I am currently working on two FEPOW projects which may be of interest to this community.
The first is a documentary concept to mark the 80th anniversary of the completion of the Thai-Burma Railway in October 2023. We had the honour of interviewing a UK FEPOW in February and we hope to have more news on that in the coming weeks and months.
The second project is a book to also mark the 80th anniversary next year and would be primarily based on a final voices theme. If approved, this book would be based on the voices of FEPOWs that have not been previously heard (i.e. not been published outside of family and friends). I have had the privilege of interviewing families of POWs around the world over these last 18 months and reading extracts and accounts about this remarkable generation.
My grandfather was a FEPOW, Captain Gilbert Inglefield, who I did not know that well and subsequently as I got older I wanted to learn more about – so there is a personal attachment to this. It is an obvious point to be made but one which I feel is important to the point of this book and that is there are so few FEPOWs still with us and that number is sadly diminishing week in, week out. Whilst all but a few are still with us, they remain the last human link to these extraordinary set of events that took place in Asia-Pacific between 1941-45.
I am looking to speak with families/descendants of FEPOWs who may have written summaries and accounts from their fathers/grandfathers – which have not been previously published outside of family and friends. The point of this is to potentially allow families who through their fathers/grandfathers can perhaps teach future generations about this specific piece of WWII history.
I am based in Boston but can happily chat to suit UK hours, if there is anyone who may be interested.
We have now come to the end of the first of our Sharing Research blog series and we hope you have enjoyed reading it as much as we have!
A massive thank you to all the authors that have contributed to the series for their work, and to everyone who has read, commented, liked and shared the posts. We hope that there will be a Series 2 and so if you have any ideas for a contribution please do get in touch with us, you don’t have to be a professional researcher, you just need an interesting story to tell. In the meantime, you can find all of the Series 1 posts here.
So what’s next for the blog?
We have some very exciting things coming up soon so make sure to keep an eye on the website and our social media to stay up to date. If you want to be notified in advance, and get early sneak peeks to what is coming up make sure that you are subscribed to our mailing list.
Jackie Sutherland, author of Doctor Behind the Wire: The Diaries if POW, Captain Jack Ennis, Singapore, 1942-1945, writes about how she uncovered the identity of who sketched her father as a POW in Singapore.
The answer was there all the time!
The search began in an attempt to find out more about the artist who sketched my late father, Captain Jack Ennis, while a POW in Singapore. No more was known other than the signature ‘F.J. White’.
Reading through lists of FEPOW gave several possible identities but then, quite by chance, as I leafed through papers on my desk, the sunlight caught a tiny reflection on the back of the sketch. Graphite – pencil – on the dull brown paper, a page from a photograph album.
There, in my father’s small spidery writing, he had noted ‘Drawn by “Willie” White in January 1944 at Selerang after a hockey match’.
This was a name I had come across while transcribing my father’s diaries – but it had never occurred to me that ‘Willie’ might be a nickname. Sadly, my father had also recorded Willie’s death (from illness) in May later that same year.
Following the trail from the Commonwealth War Graves Commision website, I was able to find out more about this remarkable artist. F. John White (nickname ‘Willie’), a trained commercial artist, had enlisted with the Sherwood Foresters (Nottingham and Derbyshire Regiment) and with the 1/5th Battalion, was captured in Singapore. During his time as a POW he was very involved in theatre productions, designing posters and scenery as well as acting.
To quote from my father’s diary (on a production of Aladdin) ‘Young (John) Willie White of our Mess made up as a wonderful princess, very, very pretty girl. Steve Campbell sent up a bouquet of flowers after.’
‘Willie’ John White must have drawn many portraits. As Capt G K Marshall wrote in his Changi Diaries.’
‘25th January 1944. Had a sunbathe on the roof and later sat for Willie while he did a portrait of me. He finished it by lunchtime and made a very good job of it, the best I have seen him do.’
Willie White’s portrait of my father was only recognized 75 years after VJ Day, which makes me think how many more portraits and sketches of our relatives are waiting to be discovered?
