Wednesday, 21 February 2018

Xmas at the Penn's - December 1938

It is Christmas Day 1938, and Arthur Harry Aeroux Penn, known as Harry, and his wife Irene, known as Rene, were hosting a Christmas party at their home, 195 The Peak. The property is shown on the 1938 road map of the Peak District as Kenlis, but to the Penn family it was simply known as 195, The Peak. It was situated on Mount Kellett Road, close to both the Matilda Hospital and the War Memorial Hospital. Harry Penn was Managing Director of The Bank Line (China) Ltd with responsibility for the operations of the shipping company in Hong Kong and China. The house, a two storey house, with high ceilings and fine views belonged to The Bank Line and was used to accommodate the family of the incumbent Managing Director in Hong Kong. The house had a flat roof, the original peaked roof having been demolished, following typhoon damage during the previous year (1937).  

1938 Xmas Party (courtesy of Strellett family)
The photograph below shows a view of Mount Kellett in the 1930s. The track leading uphill is the driveway to Eredine. Like the house, Mount Kellet once had a peaked top, as shown in the photograph. The crest was removed some years after the war to accommodate the construction of a covered reservoir. The site of the Penn's old home was until recently occupied by two town houses which still carried the old name The Kenlis. The two town houses have recently been demolished and the site cleared for construction. On the upper right you can make out the old War Memorial Hospital which was demolished long ago, and on the upper left the Matilda Hospital, which still remains. 

Mount Kellett in 1930s (Flicker)
The map extract shown below is from a road map of the Peak District dated 1938 and shows 195 (just above the wording for Kellett in the centre of the map). It also shows the old name of Kenlis.

Road map of the Peak District (Govt Maps Office)
The photograph below shows Mount Kellett, taken from the same angle as the 1930s photograph, but as it is today, in February 2018. The construction site, on what was once the plot occupied by 195, The Peak can be seen in the photograph.

Mount Kellett as at 15th February 2018 (PGC)
Let us return to the original photograph. It is a moment time, it is 3pm on Christmas Day, in pre-war Hong Kong. It was nine months before war began in Europe and three years before the Battle for Hong Kong erupted in December 1941. Who are the people in the photograph I wondered, and what happened to them during the war and afterwards. One of them died in battle, several of them fought in the battle for Hong Kong, some of the wives and children were evacuated, several of those pictured were incarcerated in brutal Japanese internment camps. This is an attempt to briefly tell their story.

Numbered Photograph with identification key (Strellett family)
1. John Collis. 2. Marian Gordon. 3. Allister Sommerfelt. 4. Gladys Collis. 5. Aki Bowker. 6. William Simmons. 7. Keith Valentine. 8. Rene Penn. 9. Harry Penn. 10. Ralph (?) 11. Edith Sommerfelt. 12. Vyner Gordon. 13. Patricia Penn. 14. John Penn. 15. Bruce Valentine. 16. David Sommerfelt. 17. Judith Ann Collis.  Photographer: David Strellett.

Dramatis Personae

John Richard Collis
He was a born in West Ealing, in the county of Middlesex on 10th October 1898. In 1917, during WW1, he served as a Pte in the Honourable Artillery Company (HAC). I am not sure when he came to Hong Kong, but he appears on a Jurors List for 1924, and at that time was an Assistant Manager for The Bank Line (China) Ltd. In 1924, Harry Penn, his host at the Xmas party fourteen years later in 1938, was Sub-Manager, and they both gave an address of the Peak Hotel. John Collis married Gladys Emma Isaac in 1932. They had a daughter Judith Ann Collis who was born in 1933. Gladys and Judith can be seen in the 1938 photograph. At the time of the photograph in 1938, and when war began in 1941, John Collis was Company Secretary of the Hong Kong subsidiary of The Bank Line. He joined the HKVDC, and may have served with Harry Penn, his boss at The Bank Line, who was a Captain and commanding officer of No. 1 Coy, HKVDC. Gladys and Judith were evacuated in 1940 to the Philippines, and from there returned to UK. The family returned to Hong Kong after the war. In 1953, John Collis served as Chairman of the Hong Kong Club. He retired to UK in 1956, and passed away after a long retirement in 1989, at the age of 90. Judith married Derek Pearce, a banker with HSBC, in 1954. She predeceased her husband, and passed away in 2014. 

Allister Sommerfelt
Allister Sommerfelt was born 23rd July 1899 in Birkenhead. His father was a Norwegian national. They were formally naturalized as British citizens in 1900. In WW1 Allister served as a 2nd Lt in the Royal Flying Corps, before the RFC and the Royal Naval Air Service were amalgamated to form the Royal Air Force. He was an observer and rear gunner in an RE-8-biplane when his aircraft was shot down over France in 1918.

RE-8 Pilot and Observer/Gunner (IWM)
RE-8 briefing (IWM)
He was captured on or close to his 19th birthday and became a prisoner of war. The Germans apparently presented him with a bottle of champagne following his capture to celebrate his birthday on 23rd  July 1918. He was  repatriated in December 1918.

After completing his military service, he trained as a Chartered Accountant. At the age of 25 he took passage to Hong Kong where he worked for the Union Insurance Society of Canton Ltd. Later he worked for Honkong Shanghai Banking Corporation. In October 1926 he married Edith Dorothy Lillian Birchall at St John's Cathedral, Hong Kong. The wedding is reported in the Hong Kong Telegraph for 6th October 1926. They took their honeymoon at Fan Ling. Their son David, who is shown in the photograph was born in 1931. Allister Sommerfelt joined the Hong Kong branch of the RNVR (HKRNVR) and was mobilised in 1939. He served as a Paymaster Lt-Commander, which must have been a natural fit given his profession as a Chartered Accountant. When war broke out in Europe in 1939, Allister sent Edith Dorothy (known as "Dolly") and David back to UK. Allister never saw Edith again because she contracted pneumonia and passed away in Lyme Regis in March 1945, whist David was only thirteen, and whilst Allister was still incarcerated in POW camp. After release from a brutal internment in 1945 and repatriation to UK, Allister married forty-five-year-old Edith Louisa Grave, known as "Judy", in Chelsea in 1946. She had previously worked as a Nursing Sister at the War Memorial Hospital, and was in Hong Kong during the battle and subsequent Japanese occupation. She had been interned at Stanley Camp where she was billeted in the European Married Quarters block, and shared a room with four others, three of whom were nurses at the War Memorial Hospital. 

Allister Sommerfelt served on the HKRNVR base ship HMS Cornflower which was moored alongside the north wall of the RN Basin. After war started with Japan on 8th December 1941, Cornflower and the auxiliary patrol vessels (APVs), manned by HKRNVR crews, were moved first to Aberdeen Harbour and then to the naval anchorage at Deep Water Bay. The HKRNVR moved to a shore base in a house overlooking Middle Island. The Japanese landed on the north shore of Hong Kong Island during the night of 18th/19th December. In the early hours of Friday 19th, Major Marsh, 1/Mx, at Shouson Hill, asked Commander Vernall, commanding officer of HKRNVR, to send an armed naval patrol to a house called Postbridge to investigate a report of possible Fifth Columnist signalling coming from the house. Allister joined the party with a dozen other HKRNVR officers and one or two senior ratings. Allister drove the truck carrying the naval patrol, there had been no shortage of volunteers, all were anxious to play a part in the battle. Postbridge was the home of George Tinson, a solicitor and partner with the law firm Johnson Stokes & Master. His home had been occupied by the Hong Kong Singapore Royal Artillery who were using it as an Administration HQ. In the early hours of that same morning, the Japanese seized the nearby police station at Wong Nai Chung (WNC) Gap, the nearby Advanced Dressing Station (ADS), the AA battery at Stanley Gap, and West Brigade HQ was already surrounded.

