Monday 26 January 2015

A/B John Siddans, RN and Japanese soldier No.125 of the 230th Infantry Regt.

My interest in the subject of World War 2 in Hong Kong led me into field research. This combines my interest in hiking with my interest in history.  As a result I have got to know a small group of military history enthusiasts in Hong Kong who meet to search the battlefields using metal detectors to find relics left over from the war. We use pre war maps and 1945 aerial photographs to find structures such as gun emplacements. My first find using a metal detector was an oiler for a Lee Enfield 303 rifle. This is a brass tube that fits into a chamber on the rifle-butt and is used to carry oil for cleaning the working parts and for cleaning the barrel with a a small piece of cloth and a pull-through cord. When I opened it up there was still traces of 1941 oil inside and when you pick up something like this or a spent round that would have been last last handled during the war, it really gives you a sense of history.

303 Oiler and spent ammunition (Writer's collection)
Oiler after cleaning (Writers collection)
On opening there were traces of 1941 oil still inside (Writers collection)
More recently the rusted remains of a Lee Enfield 303 rifle were found in a spot close to where the oiler was found. The woodwork had mostly eroded away. The wooden rifle-butt was completely denigrated leaving only the butt-plate screws and the oiler lying where the butt should have been. This was found lying on the surface. Amazing to think it had lain there in the hills above Stanley for 73 years since December 1941 until Stuart picked it up in December 2014.

Stuart Woods with the 303 Rifle (just the metal parts left)
This kind of hobby can be dangerous as one finds live ordnance in the form of grenades, artillery shells and mortar bombs still lying on the hills where the fighting occurred.  These can be unstable and if clipped by a spade or mishandled could result in somebody becoming a casualty of WW2 more than seventy years after the war ended. Any such finds are reported to Police and the Explosive Ordnance Disposal Unit (EOD) will safely detonate or otherwise dispose of such ordnance.

Spent rounds can be cleaned up with a wire brush to reveal whether they are Japanese, British or Canadian. The head-stamp on British and Canadian rounds will show the date of manufacture, the name of the manufacturer and the type of ammunition. The imprint from the firing pin can indicate whether it was fired from a rifle or from a machine gun.

 DAQ for Dominion Arsenal Quebec 1940 (Writers collection)
The oblong indentation indicating that it was fired from a machine gun most likely the Bren Gun which Canadian troops made good use of. The location of spent ammunition can help the historian get a better understanding of who was where and the direction of fire. Other battlefield finds have included helmets, water bottles, webbing buckles, buttons and cap badges but the 'holy grail' of military metal detecting is to find something with a name on it that can be traced back to someone who fought here or lived here in Hong Kong in December 1941.

This happened twice in the last two months. A Japanese dog tag was found in the hills behind Stanley and a British ID bracelet was found in Stanley Gap Road (now known as Tai Tam Reservoir Road).

Japanese ID tag -  (Courtesy of Dave Willott)

Craig Mitchell a military history enthusiast had the characters translated and they read as below:

230th Infantry Regiment
2nd Company
 Soldier  No. 125

In the Japanese Imperial Army it seems a soldier was not accorded a name on his ID tag  - just a number. Although ID tags for officers do seem to carry a name. This particular ID tag denotes his regiment and the company he belonged to and his own military number. Each Infantry Regiment involved in the invasion of Hong Kong had three battalions of around 1,000 men supported by separate artillery units. The accompanying artillery moved with the infantry and were equipped with mountain guns and/or anti-tank guns. I assume the 2nd Company would belong to the 1st Battalion.

The 230th Infantry Regiment was commanded by Col. Shoji Toshishigi and was referred to as the Shoji Butai. His infantry regiment (less one battalion retained in Kowloon) landed on the North Shore between Braemar and North Point on 18 December 1941. That night three infantry regiments consisting of six infantry battalions supported by their attached artillery landed between North Point and Shaukeiwan. The Island Fortress was irrevocably breached as over six thousand Japanese troops landed on this stretch of shore line which was defended by just one Indian Infantry Battalion (5th/7th Rajputs) and one company from the Canadian infantry (C Coy Royal Rifles of Canada). The Japanese moved quickly inland and only a  few days later soldier No. 125 may have died in the hills behind Stanley as the Imperial Japanese Army closed in on Stanley peninsula where Brigadier Wallis was making his last stand in the Battle for Hong Kong. It is possible that he may have simply lost it and survived the war.  We don't know -  all we can be sure of is his ID tag lay there all these years. The ID tags known in Japanese as 'ninshikihyo' were secured by fabric tape rather than a metal chain and were either worn round the neck or like a sash around the neck and under the arm.

