Tag Archives: Hong Kong

Did Allied Strategy Prolong FEPOW Suffering?

By Mary Monro, author of Stranger In My Heart (Unbound, 2018)

We naturally focus on the long, terrible suffering of the FEPOWs. But what if there could have been an earlier end to the war? This is the question that struck me when I uncovered my father’s part in trying to liberate the PoWs in Hong Kong.

Major John Monro RA escaped, with two colleagues, from Sham Shui Po PoW camp in Hong Kong in February 1942, making their way 1500 miles across China to the wartime capital at Chongqing. In August 1942 he was made Assistant Military Attaché there, where his chief role was liaison with Col Lindsay Ride, founder of the British Army Aid Group (BAAG), a humanitarian and intelligence organisation supporting the Hong Kong PoWs.

My father also had close links with US Air Force Chief of Staff, Col Merian Cooper, who served General Chennault of Flying Tigers fame. Cooper had long been a pilot and he was also a film maker, creating and co-directing King Kong. He flies the plane that kills the beast in the final scene.

Images courtesy of Mary Monro

In autumn 1942 the Japanese seemed to be an unstoppable force and competing strategies were being considered by Allied Command. General Stilwell, Commander of Allied Forces in China, was an infantryman and land war proponent. Chennault was a forward thinking airman who believed that retaking control of China’s airspace and major ports would enable the Allies to attack Japanese shipping, disrupt their supply lines and ultimately attack the Japanese islands themselves.

Part of Chennault’s analysis was the intelligence supplied to him by BAAG, giving him confidence in his plan to retake Hong Kong. My father saw an opportunity to liberate the PoWs as part of this plan, knowing that they were now too weak and sick to escape. He put his idea to Cooper and Ride and they hammered out the details.

At the Casablanca Conference in January 1943 the air war strategy was approved and reported in the press – an interesting read for the Japanese! Chennault and Stilwell travelled to Washington for the Trident Conference in May 1943, where they put their detailed and opposing plans to President Roosevelt. He was in favour of the air plan, as was Churchill, who famously said ‘going into swampy jungles to fight the Japanese is like going into the water to fight a shark.’

The air plan won the vote and Roosevelt wrote a directive for the War Department. He showed it to Chennault to check that it included everything he needed, but omitted to sign it, ‘FDR’. The War Department was headed by land war and Stilwell supporters, who ensured the error was never corrected. Chenault never received the planes, pilots, ammunition and fuel that he needed. The land war in Burma went ahead, with huge suffering and loss of life. Had Chennault’s plan been properly resourced, perhaps the war in the Far East would have ended early. Allied resources would have redeployed to Europe, shortening the war there. As many as 9 million lives might have been saved.

Mary’s book, Stranger in my Heart, please click the image to go the book’s website.

Search for Relatives of BSM John Carley, 965 Defence Battery, Royal Artillery

by Brian Finch

A pre-war football medal awarded to John Carley has been found and the finder would like to return it to the family.

John Carley served as a Battery Sergeant Major with 965 Defence Battery, Royal Artillery, in the battle for Hong Kong in December 1941.  Philip Cracknell’s article about this battery can be read here

Following the surrender on Christmas Day 1941 all the defending forces were incarcerated in prisoner of war camps.  On 25 September 1942 1,816 prisoners of war were taken from Shamshuipo camp and put on an armed Japanese freighter, the Lisbon Maru

This ship set sail on 27 September, also carrying Japanese troops and not marked to show that it had pows on board.  It was torpedoed on 1 October by an American submarine, the USS Grouper.  During the 24 hours it took to sink, the pows on board were confined to the holds with the hatches battened down and with no access to food, water, fresh air or toilet facilities.  Since many of the men were suffering from dysentery the stale air soon became foul and suffocating, some men died during the night.  The condition in all three holds where the pows were confined were atrocious, but those in the third hold had the worst time.  This was where the gunners were held, and as their hold was filling with water they had the unenviable task of manning an inadequate hand pump to keep the ship afloat.  In the stifling atmosphere the men could hardly breathe and were only able to pump for a few minutes at a time.  As one man became exhausted another would take his place.  This went on all night until by the early hours of 2 October all the men collapsed out of sheer exhaustion.

Shortly after this the men in the second hold managed to break out and open all three hatches. Most managed to get out and jump into the sea to save their lives, but they were then shot at by the Japanese with rifles and machine-guns.  Tragically, in the third hold, where the gunners had worked so hard to save the ship from going down earlier, the only ladder broke, and most of the men then went down with the ship.  John Carley was almost certainly one of those brave men who kept the ship afloat for so long and then perished as they went down with the ship.  It is certainly known that he died in the sinking.  He was one of the 828 who tragically died in this terrible incident.

