Thursday 3 January 2019

Escape from the Lisbon Maru

2/Lt Douglas Baird left his home in Valparaiso, Chile in June 1940 to travel to the mother country that he barely knew. Many other young men from the Anglo-Chileno community made that same journey responding to Britain's need, in a time of war when Britain was facing the prospect of invasion and defeat. He joined the Royal Scots, and in June 1941 he was posted to Hong Kong as a subaltern to serve with the 2nd Battalion which had been in Hong Kong since 1938.
   On 8 December 1941, Japan invaded Hong Kong and more or less simultaneously attacked the Commonwealth of the Philippines, Malaya and Singapore. A few hours earlier Japanese forces had attacked the US Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbour. During the brief but brutal battle for Hong Kong, Douglas Baird was in the thick of the action fighting on the Gin Drinkers Line, and at Wong Nai Chung Gap. He was wounded in action by machine-gun fire with two bullets going through one of his legs below the knee. The main artery was severed, a tourniquet was applied and he was evacuated to Bowen Road Military Hospital. He recovered from his wounds, and in April 1942 he was released to Sham Shui Po POW Camp. He was later transferred to Argyle Street camp.  
   In September 1942, the Japanese started transferring POWs to Japan to work as forced labourers in mines, docks, factories and foundries. The first draft left in early September with some six-hundred POWs. Baird was assigned to the second draft on a freighter called the Lisbon Maru, together with 1,816 British POWs. Baird was still limping from the wound to his leg, but he was considered by the Japanese to be fit enough to form part of the draft. The draft was mainly comprised of officers and men from the Royal Navy (RN), Royal Artillery (RA), the Middlesex Regiment (1/Mx), Royal Engineers (RE), Royal Army Service Corps (RASC), Royal Corps of Signals (RCS), and the Royal Scots (2/RS). 
   The Lisbon Maru had been completed in 1920. She was a twin-screw steamship with a top speed of around 12 knots. She was armed with deck-mounted guns fore and aft. The POWs were crammed into three holds with four hatches. She was under the command of Captain Kyodo Shigeru.

