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Kept By The Power of God

New COFEPOW member, Lindsey Russell-Wells writes:

I am responding to the request for information concerning wives and families who escaped from the Japs in 1941/42, in the April newsletter. It is quite hard to know where to begin! It could be a lengthy account, but I will try to condense our happenings and experiences! I have given talks to various groups and call this talk “Kept by the Power of God” – or just “Escaping from the Japanese”.

My father Ralph Lee worked in the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank, and at this time was in Singapore in charge of the Bank’s shipping where he had been posted from London in that capacity – though he had been to Japan, where he had learnt the language (which was enormously important during his internment). Also he was in Hong Kong.

My twin sister and I were born in 1934 and we were on leave from Malaya, when W.W.II broke out in September 1939. Our father was asked to curtail his leave and gain experience in London. In June 1940 he was posted to China – only he never got there because he was redirected to Singapore when the ship reached Cape Town. This ship was bombed soon after leaving Southampton, marvellously only her steering gear was damaged. So she was able to return for repairs in Southampton. The ship was crowded and I remember having to wear a cumbersome life jacket all the time! By now Mussolini had come into the war and so it was not possible to go through the Mediterranean. The ship docked at Madeira to stock up with food and water – amidst a hostile group of folk on the quayside! Then all the men had to do two-hour-stints of ‘look-out-duty’ on the bridge in case of German submarines. The boat had to do enormous tacks, zigzagging across the Atlantic, and by the time we reached Cape Town, many weeks later, we were undergoing food and water rationing. Then all women and children were ordered off the ship, as she was to proceed just with the men, and very few families. Sadly measles broke out amongst the children and some of our playmates died. So my father had us to travel alone, but with bereaved parents.

My mother went to the YWCA in Muisenberg, and then we had an apartment in beautiful St. James Bay. We were sent to two schools (the first became anti-British). I just remember kindnesses of our little depleted family, while my mother coped with her little twin daughters of six years. Mother took us to welcome ships coming into Cape Town with English children sent to South Africa away from British bombing. One day we waited all day for a ship to come in – it never did come in as it had been torpedoed off the coast of Africa – so very, very sad. After one year or so, my mother, Sheila, decided it was safe to travel East to join my father. When the beautiful Dutch ship Taegleberg reached Batavia we disembarked and mother wired to tell father, who immediately responded with delight to tell us to get to Singapore. So we had a very precious 3-4 months of ordinary family life – and another school. I remember we had a chalet at the Sea View Hotel and watching the coolies building huge guns facing out to sea. We used to watch the little planes over head. We loved the Singapore Swimming Club – and many other children. My mother, who had had T.B. in the past, became unwell, so it was decided that she, with two other women and their two children each, should go to the Bank bungalows in Cameron Highlands. (Their husbands were due to celebrate Christmas with them.) These were lovely, though two miles further into the hills beyond the famous golf course and hotels. While there, Eileen Rix, who was a doctor, and Katherine, a nurse (wish I knew her other name) decided the news from Katherine’s husband, who was a Colonel, posted at Alor Star seemed strange and almost coded, and it seemed that, instead of going northwards into Siam, he was coming southwards. So she and Eileen decided to see what could be done to fully equip the British Military Hospital in case our soldiers would have a need. They would drive off in Eileen’s little Austin 7 every day, while mother was in charge of us six children – with the help of amahs, cooks, house boys and gardeners.

I remember the shock that the grown-ups had on hearing the news of the Japanese bombing Pearl Harbour. Then they were aghast of the sinking of the Prince of Wales and the Repulse, saying that now surely the Americans would come into the war to help. The following morning Eileen and Katherine went as usual to the B. M. H . Mother received a phone call from Father, but all she could hear was “Come, come now”, which she repeated out loud – the line was very crackly. Just then Eileen and Katherine returned, rushed into the bungalow saying “All the British folk and their luggage have been evacuated this morning, but no one told us.” So Eileen suggested that she take the six children to Kuala Lumpur, and Katherine and Mother find their way southwards. But Mother said ‘No’, she would keep her daughters with her. Meanwhile we could hear gunfire echoing in the hills. The servants tied a mattress over the little car, weeping loudly. So Eileen, Katherine and their four children drove away. Mother took us into our bedroom, where we knelt round a chair, and she prayed “Lord Jesus, You have promised us that when three or four gather in Your Name, You will be in the midst of us.” I was given a remarkable sense of peace which flowed from the top of my head to the soles of my feet. Mother put a change of clothes and few objects into a little wicker basket suitcase, we put our mackintoshes on our arms, and sadly left our loving servants, who had not ceased weeping very loudly. So we walked down the twisty steep little road to Cameron Highlands Hotel area. Here we sat round a gold fish pool. Horrified servants hurried out with refreshments. Just then we could hear a car and we wondered if it was coming or going. However, a young soldier, who had been too ill the day before, was hurrying to catch up his regiment. He, too, was given refreshments and then drove us the 40 miles of hairpin bends to the little railway station of Tapa arriving in the afternoon, where he left us having been so good to us.

