Sunday 9 July 2023

Lt Ralph Shrigley, HKVDC, who took his own life while under interrogation and torture

Ralph James Shrigley was born in Scotland in 1898. During the First World War, he served with the 2nd Bn Royal Scots Fusiliers. He must have been wounded in action because his army service records indicate "GSW" or gun shot wound (to abdomen). He was discharged from the army in January 1919 a couple of months after the war ended. I believe he enlisted in 1917. As a matter of interest, Winston Churchill also served with the Royal Scots Fusiliers.

Ralph Shrigley (sourced from Facebook Battle of HK Page)

At the age of thirty, Ralph married Janette Agnes Whyte Howard (nee Brown) in Glasgow in 1928. Janette was known as "Nessie".  Her first name is variously spelt in documents as Jeanette or Janette. 

In October 1932, the couple are shown on the ship's manifest as passengers on the P&O liner Strathnaver. Their country of intended future residence was given as India and they disembarked at Bombay. I assume they worked in India for some years and at some point relocated to Hong Kong. Ralph was employed by Reiss Bradley. In 1936 Reiss Massey acquired Bradley & Co. These were two long established British trading companies focused on the UK-China trade. It was a well known corporation before the war. After the war they were acquired by Hutchison. 

Ralph and Janette were in Hong Kong when the Japanese invaded the territory when the Pacific War began in December 1941. Compulsory service was introduced in 1939 and Ralph Shrigley joined the Hong Kong Volunteer Defence Corps (HKVDC). Perhaps in view of his previous war service he was commissioned and held the rank of Lieutenant at the outbreak of war. Assuming Janette was in Hong Kong in June 1940 she forewent the compulsory evacuation of British women and children. Nurses and government employees were amongst those that were exempted. Janette had enrolled as a nurse in the Auxiliary Nursing Service (ANS) who during war time were assigned to civilian hospitals rather than military hospitals. 

After the Christmas Day surrender, Ralph Shrigley was interned at Shamshuipo (SSP) POW camp and Janette was interned at Stanley Civilian Internment Camp. Ralph was later transferred to Argyle Street Camp in April 1942 when it became designated as an officers camp. Later he was moved back to SSP Camp.  Ralph and Janette were not to see each other again because Ralph took his own life while under interrogation by torture at Victoria Gaol in June 1944. 

Information on Ralph Shrigley is limited, for example what was his role with the HKVDC and what unit of the corps did he belong to. I suspect he served in Corps HQ in Garden Road. He is credited with burying the regimental colours of the HKVDC at the time of the surrender somewhere between  Corps HQ and HQ China Command (the Battle Box). These were not retrieved after the war as only Ralph Shrigley knew the exact whereabouts. What was left of them was reportedly discovered during construction of the US Consulate in the late 1950s. The colours had disintegrated and only the flag poles survived.

Some accounts suggest the Japanese tortured him to force him to reveal the location of the colours. Perhaps that is right but I think this is unlikely. The Japanese most probably had no idea that the Volunteer's colours had been buried. Furthermore in 1944 when Shrigley was killed, they probably had little interest in retrieving them. They had beaten the British, and occupied the territory and they were more likely to be interested in what he knew of escape plans or communication with outside agents. BQMS Charles Barman, RA, wrote in Resist to the End (2009) that 'Colonel Mitchell, HKVDC, and Lt Shrigley were taken out of SSP camp by the Japanese authorities on 20 June 1944.  Barman writes that they were returned in the evening.  He added that those that returned from interrogation came back in a very poor physical state, and that some of those taken out of camp did not return at all. 

At war crimes trials held after the war, in January 1947, Lai Chung-yiu gave testimony (1) to the court concerning the interrogation, torture and subsequent suicide of Lt Shrigley. Lai had been charged with espionage and was being held at Victoria Gaol. Lai had been forced to act as an interpreter translating  from English to Chinese during the interrogation. The Formosan interpreter presumably translated from Chinese to Japanese. Lai witnessed the interrogation of Lt Shrigley on two separate occasions. He also witnessed his death on 28 June 1944. The principal interrogator was a Japanese gendarme by the name of Ushigai. On the first occasion (20 June 1944) Lt Shrigley was subjected to the water torture and beatings with a leather strap. This went on all afternoon. Lai testified that he saw Shrigley a second time about a week later (28 June 1944).


