The soldiers fighting in Burma, Malaya, Hong Kong and other parts of the Far East are often described as the Forgotten Army. Events in this theatre of war were certainly reported less frequently than events in Europe despite local residents being involved.
The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on 7th December 1941 was followed by the attack on Hong Kong on 8th and the sinking of the British ships HMS Repulse and HMS Prince of Wales on 10th. The Enfield Gazette for 12th December 1941 made no mention of Pearl Harbor but in ‘Late News’ reported that 2000 survivors of the Repulse and the Prince of Wales had reached Singapore. There was also a report that the Japanese had landed at Kuantun on the East Malay coast.
The 1st Middlesex Regiment (The Diehards) were at Hong Kong. The ‘Diehards were a machine gun battalion. According to the Enfield Gazette 500 of the men came from Edmonton, Enfield and Tottenham. All but a hundred of them were regular soldiers who had been abroad for ten years. A dozen school friends from Bush Hill Park had joined the ‘Diehards’ together in the 1930s. Two were brothers Reg and William Law of Sixth Avenue. Another BHP resident was Fred Carpenter who wrote four long letters a week home to his mother in Third Avenue, providing news for the whole district*. On 26th December the Gazette reports that the defenders of Hong King were still fighting. News that Hong Kong had surrendered on 25th December had not yet reached home. In the edition of 2nd January 1942 the Gazette reports that the ‘Diehards’ and the Royal Scots were forced to surrender when the Japanese bombed the water pipe supplying the garrison.
For many families in Enfield that was the last they heard of their relatives for several years. Some families only found out what had happened to their relatives after Japan surrendered and the POW camps were liberated. Ray Stubbs, who lived in Southgate, wrote a book about his time as a prisoner of the Japanese. In it he described how it was two years before prisoners were allowed to write home. They were given postcards but had to stick to standard phrases such as that they were being well treated and had plenty to eat. When the cards were collected the Japanese guards burned them all in front of the prisoners. Stubbs’ was twice reported ‘missing’ to his family.
Some news did come through: Lance Corporal Wilfred Arthur Martin age 21 of the 2nd Battalion of the Cambridgeshire Regiment was reported killed in action on 25th January 1942. He was the eldest son of Mr and Mrs WJ Martin of Enfield Wash. He was educated at Enfield Grammar and had been employed as a dispatch clerk to WJ Spear & Sons of Brimsdown. Private Leslie Andrews, age 23, who was reported missing in January was found to be a Prisoner of War in Japan in July 1942. Before the war he had worked for Bellings. The paper quoted his parents saying they hoped he would be home for his twenty fourth birthday. Sadly the Commonwealth War Graves website shows an entry for Private Leslie William Andrews of Enfield Lock in October 1942. The parents of Corporal Kenneth Bethell on the other hand had no news from their son after a letter in October 1941 telling them of his move to Malaya. He seems to have made it home.
A tragic case reported in the Enfield Gazette on 13th March 1942 was of a woman whose life was so ‘shattered’ by her husband’s death in Singapore that she jumped into the River Lea with her four year old daughter so that they could be reunited. The woman was saved but the child drowned. The woman was found guilty of the murder of her daughter and sentenced to death. The sentence was later commuted.
After the surrender of the Japanese was announced there was a two day public holiday celebrated with parties and bonfires. Two Edmonton men witnessed the Japanese surrender. CFN (Craftsmen REME) J Matthews of St Joan’s Road saw the Japanese envoy’s plane land in Rangoon. It was escorted by eight Spitfires. The Japanese planes were ordinary transport aircraft painted white. Ordinary Seaman Leonard Warnell also witnessed the Japanese surrender: See Below:
In Edmonton Mrs Webb of Cuckoo Hall Lane made a flag featuring the ‘Angel of Peace’ which she presented to the Council. There was a victory parade which started in Bounces Road. Led by the Mayor, Alderman Preye, it included bands arranged by Walter Tyrell with contingents from ex-servicemen’s organisations, National Fire Service, Civil Defence, Women’s Voluntary Service, Nurses from The North Middlesex Hospital and many other organisations. The parade went along Fore Street to Pymmes Park where a service of thanksgiving was held led by the Reverend WB Davies of St Martin’s.
Most POWs held in the Far East missed the celebrations at home. As many of the camps were in remote areas it took time for them to be liberated. Even then some of the prisoners needed hospital treatment before they were strong enough to be flown home. It was also with the end of the war that local families began to receive official notice of relatives who had died.
*All three Bush Hill Park boys appear on the CWG website.