The station was full of exhausted hot people – those who had been evacuated early that morning. Their luggage was piled up against the station walls.

A train came in – but I remember saying to Mother “it isn’t a proper one’, as all the windows were shattered and steam was hissing out of bullet holes in the boiler of the train. But she replied “it must be, because there hasn’t been another one. It stopped to be filled with water. We were then next to a carriage with nuns in it, caring for wounded soldiers evacuated from Penang hospital. They asked us to put our mackintoshes over the broken glass windows and then said loudly “We must have their mother, too!” Meanwhile Bedlam had broken out on the crowded station, as people began to realize that they could not take luggage with them, and they were scrambling about, looking in their luggage for valuables etc. I did not know that grown-ups could behave like that.

Walking through this chaos a very tall Indian came with a large basket of fruit on his head calling “Mrs Lee, Mrs Lee.!” Mother let him go by twice knowing ‘Lee’ is a very common name in the Far East, and then she waved to him and said “I am a Mrs Lee.” At which a huge smile crossed his face and he put the basket into her hands – through the shattered windows – and then, when she was about to turn to thank him, he had vanished! From that moment on I have believed in Angels! No one could have known that Sheila was on that train! It was just wonderful for the Nuns to be able to give something for their patient. They were such sweet people, and when the fireflies came out on our very slow journey to Kuala Lumpur, they told us they were fairies with delightful stories!

On reaching Kuala Lumpur there was an air raid going on and the station was in pitch darkness. Mother got us to sit on the little wicker basket under a dim exit sign so that she could keep an eye on us while queuing up for tickets to Singapore. (That train was ordered to go out northwards all the way back to Penang. Many, many years later I heard that the Japs shot every single person on board, which even now wants to make me weep.) While in that queue a Bank official who was on the lookout for any refugees, found her and took us back to his house already filled with families. An amah put us to bed that night, which was so familiar and wonderful. We were in Kuala Lumpur several days as it was so hard to obtain tickets to go south to Singapore. Us children were taken to the sports / swimming clubs where some kind ladies looked after us. Every time a plane came over we had to sit under a billiard table. Strangely it was not a surprise to find Eileen’s two little sons there. I never knew what happened to Katherine and her family, but wondered and hoped they had reached Australia. Eileen’s husband was killed very early on and we think Katherine’s was as well. Years later we met up with the Rixs in England in the 1950s. I wish I knew how they got away from Malaya – never thought to ask them! We just did not talk about such things.

Eventually we boarded a train, and to our relief there was Father to meet us in Singapore! He hurriedly took us to some newly built Hong Kong and Shanghai accommodation – for servants? Anyway I remember smelling new cement! Our small bedroom had iron bed heads to the two or three beds, a chair or two,, and a dressing table – all very basic. Father explained that our meals could be taken in the Communal Dining room. And then he had to go. So there Mother was left with still the clothes we wore, the small wicker basket and no money! My sister developed an ear infection, and it was quite difficult for Mother to leave her to take me to the dining-room. There were lots of other Bank wives and their children there. Mother explained about the Japs coming from the North down the Malay Peninsula. She was firmly taken aside by a senior wife who told her not to spread rumours and panic! These were some of the people my father had been urging to board ships to leave Singapore, but folk just did not want to know about the danger they were in.

After three or four days Father returned to us – I thought Mother would be so pleased to see him, but “Ralph, how could you leave us like this?” and he replied “Darling, I was taken to hospital with pneumonia. You see I have been working at the Bank destroying papers etc., and at night learning how to use weapons. But now I have escaped from the hospital, been to the Bank, heard of a small ship willing to take six women and their children away from Singapore and I want you to go straight away.” Mother found herself beginning to say ‘No, we cannot leave you looking so ill, and Paddy is so unwell as well’, when her eye alighted on her little book of ‘Daily Light’, and she read “Arise ye, and depart, for this is not your rest because this is polluted, it shall destroy you, even with a sore destruction.” (MICAH Ch. 2, V. 10), which was the reading for August 24th! (You remember we were now in December!) So mid-sentence she said “Alright Ralph, we will go.” We were taken to the docks in Singapore Harbour, and having been used to huge liners we were surprised to see this very small ship! My parents then had to say ‘Good Bye’ to each other, neither knowing what would happen, which was agonising for them both. The Go Downs behind Father’s head were on fire so this little ship could not stay any longer, and Father was not allowed to know where she was bound for.

I must tell you about this little ship! She was a Canadian Lake Steamer, with three cabins on either side of the small corridor with windows facing the deck. There was also a main saloon and a dining-area, where at meal times we sat closely around a table. Below the deck there were the crew’s quarters and two small holds for cargo. As none of us refugees brought much luggage, we were quickly able to settle into the two-berth-cabins, my sister and I slept head to feet! There were two bathrooms as well.

But it was the young Captain who was so gallant. When he bought this ship in 1939, his friends got rather tired of his boasting about her – so they said “Bet you will take her round the world!” and he took up the challenge! Bought enough cargo to sell at the next port and so he progressed all the way to Penang from Canada, where he probably took on board the last cargo of rubber. Here the Japs had the audacity to fire at his beloved little ship. This galvanised him into action and he and his fellow officers decided to vacate their cabins and squeeze into the crew’s quarters, so that they could then take the ship to Singapore and rescue six women and their children.

