Monday, 27 July 2015

Lance Bombardier John Bullen - a tale of extraordinary gallantry in the Battle for Stanley

John Bullen was born in Crosby, Liverpool in 1918 to John and Ellen Bullen (nee Frith) who had married in 1910. John was one of six siblings one of which included a twin sister. He joined the Army after leaving school aged seventeen and served with the Royal Artillery. In 1937 at the age of nineteen he was posted to the British Crown Colony of Hong Kong. When war broke out in the Pacific in December 1941 he was serving as a Lance Bombardier in the 1st Hong Kong Regiment, Hong Kong Singapore Royal Artillery.

He died in the Battle for Stanley on Christmas Day 1941. The story of his role in the battle and his unrelenting gallantry and leadership under fire is extraordinary. I first saw a reference to his outstanding conduct in the Battle for Hong Kong in a book called 'Escape to Fight on' by John Whitehead who had served as a Gunner in Hong Kong and had escaped from POW Camp to fight on in China.

"After the war  I heard the stirring tale  of L/Bdr John (Red) Bullen. At Stanley he knocked out two enemy tanks with an anti-tank gun and then, all the officers and other NCOs being dead  or wounded , he ordered the rest of the men to withdraw while he covered them. He was last seen out of ammunition weilding his rifle like a club, surrrounded by enemy dead". (John Whitehead - Escape to Fight On)

There was only one award of a Victoria Cross in Hong Kong which went to Sgt. Major Osborn of the Winnipeg Grenadiers for an act of self sacrifice and his leadership in battle. However  Major Forsyth commanding troops at Stanley Village and commanding officer of No 2 Coy HKVDC was recommended for a posthumous award of the VC by his Battalion Commander Brigadier Wallis with the full support of Major General Malltby,  General Officer Commanding British troops in China. This was not to be and instead he was awarded a posthumous Mention in Despatches (MiD). In the period during and immediately following the war there were so many cases of gallantry that it was harder to earn the VC. The numbers of such awards  had to be limited so as to maintain its special status. Accordingly the bar was simply moved higher.

In war there are many cases of unrecognized gallantry and unsung heroes and one such case was that of John Bullen.

His act of bravery and self sacrifice was largely unknown because he was killed in action along with most of his men but one or two survived. One was Private George Cottrell another was Private Ernest Stevens both were Prison Officers at Stanley Prison in Hong Kong before the war and like many of their colleagues they both served in the Stanley Platoon of the HKVDC.

The story came to light in 1954 when George Cottrell left the Prison Service and returned to the Wirral near Liverpool. He took up employment as a civilian with a Territorial Army unit 493 (Wirral) Mixed Heavy Anti-Aircraft Regiment based at Birkenhead. On being interviewed by Major S.L. Wilson the Commanding Officer,  Cottrell answered questions about his employment in Hong Kong and his military service in the Battle for Hong Kong and he related the story of the Battle for Stanley and John Bullen's extraordinary role and conduct. A witness statement was made by George Cottrell and later corroborated by statements from Ernest Stevens and Captain Martin Weedon commanding 'B' and 'D' Coy of the 1st Battalion Middlesex Regiment at the Battle for Stanley. A report was made to the War Office and consideration was made to awarding him a posthumous Victoria Cross. The rather grainy photograph below shows L/Bdr Bullen and is taken from a clipping from the Liverpool Echo dated 24th  September 1954.



Clipping from Liverpool Echo 24th Sept. 1954
 (National Archives, Kew  WO 32/16604)
Unfortunately this young man did not get the Victoria Cross however deserving - partly because of the lapse of time - it was thirteen years after the event. He was however awarded a posthumous MiD which was gazetted in October 1955.

"The Queen has been graciously pleased to approve that the following name be posthumously mentioned in recognition of gallant and distinguished services at Hong Kong  in December 1941. Lance Bombardier John Bullen, Ist Hong Kong Regiment, Royal Regiment of Artillery."  (National Archives, Kew  WO 32/16604)

His family had no idea of the circumstances of his death nor his gallantry in battle. A letter was written by the War Office to his widowed mother Ellen Bullen still living in Liverpool, describing his gallantry and enclosing the certificate of MiD. The letter stated:

"Although there can be no consolation to a mother for the loss of her son I feel sure you will be glad and proud to receive the enclosed certificate". (National Archives, Kew  WO 32/16604)

Finally a hero got some recognition for his gallantry albeit long after his death in battle.

