FROM CARNFORTH TO SINGAPORE, VIA DUNKIRK: A POSTMAN'S JOURNEY

Keith Jenkinson

8th October 2002.

My father, Tom Jenkinson, was born at Lancaster on the 22nd December 1908. He spent the early part of his life at 10, Ramsden Street, Carnforth. In this small terrace house he lived with his parents, John and Ada, his two brothers, John and Leonard and four sisters, Peggy, Nora, and the twins Marjorie and Bessie. Shortly before his nineteenth birthday he did what many other young men from working class families were to do in the coming years, namely to seek new opportunities in the armed services. On the 17th November 1927, he enlisted at Lancaster, in the Royal Artillery. Ten years later, he would accompany his brother-in-law, Leslie Wilson, when he also enlisted, but this time in the Royal Army Service Corps, because my father advised him that the next war, when it came, would be a war of movement. For gaining another recruit to the army he received "the King's shilling".

After three years, he left the army and was transferred to the Army Reserve, which was to be significant nine years later, when war was declared. In 1935 he became a postal worker at the GPO, delivering mail by motor cycle in Bolton-le-Sands and Caton before moving to the Post Office in Carnforth. By now he was engaged to Mary Wilson, whom he had known for some years. Indeed, both sets of parents were friends and had lived next door to each other for a time early in their married life. Mary was a machinist at Morphy's dressmaking factory in Oxford Street. She would return to work there for many more years after the war, which was to leave her a widow. They were married on the 12th September 1936 and set up home at 9, Highfield Terrace. They were to have only three years of normal married life together before the German invasion of Poland precipitated the beginning of hostilities in a new world war.

My father received his call-up papers on 1st September 1939, two days before the declaration of war with Germany, and reported to his regiment's headquarters in Aldershot. He was accompanied by another Carnforth man, Alec Mashiter. Because they were both on the Army Reserve list, they were the first Carnforth men to be called up. Within ten days he was in France with his unit, 3 Battery 6th Heavy Anti-Aircraft Regiment, as part of the British Expeditionary Force, under the command of General Viscount Keith Gort.

During the so-called 'Phoney War' period, before the German offensive, he and some other men were billeted at a farm in the Pas de Calais region of Northern France. He obviously got on very well with the Belval family because, when he was granted compassionate leave to visit my mother after my birth on 29th February 1940, they gave him a bottle of champagne to take with him. After the war, they wrote several times, first to him, asking for news, and then to my mother, after she had written to tell them he had been killed. I quote from one in which they express their sadness at hearing of his death:

"We did love him so, and quite realise all your sorrow.
He has been such a dear friend to us. He was so brave too.
One night we heard a noise a few hundred metres away from the farm and
thought it was German parachutists. Tom and M. Belval went to investigate, Tom was running in front ready to fight."

Years later, in 1988, my son Patrick, was spending six months on an undergraduate study placement near Lille, in Northern France. I had already told him about his grandfather's friendship with the Belval family and he decided to renew contact with them. Although Monsieur and Madame Belval were no longer alive, their son Edmond still farmed the same property in the Pas de Calais. Because Patrick knew the story of the bottle of champagne, he took one with him and so returned the compliment that they had paid us in 1940. Edmond Belval, who had been fourteen in 1940, told him stories about my father and his comrades. Patrick and Edmond are pictured together below.

He even showed Patrick a barn which, amazingly, still contained the dart board my father and his mates had used. Edmond also recounted how the soldiers used to send him for beer to the nearest bar. Patrick was very moved by this experience. It is touching to think of how, in spite of the language barrier it was possible for an ordinary bunch of soldiers to get on so well with local people. I also think that it conjures up a fascinating picture of what occupying armies had done since time immemorial, in similar circumstances.

This deceptively peaceful interlude was eventually shattered by the German invasion of Holland and Belgium, which began on the 10th May, 1940. Eventually, my father became caught up in the general retreat, in face of the German onslaught, and was lucky to be one of the men who were picked up from the sea off Dunkirk. My mother told me, years later, that he had said he could never go through such an ordeal again. After ten days' leave he returned to duty and, being a gunner, he was moved with his regiment around the country to take part in air defence actions at places like Coventry, Liverpool and Manchester. Eventually, on the 5th or 6th November 1941, he sent my mother a telegram from Manchester to say that he was about to embark for service overseas. He had a few hours to spare and arranged to see my mother and me (by then about 20 months old) at his brother's house in Preston. This was to be the last time my mother saw him.

