John Bartley

British Civilian

I was born in 1935 in Chester where my father was a Sergeant in the Regular Army.  About 1937 Dad was transferred on promotion to Staff Sergeant at Preston, Lancs. and we moved there. In 1939 Dad was again transferred on promotion to Warrant Officer 2 in Hong Kong and we, Mum, myself and my sister 2 years younger than me went with him – by sea of course in those days on a journey that took some weeks. I can remember bits of that voyage – especially getting Prickly Heat in the Red Sea. Personally I have nothing but happy memories of Hong Kong. We lived in splendid quarters and had three Chinese servants.

I believe Dad was about to be sent “home” to be commissioned when the Japanese declared war on Britain and the British garrison was put on a war footing,  Families were evacuated  – in my Mum’s case (with me including sister Margaret and a three old baby, Jean) to the Philippines during the monsoon where it rained every day for the three weeks we were there.  Mum had two suit cases during this period – one of which contained nothing but baby food.

`Hong Kong was greatly under staffed to resist invasion by the Japanese but was reinforced by Canadian troops of Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry ( P P C L I).  These conscripted troops had had about 6 weeks training and had never fired lived ammunition !  The Japanese troops had had four years war active service in China. There were no UK naval or air force resources and it was no surprise that that Hong Kong fell on Christmas Day 1941.

After the “sojourn” in Manila, Mum and we three kids were shipped to Sydney, New South Wales.   I clearly remember Australia and was very happy living by the sea in Manley, a suburb of Sydney.  I was able to fish and swim every day that we were there. I don’t remember going to school at all whilst we were in Manley. However, after some months the Japanese got two midget submarines into Sydney harbour – which failed to sink anything and were quite quickly destroyed by Royal Australian Naval vessels – or so I understand.  But that incident caused us to be evacuated (again) to an up-state small town in New South Wales called Young.  We boarded with a lovely family called Martins.  Mrs Martin had 5 sons, all older than me, and I got involved in all the scrapes these lads got up to. The climate was great and I was sent to school there but don’t think I learnt much at all.

It must have been about that time that Mum got a telegram from the War Office advising her that Dad had been” killed in action” and that “pension details would follow !”  So there she was a young widow with 3 kids and whose only living relative was her mother (Nana) who lived  on the other side of the world in Warrington, Cheshire.  So Mum decided to get back to the UK.

The Army found a passage for us on a small Free French freighter that was carrying two other families also trying to get back to the UK.  I remember that they used to put carafes of diluted Red Wine on the kids table at lunch and dinner times which Mum said would be less risky to drink than the water.  To lessen the chance of attack by submarines the voyage was far to the South of the Indian Ocean and eventually we got to Durban, South Africa.

There I understand that Mum, and no doubt other passengers, were put ashore as the Army had decided the Free French boat was too slow and in any case had no sort of defensive provision.  I think this must have been in 1942/3. We lived in a hotel.  I went to school there, which wasn’t much help as much of the teaching was in Africans.  And it was there that I contracted Rheumatic Fever and was hospitalised for, I think, for about 8 weeks and had to go back to the hospital each month for “monitoring” check ups. Anyway some time in May 1944 we were put on a lightly armed British passenger vessel that was part of a convoy of, I think, of similar vessels, escorted by Destroyers (which seemed to be always dashing about dragging targets for the gun crews to practise their drills on.  Very exciting as the kids weren’t sent below and we could cheer when the gun crews managed to hit a target.  And so we journeyed up the East coast of Africa and through the Suez Canal and docked at Alexandria,.

For reasons not explained we were put ashore in late May and “housed” in large tents at the edge of a desert.  The tents were in a barbed wire enclosure and we were looked after by Italian troops who by that time were now the Allies “friends”.  These Italians were splendid men who organised games and matches for the kids and every afternoon took us to the seashore for a swim in the Med.  We stayed there until after 6th June – D day – and I guess the reason for our being dumped in the desert was to clear the seas of all but fighting vessels.  After some weeks post D day we were again put on a ship, bound for Liverpool, and must have got there, I guess, in late June/early July 1945.  It was awful – cold and seemingly always drizzling  – and we went by train to my Grandmothers in Warrington.  I went to a C & E primary school in Stockton Heath and was put in a class of 50 kids, together with my Sister, two years younger than me.  I could read (more or less) but not write much.  We had slates and chalk to write with and I don’t think I leant much at all.


Following the dropping of Atom bombs on Japan in August 1945, Japan capitulated.  The camp my Dad was in was “liberated” by Canadian troops of P P C L I – who “dealt” with the few Jap guards who had not deserted.  The Canadians were given a list of all the surviving prisoners in the camp.  This was radioed to the War Office in London  and Mum got a telegram telling her Dad was no longer  “Killed in Action”.  It seems that the Japanese  in Hong Kong did not release the names etc of prisoners.  Some ten weeks later Dad arrived in Warrington.

Tragically, some of his fellow surviving prisoners found that their wives had remarried and had children with their new spouses – two were living in the USA.  These marriages were declared unlawful by UK Courts and the children classified as “illegitimate”.  Two of Dad’s colleagues to whom this happened later committed suicide.

For the rest of his life my Dad got a cheque from the Regimental Association of P P C L I at Christmas in recognition of his “support and comfort” of Canadian fellow prisoners and was awarded an MBE.

John Bartley January 2018

Share This

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on whatsapp
Share on email

More To Explore

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *