Wednesday 29 March 2023

Robert & Marjorie Grindley

I received an email at home in Stanley, Hong Kong, from Peter West, the Museum Manager at the Eastchurch Aviation Museum located on the Isle of Sheppey in Kent. He described how a set of medals awarded to one Robert John Vaughan Grindley had been passed to the museum. I immediately recognised the name and was able to confirm that Robert Grindley had been a prison officer in Hong Kong and had served in the Stanley Platoon of the Hong Kong Volunteer Defence Corps (HKVDC). 

During the battle in December 1941, he had taken part in the close quarter fighting in and around Stanley Village and the road approaching the prison. He and his wife, Marjorie Betsy (Betty) Grindley, a volunteer nurse, were interned at Stanley Civilian Internment Camp (a Japanese run prison camp) from January 1942 until the Japanese surrender in August 1945. In the mid-1950s they retired and settled in Minster, on the Isle of Sheppey. It seems firstly at 110, Wards Hill Road, the address was given on a 1951 and 1954 passenger manifest, and later at No. 2 Seaside Avenue which connects with Wards Hill Road. The medals were found in a faded brown envelope in the attic of a bungalow named 'Tintagel' in nearby Whitethorn Gardens in 2018. The medals were recently passed to the museum who were interested in identifying whether there were any direct descendants, children or grandchildren to whom they could pass the medals, otherwise the museum will continue to look after them. 

The War Medals - courtesy Peter West (Eastchurch Aviation Museum)

The medals from left to right consist of:

1939-1945 Star, 

the Pacific Star,

the Defence Medal

1939 - 1945 War Medal

Hong Kong Efficiency Medal 

The two star-medals have Robert Grindley's name engraved on the reverse and the other three medals have his name engraved on the rim. This is unusual as WW2 campaign medals issued to members of the British forces were not named (engraved or impressed). Peter Weedon, a war medal enthusiast, advised me that some recipients of such medals had their names privately engraved. Apparently Boots, the high street store, offered this engraving service at that time. It was only because these medals had been engraved that they could be  linked to their original owner. Peter Weedon advised that the Efficiency Medal is quite rare as only 224 were issued with the Hong Kong clasp. 

The reverse of the medals - courtesy Peter West (Eastchurch Aviation Museum)

So who were Robert and Marjorie Grindley. We know a bit more about Marjorie because in 1980, six years after her husband's death she recorded an oral history interview for the Imperial War Museum (IWM) about her wartime experiences during the battle and her recollections of life at Stanley Internment Camp. 

Robert John Vaughan Grindley was born 9 December 1904 in Coventry. He shared the same name as his father who was born in 1877 and died in 1968. At the age of 16, in 1920, he joined the Royal Navy. His service record shows a history of good conduct and details the warships he served on. He discharged himself, by purchase in 1934, while serving on HMS Tamar the base ship in Hong Kong. He then joined the Hong Kong Prison Service.  Many of the European prison officers in Hong Kong were ex-servicemen like Robert.

Marjorie Grindley (I have not yet discovered her maiden name) was born in March 1917 in Luton a suburb of Chatham. She was brought up in Gillingham. In 1922, aged five, she went to Hong Kong for a period of 3 years while her father, a civilian working for the Admiralty, was assigned to the colony. Marjorie and her family returned to Gillingham in or about 1925. After leaving school, she went to secretarial college and after graduating worked for a firm of solicitors. In 1936, her father was assigned again to Hong Kong for a second stint.  Marjorie, eighteen years old at the time went with him, although reluctantly as it meant leaving her boyfriend in England. She quickly got a job as a stenographer working for the Hong Kong Government. As a government employee, she was exempt from the compulsory evacuation of British women and children that took place in June/July 1940. She enrolled as a volunteer nurse in the Auxiliary Nursing Service (ANS). She lived in Gap Road and enjoyed the better life style of an expatriate in Hong Kong compared to life in the UK at that time. They had a Chinese servant and enjoyed the vibrant social life that Hong Kong provided and as a single lady she had ample invitations to dances and other social events. 