The naval party, on finding the house was occupied by the Army, decided to check another house, called Holmesdale, which was situated across the road. The house still remains today, now known as No. 4 Repulse Bay Road. As they left the house they came under machine gun fire and grenades were thrown at them. They returned to the house which was put into a state of defence. The house found itself on the frontline and heavily attacked throughout the day. The garrison  at the house consisting of the HKRNVR party, and the Royal Artillery group, were joined by some of the RN contingent from Aberdeen who had been ambushed whilst driving up to WNC Gap to reinforce West Brigade HQ. George Tinson, the homeowner, was shot and died in his home from his wounds. A number of the garrison, both Army and Navy were killed in action whilst defending the house. The house was destroyed by explosives, and the surviving members of the garrison escaped down a steep slope at the back of the house.  After escaping from the besieged villa, Allister Sommerfelt and other members of HKRNVR were deployed to fight as infantry in the hills behind Aberdeen and in the Shouson Hill area. Allister passed away in 1989 in Yeovil, Somerset aged 90. Edith Louisa (Judy) passed away in 1994. Allister's son David passed away in November 2012.

Arthur Cecil Irvine ("Aki") Bowker
He was known as Aki because of his initials ACI. He was a 2/Lt serving with the 5th AA Battery, HKVDC, and was second-in-command of the battery. The battery was commanded by Captain Lawrence ("Lolly") Goldman. The battery operated two 3-inch AA guns on Sai Wan Hill. Aki Bowker died at Bowen Road Military Hospital, whilst a prisoner of war in October 1942, as a result of intestinal complications. I have not been able to find out much about him, except that he worked for Dodwell & Co and I can see he was already in Hong Kong in 1925, because the China Mail for 19 May 1925, refers to his cricketing prowess in a match between the Hong Kong Cricket Club and the Shanghai Cricket Club. Throughout the 1930s there are regular newspaper reports referring to Aki in the context of cricket. According to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission records, he  was married to a Mrs E. Bowker from Camel, Somerset, who is listed as next of kin. However, so far I have not been able to find out her first name or any other detail about her. They had no children and she does not appear to have lived in Hong Kong or travelled to Hong Kong. Perhaps a reader can help  shed more information. 

William Simmons 
William Frederick Simmons, known as Simmie, was Company Secretary of Hong Kong Tramways. He was born in 1900. There is a record of him departing UK in July 1923, aged 23, to take up a job with Hong Kong Tramways. In the 1924 Jurors List his address is given as the Peak Hotel and he is listed as being an Assistant Manager at Tramways. He later became Company Secretary. After the war he succeeded Leonard Bellamy as General Manager of the company. During the war he was interned at Stanley Camp. He was billeted in the Indian Quarters. One report indicated he was kept out of Stanley Camp initially, as was the case with the bankers and some other technicians, in his case to assist with the continued operation of the trams. These reports suggest he came into camp in November 1942. He returned to UK several months after liberation in 1946. He never fully recovered from the privations of internment camp and died in January 1950 at the early age of 49. He was survived by his wife, Winifred, and his daughter, Audrey. 

Robert Keith Valentine (known as Keith)
He served as a Captain in the HKVDC, and was commanding officer of No. 4 Rifle Coy (Chinese). No. 4 Coy consisted of 4 officers and 74 men and were deployed at Victoria Peak and Mount Kellett. In civilian life he had worked for Dodwell & Co. Keith had a brother, Douglas who was a medical doctor in Hong Kong. Dr Douglas Valentine, was married to Nina, and they were both incarcerated in Stanley Internment Camp. Keith was incarcerated in Sham Shui Po Camp. He was born in Shanghai in 1897. He was known by his middle name of Keith. He married Aimee Talbot Haslett at St John's Cathedral, in Hong Kong, on 22nd October 1927. They had two children, Malcolm Keith Talbot Valentine (1929) and Geoffrey Bruce Valentine (1933), known as Bruce. Bruce is shown in the photo.  Aimee and their eldest son Malcolm were not in the photograph, but I discovered from passenger manifests that they were in England,  having arrived there on 14th December 1938.  Keith Valentine passed away in 1984 and Aimee in 1985. Bruce Valentine followed his father into Dodwell,  and worked for the company in Hong Kong and Japan. At a later stage in his career he joined the Wharf Group. After retiring he lived between Australia and Hong Kong. He passed away in Brisbane, Australia in 2017. His ashes were scattered at Big Wave Bay in Hong Kong, and a group of friends gathered at the Hong Kong Club to remember him. His elder brother, Malcolm became a medical doctor and settled in the United States.

Vyner Reginald Gordon
Vyner servved in No 2 Coy (Scottish), HKVDC. He was given an emergency commission on 17th December, and thereafter served as a 2/Lt in the 2nd Battalion Royal Scots. He was wounded in the counterattack on WNC Gap Police Station on 19th December, and subsequently died of wounds at Queen Mary Hospital on 6th January 1942. He left a wife Marion Fleming Gairdner, shown in the photograph. She had been evacuated to Australia in 1940 with her two sons Gavin Macnair Gordon (October 1936) and Collin Vyner Gordon (February 1940). After their evacuation in August 1940, Vyner visited Marion and their two sons in 1941 during a medical leave granted to him following a bout of appendicitis. Sadly when he returned to Hong Kong they were not to see each other again.

Vyner was born in Scotland in 1904. On passenger lists for 1938 he gives his occupation as company secretary. In the 1941 Jurors List he is listed as employed by the Secretary's Office of Hong Kong Tramways where he was Assistant Company Secretary. He was, therefore at the Penn's party with his boss William Simmons who was Company Secretary. Marion had originally worked as a nurse at King's College Hospital in London. She came out to Hong Kong following the opening of the War Memorial Hospital in 1931. There is a record of her travelling on the SS Lancaster from Southampton to Hong Kong in February 1931. She was born in Ayrshire in Scotland. She and Vyner married in 1935 and Patricia Penn, (aged six), was a Bridesmaid at their wedding. Marion passed away in 1993, leaving two sons, one living in UK, and one in Canada.

No. 10 in the photograph is a mystery. David Strellett, who took the 1938 photograph, has written Ralph, which is likely to be first name, but could also be a surname. There is an annotated note that he worked for the Education Department, possibly a school teacher. A search of the government year books provided no elucidation. Perhaps a reader might recognise him from the photograph and solve the mystery, of who he is and what became of him.

David Louis Strellett
David Strellett (DLS), not actually in the photograph, but the man behind the camera, was born 25th December 1891 in London. In 1915 he joined the Army serving initially in the Army Service Corps (Motor Transport). After serving on the  Western Front, he was transferred to the 1st Battalion Connaught Rangers who at the time were based in Bangalore, India. He was selected for officer training and commissioned into the British Indian Army serving with 21st Punjab Regiment.

