Wednesday 18 September 2013

John ('Jack') Basil Smith - Sub Lt, HKRNVR

John Basil Smith was a member of the Shanghai Municipal Police Service. This force of some 4,700 men came under the Shanghai Municipal Council ("SMC"). The majority were Chinese and of the non Chinese officers the majority were British. Men were recruited from UK police forces like the Metropolitan Police and Royal Irish Constabulary. The SMC also recruited young men directly in Britain through their London Agents who joined as cadets. Jack Seaby joined at 20 years old and like JB Smith joined the Hong Kong Royal Naval Reserve (HKRNVR) after war broke out in 1939.

JB Smith describes his enlistment:

"In July 1940 I was requested by the Royal Navy Liaison Office , Commander Shepherd, RN of the British Embassy staff in Shanghai, to accept a Commission  for General Service in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve (Hong Kong). With the consent  of the British Consul  and the Commissioner of Police I was allowed to resign  from the Police without the customary six months notice. I was then able to accept the Commission as Sub-Lieutenant in the HKRNVR on 23rd July 1940, and I was sworn in on that date at the British Embassy Offices in Shanghai and was immediately posted to Hong Kong for training and duty." (1)

J B Smith was a Canadian. He was married to Lisunenko (Nina) who was a White Russian born in Vladivostok. There were many Russian refugees who had fled Russia at the time of the Bolshevik Revolution and established themselves in Hong Kong, Harbin and Shanghai and other  cities in China. The Russian community and their role in World War 2 is a very interesting study in itself. Many fought with the Hong Kong Volunteer Defence Corp (HKVDC). Many had no nationality - although others had elected to accept Soviet Russian nationality rather than remain without a passport - stateless. Those that were not interned had a hard time surviving in Japanese occupied Hong Kong and Shanghai.

JB Smith left Shanghai for Hong Kong with his wife Nina.  By this time British women and children had been evacuated from Hong Kong to Australia except those in essential services and many had joined the ANS (Auxiliary Nursing Service) or VAD (Volunteer Aid Detachment) to ensure they could stay in Hong Kong. Nina joined the VADs which was part of the HKVDC and was assigned to the Hong Kong Hotel Relief Hospital as a VAD Nurse.

JB Smith commenced his training and was posted to various Auxiliary Patrol Vessels (APVs) operated by HKRNVR. These were mostly converted tugs and launches which had been equipped with guns, machine guns and in some cases depth charges and were used for patrolling, minesweeping and anti-submarine warfare.

"During the war with Japan and after my own minesweeper APV Perla had been disabled by enemy action and beached to prevent sinking, I was posted to HM Gunboat Cicala until she was sunk by enemy dive bombers on the 21st December , 1941. After Cicala was sunk I was in command of a party of Naval Ratings doing infantry duty ashore. I also took over command of a portion of C Company of the Winnipeg Grenadiers after their own officer, Lt. Nugent, was wounded". (1)

HMS Cicala - River Gunboat in Hong Kong Harbour
After the British capitulation on 25th December 1941, JB Smith was interned at North Point Camp and  later Sham Shui Po Camp where he remained until the Japanese surrender .

"After the Japanese surrender (Aug/Sept 1945) I served with anti-looting patrols landed from RN ships until I was repatriated via Manila, Pearl Harbour and San Francisco and arrived at my home in Vancouver on the 20th October 1945" (1),  where he was reunited with his wife Nina.

Nina had been interned in Stanley Camp  but along with other residents of Shanghai had been repatriated to Shanghai in December 1942.  In 1943 the Japanese interned enemy civilians and she was interned in Lungwha Camp, Shanghai until later in 1943 when she was repatriated with other Canadians back home to Canada via New York.  She arrived in Canada in December 1943 suffering from recurring attacks of Malaria.



(1)   Report to CO of HKRNVR dated 18/7/47 and attached report to Hong Kong Government Accountant  dated 19/9/46     (Hong Kong Public Records Office)

Friday 13 September 2013

John ('Jack') Seaby - a life of action and adventure

John ('Jack') Seaby was born in London in January 1908 and grew up in Southend-on-Sea. In 1928 at the age of 20 he went out East and joined the Shanghai Police force and when World War 2 broke out in Europe in 1939 he was an Inspector with the Shanghai Police aged 31. He enlisted from Shanghai by joining the Hong Kong Royal Naval Reserve (HKRNVR) as a Warrant Officer in the Mine-watching Branch. He was mobilized on 27th  October 1941 just weeks before the Japanese invaded Hong Kong in the morning of 8th December  1941.

