naval medical orderly to assist with binding and splinting of wounds of some nine or ten men; `Some were terribly badly wounded, and I cannot understand how they got on board.’ One man, who had six separate fractures on both legs, died before the boat returned to the safety of England. By this stage Doll was utterly exhausted, but was sustained by traditional British fare, `I must have looked terribly done up, for the orderly looked after me like a child, continually giving me steaming cups of tea, and Oxo and pieces of bread and butter.’ He was then asked to treat some more wounded on deck, before being granted some much-needed rest. When he awoke he was in Ramsgate harbour. The only possessions remaining were a small haversack and a small kitten which had been his companion since he had found it lost and forlorn in Les Bergeurs.

Further accounts of members of the RAMC who were involved in the Battle of France and evacuations from Dunkirk and St Nazaire can be found in my recently published book, Faithful in Adversity: The Royal Army Medical Corps in the Second World War

Faithful in Adversity


The RAMC at Belsen – “Life can never be quite the same again for those who have worked in the Concentration Camp”.

This week marks the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Belsen Concentration Camp. The horrors found by troops who had overthrown the reign of Nazi terror shook them to the core. It fell to members of the Royal Army Medical Corps to undertake a programme of care which would save as many lives of the survivors as possible, whilst decontaminating the area for future use.

No. 11 Light Field Ambulance had crossed the Rhine in early 1945. By 13 April rumours began to circulate that Brigadier Glyn Hughes, the Chief Medical Officer of the Second Army had assigned the unit a special task, `something about a concentration camp infected with typhus.’
At 0015 hours on 17th April, orders were received to be ready to move within twelve hours and anxiety began to manifest itself in the men.

Having come through North-West Europe campaign virtually without a scratch and they were understandably wary of entering a typhus infected area with the war’s end in sight.
Belsen camp was closely camouflaged with wooded areas, and members of No. 11 LFA caught glimpses of huts and barbed wire fencing as they passed by the perimeter of the camp en route to the entrance. A detachment of Hungarian guards had been assigned by the Germans to act as camp guards, wearing a white armband.
11th LFA joined No. 32 Casualty Clearing Station under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel J.A.D. Johnston MC, the Senior Medical Officer at the camp. Later they would be joined by No. 163 Field Ambulance, No. 9 British General Hospital, No. 35 Casualty Clearing Station and the No. 29 British General Hospital. Assistance was also received from 567 Company American Field Service Unit.

Major D.T. Prescott of No. 11 LFA was shocked by the sight which confronted him:
The scene which met us as we entered the camp was one of utter chaos with dead and dying everywhere and an estimated 6-10 thousand people dead on site. The fitter ones seemed to be wandering about – a lot of them aimlessly – in the blue and white prison pyjamas which offered very little protection from the elements.
Captain Eric Godwin took a series of photographs of conditions at the camp. He recorded on the back of one `Belsen. We drove along the road & wondered what the people were. The local Germans must have known what went on.’

Photographs taken by Captain Ernest Godwin RAMC
(Courtesy of the Second World War Experience Centre)

Some prisoners could hardly shuffle, and Major Prescott saw some inmates collapse and die. Inside some of the huts, hundreds of people were crammed together without bunks. In the dormitories there were two to three people to a bunk, without a mattress. Often one of them was dead, with the survivors lacking the strength to remove the body. The vast majority were suffering from diarrhoea and typhus and tuberculosis were rife. People resembled human skeletons. Death and human excreta were everywhere.
Belsen’s inmates had not been sent there to be directly exterminated, but to be interned and to endure harsh forced labour. As well as Jews, there were many political internees. The camp possessed just one single-chamber crematorium, presenting a challenge in the disposal of the infected corpses. An attempt was made by British troops to raise the morale of the inmates by encouraging them to make small fires in the open, on which to cook the small amounts of food provided for them. Many inmates could not bear the smell of the Bengal Famine mixture (a rice and sugar mixture successfully used to address the 1943 famine) provided and rejected this fare.
It was decided that everyone would have to be evacuated and the camp completely destroyed. Bulldozers were brought in to dig enormous pits which could hold about five thousand bodies. The machines then shoved the bodies into the pits, which were marked by minefield tape. Members of the S.S. who had been running the camp prior to liberation were made to do a token burial of the dead by loading the deceased into lorries, taking them to the pits and throwing them in.
Jewish Rabbis who were internees spent their days conducting funeral services for those who had been recognised by friends of family. A hospital was established at a large cavalry barracks a couple of miles from Belsen. At its entrance a large stable was turned into a `human laundry’, in which the men of No. 11 LFA were dressed in anti-typhus suits, dusted with DDT powder and sent into the camp in ambulances to evacuate the sickest of inmates. Their clothing was removed and they were wrapped in army blankets and removed to the `human laundry’. Here, German female nursing orderlies worked, bathing and delousing the patients, who were then put into clean blankets and transported to makeshift hospital wards in the barrack area. Between 650 and 750 survivors were dealt with daily under this system.
RAMC personnel located German medical supplies, and these were brought together in a dispensary under Prescott’s leadership. He had working under him a German army pharmacist and a camp inmate who spoke five or six languages.

