West Yorkshire market town of Pontefract
 
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Pontefract Memories and Recollections

WARTIME MEMORIES OF


FRANK FLETCHER

My story began in 1938 when I went to Leeds to enlist in the Royal Navy. After my initial examination, I went on to Manchester for my final acceptance into Naval service, From here I was posted to H.M.S. Drake, Devonport, to commence my training in Gunnery, This training period lasted for six months, upon completion of which I left the Devonport base by train travelling to Scotland to join the crew of the Battlecruiser ‘HMS Repulse’ at Scapa Flow.

During my service with the ‘Repulse’ we were given Convoy Duties on patrol from England to Canada, and on the return journey escorting merchant shipping carrying food supplies. On our safe arrival back in England we were able to enjoy a couple of days leave. We then received orders to escort troops from Capetown and Durban, South Africa, back to England. All these duties were carried out during late 1938 early 1939, prior to the outbreak of the Second World War, but in preparation for it. On completion of these tasks we returned to the North Sea and resumed normal patrol duties. While at sea on Patrol we were informed by the Captain that Germany had made a declaration of war on the 3rd of September 1939 and that a state of war now existed with them. On hearing the news we immediately took on supplies of oil, water and food, and returned to our duties day and night with no respite. After 12 to 18 months of chasing the German Fleet around the North Sea, including the pride of the German Navy, the Battlecruiser, ‘Scarnaust’ and the cruiser ‘Prince Eugene’, we returned to Scapa Flow at the end of 1940, where we were able to enjoy a few days well earned rest. Later we were ordered to sail to Rosyth Dockyard, Edinburgh, for small guns and mine devices to be fitted, and returned to our normal pattern of patrol duties again in the North Sea.

At the end of 1940 we received our orders to leave the North Sea area and proceed at full speed to Singapore calling at various ports along the way to refuel and replenish supplies. We took up our new station of operations, patrolling in the China Sea and Malaca Straits off the Malaysian Coast.

After one tour of duty we returned to Singapore and proceeded to dock for the night and it was during that time that we were awakened by loud explosions and flashing lights which we later discovered were from bombs dropped by high level Japanese bombers. It was some time later that we were informed the same tactical operation had occurred at Pearl Harbour the day before our attack took place, and with devastating effect on the Sixth Fleet which had its base there.

Following the attack we received orders to abandon any ongoing repairs and proceed at full speed to engage the Japanese Fleet and Troop carrying ships, which were making their way down to the Malayan Coast for a suspected invasion. It was whilst we were searching for the Japanese Fleet that we were attacked from all directions by torpedo planes and suicide bombers from which the ship sustained heavy damage that finally led to the loss of a very great and fine ship which had performed many hazardous tasks since she was built in a Clydebank Shipyard in 1916.

Along with some of my shipmates we abandoned ship and after spending a couple of hours in the oil-covered sea we were rescued by a four funnel American Ship. Along with my other shipmates who had survived the attack we were returned to the H.M.S. Sultan Naval Base, Singapore, where those who had wounds received treatment for them and we had the diesel oil removed from our bodies.

The following day a limited number of ratings who were deemed fit to return to duty were found various ships to continue their war service. About 20 of us were issued with small arms and ammunition and sent to perform sentry duties guarding the oil storage tanks onshore. We did these duties for about six weeks, until we received orders to join two minesweepers, H.M.S. Rhaman and H.M.S. Cinic Lee and move them out of port to the open sea to avoid capture by the Japanese forces. We were under the command of an RNVR Officer who asked us to attach an abandoned private yacht to the stern of the Rhaman in the hope that we could finally reach Australia.

We headed for our first port which was Sumatra but we discovered during the journey that the Japanese Forces had landed at Singapore. When we arrived at Sumatra we had just a couple of days to refuel and replenish food stocks and it was while we were occupied with these duties that news reached us that the Japanese Forces were heading for Sumatra. It was becoming clear that they were taking the Islands one by one, so we left port and set sail to proceed to Java Dutch Indies. During the journey both minesweepers came under attack from high level bombers, which to our relief was unsuccessful.

We continued on with our journey and arrived in the Java port of Batavia which in fact had the appearance of a ghost town, lacking any evidence of people, but the few that we did see showed no interest in our being there at all. After a stay of three days in port, we received news that the Japanese Forces had taken Sumatra, and were proceeding to take Java, so once again both minesweepers, still with the yacht in tow, set sail. We were passing through the Sundra Straits in the darkness and hoping in our hearts that it would stay that way, but we were not so lucky. The moon shone brightly, illuminating the ships and we were spotted by the Japanese warships who fired a couple of warning shots across our bows, to warn us to stop, which we ignored. Our R.N.V.R officer had orders not to let the ships fall into Japanese hands so we commenced to cast off the private yacht and were ordered to open up the sea-cocks of the ‘Rhaman’ which continued steaming until she sunk. While this was taking place we transferred to the yacht and continued to sail on until we were boarded by the Japanese sailors, and that was the ending to my Naval Service.

CAPTURED BY THE JAPANESE

After our capture by Japanese Sailors, we were transferred to a Japanese troopship, where we stayed on board for about a week. We discovered when we boarded that a mixture of other nationalities like ourselves had been caught earlier, including Australian, American and Dutch sailors who had been rescued when their ships had been sunk. We finally reached Java where the ship docked, and from there we disembarked and were taken to a Japanese P.O.W. camp in the jungle. Throughout my captivity I was moved several times to different camps. The treatment we received was the same standard at all the camps we were detained at – brutal, including torture, starvation, and in many instances death. This was the order of the day. Our starvation rations consisted of half-a-glass of dirty, maggoty rice in the morning, after which we were put out to work 12 hours per day working on Japanese airfields in the jungle. We were barely covered with clothes or shoes, and most prisoners simply wore g-strings. The same food ration was doled out at dinner and evening meals.