Bryher Bell has contacted Philip Cracknell to say that he has a 1936 football medal for John Carley when he was serving in Aldershot.  He would love to be able to trace the family so that he can return this medal to them.

If anyone knows of any relatives or descendants of John Carley, please can they contact Philip Cracknell at philip.g.cracknell@gmail.com to let him know.

On This Day

30th August 1945

  • Hong Kong is reoccupied by the United Kingdom after a British battle squadron led by HMS Indomitable arrives.
  • General MacArthur lands in Japan and sets up a temporary headquarters in Yokohama.

Liberation of Stanley Camp, Hong Kong – Naomi’s Story

Excerpts from internees’ recollections of liberation from Stanley Camp, Hong Kong  1945

Composed by Dr Bernice Archer

Naomi Walton Smith – Young single woman in Stanley Camp. H.K.

(Interview with Dr. Bernice Archer)

On August 14th the Japanese told us to assemble. The commandant of the camp then came down from his headquarters and announced that the Japanese had surrendered.

Delight was an understatement.

We were allowed to move freely around the camp for the next few weeks and rations increased enormously. There was a general display of Chinese colours and even a Union Jack and the American Flag. The Japanese took exception to this premature display as the British Navy still had not arrived to release us. Those few weeks were the longest of my life. We were told not to go to town because there was a lot of rioting and looting. We could not believe it would take the British so long to reach H.K.

When the British did finally come into camp the National Anthem was played.

On 30th August the British Navy anchored in H.K. Harbour.

I remember being told that it was my turn next to be taken back to H.K. I was billeted at the Gloucestershire Hotel and was allotted a room which I shared with someone who had also been interned in Stanley.

 “I have no bitter feelings towards the Japanese and I have been back since to visit. I lived in such terrible uncertainty that I just never knew what was going to happen to me. We all had such an uncertain life. One lived from day to day… All I want to do now is to forget everything to do with it”.

Liberation of Stanley Camp, Hong Kong – Marjory’s Story

Excerpts from internees’ recollections of liberation from Stanley Camp, Hong Kong  1945

Composed by Dr Bernice Archer

Marjory Fortescue – a young married woman in Stanley Camp H.K.

(Interview with Dr. Bernice Archer.)

There was a lull for several days and then suddenly planes came over – not Japanese planes – all the Japanese had left the camp. Next thing we know planes coming over and dropping crates of food – not all that carefully but as carefully as they could! All the children were terrified because they had been bombed before by the Americans (accidentally) and so they were frightened. Luckily the crates fell open and there was food inside… but still nobody came.

We were not allowed out of the camp as the Colonial Secretary (Franklin Gimson) did not want to have responsibility of women milling around H.K. not knowing quite what was going to happen. So, I went straight from Stanley onto this minesweeper and then onto a boat and onto this aircraft carrier and straight to Ceylon, so I never went to H.K. proper immediately after the war till I went back a year later.

We stopped on the way home in south Jordon and were given clothes. When we landed in England we went by a train from Southampton to London and Adrian (her 4-year-old son) saw a swan and said “is that a cow?” … not any cows in H.K. too dry!!

We were home (her mother’s home in Cambridge) for Christmas.

Liberation of Stanley Camp, Hong Kong – Hilary’s Story

Excerpts from internees’ recollections of liberation from Stanley Camp, Hong Kong  1945

Composed by Dr Bernice Archer

Hilary Hamson, aged 8 in Stanley Camp Hong Kong.

(Correspondence with Dr. Bernice Archer)

I can’t remember being told the war was over. My recollection is that everything went quiet, bonfires around the Japanese quarters. maybe as they destroyed files? I was kicking my heels one day and I saw this ship coming into Tai Tam Bay. I raced back and found my dad. He went around the barbed wire to Stanley village and asked someone to take us out to the ship. We were the first on board HMAS Freemantle and were welcomed aboard by the captain. (HMAS Freemantle was a minesweeper ahead of the British fleet coming into H.K) The captain took us down to his cabin and I remember the taste of soft white bread and also trying to eat an orange, peel and all! I was given a present (a pennant) from the ship which I still have.

The pennant Hilary was given by the Captain of the HMAS Freemantle

At some point supplies were dropped by parachute. My brother ran down to the green thinking he could catch this ‘little box’ but soon realized that the box would squash him if he didn’t get indoors…. Later the good looking, healthy Australians arrived.

My next memory is a party on HMS Swiftsure. We were loaded on buses and taken down via Happy Valley to the harbour. We saw Mickey Mouse cartoons, ate jelly and ice cream, sat on huge gun barrels and were generally made a great fuss of.

