Sunday, 26 February 2017

Captain Eric Wiseman, RASC - Recollections of a British Prisoner of War

On 7 February, I was delighted to receive a copy of Hong Kong: Recollections of a British Prisoner of War published by Veterans Publications in Canada (2001) and written by former Captain E. P. Wiseman, RASC. Eric Philip Wiseman, always known as Bill Wiseman, was born in December 1917 in Kuala Lumpur. He attended Kings School Canterbury, and whilst there and whilst "fooling around on a train," he was involved in an accident that resulted in the loss of a foot. Notwithstanding this he was able to join the Territorial Army as 2nd Lt in the RASC. He was mobilised in 1939 following the outbreak of war in Europe. In 1940 he was posted to 12 Coy RASC, China Command, Hong Kong.

When war started in Hong Kong on Monday 8 December it was Wiseman's 24th Birthday. He was responsible for the Vehicle Collection Centre (VCC) at Happy Valley. Two days after the Japanese landings he was ordered to relocate the Transport Pool to Sassoon Road, Pokfulam. Here he was shot in his un-amputated leg by friendly fire. There is a reference to his being wounded in the RASC war diary.
During this night of heavy rain (20th/21st December), fire from Tommy Guns of Indian units on Sassoon (Road) was sporadic especially on the occasion that a visit to Miramare’s  telephone was necessary and in the house itself Capt Wiseman was wounded. (Source: Lt Howell, RASC War Diary).

Cover of Bill Wiseman's book (Veterans Publications, 2001)

Captain Bill Wiseman (from the book)
Wiseman's book contains an account of his experiences during hostilities and subsequently as a POW. It has interesting bio details on some of his fellow POWs including Major Boxer and Lt-Cdr Boldero. It also has some interesting sketches including one of the gallant gunboat HMS Cicala. This warship was in the thick of the action until she was sunk in the East Lamma Channel. She was small but powerful, her armament consisted of two 6-inch guns (forward and aft), a 3-inch high angle gun and a 2-pdr pom-pom AA gun. She was commanded by John Boldero who had served at the Battle of Jutland in WW1.  He lost his right arm during a collision between an MTB and Cicala. Here's a pre-war photograph of Cicala in dry dock.

HMS Cicala in dry dock (Writer's Collection)
Another interesting sketch was of WDV French. This launch was one of the WD (War Department) vessels operated by the RASC, under the blue ensign. French was used in the evacuation of troops from Devil's Peak Peninsula and throughout the period of hostilities.

A fine looking launch - WDV French (From Bill Wiseman's Book)
After being wounded, Bill Wiseman was admitted to the nearby Queen Mary Hospital. In the next bed was Major Charles Boxer, the head of the combined forces intelligence unit. Boxer, a Japanese linguist, was well known to the Japanese from his liaison role with the Japanese Army. He received visitors from senior Japanese officers who were impressed when Major Boxer introduced Captain Wiseman and implied that he had lost one leg and been wounded in the other during the fighting.


Stanley Internment Camp Notes from Bill Wiseman's book

From Bill Wiseman's book I discovered that Captain John ("Jack") Gordon Whitaker Adjutant of 5th AA Regiment, Royal Artillery,  had married Wendy Winnifred Willcocks in Hong Kong shortly before the war. He was held in military POW camps and she was incarcerated in Stanley Camp with her parents Major James Lugard Willcocks and Muriel Kathleen Willcocks. A quick search of old Hong Kong newspapers revealed that the marriage between Jack Whittaker and Wendy Willcocks took place at St John's Cathedral on 25 October 1939. A reception was held at the Hong Kong Club Annex and the honeymoon was in less than exotic Fan Ling. H.E. the Governor was represented at the wedding by his Aide-de-Camp Captain Sydney Batty-Smith. Batty-Smith died in February 1945 whilst interned at Stanley Camp. 

Major Willcocks was born in India the son of an Indian Army officer. Major Willcocks had served with the Black Watch in WW1 during which he was awarded the DSO and MC. He married Muriel Price in 1916. Their daughter Wendy was born in Bermuda in 1919. She was 22-years-old when she was interned at Stanley Camp. Major Willcocks was serving as Commissioner of Prisons in 1941 and was a member of the HKVDC. He commanded the Stanley Force and was the right hand man for Brigadier Wallis in the Battle for Stanley.