Rice sacks crawling with lice were our blankets, and I and many of my unfortunate brave comrades endured this treatment for three and a half years until we were repatriated back to Changi Jail, Singapore, for treatment and convalescence. During our stay at Changi Jail the American Airforce dropped many food containers by parachute, but unfortunately because of our starvation diet over the past years in the camps, our stomachs had shrunk and because of this we were not allowed free access to the food. Instead we were put on a feeding programme under the direction of our army doctor, who explained to us that the food would be too rich for our stomachs to digest properly. After a two-week stay at Changi, we were told that the British Fleet had arrived in Keppel Harbour, Singapore, and one of the VIP passengers on board was Lady Mountbatten. During her visit she asked if we would like to go on board one of the cruisers in the harbour and meet the sailors who had taken over Singapore. That was an invitation we just could not refuse.

Sometime later we received information that we would be returning to England, and the ship that would be taking us home would be the a troopship of the New Zealand Navy, the S.S. Monwaie. Our destination port would be Liverpool and when we finally docked we were amazed to see thousands of Liverpool people and other well-wisher’s waiting on shore to greet us on our arrival. It was a wonderful moment, and one you would always treasure. I walked down the gangplank with my kit bag on my shoulder and with heart-felt thanks for my survival. I knelt and kissed the English soil, which over the last few years I had thought it unlikely I would ever see again.

AFTER MY NAVAL SERVICE

I returned to my parent’s house in Halfpenny Lane, Pontefract in 1945 and stayed with them for a six months leave of absence. Later I was recalled back to my base at Devonport to undergo a medical examination with Naval doctors, who deemed me unfit for any further Naval service. The doctors attributed my poor health to the severe treatment I had experienced during my captivity at the hands of the Japanese Army. I was granted an honourable discharge and returned to Pontefract.

Some two years later with other ex-prisoners of the Japanese, we were to receive an offer of £66 compensation from the British Government, which if you consider the treatment we had endured during our captivity, was an absolute insult to us all. But with the thought that a much better offer would eventually be forthcoming in the future we accepted what we thought would be an interim payment. However, this was not to be the case and so the Japanese ex-prisoners formed a fighting fund to pursue a better deal and fight the Japanese Government for an offer in what we believed to be a just case for a much more deserved compensation. The Japanese government showed no interest in our legitimate claim and refused to accept any responsibility for it, so the fight was to continue with the British government for the next thirty years. Eventually a final offer from them of £10,000 was accepted as a final settlement but as always with such offers, there were strings attached. Initially the payment was not to be made to widows whose husbands had died in Japanese camps, which was totally unacceptable to all survivors, but this was thankfully resolved with the assistance and involvement of the Red Cross whereupon the offer was finally accepted.

I resumed my civilian working life in 1947 mainly working at the Prince of Wales Colliery, Pontefract, until I retired in 1980. It was in Pontefract that I met my future wife Evelyn at a dance held at the Town Hall, Pontefract, and we were later married at St. Giles’s Church, Pontefract, in 1947. We experienced the joy of having two sons Malcolm and Neil, and we now live a quite life in Pontefract.

Frank Fletcher, 2005

Interviewed by Maurice Haigh, 17th August 2005


Below I feature some reports submitted by Frank Fletcher which appeared in the local press and have relevance to the above story.

2nd July 1943
BIRTHDAY MESSAGE

News has been received by Mr, and Mrs E. Fletcher, of 59 East Avenue, Pontefract, that their eldest son, Seaman Frank Fletcher, is a prisoner of war in Java. He formerly worked at the Prince of Wales Colliery, Pontefract, and joined the Navy at the age of seventeen and a half. He served on board the ‘Repulse’ for two and half years, and after its loss he was reported to be in Singapore. His parents last had word of him 18 months ago, and he was reported missing 14 months ago. Monday was his 22nd birthday.

POW PAYOUT AFTER 55 YEARS

Survivors of the brutal Japanese camps have finally won their 55-year battle for compensation. Tony Blair signalled that the 5,500 ex-servicemen still alive would receive a payout next month. He told MPs that "The nation owes them a particular debt of honour." The deal would cost the taxpayer £55,000,000 if veterans win their demand of £10,000 each.

Mr. Blair said a decision would be made shortly. An insider said; "It’s definitely on its way."

Troops were starved, tortured and used as slave labour in camps during the Second World War. In recent years, veterans have called on the British government for cash after being ignored by Japan.

DISASTER BELL FOUND

Divers have lifted a treasured bell from a sunken British warship after Royal navy chiefs feared it would be taken by trophy hunters. A twelve man Navy team plunged 150ft into waters off East Malaysia to lift the 50kg brass bell off H.M.S. Prince of Wales. Japanese aircraft sank the battleship along with the battle cruiser H.M.S. Repulse in 1941, killing 840 in one of Britains worst ever naval disasters. Both were located last year. A similar recovery is planned for Repulse. Chiefs called the bell a "fitting memorial."


FINAL THOUGHTS TO OUR BRAVE FIGHTING MEN

I think it would be fair to say without contradiction that the brave men of our armed services, held on to their courage throughout the most horrendous treatment and brutality performed upon them during their captivity.

Looking back one cannot imagine the horrors experienced by prisoners of war at the hands of the Japanese and we can only offer our heartfelt sympathy to the survivors who were lucky enough to be rescued from their captivity and to their immediate families.

We can only echo the words of Mr. Blair, when he said, "The country owes them a debt of gratitude."

Let us also not forget the brave acts of courage and service performed by our services in all theatres of war during the 1939-1945 world conflict.

Maurice Haigh


 

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