Although other books have featured Jack and Elizabeth Ennis, this is the first complete account of their story – from meeting in up-country Malaya (the rain forest, the orchids) – to their marriage in Singapore just days before it fell to the Japanese, and then through the long separation of internment.
Published here for the first time, Jack’s diaries record the daily struggles against disease, injuries and malnutrition and also the support and camaraderie of friends. enjoyment of concerts, lectures, and sports, Ever observant, he records details of wildlife.
The inspiration for the ‘Changi Quilts’, the story of the Girl Guide quilt (now in the Imperial War Museum) is told in words by Elizabeth, written after the war.
Elizabeth’s former employer, Robert Heatlie Scott, distinguished Far East diplomat, was also POW in Changi, much of the time in solitary confinement or under interrogation by the Japanese.
The individual experiences of these three persons are dramatic enough – together they combine in an amazing story of courage, love and life-long friendship.
You can pre-order Jackie’s book through the Pen and Sword website here.
For my Masters by Research degree at the University of Leeds I examined, in part, how the national perceptions of Australia and Britain of both the prisoner of war and civilian internee camps at Changi differ. The project found that they are all individually and deliberatively selective in their portrayal of the Japanese occupation which works to reinforce the desired national image of each country.
In Australia, news articles during 1942 and 1943 focused on reporting basic facts that relatives at home would need to know about the internment of Australians in Singapore, such as the number of people captured and where they were being held. The lack of detail in these reports was mostly due to the fact that little information was actually coming out of Singapore as the Japanese were censoring the news and those who had been interned were restricted from being able to send mail often.
In 1944 a change in the reports on Changi can begin to be seen as some men had managed to escape during transportation to Japan and return to Australia. This escape allowed the Australian press to begin to report their first detailed stories of what their citizens were experiencing with the Imperial Japanese Army in control. The Australian press chose to focus on the atrocities carried out against the Chinese during the Sook Ching massacre and how the Australians had been made to dig mass graves for the victims. This allowed the Japanese to be portrayed as being a barbaric enemy whilst simultaneously letting the Australian public feel like there was no particular threat against their citizens that were still interned as the Chinese were bearing the brunt of the brutality.
Following the war, the press in Australia began to unveil the true conditions that those interned had been exposed to. This was utilised to instil a nationalistic sense of pride in the troops by portraying them as those whose spirit, patriotism and endurance had allowed them to emerge from their internment victorious and alive. It is this theme of being proud of the Australian spirit which got the POWs through their ordeal and which the Australian press still focuses on today. Unlike Britain, the Second World War in the Pacific was the major theatre for action for Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) and this is therefore the main point of focus for Second World War history within Australia. By centring the Second World War story around Changi and the other atrocities which have been connected to it as one single narrative for the history of the nation, the war can be presented in a proud and patriotic way. In general, the story follows this pattern: Singapore’s fall was mainly the fault of the British and, as a result, Australian forces were interned at Changi before being shipped to work on the Burma-Thai railway. Many died, but those men who survived did so because of their Australian spirit and returned home battered but victorious. This pattern allows the negative aspects of history, such as the defeat, to be glossed over by blaming another nation. This then stacks the odds against their own citizens who, through no fault of their own, now need to do anything to survive. The reason they survive is because they are Australian (they contain and use the spirit that all Australians as a nation perceive themselves to have). Therefore, the POW story can now be perceived as a period in which Australians survived and had the upper hand because they were Australian.
Britain reported near identical stories as Australia did in 1942 and 1943 and for much the same reasons (Japanese censorship and limited information flow). Britain did not however, have anyone escape and return during the occupation and so the lack of specific news also continued throughout 1944. The minor exceptions to this were the small pieces of information here and there in the local press when a loved one from the community had received a letter from a POW or civilian internees in Changi informing them that they were alright. This was used to reassure the public that their men and women were holding up in internment just fine and there was not much to be worried about. This also allowed the public to remain focused on the war in Europe which was of greater concern and scale and involved more manpower than that in the Pacific.
