The Diary of Major Philip Newman

Surgeon at the Château Coquelle field hospital

Philip Newman was a surgical specialist, holding the rank of Major, with the 12th Casualty Clearing Station. The Unit was posted to France with the British Expeditionary Force in February 1940. He was 28 at the time.

The Casualty Clearing Stations were the front line medical units, whose role was to accept the sick and wounded, assess the casualties, carry out emergency treatment and evacuate the casualties to a general hospital behind the lines. Each unit had 12 officers consisting of a Commanding Officer and his assistant, two surgical specialists, four general duty doctors, a dental surgeon, a quartermaster and three padres. There would be around 100 other ranks in the unit — most of whom would be nursing orderlies and operating theatre assistants. They were highly mobile military hospitals. When the German Blitzkrieg drove westwards during the spring of 1940, the 12th C.C.S were ordered to open up on the sports ground in Annezin in the Bethune Region of Northern France. After 3 months of the ‘phoney war’ suddenly the marquees were bursting with wounded and the sports ground was being strafed from the air and shelled from the ground. The Unit found itself out beyond the rapidly retreating front line. On May 26th they were ordered to retreat and open the hospital in Dunkirk.

This is his diary.

Tuesday, 27th May 1940

I was in charge of the second party with three lorries and about 40 men — we lost our way and found ourselves up near the Belgian border. We returned onto the proper road in failing light but the journey was very slow with all the refugees, abandoned vehicles, and stray cattle. Every quarter of an hour the road was strafed by low – flying aircraft. We arrived in Dunkirk at 1.00am at the start of an
air raid. We found a house with the rest of the unit and I slept on the floor of the basement.

Wednesday, 28th May 1940

In the morning there was a hectic drive to Chapeau Rouge just after another air raid. Picked up two soldiers burnt to a cinder and arrived at the Chateau in Rosendael on the outskirts of Dunkirk. We now knew that we were left holding the baby and that the BEF were pouring as hard as they could out of Dunkirk. Straightaway I organised a theatre in the drawing room of the Chateau and within two hours had two operating teams going. There was an awful languid feeling about — this starting to get down to hard work again when everyone else was going home. Cowell arrived and told us to expect 700 wounded.Bombing around us was frequent. This first day we plodded on steadily with the operating with the promise of relief in the evening by some field ambulance people. They never turned up — they had
bunked off home. Slept that night on some luggage in the officers’ mess.

Thursday, Friday, Saturday, 29th, 30th, and 31st May, 1940

The day started at about 5.00am and casualties were fast pouring in. It is better that I write about the 29th, 30th and 31st as a whole.
They were hectic days in the extreme. Food was all tinned and only dished up in a very jumbly and small room to feed 20 officers. Almost every meal consisted of bully beef and biscuits and one ate it standing up.
Shelling and bombing became worse; a 500lb bomb fell within 50yds of the house and a smaller one within 20yds. Wounded increased until the house was packed full and the driveway was full of ambulances loaded up. I shifted my operating theatre to the cellar with one electric lamp. The Commanding Officer, Munro and Longridge got very busy with evacuation and did many perilous journeys to the Mole at Dunkirk Harbour. The CO was marvellous but I think pretty well exhausted. Monro was very brave and dashing; Longridge was very persistent and also exhausted. Gordi and Wills were grand with the patients. Others on the Unit showed considerable wear and tear and I
myself was close to exhaustion. Some of the men were very good; others spent most of the time in the cellar. The state of the wounded piling up in our grounds and the hopeless state of evacuation seemed to put saving the odd life by operation very much in the shade. I decided to take my share in the evacuation part instead of operating. I drove the CO down to the Mole and saw Dunkirk for the first time in 3 days. It was a sight of great devastation and one drove very fast to lessen the risk of getting hit by shells. I spent from 10 — 1.30
and 2.30 — 5.00pm on the Mole and on that day we got rid of some 700 wounded. I was very impressed by the four Naval Commanders and listened as they directed the evacuation ships with great authority. There was such an air of confidence after the awful army dithering. It was a weary day with shells zipping over regularly in batches of about 10 every 15 minutes. Bombers dive – bombed the fleet. The jetty itself was a sight for H.G.Wells alone — dead horses, overturned ambulances, columns of German prisoners, sunken boats and God knows what else. An ammunition dump went up just close by to add to the variety. The troops filed past and the ‘Retreat
from Moscow’ was never in it. George Hewer joined us on the 30th May.
These three days — three whole days at the Chapeau Rouge were tiring in the extreme, but at least the whole Unit was there and at least there was somebody but myself to take the responsibilities. At the time I thought those days were just Hell — but I didn’t know!
On the night of 30th May we had all been told that we were going home at 11.00pm. With everybody packed and ready on the ambulances, a message came through to wait until 4.00am. At 4.00am another message — ‘12th C.C.S to remain open, only patients to go.’ This was just one of the many disappointments we got.
One of the gloomiest aspects of those days was the way anyone in authority seemed to forsake his post and jump on a boat for home.
At some point during those days I remember seeing about 1000 German parachutists in the distance coming down out of the Dunkirk smoke.

