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Halstead 21st Century Group

Tue 25th Aug 2020: 75 Years - Marking the End of War in the East and WW2

In 2015 and 2016, we recorded some oral histories with Halstead residents who had lived through WW2. Gwen Edwards was one of our interviewees. At the age of 95 she told us about some of the wartime experiences she and her husband went through, including his time in a Japanese prisoner of war camp. The 75th anniversary of VJ Day and the end of WW2 seems an appropriate time to share her memories. Sadly, Gwen died in January 2018.

Bill Edwards was born in one of the Arts & Craft movement, Jane Austen inspired houses on the Colchester Road, built by Samuel Augustine Courtauld in the 1920s. 

Young Gwen Francis had caught 19-year-old Bills’ eye while she and her pals were bathing in the River Colne. Aged just 16, Gwen was already working as a warper at Courtaulds’ Halstead factory. Bill was working at Ripper’s Joinery Works, in Sible Hedingham, and he was something of a catch.  It wasn’t long before romance blossomed. 

Ripper’s were involved in the war effort making pontoons, bomber parts, army huts, and anything else that could be made of wood. Bill worked in a reserved occupation, but as the war progressed, British forces needed more men, and in 1941, Bill was asked to attend for interview in Colchester.  He was assigned to the 18th Infantry Division in an anti-tank regiment. This event, and growing pressure for the young spinster Gwen to join the Land Army, persuaded the couple to wed.

A special marriage licence was needed because Gwen was under 21, but the request was not unusual during wartime, and a licence was quickly obtained. The Rev. Curling knew Bill well and kindly reduced the fees in lieu of buying the couple a wedding gift. Throughout their married life, Bill was to joke that he got Gwen ‘for a bargain price.’ The couple took their marriage vows at St Andrew’s Church, Halstead on Wednesday 8th January 1941. Bill was in Great Yarmouth to undergo his basic military training by the following Sunday.  Gwen moved back into her parents’ home while Bill was in Norfolk, and when he could, he took the long train journey home to be with his young bride. 

Bill’s unit, the 18th division, was part of the Territorial Army, and most of its units were connected to East Anglia. Great Yarmouth was an important port and very vulnerable to air attacks. It was hit especially hard in the early months of 1941. One common form of attack was known as ‘Tip n’ Run’ raids during which one or two enemy bombers would appear over the North Sea, drop their bombs on the town and escape before fighter planes could intercept them. The training and discipline were tough, and Bill recounted how the men were forced to stand to attention in silence and watch the aerial bombardment throughout a raid. 

After basic training, Bill joined 12,000 other men at the Scottish port of Greenock on the River Clyde. Many military convoys were assembled, controlled and despatched from and the 18th Division was bound for the Middle East because Churchill believed that Egypt and Libya were vulnerable to invasion by Axis troops.  Bill was on guard duty when he heard the ear-shattering crunch of two vessels colliding. He later learned that his own troopship was involved and all equipment was lost.   

His division’s passage to the Middle East now delayed, Bill was transferred to Liverpool to carry out firewatcher duties. Firewatchers were placed in strategic positions to spot bombs and liaise with fire services, and Bill found himself protecting a whisky warehouse from the roof of the Liver Building. 

By the end of July 1941, Japanese forces had occupied French Indo-China and seemed poised to strike at the British in Malaya. The War Office now shifted its priorities from the Middle East to the Pacific. 

Known as ‘Fortress Singapore’ the British Military Base on the island was thought to be impregnable. Allied Forces began to increase their stronghold during the latter part of 1941, and British Military Command were confident of their ability to hold out against any Japanese attack. In November, Instead of heading for the Middle East, Bill’s regiment was dispatched to India, then sailed from Bombay to Singapore. On 8th December 1941, just hours after the attack on Pearl Harbour, Singapore sustained heavy Japanese air attacks, but Bill and the 18th Infantry Division were still in transit. 