Bill Wiseman also mentions Lt. Michael H. Turner who was married to fifty-three-year-old Daisy Turner who was incarcerated in Stanley Camp with her married daughter Beryl Daisy Skipwith (nee Turner). They shared a room in the Indian Quarters with Joyce Bassett.  Bill Wiseman writes that Lt Turner was known as "Pop" in POW Camp on account of his age (thought to be around 55). He had been the Head of prominent law firm Deacons before the war and the family had lived in a villa at Skek-O. He had been called to serve as a 2nd Lt in the 5th AA Regiment, Royal Artillery in 1941. His daughter Beryl Daisy had married Captain Patrick Skipwith, Adjutant of 8th Coast Regiment based at Stanley Fort.

Joyce Bassett had been a secretary working for the Colonial Secretariat. She had been based at Government House during hostilities. Her widowed mother Florence Eva Thornhill was also in Stanley Camp. Her bother Sub-Lt John Thornhill was serving with HKRNVR and was incarcerated in POW camp. 


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Thursday, 16 February 2017

Major Douglas Dewe, Indian Medical Service, POW in Singapore and on the Burma Railway

This post is about a British Indian Army Medical Doctor serving with the Indian Medical Service in Singapore who was captured after the Fall of Singapore in February 1942. He was incarcerated at Changi and later on the Burma Railway.


Douglas Dewe was born 17 January 1908 in Somerset. He first married in 1933 at the age of twenty-five to Winnifred Warren. Tragically she died in February 1934 within a year of their wedding as a result of a ruptured appendix. In August 1934 Douglas married Rosanna ('Rona') Gorrie Heggie (1912-1972). They lived initially in India and later moved to Taiping and Singapore. They had two children Roderick (1935) and Michael (1940). I became interested to learn more about Major Dewe when I happened to run across an article in the Hong Kong Daily Press dated 19 August 1941. The article reported on the breakdown of  Douglas and Rona's marriage and cited infidelity on the part of Rona with a forty-year-old rubber planter by the name of Oswald  Cutler. 

Hong Kong Daily Press 19 Aug. 1941
Being interested in family history, the article caught my attention, and  I reflected on the fact that war was already imminent and that all three parties, Douglas, Rona, and Oswald would have ended up as POWs or civilian internees. I was curious to find out more. 

After the fall of Singapore on 15 February 1942, Major Dewe was incarcerated initially in the military POW camp at Changi. Rona and Oswald were interned in the civilian internment camp also located at Changi. Unlike Stanley Camp in Hong Kong, the civilian internees in Singapore were segregated and placed either in a men's camp or a separate women's camp. Rona registered in the name of  Rona Cutler although they were not married. I was able to make contact with Major Dewe's youngest son Mike who helped me with much of this information. Mike believes that by taking on the surname of Cutler, Rona may have been able to obtain visitation rights to Oswald. 

The court hearing in August had awarded Major Dewe with custody of his two sons. The marriage had broken down in 1937/1938, Major Dewe had by that time become engaged to Peggy Frampton, a divorcee whose name is mentioned on his POW record (below). In the Japanese POW record sheet, Major Dewe gave his specialisation as gynaecology and obstetrics, although he was, in fact, a general practitioner with good diagnostician skills and a strong understanding of tropical diseases. Mike thought this was done in order to avoid undesirable postings by his captors, but unfortunately, it was to no avail as he was transferred to the worst location of all - the Burma railway.


In April 1945, Major Dewe was transferred from the Burma railway, together with some 1,000 emaciated POWs to a new camp called Mergui Road in the south of Burma. The POWs were to be used as slave labourers to help build a road south into Thailand as an extrication route for the Japanese Army out of Burma. Major Dewe was both the senior officer in camp and the senior of the six medical officers assigned to this camp. The conditions here were said to be worse than on the Burma railway and over a third of the POWs died under the atrocious conditions. 

POW Record (National Archives)
Peggy Frampton returned to India with her daughter, Ray, and with Major Dewe's two sons, Roddy and Mike.  Mike at the time was only sixteen months old, and Roddy was five-years-old. They were able to get out of Singapore on one of the last evacuation ships to leave before the Japanese overran the colony. Peggy looked after both the boys in India, but she must have given up on Major  Dewe, perhaps assuming he was dead, or perhaps unwilling to wait and find out, because she remarried during the war years. The boys, despite their young age, were sent to the famous Bishop Cotton boarding school in Simla, India. After being liberated in 1945, Major Dewe returned to India and collected his sons, and took them with him to Afghanistan where he had been posted as Medical Officer to the British Legation in Kabul. 