Lisbon Maru (Wikipedia)
The No. 1 Hold, the foremost hold, contained approximately 300 POWs consisting mainly of RN, personnel. The naval draft in No. 1 Hold was under the command of Lt Joshua Pollock, RN ((Rtd). The No. 2 Hold was located immediately in front of the bridge superstructure. There were two hatches. This hold mainly consisted of the Royal Scots and the Middlesex drafts. Lt-Col Stewart, 1/Mx, was the senior officer. The No. 3 Hold was situated aft of the bridge structure. The hold was occupied by the Royal Artillery. The senior officer was Major William Pitt, RA.
   The after section, behind the superstructure, with three hatches, was used to accommodate some 778 Japanese troops returning to Japan. This area also housed the guard detail which consisted of twenty-five men commanded by Lt Hideo Wada. The holds occupied by the British prisoners of war had been fitted with wooden bunks, one atop the other, and ladders connecting one platform to another. A main wooden stairway with a low bannister connected the upper deck with the bottom of the hold. The Royal Scots were allocated to the lower level of the hold. The officers were allocated a platform immediately below the bridge structure. Each officer was allocated a 50-man working party made up from the other ranks.
   The holds were utterly crowded, and there was little space between the bunks. There were some electric light bulbs which gave a dim light. The toilets were on the upper deck consisting of a long bench or plank built over the ship's side. One plank for the thighs and another to support their backs. A precarious perch especially in rough seas. The freighter lay alongside the jetty at Kowloon Docks for five days before she finally sailed on 27 September 1942. Whilst alongside the jetty the heat in the hold was punishing. 2/Lt Geoffrey Hamilton, 2R/s, noted that about half the men were issued with kapok life belts.
   When the freighter eventually sailed from Hong Kong, the hold hatches were open, and a breeze gave some much-needed ventilation. POWs were allowed on deck, but only ten at a time, to use the latrines and toilets. There was a continuous queue of men up the staircase to use the toilets.  Many of the POWs were in no fit state to make the journey, and many were suffering from dysentery and some from diphtheria. Roll-calls were conducted twice a day by the officers for their respective work-parties. It was whilst Lt Baird was conducting a roll call for his work-party (No. 17 Group) at 0700 hours on 1 October 1942 that a torpedo hit the freighter. He recalled the incident in his diary which was edited by his daughter,  Catherine Baird Williams, under the title Dad's Story.
A terrific explosion shook the ship with such force that it nearly knocked me backwards off the banister. The ships engines immediately stopped and the electric light went out. For a few moments we did not realise what had happened but soon the Japanese on deck were rushing all over the place and the gun on the bow of the ship came into action. (Dad's Story)
Baird returned to the officer's platform where they could see the forward gun firing to starboard and swinging around to fire on the port side. During that first morning following the submarine attack, the POWs were no longer allowed on deck, and no food or water was provided. The torpedo had been fired from an American submarine, the USS Grouper. The submarine had no way of knowing that the freighter was carrying Allied POWs. There were no markings, and the vessel was clearly armed. The American submarine fired six torpedoes. One had reportedly been deflected from the hull of the freighter without exploding. It was the fourth torpedo that hit the stern, holed the hull, and disabled the vessel.
   The POWs were not allowed on deck to use the toilets. The buckets soon became full, and with many men suffering from dysentery, the stench and conditions in the holds deteriorated quickly. No food or water was passed to the prisoners. The Japanese were trying to effect repairs, and trying to tow the vessel, but to no avail. In the evening at about 1930 hours, the prisoners heard a ship coming alongside. The Japanese troops and their equipment were seen to be taken off the Lisbon Maru and transferred to the vessel that came alongside. After this, the Japanese sealed the hatch covers with planks and tarpaulins. As a result, the holds were left in pitch darkness without any ventilation. It was hot and difficult to breath. The ship was increasingly listing to port. Contact was made with the forward hold (No. 1 Hold)  and stern-most hold (No. 3 Hold) by tapping morse code messages on the bulkheads. They discovered that the other two holds had also had their hatches battened down. The rear hold had been put to work on the pumps, and they confirmed that the ship had been hit in the engine room.
   The following morning, 2 October, the vessel developed a heavy list to port. It became obvious to the prisoners in the holds that they were on a sinking ship which was taking in water and because of the list liable to roll over. There was nothing they could do. The Japanese had battened down the hatches initially to prevent any escape, but later to ensure that their wretched prisoners would go down with the ship in retribution for the attack. The Japanese were not interested in saving the prisoners - only in saving the ship. Lt-Col Stewart, 1/Mx, the senior British officer, was assisted by Lt Potter, St John Ambulance Brigade, who spoke some Japanese. He shouted up to the guards asking if they could remove the covers because of the poor air, the heat, and the desperate need for ventilation. The Japanese guards replied they would have to wait. With the ship on the verge of sinking, Lt-Col Stewart gave the word for Lt Hargreaves Howell, RASC, to force an exit using a butcher's knife that one of the POWs had somehow secreted aboard. He was able to remove some of the planks and to cut open the cover providing a gap sufficient for the men to get out. Lt Potter, Lt Howell and a group of soldiers got onto the upper deck, and although some were shot, they managed to overcome the remaining guards who were on the bridge structure. Lt Potter died from gunshot wounds.  2/Lt Hamilton was lightly wounded.