Two RAMC privates were given the job of decontaminating any visitors to the camp by spraying them with a gun filled with anti-louse powder on the head, arm and down the front of the trousers. Famous visited to be treated this way included Field Marshal Montgomery, Marshal of the Royal Air Force Lord Tedder, and Richard Dimbleby, the BBC correspondent who reported on the horrors of the camp to the British wireless audience.

After three or four weeks the tasks of decontaminating and treating were near completion. On 21st May 1945 Prescott witnessed the Royal Engineers using flame-throwing tanks performing a ceremonial burning of the evacuated huts.
A Special Order of the Day, issued by the commanding officer of No. 11 LFA, Lieutenant-General M.W. Gonin, referred to the work undertaken at Belsen:

You then undertook what, for this unit, was the thankless and unspectacular task of clearing Belsen Concentration Camp. Our American friends and yourselves…have moved well over 11,000 sic from Belsen. To do this, 63 if you have worked for a month amid the most unhygienic conditions inside huts where the majority of internees were suffering from the most virulent disease known to man. You have had to deal with the mass hysteria and political complications requiring the tact of diplomats and the firmness of senior officers. During the first 10 days of the Concentration Camp and before any organised attempt had been made to feed the sick in those huts you distributed 4,000 meals twice daily from what RSM Marno could scrounge by initiative and subtlety.
By collecting medical equipment from all over Germany you produced a dispensary which has supplied drugs for 13,000 patients a day and has met the demands of excitable medical officers of all races requiring the most exotic drugs in half a dozen different languages. You may have, without hesitation, acted as undertakers, collecting over 2,000 corpses from the wards of the hospital area and removing them to the mortuary – a task which the RAMC can never before have been asked to fulfil.
The cost has not been light; 20 of you contracted typhus – a disease causing great personal suffering. Thank God all the patients are doing well.
One of us will never leave Belsen – the dawn attack by the German Air Force on our lines was the price he paid to come here.
Life can never be quite the same again for those who have worked in the Concentration Camp but you will go with the knowledge that the l1(Br) Lt Fd Amb has once again done a good job.

The work of the Royal Army Medical Corps during the Second World War across all theatres of war is covered in my recently published book Faithful in Adversity: The Royal Army Medical Corps in the Second World War

Faithful in Adversity

Recruiting the Orderlies: The RAMC in the Second World War (2)

The previous post in this series examined the Army medical training infrastructure that had to be expanded during the early stages of the war. This piece will give an idea of the range of men who either volunteered or were conscripted to serve as orderlies in a variety of general and specialist technical roles. Some had already been members of the territorial army before the war,  whilst others had a general interest in medicine and first aid. Others were merely assigned randomly to the corps. A further group, the conscientious objectors, were posted to the RAMC on the basis that they would not have to bear arms against a fellow human.
David Jones, a cost clerk with a gas company, was already a member of a Territorial RAMC unit and therefore on the Monday following Chamberlain’s announcement on the wireless that Britain was at war he reported to Finsbury Barracks in north London. After a morning of some confusion as to how to organise the influx of what was now a regular army, Jones soon became one of many men who took a dislike to army drills and the way in which they were conducted:

When I arrived at the barracks there was chaos and we just sat around in groups waiting for something to happen. At midday they told us to “fall in” on the parade ground and then they marched us through the streets to the local ABC restaurant. We all sat down and had steak and kidney pie with vegetables and some sort of fruit pie with custard.
The next day was a little different and they were more organised. We were taken out onto the parade ground and a little squint-eyed Sergeant called Stanton put us through two hours of marching up and down. He soon got to know me and every so often shouted out “Jones, take that smile off your face”. Then he would have a go at someone else and it was not long before we all hated him.

Ronald Ritson had left school aged fourteen to begin work as a coal miner at Walkmill Colliery in Cumberland. The colliery maintained a branch of the St. John’s Ambulance which Ritson joined, competing with other local mines to win a shield for the most efficient unit. Ritson also availed himself of the option to join the unit’s Military Hospital Reserve, which afforded him additional opportunities for medical training, but also meant that in the event of war breaking out, he would be liable to an immediate call-up.
On Monday 4th September, on completion of his shift in the darkness of the pit, Ritson arrived home at 3p.m. to be greeted with the equally dark news that his call-up papers had arrived, and he was to catch a train at Bransty Station, Whitehaven at 7p.m. Ritson did not have the opportunity to formally give his notice at work, and had to say a hurried farewell to his parents and siblings.

Paul Watts, a resident assistant golf professional, had joined the local ARP and became a Gas instructor for his home village of Mundesley. He was also the local Scout Master and when interviewed for call up was told that unfortunately he would not qualify for the infantry as he had flat feet. As someone who earned his living from sport, this amazed him. However, he was not too sorry to miss out on the infantry and pointed out that he had been trained in first aid for his scout work, suggesting his skills could be used in the RAMC.