Saturday 1st June 1940

Things were in an awful mess. Shells were bursting very close to the house and the wounded were in a terrible state. The Germans were reported near and might be in tomorrow. Munro and I decided that something must be done and the CO was open to any suggestions. We set off in a state of desolation and went to two hospitals and a nunnery in Dunkirk — all refused us and in sheer despair
M and I decided to sit in a dug out and smoke a cigarette ‘in peace’. Almost immediately another air raid started but we had our first 15 minutes of quiet thought in days.

Returning to the Chapeau Rouge, something new was in the air. New orders had arrived. We were to pull out but 1 Medical Officer and ten men were to stay behind for every 100 wounded. I decided to operate again. We only had candlelight in the cellar by this time and I had to do two leg amputations. One was a little French boy; I had to interview his weeping mother. I dropped into bed about 3.00am
that night. At 2.30 we gathered in the mess for the ballot. Of the 17 officers 3 only were to stay, so my chances seemed quite rosy. As the CO shuffled the papers, my heart was pounding. Cocky O’Shea, the RC padre, drew the papers.
The last 4 were Herbert, Hewer, Williamson and Newman. I was 17th and down the drain anyhow — at least I knew the worst. Hewer might get away if we could get 60 patients away — but we didn’t. The rest were leaving at 8.00pm for the boat.
I shall never forget those 5 hours before they went — trying to look efficient and ‘don’t carish’ — and everyone dreading to speak to me.
Cocky and I had a talk and a weep and he gave me his cross — which I value more than anything in my possession. Lissy and I had a talk and a weep and he gave me his copy of the New Testament.
We got more patients away and it soon became obvious that Hewer, Williamson and I were to stay. The CO called us all together and spoke. I gave 3 cheers for him — he did not seem anxious to catch my eye — I hope it was because he felt a great deal — I’m sure it was. But everyone was so glad to leave. They associated us 3 with something that was a nightmare. Eventually they went and I was very glad to see them go. A few minutes before going Lissy had a little service at the top of the house. It was very short and very worthy of the occasion. Away they went and there we were, left with over 300 wounded and the Germans to come. Hewer, Williamson and I gathered in what was the Mess and decided to try and get a little order out of the chaos.
The mess was to be in the cellar. Whitehall, the mess orderly, got this organised and proved to be the one shining light in many dark days to come. We drank a few drinks and tried to take count of what we had. There were ambulances strewn all over the place — patients in tents — corpses and the house stinking like a cesspool. This evening we had hopes of a boat — but none came.

Realising the hopelessness of the situation, we decided to get a night’s rest. Whitehall was great. He had actually prepared a meal on a table and had got the beds ready.