Attempting to tow the Lisbon Maru (Public Records Office)
As soon as the hatch covers had been cut open, the sea started to wash into the hold. There was a rush by the troops to get out of the hold before the ship sank. Baird described the pandemonium as panic took hold.
The gap was increased and men continued rushing out and being shot at from the bridge where the  sentries had gathered to prevent our escape. Soon the sentries were overpowered by our men. The men were scrambling up the stairway in mass disorder trying to reach the gap. The sight from our platform was unbelievable. The stairway was about three deep. Men climbing over others, stepping on their heads and shoulders in the panic to reach the main deck. All of a sudden the banister of the stairway gave way under the pressure of bodies, about a dozen men fell from the top of the ladder down to the bottom of the hold falling on the heads of those trying to reach the stairway. The sight of the bodies flying in mid-air was something never to be forgotten. (Dad's Story)
Those on deck opened the hatches of the other holds. The ship was by this stage already sinking, and water continued to flow into the holds. The vessel was going down stern-first whilst still listing to port. Baird with the other officers on their platform watched, but they were unable to do anything about the initial panic as the men surged up from the hold. The senior Royal Scots officer was forty-one-year-old Major Leighton Walker. He was an older man with greying hair, the son of a Church of England Minister.  He had been called up for service after having served in WW1. He was drowned after having given his lifebelt to another soldier who could not swim.
   The next most senior officer was twenty-four-year-old Captain Norman Cuthbertson, the battalion Adjutant. Douglas Baird recalled Cuthbertson going back into the hold, against the flow of men, and going down to the bottom of the hold which by then was knee-deep in water, and helping the wounded men who had fallen back into the hold. Baird recalled that RSM Goodfellow and Captain Cuthbertson managed to get most of the wounded men up on to the deck.  Lt-Col Stewart gave the order to abandon ship to those still remaining on the stricken vessel. Captain Cuthbertson was one of the last to leave Hold No. 2. He survived the sinking and the journey on another freighter to Japan, but in his weakened state he contracted diphtheria, and he never recovered. He died on 17 October 1942 at Kobe, still only twenty-four years old.
    The upper deck was awash, but Baird recalled that the fresh air, after the conditions in the hold, felt revitalising. It was a sunny and bright day, and he thought it was about 0900 hours. This was some twenty-four hours after the first torpedo had hit the freighter. He could see the stern was already underwater and only the forward part of the ship from the bridge superstructure to the bows was above water.  On the port side, he could see a cluster of three small islands. These were the Sing Pang Islands in the Chusan Archipelago off the coast of Chekiang Province, near Shanghai. On the starboard side, there were three or four small Japanese escort vessels. In the sea around the sinking ship was a mass of heads bobbing in the water. Some of the men had lifebelts which had been stored in the holds. Douglas Baird had decided not to take one as he felt it would be easier to swim without the hindrance. Some of the men in the water were making for the Japanese vessels, but others were being carried by the current towards the cluster of islands. Baird thought the islands were too far away even for a strong swimmer and after entering the water, he struck out towards the Japanese escort vessels.
   However, as he neared the vessels, he realised they were not trying to rescue the survivors. Instead, they were shooting at them. Bullets pinged over his head. The Japanese were firing at the defenceless men in the water, perhaps because they had broken out of the holds and over-powered the guards.  They had intended to let the prisoners go down with the ship, and if they had not broken out, they all would have perished trapped in the holds.  Baird changed direction and started swimming towards the islands with bullets still whistling past his head. He had taken off his boots before abandoning ship and was clad only in a pair of shorts. He came across a line of flotsam from the wreck that the current was taking towards the cluster of islands. He was weak because they had had no food for more than 48 hours.
After my great effort to get away from the ships and out of the distance of the bullets I became absolutely exhausted and looked around for something to hang onto. By this time the Lisbon Maru had sunk completely leaving the tops of its masts above water. (Dad's Story)
He hung onto a floating plank but by midday the sun was scorching, and he was both exhausted and sunburnt. He saw a wooden box that resembled a kennel, floating amongst the debris and bodies. He tried to get inside which gave some shelter from the sun, but the 'kennel' kept flipping over. In the end, he went back to hanging on to a plank. The sea became increasing choppy, and the rough surface of the plank rubbed painfully against his skin causing his chest to bleed. The current was no longer taking him and the others towards the islands but instead, they were being taken out to the open sea. His throat was parched, thirsty, hungry and exhausted, his chest cut by the splintered wood was increasingly painful. By sunset, the islands that he had hoped to reach could no longer be seen.
Darkness set in and I felt it was useless to continue this suffering for heaven knows how long and then perishing at the end of it. ... I could not go through a whole night and then if still alive, face another day, so I decided to put an end to my suffering. I let go the plank and went under the water, swallowing all I could. I bobbed up again, and there was the same plank. I hung on again and vomited most of the water that I had swallowed. (Dad's Story)
He tried again and for a third time to drown himself. He swallowed the water into his lungs, but again he bobbed up and vomited the water from his stomach and coughed it from his lungs. He simply could not drown himself - maybe it was just not his time. He then noticed that at the end of the plank were two large nails sticking out of the wood. They were about four or five inches long.  He tried to force them into his chest thinking if they went into his heart he would die. They pierced his chest, but still he did not die. He gave up trying and somehow while still holding on to the plank that had been his torment and his salvation, he succumbed to exhaustion and fell asleep. Then when he woke in the moonlight, he saw a Chinese fishing vessel. He abandoned the plank and swam towards the boat.
When I looked up again the boat was at no more than arm's length from me and two Chinese men were hanging over the side and in no time grabbed me strongly by the arms and hoisted me into the boat. (Dad's Story)
There were a few other British prisoners that had been picked up, equally wretched and equally exhausted. The Chinese fishermen set the sail, and after some hours they landed at one of the islands, which must have been the cluster of islands that he had seen when he abandoned the Lisbon Maru. On the island, there were other survivors in one of the huts. The Chinese gave them tea, and soup and rice. They provided clothing. He, and the other survivors, never forgot the kindness and generosity of these Chinese fishing people who although poor themselves had provided so much. On a high point on the island, there was a mast flying the flag of that part of China, which was under the puppet leader Wang Jingwei who had made peace with the Japanese. Considered by many to be a traitor, he felt it was justified as a way to save Chinese lives in the face of an unwinnable war. Baird knew that they had no sympathy for the Japanese, but it was the only way for them to survive. The following day a Japanese patrol boat arrived and picked up the survivors.  Hamilton recalled that Lt Hargeaves Howell, who had broken out of the hold,  was one of the first to reach the islands. He was able to speak Chinese, and speaking in the Shanghai dialect, he told the villagers that the men in the water were British POWs and not Japanese. The villagers launched their boats and started picking up survivors. Some accounts suggest that the Japanese only started to pick up survivors after they had seen the fishermen from the islands picking up survivors from the sea.  Whilst the Japanese were rounding up the survivors, three men were hidden away, and the villagers later helped smuggle them to the China coast from where they made their way to Free China. 
   For the survivors picked up by the Japanese, the ordeal was not over. They were ordered by the Japanese to return the clothing to the villagers. They were then taken by the patrol boat to a larger vessel with some two hundred other survivors that had been picked up on other islands. The survivors sat on the open and exposed deck,  most with little clothing and this in the cold October temperatures of those Northern China latitudes. They were on this boat for two days and two nights before landing in Shanghai. No food was provided apart from hot watered-down milk in small quantities. Some men died from exposure, and their bodies were simply thrown overboard. In Shanghai, they were reunited with other survivors, but from the original draft of 1,816 men, there were only 970 that answered the roll. They were put on board another ship, the Shinsei Maru, and taken to the port of Moji in Japan to begin their forced labour. Many men succumbed to dysentery and diphtheria, and a further five died on the way to Japan. The Shinsei Maru docked at Moji on 10 October 1942. A number of men were sent to a hospital, the rest were moved to POW camps at Kobe and Osaka.
   Following liberation in August/September 1945, Douglas Baird returned to England by now a Captain. In March 1946 he married Ann Mary Roddam Shield who he had first met before leaving for Hong Kong. 

