VJ Day

17 August 2020

As we mark VJ Day on 15 August, this week we remember those Old Wellingtonians who served in the Far East during World War Two.

At least sixteen Wellingtonians died fighting in the Far East, excluding the many more killed in the Burma campaign. Most lost their lives during the Japanese invasion of Malaya, Singapore and Sumatra in early 1942, although one, William Robinson, survived the invasion and worked for another eighteen months with the British Army Special Force, organising resistance in occupied Malaya. He eventually died in the jungle from lack of essential supplies in September 1943.

Another notable story is that of Archibald Paris and Frederick Blackwood, who both died in 1942. Paris was over fifty and a Brigadier by that date; he had been awarded a Military Cross in the First World War. Blackwood, by contrast, was aged twenty-four, and was a Captain in the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. Both men escaped Singapore on a sailing ship in February 1942 and made it to Sumatra; they then tried to reach India on a steamer, but it was torpedoed. 135 survivors crowded onto an open boat which drifted for 26 days at sea, but by the end of that time only four were still alive. Paris and Blackwood were among those who died at sea. Poignantly, both their names appear in the list of those present at an OW Dinner held in Singapore on 22 June 1940, which appeared in the College Year Book.

Nine Wellingtonians are known to have died while prisoners of the Japanese, while two more, John Liston and Andrew Carruthers, died shortly after VJ Day from the effects of their long imprisonment. A further OW, Frank Vanrenen, twice escaped from Japanese captivity, but when recaptured for the third time was executed in September 1942.

Of these twelve, nine were serving in the Army and one in the RAF, while two were civilians. Hugh Fraser had joined the Malayan Civil Service in 1913, and in 1942 was serving as Secretary of the Straits Settlements (parts of Malaya) when the area was invaded by the Japanese. He was taken prisoner, interrogated under torture, and died from abuse and neglect in July 1944. In the words of the Governor of the Straits Settlements “he died for Malaya as truly as if he had laid down his life in battle.” Meanwhile Andrew Carruthers had been working for the BBC in Singapore; he carried on broadcasting until the last moment of the invasion and was one of the last six Europeans to leave the broadcasting station. He managed to escape Singapore but was taken prisoner when his ship was bombed. He spent over three years as a prisoner before dying of malaria and beri-beri in September 1945.

Of course, many more Wellingtonians who fought in the Far East survived to tell their tale. They include Sir John Peel, captured at Singapore, who survived harsh treatment whilst working on the infamous Siam-Burma railway. He almost lost his leg to jungle ulcers, but it was saved by the camp doctor who had managed to procure some penicillin powder on the black market. Others who returned from prison camps were Oliver North, whose knowledge of Japanese, together with a secret radio, were invaluable in maintaining morale among his fellow prisoners, and Professor Charles Boxer, a notable historian whose intimate knowledge of Japanese language and culture had led him to be the Army’s chief intelligence officer in Singapore.

Boxer was one of those who signed a remarkable document, a record of OWs in Japanese captivity during the War, kept by Brigadier Torquil Macleod (Orange 1901-1905). Starting in 1942, Macleod recorded the signatures of all OWs with whom he was imprisoned on Waterloo Day for the next four years. Whenever the prisoners were searched, he hid the document inside his breeches, finally bringing it home in 1945. Of the sixteen men who signed, all but one survived. H W M Stewart sadly died from the effects of exposure when a ship transporting prisoners was torpedoed.