Sunday 2nd June 1940

We slept for a few hours and then were awakened by a terrific crash — a shell had come into the front room, the operating theatre that was. In the very dim early morning light we sorted out patients and masonry and carried the patients outside. There were about a dozen of the poor chaps; one lad had a slab of concrete on his face.
We soon realised what we were up against. Everywhere patients were yelling for ‘WATER’ and ‘ORDERLY’. Naked men, wounded and burnt, were crawling about on the grass with shells bursting nearby.
During the morning the French field ambulance was bombed and six men were killed and the major wounded. Commander St. Pol was my great mainstay. Whatever happened, I felt at least he is there and is an old soldier and he will know what to do. But now he was wounded – there was nobody else I could appeal to for help.
Again the bizarre conditions struck me — I was now the owner of three cars — a Humber Super Snipe, a Lincoln Zephyr, and an Austin Seven. I chose the Zephyr and beetled down to the Bastion in Dunkirk Harbour (the Allied HQ). I eventually got into a meeting and found Major General Alexander.
It was grand to find that there was anyone so big as this still in France!
I told him that conditions were hopeless and that unless we had help all we could do was to prevent 600 wounded from dying from thirst. He immediately wirelessed for 2 hospital ships. Here at last was a straw to cling to.
Returning to the Chateau I drove the old Zephyr like mad through hanging electric cables, over shell holes etc. I told the lads and a little hope came into their eyes. Forsyth had now joined us from some field ambulance unit and also a chap called Gaze — a building contractor from Diss and a really good egg.
This evening, I think, was really the most dramatic yet.
A message came through for all walking wounded to go. I had four lorries driven up and even had one of the wounded soldiers driving one of the lorries. It was amazing who could walk. Chaps going to England in a shirt, a blanket and bare feet, some with large running wounds in their backs and legs hobbling along on the shoulders of others. I packed about 100 into the lorries and they really were a
grand sight as we wished them good luck as they drew away. As far as I know they got safely on board a boat for England — Good luck to them. About 9.45, just as the light was failing, we got a message to say a hospital ship was coming in. I called all the men together and told them there was slight chance and that if we worked really hard all night got rid of all the wounded we could get on the boat. It was amazing what this ray of hope did.
Five ambulances set off immediately with drivers so; Gaze, Me, Hewer, Williamson and Evans. Gaze and I got separated from the rest. It was a most hair raising drive with the streets almost impassable, many houses in flames — in fact the whole night red with burning buildings. Eventually we arrived at the Mole and waited. The navy had seen nothing of the ships.
Hewer arrived by another route and ended up with two wheels of his ambulance on a huge balk of timber and damned nearly overturned it. How he managed to unload the thing by himself I have never found out.
We waited for an hour. No boat came.
At 11.00pm I saw the last of the BEF file past.

We, with some marines, rushed a few of the stretchers ½ mile up the jetty and put them on a boat.
At about 11.30 the 4 Commanders and Brigadiers and anybody else who was English left in a pinnace
and there we were left standing alone.
Forsaken by England and only the Germans to look forward to. I can never forget that moment as long as I live. It gave me the greatest feeling of desolation I have ever had.
The rest of the stretchers we begged the French soldiers to take with them onto the boats — which they did with an ill grace. So we did at least do our duty and get 25 more men to safety. One man on a stretcher we actually chucked over as the ship had left the quay. He landed safely.Now we were left on the quay with just the last of the French troops filing past and all hope for a hospital ship gone. The four of us wearily found our way back to the ambulances. I drove back and could hardly see where we were going and we became separated again.
We arrived back at the Chateau; the boys had worked very hard to get the convoy ready and then had given up hope and simply gone to sleep on the ground in utter despair and exhaustion. It was now about 1.00am. On the way back we had seen two white Very lights in the sky close by, indicating the German front line. As they looked objectionably near, we decided to take precautions. Four
doctors and four NCOs took the watches in shifts — one of each to stay up for two hours. We quickly made a red illuminated cross and put it outside the front door. The Germans did not come. The night was complete pandemonium with the heavy French battery either side of us — the French Fleet behind us off the coast and shells bursting all around.
I remember I dropped onto the stone floor of the kitchen absolutely dog-tired and went sound asleep. That night was hell although no shell actually hit the house. The night before we had slept in the cellar and although it did not strike me at the time, I remember now that we left three dying men in there as it served as an operating theatre also. Capt. Bartlett was one that was dead in the morning — he was a really grand chap and now rests in what will be the Rosendael cemetery.

