Deadly snakes, flying bullets and malaria couldn't keep Ken down
From Dunkirk to India via Sri Lanka and Burma, World War Two veteran Ken Hill has lived through numerous traumatic experiences but always come out fighting. Guardian reporter GAYLE ROUNCIVELL listened as the 95-year-old spoke for the first time about his incredible life
World War Two veteran Ken Hill believes he must have a guardian angel looking after him due to the number of times he cheated death during the war.
Now 95, Ken escaped with his life on several occasions during the war, and was honoured with five medals for his troubles.
Great-grandad Ken joined the Army as a radio operator with the Royal Signals in 1938 at the age of 18.
He was soon in the thick of the action, and was involved in the Battle of Dunkirk in 1940.
“I can remember Dunkirk as though it were yesterday,” Ken said. “I was really lucky to get out alive. We were in rowing boats when we were machine gunned and thrown into the water.
“I couldn’t swim but another chap said to hang on to him and he towed me to shore.
“Once we got to the beach it was chaotic. I had lost my trousers so I went to the nearest corpse and borrowed his riding breeches.”
Ken then dodged bullets being fired at the beach by German Messerschmitts.
“They fired right at me and I was surrounded by smoke but they managed to miss me,” Ken said. “At one point I was talking to a group of men and left them minutes before a shell killed them all. There were corpses and people screaming everywhere but I couldn’t do anything to help so I just had to keep walking.”
Volunteering as a stretcher bearer, Ken found himself on board a minesweeper where he was fed for the first time in days before being shipped back to Dover.
“I volunteered to carry the wounded men and was told a minesweeper was about to leave,” he said.
“They gave me a salmon sandwich and a hot cup of tea and bundled me below the deck. It was pure silence for the first time in ages.”
Back in England, Ken was given a card to send to his parents letting them know he was alive, before he was put on a train to Nottingham where he eventually rejoined his troop.
From there he was sent to act as a lookout at Arundel Castle in West Sussex and later spent time in London during the blitz.
“I remember that time so vividly,” he said. “We would go out dancing because everything was still open and carrying on as normal.”
Ken was eventually sent to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and Burma – where he was stationed during D-Day – doing radio communications, before being flown to India.
He then worked on communications in East Africa, dodging elephants and giraffes to lay telephone lines, and surviving a deadly snakebite one night thanks to a quick-thinking colleague slicing the venom from under his skin with a razorblade.
He also survived a bout of malaria.
Other roles Ken was given included instructing British Army generals in radio warfare and teaching morse code during a top secret mission at Windsor Park.
Towards the end of the war, Ken was posted to Portsmouth where he met his first wife, Frances, who was in the WRENs. The couple later married and went on to have four children, David, Jennifer, John and Jackie.
After the war Ken was diagnosed with what would later become known as post-traumatic stress disorder and was put under psychiatric care for five years.
“It was very primitive in those days,” Ken said. “I would have things like electric shock treatment where they would give me a bone to bite down on while they did it.
“When the war was going on you would feel fine; it was only after being demobbed that it hit you. I was very lucky because I never got a single injury.
“We were given five vials of morphine each to carry with us and were told that if anything ever happened to us, we would have to use them because we would be left behind if we were injured. I didn’t have to use any of mine. I must have had a guardian angel watching over me.
“I often think how I got through the war without any harm, but mentally it shattered me.”
Ken later worked for Radio Rentals as a TV engineer in Bath – where he was among the first colour TV engineers – before moving to Morecambe about 35 years ago with his second wife Elin, who sadly passed away 17 years ago.
“We did a lot of fell walking and would stay in B&Bs in Morecambe,” he said. “One day we were having a walk around and bought the Visitor newspaper and looked at some houses. We ended up buying one for £22,000.”
Despite suffering from crippling arthritis now, Ken manages to keep as active as possible and still communicates with the Royal Signals via radio every week.
He has five military medals including the 1939-45 medal and the Africa and Burma Stars for his service during the war.
“It’s been an interesting life I have led and it’s amazing that I am still here really,” Ken said. “I think I must have already used up about eight lives.”