Bill was one of 2,200 troops aboard the RMS Empress of Asia, one of four vessels carrying men of the 18th British Division, transport and supplies to Singapore. On 5th February 1942, the convoy was dive-bombed by Japanese aircraft and the slower, coal-burning Empress of Asia, sustained direct hits about 5 miles from the southern tip of Singapore Island. Fire destroyed The Empress, her hull a white-hot mass on the ocean, sixteen men perished. Bill and 1800 other survivors were transferred to escort vessels and disembarked safely at Singapore Harbour although all equipment and supplies were lost.  

The account of Bill’s part in the Pacific War becomes a little vague at this point, but years later, he told Gwen how he had faced huge Japanese guns beneath the blazing sun on the Malayan shores. History tells us just how much the Allies invested in the Pacific War and at what cost.  

On 15th February 1942, just ten days after Bill’s arrival at Singapore Harbour, British forces surrendered to the Japanese, and more than 50,000 British military personnel were taken captive. Prime Minister Winston Churchill described the Fall of Singapore as “the worst disaster and largest capitulation in British history.”

After many worrying weeks without news, Gwen received a letter from the War Office informing her that her young husband was’ Missing in Action’. Months later, she received an official looking envelope. Inside, on a small piece of paper were a few typewritten phrases, some of which were crossed out, to convey the message that Bill was being held in No. 2 camp, Songkurai, in Siam (now Thailand). There was no heartfelt message, nothing personal from a husband to his wife, but at least she knew where he was.

Set in the jungles of Northern Siam about 13 kilometres south of Three Pagodas Pass on the Burmese border, Songkurai was one of many Japanese slave labour camps near the infamous Death Railway. All 258 miles of the track’s length were built in treacherous terrain by Allied Prisoners of War and conscripted indigenous labourers.  Nearly 29,000 British POWs were interned, camp conditions were appalling, and more than one in five of those working on the Thai-Burma Railway died.

Japan paid little heed to international agreements, and this affected loved ones at home as POWs’ ability to send and receive correspondence varied wildly. Across all camps, an average number of four to five cards were sent for the whole period of captivity. Not all communications reached their destinations and they were all pre-prepared and rigidly controlled. 

Gwen took some comfort that Bill was at least alive from the few intermittent typewritten messages that arrived, but she could not have known of the systematic barbarism the cruelty meted out to prisoners in Japanese POW camps.  But something held her back from celebrating on that fine day in May 1945 when Victory in Europe was declared. For Gwen and Bill, the war was not over.

Three months later, Bill and his fellow prisoners had already been forced to dig a trench as a grave, in anticipation of their own executions, when the nuclear bombardment of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the Soviet Union’s declaration of war against Japan, brought the end of the war in Asia.  Unaware of this event, the prisoners were still building a runway when they saw an aircraft descending and saw their prison wardens fleeing. The plane belonged to the USAAF and American airmen poured out. The Empire of Japan had fallen, WWII was over and Bill and his fellow POWs were free.

True liberation for POWs of Japanese camps was a long, slow process. A lengthy period of medical supervision was needed to deal with starvation, dysentery, lice, tropical diseases and injuries and the severe lack of medical and resources that all prisoners had suffered. Bill was first sent to Rangoon where he was filled with quinine to treat his malaria and then on to Colombo, capital of present day Sri Lanka, to continue his recuperation. 

The repatriation of Allied prisoners of war was lengthy. After medical treatment, British men spent nearly six weeks at sea, travelling via India. When Bill finally arrived home, Gwen was shocked by his condition. He was still emaciated, jaundiced, and he still had a malarial fever.  

After the war, Bill went back to his old job at Ripper’s where he stayed until his retirement at the age of 65.  He and Gwen had their own family and made a ‘normal’ life. But life could never be quite the same after enduring so much.  His health suffered, he never fully regained his appetite, and he suffered as many as 30 episodes of malaria during his lifetime. 

HiBill and Gwen enjoyed two years of contentment after his retirement until a fatal heart attack parted them in 1982. In Gwen’s words, “His heart just couldn’t take any more.” 

Victory over Japan Day is commemorated on 15 August, the date on which Emperor Hirohito announced Japan's surrender. The formal surrender agreement was signed on 2 September 1945.

Further reading

A fascinating account of the sinking of RMS Empress of Asia
The War in the East - Imperial War Museum
Far East Prisoner of War Community