In 1945, with the war in the West now over, the British press too began to report about the dreadful conditions experienced by those who were now returning home after their internment. In a similar way to the idea of the Australian spirit, Britain used this to perpetuate its underdog style self-image. These prisoners who had everything going against them managed to survive and return home despite the odds and therefore emerge victorious. Again, it can be seen that this is being utilised to allow the public to feel a nationalistic pride for their men and to hold them up as heroes as the fact that Singapore originally capitulated is glossed over, almost forgotten, in favour of this portrayal.
It is this post-war reporting that has carried over into the modern day and led to the British perception of Changi as a brutal place that was difficult to survive in, despite both prisoners of war and civilian internees returning home. Thus, the British underdogs win again. It allows the defeat of the British to be pushed back in favour of their stories of survival and small victories of misbehaviour against the Imperial Japanese Army during captivity. Again, this is then used to fuel a portrayal of heroism in the image of those who had been interned and to give the nation something to take pride in.
Overall, Australia and Britain present similar perceptions of Changi but place different amounts of significance on events that took place there due to their differing levels of involvement in the Second World War. It would seem that in summary, Australia and Britain’s perceptions are focused on pride of the past actions of their citizens.
Text adapted from: Sharp, E.J.M.S 2018. National memories of the Second World War in Changi, Singapore: Australian, British, and Singaporean perspectives. Master of Arts by Research thesis, University of Leeds
This account was written by my Aunty Pat, army nursing sister E.G.M. Reynolds. Born in 1903, she trained as a Queen Alexandra’s nurse and first saw WWII duty in 1939 at No.5 Casualty Clearing Station in N.E. France. With France having fallen, her next posting was to India where she nursed for five years until ordered in late 1945 to leave for Hong Kong.
At the close of the Japanese war I was matron of a very large hospital in India (2000 beds) and was given 24 hours warning to pack and hand over my hospital and proceed to Madras. There I collected 11 nursing sisters QAIMNSR [Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service (Reserve)] and TANS [Territorial Army Nursing Service] and embark on HMT Highland Monarch (Royal Mail Lines). We proceeded to Hong Kong via Rangoon and Singapore to collect as we thought service ex-PoWs [prisoners of war] and were told that they would be all men.
On arrival at Hong Kong we found that all the service men and members of QARANS [Queen Alexandra’s Royal Army Nursing Service] and QAIMNS had already left and that we were to bring home all the civilian internees, women and children and a few men.
The ship was bare and comfortless, a very small saloon, very few cabins but many large dormitories. The O/C troops was a very young and shy lieutenant colonel aged 23. The SMO [Senior Medical Officer], a Pole who spoke little English, and the captain and ship’s company – rather tough types who had very little to do with women in an official capacity – the captain was quite terrified at the thought of 1500 women and children on his ship. The four stewards on board said they just could not cope.
A conference was held on board at which the ADMS [Assistant Director of Medical Services] and some Air Force officers from Hong Kong attended. During this conference I was called to the captain’s cabin and told that, from that time on until we arrived in the United Kingdom, I was to take complete charge of the women and children and the O/C troops would be in charge of the men.
I then collected the 11 nursing sisters and told them my story and they started work at once making the dormitories as comfortable as possible – the Australian Red Cross were most helpful with extra food, clothes and blankets, and even provided toys for the children. The goods arrived by the ton and I had two holds to store them in – the ship was short of such things as milk, tinned fruit, sweets and chocolate, honey, lime juice and had no baby food at all. These were all provided by the Australian Red Cross and more baby food was waiting for us at Singapore and Colombo on our journey home.
Five nursing sisters did dormitory work and five hospital work and changed duties half-way home – I did all the catering and Red Cross, and the usual matron duties – I was also responsible for the women and children for life-boat drill.
