In 1941 Cecil Reddish and his Gibraltarian wife Anna, also known as Dolly, were living in Hong Kong where Cecil was an Inspector in the Hong Kong police force. When Hong Kong fell to the Japanese, Cecil and Anna were interned in Stanley camp along with 3,000 other British people. Lesley Hilton went to meet the three sisters and their mother who, at 89, still vividly remembers the day the Japanese soldiers came.
The couple endured almost four years of harrowing conditions during which time Anna gave birth to a daughter Veronica. When they were released in 1945 Cecil weighed six-and-a half stone, and after the family returned to England he never regained the strength to work again. For the rest of his life Cecil withdrew from family and friends, preferring to keep the true agony of his wartime experiences hidden from Veronica and his other daughters Ngarie and Janine.
Cecil died in 1964, aged 54 never recovering from the TB he contracted in the camp. After his death his daughters tried to come to terms with a childhood blighted by a remote and often difficult father, but it wasn’t until recently when they discovered Cecil’s diaries that the depth of his suffering became clear. Stashed away in a shoebox for over 50 years, Cecil’s diaries detailed the full extent of the horrors in Stanley Camp. The more they read the more the sisters were able to grieve for the father they never really knew and for the life he was never able to live, and share their feelings with their mother, who at 89, still has vivid memories of the time in the camp.
In his diary, Cecil recorded the painful life he and his wife and his baby daughter lived, "We're surviving on two bowls of rice a day, usually full of weevils. The pig-swill they call soup turns my guts over! Less than 48 hours after Veronica's birth, Anna has to join the rest of us and stand for hours in the pouring rain. I can't bear to see my beloved Dolly and our baby daughter suffering like this. We're starving. I don't know how much more I can take."
Veronica recalls her father's moods and behaviour when she was a child, "My father was always very anxious. For him it was the loss of his career, and his future and a bit of dignity too. What he had planned for himself he hadn't been able to achieve because of the prisoner of war camp and his illness."
Ngarie remembers the uneasy atmosphere created by her father, "He didn't like us socialising or bringing friends in because of his ill-health. I think he had it in the back of his mind all his life."
Janine earliest memory of her father is of his constant anger and illness, "I remember he'd taken his socks and shoes off and his big toenails were really thick and black. He said it was because the Japanese had jumped on them in their boots. That was when I started realising why he was always so angry."
One memory, of a childhood party, was particularly difficult for the sisters to cope with. Ngarie explains, "My sister was about 5. She invited a friend for a birthday tea which my father was organising. Of course he didn't do a party like normal people where you have jelly and custard and buns, he did soup. I fished all the fat out of the soup and put it all around the plate. He went hysterical because I didn't eat the fat. He made me sit there and eat it."
Reading the tiny writing in their father's diary shock and sadden Janine, Veronica and Ngarie. The Christmas Day entry reads, "I raid the bins for potatoes and rotten tomatoes. Not much of a Christmas lunch. Dolly has Beri Beri and I have an ulcer. I'm weary and sad. I long for home - there's no laughter, no song, no joy. The days and months and years are rolling by without hope. I must be strong for Dolly's sake but, sometimes despair engulfs me. The torture of this existence!"
Although it is painful and emotional for the sisters to read their father's thoughts, it has also helped them come to terms with his behaviour towards them when they were children. "Sometimes I used to hate my father," says Ngarie, "He used to vent his anger on us because he couldn't shout at the Japanese anymore." There is some sadness that Cecil was never able to do talk about his experiences with his family.
Cecil's record of the longed-for day when freedom was restored acknowledges that the battle wasn't over for those who had lived in fear and privation for so long, "At last!" he writes, "After three years and eight months of living death, we gaunt skeletons have been liberated by the Royal Navy. We're dazed, bewildered, knocked completely out of time. We must appear to our rescuers as positively insane. There are millions of things we want to say, but our feelings so overwhelm us that I think we'll have to wait for our brains to stop whirling before we can ever say something sensible again!"