PIC S Paul Watts
Paul Watts

Jim Whitaker had worked in a shoe factory in Lancashire before the war. His employer wanted a qualified first-aider on the staff of the factory and had offered to pay the course fees of anyone who applied. Whitaker leapt at the opportunity and was able to gain experience of ambulance driving and treating patients in this additional role. However, as he was thus considered a key worker for Civil Defence, he was not permitted to volunteer from the RAMC, as was his wish, and had to wait for his age group to be called up before being assigned to the corps.

PIC9 Corporal Jim Whitaker Taken after the Relief of Brussels 1944. SWWEC
Jim Whitaker

Walter Hart, a printer and bookbinder from the Jewish East End of London was another territorial, like David Jones, who found his initiation into army food provisions a pleasant experience. Hart was part of the 1st Militia, the first batch of troops to be conscripted, and had been a member of the St John’s Ambulance before the war as well as serving as a sergeant in the Jewish Lads’ Brigade. Having signed on at a Labour Exchange in May 1939, he was passed as A1 at a medical and posted to the training depot at Crookham:

On arrival we were told to form a queue, so that we could be checked in. Just then a red tabbed colonel came by and said a few words of welcome. After being booked in we were led by a sergeant to a big mess hall, there meeting our view, were tables placed in pairs end to end. Each table was covered by a white sheet, serving as a tablecloth, and on each was a small vase with flowers. The kindly sergeant told us to sit down and we were served with tea and sandwiches by corporals who were present. The sergeant declared, “This is only a snack, you will get a proper lunch later.” 

However, this kindness was merely for the benefit of the attendant members of the press, out in full force to cover the story of the first batch of conscripts. After they had left, the tablecloths and flowers were removed and a sergeant barked, “Right twelve to a table”. The final two men to sit down were appointed mess orderlies for the week, assigned the task of dishing out the food and removing and wash the empty pots afterwards. During the meal an officer came round and asked if there were any complaints. Having been previously warned that if anyone complained, they would be `in for it, no-one raised any objection despite the awfulness of the food.’

Charles Quant had lost the use of an eye in a boyhood accident, and when he went for an initial medical examination to join the army, he was told by the doctor that he was unfit for military service due to only having one working eye:

I said I was a very good shot with rifle or shotgun, but he said that King’s Regulation said that nobody with only one eye could shoot. I was cheeky and asked him if he could shoot, he said he did. I asked him which eye he closed and he said the left. I said that my left eye was permanently closed, but he stuck to the point about King’s Regulations and sent me home.

Nevertheless, Quant was called for interview a few months later and told that there was an opening in the RAMC to train as a radiographer. Keenly, he accepted this offer and was sent to the training depot at Church Crookham, and thence to the training college at Millbank, coinciding with the during start of the blitz.

PIC H Charles Quant with Hypo the dog
Charles Quant with Hypo, the dog that would accompany his unit through much of the Middle Eastern Campaign

John Broom was a twenty-three year old furniture salesman from Colchester at the time of his call-up and appeared before the medical board on 24th February 1940, being classed as Grade `A1’. He was deemed to have enlisted on 15th March 1940, on which date his devoutly Christian parents gave him a pocket bible with the following inscription:

To my darling John
With fondest love
From Mum and Dad
March 15th 1940

And when He putteth forth
His own sheep
He goeth before them…
Kept by the Power of God
Peter 1.5.
In all thy ways acknowledge Him,
And He shall direct thy paths
Proverbs 3.6

This bible was to remain with him throughout the war, and indeed throughout the rest of his life. His mother Florence, like many women of her generation, had to send her son off to war just twenty-five years after seeing her husband depart for the horrors of the First World War trenches. On his arrival in Leeds, John wrote `Regarding my departure, you were very brave and the circumstances were the best possible. I realise how very much you must have been dreading it. Truly you all bore yourselves with conspicuous courage. I am glad you didn’t break down, though I should have understood it if you had’.
The stories of dozens of individuals who served across all theatres of the Second World War are told in my critically acclaimed book Faithful in Adversity: The Royal Army Medical Corps in the Second World War  published by Pen & Sword.

Faithful in Adversity

Training the British Army Medics: the RAMC in the Second World War (1)

As I write this, Britain and the wider world stands at the cusp of a medical emergency, with most countries experiencing partial or total lockdowns. Medical services strive to provide care for the increasing tsunami of Covid-19 patients, often with inadequate resources and equipment.

80 years ago Britain faced a crisis of similar gravity. This blog post will be the first in a series examining the ways in which the British Army expanded its medical provision in order to support the successful prosecution of the war.

At the outbreak of the Second World War, the strength of the Army Medical Services stood at just over 9,000. By May 1945 it had doubled to nearly 18,000.

In order to address the immediate demand for medical officers at the start of the war,  British Medical Association was appointed by the War Office as the instrument for recruiting from the medical profession.