I don’t remember much about the journey to the U.K on the Empress of Australia. I know the crew fixed up a canvas swimming pool. The men had to sleep on deck – fine when the weather was warm but cold as we arrived in Liverpool in November. I don’t know how my father coped. Somewhere along the way we were kitted out with clothes. I think we were lucky to have that six – week recovery time.

I remember two things on the journey home from Liverpool – cows from the train windows and traffic lights in the fog of November evening in Exeter.

Liberation of Stanley Camp, Hong Kong – John’s Story

Excerpts from internees’ recollections of liberation from Stanley Camp, Hong Kong  1945

Composed by Dr Bernice Archer

John Barton (Brother of Rosemary Murray) in Stanley Camp H.K. aged 12 at beginning of internment.

(Written by John Barton and copy given to Dr. Bernice Archer)

Rumours were rife…we lived in constant hope. On 15th August a Formosan guard told a group of us ‘war over’. We looked at him incredulously. The next day the colonial Secretary set up a table and stood on it and informed the internees that Japan had unconditionally surrendered to the Allies. Frenzied ecstasy is the only way I can describe the days that followed. Rations improved, the Japanese gave us buffalo meat and butter and chocolate, it was wonderful to have good nourishment again. Days later the American planes began dropping food.

On the horizon we could see signalling lights of the Royal Navy as they swept the approaches to H.K. (Hong Kong) for mines. One morning three weeks later HMAS Freemantle glided into the bay at Stanley and anchored some 500 yards away. I ran to the beach and was joined by a 12 year – old girl. Chinese sampan sculled us to the Freemantle where we were treated like royalty. We finally left the mine sweeper loaded with fruit and tinned food.

A few days later the British soldiers arrived in camp. We were impressed by their healthy-looking bodies, they in turn were amazed at the emaciated internees in their bedraggled shorts and no shoes or shirts.

In mid-September we were ferried to the SS Empress of Australia. Women and children were quartered in cabins, men and boys on the troop desks. When we arrived in Manila British POWs were mustered and ready to embark. We looked over and there was Bernie (Bernard their older brother was a member of the H.K. Volunteer Defence Corps) waiting to board. He had survived!! We were all overjoyed.

I had entered the camp aged 12 and left aged 16 and at that age it seemed like a lifetime.

Liberation of Stanley Camp, Hong Kong – Rosemary’s Story

Excerpts from internees’ recollections of liberation from Stanley Camp, Hong Kong  1945

Composed by Dr Bernice Archer

Liberation of Stanley Camp H.K.

The actual surrender ceremony in Hong Kong was delayed from day to day and it was not until everything was ready on 16th September that the British authorities officially fired a twenty-one-gun salute from the war ships. Later that evening the British fleet performed a searchlight and firework display.

Rosemary Murray (nee Barton) aged 11 years when interned with her family in Stanley Camp Hong Kong remembers:

(Interview with Dr. Bernice Archer)

On August 15th 1945 I was playing schools. I had just expelled Roger (her brother) from my class. Before long he returned he said ‘The war is over – it’s true the gates are open’ within minutes everyone appeared to have heard the news and were running around jubilantly calling out ‘The War is over’.

We were compelled to carry on living normally until our repatriation could be arranged. My birthday on 29th August is probably my most memorable birthday. I was eleven years old on that day. Coloured mushrooms fell from the sky, as relief goods were parachuted into the camp. Once they had fallen we ran to retrieve the coloured silks….

Peacetime brought with it all the responsibilities of normal life. My father was called upon to re-establish the Treasury in Hong Kong, my mother and all but three of us sailed back to England on the SS Empress of Australia, a new life in a new community had just begun.

It was not easy fitting back into the normal swing of life. The children at school used to stare at us thinking we were some primitive creatures from China, because we came from China we must be Chinese – that was their logic.

After spending one year in Baginton Fields Hostel, a refugee camp in Coventry, we returned to Hong Kong to resume the colonial way of life.

In 1947 Jacqueline (her sister) and I went to boarding school…I felt more a prisoner there than at any time in Stanley. The rules, silence, discipline and censorship soon changed my personality. From a spirited youngster I became a withdrawn adolescent, frightened, lonely and always pining for home.

Stranger in My Heart – Mary Monro

On 9 June 2018, Mary Monro’s moving book, Stranger in My Heart, was published. Mary spoke about the book at our Leeds workshop in March 2018. Here, Mary describes how she learned of her father’s wartime experiences, including his escape from Hong Kong, and her own journey to retrace his steps and all that it uncovered.

Stranger In My Heart by Mary Monro

 It’s the silence that gets us all started isn’t it? This is how I unlocked my Dad’s silence, 30 years after he died, and in the process how I learned much about who I am. The Dad I knew was a Shropshire farmer, horseman, watcher of the TV news. We received a letter from his old Chinese interpreter every Christmas, but he never said a word about his 25 years in the Royal Artillery or about his experiences in the Second World War.

Major Munro

Major John Monro, 1942; © Mary Monro

Battle of Hong Kong

Dad fought at the battle of Hong Kong in December 1941 and kept a diary. This gave me an eyewitness account of the battle, which I could cross-reference with official reports and the accounts of other combatants.

Imprisonment at Sham Shui Po

After the surrender on Christmas Day 1941, 5000 – 6000 Allied troops were imprisoned at Sham Shui Po Barracks on the mainland. It was clear that they were in for a rough time. They faced the awful dilemma of staying for an unknown period in terrible conditions or escaping into territory patrolled by the Japanese and inhabited by potentially hostile Chinese, where they didn’t know the country, couldn’t communicate and couldn’t hide. Senior officers in the camp were against escape and the Japanese Commandant promised that escapes would result in reprisals for those left behind. But Dad was determined to go, and it later turned out that reprisals were more than offset by the boost to morale generated by escapes.

Escape From Hong Kong

Dad travelled 1200 miles across China from Hong Kong to Chongqing, a destitute refugee in a nation of destitute refugees. It was hard to understand his escape route which seemed to be a crazy zig-zag across the map. I had to learn where the Japanese forces were; road, river and rail links; the location of British Military Missions, and so on. Chongqing, China’s wartime capital, turns out to be the preferred destination for escapers and so I was able to compare his account with those of other escapers.

escape routeMajor John Monro’s Escape Route, 1942; © Mary Monro

Plan to Liberate Hong Kong PoWs

In Chongqing Dad was made Assistant Military Attaché and remained there until the end of 1943. Searching his diary I stumbled across a barely known piece of history.

November 26th 1942: “Cooper came to lunch today. Afterwards we had a long discussion on the intelligence he required and the steps to be taken to prevent news of American Airforce movements on the Kweilin airfield leaking to the enemy. Finally Cooper, Ride and I went out onto the balcony for a long talk. As a result of this Ride and I stayed up most of the night concocting a plan”.

There is a lot of information in those 4 sentences. Col Lindsay Ride was founder of the British Army Aid Group, a humanitarian organisation set up to support PoWs in Hong Kong. Dad had a plan to evacuate all these PoWs with the help of the American Airforce. This meeting was to firm up the plan with the Americans. Col Merian Cooper was Chief of Staff to General Claire Chennault of the US Air Force, and was a pioneering aviator, movie producer and creator of King Kong.

Chennault and Cooper were forward thinkers, keen to use air power to attack Japanese supply lines in China. A co-benefit of this plan would be the liberation of the Hong Kong PoWs. But Chennault reported to General ‘Vinegar Joe’ Stilwell, a traditional infantryman who was determined to have a land-based war in Burma.

Chennault and Stilwell presented their opposing plans to Roosevelt and Churchill in May 1943. Chennault’s plan was approved but Roosevelt omitted to sign the directive and Stilwell’s buddies at the War Department ensured that the error was never corrected. Thus Chennault never received the supplies he needed. This was catastrophic for Dad’s plan and for the multitude who lost their lives in Asia as a result of the subverted strategy.

I was becoming frustrated by the written word and decided to retrace Dad’s escape route across China. But would I gain anything from visiting a country that has seen huge changes over the last 70 years?

I started in Hong Kong, touring the battlefield sites and visiting the military cemetery at Stanley. It brought my grief to the surface but it also made me feel close to Dad. I took the train to Shaoguan, where dad had stayed for 10 days writing reports about the conditions for PoWs back in Hong Kong. I continued to Guilin with its stunning Karst landscape and learned more about the conquest of the city by the Japanese. Guizhou, a haven for many of China’s ethnic minorities, is relatively undeveloped, so I felt I was seeing it through Dad’s eyes. In Chongqing I visited Stilwell’s offices, preserved with furniture intact and giving a sense of the dramas that must have unfolded in those rooms. My trip still left me wanting more.

office
Stilwell’s office in Chongqing. © Mary Monro

Research

I started writing, using Dad’s diaries, reports and letters and filling in the background however I could. I hired researchers in the UK and the USA. I found that Roosevelt’s entire presidential archive is available online for free, so I researched that from home. I studied as many books on Hong Kong and China’s war as I could find and pestered friends for any other sources they might have lurking at home.

Finding Community

Unbound is publishing my book and will bring this story to a wider audience. I felt morally bound – and keen – to try and contact the descendants of the people whom Dad mentions. Their responses were truly heartwarming and I felt an immediate sense of community. We all wanted to honour and remember our relations. We were all floundering because of the silence. But for me, the silence had broken, opening to a greater understanding of China, my father and myself.