He sailed on the 11th November from Liverpool and arrived at Durban on or around the 19th December, according to the date on a letter-card sent from there. In an earlier letter he asks my mother to let him have her brother Leslie's address in the hope that he might meet up with him. Since he knew that by this time Leslie was in North Africa, it is obvious that he thought he was also going there. It is clear by reference to several reliable sources*, that the original destination planned for this troop shipment was the Middle East. The surprise attack by Japan on Malaya, Thailand, Pearl Harbour and Hong Kong on the 8th December and the failure to stem the Japanese advance through Malaya, meant that they would, instead, be sent as reinforcements to Singapore. The following is an extract from a cable sent by Churchill to General Wavell, (about to become Allied Supreme Commander South-east Asia), and dated 12th December:

"You must now look east. Burma is placed under your command. You
must resist the Japanese advance towards Burma and India and try to
cut their communications down the Malay peninsula. We are diverting
18th Division now rounding [the] Cape, to Bombay, together with four
fighter squadrons of RAF, now en route for the Caucasus, Caspian
theatre. We are also sending you a special hamper of anti-aircraft and
anti-tank guns, some of which are already en route..."
(General S.W. Kirby, 1957, p.254)

It would be interesting to know what the troops themselves would have made of the idea that they were on their way to a picnic, as Churchill's hearty metaphor implies.

During his long sea journey my father wrote six letters to my mother, which she kept to the end of her life, before passing them on to me. In them he is clearly making a big effort to sound cheerful. However, here and there this mood of forced optimism fails him and there is a hint that he fears the worst. For example, on 6th December he writes:

"It's a month today since I last saw you for those few hours at Preston darling,
it seems a long time but I'll always remember you and baby as I saw you then."

On the 9th ashore at Durban, he makes a reference to me:

"I think of him too every day and hope that he will always remember
his daddy."

In his final letter, dated 28th December and written after embarking from Durban, he refers to a comrade from Millhead, Carnforth:

"I was on duty Christmas night on ship's practice so I didn't have much of a time although Benny [Gabbert] and I had a few drinks in the afternoon and were talking about Carnforth most of the time as we usually do. He's in my section now, and we are often talking about the people at home and wondering what they are doing."

According to Peter Elphick (P. Elphick, 1995, p.541), my father was with the second detachment of reinforcements to be sent to Singapore. They left Durban on 24th December 1941, and reached their new destination on 13th January. The artillery units were accompanying 53rd Infantry Brigade, a component of the 18th Division referred to in Churchill's cable. As Frank Owen rather ominously puts it:

"The artillery consisted of the 6th Heavy and 35th Light British Anti-Aircraft
Regiments and the 85th British Anti-Aircraft Regiment. They arrived without
their guns." (Owen, p.117).

By the end of January, Malaya had been lost. At 7 am on the 31st the last British and Commonwealth troops completed their withdrawal across the causeway onto the island of Singapore, to the tunes of the last two pipers of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, according to Frank Owen (op. cit. p.154). The fighting on Singapore island began with the Japanese landings at about ten thirty on the night of 8th February and ended one week later with the British surrender. At the time of writing this account, I am still trying to find out exactly where 3 Battery, 6th H.A.A. Regiment was positioned during the desperate fighting that took place. Nor do I know for certain exactly where and how my father died. It was some time before my mother received any news at all. When the first grim news did arrive, she was stunned to be told that he was classified as "Missing in Malaya", since she too had believed he was in the Middle East. Later she was informed that he was "Missing, presumed killed in action". It was not until New Year's Eve 1945, that final confirmation (see facsimile of the official letter below) was received that he had died on or around the 14th February 1942. Not surprisingly, this unhappy coincidence was to cast a long and dark shadow over the idea of New Year's Eve celebrations for years to come.

For a time my mother retained some hope that her husband might still return home. This was at least partly because it took some time for all the former Far East prisoners of war to return and she still hoped that he too might have been taken prisoner. One of those who did return, his health badly affected by his time in a Japanese prison camp, was my father's friend, Benny Gabbert. Eventually, in 1946 or 1947, she received a letter from a Sergeant Tim Riley. He had recently been released from hospital in Sheffield after treatment for ailments caused by three and a half years as a prisoner of the Japanese. Before the war, he had been a policeman, so he was a big man; when he was released from prison he weighed seven stones. He wanted to tell my mother about my father, so she invited him to Carnforth. His story was a painful one and I was not told it until much later. In fact, he had come to tell her that there was no hope of my father returning, since he had seen his body and those of the seven men under his command. They had all been bayoneted to death after they had been taken prisoner, after one of them had tried to escape. Sergeant Riley had had some of my father's possessions, which he had intended to give to my mother but, unfortunately, the ship on which he was being transported as a prisoner of war had been bombed – ironically, by American aircraft – and they had been lost, along with his own possessions.