All medical practitioners in the United Kingdom were contacted, and asked for details of their employment and commitments, and their willingness to undertake service with the fighting or civil defence forces. It was agreed that in the event of compulsory service, the committee would notify the War Office of their particulars.
During September 1939, the Central War Committee of the British Medical Association nominated 110 medical men for commissions as specialists, but only 98 were forthcoming during the subsequent six months. Therefore, qualification requirements were lowered so younger and less experienced men could take up appointments where they could work under the guidance and supervision of those more experienced specialist officers.

These were known as `graded’ staff, e.g. `graded surgeon’, `graded physician’ and granted a temporary rank of lieutenant. These new officers immediately replaced those who had been mobilised for field service, to reinforce military hospitals, but due to shortages of existing medical staff, some were used to address deficiencies in field medical units due to be despatched overseas. By mid-1941, 869 specialists and 187 graded specialists were serving with the Army Medical Services as a whole.
In addition to the efforts made by the BMA to recruit doctors into the military, in September 1939, around 800 medical practitioners volunteered for service in the army. Each one was medically examined, and then interviewed by a D.D.M.S. at the headquarters of a command. By the end of June 1940, due to the post-Dunkirk realisation that the war would be a long-drawn-out affair, this number had risen to nearly 3,000 professionals signing up for the duration of the war.
Despite this increase, it had become apparent that voluntarism would not be sufficient to meet the need for medical officers, so conscription was introduced. The practice of medicine was removed from the list of reserved occupations and medical practitioners became liable for compulsory military service under the National Service (Armed Forces) Act. The CMWC was informed of War Office requirements and established local medical war committees to determine the most suitable recruits from each district. The War Office then notified the individual, offering him a commission in the RAMC. He was informed that if he declined this, he would be liable to be called up for service under the normal arrangements of the National Service Act.
In the midst of this recruitment drive, the Ministry of Health had to be conscious of balancing the medical needs of the armed forces with those of a civilian population under immense strain. The ratio of medical practitioners per 1,000 of population was found, in early 1941, to be:

Civil – 0.82
RN – 4.1
Army – 2.8
RAF 2.9

The Royal Army Medical College at Millbank, London, had been reopened soon after the conclusion of the First World War as a teaching establishment for the postgraduate training of RAMC officers in areas such as military surgery, tropical medicine and hygiene. Other ranks were also trained for technical roles such as radiographers or laboratory assistants

An Army School of Hygiene was established at Aldershot in 1922, with the aim of promoting efficient hygienic practice across the army, as `nothing less would suffice than that every individual solider should be taught to observe the principles underlying a healthy existence and to live his life according to a regimen based on their application.’
The school featured laboratories and lecture rooms, and outdoor demonstrations including scale models of water supplies, sanitary appliances, disinfectors, mosquito breeding grounds etc. Officers from outside the medical services also received training here. Subjects included soldier welfare, dietetics, general hygiene, field sanitation and anti-malarial measures.

The school was relocated to Mytchett Barracks near Aldershot on November 13th 1939. Training for those officers wishing to work in specialist branches of surgery such as ophthalmic, thoracic, cranial and maxilla-facial took place in special hospitals and surgical units, and was augmented by attendance at lectures and demonstrations, and clinical instruction in wartime medicine and surgery was arranged by post-graduate teaching bodies.
A system for the training of medical orderlies; the men who would work as nurses, stretcher-bearers, theatre assistants, radiographers, laboratory technicians and a host of other technical and support roles within the corps, had to be established. The RAMC had two main training depots in England; one in the north and one in the south of England, in addition to No. 2 Depot at Newbattle Abbey near Edinburgh.

Beckett Park in Leeds had served as a military hospital during the First World War and had been a teacher training college up to 1939. On 1st December 1939 it was established as No II Training Depot RAMC, where recruits would undertake a special intensive course of training in technical subjects extending over two months.

The imposing buildings of Beckett Park, Headingley, Leeds

The remit of the staff was to turn civilians into trained troops within that period. Men came from all walks of life and all parts of the country. One of these was John Broom, a twenty-three-year-old furniture salesman from Colchester.

PIC Q John_Broom_2
John Broom 7374615 RAMC

Men were formed into platoons of thirty and were housed in the accommodation blocks, where they were issued with mattress covers, which they filled with hay and straw. Daily, they would be woken and breakfasted then be marched off to the main building where they would learn drill and medical training.

Each Sunday there would be a compulsory Church Parade, sometimes in the main hall, and at other times in St Chad’s Church, Headingley. One block at Beckett Park had a swimming pool where the men would be taught how to take casualties over the water. At the end of the training period there was a route march, over a twenty-mile route and taking a day to complete. At the end of the training period, men would be given a few days leave then receive their posting orders, being sent to different RAMC units as nursing orderlies. John Broom was sent up to Whitby to join No 7 Light Field Ambulance in December 1940.
You can read more about the RAMC across all theatres of the Second World War in my critically acclaimed book Faithful in Adversity: The Royal Army Medical Corps in the Second World War

Faithful in Adversity

Corporal David Jebbitt RAMC – captured at Arnhem

At the age of 19, Corporal David Jebbitt RAMC, a medical
orderly, was at the epicentre of one of the most courageous and
bloody battles of the war. Jebbitt was attached to No. 181 Airlanding
Field Ambulance and was part of the first lift of Operation Market Garden on 17 September 1944.

PICJ1 David Jebbitt1.jpeg

He flew in a Horsa glider towed by a Dakota from Down Ampney Airfield in Gloucestershire and landed at the drop zone near Wolfheze outside of Oosterbeek.

On landing, Jebbitt was based at the Medical Dressing Station in the Schnoord Hotel in
Oosterbeek, where a heavy load of casualties soon accumulated, and medics struggled to treat them with a dearth of medical supplies.

Jebbitt was assigned the role of anaesthetist, supporting the surgeons. Amputations were carried out using saws issued for PoW escape purposes and these were little more than hacksaw blades. The fighting was house-to-house and at close quarters, and sometimes
the Germans would be right across the street, so stepping outside, even for a moment, to collect casualties was always dangerous.

On one occasion Jebbitt was outside as a German tank came down the
road and drove straight past him without incident. His belief was that
his Red Cross armband had saved him.

After a week working in the Main Dressing Station, the number
of patients had increased to over 1,200, with medical teams working
under horrendous conditions as the hotel was targeted several times
with mortars. Being at the centre of the fighting, dressing stations were
frequently drawn into the line of fire, so a temporary truce was arranged
for the wounded to be evacuated to a German hospital. Remaining
behind with the patients, Jebbitt was one of the RAMC staff taken
prisoner and initially taken to Dutch army barracks at Apeldoorn before
being transferred to Stalag IV-B in eastern Germany.

David Jebbitt’s Arnhem experience is one of many included in my new book, Faithful in Adversity: The Royal Army Medical Corps During the Second World War.

The book draws on much previously unused material, including family archives, to tell the tale of those whose work played a crucial part in winning the war against fascism.

Faithful in Adversity


Walkeringham’s Sunday School Prayer List

John Broom is the author of Fight the Good Fight: Voices of Faith from the First World War, published by Pen and Sword in 2015.

Fight the Good Fight


Whilst revisiting the secluded but welcoming St. Mary Magdalene Church at Walkeringham, North Nottinghamshire on a crisp winter day in February 2016, I came across a new addition to the war commemoration memorabilia in the church.

St Mary Magdalene, Walkeringham.jpg

St Mary Magdalene, Walkeringham (c) John Broom

Whilst restoring the First World War Roll of Honour for display during the years of centenary commemorations, a beautiful hand made prayer board had been discovered lodged behind the frame. On it, each member of the Sunday School had been asked to nominate a male relative on active service, and to state which service that relative was in.

Walkeringham Roll of Honour.jpg

Walkeringham’s Roll of Honour

The churchwarden had asked for comments as to whether the prayer board should be placed back where it was found, behind the Roll of Honour, or to be separately mounted for display. For me the answer is not in question. This prayer board provides a further connection to the people of a hundred years ago, and demonstrates the bonds between children and men on active service being strengthened by the Christian faith. However perhaps you may have a view you may wish to put forward? The contact details can be found here:-

Walkeringham Sunday School Prayer Board.jpg

Children’s Corner Prayer Board (c) John Broom

Bonds between children and those in uniform in an educational context have been explored in an excellent new book by Dr Barry Blades, Roll of Honour: Schooling and the Great War (Pen and Sword, 2015). However this is the first example I have seen in the hundreds of churches I have visited of such a prayer board for Sunday School Scholars.

Sadly four of the men being prayed for did not return home safely from the war. The small Nottinghamshire village sustained a death list of 26 men, with 4 more being found by subsequent research on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website.


I thought it appropriate to transcribe the names on the board

Margaret Parkrin Sapper G. Valentine Royal Engineers
Thomas Hill Pte. John H. Hill King’s Liverpool Rgt.
Roland Dawson L/C W. Dawson Sherwood Rangers
Alice Spray Pte. F.H. Parke Leicester Rgt
Gladys Greaves Corp. G.S. Garrard Royal Engineers
Albert Willerton Pte. J.W. Willerton East Surrey Rgt
John Spencer Lockwood Pte. J. Lockwood A.S.C.
Vera Willerton Corp. J.T. Mackfall Royal Engineers
Charles Spencer Pte. H. Spencer Lincolns
Edith Daniels Pte. H. Lobley Sherwood Foresters
Ethel West Pte. F. West Lancashire Fusiliers
Eric Taylor Pte. W.T. Adams R.A.M.C.
Alice Horberry Pte. T. Horberry Derbyshire Yeomanry
May Walker Pte. George Walker Fourth Leicester
Myrintha Cave Sgt. Arthur Shaw Sherwood Foresters
Sarah & Nellie Spencer Driver A. Anderson King’s Liverpool Reg
Leslie Pikett Pte. Charles Otter Royal Field Auxiliary
Hilda Spencer Pte. W. Davison & Pte. W, Clark Notts & Derby & 8th Lincoln Reg
Philip Robinson Pte. Edward Stamp
Albert E., Charlotte & Mabel Lockwood Pte. J. Lockwood Mechanical Transport
Geoffrey Farnsworth Robert Pinck & George Playford Training Reserve & Royal Flying Corp.
Tom Lancaster Corp. J.G. Lancaster Army Vet Corp.