John Seaby as a young man
There were a number of other residents of Shanghai including other members of the Police Force who enlisted in the HKRNVR.  The Mine-watching branch were responsible for the minefields around Hong Kong which consisted of both the traditional contact mine and electronic or remote controlled mines.

These minefields and their shore based stations were blown up and deactivated on 19th December 1941 after the Japanese forces had successfully landed on the Island of Hong Kong and built a bridgehead. Officers from the Mine-watching branch, as well as those from the Auxiliary Patrol Vessels and other craft, that had been ordered to be scuttled, were ordered to go ashore and to fight in the hills as infantry.

Jack Seaby was wounded during the fighting and hospitalized at Stanley. He was taken prisoner on 25th December 1941 following the surrender of the garrison by General Maltby, the military commander and Sir Mark Young the Governor of the Colony. The Japanese far out-numbered the defenders who had for the most part fought well against overwhelming odds.

Life in a Japanese POW Camp was brutal. There was insufficient food, and illness associated with malnutrition was rife for example pellagra, loss or impairment of eyesight, and a painful condition known as "electric feet".  Many POWs became sick from diphtheria, dysentery and other illnesses and medicine was not supplied by the Japanese and as a result many died needlessly. It was hard just staying alive.

Jack Seaby was first interned with other Naval personnel at North Point Camp and later at Shamshuipo Camp.  In September 1942  he was shipped to Japan, together with 1,800 British servicemen, they were  crammed into the hold of a rusty old ship called the Lisbon Maru.

The ill fated Lisbon Maru

"We were piled in three holds under conditions which I should imagine were about the equivalent to conditions pertaining to the slave ships.  At 7 o'clock on the morning of October 1st, as all hands were waiting for the first meal of the day a slight disturbance was heard on deck. The next moment a loud detonation was heard aft and the vessel  shook and shuddered. All the prisoners that were on deck were ordered below". (1)

They had been torpedoed by the US submarine "Grouper", whose commander had no knowledge that this Japanese freighter was carrying British POWs..

"The Japanese then covered all hatches with covers and tarpaulins, and from then on it was a nightmare in the holds. No water, no food, and very little air. Dysentery and diphtheria cases in the hold and no facilities for lavatories. Several men died from asphyxiation  and exhaustion. All lights had been extinguished, the holds were black as ink". (1)

Later they heard the Japanese troops that had been onboard evacuating the ship. Despite the appalling conditions, discipline was maintained. The next morning with the ship starting to sink. The men eventually were able to break out of the hold, the Japanese guards that had been left on the ship opened fire and several POWs were killed or wounded before the Japanese guards were overpowered.

Jack Seaby writes, "when I reached the deck , she was awash and it was fairly evident it was a matter of minutes before she sunk". (1) 

Many POWs died in the holds, those that were able to escape the holds jumped overboard and swam for their lives but in their weakened condition many drowned and others were shot by Japanese guards on nearby vessels. It was only later that the Japanese started to pick up survivors. Some managed to swim to some nearby islands.

Jack continues, "no attempt was made to pick up survivors . I swam with a crowd of others towards a vessel but she turned her screws towards us. I attempted to swim towards the islands in the distance, at about 1400 hrs I came within call of this island but the coast was so rocky and craggy I knew it would be suicide to attempt to land. I learned afterwards that many attempted to land and were smashed against the rocks and killed. I thus allowed myself to be carried out to sea again and at about 1800 hrs ,nearing dusk, after I had practically abandoned hope, I  was picked up by a small Chinese junk. I was taken to a small island and lodged in a Chinese temple where I found another twelve survivors under Chief Petty Officer Rawlings. The  majority of these men were in a pitiful state but were being treated kindly by the Chinese.