Q. I want you to tell me what happened on this (second) occasion?

A. When the gendarme asked him (Lt Shrigley) questions he still refused to answer - then he was given the water torture again.

Q. How long did it last, this water torture?

A. That day, the whole morning.

Q. What was Shrigley's condition at the end of the interrogation?

A. Very weak

Q. Did you have any conversation with him ?

A. On the way to his cell

Q. What did he say?

A. He said he could not bear such torture, he would die.

Q. Did you see Shrigley again?

A. After that time, no, until he committed suicide and jumped down from the third floor of his cell (block).

Q. Tell me what you can of his suicide..........?

A. After this last interrogation he walked back to his cell, his condition was very poor, he could not walk very well.

Lai was asked when he committed suicide and replied 'on a Sunday morning'. However 28 June is reported as the date of death but that was a Wednesday. Lai mentioned that he committed suicide the morning after the last torture session. 

Q. Tell me what you know about that suicide the next morning.

A. That morning about 10 o'clock I heard the sound of a dull thud ......I then peeped out from my cell and I saw a man lying on the floor. The Formosan interpreter (who had assisted Ushigai in administering the water torture) came to my cell and opened my door and asked me to come out, then he told me to take a last statement from the deceased (Shrigley) but at that time Shrigley was unconscious. They then shifted his body to the open yard and asked Dr Ramler to save his life.

Doctor Siegfried Ramler was an un-interned third national who was later arrested by the Japanese and held at Victoria Gaol which was alongside the Central Police Station. He provided medical attention to both prisoners and gendarmes. He gave evidence at war crimes trials about the use of torture at Victoria Gaol. He stayed in Hong Kong after the war and became a popular and successful practitioner. Lai stated that Dr Ramler gave Lt Shrigley an injection but it was already too late. A Japanese doctor arrived later and officially declared Lt Shrigley to be dead. The Gendarmerie must have felt cheated - no longer able to extract information under torture. Lai states in his testimony that one of the gendarmes kicked the motionless body and said in Japanese bakayaro, a disparaging insult.

POW records (2) indicate he was buried at the POW cemetery alongside Argyle Street POW Camp. His remains were exhumed after the war and reburied at Stanley Military Cemetery in May 1947. 

It is not clear when Janette Shrigley, interned at Stanley Camp, first heard of her husband's death. She was billeted in Block 13, known as the Indian Quarters. The block still remains and is still used to house the families of prison officers (now called Correctional Services Staff). 

The Indian Quarters - Blocks 12- 18 (just after the war)

She shared a room (Room 87) with Alice Campbell, Clementine Cock and Dorothy Piercy. They were each married to members of the HKVDC who were held  in the military POW camps. The three other wives were more fortunate in that their husbands survived the battle and the subsequent incarceration. After the Japanese capitulation, Janet was repatriated on the Empress of Australia and arrived at Liverpool in October 1945. She passed away in Scotland in July 1977 aged 79. 

I went down to Stanley Military Cemetery one summer afternoon to take a photo of his grave and to remember him and what he endured. He suffered so much from the torture and beating that he would rather die than live. He cheated his interrogators and as far as we know he did not talk. Whatever secrets they were after - he took to his untimely grave. His grave lies well tended in the peaceful cemetery so well maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Janette's message inscribed on the memorial stone bears the poignant message:

In remembrance

of my dear husband

so sadly missed


(1)    UK National Archives File No WO 235/999

(2)    Commonwealth War Graves Commission


  1. A sad but interesting true story from Wartime Hong Kong.Another well researched story of the people of Hong Kong who endured so much.

  2. A sad story but a good read by Philip Cracknell who writes so beautifully and informatively

  3. A sad ending for a brave soldier. There must have been something he knew. He died in a forgotten incident but not unlike so many who fall in places unseen or unremembered.