Thomas Horberry, Henry Lobley, Charles Otter and Harry Spencer were the men who did not return.

Perhaps you, the reader, know of further examples? If so I would love to know.

(Dr. Stephen Parker, author of Faith on the Home Front: Aspects of Church Life and Popular Religion in Birmingham, 1939-1945 (Peter Lang, 2005), has responded by saying he has come across many examples of prayers for Sunday School scholars in Birmingham parish magazines during his research. There was a regular special service in one city centre church for this purpose.)


As a further point of interest in the church, there are two separate war memorials containing exactly the same names; one made of wood and one of bronze. Again, this is very rare in my experience. I wonder why two such memorials are there? Perhaps a benefactor provided the funds for the bronze one as they thought it would be more robust than the wooden one?

Walkeringham Wooden War Memorial

Wooden War Memorial, St. Mary Magdalene, Walkeringham (c) John Broom

Walkeringham Bronze War Memorial

Bronze War Memorial, (c) John Broom

Ken Tout on Religious Dogma

I’m just doing the proofreading for my second book, Fight the Good Fight: Voices of Faith from the Second World War, to be published in April 2016 by Pen and Sword. I came across this quote from a Normandy Veteran, Ken Tout, whom it was my privilege to meet back in June. He went to war a committed member of the Salvation Army. He returned, still a Christian as he is to this day, but with a changed view of the dogmatism of many sects. It seems even more pertinent a few months on in the light of the Paris attacks and Britain’s decision to extend airstrikes against ISIS / ISIL / DAESH into Syria.


It is a verbatim account of what he told me during a recorded interview.

“Some people found a clear vision of what God might be, or be able to do, but did not want to come back into a particular ordered religious environment.

Once you print a law, lawyers find a way of avoiding it. Once you have a principle, people bend it. Dogma has been there with different churches and becomes sacred, an intellectual prison. You either accept it, to some extent unthinkingly, or not.

There are so many illogical things about religion, it has to be an acceptance. Dogma linked to authority gives you ISIS and jihads. Just like the Crusades of the tenth and eleventh centuries.

We might say Christianity is a better religion than Islam, but those who took part in the Crusades were not Christians. A Christian is someone who believes in Jesus Christ, not those who commit atrocities in the name of Christ.

Dogma is all very well, for example as Roman Catholic if you don’t know a better way of expressing what God is all about. But when you have a dogma, the presence of a priest becomes terrifying. You have to go to Mass once a month or be damned. Will the priest come in time to save my soul? Once you start to challenge all this, you’re at risk as you have to make up your own religion”

This confirms the pattern I have found in many people who went to war from a particularly dogmatic Christian sect. The Christianity did not come back from war the same. Further examples are Eric Lomax (The Railway Man) from a strict Scottish Baptist upbringing and Alec Waldron, a member of the Plymouth Brethren who returned with an incidental faith.


My own father, whose family attended an independent, non-aligned Railway Mission in Colchester, returned with his faith intact and continued to express that faith in his own way, not led by elders, priests or bishops.

Bill Frankland MBE – FEPOW and World-famous Immunologist

You must not go on hating people; it does you harm but it does not do them any harm. Also I am a Christian who was taught to love, not hate. That’s how I live my life.

Those are the words of 103-year-old Bill Frankland, who endured three and a half years of hell after being taken prisoner of war by the Japanese in February 1942.

Bill Frankland

Dawn and I had the honour of meeting Bill on two occasions; firstly in 2014 in Liverpool when he was due to attend a conference at Alder Hey Hospital, and secondly in the spring of 2015 in the restaurant of the Royal Society of Medicine, London.


Bill on his wedding day in 1941
Bill on his wedding day in 1941


When Bill was taken prisoner at the fall of Singapore in February 1942, he soon found that the Japanese showed no consideration for the Red Cross on armband of the RAMC.

It made them want to harm you. We were despicable people. We were trying to look after the medical side. They despised us as we’d allowed ourselves to be taken prisoners of war.

Bill had limited access to medicines and his dysentery wing of thirty beds was positioned in the Roberts Barracks, Changi, converted into a hospital with nine hundred beds in all. On one occasion he had to make the awful decision of whether to give the one remaining diphtheria serum to a private who had little chance of survival.

After a year in Changi, Bill was then sent to an internment camp on Blakang Mati Island, then known as Hell Island, now Sentosa. The prisoners were seventy-five percent Australian, with the rest being from the British 18th Division. Conditions worsened and life became a daily struggle to survive. `You could only think of two things, `when will I next see food, and when will the next beating be?’

