At the age of 17, a year before he was called up to serve in the war, Charles Medhurst opened the telegram which told him that his 19-year-old brother had been killed in Burma.
Now at the age of 89, Charles is embarking on an emotional journey to the Kranji War Memorial in Singapore to find his brother’s name.
“I had a terrible feeling as I opened the telegram,” said Charles, from Greenwich. “I had to go and tell my mother, who collapsed. She never got over it. She never said anything when I was called up a year later but she must have been upset.
“I was called up in July 1943 and became a wireless operator in the RAF but they needed men for the Royal Navy so I was detailed. I’d never been on water before!”
As a telegraphist in the Navy, Charles had to take down Morse code messages at a speed of 26 words a minute. Charles found himself on HMS Malaya – a battleship that took part in the bombardment of German fortifications on the French island of Cezembre.
He recalled: “It was shattering. I was able to watch because I was off duty and we had to wear anti-flash hoods. When you have eight 15-inch guns firing broadsides it has quite an impact on you. It’s frightening. At the same time the RAF was bombing the island as well. It was quite a long distance away but the shape of the island appeared to change from the bombardment.”
Charles was due to take part in D Day but Malaya was replaced shortly beforehand by HMS Warspite. Malaya sailed to Scotland and took part in trials of updated versions of the bouncing bomb famously used in the Dambusters raid. Malaya moored in Loch Striven and while a crew including Charles was on board, inert prototypes were aimed at the ship, successfully striking Malaya. One was reported to have punched a hole in the ship’s side.
“I do remember a dummy bomb actually hitting our ship while I was on board!”, said Charles.
Charles sailed by liner from Liverpool to Halifax in Canada where he took a five day train ride through the Rockies to board HMS Beachy Head in Vancouver. From there the ship sailed via San Francisco to the Polynesian island nation of Tuvalu in the Pacific.
He recalled fondly: “We had a day’s leave ashore and played football with the locals who gave me a gift of a necklace made of shells. I’ve still got the necklace to this day. They were such friendly people.”
If Tuvalu represented a South Pacific paradise, the next destination was a stark reminder of the war that still raged elsewhere in the Pacific.
He said: “From there we went to Hawaii where we went to Pearl Harbour and could still see the tops of the ships that were sunk in the Japanese attack. When we got to Darwin in Australia, which had been bombed by the Japanese, it was like a ghost town. They were afraid of a Japanese invasion and many people had deserted the city. Parts of it looked like the set of a Wild West film with shutter doors swinging in the breeze.”
After refuelling in New Guinea, Beachy Head sailed to the Solomon Islands and towards Singapore.
“We were only going at a rate of ten knots which was a little unnerving,” said Charles. “However we had a skeleton crew of three telephonists so we were constantly on duty so didn’t really have time to think about the dangers. We went from Singapore to Ceylon, or Sri Lanka as it is now, and from there our ship commanded mine sweeping operations around the Indian Ocean. I spent a week’s leave in the hills which were so green and peaceful. By the time we got to Penang in Malaysia the Japanese had surrendered.”
Charles returned home on an aircraft carrier via the Suez Canal and was demobbed in October 1946.
Charles said: “When I joined the forces I’d never been away from home. We were a poor family. I was lucky during the war – I didn’t fight in the front line and didn’t face the dangers that others did.
“When my brother was killed, all that my mother got was a telegram saying he had been killed on March 24 1942 and that there were no remains or personal effects.
“It wasn’t until last year that I decided to try and find out more. I contacted the War Graves Commission and they put me in touch with the Royal Air Force. I received a very helpful letter about what happened. Henry was ground staff with the air force in Burma. They were being evacuated as the Japanese advanced but didn’t get out in time. The Japanese launched an attack on the airfield in Toungoo with grenades and mortars.
“My brother Henry died aged just 19. He would have been 92 if he were alive today. When I think about how young he was when he died, it’s tragic. He was just one of thousands.”
Charles is currently preparing for his visit to Sri Lanka and Singapore where he will make an emotional visit to the Kranji War Memorial to find his brother’s name.
Charles said: “It’s important to visit the memorial and see his name – to see that he has been recognised for giving his life at such a young age.”
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