Tag Archives: RAF

Nine lives and two tins

By Mike Appleton

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.

Johnnie Appleton, carrying a FEPOW Federation wreath, Manchester Cathedral, late 1990s (©courtesy M. Appleton)

Stitched Up… A Little Piece of History

Marking the 79th anniversary of the Fall of the Netherlands East Indies, Meg Parkes shares what her father called “his little piece of history”
Fig.1 first of five typed pages setting out the Dutch capitulation ©M.Parkes
All five pages of the original Dutch notice of surrender are reproduced in Meg’s book, “Notify Alec Rattray…”, the first part of her father’s diaries.

In the early 1990s while I was transcribing his diaries, my dad told me the story behind this  document and its important place in Second World War history. It is the first of five pages of the official order to surrender the Dutch East Indies. The order was issued on 8 March 1942 by General Ter Poorten Commander-in-Chief of Dutch Forces. It is believed to be the only copy in existence, thanks to the squirreling tendencies of my father Captain Andrew Atholl Duncan A&SH.

Dad served briefly as senior cipher officer in British Headquarters in Java. On 15 January 1942 General Wavell moved GHQ from Singapore (where Dad had been one of four cipher officers) to the village of Lembang just north of the regional city of Bandoeng in the Central Highlands, to bolster Dutch defences against the imminent Japanese invasion.

On 25 February, Wavell was recalled to India taking with him two of HQ’s senior cipher officers. Left behind to serve the newly appointed commander, Major General H. D. W. Sitwell, were Lieutenants Duncan and Campion[i]. Dad was then promoted to captain by Sitwell

On Sunday 1 March the Japanese assault on Java began. At 4a.m. on 7 March the British secretly abandoned HQ, omitting to inform the Dutch Liaison Officer Capt. Barron Mackay. He turned up for duty next morning to find British HQ in disarray and no sign of where the staff had gone[ii]. The British trekked into the mountains to the south eventually assembling at the Santosa tea plantation. Dad briefly acted as A.D.C to Sitwell at talks with Ter Poorten’s HQ regarding Sitwell’s plan to wage guerrilla warfare against the Japanese. However, the Dutch would not countenance the plan.

During the early hours of the next day, Dad was on duty when the order to surrender came from General Ter Poorten. A long message set out the terms of surrender the Dutch had accepted from the Japanese. What must it have felt like for him to write the words, “Raise white flag as sign of surrender”? Once decoded, the handwritten copy was passed to the stenographer for typing, Dad instructing him to “shove in a carbon”. The typescript filled five RAF message forms which were taken to the general who was sleeping. Sitwell, having read the message, responded with, “No reply, Duncan”.

Amid the chaos and confusion that followed the surrender Dad had the forethought to keep the carbon copies of the surrender document and at some point prior to captivity they were neatly folded and stitched into the lining of Dad’s glengarry. There they stayed undetected during the next eight months in Java and for the subsequent years in Japan.

Capt Duncan’s glengarry

Keeping hold of this important historic record had mattered greatly to Dad and I came to believe it was talismanic. Dad and these records were intrinsically linked; each helped the other to survive and much later to tell their Far Eastern Second World War stories.


[i] Diary of Lt Desmond Campion, private collection

[ii] Report by Dutch Liaison Officer Capt R.A. Baron Mackay KNIL, IWM Documents https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/1030008098