My father's first official burial was in a collective grave (photograph on the left below) along with the other seven men in Kranji War Cemetery in Singapore. They were not reinterred in individual graves until 1951, just as I was starting my secondary education. Even then the temporary wooden memorial shown in the picture, marked the grave. It was not until 1954, twelve years after he was killed, that the permanent headstone pictured on the right was erected.

After the war, Dorothy Bleasdale, a young woman who also lived on Highfield Terrace, happened to marry Captain (later, Major) Jim McWade, RA, an officer in my father's Battery. When he was in Carnforth, visiting his parents-in-law, he often visited my mother and me and was very kind to us. It was a great comfort to us to have this contact and hear him speak so warmly about my father. He tried to have him awarded a "Mentioned In Dispatches" for what he had done in manning a gun post in those few days of fighting between the 8th and 14th February. Unfortunately, the War Office would not uphold the recommendation because Captain McWade could not produce the necessary papers, which had also been lost, along with so much else in the chaotic aftermath of the defeat. However, he did manage to have the inscription on his grave amended to read: L/Bdr., not Gnr. I quote from Captain McWade's letter to the War Office of 13th September 1951:

"My reason for pointing this out is that L/Bdr Jenkinson was killed because
he was carrying out his duty as an NCO, and if necessary I can produce a
statement on this."

Writing this now, at the age of 62, it is still difficult to describe, let alone explain, my feelings about my father and his death at such an early age in circumstances that combine futility and brutality in almost equal measure. Initially, the fact that I was too young to remember him protected me from the full impact of his loss. I also think now that even the sympathy that was showered upon me as a child actually had the effect of making me avoid the subject matter rather than confront it. Not so for my mother, for whom the burden of early widowhood was much more severe. Reflecting now upon her situation, it occurs to me that it must have been even worse to face widowhood after the Second World War than it was after the First, since a significantly higher proportion of servicemen returned in 1945 than in 1918. Although she did remarry in 1949 (to become a widow again in 1968), she told me, shortly before she died, that she thought about my father every day of her life. Indeed, it was her own death on the 6th January 2000, that eventually forced me to confront my father's death again. On that day, with perfect lucidity and astonishing accuracy of detail, she recalled two episodes already described in this account: their last, all too brief meeting in November 1941, and the visit of Sergeant Riley. That was when I decided it was time to make a first visit to Singapore.

The Kranji War Cemetery is laid out on the north facing slope of a low hill, facing the direction from which the main Japanese attack came. My father's grave is in the last row at the top of the hill on the right. I assume this means that these were amongst the latest ones to be dug: more than nine years after the men were killed. It was inevitably a profound experience to stand so close to the remains of someone who had seen me for the last time almost sixty years previously. But what really hit me hardest was the realisation that all the eight men who had been killed together were there before my eyes, laid out in adjacent graves. (See the illustration )

I had known their names since childhood, when we received the official photograph of the collective grave in which they had all been first buried: Bareham, Dew, Downend, Hunter, Jenkinson, Ledger, McCluskey and Nutty. As I stood there reading each individual headstone, the awful memory of Tim Riley's story of how they had died, came flooding back to me.

There are 4,465 burials in Kranji Cemetery, but more striking still is the stark, twelve panel concrete monument at the summit that records the names of 24,346 soldiers and airmen who died but have no known grave. It seemed to me particularly shocking, as a silent comment on the inadequate provision for and handling of the Malaya/Singapore campaign, that five of these panels contained the names of Royal Artillery dead. These, after all, were men who, if they were going to die, might have expected to die manning their guns.

My visit to Singapore inspired me to return to a subject that I had neglected for too many years. My sense of the loss of my father is greater now than at any time I can remember. In writing this account I have been able to read for the first time the letters that he wrote to my mother. I have put together a collection of photographs, official documents, and a few, precious artefacts. A copy of one treasured photograph is shown below; My Mother and Dad and me. The illustrations of the standard scroll given to the relative of those who did not return from the Second World War, a special Parchment from the Town of Carnforth and a photograph of the re-dedication of the Carnforth War Memorial with my Mother near the Memorial on the right are shown elsewhere in this Book of Honour.

