Tuesday, 17 March 2015

Able Seaman John "Jack" Siddans

In January 2015 local history enthusiast Dave Willott was using a metal detector to look for war relics in a ravine beside what is now called Tai Tam Reservoir Road but which back in December 1941 was known as Stanley Gap Road. The ravine had a number of trenches and dug outs, so it was probably a section or platoon position who were responsible for manning a nearby road block on Stanley Gap Road. The troops would have been drawn from ether the Winnipeg Grenadiers or No 3 Coy HKVDC which were operating in that area.

In this ravine beside the road Dave came across a number of buttons, shoulder flashes, bits of military webbing, buckles, ammunition and even what was left of a military boot. The shoulder flashes belonged to different units like 7th Rajput Regiment and one was from HKVDC. However the most exciting find was an ID bracelet belonging to a British war time Naval Rating. In an earlier blog I described this as the "holy grail of military metal detecting" as we seldom find anything which we can link to an individual.

John ("Jack") Siddans ID bracelet found in the hills of Hong Kong in January 2015 (Courtesy: Dave Willott)
Now we had something with a name on it that we could link to an actual person who was here during wartime. Perhaps he still had direct family, a child or grandchild that we could find and reunite with this personal item that John Siddans would have worn on his wrist in the short but but brutal battle for Hong Kong back in December 1941.

The ID tag bore the inscription :

J Siddans  Q.O.
D/J 115494
C of E
   
A quick check of the garrison list maintained by military historian Tony Banham on his web site (www.hongkongwardiary.com) showed that John Siddans was listed as an Able Seaman serving with HMS Tamar.  HMS Tamar had been a troopship launched in 1863 back in the days of wooden sailing ships and at a time when sail was reluctantly giving way to steam.  It had been "hulked" and in 1941 it served as the Royal Navy Receiving Ship a base ship providing accommodation and offices for naval personnel. The ship was moored alongside the west wall in the Naval Basin until 12th December 1941 when it was towed out into the harbor and scuttled a few days after the Japanese Army had crossed the border to seize Hong Kong.

HMS Tamar alongside the west wall of the RN Basin in pre-war days  (Source: Naval History Society of Australia)
The initials Q.O. on the ID bracelet signify "Qualified in Ordnance work" and indicate that John Siddans was in the Gunnery Branch of the Royal Navy. 

The bracelet also identified his service number and his religion as Church of England. 

In war diaries and other accounts of the fighting I was not able to find any reference to Siddans, other than a rather unusual reference to him in a book called "The Rising Sun" (2002) by Stanley Wort who also served as a Royal Navy Rating during the Battle for Hong Kong.

"On my second day aboard HMS Tamar I went for a shower. There were banks of shower heads situated in a spacious area on the lower deck of the forecastle. As there was no air-conditioning aboard they were well used. When I arrived with my sponge bag and took out a piece of Lifebuoy Carbolic Soap which I had always used in England, an old (at least he seemed  old to me at the time for he must have been at least forty) three-badge AB named Jackie Siddans shouted, 'Don't use that stuff, it will take your skin off. Here, catch, borrow this'. What he threw me was a tablet of pink Camay toilet soap popular among ladies at home. For awhile I wondered  what kind of outfit I had joined. Two weeks later when I had my first experience of prickly heat I realized  that the old sailor's action was kindly meant and when I went ashore I bought myself some pink Camay."

This rather banal reference suggests that he was known as "Jackie" by his shipmates although to his family he was always known as "Jack" and that was how he signed himself off in cards and letters home. The reference also confirmed that he was a three badge seaman. Most junior ratings would be around 18 to 20 years old whereas Jack was born around 1900 and was already over 40 years old when war began. 