As an officer in the Great War (Strellett Family)
He served on the North West Frontier and also in Mesopotamia. He was wounded and evacuated back to India. After the war he continued with his career as a solicitor. He moved to Hong Kong where he worked for Brutton & Co. He married Evelyn (Eve) Rosa Cammell Jacobs in September 1925 at the Holy Trinity Church in Brompton. They spent their honeymoon staying at the Rembrandt Hotel in Knightsbridge. They returned to Hong Kong, living at Peak Mansions. Their two daughters were born in Hong Kong, Jane Eva Mary Cammell Strellett was born in 1926 and Diana Susan Strellett (known as Susan) was born in 1933. DLS sent his family to UK before the outbreak of war. Once war started in Europe the family moved to Canada. They went to Victoria, British Columbia to be as close as possible to Hong Kong. They remained in Canada until the war ended, when they were reunited with DLS, emaciated and recently liberated from internment camp.

DLS as an ex-Army officer was quick to join the HKVDC, and he became a Captain with the Army Service Corp (ASC) Company. The photograph below shows DLS, standing at left, with the Acting Governor Lt-General Felix Norton and other senior Army officers, mostly from HKVDC.

Captain Strellett standing at left (Courtesy Strellett family)
The photograph was taken during a visit by the Acting Governor to a HKVDC training camp probably around 1940.

Rear Row (left to right): Capt. David Strellett, (ASC Coy), Capt. Cedric Blaker, (ASC Coy), Lt Cyril Jones (2/RS) and Capt. Fred Flippance (ASC Coy)

Front Row: (left to right): Capt. Sydney Batty-Smith, (ADC to Governor), Lt-Col Black, (Field Ambulance), Lt-Col Felix Norton (Acting Governor), Lt-Col Mitchell, (Second-in-Command HKVDC), Capt. Eric Thursby, (Adjutant, HKVDC), Lt Thomas Parkinson, (Quartermaster, HKVDC)

DLS was awarded the MBE (Military) for his services and conduct during hostilities. The citation refers to his organising the movement of RASC stores and equipment from the heavily bombarded North Face of the Island to the RASC depots at Deep Water Bay (DWB) Golf Course and Shouson Hill. The RASC depot, under the command of Lt-Col Frederick, was ordered to evacuate the golf course and the workshops at Shouson Hill on Friday 19th December. They were ordered to proceed   to the Dairy Farm in Pok Fu Lam and await further orders. They were to be used as a mobile reserve, and to fight as infantry. During the night of 18th/19th December, the Japanese had landed thousands of troops on the north shore of the Island between North Point and Shau Kei Wan. The Japanese moved quickly inland seizing the high ground of Mt Parker, Mt Butler and Jardine's Lookout. During the early morning on 19th December the Japanese captured the police station at WNC Gap. Throughout the day a series of counterattacks were made to try and dislodge the Japanese from this critical position in the centre of the Island. However, the Japanese were there in overwhelming strength, and the counterattacks although gallantly prosecuted, proved unsuccessful in dislodging the Japanese.

Lt-Col Frederick was ordered to proceed to the Aberdeen naval base, which had been established at the Aberdeen Industrial School, and augment the RASC contingent with any available troops from the naval base. He formed a composite company, consisting of some two hundred RASC, RN, RAF and other unattached troops. They were deployed to defend both Bennet's Hill, directly behind Aberdeen, and the water catchment running from Bennet's Hill to Deep Water Bay Road. The catchment emerged on Deep Water Bay Road about a kilometre from Wong Nai Chung (WNC) Gap. During the evening they were ordered to attack WNC Gap. They proceeded in trucks up Repulse Bay Road stopping at the Ridge,  a cluster of five houses on a spur facing WNC Gap and about 1 km south of the gap. The five houses had been commandeered by the Royal Army Ordnance Corps (RAOC) who were using the Ridge as a depot. Having arrived at the Ridge they were ordered to counterattack WNC Gap at dawn the next day (20th December). These orders were then countermanded and they were ordered by Lt-Col Andrews-Levinge, the Commander RASC, to reoccupy the RASC workshops at Shouson Hill.

At dawn on the 20th December the RASC contingent left the Ridge in trucks and some in marching column. DLS and Captain Fred Focken were with the marching ranks. However, earlier that morning, the Japanese had seized the road junction (Repulse Bay Road/Island Road) near to a house called Overbays. The RASC were ambushed at the junction and forced to withdraw back to the Ridge.  DLS and Capt. Focken came under fire around the entrance drive to Overbays.  During the next two days the Ridge came under heavy fire from mortars and machine guns. The Japanese were able to fire from a water catchment running above the Ridge on the slopes of Violet Hill. On the 21st a Canadian rifle company under the overall command of Major Templer, Royal Artillery, attempted an attack on WNC Gap.  This was unsuccessful and the Canadian  troops joined those at the Ridge and at an adjacent house called Altamira, close to the Ridge on Repulse Bay Road. All this time the Ridge was heavily besieged. On the night of 22nd/23rd December, an effort was made by troops at the Ridge to attack and seize both the road junction, and the water catchment that the Japanese were using as a main supply route. Troops at the Ridge were divided into three companies. One remained at the Ridge, which included DLS, these troops were commanded by Lt-Col Macpherson, RAOC, and the others two companies were designated to attack the road junction and the catchment.

The attack failed, and many of the troops took refuge at Overbays which was soon surrounded.  That evening Major Templer gave orders for the troops at the Ridge and at Overbays to try and reach Repulse Bay Hotel before midnight. The military garrison at the hotel were planning to evacuate the hotel that night and make their way to Stanley. DLS left the Ridge with a party that included Major Flippance and Cpl Charles Colebrook. Their group went down a nullah at the back of the Ridge which led down to Repulse Bay Road. They spent the night avoiding Japanese patrols, but were unable to get through to Repulse Bay Hotel. As dawn broke on 23rd December, they saw a Japanese flag flying from the hotel. The garrison had left during the night allowing the civilians to surrender the hotel that morning. DLS, and the  group he was with, made their way to a villa called Twinbrook which had been used as a Naafi Store, and was full of supplies including chocolates and cigarettes. Colebrook recalls that the first thing DLS did was to get a razor and have a shave. The next morning, 24th December, they found the house was surrounded, the Japanese shouted out to them to surrender, they had no choice other than to comply. They were lucky because other troops captured in that area were killed either where found, or at Eucliffe, a house built like a castle at Repulse Bay, where many were held before being executed by firing squad or bayonets.

During the day on 22nd, Lt Col Macpherson decided to surrender the position at the Ridge which was now completely surrounded. The officers and senior NCOs were less willing to surrender and unhappy about the commanding officer's decision. House No. 5 occupied primarily by Canadian troops  had been heavily mortared and the Canadian troops had gone outside to fight it out.  Colonel Macpherson ordered a ceasefire and went out with a white flag, but was fired on. DLS hoisted the flag on a pole out of a window, but it was shot at. DLS left it dangling from the window. Macpherson ordered the front door to be opened at House No 1, as a further sign of their intent to surrender. During a lull in the firing Macpherson went out with the intention of hailing the Japanese. He was shot at and badly wounded in the leg. The Japanese were simply not willing to accept a surrender. When the Ridge was evacuated that evening, 22nd/23rd, the wounded including Macpherson remained behind and when the position was overrun by the Japanese the next morning (23rd December), the wounded were all put to death by bayonets and rifle butts.

