Friday, 16 August 2013

John George Frelford - 1st Bn Middlesex Regiment

John George Felford is listed as a civilian internee at Stanley Camp billeted in Block 9 Room 12 . This was part of the main building of St Stephens College. The room accommodated  twelve male internees including a number of wireless officers and technicians, previously employed by the GPO (General Post Office), and some former China Maritime Customs (CMC) staff, and two merchant navy men both of whom died during their period of incarceration.

In the log of internees held at the Imperial War Museum - John Frelford is listed as a Shop Assistant, but  there is more to him than that.  I wonder whether his  room mates knew that he was really a Private in the 1st Battalion the Middlesex Regiment. This regiment was a machine gun regiment, and equipped with the Vickers Medium Machine Gun (MMG) and primarily manned static defenses for example the beach defence pillboxes that were located at intervals around the shoreline of Hong Kong Island. They fought particularly well in the Battle for Hong Kong and lived  up to their reputation as the Die Hards.

They were a unit that seldom withdrew, and they were men that were seldom down-hearted, with their London and cockney humor never far away. The Middlesex were formed in 1881 from an amalgamation of the 57th (West Middlesex) Foot Regiment and 77th East Middlesex Foot Regiment. They, or rather their forbears, the 57th  of Foot, won the epithet of the Die Hards in the Peninsular War at the Battle of Albuera fought on 16th May 1811.  The Colonel had his horse shot from under him, and was seriously wounded. With his regiment outnumbered, he called upon his men to Die Hard,  57th, and this they did to a last man. Every year the Middlesex Regiment celebrated the anniversary of the Battle of Albuera when a band of men stood fast and died hard.

The Battle of Albuera
I was reading a report submitted by Lt Lewis Bush, HKRNVR, to Commander Vernall, his commanding officer. The report was submitted some time after the war, and accounted for his movements after the British capitulation. At one stage Lt Bush was being held, for suspected espionage, in Gendarme HQ at Happy Valley, in what had been a former convent school. Bush was married to a Japanese lady, Kaneko, and before joining the Navy in 1940 he had taught English in Japan, and while doing so had learnt to speak Japanese fluently. In the letter to his commanding officer  he recounts his incarceration at Gendarme  HQ. 
"Until January 23rd I was left entirely alone and was not even questioned.  There was a Private of the Middlesex Regiment  there at the time, Felford by name, whose conduct was excellent and proper in every way and who was a real credit to his regiment". (1)
In Lewis Bush's book The Road to Inamura (1972), we learn a bit more about  John Frelford:
"The next day a Japanese officer  came to question us .........I took the opportunity  to ask him about Frelford, who was now to be seen walking about the courtyard. He said that the man had been left in their charge by a Japanese unit which had gone south to  the Dutch East Indies and Guadalcanal. They had been requested to give him every consideration as he had saved the life of a Japanese soldier by tending his wounds. I pointed out  that such special treatment would only put the man in a very embarrassing position and I was sure he would like to join us. Shortly after this Frelford was telling us his story.
He had been fighting in the Stanley area and was cut off from his unit, most of whom had been killed, when he stumbled on a Japanese soldier behind a rock. The man was unconscious and bleeding from wounds in his head and chest. He gave him water and bound his wounds, but (Frelford must have then passed out and) just as he opened his eyes, four or five Japanese appeared and were going to shoot Frelford when the wounded man spoke up". (2)
"A Japanese officer inquired:
'Why did you assist an enemy'.
'A wounded man, whether he be friend or foe, is just the same. Any human being would act as I did', replied Frelford. 
From that moment the Japanese made him their special charge. Frelford was a decent fellow  and a good soldier and had a union jack wrapped around his waist which he was keeping for the day of victory." (2)
John Frelford was well treated by the Japanese who were astonished by his actions. Japanese soldiers very often slaughtered wounded enemy soldiers especially those that could not walk. When Lt Bush ran into him at the Gendarme HQ in Happy Valley, Frelford had been allowed to go out and buy things during daylight, and had been given an appropriate pass. However he felt the disapproving looks of passers-by who no doubt assumed he may have been some sort of collaborator. 

It is not yet clear when he was transferred to Stanley Internment Camp I suspect in March or April 1942. He was away from his friends and fighting colleagues, who were mostly held in Sham Shui Po POW Camp. However, he was much better off in the civilian internment camp at Stanley rather than the more brutal military POW camps. Lt Bush had also been put in Stanley Camp, but he insisted that he should be held with his HKRNVR colleagues, and was eventually moved to Sham Shui Po,  and later transferred to Japan. I assume Frelford wanted to stay in Stanley Camp and may have been concerned that his comrades from 1/Mx would have disapproved of his having taken favourable treatment from the enemy.

There were quite a few HKVDC and HKRNVR members who ended up for various reasons in Stanley Camp rather than POW camp. There were also several civilians who ended up in military POW camps. As far as I know there were only two other regular soldiers in Stanley Camp, and they  were also there incognito. There was a Canadian soldier Private James Clayton Riley of 'A' Coy Royal Rifles of Canada who was caught up in the siege of the Repulse Bay Hotel. Brigadier John Price in an article entitled "The Repatriated Rifleman" writes that:
"He was a man greatly addicted to liquor  whose record in the Army had only been distinguished by his genius for running foul of the authorities and getting into trouble. Many civilians had taken refuge in the hotel which greatly complicated  its defence and when it became evident that it could not be held  it was decided  that all soldiers must leave so that the civilians could surrender as noncombatants and not have their existence imperiled by the presence of troops. The hotel was well stocked with food and drink. Riley true to form, had deserted his post, found the cellar where liquor was kept and proceeded to get so drunk that he passed out. He was found by an NCO  who, to get him out of the way of the defenders, put him in a room pending further action". (4)
He was left behind in the hurry when the rest of the military vacated the hotel during the night whilst  trying  to extricating through Japanese lines to reach the British troops still holding out at Stanley. He was then discovered by the civilian guests, and hurriedly provided with civilian clothes, as the civilian guest were worried about the reaction of Japanese troops if they discovered a soldier amongst them.  He was taken captive with the rest of the civilians and marched to North Point (Druro Paint factory), and then later held at the Kowloon Hotel which was used as a holding place for civilian prisoners. In late January 1942 he was  incacerated in Stanley Camp with other civilians under the assumed name of James Riley. His occupation was given as a Cook.

Brigadier Price takes up the story again.
"In the late Autumn of 1942 when I was an inmate of Argyle Street Officers Camp, I received a postcard from Stanley Camp  signed James Riley Ryan, and again another during the winter of 1943. Finally another card arrived from May Waters, one of the Canadian Nursing Sisters who had been taken to the civilian camp, mentioning the same name and saying how helpful  he had been and sending his regards to us all. I made some enquiries and eventually Major Young, the Commander of 'A' Coy, remembered the incident of the drunken soldier at the Repulse Bay Hotel. We felt sure that this must be the same name but, as any action on our part would most certainly have resulted in his death, we did nothing at the time."(4)
He was repatriated in September 1943 together with other Canadian civilians who were interned at Stanley Camp. On arrival in Canada he did make himself known to the authorities. However, I suspect he may have missed out the dereliction of duty and getting drunk whilst on duty defending  the position at Repulse Bay Hotel. At any rate he was granted a discharge and returned to civilian life.
"The final chapter took place  in Toronto in 1946. Major Young attending a meeting there, had occasion  to take a taxi. He thought the driver looked vaguely familiar but decided he was probably wrong. However when he paid his fare, the driver leaned out the window and said 'Give my regards to all the boys Major' and drove off. Major Young realized it was Riley and could only say a few chosen words to the vanishing taxi."(4)
The other regular soldier in Stanley Camp was a Sgt. Hammond of the RASC  who together with Staff Sgt Patrick Sheridan were Army Bakers. They had been kept out of camp to perform baking and bread making duties under the supervision of a kindly Japanese officer, Captain Tanaka. They worked with some civilian bakers including Thomas Edgar, a Master Baker who had worked for Lane Crawford before the war. Sgt Hammond had pointed out to Captain Tanaka that they were military bakers, but they were treated as civilians and later incarcerated at Stanley Camp, except for Staff Sgt Sheridan who was able to escape from Hong Kong to Free China. 

On the Stanley Camp List there is one other internee whose occupation is openly described as a "soldier". This is Walter Donald D'Evan Twidale. He was in Camp with his daughter Rose Marie Twidale born in September 1936. There is no reference to a spouse so I assume he was either widowed or divorced as he married in Stanley Camp to Beatrice Rose Cullen in July 1942. Reading the diary of Franklin Gimson, the Colonial Secretary, the diary which is held at Rhodes House, Oxford University, refers to Twidale as being something of a troublemaker.
"Darkin of the Police came to see me on the subject of Twidale who is apparently a very bad hat. He has married into the Cullen family whose reputation is none of the best. I also addressed Yamashita on the subject of Twidale. He promised to deal with him by threatening that he should send them to gaol if they did not reform." (5)
Just to add to this mystery I did see on that there was a Walter Manders Twidale who was born on the same date, 22nd April 1917, as the person in Camp  listed as Walter Donald D’Evan Twidale. I am not sure if this is one and the same person, but I assume it must be. This Walter Twidale with the same birthdate, but a different middle name had enlisted in the Regular Army (Royal Leicestershire Regiment) for seven years in December 1935. He was discharged in January 1936, a month after joining, which seems strange unless for conduct reasons, and then re-enlisted in April 1936. I assume that although listed as a soldier he must have been an ex-soldier. Perhaps he was discharged for a second time.  