Romance returned and she married, the former Royal Navy sailor, Robert Grindley. I have not been able to establish the date of their wedding but it must have been between 1937 and 1940 in Hong Kong. Robert was thirteen years older than Marjorie. There is no record of there being any children from their marriage. After their wedding she and Robert moved into the European Married Quarters (EMQ) in the Stanley Prison compound. Her parents returned to UK before the outbreak of war in Hong Kong. Robert, along with most of his colleagues joined the Stanley Platoon of the Hong Kong Volunteer Defence Corp (HKVDC). The HKVDC was a militia made up of civilians including British, Portuguese, Chinese, Russian and many other nationalities. The Stanley Platoon was made up of prison officers most of whom had military experience. 

During the Battle for Hong Kong, Robert was fighting around Stanley Village and the road leading to the prison. Marjorie described in the IWM interview how he and Captain Chatty were at the Prison Officers Club 'picking off the Japanese as they came down the road'. Chatty was the former adjutant of the 1st Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment. He had been serving a prison sentence at Stanley having been found guilty of sexual assault on a Chinese youth in King's Park Kowloon after a night of heavy drinking and opium taking. He had been released on the outbreak of war and had fought gallantly having been restored to the rank of temporary captain. Marjorie was still living in their flat at the EMQ and working as an ANS nurse at the temporary hospital known as Tweed Bay. Before the war, the hospital had been used to accommodate Indian single prison officers who had dormitory style accommodation. The former accommodation block converted to a hospital was originally designed for civilian  casualties but as the fighting drew closer to Stanley the casualties were mainly military. There were three hospitals at Stanley. The temporary military hospital at St Stephen's College, the temporary civilian hospital at Tweed Bay and the purpose built, albeit small, hospital in the Prison. As the flats were increasingly machine gunned and hit by artillery fire, Marjory moved into the hospital at Tweed Bay with another lady and her baby who had been billeted in her flat at the EMQ. At the hospital, Marjory recalled the number of amputations being carried out by Dr Hackett, the Prison Doctor. She also described the burials with the graves being hastily dug by Cannon Martin, the Headmaster of the adjacent St Stephen's College.

After the battle ended, during the evening on Christmas Day, Robert and Marjorie were allowed to move back into the prison along with most of the Stanley Platoon. It is not clear whether they were already wearing their wardens uniforms or whether they were in military uniform. If the latter they no doubt made a quick change into their prison officers uniforms. In late January they were moved from the prison to Stanley Internment Camp. The camp consisted of the grounds and buildings at St Stephen's College and the prison compound (except the actual prison itself which the Japanese continued to use). The prison officers accommodation blocks were used as part of the internment camp. The camp housed some 3,000 British, American and Dutch civilians. 

Robert and Marjorie were initially billeted in the Indian Quarters (IQ). These red-brick blocks (shown in the background of the photograph below) originally accommodated married Indian prison wardens and their families. Robert and Marjorie shared a small flat with nine internees, four in one room and five in the other room.  At the beginning they slept on the concrete floor. The only bedding was the blankets they had brought in from the prison. One of her room-mates a married prison officer stole tinned food that Marjory had kept in a suitcase. She never spoke to him again. After the Americans were repatriated in July 1942 as part of a civilian prisoner exchange, Robert and Marjory, were re-billeted at the Prison Officer's Club. Finally they had a room to themselves and eventually obtained a mattress.  Most internees suffered from malnutrition as a result of the poor diet and diseases like beri-beri and dysentery were common. 

The Prison Officer's Club, the IQ in the background and the Dutch Block to the left

A the end of the war, Marjorie was repatriated first. She recalled being taken on an aircraft carrier to Colombo and then by passenger ship to UK. Robert stayed on to help re-establish the prison and returned later to the UK. After repatriation leave they returned to Hong Kong and Robert resumed his career in the prison service, now called Correctional Services. 

They retired in the mid-1950s to Minster, near the sea, in the Isle of Sheppey. Robert died at the still young age of sixty-nine in 1974. Marjorie lived on for a further forty years, until 2014, when she died at the grand old age of 96. As far as I can tell she continued to live in Seaside Avenue with its bungalows and neat gardens. From her garden gate you can see the sea. How the medals ended up at Whitethorn Gardens is still a mystery. Perhaps given to someone by Marjorie. The important thing is that the medals have been found and identified. They tell the story of one man's service in the Royal Navy, his career as a prison officer in Hong Kong, his marriage to Marjorie, the close quarter fighting during the battle for Hong Kong and the hardship they both endured during internment; and then finally a peaceful retirement near the sea at Minster where they could reflect with equanimity on days gone by.


