75th Anniversary of VJ Day by Pia Chamberlain

75th Anniversary of VJ Day

15th August 2020

The men who fought in South East Asia during World War II have often been referred to as the Forgotten Army. On this 75th anniversary of VJ Day it seemed appropriate to remember the men of Kingswood and Lower Kingswood who gave their lives in that neglected theatre of war.

The general belief was that Singapore was impregnable. On the one hand its naval base would protect it from attack by sea while to the north hundreds of miles of dense jungle appeared to be impenetrable. In addition, almost 100,000 British, Canadian, Australian, Indian and a few Malayan troops were stationed in the colony. It took the Japanese forces two months to advance through the jungle down the Malayan Peninsula and by 8th February 1942 they had reached Singapore. The battle lasted for just eight days and ended on 15th February with the unconditional surrender of all Allied forces on the island. Churchill called the surrender of Singapore ‘the worst disaster’ and ‘largest capitulation in British history’. However, he eventually took responsibility for the lack of any permanent fortifications against a land attack from the north. The reason I had not asked about this matter, amid the thousands of questions I put, was that the possibility of Singapore having no landward defences no more entered my mind than that of a battleship being launched without a bottom’ he later wrote in ‘The Hinge of Fate’.

 

When the colony surrendered 9,000 wounded were among the prisoners of war, 3,400 of whom were at the Singapore General Hospital. The Japanese ordered it to be cleared and handed over within 24 hours, complete with all stocks of food, medicine and equipment. A mental institution which had been stripped of everything was provided in its place.

Conditions at the ‘General’ just before surrender were terrible, with the wounded lying side by side in beds, stretchers under beds, in cupboards, in corridors and even on the stairs. The dead were pulled out from among the living to be buried of night in quicklime in pits dug in the once immaculate hospital grounds.

After the war, it was decided that as individual identification of the dead would be impossible, the grave should be left undisturbed. A cross in memory of all those buried there was erected over it. 108 Commonwealth military casualties buried in the grave are commemorated on the Singapore Civil Hospital War Memorial at Kranji War Cemetery. Among the names is that of Captain Bryan Barrow.

Bryan Palliser Barrow was born in Marylebone, London, in 1918. He was the son of Hugh Palliser Barrow and Claire Sinclair Barrow (née Styles). His family owned a very successful tanning business, which had started in Bermondsey in the 19th century and had expanded considerably over the years following a boom in the leather trade. By the early 1930s, Bryan’s parents were living at Pooks Hill, in Woodland Way, Kingswood. Records show that Bryan spent some time in 1936 studying at the renowned Taft School, in Watertown, Connecticut. By 1939 the family had moved to Pike House, in The Glade.

Bryan Barrow had originally enlisted in the East Surrey Regiment, but was serving with the Northamptonshire Regiment in Singapore, where he died on 15th February 1942 at the age of 23.

Herbert Baker Phillips was the son of Herbert Phillips, an export merchant, and Annie Marizza Phillips (née Baker). He attended Malvern College from 1928 to 1931 and then qualified as a chartered accountant. The family lived at Arden, in Waterhouse Lane, Kingswood. He was a Captain with 8th Brigade H.Q., 113th Frontier Force Rifles in Singapore when he went missing, presumed killed in action on 11th February 1942. His name appears on the Kranji War Memorial, in northern Singapore, his body having never been recovered. He was aged 28.

Maurice George King was born on 30th April 1909. He was the third child of George and Elizabeth Charlotte King. In the 1911 Census, his father is described as a laundryman and the family lived at Hope Villa, Woodcote Side, Epsom. In August 1935 Maurice George King, who by that time was assistant manager in his father’s laundry, married Norah May Tapner, of Banstead. The 1939 Register shows the couple as residing at Branscombe, in Green Lane, Lower Kingswood. During the war, Maurice King served in the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve with the rank of Aircraftman 1st Class. He was taken prisoner by the Japanese and died in captivity on 29th November 1943 at the age of 34. His final resting place is unknown and his name appears on the Kranji Memorial.

The notorious Burma-Siam railway (also referred to as the Railway of Death), built by Commonwealth, Dutch and American prisoners of war, was a Japanese project in Burma. During its construction it is estimated that around 12,000-13,000 prisoners of war died and were buried along the railway. Probably an estimated 80,000 to 100,000 Asian labourers also died. Living and working conditions for the prisoners of war were atrocious. Starved of food and medicine and working with primitive tools, they became living skeletons falling ill with malnutrition, dysentery, cholera, dengue fever and beri-beri.

Alfred Robert Kitchener Underwood was born on 26th December 1914 in Tower Hamlets. He was the son of Robert and Alice Underwood. In 1938 he married Irene Eva Augusta Piper and according to the 1939 Register the couple lived with Irene’s parents in the staff accommodation of Avalon, in Woodland Way, where Alfred’s father-in-law was employed as a chauffeur and a gardener. Alfred’s occupation is given as bookbinding machinist.

During the war, Alfred was a gunner with 125 Anti-Tank Regiment, Royal Artillery, and was stationed in Singapore at the time of the colony’s fall. The following article appeared in the Surrey Mirror of 16th July 1943 under the heading ’Good News’:

Mr and Mrs Robert Underwood, of Shiloh, Josephine Avenue, Lower Kingswood, have received the good news that their youngest son, Gunner Alfred Underwood, R.A., is a prisoner-of war in the hands of the Japanese. They last heard of him over eighteen months ago, when he was reported missing following the capitulation of Singapore. On Monday they received a postcard stating that he was a prisoner and fit and well. Gunner Underwood is 27 and worked at the Windmill Press, Kingswood, before he joined the Forces voluntarily in April 1940.

Sadly, Alfred Underwood did not make it through the war. He died on 6th October 1943. The fact that he is buried at Chungkai War Cemetery, Kanchanaburi, Thailand, indicates that he was sent to work on the infamous Burma-Siam railway.

Robert William John Cornish was a signalman in the Royal Corps of Signals, attached to the Indian Signal Corps. He was born on 16th December 1919 and was the son of William Benjamin and Annie Elizabeth Cornish. According to the 1939 Register he was a bank clerk and lived in Bermondsey with his parents. In 1940 he married Lilian Elizabeth Dyer and lived in South East London. He died on 26th October 1944 in a Thai prisoner of war camp and was buried in Kanchanaburi War Cemetery. Both his parents were buried in the St. Andrew’s churchyard. William Benjamin Cornish died in 1961, Annie Elizabeth in 1969. The inscription on their grave reads: ‘Also our dear son Bob who died P.O.W. Thailand 24th October 1944 aged 24 years’.

The graves of those who died during the construction and maintenance of the Burma-Siam railway (except for the Americans whose remains were repatriated) were transferred from camp burial grounds and isolated sites along the railway into three cemeteries at Chungkai and Kanchanaburi in Thailand and Thanbyuzayat in Myanmar. Kanchanaburi War Cemetery is only a short distance from the site of the former ‘Kanburi’, the prisoner of war base camp through which most of the prisoners passed on their way to other camps.

Harry Luscombe was born in 1919. He was the elder son of Henry Luscombe and Gertrude Mary Luscombe (née Medwell). His father owned Crossways Farm, in Merstham, and was well known in local farming and hunting circles. He died in 1931 at the age of 45 and Harry’s widowed mother moved to Meadows, in Margery Lane, Lower Kingswood. During the war, Harry enlisted in the Hampshire Regiment, which subsequently was attached to 152nd Indian Parachute Battalion. On 28th April 1944 the Surrey Mirror reported that Captain Harry Luscombe, attached to the Indian Parachute Battalion, was missing in action in Burma. Then on 14th September the same paper announced that Captain Harry Luscombe, previously reported missing on March 20th, 1944, in Burma was now known to have been killed on that day.

The 152nd Indian Parachute Battalion was formed in Delhi in October 1941 and was part of the newly created 50th Indian Parachute Brigade. Between 19th and 24th March 1944 it took part in the epic defensive battle of Sangshak, when the 50th (Indian) Parachute Brigade played a vital part in holding up the advance of two Japanese Divisions for six days in appalling conditions, inflicting heavy casualties on the enemy while suffering severe losses in its own ranks as well.

The Battle of Sangshak was fought in Manipur in the forested and mountainous region between India and Burma. Originally, the 50th Brigade had been deployed over a large area when on 19th March, the Japanese overran an isolated company (C Company) of the 152nd Indian Parachute Battalion stationed on a hill known as Point 7378. The company was reduced to 20 men.

It became clear that if the brigade remained strung out, it faced annihilation. Orders were received for the forces to concentrate. It would appear that Harry Luscombe was killed on 20th March, while the brigade was moving towards a battle position to the east of the village of Sangshak, near an American missionary church. The Japanese attacked from the north in the night of 22nd March. A bloody battle ensued in which the Japanese were repeatedly repulsed until the exhausted 50th Brigade was finally ordered to withdraw. This was achieved successfully under the cover of darkness on 26th March.

152 Indian Para had paid a heavy price, losing 80% of its strength in the battle. Of its 27 British officers only 2 escaped unharmed, 14 were killed and 11 wounded. On the whole, however, the Japanese suffered far greater losses to such an extent that the impetus of their two Division thrust was slowed down, enabling Imphal and Kohima to be reinforced. In the ensuing Battle of Kohima, the Japanese failed to capture the entire ridge and were forced to retreat.

Pia Chamberlain

 

The Kohima Epitaph

When You Go Home, Tell Them Of Us And Say
For Your Tomorrow, We Gave Our Today

 

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