In the face of this inhumanity, many men still found the strength to continue the observance of their Christian faith.   After eighteen months on Blakang Mati, the prisoners were given half a day a fortnight during which they could hold a church service led by Australian padre.

The reference to `give us this day our daily bread’ was challenging, `When you haven’t seen bread for three and a half years this is difficult.’ During this time communion bread made was fashioned out of rice and the wine from fermented pineapples.


Bill reflects on the many thousands who did not survive the Japanese camps.
Bill reflects on the many thousands who did not survive the Japanese camps.


He finally returned in England in November 1945 and was asked if he wanted to see a psychiatrist to talk through his harrowing experiences. With a typical directness and candour he replied, ‘No, I want to see my wife.’

Bill returned to work and developed an eminent career as an immunologist, continuing to work well past the age of 100.

Bill attends church every Sunday whilst visiting his son in Devon.

Bill Frankland has fought his good fight in many challenging situations. `I’ve been so near death at so many times’, he states. However his uncomplicated Christian faith, his clinical brilliance and his indefatigable mental and physical energy have seen him withstand life’s trials and tribulations.

A fuller account of Bill’s life, based on the two interviews, can be found in my book Fight the Good Fight: Voices of Faith from the Second World War, which can be ordered directly from me at at a cost of £18 including p+p.

Fight the Good Fight2

East Yorkshire Exploration #1. North Ferriby and Elloughton

Today we returned to Hull, the city in which I was brought up in to take part in the parkrun in the Eastern part of the city.  After a pleasant run through the snow, we headed west, our first stop being All Saints Church, North Ferriby.

Here there were two points of particular interest in this well-cared for nineteeth century church:

The first was a wooden cross donated to the parish by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in 1932 commemorating an unknown soldier. I have seen a number of crosses for individuals that were erected on the battlefields during the First World War then subsequently returned to the parish church for display, but none to the general unknown soldier.  A lovely touch, I thought.

Ferriby 2


The second was a marble plaque commemorating Lieutenant Norman Lea Sissons.  According to the book, Hull Pals by David Bilton, Norman had enlisted in the East Riding Yeomanry on the day following the declaration of war.  His commission had been reported in the Hull Daily Mail of 23 November 1914.  He was killed in action at Bethune on September 9th 1916 during the Battle of the Somme.  He had been educated at Rugby School and worked briefly in his father’s firm before the war.  His plaque carried the quote from John 3:16, For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son. Whoever believeth in him shall not perish but have everlasting life.North Ferriby All Saints

Norman Sisson

The Hull Daily Mail of 16 September 1916 recorded his death thus:

Much sympathy will be felt for Mr and Mrs Harold Sissons, North Ferriby, in the news of the death of their son, Lieutenant Norman Lea Sissons, East Yorkshires, who was killed in action in France on Saturday last. Lieutenant Sissons was educated at Rugby and subsequently spent six months in Messers Sissons Bros. of which firm his father is a director.  He would have won distinction in a commercial career, but at the call to arms he promptly offered his services, joining the East Riding Imperial Yeomanry the day after the declaration of war.  Three months later he received his commission and was attached to the East Yorkshire Regiment.  He went out to Egypt with his battalion and subsequently proceeded to France, where he was killed in action last Saturday.  He was 21 years of age.

At the YMCA religious service on Tuesday night at North Ferriby, the vicar referred in sympthetic terms to the loss sustained by Mr Sissons.


The next stop was Elloughton, where the delightfully picturesque church was again open.  I was intrigued by a plaque commemorating an airship disaster involving men from the US Navy in 1921.  What was a US Navy airship doing in East Yorkshire in 1921 and how did the men come to be commemorated in Elloughton, a quiet countryside village?


Elloughton war memorial


Elloughton US Navy

The airship was R38 (USN designation ZR-2) which crashed on 23 August 1921 and the senior officers’ names listed on the memorial are:

Cmdr L H Maxfield (US Navy)
Lt Cmdr E W Coil (US Navy)
Lt Cmdr V N Bieg (US Navy)
Lt C G Little (US Navy)

The R38/ZR-2 was on an evaluation flight from RNAS Howden to RNAS Pulham, Norfolk. Bad weather caused the airship to return. It was seen low over the River Humber and eye-witnesses noted the skin crumple. A large explosion followed as the airship broke up. The crash killed 44 of the 49 on board, including 16 US Navy personnel. Structural failure was found to be the cause and no-one was to blame. At the time, the R38 was one of the largest airships ever built and the disaster claimed more lives than the famous Hindenburg tragedy.

R38 ZR2 airship

The R38/ZR-2 on its maiden flight on 23 June 1921

At the end of the First World War, the US Navy had hoped to add two airships to its arsenal in the form or reparations from the defeated Germans.  However Germany had sabotaged much of its equipment towards the end of the war to stop it falling into allied hands.

Britain had been developing a new class of airship but had cancelled the order when the war ended.  The US Navy took on the contract at the reduced cost of £300,000. Although the original criteria had stated that 100 hours of test flights had to be undertaken, this was reduced to 50 hours by the Air Ministry to speed up the delivery of the contract.

