A new biography of Dr Bill Frankland is published in October 2018. Author Paul Watkins writes for RFHG about Frankland’s remarkable life.
The Toss of a Coin
On 28 November 1941, QSMV Dominion Monarch arrived at Singapore at the end of a two-month voyage from Liverpool. On board were 35 doctors from the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC), a number of Army nurses and 1700 men of the Royal Artillery. The RAMC group included 29-year-old Captain A. W. ‘Bill’ Frankland. He had qualified from St Mary’s Hospital in 1938 and had joined the Army two days before the declaration of war, in September 1939.
The plan for the RAMC contingent was to form a General Hospital at Johor Bahru. However, four days after landing this changed and their fate was unclear. Bill Frankland, along with another new arrival, Captain R. L. Parkinson RAMC, was summoned to a meeting with a senior officer. There were two positions to be filled: one at Tanglin Military Hospital, working primarily in VD and dermatology, and the other as an anaesthetist in the newly opened Alexandra Military Hospital, a facility which Bill later described as ‘like Buckingham Palace’. Bill’s preference was Tanglin, as was Captain Parkinson’s; neither relished the prospect of administering anaesthetics. The senior officer broke the stalemate in a time-honoured way. A coin was spun: ‘You call, Frankland’ was the instruction. ‘Heads, Sir’. It was. Bill was sent to Tanglin and Captain Parkinson to Alexandra Military Hospital.
Four days later Japanese forces attacked Pearl Harbour, Singapore and Hong Kong. Over the ensuing months Tanglin came under heavy attack. During this time Bill treated many allied casualties and was also responsible for treating a small number of Japanese casualties taken prisoner. In addition he served as ‘prisoner’s friend’ to Captain Patrick Heenan, the ‘Traitor of Singapore’, who had been found guilty of treason.
On 11 February 1942, with Japanese troops no more than 500 metres away, Bill evacuated the hospital to the Victoria Theatre in Singapore City. Two days later, on Black Friday, he assisted British nurses, who had assembled at Singapore Cricket Club, to make their way to Keppel Harbour. He oversaw their passage onto small vessels which took them to the waiting SS Kuala. This was the last group of nurses to leave Singapore; many having worked at Alexandra Military Hospital. Reaching the gangway of Kuala they were greeted by Australian deserters armed with rifles, who allowed the nurses to board but told Bill that he could not. His reply was simple: ‘I do not intend to, I have plenty of work to be done back on land’.
Saturday 14 February stands out as one of the darkest days in the history of Singapore. On that day, Japanese troops surrounded Alexandra Military Hospital, and despite Red Cross flags being draped over the building, proceeded to attack. On seeing the situation unfolding Lieutenant W.F.J. Weston RAMC, walked out of the hospital towards the advancing troops, waving a large sheet as a white flag. He was immediately bayoneted and killed; he was 27 years old. His headstone poignantly reads ‘Greater love hath no man than this.’ Soon the Japanese entered the hospital creating unimaginable mayhem. Anaesthetised patients were bayoneted them as they lay on operating tables. Medical staff were also attacked. Captain T. B. Smiley, a surgeon with the RAMC, was bayoneted in the chest, but the blade was deflected by his cigarette case (a gift from his fiancée). Nearby, Captain Parkinson was anaesthetising Corporal Holden – both were killed.
Few patients survived the massacre and overall, more than 200 men lost their lives. Had it not been for the toss of coin in late 1941, Captain Bill Frankland would most certainly have been one of them.
Now aged 106, the biography of Dr Bill Frankland is to be published on 16 October. Entitled ‘From Hell Island to Hay Fever’, it details the remarkable and long life of Britain’s oldest doctor. It describes several occasions when Bill Frankland has been next to death, both in war and peace. The book provides unique insight into the remarkable medical career of a man who survived incarceration by the Japanese, worked for Sir Alexander Fleming, developed the pollen count and treated Saddam Hussein – it will be of interest to many and is available to pre-order now from Amazon.