In POW Camp DLS, a self-taught pianist, was able to entertain his fellow prisoners and bring some light relief to what was a very brutal incarceration. There was a shortage of food and medicine. Prisoners of war suffered from malnutrition and from infectious diseases from which so many died.   DLS remained in Sham Shui Po Camp until liberation in August 1945. He was repatriated to Canada where he was reunited with his wife Eve and his two daughters Jane and Susan, from whom he had been separated for so long. He returned to Hong Kong in May 1946, aged 54, and resumed his work as a solicitor and as the Senior Partner in Brutton & Co in Hong Kong. The family lived at Hillcrest on the Peak. His personal interests included philately and photography and he was very involved in charitable work. He was one time President of the Rotary Club, a Director of the Anti-Tuberculosis Association, Chairman of the Building Committee for the Grantham Hospital in Aberdeen, Chairman  of the Street Sleepers' Shelter Society, and a member or advisor on several other such committees. In 1953 he was appointed Chevalier in the Order of Orange-Nassau for his services to the Dutch community in Hong Kong. He was legal adviser to the Dutch Consulate. DLS could trace his family origins to Poland and later to Holland before they migrated to England in the late 19th century.  The SCMP photograph showing DLS wearing the insignia of the Order of Orange-Nassau captures  Harry Penn in the background.

DLS  to mark his investiture in the order of Orange-Nassau 
After retiring, DLS stayed in Hong Kong for a few years before returning to UK. He left Hong Kong in December 1962 and settled in Pevensey, Sussex, spending the winters in the warmer climes of Gibraltar. DLS passed away at the age of 83 in November, 1974 and Eve passed away in July, 1988.

Arthur Harry Aeroux Penn
AHA Penn (AHP) was born 10th June 1898 in Surrey. He was always known by his second name of Harry. He joined the shipping company, founded by Andrew Weir (later Lord Inverforth), known as The Bank Line, and worked in the London office until joining the Army in June 1916 following the outbreak of WW1. He initially joined the East Surrey Regiment as a Private. He was later selected for officer training, and subsequently commissioned as a 2nd Lt in the Royal Berkshire Regiment. He fought on the Western Front with the 5th Battalion, and was wounded in action on the Fleurbaix sector.
Harry Penn as an Infantry Officer in WW1
He was demobbed in 1920 and resumed his career with The Bank Line. In 1922 he was offered the opportunity to work for the company in Hong Kong. He appears on the Jurors List for 1922 as Sub-Manager of The Bank Line (China) Ltd, and his address is given as the Peak Hotel. He went back to London on long leave in 1926. It was then that he met Irene (Rene) MacPherson Fisher. She was private secretary to Andrew Weir. They married at St George's Church, Georgetown, Penang in 1928. They had two children Patricia (1929) and John (1935).

Fast forward ten years to the Xmas party in 1938. At that time Harry Penn was Managing Director  of The Bank Line (China) Ltd, and a Captain in the HKVDC. He was commanding officer of No. 1 Coy. The following year the Penn family went on long leave, arriving in UK on SS Chitral in May 1939. Whilst they were in UK the war in Europe started in September 1939. AHP hurriedly tried to arrange a  passage back to Hong Kong whilst the Suez Canal still remained open. This he was unable to do and instead took passage to Canada on the SS Duchess of Richmond. In Canada he was able get a passage across the Pacific to Hong Kong. He was anxious to get back to look after the interests of the Bank Line in Asia and because of his responsibilities as commanding officer of No. 1 Coy.

The following year, on 24th June 1940, Rene, John and Patricia left UK to join Harry in Hong Kong, by this time the Suez Canal was closed, so they sailed across the Atlantic to Montreal on the SS Duchess of Bedford. They then went by rail to Vancouver with the intention of taking passage across the Pacific to Hong Kong. However, by the time they reached the west coast, the Compulsory Evacuation Ordinance had been issued. This required women and minor children, other than women employed in essential services, to evacuate Hong Kong. Those that were evacuated were sent first to Manila and then to Australia. As a result of the ordinance they would not have been  able to land in Hong Kong. The family, therefore remained in British Columbia still hoping to be able to return to Hong Kong at some later stage. Once war started in the Pacific in December 1941, this became impossible, and the family moved  to Toronto on the east coast, in the summer of 1942, hoping to find passage back to UK.

Rene, John and Patricia Penn in Canada
They remained in Toronto until December 1943 when they secured a passage to Liverpool arriving in early 1944. John was sent to boarding school in Eastbourne, and Patricia was sent to school in Hastings. The family remained in UK until Harry returned from Hong Kong in December 1945. It was the first time Harry had seen Rene and the children since September 1939, a period of just over six years. John recalled that first meeting with his father who he had not seen for so long.
"Eastbourne broke up on 19th and my mother collected me. We eventually arrived back at Belmont Station late that evening, and were approached on a very dark platform by a man who said 'may I carry your bags madame' - AHP ! A complete stranger to me!"
AHP's infantry company was in the thick of action in the Battle for Hong Kong. Initially his two infantry platoons and the Bren gun carrier platoon were deployed around Kai Tai airfield. The Bren gun carriers and Medium Machine Gun (MMG) sections were ordered to facilitate the withdrawal of the Royal Scots on the left flank of the Gin Drinkers Line following the decision to effect the military evacuation of the Mainland. After the withdrawal from the Mainland, AHP had one platoon deployed at Repulse Bay View and one platoon deployed to defend Sanatorium Gap. The carrier platoon was based at Windy Gap on the Shek-O Road. AHP established his Coy HQ at the Tai Tam Bungalow located on a knoll at Gauge Basin. On the night of the Japanese landings, AHP went up to Sanatorium Gap to join his No. 1 Platoon. The platoon had a section of men defending pillbox (PB) No.  45 on the north facing slope of Mt Butler. The rest were located at the gap, forming a line running east to west. The platoon defending PB 45 and Sanatorium Gap ended up being in the path of two Japanese battalions. They were involved in a fierce firefight before being pushed back to Gauge Basin. The Japanese troops having overrun the defences continued straight up the path to the crest of Mount Parker. What was left off No. 1 Platoon formed a defensive line around the howitzer battery at Gauge Basin. In mid-morning on 19th December all troops in the eastern sector of the Island were ordered to withdraw to the Stanley Perimeter.

AHP's company was involved in the battle around Notting Hill, Red Hill and the Tai Tam X-Roads on 20th and 21st December. During a brigade counter attack on the Tai Tam X-Roads on 21st December AHP was shot in the face whilst engaging enemy troops on Red Hill. He was taken to St Stephen's College Hospital at Stanley, but he discharged himself and re-joined No. 1 Coy. He discharged himself just before the massacre of patents and medical staff by Japanese soldiers which  occurred on 25th December at St Stephen's College Hospital. He survived the period of brutal incarceration and stayed on in Hong Kong after liberation to get the Bank Line's Hong Kong office up and running. AHP was repatriated by air to UK  flying in an RAF Dakota.