Let us return to John Felford with whom we started this story. I searched for information on him to no avail, except that I found there was a file under his name at the National Army Museum in Chelsea. On a trip to London I made my way to the museum and read the file on Frelford, but unfortunately there was very little in it. There was just some correspondence with the Ministry of Defence (MOD). A letter to MOD was written by his wife, as apparently Frelford was blind at that time. The letter was dated 19/3/88. It was sent from an address in Warle, Weston-Super-Mare. The letter was broadly as follows:

"Dear Sir: I have to inform you that I am writing a story of the supernatural [he apparently had clairvoyant ability] covering events that happened at Maryknoll Monastery, Stanley Peninsula on December 25th 1941. I wish to dedicate my book to the memory of the officers and men of D Coy  1st Battalion, Middlesex who surrendered to the Japanese  on December 25th 1941 and were then killed by the Japanese for surrendering."
He then asks for a list of the names of those soldiers in his company who were put to death at and around the Maryknoll House for inclusion in his book.  He asked if the troops which attacked the Maryknoll were Japanese or Korean. They were of ofcourse Japanese as they were front line troops engaged in close quarter combat. The letter from Frelford has a handwritten annotation from what was then the Middlesex Regimental Museum noting that the address of Major Waldron had been passed to Frelford in order to assist him with his enquiry. Major Waldron had served as a Colour Sgt  in 1/Mx during the Battle for Hong Kong in 1941.

Maryknoll House, Stanley
We know that Frelford was a member of 'D' Coy, and his capture occurred on 24/25th December. 'D' Coy commanded by Lt Scantlebury were based at Maryknoll House. During the battle for Stanley Village they were bypassed by Japanese troops pressing on towards, the village, St Stephen's College and Stanley Fort. There were also several members of No. 1 Coy, HKVDC who together with 'D' Coy, 1/Mx were defending the mound on which the Maryknoll Monastery stood. On realising that they had been bypassed they tried to extricate in small groups back to British lines. Most were killed, or captured, and those that were captured whether wounded or not were put to death. Lt Scantlebury, and a number of officers and Other Ranks were executed by bayonet in an alleyway adjacent to the nearby Carmelite Monastery.

At the end of the day, an act of mercy in the midst of battle - helping an injured enemy soldier - was repaid by a brutal enemy with some  degree of kindness and gratitude, it would have been churlish to refuse, and as a result John  Frelford lived on to be able to tell the tale, but unfortunately I'm not sure that he did - tell the tale.



(1) Report to Cdr Vernall, HKRNVR from Lt Bush, HKRNVR  (HK PRO)

(2) "The Road to Inamura" by Lewis Bush published by Charles E Tuttle Company in Japan in 1972

(3) File in National Army Museum  - NAM19940-03-330-1

(4) Appendix L - The Repatriated Rifleman  by BrigadierJohn Price in The Royal Rifles of Canada in Hong Kong  1941-1945 by Grant Garneau

(5) Franklin Gimson's Diary 15 Aug 1943


  1. A most interesting account Phil. I am only annoyed with myself that I did not “find” this earlier!

    There is something I would like to add though, regarding Lt. Bush of the HKRNVR. This officer, as you correctly point out, spoke Japanese fluently and was, of course, married to a Japanese lady.
    The victorious Japanese put his language skills to good use after the surrender, and used him to call on the Australian Major commanding the Shouson Hill ammunition depot to surrender.
    (This location is now the Crown Wine Cellars).

    The depot had held out until the morning of 27 Dec 1941 - quite some time after the rest of the Colony had surrendered on Christmas Day!
    The Commanding Officer was reluctant to surrender, saying that he had wired the place up with explosives and that although he and his men would die, they would take a large number of Japanese with them.

    Bush, however, was able to persuade the Major to surrender, and we are told the Japanese treated the latter well - taking him to Aberdeen nearby where they gave him beer and chocolate!

  2. Thanks. It was interesting discovering Frelford's story and that interaction with Lewis Bush. The Crown Wine Cellars is another fascinating story.