Above all, I have made a start at researching the scandalous debacle that was the defence of Singapore. It is terrible to have lost a father in war; it is much worse that he should have been killed in the campaign that, to this day, remains the least discussed of the war, except, that is, by the survivors of the prison camps.

I miss the father that I never knew. I am appalled by the nature of his death and do not forgive those who killed him. I honour him and his comrades for being ordinary soldiers who did the best they could in impossible conditions. Above all, I am still angry, more than sixty years on, at the abject failure, by successive governments to make adequate provision, both in the long term, and after Pearl Harbour, for the defence of Malaya and Singapore. The whole question of the failure of the military campaign itself is too complex to be able to do it justice here. However, when all allowances have been made and all possible consideration is given to the difficult circumstances in which the operations were conducted, it is still only too easy to imagine the feelings of ordinary soldiers who, on the 15th February 1942, saw their leaders agree to the surrender of 120,000 men to a Japanese force of 35,000. This is particularly so since it is now known (see for example Elphick, op. cit.) that the Japanese were themselves surprised at the surrender, and were within 24 hours of exhausting their own supplies.

It was my good fortune to meet a survivor of the prison camps during my visit to Singapore. Joseph Cusselle is an ex-gunner, now resident at the Royal Chelsea Hospital, and he told me that he, and the thousands of other British soldiers were bewildered by the surrender: they simply did not understand what was happening to them or why. He and others like him were to spend the first days of their captivity burying the thousands of Chinese civilians whose bloated corpses were being washed up on the shore after they had been taken out to sea and slaughtered by the Japanese. It is sad that so many men like Joe Cusselle still have to feel that they were let down. Joe, Benny Gabbert, Tim Riley and many thousands more like them paid a heavy price in the aftermath of what still stands as the heaviest defeat ever suffered by British arms.

My attempts to learn more about what happened to my father in the war have brought me into close contact with the Far East Prisoners Of War (FEPOW). This organisation exists to keep alive the memory of what happened and, I feel, enables Far East veterans to express their own identity and sense of pride in their very survival. Earlier this summer my wife and I joined a related organisation, the Children and Families of Far East Prisoners of War (COFEPOW), which exists to ensure that the memory survives beyond the generation of the veterans themselves. On the 15th August this summer – the anniversary of the Japanese surrender – my wife, Mary, Patrick and I were present at a poignant ceremony at the National Memorial Arboretum at Alrewas, near Lichfield. About two thousand former prisoners of war and their families had gathered for a service to dedicate a section of the Burma Railway, which had been transported to England for this purpose. To witness the act by which former prisoners, now in their eighties, appropriated this most hated symbol of their oppression and turned it into something positive, was moving beyond words. The Arboretum itself is a 150 acre site designed as a living tribute to the wartime generations of the twentieth century. It is made up of commemorative plots, many of which are dedicated to particular regiments, in which trees and plaques can be placed with individual or group dedications. I intend to have one placed for my father in the Royal Artillery plot.

In the Arboretum book shop a veteran pointed out to me a new book. It is called Moon Over Malaya and tells the story of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders and a group of Royal Marines – survivors from the sinking of the Prince of Wales and Repulse on the 10th December 1942. This is not just another book of war memoirs: it has been written, sixty years on for a particular reason. I quote from the cover:

"...Their story is told for the first time and is conclusive proof that
some of our soldiers did fight the enemy, and in fact, held them
back for long enough to enable many to escape from Singapore
to fight another day. The accusation that our soldiers in Malaya
did not fight is put in its proper context for the first time."

In the Introduction the authors also refer to veterans speaking for the first time and of now wanting to understand what had happened all those years ago. I conclude by suggesting that, far from the passage of time making past events irrelevant to the present, it seems that we actually need time to pass before we can comprehend the full enormity of those events.

My father was posthumously awarded the following campaign medals:

1939 – 45 Star

Pacific Star

War Medal 1939 – 45

My Father, bottom right, with some of his mates.

References:

Elphick, Peter, Singapore: the pregnable fortress, Hodder & Stoughton, 1995.

Kirby, Major-General S.W., The War Against Japan, Vol 1., The loss of Singapore, HMSO, 1957.

Moffatt, Jonathan & McCormick, Audrey Holmes, Moon Over Malaya, Tempus, 2002.

Owen, Frank, The Fall Of Singapore, Michael Joseph, 1960, republished as Penguin Classic, 2000.

Essays Contents