Following repatriation leave, demobilisation, and having spent some time at The Bank Line's Head Office in London, AHP and Rene returned to Hong Kong in 1946.  In 1948 AHP became Chairman of the Hong Kong Club and Steward of the Royal Hong Kong Jockey Club, a position he retained until he left Hong Kong in 1963. He enjoyed golf and captained the Royal Hong Kong Golf Club for two periods. He retired from The Bank Line in 1957, but stayed on in Hong Kong for a few more years, finally leaving for UK in 1963. They settled at Effingham in the picturesque Surrey Hills. Harry passed away in 1972 and Rene in 1982. John Penn followed in his father's footsteps into the shipping business, and like Harry worked in Hong Kong for many years. John and Patricia currently live in Australia.



Tony Banham
Ann Hutson
Susan Lange
John Penn
Tom Sommerfelt

Sunday, 28 January 2018

West Brigade HQ - current condition of war structures January 2018

Brigadier John Lawson, initially commanding the Island Infantry Brigade, established his Brigade HQ  at the cluster of splinter proof shelters situated on the lower slopes of Mt Nicholson just above Wong Nai Chung (WNC) Gap Road. On the other side of WNC Gap Road there was a semicircle  of splinter proof shelters that were utilised by 'D' Coy Winnipeg Grenadiers. 'D' Coy shelters were located on the hillside between WNC Gap Road and Blue Pool Road. In December 1941, Blue Pool Road ran up to WNC Gap from Tai Hang Road.

At the junction of Blue Pool Road and WNC Gap Road there was a group of three splinter proof shelters which were used as an Advanced Dressing Station (ADS). The ADS was only about one or two hundred metres from West Brigade HQ. The Medical Officer in charge was Captain Barclay, assisted by several RAMC orderlies and ten Chinese St John Ambulance Brigade orderlies. At least one of the brigade clerks (Intelligence Section) was accommodated at the ADS because of shortage of bunk space at Brigade HQ. To the south of the ADS was a mound on which there was a small police post (referred to in most accounts rather extravagantly as a police station). Today the mound is the home of Stanley Ho, and carries the impressive address of No. 1 Repulse Bay Road.

On the 19th December 1941, the three Japanese Infantry regiments, each utilising two of their three battalions, having landed on the North Shore the previous night, were all converging on WNC Gap, and as result West Brigade HQ and 'D' Coy shelters found themselves in the front line. The Japanese quickly captured the ADS, the police station, Stanley Gap AA Battery, and were on the slopes and crest of Jardine's Lookout directly opposite West Brigade HQ. At around 1000 hours Lawson left his besieged bunker with a small group of staff officers and orderlies and was shot in the leg by machine gun fire and bled to death outside his HQ. All efforts to relieve Brigade HQ and extricate the brigade commander, and recapture WNC Gap failed despite great gallantry in the execution of these counterattacks. Some of the brigade staff were able to get across the road and join the garrison at 'D' Coy shelters, but later the road was covered by Japanese machine guns, and it became impossible to get across. Some managed to get up the hillside behind West Brigade HQ, but there was no shelter or dead ground, and with out the tree cover and lower vegetation, several of those who took  this route to try and extricate were killed or wounded. The survivors on the hillside, feigning death, waited until dark and then made their way back to Brigade HQ. Those that were able to do so, dashed across the road to 'D' Coy shelters, before dawn, but even in the darkness some were  killed as they left the passageway and ran across WNC Gap Road. This left only the dead and wounded at Brigade HQ. The wounded were placed in the open shelter nearest the road to facilitate their evacuation by ambulance, although this never occurred as ambulances were unable to get up the road to WNC Gap. The Japanese were on the hillside above Brigade HQ shelters but did not come down whilst the garrison at 'D' Coy shelters were holding out. 

The photograph below shows two of the three rear bunkers protected by the blast wall. Brigadier Lawson had his command HQ and telephone exchange in one of these three bunkers. Bill Greaves, historian and heritage consultant, believes it may have been the third bunker from the left. The photograph shows the first and second bunker. The third was located at the end of the passageway and is today largely buried (see later photographs). On the surviving bunkers some of the original steel doors still remain as can be seen below.

Lawson's bunker today 
The war time diagram depicted below shows the rough layout at Brigade HQ and at 'D' Coy shelters in December 1941.

The layout at Brigade HQ and 'D' Coy shelters
The diagram shows the three rear bunkers at Brigade HQ and the brigade car park. The car park was located where the petrol station now stands. The mound north of the ADS shelters (top of Blue Pool Road) was occupied by Japanese snipers who were able to lob grenades and fire onto 'D' Coy positions. The mound can be seen in the 1947 photograph at the bottom of this post. 

The upper section of  Blue Pool Road no longer exists and the steep valley (Blue Pool Valley) to the east of Brigade HQ has been filled in and now accommodates the Hong Kong Cricket Club, municipal tennis courts and part of the French International School. Only the shelters at Brigade HQ and the nearby pillbox (PB 3) remain today as a physical testimony of the battle at WNC Gap. Like most war structures in Hong Kong they have received little attention and are dilapidating as time goes by. Last year (2017) the structures at Brigade HQ were vandalised by a small number of students from the nearby French International School. Steel doors and walls were spray painted with graffiti by youngsters who should have known better, and probably knew little about the war history, the lives lost, or about the military remains around their school. The authorities, to their credit,  were quick to clean up the damage and restitute the structures. They have also installed a cabin for a caretaker located at the set of two stand-alone bunkers further down the road. Today the site is littered, untidy and in my opinion unsafe, because a large tree is in danger of falling - see the photographs below. I have notified the Antiquities and Monuments Office. If the tree collapsed it would cause further damage to these historic structures, which should be considered a war shrine and should be cherished. It could also cause injury to persons visiting the site.

The photo of the passageway shows a cave-in caused by the roots of a tree being undermined
Here you can see the exposed roots
The tree leaning over the site. 
The third bunker at the rear is missing. It is partly buried and may have been damaged by the slope-maintenance work behind the petrol station. This ought to be dug out and restituted because it may well be the actual bunker occupied by Brigadier Lawson, situated at the end of the passageway. The photograph below shows the passageway leading to the three rear bunkers.

This next photograph shows the two surviving rear bunkers - the third is buried where you can see the sheet of corrugated iron.
Add caption
To the right of the sheet of corrugated iron we can make out the front upper section of the third bunker and above it on the slope we can see the tall ventilation shaft for this "missing bunker."

The roof of the missing bunker
Ventilation shaft for the missing /buried bunker
In the photograph below we can see the roof of the two rear bunkers which are hidden and protected by the blast wall, and we can see the slope above the bunkers whereby some of the staff officers and Other Ranks tried to extricate.

Two rear bunkers protected by the blast wall
In the next photo you can see that the passageway has at some stage been filled in to construct the concrete drainage channel.
The drainage channel disecting the passageway.
This shelter looks like a garage, but it was not, as vehicles were parked at the nearby brigade carpark. In contemporary accounts it is described as the "open shelter" and it was closest to where the passageway reached the road.

The open shelter closest to WNC Road
The passageway leading past the open shelter to WNC Gap Road seen in the background
The photo below shows the petrol station which occupies the area that once formed the brigade carpark. The vehicles including Lawson's car were hit by shell fire on 18th December and all the vehicles were reported to have burnt out. Brigadier Lawson planned to use Captain Barclay's car for going round the posts.  Captain Barclay was stationed at the ADS at WNC Gap.   His car was parked outside the ADS,  about one hundred metres or so from Brigade HQ. 

I have no idea what the small structure is in the centre of the photo below, or whether it's a wartime structure. It has a small access door and it is painted in modern style disruptive pattern. On Sentosa Island in Singapore you sometimes see this kind of renovation and paintwork on war structures. I actually think it makes them look fake. Renovation that restores structures to how they actually looked would be more appropriate and acceptable. In Hong Kong very little has been done to preserve and protect war structures, in fact in the urban area many such structures have been destroyed for building or road construction. In the rural areas there are still many war ruins remaining including, batteries, splinter proof shelters and even trenches and weapon pits. Sadly as each year goes by they are  increasingly denuding and dilapidating. The only positive thing, is that because of this benign neglect, they are mostly in their original condition, and as a result have a more authentic charm.

Below is one of ten information boards located at intervals around the WNC Gap Trail. This one at West Brigade HQ has been tastily done and provides the visitor with useful information. We need more of these in Hong Kong, and better maintenance of wartime structures. The litter should be cleared out and the undergrowth cut back.

Information board at West Brigade HQ ruins
There is an additional cluster of two splinter proof shelters to the north of the petrol station (the site of the brigade car park). This set of two splinter proofs is about 100 to 150 metres from the rest of Brigade HQ. These buildings are more exposed, and are unprotected by blast walls. The shutters and doors are in too good a condition to be original and the hinges seem to be on the wrong side. They are original splinter proof structures that have been modernised by the addition of new shutters and doors which have been painted grey and signs like ORs (Other Ranks) and Officers painted in white on the doors. I have no idea who did this or why, but they don't look very authentic, but perhaps at least better than the gaping doors and apertures or bricked up doors and apertures that we see on so many other such structures.  

Below is a photo taken from "The Ruins of War" by Tim Ko and Jason Wordie (1996) which shows the same set of shelters with their doors and shutters removed and the apertures bricked up to prevent illegal occupation.

It is not clear who occupied these two structures in December 1941. I did hear from one historian that a veteran had told him that at least one of them was occupied by signals staff. The Brigade Signals Officer (Captain Billings) was in Lawson's bunker, and he probably had one of two signalmen with him manning the telephone exchange. It is possible that these shelters were used for accommodation for Royal Canadian Signals Corps including dispatch riders, but we are not sure, perhaps a reader can throw some light on this. 

The annotated photograph below is taken from West Brigade shelters looking over the Blue Pool Valley towards the western slopes of Jardine's Lookout. The photograph was taken c. 1947. The lack of forestation and the lower undergrowth that prevailed at that time means we can see Sir Cecil's Ride and Stanley Gap very clearly. The garrison at West brigade would have seen and engaged the Japanese at these locations. There was reportedly particularly heavy fire from the captured AA battery at Stanley Gap.  This photograph shows the semicircle of splinter proof shelters occupied by 'D' Coy WG. You can clearly see the ventilation shafts. One can see the cutting on WNC Gap Road and get an appreciation of the height of the mound where Japanese snipers were dug in and firing down onto 'D' Coy positions. 

The next photo is taken from the other side of the valley, from  above Sir Cecil's Ride. It was also taken in or about 1947, and shows WNC Gap, the police post, West Brigade HQ and 'D' Coy shelters as it would have looked in December 1941.

How it would have all looked in December 1941


Tuesday, 23 January 2018

Lt Colonel Cadogan-Rawlinson

Roger John Edward Cadogan was born on 24th August 1898 at Bath in the county of Somerset. His parents were John Hebert Cadogan (1866-1912) and Alice Rawlinson (1873-1951). In 1931 Roger Cadogan changed his name by Deed Poll to Cadogan-Rawlinson adopting both his parents names.

In December 1941, he was a Lt-Colonel and commanded the 5th Battalion of the 7th Rajput Regiment in Hong Kong. When war started his battalion was on the right flank of the Gin Drinkers Line. His battalion formed a rear guard during the subsequent evacuation of the Mainland Brigade under fire. Once back on  Hong Kong Island,  his battalion was given the difficult task of defending the heavily bombarded north east shore and manning the pillboxes along that stretch of shoreline from North Point to Shau Kei Wan. It was on this stretch of the Island shore that the Japanese made their landings on the night of 18th December 1941. The Rajput defenders were outnumbered by ten to one as more than 8,000 Japanese troops including six infantry battalions landed in his battalion sector. His Battalion HQ had been located at Tai Koo Police Station. He and his staff officers were pushed back up Mount Parker Road. Cadogan-Rawlinson ascended Mount Butler and then turned westwards on the ridge path hoping to reach Jardines Lookout (JLO) and drop down to Tai Hang where his reserve company had been based. He hoped to reassemble what was left of his battalion.  However, by dawn on 19th December he found the Japanese advancing up the north face of Jardines Lookout and blocking his route to Tai Hang. After helping to deploy a platoon of Winnipeg Grenadiers who were manning the col between JLO and Mount Butler, he headed south on a trail that led to Stanley Gap Road (now known as Tai Tam Reservoir Road). He went past the abandoned batteries on Stanley Gap Road and down to Gauge Basin which was being held by what was left of No 1 Platoon and the Coy HQ of No. 1 Coy, HKVDC, commanded by Captain Harry Penn. There were also two 3.7-inch howitzer batteries still in action at and around Gauge Basin. He then proceeded down to the lower reservoir and the Tai Tam X-Roads. 

At Bridge Hill shelters, situated near the X-Roads, he put a call through to Brigadier Wallis, the commander of East Infantry Brigade. Wallis had previously commanded the 5th Battalion of the 7th Rajput Regiment before being promoted to Brigadier. Cadogan-Rawlinson had taken over command of the battalion only a few month earlier, when following the arrival of 2,000 Canadian troops a decision had been made to reorganise the infantry into two brigades. Wallis knew Cadogan-Rawlinson well having served together for many years in the same Indian Army regiment. Wallis had decided to withdraw his brigade to the Stanley Perimeter as he faced a very real prospect of all troops in the eastern sector being cut off by the rapidly advancing Japanese who were already firing into his HQ area at Tai Tam Gap. He asked Cadogan-Rawlinson and his group of staff officers, orderlies and stragglers picked up along the way, to hold the dam and the X-Roads until he could get his brigade and supporting artillery personnel safely across the dam.  Later Cadogan-Rawlinson was relieved by a Canadian platoon and Cadogan-Rawlinson was brought back to Aberdeen by MTB and then by truck to Wan Chai where he took command of what was left of his battalion. 

I knew about his battle exploits in Hong Kong, but little about his personal life and career. What happened to him after the war I wondered. An internet search revealed little about his life, but I did find that at the age of seventeen he obtained the Royal Aero Club Certificate. He had trained on a Caudron biplane and alongside his certificate was  a photograph of a very young and smartly dressed Roger Cadogan.


Seventeen-year-old Roger Cadogan

Caudron biplane
I saw a reference to his having served in the Royal Flying Corp.  Prior to 1917 it was a requirement that a pilot had to have obtained a Royal Aero Club Flying Certificate before he could be granted a commission in the Royal Flying Corp or the Royal Naval Air Service. It is not clear how long he stayed in the Royal Flying Corp or why he later transferred to the infantry. In 1917 he is listed as a subaltern (2nd Lt) in the  the Duke Of Cornwall's Light Infantry (DCLI).  In 1918 he fought with the 2nd Battalion DCLI at Salonica on the Macedonian Front. He remained with the regiment after the war ended, and in 1922 is listed as a Lt before being promoted to Captain in December 1922. At some stage he transferred to the British Indian Army most likely in the late 1920s. In 1935 he was serving as a Major with the 7th Rajput Regiment. He continued in the rank of Major until 1941 when he became Lt-Colonel in command of the 5th Battalion in Hong Kong following the promotion of Cedric Wallis to Brigadier. 

Roger Cadogan-Rawlinson (Source: IWM)
After liberation in 1945, Cadogan-Rawlinson returned to Britain and retired from the Army aged forty-seven, in 1947 on grounds of ill-health, no doubt as a result of three and half years of brutal incarceration in a Japanese POW camp. He passed away, aged fifty-six, in April 1954, in Ulverston, in the Lake District of Cumbria. Back in 1929 he appeared on the electoral roll with the same address that he had provided on the Royal Aero Club certificate in 1915. The address being Evelyn Mansions, London. This is a large, red brick, late Victorian or Edwardian mansion block that still exists, off Victoria Street in the City of Westminster. It may have been his mother's address, as an Alice Millers Cadogan was registered at the same address. She died aged seventy-eight in 1951, only a few years before her son died so prematurely.

I am not sure when he got married but in a passenger manifest (Bombay to Plymouth) in 1932, he was travelling with his wife Moya McGreevey McDowell and a one year old child (Kenneth). He  and Moya had two sons, Kenneth Roger Brook (1931-2008) and Christopher Robert (born 1936). Cadogan-Rawlinson's address in 1931/32 is given as High Duddon, in Broughton-in-Furness (near Ulverston). I believe there is a Duddon Hall complete with gatehouse, which  may have been his ancestral home. It is also possible he lived in a large grey house that has now become a guest house in High Duddon. I think it calls for a trip, a B+B at the guest house, and a stroll through the churchyard. I believe Cadogan-Rawlinson married secondly to Mary Jane Easton, and they had one child Martin Lloyd Cadogan-Rawlinson, born in 1946. At this stage I have no idea what happened to Moya, or when he married Mary Jane, and whether it was before, or after the war. 

In 1947, India became independent and there must have been a large number of former British Indian Army officers who were out of a job. These were officers who in many cases had spent their entire career with the Indian Army. They spoke the languages of their men. Leave was infrequent, and many no doubt looked forward to retiring at their end of their military career, to a peaceful home in the English countryside, but I wonder as they strolled the village green, in the long evening shadows, whether they sometimes dreamt of the flash of a sabre, of the heat and the dust of the North West Frontier, and of battles fought, long and arduous, and half a world away.  

Author's Note
If anybody can provide further information on Lt-Colonel Roger Cadogan-Rawlinson's life - I would be most appreciative and include it in this post which I hope to expand as more information on his life comes to hand.

Wednesday, 11 October 2017

A potpourri of Stanley Camp and Stanley Photographs

Prison officers Club (1945)

Stanley Village from the hill leading to the fort - a sketch map from 1/Mx war diary (UKNA)

Stanley Prison
Repulse Bay - on the way to Stanley

Stanley Military Cemetery

Maryknoll House 

Friday, 6 October 2017

HMS Birkenhead

The Honourable East India Company (HEIC) vessel Nemesis was built at John Laird's shipyard at Birkenhead. When she was launched in 1839, she was one of the first steam powered warships to be built. Although other paddle steamers were present on the China station during the First Opium War (1839-1842), Nemesis was the first iron hulled steamer to operate in eastern waters. She was a marvel of her time and played a very prominent role in the Anglo-Chinese War living up to her namesake, the  goddess of retribution and revenge.

HMS Birkenhead was also an iron hulled paddle steamer, and like Nemesis she was built at John Laird, and launched in 1845. She had been designed as a frigate, but by this time paddles were giving way to propellors, and Birkenhead was instead commissioned as a troopship. Seven years later, in February 1852 she sank off the coast of South Africa. Her sinking and the conduct of her officers and men and the soldiers she carried became something of a legend in Victorian England, depicted in paintings and poetry and from whence came the expression the "Birkenhead drill". 

The Birkenhead began her last tragic voyage in Portsmouth in January 1852. She was under the command of Captain Robert Salmond. The troops from various regiments were under the overall command of Lt-Col Alexander Seton. At the time of her sinking she was carrying approximately 643 men, women and children. The ship hit an unchartered submerged rock at night which holed her bows, broke bulkheads,  and caused flooding to the engine room and lower decks. A number soldiers were killed below decks many still in their hammocks, whilst others were able to make their way to the upper deck. The soldiers mustered on the deck, and some were ordered aft to help bring up the bows. Some of the soldiers were ordered to assist the crew in lowering the lifeboats, whilst others were detailed to man the pumps below decks. The order went out that women and children should go first. That, and the discipline of the soldiers, accepting their fate, and mustering whilst the ship went down to allow women and children to get away first became known as the "Birkenhead drill" and was immortalised by Rudyard Kipling. 

"But to stand an' be still
 the Birken'ead drill
 is a damn tough bullet to chew." 

The wreck of the Birkenhead by Thomas Hemy (1892)
Of the eight or nine boats only three were lowered. The others could not be lowered from the davits, or freed from the paddle top. All of the women and children and a number of the men were embarked on the three boats. They were later picked up by two schooners. The Birkenhead sank within twenty minutes of hitting the rock which is now called Birkenhead Rock in memory of all those who lost their lives, either by drowning or being killed by sharks.

A rendition that better depicts the sinking being at night 
The ship sank at around 0200 hours. The exact number of survivors is not known but thought to be between 194 and 205. These included 80 survivors who were able to get on the three life boats that were lowered.  When I first read about the loss of the Birkenhead I had the impression there were a number of women and children onboard. In fact there were only seven women and thirteen children aboard, suggesting there were sixty men on the lifeboats. We know the survivors included 113 Army all ranks, 6 Royal Marines and 54 Navy  all ranks.  It may be that a large portion of the men in the boats were made up of the 54 naval personnel who survived and who may have manned the oars on the lifeboats. The lifeboats also picked up men from the water. Around 445 men lost their lives in the  sinking which took place in shark infested and bitterly cold seas. It was like an early version of the Titanic which also sank on another clear and starry night without enough lifeboats for those onboard. 

The Wreck of the Birkenhead by Charles Dixon (1901)
As the ship went down, an order was given for the horses onboard to be cut loose and pushed over the ship's side in the hope they would be able to swim ashore. There were nine horse belonging to the Army officers. Of these one broke a leg on being pushed into the sea, and was thought to have been eaten by sharks, but the remainder managed to swim ashore and two of them were reunited with their owners who survived by swimming ashore.

The schooners Lioness and Seahorse arrived on the scene of the sinking at noon the following day. The Lioness picked up the survivors from the first two boats ( a cutter and a gig). They then found some forty survivors clinging to the wreckage of the main mast and rigging. The Lioness rescued some 116 people from the boats and from the wreckage in the water. The third boat (a cutter) managed to make the nearby shore. The Seahorse rescued some twenty survivors from the water. A whaleboat from nearby Dyer Island had joined the rescue effort and picked up some four survivors. Some survivors managed to swim the two miles to the shore.

The most senior Army officer to survive was Captain Wright of the 91st Regiment of Foot.  He testified as to the steadfastness and discipline of the men at the court martial convened on HMS Victory.
"The order and regularity that prevailed on board, from the moment the ship struck till she totally disappeared, far exceeded anything that I had thought could be effected by the best discipline; and it is the more to be wondered at seeing that most of the soldiers were but a short time in the service. Everyone did as he was directed and there was not a murmur or cry amongst them until the ship made her final plunge – all received their orders and carried them out as if they were embarking, instead of going to the bottom – I never saw any embarkation conducted with so little noise or confusion."
Colour Sgt John O'Neil also serving with the 91st Regiment was one of those who escaped death by swimming to that distant shore. In 1901, during a presentation on the occasion of his retirement, he commented about the sinking:
"I might be allowed to say a word or two about the memorable disaster, the wreck of the Birkenhead My share in that is soon told: simple obedience of orders, standing on deck slowly but surely sinking, whilst the women and children got safely away in the boats, then by God's providence and a long and perilous swim midst sharks, breakers and seaweeds, I managed to scramble ashore." 
Private Francis Ginn of the 43rd Light Infantry was an 18 year-old recruit. He stood muster with other soldiers on the deck, whilst the ship went down allowing others, and in particular the women and children to go first. He was a strong swimmer and when the ship went down he struck out for the shore. He swam through the night until in an exhausted state he was picked up by a Dutch fishing boat and brought ashore.

Cpl William Smith of 12th Regiment of Foot recalled the shock felt throughout the ship as the vessel collided with the rock. Distress rockets were fired.
"There was a panic for a short time but admirable discipline was maintained through the efforts of the officers. Good order was eventually restored. I believe twenty minutes had hardly elapsed before the vessel was in pieces. I was sleeping on the lower deck when the shock came and crowded up the ladder with others but found it difficult work. Some never came up at all but were drowned in their hammocks the water rushing in so suddenly. Most of the troops were fallen in on deck with the exception of some sixty men who were told to go below to man the chain pumps;  they never came up again but were all drowned like rats in a hole. After gaining the deck I went and assisted the crew in rigging the chain pumps I remained there, and I think it was about the hardest twenty minutes  work I ever did in my life. We all worked like Trojans. I remained below the whole time. I know very little about what happened on deck during this time. I think I was the only man that ever came up again from the pumps. "
An officer, Lt John Girardot, then told the men on the pumps it was no use, they could not control the flooding,  and they were ordered to go to the upper deck. Smith was one of those nearest the ladder. By the time he reached the upper deck it was already awash. The ship was going down so fast, sinking by the bows, her smokestack lying across the deck. He described there being insufficient time to get the other boats launched whereas some other accounts talk about jammed davits. Smith could not swim but he managed to cling to a broken spar and eventually made the shore. He described how the dark outline of the  mountains made the shore look closer than it was, and many of those that struck out towards the coast were unable to make the distance which he estimated at about two miles.

Richard Nesbitt was fourteen years old at the time. His father was Quartermaster of the 12th Suffolk Regiment.
"I have a very clear and distinct recollection of all that occurred.  I saved myself by making for and fastening on to one of the boats to which I clung for some time and was eventually pulled on board. We were afterwards picked up by the schooner Lioness and never shall I forget the great kindness of Captain and Mrs Ramsden to all the survivors - men, women and children.  I don't think half an hour could have elapsed from her striking until she broke up."
Cpl William Butler described the impact as being like a "clap off thunder" when the steamer hit the rock.
"The Captain and officers behaved splendidly; the former sang out, ‘Soldiers and sailors, keep quiet, and I will save you all ” There was calm after panic; we lowered the gangway, and pitched four guns and the horses overboard.  Captain Wright, of the 91st, jumped after his horse and got ashore with him.  The Captain ordered Mr. Brodie, to get the paddle box boats loose.  In doing so he got his thighs jammed.  When the vessel went down, the boat he had loosened remained in the water keel up. I saw four men get ashore on her, one man sitting on the keel with a big coat on, the three others paddling. Three on a spar also reached the shore, two men and a cabin boy; the boy sat on the spar, and the men paddled. I saw another get ashore on a truss of hay. As to the troops being paraded it is imagination. She was loaded to the funnel. The last words I heard the Captain say were “Soldiers and sailors, I’ve done what I can for you. I can't do more. Those who can swim do so; those who can’t climb the rigging.” Then it was a rush. I got hold of a bit of wreckage, on which it took me about seven hours to reach the shore where the survivors mustered in lots of six to ten who knew each other and walked in the direction of Simon's Bay, taking two days to reach the same."
Lt Girardot, 43rd Light Infantry, survived the sinking. He later recalled being dragged down as the ship submerged. Somebody was hanging on to his leg but he managed to kick himself free.  He clung onto some driftwood and and paddled towards the shoreline. He recalled seeing many men killed by sharks. Some survivors tried to swim to the lifeboats but they pulled away in fear of being swamped by men in the water desperate to get aboard. Many spoke of the cries of those drowning and those being mauled by sharks. Captain Bond-Shelton was also dragged down when the ship sank, but he rose to the surface because he was wearing a Mackintosh life preserver. He struck out towards the shore and was swimming with two others who  at one stage screamed and were dragged under by a sharks.

On reaching the shore Bond-Shelton described the difficulty of getting through the masses of seaweed. He was reunited with his horse which he found at the water's edge.  For Private William Tuck who made it ashore, this was his second shipwreck. Thomas Cuffin was on the helm when the ship sank. He acted as coxswain of the second cutter and picked up 32 survivors from the water before rowing to the shore. As helmsman he had to give witness at the court martial in Portsmouth. The court martial proceedings  which were commonly conducted for a sinking or collision, were dropped because no senior naval officers had survived.

I suspect the story may have been embellished over time aided by those dramatic paintings. One of the survivor's account described the soldiers mustering in their uniform as being "imagination."  Thomas Cuffin, the helmsman, contacted Thomas Hemy, the artist, who painted the most famous rendition of the sinking in 1892 some forty years after the event. Cuffin told Hemy that he had seen the troops fall in line, at the orders of an officer in the form of a parade or mustering. So perhaps, it should not be too quickly dismissed. Some of the accounts talk of the initial panic, but all of the accounts confirm the calmness of the officers, and the subsequent discipline of the men.  There can be no doubt that courage was on display that tragic night in which so many lost their lives and the "Birkenhead drill" became an example and an aspiration.


Survivors accounts from
"Nemesis - the first iron warship and her world"  Adrian Marshall (2016)
"China Station - the British military in the Middle Kingdom 1839-1997 Mark Felton (2013)