Monday 3rd June 1940

This was a Monday after the worst Sunday I have ever spent. All day we were under shellfire and there was dive – bombing all around. The French battery had now shifted back a bit. The pump was dry and there had been no water supply for two days. Patients everywhere were yelling for water — the situation was acute until Gaze came up with gold and found another well.
It was almost impossible to do any theatre work. All we could do was to carry patients to places of comparative safety, stop them from dying of thirst and bury our dead. I had four men continually burying the dead; we had about 150 in our cemetery now.
There was a first class air fight and we saw two Defiants bring down three enemy planes. It was great to see some of our own planes for a change. I don’t wish to describe the state of the ambulances. They were sheer death traps and hygienically appalling.
During the middle of the day three shells hit the house. The first hit the front steps, collapsing the cellar underneath with 10 men in it. We pulled them all out and it was amazing how little they were hurt. Another hit the top and wounded a few men and almost got Williamson. The third hit the oldmess room. A few men were killed in the ambulances and others wounded. The casualties were not
as high as they might have been but were quite considerable.
A very real danger was fast approaching — the Germans were coming and the French were taking up their position on the canal not 200 yards away from the house. Forsyth and I went to see a French captain and begged him to keep his troops out of the park but he could offer us little hope.
Later in the day the French began to dig in on the canal side of the park and we felt that we were now bound to be for it. We thought it was obvious that the French would retreat through the park where all the wounded lay on stretchers and perhaps hide in our cellars. This could result in nothing short of hand to hand fighting inside the house.
Just before dark we contacted a French Commandant and he promised us that he would see that they would not retreat through the park so this gave us some hope.
As night drew on the air became still — we posted our German Pilot Officer prisoner, Helmut near the front door together with our illuminated red cross. Rapidly we learnt the German for such things as ‘Red Cross’ and ‘Don’t Shoot’ etc. I organised the Senior NCOs and officers in a watch routine through the night. We all took our hour at the front door and at the back of our minds we were all
hoping that a Mills bomb wouldn’t arrive first.
During my hour nothing happened at all, but just afterwards there was masses of rifle fire and we thought that at last the French and the Germans were fighting on either side of the canal. Then we suddenly realised that here were no bullets coming past the house and that they were all going off in the same place. Somebody had set fire to an ammunition dump. We did not know then but it must have been the French retreating.

Tuesday 4th June 1940

My duty over and with a little extra excitement, I went to bed at 4.00am. I knew nothing more until I was hurriedly woken by a voice saying, “The Germans are here.” I quickly put on my tunic, belt and cap and went to the front steps.
The Germans were sitting all over the place talking to the patients, showing them photos and fetching them water. It was a lovely morning and the Golden Oriole was singing in the big Oak Tree in the park. There was peace at last. What a relief! I felt very enamoured to the Germans that day.Apparently Forsyth had been up near the front gate and seen them walking aimlessly in with their rifles slung. Helmut was a great help in the first 10 minutes and did a lot to help us I think. It was a great relief to feel at last one could get down to work without running for shelter and that the patients need not be moved every hour to try to get them out of the shell fire and that the German aeroplanes were now ‘friendly’.
That day we were left almost entirely alone. They seemed to take an interest in our food so we quickly got some of it stowed away in the cellars. They had a great liking for our tinned fruit and milk and demanded most of it.
Gaze went down with a German guard and drew water and tried his German to great advantage. The patients were in an appalling state, especially in the ambulances — so we got everyone out of the ambulances and put them all on the grass where they could at least get some fresh air. The house itself was very, very smelly, overcrowded and in a shocking state.
The burnt cases all seemed to be going off their heads and were really in a deplorable state. I think some of the Germans felt that war was an awful thing when they saw them. That day we had regular meals for a change and it was a great treat. The German field battery came
and shared the park with us and showed us some really fine horses. I showed the German officer round the park while he strutted round on a horse — of which he was very proud. The Germans brought round some soup to the men in the evening which was greatly appreciated.
Soon the patients began to appeal to the Germans rather than our own orderlies. We had a good night’s sleep that night and life seemed almost worth living.

 

Philip Newman spent the next 18 months in POW camps in Germany and France. He escaped in August 1941 from a camp in Germany but was recaptured within 48hours. In November 1941 he was transferred to a camp in Rouen in France as part of a repatriation deal between Britain and Germany.

When the deal fell through and before he was transferred back to Germany, he escaped again in January 1942. This time he was successful, and with the help of the French Resistance, returned to Britain in May 1942, via Madrid and Gibraltar.

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