The three badge seamen were the older and more experienced hands. Three stripes was the maximum number of chevrons and denoted service with good conduct of more than 12 years although by the time war broke out in Hong Kong Jack had already served for more than 20 years. Commanding officers always liked to have a sprinkling of three badge older and more experienced sailors amongst their crews for the steadying effect on younger Ratings especially during action. These older sailors with their years of experience were well respected by their ship mates. The chevrons were worn on the left arm of their naval tunic.


long service with good conduct stripes
Whilst not everybody craves advancement, for whatever reason Jack had not advanced beyond the rank of Able Seaman. I guess Jack was happy in his job, I am sure he did it well and after more than twenty years of service he could look forward to retirement and a Naval pension but this was interrupted by war.  He survived the fighting and he survived incarceration in appalling conditions in Japanese Prisoner of War Camps at North Point and Sham Shui Po. In late September 1942, he was shipped with other POWs to Japan to work as slave labourers in factories, ports and coal mines. 

The Japanese freighter named the Lisbon Maru, in which he was traveling was torpedoed by an American submarine not realizing that it was carrying British POWs. The POWs had been battened down in the holds but those from one hold were able to escape and release others. However many were unable to get out in time and drowned whilst others were machine gunned in the water by the Japanese  escort vessels. Later they must have been ordered to start picking up survivors. 

Tony Banham who wrote "The Sinking of the Lisbon Maru" (2006) has seen official records which confirm that  that Jack must have managed to get off the sinking ship and that he had been picked up by one of the Japanese escort vessels and that he died on the way to Shanghai. The survivors were left on the upper decks of the escort vessels with little or no clothing, no blankets were provided and little or no food and drink. John died of exposure and his body was thrown over the side along with others who died after being picked up. 

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) records indicate that he is commemorated on the Plymouth Naval Memorial, his date of death is given as 4th October 1942 and his parents are recorded as being Harry and Susannah Siddans. He was married to Florence Siddans (nee Richardson) who was from Alderley Edge in Cheshire.  We then found that John Siddans was also commemorated on the War Memorial at St Philips Church, Alderley Edge in Cheshire.

War Memorial St Philips Church, Alderley Edge (Source: ww.carlscam.com)
Armed with all this information we started a search for Jack's family. An article appeared in the Sunday Morning Post in Hong Kong as a result of which I got some help from David Webb, Margaret Martin and others familiar with family history research which enabled us to come up with a family tree. Then after posting a brief description  about the hunt for Jack Siddans family on the 'Forum' of local web site Alderleyedge.com  I was contacted by Lisa Reeves a reporter who wrote up the story and published it on Alderleyedge.com local news site as a result of this a member of the family Arthur Faux contacted the newspaper who put him in touch with me. He and his sister Norma remembered stories about Jack Siddans from their mother whose own mother Jessie Clarke was a cousin of Jack  Siddans and had gown up together in the Clarke family home. Arthur sent me some photographs including two photographs of Jack in his naval uniform. This brought things to life  so to speak as now we had a real person, a family, a face, and not just an ID tag and a name in the records. 

Jack Siddans (Courtesy of Faux family)
In this photograph (above) two stripes are evident suggesting some eight years service with good conduct, so probably in the late 1920s.

Jack as a younger man with cap ribbon of HMS Valiant (Courtesy of Faux Family)
In the photograph above Jack is wearing his cap at a jaunty angle pulled down on one side. There are no long service stripes visible on his uniform. At the time he was serving on HMS Valiant and I suspect this was in his early twenties which also happened to be the early 1920s since he was born at the turn of the century. 

HMS Valiant was a battleship launched in 1914. The ship saw service in both WW1 and WW2

HMS Valiant (Source: Wikipedia)
Jack's mother Susannah Siddans (nee Catherall) died in 1908 at the young age of 48 at which time Jack was only eight years old. He was sent off to live with his aunt Esther Clarke (nee Catherall) who was his mother's sister and who had married one William Henry Clarke. Esther and William had six children of their own including Jessie Clarke who was Arthur and Norma Faux's grandmother and was a cousin of Jack. The Clarke family lived at 21, Chorley Hall Lane, Alderley Edge. This was where Jack grew up with his cousins before joining the Royal Navy. Interestingly members of the Clarke family lived at this address for more than a hundred years.