We were kept in this temple  until the following day  when Japanese Marines landed and took charge of us. We were treated reasonably well. The Marines gave us hot tea from their water bottles and ration biscuits which I believe were their own issue. We were then placed on board a coastal patrol vessel and taken to a wharf in Chapei (Shangahai). We were again handed over to to the Japanese military. Most of us were naked or semi-naked and laid on this wharf in the cold until about 1600 hrs when the Japanese produced light clothing and a meal. Japanese medical authorities  allowed the most severe cases to remain in Shanghai. When I say most severe I mean men that were practically beyond hope. The remainder of us were placed in the hold of a freighter  and sent to Japan". (1)

The conditions in which men were shipped to Japan for slave labour in factories and docks was appalling. The story of the Lisbon Maru is tragic. The story is told by Tony Banham in "The Sinking of the Lisbon Maru" (illustrated below). Over 800 men lost their lives. Jack Seaby was one of the survivors but his brush with death was not over.

After arriving in Japan in an exhausted state Jack contracted diphtheria. He was moved from POW Camp to a Ichioka Hospital, a makeshift hospital housed in a sports stadium for treating seriously ill POWs.  Jack managed to survive and after two months of hospitalization returned to POW Camp in Osaka.  Here they were put to work stevedoring  in the docks.

"If a prisoner were sick, he was forced out to work until he nearly dropped, then on being admitted to hospital  his rations were cut to a low level". (1)

Physical brutality was common. Seaby reports one particular case as an example.

"In 1943 a medical officer, Miataki, with a rank of Lt. was attached to the POW Camp. He enforced brutality, both mental and physical. If men did not immediately jump up and bow - he would beat them with sword, fist or boots. One particular evening  when Tenko (roll call) was scheduled for 8 pm he arrived at 7:50pm. I immediately shouted Kiotaki (attention) . Unfortunately one man Pte Evans, Royal Scots, had a button of his tunic undone. He began fumbling with the button but this was noticed by Miataki, who immediately unhooked his sword and scabbard and struck Evans who at this time was standing rigidly to attention. Evans on being struck staggered. This enraged the Japanese officer who continued round the group of over sixty men, striking everyone with his sword. Many of the group sustained bad gashes and one man Pte Gray, Royal Scots was knocked senseless. On reaching the end of the group where I was standing , he used his sword and scabbard with both hands and struck me with all his force. I was knocked to the ground in a semi-conscious condition, bleeding profusely from numerous contusions on the scalp". (2)

The POW Camp was bombed and destroyed in a US air raid in June 1945. The POWs were moved to a new camp where they also experienced heavy air raids. Liberation came in August with the surrender of Japanese forces after the use of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. 

They were then flown to Okinawa and from there were to be flown to the POW reception centre at Manila but the plane that Jack Seaby was on a B24 Liberator crashed on take off.  Jack Seaby with several other men were in the bomb bay and when the plane crashed they were trapped in the wreckage. Three men were killed and three including Jack were seriously injured, but he survived again !  He was repatriated on HM Hospital Ship Vasna to Sydney where he was hospitalized at the Royal Naval Hospital.

HMHS Vasna

HMHS Vasna entering Sydney Harbour

He returned to UK on SS Acquitania. On arrival in UK  he spent time recuperating from his injuries at the Royal Naval Hospital, Haslar.  His first hand accounts quoted here were sourced from reports he submitted to the commanding officer of HKRNVR in February 1946.

It was not long before  Jack Seaby was off again. He moved to what was then British West Africa, and started working for Ashanti Goldfields as Head of Security. He later joined the Police Force and in the late 1950s he is shown on passenger manifests as a Police Superintendent in Ghana. He married whilst in West Africa to Margaret Mary (always known as 'Peggie') who was a nurse and they had two children Michael and Patricia.

Jack was a survivor. He survived the horror of POW Camps in Hong Kong and Japan, he survived diphtheria and other illnesses, overcame brutal beatings, and survived the sinking of the Lisbon Maru and then finally he survived the plane crash at liberation in 1945.

Jack Seaby standing smartly to attention - centre

Jack Seaby  as Superintendent of Police

I was able to make contact with members of Jack's family from whom I obtained the photographs of Jack and learnt much more about his life. After leaving Africa he had worked as Head of Security at the British Mission in Peking and had been there in August 1967 when Red Guards broke into the mission and for his actions and leadership in that incident he was awarded the British Empire Medal in 1968. Other overseas postings took him to hot spots like Beirut and back to Japan where he worked at the British Embassy in Tokyo. He retired in the 1970s and passed away in June 1990 after a remarkable life of action and adventure.