Peter West

Peter Weedon

Eastchurch Aviation Museum

Imperial War Museum (Sound Tape No. 4653). Available on the IWM web site

Sunday 12 March 2023

The Surrender at Singapore

The former Ford Motor Factory at Bukit Timah was the location for the ignominious surrender of British and Commonwealth troops on Sunday 15 February 1942. The British commander was Lt General Arthur Percival, General Officer Commanding (GOC) British troops in Malaya (which included Singapore). The Japanese 25th Army was led by Lt General Tomoyuki Yamashita who became known as the 'Tiger of Malaya'. The surrender was  ignominious because Percival surrendered an army consisting of some 85,000 British, Australian, Indian and Malay troops to a smaller Japanese army of  around 35,000 men. Yamashita's forces had out-manoeuvred and out-fought the British in Malaya. They had moved with great speed through the peninsula towards the all-important goal of Singapore. This was part of the grand plan of the Japanese high command to capture what they called the southern resources area which provided access to rubber, oil and other raw materials in the Dutch East Indies and Malaya. The Japanese army crossed the Johor Straits that separated Malaya from Singapore on 8 February and a week later they captured the bastion of British military strength in the Far East. Singapore had been seen as the 'Gibraltar of the East' impregnable fortress.

Winston Churchill described the defeat and subsequent capitulation as 'the worst disaster and the largest capitulation in British history'. One would have to go back to 1781, to the Battle of Yorktown in the American War of Independence or even to the Battle of Hastings in 1066 to find another such calamitous defeat. The loss of Singapore is sometimes described as a national disgrace and Percival is generally blamed by historians for lack of leadership, and for surrendering rather than fighting on. The British and Commonwealth soldiers that were subsequently incarcerated as POWs in South East Asia suffered terribly and many thousands died during their captivity in Japanese prison camps and labour camps. 

...............but has history been fair to Percival ? or could it be, at least in large part, that he was not given the tools to complete the task. The Japanese had both air and sea superiority. Percival had insufficient aircraft many of which were antiquated and obsolete like the Vickers Vildebeest and the Brewster Buffalo. Some Hawker Hurricanes arrived late in the battle but there were not enough. The Imperial War Museum describes how the Japanese had 600 aircraft and the British  had only 158. The Japanese had 200 tanks whereas the British had twenty-three. Percival had asked for more tanks but none were sent. They were needed elsewhere. He had the manpower but insufficient aircraft, warships and armour. The loss of the battleship, HMS Prince of Wales and the cruiser HMS Repulse was catastrophic. The two capital ships with their escorting destroyers had no air-cover because the aircraft carrier, HMS Indomitable, which should have been part of their task force (Force Z) had run aground in the Caribbean Sea. 

The Former Ford Motor Factory in March 2023

The Ford factory, built in art deco style, was completed and opened in October 1941 just weeks before the war started with Japan on 8 December.  The Japanese used the factory as Battle HQ during the fighting around Bukit Timah, a high point on the island.  Today the factory is a national monument and  home to an excellent museum. 

The factory as it looked at its opening in 1941

The surrender party arrives at the Ford Factory (above) artist rendition (below)

The four British officers were from left to right: Major Cyril Wild, interpreter, bearing the white flag, Deputy Adjutant General, Brigadier Thomas Newbigging, bearing the union flag, Brigadier Kenneth Torrance and Lt General Arthur Percival. The interpreter carrying the white flag (a task no-one wanted) is caught by a Japanese cine camera casting away the white flag with an air of disgust. Brigadier Newbigging appears to admonish him. The surrender formality took place at the factory.