But let us go back to December 1941.  Japanese troops surrounded Stanley on 24th December. 

Private George Cottrell and other members of the Stanley Platoon were manning two Lewis Gun Sections on a mound opposite Stanley Police Station - in fact they were on the site of the current Police Station. With them were some RA Gunners including L/Bdr John Bullen. 

The troops around Stanley Village were under the command of Major Forsyth. On the evening of 24th December the Japanese attacked in earnest. Major Forsyth was wounded in the face and taken to the School House near the Police Station where along with other wounded he was almost certainly put to death by the Japanese when they took these positions. 

At this point as the senior NCO present L/Bdr Bullen took command of the troops at the Y-Junction near the Police Station. At some point during the evening he took a light truck with a Royal Artillery Gunner and drove along Village Road to a point on Island Road about one and half miles from the Police Station where it was known that a captured British Anti-Tank Gun was located near a private house that the Japanese were using as an HQ.  The gun was guarded by a sentry but Bullen and his Royal Artillery  companion were able to move up stealthily and capture the gun and attach it to the truck and then tow it away despite a flat tyre whilst under fire from the sentry.

The gun was placed in an open position opposite the School House and facing down Beach Road with the LG sections on the mound to the right-rear. Bullen warned the Lewis Gun (LG) sections made up from men of the Stanley Platoon  to expect an attack by Japanese tanks supported by infantry and ordered them not to fire until they heard the Anti-Tank Gun fire.

The LG Sections then heard the unmistakable rattle of tank tracks moving along beach road. L/Bdr Bullen allowed the Japanese leading tank to keep advancing until it was almost at point blank range, probably necessary given that the ant-tank gun was a light weapon firing a 2-pounder shell. 

Bullen opened fire at the front tank which exploded and burst into flames. The Lewis Gunners opened up on the Japanese troops that were illuminated by the flames. A second tank then approached the junction and was hit and disabled by the Anti-Tank Gun. After a lull the Japanese attacked again and Bullen withdrew the men to the School House where he organized all round defense and kept the LGs going. Bullen went out and whilst under fire and brought back to the School House six wounded men, one after the other. 

They held out in the School House until early afternoon on Christmas Day. The Japanese continued to attack and by this time their position was coming under mortar fire and they were incurring casualties.  A decision was made to withdraw from the School House through the village below and try to gain cover from some nearby woods. In order to reach the thicket they had to cross an open area of beach which was covered by a Japanese machine gun positioned on Village Road.

Four men made a dash and got across safely. Two more ran across and were killed by the machine gun fire. Bullen told the few remaining men to stay where they were and that he would try and take out the machine gun. He took two grenades from his pocket and ran into the centre of the gap throwing grenades as he ran towards the machine gun position. 

"He was reaching for another grenade when a burst of fire caught him in the throat, even then with bullets thudding into his body he was trying to get the pin out of another grenade".  (Statement by Pte. E.J. Stevens - National Archives, Kew) 

Diagram of Battle at Stanley Village - (National Archives, Kew  WO 32/16604)
"….as I ran I saw Bullen running towards the machine gun and throwing grenades as he ran. Two of my companions were killed and Bullen was shot down by the machine gun he was attacking."(Statement by Pte. G. Cottrell - National Archives, Kew  WO 32/16604)

He died on Christmas Day aged 23-years old. He never stopped fighting. A incredible story of extraordinary courage. He was performing one heroic deed after another, recapturing the gun, knocking out two tanks, rescuing the wounded and bringing them back to safety one after the other whilst under fire and then finally single-handedly attacking the Japanese machine gun position. He was a leader who looked after his men, inspired them with his bravery and coolness under fire. None of this was recognized until 1955 and even today not much is known about this brave young man who gave his life so heroically in the battle for Hong Kong. There is no tablet, no memorial stone to his courage.

                              “And how can man die better than facing fearful odds, for the ashes
                               of his fathers, and the temples of his Gods.” (Thomas Macaulay)