The chief steward was a charming man and was most kind and cooperative. We worked out menus a week ahead and gradually got the passengers on to ordinary diet, from small four hourly meals to ordinary breakfast, lunch, tea and supper, and were very satisfied at the progress they made – there was little sickness among the passengers, except the poor souls who were ill when they came onboard as a result of starvation and hardships during captivity, and only one of these patients died. On arrival in the United Kingdom we were able to let all but 10 go to their homes. The 10 went into the local hospital and I learnt later they all recovered.
The passengers could not understand that we were nurses as we were wearing khaki and they had not seen women in khaki before they had been taken PoW, so most of them called me the Chief Stewardess and the sisters Stewardesses – but before the end of the voyage we were Matron and Sisters.
By the time we arrived in Colombo I had found out (identified) that those women and girls who were fit enough to help look after the young children, and we had the port side of a deck fitted and boarded as a nursery. Two women and two girls did one-hour in the morning and one hour in the afternoon or evening each in the nursery. The carpenter made a seesaw, a swing and a wonderful rocking horse. These were in great demand, and at night after the children had gone to bed many of the grownups used to have great fun in the nursery.
Later on some of the women volunteered to help with the dormitories and by the time we had arrived in Aden we had morning school for the very young and morning and afternoon school for the bigger children. An Anglican nun gave religious instruction to some of the children every day and the RC Padre also gave daily instruction.
We used to find small portions of food hidden in all sorts of strange places, especially under the mattresses and under chairs etc. These poor folks could just not realise that there was food for them at the next meal and these small packets were a habit of the internment camp – they still happened until the end of the voyage.
On arrival at Port Tewfik (Egypt) we had to disembark our flock in batches of 50 at a time to an enormous centre where they were given good warm winter clothes which were all new and fashionable. The women and children were delighted with their first new clothes for many years. The many young children at first did not take kindly to their strong shoes but when they did it was hard to get then to remove them for bathing and bed.
After eight weeks we arrived in Southampton and had a wonderful reception, bands playing, relatives reuniting and so on. And then the Customs – I asked a customs official to get me through quickly and he thought I was an ex-internee, said I looked well after my long period out of England, marked all my boxes and wished me a happy journey and a good holiday with my loved ones. As I had been overseas for five years, I did not disillusion him about not being an internee but was very grateful he asked no questions about my luggage.
The 11 nursing sisters and me had a most charming letter from the directors of the Royal Mail Line for all the help we had given them with the women and children on the voyage.
I must say I enjoyed every moment of the voyage and still hear from many of the ex- internees.
To the Principal Matron
Red Cross Hospital on SS Highland Monarch
Dear Miss Reynolds
You have been so very kind to us all on the ship caring for so many of our needs and indefatigable in your manifold services. I have no way of thanking you save by way of this little sketch of H.K. from which you came all the way to fetch us.
Thank you and all your staff for you care of our sick folk and especially of Sir Atholl.
My aunts cousin, Miss E.B.M.Dyson ,also a QA nurse was stationed in HK at Bowen Road BMH at the outbreak of the Japanese War. She was a POW until late 1945 and remained a QA until the late 1950s when retiring as Colonel E.B.M.Dyson OBE RRC
My paternal uncle John William Purcell (known to family as Jack) served in the Royal Signals (service number 2589375) as a dispatch rider. He became a Japanese prisoner of war and sadly didn’t return home. I started to research my family history about 15 years ago. All I had was a box of photos and letters.
One letter, dated 10/2/41, was from a family in Cape Town, South Africa, who entertained Jack and his pals en route to Singapore. They wrote ‘Jack is a fine fellow, very fit and enjoying the journey’.
In 2008 I had a holiday in Thailand meeting up with my daughter living in Australia. Having done only a minimal amount of research I realised we should take the opportunity to fly up to Bangkok for a few days and go up to the cemetery in Kanchanaburi. With information from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission giving his grave location, we made a visit. I was very moved at the peacefulness, tranquillity and how beautiful it was kept.
Since then, working at Neston High School I was pleased to be involved in Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine’s Far East prisoner of war (FEPOW) project. Several departments including English, Art and Design and Technology contributed to Secret Art of Survival project, creating a wall hanging, artworks and a replica bamboo dentist chair, respectively. It was also a privilege to attend a thought-provoking yet beautiful service to commemorate FEPOW, on 17th November 2019 at Liverpool Parish Church of Our lady and St Nicholas.
During the FEPOW project I met Professor Gill and Meg Parkes. Meg was keen to see my treasured photos and letters including Uncle Jack’s original POW index card. Through Meg I was put in touch with FEPOW researcher Keith Andrews who was able to give me further information and another contact, Terry Manttan, the manager of the Thailand-Burma Railway Centre (TBRC) in Kanchanaburi, Thailand. Terry was able to translate the index card for me:
‘The front of the card shows us that he was captured in Singapore and would have been held initially in Changi POW Camp. In the Number box we see the characters for Malai POW Camp Roll 3, which I believe would have been River Valley Road. The Malai characters have been crossed through and replaced by the one for Thailand POW Camp 1. This means he was transferred to Work Group 1 (Allied terminology), or Camp 1 (Japanese terminology) on the Thai-Burma Railway’.
Not long after, I was delighted to receive an email from Terry, via Keith.
‘One of those strange and unexplainable things that keep happening… today I was reading a man’s memoirs while researching another fellow and came across a reference to Johnny Purcell. Of course this rang a bell, and on checking it turned out to be the man I just sent you the info about’.
THAILAND SLEEPER AND RAIL LAYERS
Extract from…………BURROWS, NORMAN WILLIAM, L/CPL 2589933
‘Then came the cholera. Johnny Purcell, another DR, was the cleanest man you could imagine, always kept himself smart, and his mess tin was always sparkling. We went to bed that night and we were now …………under canvas. Twelve of us in the tent, and by the morning Johnny Purcell was dead, and three others were in agony with the cholera. You can imagine how we felt – the Japs were in a real panic’.
You can imagine what I felt when I read this little snippet of information.
Terry told me both men, Norman and John, were Signalmen:
‘It follows that John (Jack) Purcell would have most likely been with them from Singapore on the same train which left on 9th November 1942. This was one of the trains that got stopped in transit by the flooded railway in southern Thailand before going on to Ban Pong. As they got to repair the international train line on the way they ended up becoming the specialist group of “sleeper and rail layers’.
These men arrived at Kinsaiyok in July 1943. Cholera hit the camp and Jack was taken ill on 6th August 1943, died on 7th August and was cremated in Kinsaiyok camp. I believe his remains were reburied 6th April 1946 at Kanchanaburi CWGC cemetery in plot 8 H 48.
A very moving letter of condolence sent 3rd January 1946 from his sergeant, Thomas Woodhouse, was received by his mother Barbara Purcell.
‘It may ease you mind considerably if I told you that I knew your son practically from the capitulation until the time of his death and during that time he was in excellent health and spirits, fed well owing to his efforts in bartering with natives ‘.
I wonder how much of this is true.
My research has been an emotional journey, the more you learn the more you want to find out. I consider myself very lucky to have been to Kanchanaburi to pay my respects and I hope to return sometime to have a personalised pilgrimage led by TBRC returning to his known locations.
To have almost no possessions except for the rags one stood up in, must have been a truly harrowing experience. This I believe explains the two tins shown below, which were with my father, Johnnie – Sgt J. G. Appleton 27 Sqdn RAF (pre-capture briefly attached to RAF HQ Communications Team) – throughout his time as a POW in Sumatra, as he moved from one jungle camp to the next. The fact that he brought them home and kept them all his life speaks volumes about their significance.
The discoloured tin held tobacco and matches. There were still shreds of tobacco in it when I was young. It also held a wad of occupation money. The Gold Flake tin held a Japanese toothbrush, with its bristles stained bright red from using tree bark as toothpaste (this has gone missing), some letters and his Japanese ID badge. On the right is his RAF insignia and on the left another badge which I don’t recognise, can anyone tell me what this is?