Artist rendition of the surrender negotiation

Signing the surrender at the Ford Factory

Percival had expected an attack on the northeast shoreline rather than the more swampy northwest coast. He put the main component of his defence force in this sector. The Japanese carried out a decoy assault on the NE sector but their main force came ashore and quickly overwhelmed the defenders on the northwest shore. Percival was forced to withdraw his troops and form  a perimeter around the city. When the Japanese captured Bukit Timah, they secured possession of the reservoirs and the water supply. In fact, the Japanese did not turn off the water supply but water shortages were caused by numerous broken water mains resulting from the aerial bombing and artillery bombardment. The moral of some of the defenders was poor. They had been beaten and pushed back through Malaya to Singapore and now their backs were to the sea. The RAF had withdrawn to Sumatra and Java and the Royal Navy had lost its two main surface ships. The Japanese had achieved full control of the skies and the seas. The ammunition for the AA guns and the field guns was close to running out. Moreover the water supply was expected to extinguish within 24 hours. The victorious Japanese  army were at the gates to the city with its large civilian population. Churchill had ordered the Governor and Commander-in-Chief,  Sir Shenton Thomas, and by extension the army commander, Lt General Percival, to fight to the last man. However, Percival realised that there was no longer any useful military advantage to be gained by fighting on. In order to save lives, both civilian and combatants, the time had come to capitulate. He had sought permission from General Archibald Wavell to surrender when he felt the limits of military endurance had been reached. Wavell had encouraged Percival to fight on but on Sunday 15 February he sent a telegram which whilst still exhorting him to continue to resist it gave him the discretion to capitulate once the situation on the ground warranted it.

Ford Factory during the Japanese occupation

Lt General Arthur Percival 

H.E. The Governor Sir Shenton Thomas

Having received Wavell's assent giving Percival the discretion to cease fighting, Percival and his commanders and staff at the Battle Box made the painful decision to surrender the garrison. Percival explained that the choice was either to counter-attack Bukit Timah and recapture the water supplies and food depots - or to capitulate immediately. A successful counter-attack was not deemed feasible. It was clear that the battle had been lost - it boiled down as to whether to surrender now or surrender later.  Later that morning Brigadier Newbigging, a senior staff officer,  Major Cyril Wild as interpreter and Hugh Fraser,  the Colonial Secretary drove out along the Bukit Timah road to Japanese lines to negotiate terms. The Japanese gave the party a large Japanese flag with orders that the flag must be flown from the roof of the Cathay Building, the tallest building in Singapore. The flag should be displayed for at least ten minutes and would signify that Percival had agreed to meet Yamashita that evening at the Ford Factory. The British delegation then returned to Fort Canning with the Japanese demands. 

Percival and the surrender party, drove to the Japanese front line and were then conveyed to Yamashita's HQ at the Ford Factory. They were shown to a meeting room with a conference table. At around 6:45 pm Lt General Yamashita arrived with his staff officers. The Japanese general extended his hand to the British officers. Yamashita opened the negotiation by stating that the Imperial Japanese Army will consider nothing but unconditional surrender. Percival wanted more time to consider and suggested that they respond the following day. Yamashita in a raised voice insisted they accept unconditional surrender there and then and if not the firing would resume that evening. The Japanese General stated that they cannot accept any further British resistance. It must end now.  Percival asked Yamashita not to permit the Japanese Army to enter Singapore city until the following day. He would return to his HQ and give the orders to cease firing and disarm. Yamashita then told Percival that they would need to take into their custody the senior British officers and the Governor as a sign of good faith. Percival appeared shocked. Yamashita continued to berate Percival until at 7:40pm Percival assented to the Japanese demand for unconditional surrender.  He had little choice. He did not know that the Japanese army was smaller than his and that they were over-extended and at the end of their supply line. Had he fought on it would only have delayed the inevitable defeat which had effectively already occurred with the capture of most of Malaya and Singapore and Percival's army pushed back to a defensive ring around the city. It was agreed that the British forces would be notified of the capitulation and all firing would cease by 10 pm. The troops would disarm and a thousand would retain their arms to preserve law and order. Percival  asked only that the Japanese protect the British women, children and civilians caught up in the battle. Yamashita agreed and Percival signed the instrument of surrender.


Percival was imprisoned at Changi until August 1942 when with other senior officers he was moved to Japanese occupied Formosa an later to Manchuria. After release in 1945 he was invited to witness the Japanese surrender in the battleship USS Missouri. He was also invited to attend the surrender of Japanese forces in the Philippines led by Yamashita. Yamashita was tried and found guilty of war crimes. He was sentenced to death by hanging. Percival returned to UK and lived in Hertfordshire with his wife and two children.  He retired from the Army in 1946. He became Lord Lieutenant of the county in 1951. He was President of the Far East POW Association. He died aged seventy-eight in 1966.