Sunday 15 April 2018

Lt-Col Eustace Levett, Chief Signals Officer - China Command

Eustace Oliver Levett was born 6 June 1893 near Thetford in Norfolk. His family later moved to Sussex. He joined the Territorial Army at the age of seventeen in 1910. In 1913, he transferred to the Regular Army serving as a Private with the Army Ordnance Corps (AOC). On the outbreak of WW1 he was posted to France. He transferred from AOC to the infantry serving with the 2nd Battalion Grenadier Guards. In 1917, he was selected to undertake officer training. After having been commissioned as a subaltern, he was posted to the Royal Sussex Regiment, and returned to the Western Front. He was taken prisoner in March 1918, and was incarcerated until the Armistice in November 1918. He remained in the Army after WW1 serving with the British Army of Occupation on the Rhine. He transferred to the Royal Corps of Signals (RCS) when it was established in 1920. The Royal Corps of Signals can trace its origins back to 1870 when a Telegraph Troop, known as 'C' Troop, was formed as part of the Royal Engineers. They were responsible for communications by telegraph, visual signalling and despatch riding, initially by horse and later by motorcycle.

Dispatch Rider
Laying field telephone cable
 Field Telephone Exchange from No. 1 Coy HKVDC HQ at Taitam Bungalow
(Courtesy: Dave Willott)
Levett served in India from 1924 until 1929, after which he returned to Britain.  He was posted to Hong Kong in 1937, and in 1940 he was promoted to Chief Signals Officer, China Command. In this capacity, during the fighting in December 1941, he served with Major-General Maltby and other General Staff Officers (GSOs) in the deep underground bunker that was known as the battle box.

He married twice. Firstly, in 1919, to Bertha Winifred Lockwood (1894-1962) who predeceased him, and secondly in 1966, to Hilda Mona Worthington Newton (1903-1994). Eustace and Bertha had two sons one born in 1926, and the other born in 1935. Bertha and her youngest son, six-year-old John Kay Levett, were evacuated from Hong Kong to Australia in July 1940.

Levett was awarded the OBE (Military) in 1945. He retired from the Army in 1946, aged 53, after thirty years service. He had served in both world wars and had been a prisoner of war in each. After retiring from military service he then became a Bursar at a school in Eastbourne. He retired aged 65 in 1958. He passed away, aged 79,  in Eastbourne in 1972. He was recommended for the OBE by Major-General Maltby. Whose citation was as follows:
"Outstanding ability in organising and controlling the Royal Corps of Signals during a very tense period. Damage caused by enemy shell fire, mortars and air bombardment was severe and incessant yet repairs were always carried out and no call made on the Corps was ever disregarded or unaccomplished. He was always cool, cheerful and prepared to undertake  at short notice any demand upon him. His personal example was an inspiration to his whole Corps."
His private war diary, and a type-written memoir, is held at the Imperial War Museum in London. The personal diary was compiled whilst he was a POW in Sham Shui Po and Argyle Street Camps. The cover is made from a khaki drill (KD) shirt. The diary and memoir were given, after his death, to his former comrade in arms, Lt-Col Montague Truscott, RCS, by his widow Mrs Hilda Mona Levett. The Truscott family must have passed it to the Imperial War Museum. The diary has a hand-drawn emblem of the symbol for Yin and Yang. Underneath the symbol he has written the following lines:
"And when the great scorer comes
To mark against your name
He cares not whether you won or lost
But how you played the game."
I viewed the official war diary at the Royal Signals Museum in Blandford Camp, Dorset.  I got the impression that Lt-Col  Levett was a popular officer, a sympathetic man who cared for his men and demonstrated strong leadership.

At the outbreak of war on 8th December 1941, the Royal Corps of Signals were comprised of 6 officers, 175 Other Ranks (ORs), augmented by 33 Canadian Signallers and 15 Volunteers and 96 civilian linesmen.

Chief Signals Officer:                   Lt-Col Eustace Levett

Hong Kong Signals Company

O.C. Company:                             Major Leonard Hayes
No. 1 Operating Section:              Lt Cyril Bucke
No. 2 Maintenance Section:         Lt Harry Spong
No. 3 Infantry Brigade Section:   Lt Charles Brown
No. 4 Section:                               Sgt. George Somerville
Area Signals Officer:                    Captain Peter Gracey

Total:       6  Officers, 175 ORs, and 96 civilian employees.

Kowloon Infantry Brigade Signals Section

OC Section:                                   Captain George Billings

Total:        1 Officer and 32 ORs (Canadian Signals)

Fortress Signals Coy - HKVDC

OC Company:                                 Major John Sherry
2 i/c                                                 Captain Walter Clark

Total:         2 Officers, 26 ORs

The Royal Corps of Signals had a very high casualty rate with more than 97 men either killed in action or died of wounds or died during incarceration.  A 54% death rate. The Canadian detachment lost 9 killed out of 33 All Ranks. A 27% death rate. The HKVDC (Signals Section) lost 6 men killed (a 21% death rate). The Hong Kong Signals Coy lost 50 men killed in the sinking of the Lisbon Maru.

Communications is the lifeblood in battle, without effective communications there is only chaos, confusion, and individual actions by units. Although there were some wireless communications, most communication was by telephone with cables usually laid in a ditch or a shallow trench. In battle conditions, the cable would be laid along the ground. The telephone cable was easily broken by artillery, mortar and aerial bombing. When this happened linesmen were sent out to repair the cables which often had to be done under fire. Without telephone-communications commanders had to revert to runners and dispatch riders, who were often killed before they could deliver a message.



  1. Dad was in the HKVDC Signals. He was injured in the battle but survived. He escaped to Macau and worked for the Consulate for the duration of the war.

    1. He must have had an amazing story to tell of those difficult times.

    2. I wish I’d paid more attention when he talked about the war. I sort of knew he was in Macau after Hong Kong surrendered but did not know he was working for the Consulate. After 3 days, working as police/peace officer during the transition of power. He took off his uniform and escape to Macau. I found a letter from the British Consulate thanking for his service during the war, after his death. It was then, I put together the pieces. He did say he was in Macau and went into China. I have no idea why he would go into China but I never bother to ask. I now think he probably went there to gather information.
      When I was a kid, Dad use to visit Macau and he stayed in a hotel for free. I think he was friends with the owner. I cannot be sure, but I think the owner is Portuguese and the name was Prado or something like that. He must have made these friends during the war.

    3. I am sure you have read "The Lone Flag - Memoir of the British Consul in Macao during World War 2" by John Pownall Reeves

    4. No, I have not but that sounds interesting. I might try to find a copy. Thanks.

  2. Peter excellent as usual. There are clearly areas that are still less examined that bear fruit. Did the IWM hold his medal group ?

    1. I did not see his medals amongst his private papers at IWM

  3. A most interesting piece. I once read something to the effect that during the battle for Hong Kong the Japanese military were able to “tap in” to the Allied land-line cables, many of which were not buried for obvious reasons but ran overground.
    The Japanese were able, by such means, to glean much valuable intelligence.

    The Royal Rifles of Canada, many of whom were bilingual, found an ingenious solution to this problem. They simply spoke French when using the field telephone!

    I guess the chances of finding a French-speaking Japanese were much more remote than finding one who spoke (at least some) English.