(1)   Report to HKRNVR Commander in February 1946  (Hong Kong Public Records Office)

(2)   Report made to US Authorities on brutality in Japanese POW Camps  (Hong Kong Public Records Office)


The above referenced reports submitted by John Seaby to the CO of HKRNVR (Commander Vernall) 

I am grateful to members of his family (Patricia Bussy, Mike Seaby and Pam Bean) for providing the photographs of Jack Seaby and other information about his life before, during and after the war.

Sunday 8 September 2013

Professor Gordon King Escapes from Japanese Occupied Hong Kong

Gordon King was born in London on 7th July 1900 - the son of a Baptist Minister.  After qualifying as a Doctor and a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons in 1926, he joined the Baptist Missionary Society to become a medical missionary in China where he practiced medicine until 1936.

He left China for Hong Kong in 1936 when he was appointed Professor of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at Hong Kong University,  a role he occupied until 1956 albeit interrupted by the outbreak of the Pacific War in December 1941. He escaped from Japanese occupied Hong Kong and made his way overland to Free China in February 1942,  returning to Hong Kong after it was liberated by British forces in 1945.

He married Dr Mary Ellison also a Baptist Missionary in 1927 and their marriage produced three daughters Alison, Margaret and Ellen.

Let's go back in time to December 1941. In a letter to his wife Mary written after his escape to Free China he recalls taking a friend who was visiting Hong Kong for a drive in the New Territories. It was Saturday afternoon 6th October and "it was a beautiful afternoon and I have never seen the scenery look more peaceful. We did not see a single soldier or sign of military activity".  (1)

That very night Gwen Priestwood was enjoying an evening at the Peninsula Hotel Ball Room attending a fund raising function to support the Allied war effort when the music suddenly stopped.

"T.B. Wilson , of the American President Lines, appeared on a balcony above the dance floor, waving a megaphone for silence.
'Any men connected with any ships in the harbor  -  report aboard for duty', he said , adding meaningfully,  'at once'.
There was a dead silence  for a moment; then the crowd stirred. Men hurriedly said good-by to their companions, got their hats and coats, and left". (2)

Gordon King woke up the next morning on Sunday "to find all the vessels in the harbor steaming at full speed, by about 9 a.m.  there did not seem to be a single vessel left. There was obviously something serious in the wind though we had had this sort of thing happen before". (1) 

One of the ships sailing out that Sunday was the SS Ulysses (see separate posting on this site) which had barely completed repairs and was bombed and strafed the next day by Japanese aircraft as it made it's long way home,  only to be sunk by a U-Boat in the Atlantic Ocean, off the coast of the Carolinas.

On Monday 8th December Gordon King was awakened by the telephone ringing at 6:30 in the morning. It was Dr Selwyn Clarke the Director of Medical Services  calling to say that the war had begun and Dr King was to open up the the University Relief Hospital. Two hours later Japanese planes were bombing Kai Tak and Sham Shui Po.

"By noon we had the first wards for 100 patients ready for occupation. My staff was Professor Faid as First Superintendent , Jean Gittins as Lady Supt. and about 60 Sisters and Nurses, 5 Pharmacists, 50  student dressers and about 100 coolies. Faid was an excellent colleague all through and so was Miss Gordon. The students were most helpful and handled everything, up to 750 patients although we actually only treated 393 patients during the war with 22 deaths". (1)

Bill Faid, Professor of Physics at HK University died in 1944 in Stanley Internment Camp, after slipping off a roof at the Indian Quarters whilst trying to repair a leaking roof. Jean Gittins was one of the daughters of Sir Robert Ho-Tung and she was later interned at Stanley. One of those students helping with First Aid dressings and stretcher bearing was seventeen year old Glascott Eyre Dawson-Grove (see the post on this site about Sub Lt. William B Haslett) whose parents living at Shek-o had a harrowing time when captured by the Japanese on 20th December 1941. They and their son Glascott were later interned at Stanley Civilian Internment Camp.

After the war ended with the British capitulation on 25th December 1941 - Professor King made up his mind to escape. The university staff, students and various European refugees like Mr & Mrs Dawson Grove were able to remain at the university until 31st January 1942 (some going several days earlier) when they were sent off to be interned at Stanley Camp, where most would languish for three and a half years suffering the privations of over-crowding, malnutrition and lack of medicines.