Jack married in 1934 to Florence Richardson. They had no children and I don't know whether Florence  ever joined Jack in Hong Kong when he was posted there some time in the late 1930s. Florence was born in 1903 and was slightly younger than Jack. In 1953 several years after the war ended Florence remarried to John Hulme from Alderley Edge. They married late in life she being 50 and he being 64 and accordingly there were no children from this marriage. On the wedding certificate she describes herself as a Housekeeper resident in Woodford, Cheshire and her father as a retired farmer. John Hulme was a widower and retired Foreman. It is good to think they found happiness later in their lives each having been bereaved.

This all started with an ID bracelet belonging to a war time sailor found in the hills of Hong Kong. How did it get to be there ?  This is speculation on my part albeit based on research but the Royal Navy were used as infantry after the Japanese landed on the Island of Hong Kong on the night of 18th/19th December 1941. During the day (19th December) the Japanese captured Stanley Gap Road and the nearby Wong Nei Chung Gap, a strategic point in the centre of the Island. 

A number of counter attacks were initiated to try to regain this important road junction. In one of these counter attacks, Royal Navy sailors were sent up in three or four trucks to Wong Nei Chung Gap from their base in Aberdeen.  HMS Tamar had by this time been scuttled and the Navy was using Aberdeen Dockyard rather than the RN Dockyard at Victoria. It is highly likely that Jack was transferred to the Aberdeen Naval Base housed in the Aberdeen Industrial School. 

It is possible (especially given that he was in the gunnery branch) that he was included in the Naval party sent up to relieve Wong Nei Chung Gap. The sailors still wearing their blue uniforms, steel helmets and with unfamiliar rifles were ambushed as they approached the Gap and many were killed or wounded. Some managed to escape and some took refuge in nearby houses. Jack may have been captured in this area. Those that were captured in the area, many of which were badly wounded, were initially held in a building on Stanley Gap Road. They were later tied together and marched down Stanley Gap Road and then up Mount Parker Road and finally to North Point. They were tied in such a way that some had to walk sideways or backwards. Those that fell by the wayside from exhaustion or from their wounds were bayoneted by the Japanese guards and their bodies thrown over the road parapet. You had to march or die. 

When they started the march they may have been initially corralled close to the ravine and the road block.  Here they may have been searched before commencing the long march to North Point. The Japanese soldiers would have stolen watches, pens or anything of value. Many were forced to remove their boots and had to march in bare or stockinged feet. Cap badges, buttons, shoulder flashes or anything metal would have been ripped off their uniforms and I think this included Jack's ID bracelet. It had no value so it was discarded in the ravine where other items like these were found. This is a theory but it would explain why his ID bracelet was found in that spot - perhaps further research might throw more light on this.

The finder of the ID bracelet plans to donate it to a museum in Hong Kong which will help commemorate Jack's life and his role in the defense of Hong Kong. As I write this I reflect on what an an amazing find it was and to think that it had lain undisturbed in that ravine beside the road all these years since December 1941. In fact most likely since 20th December 1941. 

A lot of people have helped me to piece this story together and I would like to thank them for their help and especially to Arthur Faux for information about the family and the photographs. It has been a discovery about a man's life or at least a part of it. It is sad to think that he survived so much hardship, the fighting, the brutality of the Japanese captors, the privations of  POW Camps, the nightmare of the "hell-ships" and the the sinking of the Lisbon Maru only to die on a far off sea a long way from his home in Cheshire.

I would like to think of this story as a tribute in a small way to one among many who served his country in time of war, played a part in the defense of Hong Kong and who ultimately gave his life in the service of his country that we may enjoy the freedom that we now have and which we should cherish because that freedom was hard fought for. 


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