Ninshikihyo  (Source:  WWW.Forum.
Efforts are being made to return the Japanese ID tag to family members but in most cases the Japanese records that would tie a soldier number to a name no longer exist - few such records survived the war and so this is very difficult in practice.

A short while later in January 2015 military history enthusiast Dave Willott found the ID tag of a Royal Navy Rating.  This is a rare find and now we had a name, rank and service number of a combatant who served in the Royal Navy during the Battle for Hong Kong.

The ID tag of Naval Rating - John Siddans (Courtesy: Dave Willott)

The tag still with the metal chain reads :

J. Siddans   Q.O. 
D/J 115494
C of E

It belonged to Able Seaman John ("Jack") Siddans.  The Q.O. was identified by Richard Frost local history enthusiast as indicating "Qualified in Ordnance". C of E denoting that he was Church of England. He was based at HMS Tamar, the RN receiving ship or HQ in the RN Dockyard. This ship was berthed in the RN Basin along the west wall but was later towed out and scuttled in the harbour.

We know that John Siddans  survived the fighting in Hong Kong but we know little else about him.  Tony Banham author and historian confirmed that he died following the sinking of the Japanese ship the Lisbon Maru which in October 1942 was transporting 1,816 prisoners of war from Hong Kong to Japan to work as slave labourers. The ship was sunk by an American submarine unaware that it was carrying Prisoners of War.  Tony has established from his records that AB John Siddans survived the actual sinking but may have died in one of the rescue boats on the way to Shanghai no doubt from the extreme cold, the lack of clothing, and the lack of food and drink.

In the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) records,  his date of death is given as 4 October 1942 and his parents are recorded as being Harry and Susanna Siddans. He was married to Florence Siddans (nee Richardson). They were married in 1934 in Cheshire. He was born in 1900 making him 41 years old when war erupted in Hong Kong which was rather old for an Able Seaman.

What was his ID tag doing up there in what was called Stanley Gap Road now part of Tai Tam Country Park. I can only assume he was transferred to the Royal Navy base at Aberdeen which was housed in the Aberdeen Industrial School close to the Aberdeen Royal Naval dockyard. RN officers and ratings were used to counterattack Wong Nei Chung Gap on 19 December 1941 after it had fallen to the Japanese who had only landed on the Island the previous evening. The RN were sent up in lorries, driving up Repulse Bay Road from Aberdeen. The sailors stood out in their blue uniforms and steel helmets and perhaps unfamiliar rifles. As they neared the gap they were ambushed by machine gun fire from Japanese troops on the hillside above the road.

I have no evidence he was in this party but it is very possible. A number were killed, wounded and captured. Some were able to get away. It's possible that he was captured around the Gap. Most prisoners of war taken at Wong Nei Chung Gap were marched up Stanley Gap Road and down to the reservoirs at Guage Basin and then up Mount Parker Road to Sanatorium Gap (also known as Quarry Gap) and then down to North Point refugee camp which served as a POW Camp. It could be that his dog tag was ripped off his neck by Japanese soldiers who would have kept valuables such as pens and watches and discarded other things. It was found with other items such as webbing, buttons and shoulder flashes and these may have been ripped off  the uniforms of surrendered soldiers at the collection point before they were marched off towards North Point and incarceration.

I noticed a somewhat unusual reference to John Siddans, in a book called "Prisoner of the Rising Sun" (2009) by Stanley Wort who served as a Royal Navy Rating in Hong Kong during  WW2.
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.
So far I have not found other references to him and I'm still trying to find out more about his life which was so tragically cut short and lost at sea.