My father John Griffith Appleton (1917 – 2009) served in the RAF for 32 years (1935 -1967). During WW2 he was first stationed in India before flying down to Malaya. As the Japanese invaded from the north, he fled from one bombed-out airfield to the next and then, in a hazardous rush, to Singapore. During the invasion of the Island he was a key member of a team that, up to the last moment, kept open the communications links to India and Java.
On the night of 13 Feb 1941 Johnnie was ordered to leave with his team. They boarded the S.S Tien Kwang bound for they knew not where, and being exhausted, fell asleep on the deck. The next morning, they woke to the sound of low flying aircraft starting their bombing run and within moments the ship was holed, listing and there were many casualties. Another ship nearby the SS Kuala suffered a similar fate. Following the order to abandon ship, Johnnie managed to swim towards Pulau Pompong Island and being unhurt assisted in helping the wounded and disposing of the dead.
After several days and a hair-raising journey in a junk, he landed in the mouth of the Indragiri River on the East coast of Sumatra. There was then an arduous traverse of Sumatra to the West coast and Padang where it was hoped they would be taken off by a Naval ship. No ship arrived and instead they simply waited in limbo and trepidation for the arrival of the Imperial Japanese Army.
For the next three and a half years Johnnie was in a total of 10 camps in Sumatra, with progressively harsher regimes and ever-increasing levels of privation as the war progressed. The culmination of the experience was a year building the railway linking Sumatra’s east and west coast ports. This line was forged through virgin jungle with basic hand tools, in adverse climatic and disease-ridden conditions. The irony was that the track was completed shortly before the Japanese capitulated and was never really used thereafter. It is now in ruins and reclaimed by the jungle.
In 1999/2000 Johnnie compiled a detailed memoir describing his and fellow prisoners’ hardship and ill treatment. What is remarkable on reading his account, is not just that he survived, but that he did so with no lasting physical impairment and outwardly no mental issues. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he did relate stories and describe events, in particular about living in the jungle and the various wild animals encountered – and eaten! His explanation for survival seemed to involve using the hard work and squalid conditions as a challenge. He had the determination that however bad he felt he must rise and work hard all day.
At one point a Japanese camp commander called him out from a daily parade and, instead of beheading him for some minor misdemeanour, which was my father’s expectation, awarded him a tin of sugar, a reward for having worked 100 days without a break. Other contributory factors he offered were, the responsibility undertaken for looking after the RAF contingent, prior experience of living in Asia, an extensive inoculation programme when he was being trained pre-war and, being a boy scout!
Towards the end of the war it is clear from his account that survival was very much in the balance as the effort to overcome extreme beriberi and starvation became overwhelming. The descriptions of the excitement experienced as SOE operatives literally dropped out of the trees and liberated the camp, is thrilling to read. It does also appear that the RAF, within the knowledge parameters of the day, re- PTSD etc., did do much to ease him back into fully operational service as a ‘regular’, and promoted him several ranks to make up for lost time and in recognition of the responsibility he had taken on in the camps organising his RAF colleagues.
For many years post-war Johnnie played a role in his local FEPOW branch and acted as treasurer.
By Andrew Easterbrook, a documentary researcher in Vancouver, Canada
Among the possessions my grandfather, Joe Harper, saved until the end of his life was a photograph taken at Clacton on 8 Nov 1941, days before his deployment overseas. The image shows his 251 Battery of the 85th Anti-Tank Regiment, RA, who were fated to sail to Singapore and become prisoners of the Japanese.
The photo came into my possession when my grandmother died in 2009. Since then, I have often wondered what happened to the 140 smiling young men in the picture. What were their fates? Without their names, an examination of the usual official sources wasn’t much help. The breakthrough came when I discovered a list of surnames written in pencil on the back of an envelope Joe received from my grandmother, while he was a POW on the Burma-Thailand railway in the summer of 1944. Knowing that Joe was a meticulous man, I counted the names: exactly 140 in all. They were even arranged in six rows. It was a clue to the identities of the names of the men in the photo! With an initial list of names, the hard work could begin.
