- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Goronwy ap Griffith, Dafydd ap Goronwy Griffith, Minnie Griffith
- Location of story:
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 18 August 2005
My dad, from Talwrn, near Llangefni, Anglesey, went out to Uganda in 1928 as an agricultural research chemist with the Colonial Service. My mother, from Buckley, near Flint, went out later to be married. I was born in Kampala, Uganda, in 1934. While on home leave in early in 1939 my father was seconded for a tour in Kuala Lumpur. I started school in Llandrillo yn Rhos as war was declared. We were issued with gas masks; some lucky children got Micky Mouse ones — but mine was a bog-standard one in a little cardboard box!
My father decided we would be safer with him out in Malaya, so in February 1940, when I was six years old, my mother and I left Southampton on an Imperial Airways flying boat. We were bound for the Far-East. She’d got her air tickets in a sealed envelope. We’d had to fly in the "phoney war" — that period immediately after September 1939 when there was a state of war, but little action with Britain. We had to fly "special dispensation", which meant at a 1000 feet with all the lights on, showing that we were a civil aircraft. I can remember flying through the Alps — not over them, but through them! — I can still remember looking out of the windows at the mountains either side.
Then we landed in Marseilles — that was the first night. I had this memory I couldn’t put any sense to. I can remember landing on a lake and people shouting and spitting at us. We weren’t allowed off the flying boat. I was puzzled and didn’t know why — remember I’m only six-and-a-half by now. Not until Mum told me many years later that it was 1940 and we’d landed in Rome, Italy, and these people — we were at war with them — were hurling abuse at British airplanes. Then we flew over to the next stop which was Corfu. We stayed in first-class hotels at each stop-over!
The whole trip took nine days, and went like this: Marseilles — refuel in Rome — Corfu — then over to Cairo — refuel on the sea of Galilee — Bagdad — Bombay — Calcutta — Rangoon (and engine trouble) — and finally to Malaya (now Malaysia). We landed in Panang and went to Kuala Lumpur where Dad was posted.
For the next 18 months life was peaceful I went to boarding school in the cool of the Cameron Highlands at Tanglin. I remember a visit from my parents when we had a picnic and boiled eggs in a hot-spring. Then Pearl Harbour and the invasion of Malaya. My father was called up into the Federated Malay States (FMS) Volunteer Reserve and became a bombardier-signaller.
The Japanese were getting nearer and nearer over the Christmas of 1941, fighting down the peninsula, having landed in the north. My Dad was fighting them and Mum and I were in Kuala Lumpur. I remember an air-raid, and we were all shoved into a slit trench they’d dug in the Padang, where they used to play cricket. I do have a memory of hearing explosions and seeing the soil dribble down the sides of the trench.
Sometime in January 1941 we went down to Singapore. Mum packed just two suitcases — one each, and not very big ones. Teddy came too — the teddy-bear I took with me everywhere, which I still have to this day (70 years old, too!). I insisted that we pack Dad’s brand new electric razor. Later, I was able to give it to him when he came back from being a prisoner-of-war. We took the train, which was driven by a stoker who had survived the terrible torpedoing of the battleships Repulse and Prince of Wales (both sunk in 1941). There were lots of refugees, and few ships to take us out of Malay.
Fleeing south from Kuala Lumpur on the train we stayed in a hotel in Jahore Baru. I have two memories of our wait here. One was of a sentry who sang Roll Out the Barrel quietly to himself. Another was watching Japanese air-raid on Singapore. During a daylight air-raid we saw anti-aircraft shells exploding around the bombers but never hitting them. The American Brewster Buffalo, a high-altitude fighter plane — a funny looking thing and the only type the Allies had — couldn’t keep up with the bombers. We watched both night-time and day-time air raids.
Eventually we were given a ship and moved onto Singapore Island, staying in the Raffles Hotel. For some reason, I don’t know why, my father was in Singapore. Kuala Lumpur had fallen by now. So he and mum got together for that last night, which was nice for them. I was just over seven-and-a-half then. I was left in the hotel room, looked after by hotel staff. In the morning I was able to say cheerio to him, before he left again to fight the invading Japanese. Looking back I imagine that my parent’s hearts were breaking, saying goodbye in that car-park.
That morning we went down to the docks to find our ship. It was the Narkunda, a P&O steamer I think, and years later, in Aberystwyth, I met the father of the captain of the Narkunda. I think she was sunk later on in the war.
While we were waiting there was an air-raid. We went into a shed to shelter. I do remember looking out over the harbour and seeing the bomb splashes, saying to Mum, "I hope they don’t hit our ship!"
Something that only came to me vary late in life was my deep appreciation of the way my mother, and all the other women, coped with the mayhem around them, without panic, the leaving of their husbands, and all the children. I told my mother much later that I felt absolutely no fear at all, so calm and strong was she and her friends. For us kids it was like a Sunday outing, apart from a few bangs and noises.