Oswald Cutler and Rona's relationship did not last through internment. He married Margaret Bell in February 1946 and returned to Malaya where he resumed his pre-war occupation as a planter. Rona also remarried quite soon after being liberated. This marriage did not last, and later she remarried Colonel Christopher Harold Miskin and settled in Jersey. She passed away in 1972.

After Indian independence in 1947, Major Dewe retired from the Indian Medical Service and emigrated to Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) with his wife June Fox (nee Martin) who he married in 1947 and his two sons. The marriage to June did not last, he married again to  Paloma Hone but this marriage only lasted a year or two. In 1954 Douglas Dewe married Barbara Ward, the marriage lasted and they continued to live in Rhodesia until he retired to Pietermaritzburg, South Africa in 1975, where he passed away in 1978.

Major Douglas Dewe had lived on the edge of empire, at a time of change and in a very different world to that which we know today. He had served in India, Malaya, Singapore and Afghanistan when they were still part of what was the British Empire. He and his fellow medical officers saved countless lives of British and allied servicemen during the brutal incarceration in Singapore and Burma. The Medical Officers had to keep working, despite their own debilitating weakness from malnutrition and the heat of the tropics. They were constantly exposed to diseases like diphtheria and dysentery.  They had to carry out their work of saving lives with inadequate medicine and in the absence of medical facilities, improvising where they could with medicines and equipment. The medical doctors, like the other POWs, were weak, starved, and ill and constantly subject to the brutality of the guards. They were a cadre that received little recognition, much less than they deserved. The POWs, however, never forgot what the doctors and medical orderlies did to alleviate their suffering. 


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Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Major Edward de Vere Hunt - Killed in action 20th December 1941

Edward de Vere Hunt was born on 12 December 1908. He was educated at the Dragon School in Oxford, and from age thirteen, at Rugby School. He was remembered as an outstanding sportsman.  He excelled at cricket, hockey, football, rugby and boxing. At school he was a known as Bunch but in later life simply as "Ted." At the age of nineteen, in 1927, he left school and attended the Royal Military Academy (RMA) Woolwich. After passing out from RMA in 1929 he was commissioned as an officer in the Royal Artillery. In 1935 he was serving in the Royal Horse Artillery firstly in Egypt and later in Palestine where he was promoted to Captain. In 1938 he was posted to Hong Kong  where he served  with the coastal defence batteries. He was promoted to Major, and in 1940 transferred to the Hong Kong Singapore Royal Artillery (HKSRA) with whom he fought very gallantly both on the Mainland and on the Island. He was killed in action, aged thirty-three, at Wong Nai Chung Gap on  20 December 1941.


Major de Vere Hunt (Source: Dragon School Memorials)
Prior to the Second World War, he played rugby for a number of major teams including Hampshire, the Army First XV and the Barbarians. At the age of twenty-five, he married Nancy Amore Fleetwood Rudkin, who was aged twenty-one. They were married on 5 May 1934 at St Nicholas Church, Compton, near Guildford, close to her family home at Brook House, Compton. Her father was a retired Army Officer. A search of the internet revealed her charming family home.


Brook House, Compton (Source: Geograph.org.uk)
In the Battle for Hong Kong, Ted Hunt commanded No. 1 Battery, HKSRA. This unit was equipped with four 3.7-inch howitzers which could be stripped down into nine component parts and then transported by pack mules. In addition, they had four 4.5-inch howitzers which required lorries to tow them in and out of their battery positions.  The 4.5-inch guns were located at Red Hill and Tai Tam Hill. The two guns at Red Hill were inadvertently put out of action when the battery commander misinterpreted an order to "get out of action" as meaning to put the guns out off action; demonstrating how important it is that orders be given clearly and unambiguously. For this reason, many officers required important orders to be issued in writing. The two 4.5-inch guns at Tai Tam Hill were abandoned by the battery personnel when they came into the front line following the Japanese landings during the night of 18/19 December 1941.

