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.”
Remembering his wartime service in the Far East, Len Andrews, from Southend-on-Sea will make a Heroes Return 2 trip to Singapore for the first time in 65 years.
Joining up with the Royal Army Service Corp aged 18 Len became part of a demonstration platoon, training soldiers in fire arm drill and assault courses, before moving on, somewhat reluctantly, to a posting as an instructor training troops who had returned from Dunkirk.
He recalls, “I didn’t want to do that, as I hadn’t done anything, and after all those chaps had been through at Dunkirk, what could I teach them? So I volunteered for Burma.”
Consequently, Len was posted to a petrol unit in Rangoon, responsible for the setting up of forward fuel points for the advancing allies. He remembers, “As part of the planned invasion of Singapore we boarded our petrol trucks onto a landing craft, but when got about halfway there we were suddenly ordered to turn back. The second time we set off the same thing happened again only this time we heard that the Japanese had surrendered.”
“I don’t remember being told about the bomb until a bit later. We didn’t know then what sort of destruction it would cause, I don’t even think the governments knew, and we were all quite shocked by the devastation.”
Eventually Len’s unit pressed on to Singapore, even though the Japanese had still not formally surrendered. As they sailed into Singapore the landing craft had to manoeuvre down a channel between two tapes to avoid the many mines which had been laid by the Japanese. Len recalls: “Suddenly the steering went wonky and the craft drifted off and broke through the tape heading straight through the minefield. We all just leaned over the sides looking for mines, and I don’t think we fully realised the situation. We were young.”
However, after sending out a distress signal, the craft was brought back under control and came safely into Singapore. He said, “There was quite a lot of destruction and very few British troops around. At the formal Japanese surrender taken by Lord Mountbatten a number of Japanese officers handed their swords to our commanding officer, one of which was given to me, and which I still have.”
Billeted in the basement of a Post office and bedded down on huge bales of silk, Len had his 21st birthday. He said: “We did think about celebrating with a drink but thought better of it as the local alcohol was lethal and we had heard that some blokes had been blinded by it. How the locals managed to drink it I have no idea.”
Set to work building a fuel supply line from Singapore up through Malaya and into Kuala Lumpur, Len recalls: “We had Japanese PoW’s unloading the oil drums. I was only a Lance Corporal, a lowly petrol driver, but the Japanese prisoners, many of them officers who were well above my rank would salute and bow to me. They were very subdued. It took a while for me to get used to it, but I did.”
Also while in Singapore Len remembers the release of allied PoW’s from the infamous Changi prison. He said: “It was pretty horrendous the condition they were in. The only thing they could take was small amounts of milk to gradually help them rehabilitate. Later they did executions at Changi and hung many Japanese. We were invited to view the hangings but I declined, though some people did go.”
Len’s war service finally came to an end in 1947, he recalls, “I couldn’t wait to get home.”
Now aged 86, Len will soon re trace his steps to Singapore for the first time in 65 years. He said, “I don’t think I could have made this trip without the funding and I am very grateful to the Big Lottery Fund.”
The Big Lottery Fund is continuing to ensure the efforts of Second World War veterans from across the UK and Ireland are not forgotten through its Heroes Return 2 scheme, awarding grants for ex-servicemen and women to return on commemorative trips back to places across the world where they saw action. Veterans or their widows/widowers are still being urged to apply to the initiative, which remains open for applications until January 2011. If you would further information please visit
My husband served with the 125th Anti-Tank Regiment, or “Sunderland’s Own”, and was sent to Singapore after the Japanese entered the war. His ship, Empress of Asia, was sunk in Singapore harbour and the men had to swim ashore. They had no equipment and were split up to join other regiments wherever there was a spare gun. My husband was sent to Bukit Timah Ridge where he found himself pinned down and unable to move because of sniper fire. He was rescued by the swift and brave actions of a Gurkha soldier and was able to return to his comrades. When Singapore was taken over my husband was captured by the Japanese and set to work building the Burma-Siam railway. This railway is sometimes referred to as the Railway of Death as conditions were so harsh. Many men died, and are buried at Chung Kai cemetery. In 1984 my husband and I joined a trip to Singapore, Thailand and Hong Kong – this also included a visit to Chung Kai cemetery and a trip down the River Kwai on the River Boat Hotel. We celebrated my husband’s 64th birthday on that trip and he died a few weeks later. His ashes were interred at Chung Kai and what was to have been a “once in a lifetime trip” for me has become an almost yearly visit to say hello and leave some flowers.
Filed under: Singapore | Tags: Big Lottery Fund, Far East, Heroes Return, Singapore
Watch Fergus Anckorn on the BBC’s HARDtalk programme talking about his time spent in Singapore and Thailand during World War II.
Fergus returned to the Far East in November 2009 with a grant from Heroes Return
Filed under: Far East, Singapore | Tags: BIG, Big Lottery Fund, British Pacific and East Indies Fleets Association, egypt. world war 2, Heroes Return, Heroes Return 2, HMS Victorious, HR2, Lottery Funding, Malaysia, Penang, Singapore, veterans, WW2, WWII
Second World War Royal Navy veterans from across the UK are flying out to Singapore and Malaysia next week (28thJanuary) to pay their respects for the final time to the comrades that lost their lives in the Pacific. The veterans are part of a 127 strong party from the British Pacific and East Indies Fleets Association
It is the final time the veterans, most now in their 80s and 90s, are travelling as a group to pay their respects in Singapore and on the Malaysian island of Penang.
One member of the association making the trip is Mr Victor Gray who lives in Plymouth and first joined the Royal Navy in September 1943 just after his 18th birthday. Victor, who is now 85, was chosen to be trained as a specialist radio operator, intercepting the enemy radio transmissions and in 1944 travelled to the Far East on the aircraft carrier HMS Victorious via the Mediterranean and North Africa.
Victor explains: “We went to India and became part of the East Indies Fleet. We then set sail for Palembang and in a battle with the Japanese over two or three days we managed to destroy a third of the Japanese oil supplies. After that we travelled down to Sydney where we joined what then became the British Pacific Fleet. It was so hot, you could fry an egg on the flight deck and I actually saw that done more than once.
To find out more about Victor’s story and the Heroes Return 2 programme visit our programme page