The wedding in March 1946
Douglas and his new wife sailed for Santiago de Chile in June 1946. They had a son and two daughters. Douglas passed away in 2011 at the age of ninety-four. He survived the battle, he survived his wounds, he survived the brutal incarceration in both Hong Kong and Japan, and he survived the tragic sinking of the Lisbon Maru. A remarkable man and a remarkable story.


I am most grateful to Douglas Baird's daughter Catherine Baird Williams for her help with this story, and for letting me have access to her father's diary Dad's Story. It had been written in a series of exercise books and bits of paper and was painstakingly typed up by Catherine, and a small number were printed and distributed to members of the family to preserve her father's memories.

Principal Sources:
Dad's Story by Douglas Baird (Edited by Catherine Baird Williams)
The Sinking of the Lisbon Maru Britain's Forgotten Wartime Tragedy (2006) by Tony Banham
The Sinking of the Lisbon Maru (1966) by Geoffrey Hamilton


  1. Thank you for sharing this wonderful story, Phil.

    Some years ago I had the honour of taking a survivor of the Lisbon Maru sinking, a former member of the Royal Artillery named Jack Etiemble, around Stanley.

    Jack has been a Trumpeter (not a Gunner; that came later), stationed at Stanley Fort when the Japanese invaded in Dec 1941. (He had joined the Army as a boy soldier).
    He told me that his last action as a soldier when the surrender was announced was to place his bugle on the square at Stanley Fort and stamp on it!

    We were able to get permission to go inside Stanley Fort from the PLA, (no easy feat), and we were able to visit the underground bunker where Jack had worked as a plotter during the 1941 battle, when not playing his bugle.
    Jack opined that the place had not changed at all since he was there in Dec 1941!

    We spent a very interesting afternoon in the Fort as well as Stanley and Sai Wan Military Cemeteries.

    There is a plaque inside St. Stephen’s Church in St.Stephen’s College, Stanley, which used to stand inside St. Barbara’s Church in Stanley Fort. The plaque is dedicated to those men of the Royal Artillery who were killed during the 1941 battle and subsequent Occupation.
    (St. Barbara is the patron saint of the R.A.).

    One of the names inscribed on the plaque is “Gunner Flanders,” and underneath his name are the words “killed in this church.”
    Jack told me the story behind Gunner Flanders’s death - and it is a fascinating story!

    I can recount that another time.

  2. So fortunate to go into Stanley Fort with a veteran now that it is occupied by the PLA. Phil