The four 3.7-inch Howitzers were initially deployed on the Mainland at Customs Pass and provided artillery support for the two Indian infantry battalions on the centre and right flank of the Gin Drinkers Line (GDL). During the evacuation of the Mainland, his battery supported the fighting retreat and rear-guard action by 5th/7th Rajputs. Major Hunt's guns took a heavy toll on Colonel Tanaka's 3rd Battalion of the 229th Infantry Regiment. Major de Vere Hunt's barrage of observed fire was deadly accurate and broke up a battalion level attack, and thereby helped achieve the successful evacuation of the two Indian battalions.

After the evacuation to the Island, two of the 3.7-inch howitzers were moved to Gauge Basin and put out of action when the battery came under infantry attack on 19 December. The remaining two howitzers were deployed at Tai Tam Fork Battery. One of which was sent forward to Lye Mun Barracks to fire on Japanese positions on Devil's Peak peninsula. This gun was overrun and lost on 18 December when the Japanese landed in that locality and overran the barracks and the 3.7-inch gun position. The one remaining gun at Tai Tam Fork Battery was the only howitzer in East Group - RA sector that was successfully brought back to Stanley. On the 19 December, 1st Mountain Battery lost all its guns except for this one 3.7-inch howitzer which was withdrawn to Stanley. The  2nd Mountain Battery lost three 3.7-inch guns at Stanley Gap and two 6-inch guns positioned midway along Stanley Gap Road. The 3rd Medium Battery lost its four 6-inch guns which were located at Parker Battery (on Island Road) and Sai Wan. It was a tragic setback to lose sixteen howitzers, and it left East Infantry Brigade with inadequate artillery support in the counterattacks made against well-entrenched and numerically superior Japanese positions. In reality, the mobile artillery was not very mobile, because the guns were operated at pre-prepared battery positions which included gun pits, light anti-aircraft defence, concrete ammunition lockers and splinter proof accommodation for battery personnel. They were also hampered by insufficient transport and insufficient mules, and the rapidity of the Japanese advance following their landings on the Island during the night of 18/ 19 December 1941.

On the night of 19/20 December, the HKSRA, without their guns, were the only troops available to launch a counterattack. Fighting as infantry they were ordered to counterattack WNC Gap. The Indian Other Ranks (IORs) proceeded up Repulse Bay Road in bare feet to reduce noise and two of the HKVDC armoured cars led the way clearing the road up to the gap. The Japanese were well entrenched at WNC Gap and were there in strength. There were four front-line Japanese infantry battalions at and around the gap. The gunners managed to recapture the police post on the knoll, but it was later retaken by Japanese reinforcements from Stanley Gap. During the fighting around the gap Major de Vere Hunt was killed as was his fellow officer Captain Feilden, and their commanding officer, Lt-Col Yale, who although in poor health, had insisted on accompanying his troops into battle. What I did not realise is that after the capture of the police station, Major de Vere Hunt had actually gone through the gap and reported to RA HQ at the Battle Box. Major John Monro, Brigade Major, Royal Artillery recalled de Vere Hunt's arrival at Fortress HQ during the night 19/20 December in his personal war diary held at Imperial War Museum (IWM Docs. 17941).
"Ted Hunt came in this evening. He had led a counterattack against Wong Nai Chung Gap and had recaptured it almost single-handed. As he got near the enemy his Battery just melted away. Though the gunners are steady under shellfire, they will not face the enemy at hand to hand fighting. ... They have had very little training in the use of infantry weapons and so few of our young officers can make themselves really understood  in their language. ... Ted is looking very wild and wooly. He is wearing an extraordinary assortment of uniform, he has three or four days growth of beard and is carrying a Tommy gun. .... He has had no sleep for the past two days. The CRA [Commander Royal Artillery] ordered him to go back to Stanley and rest. About this time news came through that the Japs had re-occupied WNC Gap. Just as Ted was leaving I warned him of this and told him to go round by Pok Fu Lam".  (Major John Monro, RA)
De Vere Hunt returned to WNC Gap and was killed in action early on Saturday 20 December. His body was not recovered. His wife Nancy placed an advertisement in the Times in March 1942 seeking information on her husband's whereabouts. She was not officially informed of his death until June 1944. In 1946 she remarried to Geoffrey Dean. Her parents both died two years later in 1948, and she died prematurely in 1972, at the still early age of sixty.

Major Ted de Vere Hunt died as he lived his life, utterly fearless, a strong leader, admired and respected by all.  

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