For this I teamed up with Mick Luxford, Editor of the Queen’s Own Oxfordshire Hussars (QOOH) Association’s newsletter, and a fount of knowledge concerning Oxfordshire Regiments – from which 251 Battery originally came. The nominal roll of the 85th at the National Archives in Kew filled in some of the blanks, but some names on my list were duplicates, and others were unreadable. Clearly some detective work would be needed. A trawl of primary and secondary published and unpublished material, along with a deep dive into Regimental publications and memories, slowly began to produce results. After much hard work, we believe that we have identified 122 of the men in the Battery photograph, with nine ‘probables’, and another nine currently unknown.
The 140 men from all over Britain assembled on that autumn day met fates that were as varied as those of the British Army in Singapore as a whole. Some were killed in action in Singapore shortly after their arrival. Many went to Thailand to work on the Burma-Thailand Railway; many of those died while doing so. Some went further, to Taiwan and Japan; some of those men died in hellships on the way. But many returned to Britain, lived long lives, and had families just like mine.
We have begun to reach out to some of families of men we have identified, many of whom are unaware of the photograph, and are delighted to see a new image of their relative. Work continues to identify the remaining men and find their families. Our small group of researchers next hopes to unearth the missing pre-departure photos of the other three Batteries of the wartime 85th (45, 270 and 281), and begin work to identify those men. If your relative was in the 85th (especially 251 Battery), or you know of those pictures, please do get in touch.
Whilst searching for an enamel mug on eBay, I happened across a group of items that appeared to belong to a FEPOW veteran. I searched the name and confirmed they did indeed belong to a FEPOW. Although not something I would normally be looking to buy, I purchased the items in order to keep them together as I feared the group being split up as, sadly, this does happen from time to time with military groups. I contacted the seller who was not related to the original owner but had purchased the items from a general auction.
I have a good knowledge of WW2 and, in particular military artefacts, but my wife is more knowledgeable than myself on the Far East campaign and POW’s experiences having had two great uncles that served in the Far East. One served in the Royal Marines 44 Commando, the other was Raymond John Marks (Royal Engineers), who sadly died whilst in captivity after the fall of Singapore. I have some experience researching the service of other family members and soldiers from different periods in history, so I helped research the history of my wife’s great uncle’s service.
These items belonged to Lt. John Fredrick Wright, the son of a Royal Navy Surgeon Captain; he was born in August 1919, and with the outbreak of War in 1939, he was a student living with his parents in Bournemouth. His POW report card has his occupation as an automobile engineering trainee. In 1940 he was commissioned and joined the Royal Army Service Corps attached to 196 Field Ambulance Royal Army Medical Corps; the RASC provided drivers for their ambulances. Lt. Wright travelled to Singapore with 196 FA part of 18th Division and was there during the fall of Singapore. I have managed to download several documents pertaining to his service; these include his captivity report, his record card and a number of camp rosters where he is listed. I have recently begun looking into the camps listed on his captivity report. Other than those, I currently have no further knowledge of his time in captivity or his life after WW2. I am still researching him, so I would be interested to hear from anyone who can provide any further information about him. It would be particularly special to be able to add a photo of him to the collection.
The group of items, pictured below, consists of:
His British Army issue 08 large kit bag with his name and number written in many places and numerous field repairs.
Mess tins, one with his name inscribed, and on the other his name, rank, number on one side and “18 DIV RASC SINGAPORE 15th Feb 1942”, and his unit and division insignia on the opposite side.
His 1939 dated fork with his initials.
His army issue WW2 water bottle, the stopper has been replaced with a bamboo one. His name is on the cloth cover, and the harness has a field repair plus the addition of a leather bottom. His initials are written on the harness’s underside and are not sun-faded like the rest of the water bottle.
His army issue white enamel mug which still has his fibre dog tag attached with string.
There are two clothing items: his “Jap Happy” loincloth and non-issue handmade shorts, possibly camp made.