Having got on board and away we sailed due south through the Indonesian Islands, bound for Australia (we had no choice — we went where ever a ship would go). It was one of the last ships out of Singapore before it fell.
I can remember being woken up my an explosion early one morning, a few days out: it was the destruction of a floating mine. We stopped and turned around, because a ship in front of us had been torpedoed. That ship, which sunk, was later used in "Tenko", a BBC drama about women survivors, who got ashore after the sinking. The Narkunda then had to go back North again, past Singapore, and down the other side of all the islands.
We got to Perth round at about the end of January, welcomed and cared for by the West Australians. I think it was round about February 14th that Singapore actually fell. We spent the rest of the war years in Perth. It was a happy time for kids, but hard for the small community of refugee wives, sharing the worries for loved ones, and the joy of the few messages which got through. I think mum got three postcards in as many years. They arranged shore visits for Royal Navy sailors — I remember HMS Maidstone and HMS Adamant and the submarine Telemachus.
VE day was an absolute non-event in Perth, because our Eastern War was still going. "Hooray!", the Australians said, "now let’s get on with the next bit".
Mum was desperate to get home to Britain, and by the middle of June she had got a passage back aboard the Esperence Bay — a very small ship — for Teddy, her and me. I was 11 in 1945. Unescorted, we went full-pelt across the Indian Ocean to Aden and through Suez and back to Southampton. I spent my time helping chip rust off the after-gundeck with my new pals Johnny and Blackie, merchant seamen from Cardiff.
Esperence Bay was, incidentally, the sister ship of the Jarvis Bay, the famous merchant vessel which challenged a mighty German cruiser in order to divert its firepower from striking a tanker — the San Demitrio of London (later the title of a film) — that the Jarvis Bay was escorting. It was destroyed in the engagement. Having sailed aboard the Esperence Bay I could understand the size of the Jarvis Bay when I later heard about that heroic tale.
We got back to the UK and got on with life. The war came to an end in August 1945. That was VJ day. We heard nothing from Dad. Mum was sort of breaking it to me that probably he wasn’t coming back. But at the end of September or beginning of October a telegram came to the door. I can see Mum opening it and just sitting down on the stairs crying. I was very excited, and he arrived home sometime late in October. She went off to London to meet him but they missed each other. He went up to North Wales — we were in South Wales — so he had to come all the way down and eventually they got together and I went down to Swansea station to meet him. There was a whole trainload of soldiers coming home. I’d last seen my dad when I was eight. I was eleven now, and this little guy (!) got off the train… it was my father. I’d grown, of course. He was so thin, living off such poor diets as a prisoner of war under the Japanese. He had this great big kit bag slung over his shoulder. That was him home — it was the end if it. He went to a hospital in Liverpool and was treated for malaria, yellow fever, and other tropical diseases, and by the end of 1946 he was back at work. In Uganda where mum and my new sister joined him in 1947.
At the time, aged eleven, I didn’t particularly want to hear about his war stories. I thought they might sound rather like Uncle Mathew’s stories of World War I.
But years later I found two letters from the War Office, one for my father and one for my mother. My father’s was to say that he shouldn’t talk to his family about his experiences because they’d be too upsetting. My mother’s letter said you’ve got a returning prisoner of war — don’t ask him to tell you about it because he’ll want to forget. And in actual fact all he wanted to do was talk about it. It was not until much later that I learned about his experiences as a prisoner of war.
He told me how he was captured in Singapore, and how they were shipped up north in open cattle-trucks manned by the Japanese. They were driven by steam engines fuelled by wood. He told me how the sparks from the burning wood fell on him.
He told me about this lad during a time when it was very, very bad, working on the railroad. Lots of them were dying. His "opo" (mate) working with him was a young lad from Durham who seemed to be totally unfazed by it all. My father asked him why he was so unmoved, so unaffected by all this. The guy said, "At home I’m a miner, and I’m not working any harder, I’m not getting any less to eat, and I’m in the open air". Nothing illustrates the hardships of the 30s than a story like that; working as a slave for the Japanese was not that different from working at home.
Dad was lucky, you see. He was 39 when he was captured and had spent his working life in the tropics, so he was used to the climate and everything else. But he said the youngsters in his camp — there was a whole regiment from South Wales — landed in Singapore and was were captured straight away, virtually without going anywhere. Those lad just died one after the other; they’d never been out of Swansea or South Wales. Then straight into that terrible climate.
This story was submitted to the People’s War site by Duncan Stoddart of the BBC Radio Shropshire CSV Action Desk on behalf of Dafydd Griffith and has been added to the site with his permission. The author fully understands the site's terms and conditions.
© Copyright of content contributed to this Archive rests with the author. Find out how you can use this.