Professor King writes that "two or three British women needed operations urgently and I got permission of the Japanese Director of Medical Services, to operate  on them at Tsan Yuk Hospital which involved remaining out of internment  a little while longer. Of the people in the (University) compound the only ones, except the Chinese , who stayed out were Bentley (Pharmacist), R.C. Robertson , who stayed out to help the Japanese in the Bacteriological Institute, Jean Gittins and myself with my patients at the Tsan Yuk Hospital". (1) 

Tsan Yuk Maternity Hospital
 The hospital  was opened in 1922 and the building that it occupied and shown above,  still stands. One of Professor King's patients was Kathleen Dallas Hume whose husband Leo ("Tiny") Hume was in Shamshuipo POW Camp he was a Company Sgt. Major in the Field Ambulance Unit of HKVDC. She was heavily pregnant and had to have a C-Section.  Her daughter Barbara Anne in a radio interview described how her mother was taken out of camp and gave birth to her on 6th February 1942 only days before Gordon King escaped. The story goes that she was released under an escort of nine guards and taken to the Tsan Yuk Hospital shown above.  Professor King whispered to her that when she got back to Stanley Camp she would not see him again.

Elsewhere in Hong Kong Jan Marsman was about to make his escape. He had avoided Internment Camp on the strength of a claim of Philippine citizenship . This was being reviewed and he expected to lose his freedom soon. He made his escape on 10th February.

It seems that both Marsman and Professor King made their way through Sai Kung with the aid of Chinese Guerrillas and their own Chinese helpers. Marsman describes getting to an abandoned schoolhouse most likely in the Sai Kung area where he came across Professor Gordon King.  Gordon King in his letter to his wife says little about his actual escape other than "I fell in with two Americans, Marsman and Lavrovm who escaped from Kowloon an hour after I did". (1)

Marsman writes, "our escape party numbered six" (3)  - Dr King and a Chinese bodyguard, two Chinese, one of whom was aiding Marsman,  the other Marsman described as a distinguished looking Chinese, a Russian (Lavrovm) and Jan Marsman himself. They laid up in a sampan for a few days and then dodging Japanese patrols and bandits made their way to Free China.

Eventually Dr. King reached the war time capital of Chongqing where with the support of the British Authorities and Chinese Government he set up Medical Facilities that would allow medical students who escaped from Hong Kong to continue their studies and qualify as Doctors. He was given the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in the Royal Army Medical Corp. After the Japanese capitulation he returned to Hong Kong and helped re-establish medical services in the war torn colony.

Jean Gittins was a colleague of Gordon King. Her children were staying with Mrs Gordon King and her three daughters in Australia. Gordon King had revealed his plans to Jean Gittins and asked for a 48 hour head-start before his departure was reported. She actually waited for three days before reporting his escape to Dr Selwyn Clarke. She writes "I knew that Selwyn would regard his escape as breaking parole. Selwyn thumped his desk and asked me why I had not reported it immediately". (2)

Not long after this Arthur Bentley, the Head Pharmacist also managed to escape to Free China and Jean Gittins was interned in Stanley Camp.  Professor Robertson took his own life by jumping to his death from a veranda at the Bacteriological Institute in August 1942. He had been depressed by his forced collaboration wit the Japanese.

After the war Professor King remained in Hong Kong until 1956 when he moved to Australia. He was awarded the OBE in 1954. He passed away in October 1991 in Perth, Western Australia.

Dr King in later life

He had the pluck to escape and the luck to succeed in getting away.


(1)   Copy of letter from Dr King to his wife Mary
(2)   "Through Japanese barbed wire" - Gwen Priestwood (1943)   
(3)   "I escaped from Hong Kong" - Jan Marsman (1942) 

Copy of letter from Dr King to his wife Mary
"Through Japanese barbed wire" - Gwen Priestwood (1943)  
"I escaped from Hong Kong" -  Jan Marsman  (1942)
"Stanley: Behind Barbed Wire" - Jean Gittins  (1982)
"Dictionary of Hong Kong Biography" - May Holdsworth and Christopher Munn (2012)
Radio Interview with Barbara Laidlaw (nee Hume)