The following few items may indicate a medical link, firstly a set of unidentified kidney-shaped tins use unknown. The smaller section is able to sit on the edge of the main tin. Nearly all British army items are usually marked; however, these are not.
Next, there is an ivory tongue depressor, and finally, a piece of bamboo of unknown purpose that has been hollowed out at one end, creating a vessel for maybe a medicine or ointment. It has a staple in the bottom, perhaps to enable it to be hung up. Any suggestions as to its use would be appreciated. Given that these items are included, I think that Lt. Wright served in some sort of medical capacity. Although he was not RAMC, he was attached to them, and with his father being a Surgeon Captain RN, he may have had some basic knowledge or just willing to serve as an orderly.
These items no doubt meant a lot to Lt. Wright as they were his worldly possessions for a number of years. Understandably many would be only too happy to part with any reminders of their time in captivity. For some, it might not have been easy to part with items that were so important to them after many years in captivity. He kept that simple, inconspicuous piece of bamboo, and the mug is still stained from use as is the clothing, one mess tin retains the burn marks of use, and the web material of packs holds dust from the Far East. Untouched, they tell the story of their use. They have not been cleaned, washed, or polished bright in later years; they look to have been brought home and just put away. Perhaps a reminder that he did not want to part with, but equally just wanted to put away.
Handling these historic items is a tangible link not just to Lt. J.F. Wright, but also Raymond John Marks and every other Far East Prisoner of War. I plan to donate the items to somewhere they can be preserved for the future and commemorate Lt Wright’s service.
Thank you to Meg Parkes for suggesting this post and identifying the loincloth, also thanks to Emily Sharp for help with this post and translating the report card.
By Jon Cooper, Project founder of The Adam Park Project, Centre for Battlefield Archaeology at Glasgow University
It is often cited by historians that the British had no tanks in Malaya.
This is not to say that the Allies had no armoured vehicles, however. Notably the Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders were provided with 6 Lanchester armoured cars, each to be named after Scottish castles. These vehicles had been brought over from the Middle East and were notoriously temperamental.
Captain Wilson of the A&SH describes them as:
‘By anyone’s standards the Lanchesters were well past their sell-by date. They were designed for the Middle East and from their log books all had served there; they were well old, cumbersome and crotchety, but they packed considerable firepower (a .5 and .303 medium machine guns in the turret and another .303 machine gun in the hull) and they had a tolerably thick coating of armour for their day.’
Vehicles loaned out to other units were returned as their new operators were unable to get them started. The Scots made good use of the five Lanchesters they took into Malaya however only one, the ‘Stirling Castle’ made it back to guard the causeway as the last of the allied troops crossed into Singapore. The last of the Scottish Lanchesters were knocked long the Bukit Timah Road during the fight for the Dairy Farm
The A&SH and the SSVC were also given Marmon Herrington armoured cars. But these lacked armoured protection, firepower and were open topped allowing the enemy to lob grenades and Molotov cocktails into the crew positions with devastating effect.
In July 1942 Lieut. R L Rendle of the FMSFV Intelligence branch wrote a ‘secret’ report on the action of the F.M.S.V.F armoured cars units in Malaya from the 6 – 15th February 1942. He states that the armoured cars were prone to ambush, a skill quickly developed by the Japanese. He does note however that early in the campaign the armoured cars were effective against what he considered ‘irregular’ Japanese troops who were untrained and unequipped to attack armoured vehicles and suffered heavy casualties for their efforts. Notably he reports that second-hand accounts were telling of Japanese troops attacking with magnetised mines and bottle bombs of Nitric Acid in almost suicidal assaults on the armoured cars.
There was one additional problem though in the Herrington steering position. The small view port used by the driver to see behind the vehicle when they were reversing was set too high up to be any use. The driver depended on another crew member to say what was behind them. When reversing out of an ambush all the crew were too busy to keep a look out and many Herringtons ended up driving into the drainage ditch by the side of the road forcing the crew to abandon the vehicle. Simple design faults that ultimately cost lives.