Three test flights were carried out flying from RNAS Howden in June and July of 1921, revealing a range of technical problems. Doubts were expressed by the commander at Howden, Air Commodore E.M. Maitland, as to the efficacy of R38/ZR-2

Following a spell of bad weather, the airship was finally walked out on 23 August and in the early morning took off for her fourth flight, which had an intended destination of RNAS Pulham in Norfolk.  The next day, after a brief speed trial during which a speed of 71.9 mph  was reached, a series of turning trials was started at a speed of 62.7 mph  at an altitude of 2,500 ft  At 17:37, while close offshore near Hull and watched by thousands of spectators, the structure failed amidshps. Eyewitnesses reported seeing creases down the envelope and then both ends drooped. This was followed by a fire in the front section followed by an explosion which broke windows over a large area. The remains fell into the shallow waters of the River Humber. Sixteen of the 17 Americans and 28 of the 32 Britons in the crew were killed. The only American to survive was Rigger Norman C. Walker. 


Three enquiries were held into the disaster.  The first, an RAF enquiry chaired by Air Vice-Marshall Sir John Salmond, criticised the fact that a single authority was responsible for its construction and inspection.  The second, by the Admiralty, absolved themselves from any blame in the initial design of the airship before it had been taken over by the RAF.


A technical Committee of Enquiry, chaired by Mervyn O’Gorman, concluded that no allowance had been made for aerodynamic stresses in design, and that while no loads had been placed on the structure during testing that would not have been met in normal use, the effects of the manoeuvres made had weakened the hull. No blame was attached to anyone, as this was not part of the committee’s remit.

As well as the small memorial in Elloughton Church a larger monument commemorating all those who died was erected in Hull’s Western Cemetery to remember those killed the day an airship spectacularly imploded over the River Humber west of Hull.

R38 memorial

Once again, a random visit to two country churches had revealed two stories of people and events which deserve to be remembered through to this day and beyond.

Onwards to Howden for part two of the day’s discoveries…

Further reading

Tom Jamison, Icarus Over the Humber: The Last Flight of Airship R.38/ZR-2 (University of Hull Press & Lampada Press, 1994)

Alistair Urquhart – Worship in a FEPOW Camp

The most stunning book I have read in a long time is Alistair Urquhart’s The Forgotten Highlander. He cheated death so many times and displayed such mental strength for three and a half years that it is amazing that he is still alive today, aged 94. He survivied the Death Railway, the Hell Ships and the dropping of the atomic bomb on Nagasaki.


Alistair Urquhart

This is a passage he wrote about a concert followed by an impromptu church service at Changi camp in 1942, before the worst of the treatment kicked in:-

One evening hundreds of men milled about our normal spot up the hill. There was to be a concert, a break from the grinding monotony of camp life. As a music lover I was thrilled. The boys were excited too. Somehow, goodness only knows how, a piano had been dragged all the way up the hill. It was a brilliant moonlit night and as the musicians arranged themselves total and respectful silence descended on the huge crowd. Had it not been for the sound of the crickets and the tropical breeze, we could have been in the Albert Hall. Then a solo violinist, a professional with the London Philharmonic called Dennis East, stepped forward and the plaintive notes of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto reverberated around the hillside. It was the first music we had heard for months. I sat entranced, and the boys, strangers to classical music, were agog – spellbound by Mendelssohn’s magic. For a few minutes the beauty of the music lifted us out of the camp and reminded us of the greatness of European civilisation that Japanese militarists despised. Some men wept. When East finished several stunned seconds passed before rapturous applause and cheering broke out. It was so beautiful.

Eventually the Japanese guards present got bored and left. When they ahd gone an altar was set up and an interdenominational church service was held. It proved a welcome morale booster. Even people like me, not especially religious, found it comforting. It was to be my one and only church service during three and a half years of captivity but it struck a real chord and made me think seriously about Christianity for the first time. When the padre finished his sermon on our mount in Changi prison, thousands of miles from home, hundreds of voices joined in a moving rendition of `The Old Rugged Cross.’

The first verse seemed so appropriate to all of us caught up in the fall of Singapore:

On a hill far away stood an old rugged cross,
The emblem of suffering and shame:
And I love that old cross where the dearest and best
For a world of lost sinners was slain.

The Brinds (two teenagers who Urquhart looked after in his first months in captivity) were both devout Roman Catholics. Freddie never talked about his beliefs but the brothers were always missing on Sunday mornings and were friendly with the Roman Catholic padre. The Japanese did not allow church activities yet there were obviously secret masses going on – at considerable risk to all involved. I never enquired because I did not want the boys to think I was spying on them. Freddie always wore a crucifix on a silver chain, which he kept tucked under his shirt. If the guards had discovered it, they would have taken it from him and given him a beating.

If you can get hold of this book I strongly recommend its reading.  I could not stop until I had finished it.

Alistair Urquhart book