We had a strange sort of Christmas on board and very soon arrived at Colombo to take on food and toys! The harbour was full of vast naval ships and we watched the smart young soldiers in their white uniforms and caps going up and down the gangways.

We then continued our voyage. We zigzagged all day, and each day a child was given the honour of throwing a cardboard plate or something over the stern and a sailor would then fire the little gun (for bears in Canada) at this target. It was mounted on the aft deck, and this turned into a smoke screen! That was the only protection across the Indian Ocean!

One day the young Captain called all women and children to hurry to the starboard deck to show ourselves to a British cruiser (? frigate?) – it seemed enormous to us. It had all its guns pointing down at us. Apparently our young Captain had hoisted a wrong flag, and he needed urgently to let this naval ship know who he was conveying. As it went off, the Captain said wistfully “If only they could have given us some water!”

As we approached Durban, several planes came very low over us to inspect the ship, which was quite alarming! However, we travelled on to Cape Town arriving early February. Here the ship was briefly impounded and no one was allowed ashore.

One of my great regrets is that I have never been able to trace the courageous Captain or the ship. Sadly my mother could not remember the name – all identity was painted over. But we do know the ship arrived back in Canada, because a new baby boy was born and his mother let my mother know. The Captain explained that food and water was urgently required for his destination was Canada. It was then that Mother requested permission to disembark, as it was here that we had friends. We had to be vouchsafed, and it was wonderful to have familiar people come to collect us. So we returned to Muisenberg YWCA for a few weeks.

An English friend of the Director phoned one day saying sadly she felt she could do so little for England and just wondered if there were any refugees who might like to come to her house on a lovely Jersey Cattle Farm in the Karoo, so we travelled by train to a tiny little station called Mortimer – in the middle of nowhere it seemed! And there we were left while it was still dark early one morning. However, we could see car lights approaching from a long way away. And it was some wonderful people come to fetch us and take us to that beautiful farm, where it was so peaceful and restorative after all the strange experiences we had encountered.

During our time in South Africa Mother received four postcards from Father, which took 18 months to come – they had been redirected from London. She had some great friends, who prayed every week with her, which was such a support. When Japan surrendered, she did not know, whether Father had survived. She sent eleven or more telegrams to every post she could think of that might contact him. She did not know until November 1945 that he was alive. He had been too ill in Burma to be able to leave, when others were able to be repatriated, but he found a telegram from Mother at Port Said telling that we were in South Africa! But as he was under military command, as a Land Corporal, he was told that his destination was England, which was distressing! However, a South African P.O.W., who had been blinded by the Japs, needed an escort to Durban, and Father eagerly offered to take him there! By this time we were in Grahamstown, and the people there put welcome banners in many streets, very moving. They also asked that his train would be stopped at a very small station just before the big one at Grahamstown, so that their reunion would be private. More flags on the station! But oh, we did not recognize this skeletal yellow man who came off the train.

No one had any idea what these men had gone through – there were many shocks to be disclosed. But we said to each other “But he is our Daddy!” In the five months he was with us, he put 5’’ around his waist!

In those days no one thought about counsellors for indeed both parents could have done with that kind of help. It must have been a lonely time for him with none of us really comprehending the appalling time Prisoners of War had lived through, and there was no one else round about who had also been a P.O.W. But it was so exciting to have him with us – having always prayed every night for him. And here he actually was! But we were eleven now and he had missed so much of our childhood. He did not understand our lack of schooling, team games or really our passion for horses! It was very disturbing to hear his screams during the night when dreaming, but gradually his health improved. Friends continued to be wonderful, offering sea side holidays, and being back at the farm in Mortimer and generally doing usual and healing ordinary things.

The Bank had no idea of what their captive men had gone through. And Father was asked to start up support banks in Tientsin and Peking. So in June 1946 he went off to China. And Mother then had to consider our education in England. We managed to board the Caernavon Union Castle Ship, converted into a troop ship in November 1946, and returned to loving relatives in England. But we had to wear shoes all the time, be incarcerated into heavy coats, wear scarves and gloves! We had a tutor to help teach us Maths, French, Latin – which was altogether a huge culture shock! We went to school in Windsor, and found it hard to understand where we were. But wonderfully, on the ship, which took Mother to join Father in China, was a lady who told her about a school which majored in taking colonial children with very poor education – so my aunt, who was our guardian, explored it and we completed our education in this very happy place – to A-level standard.

My parents returned on leave in 1949 (having to leave nearly everything behind on account of Chiang Kai-shek military forces) and this was a wonderful six months as a family – on the Norfolk Broads! While there, the Bishop of Birmingham, Leonard Wilson, had come as a locum to Horning Vicarage. With his children of about our age we had great fun racing the Half Decker Yachts. And it was then that Father was so greatly helped as Bishop Wilson, who had himself been a P.O.W. – he had been the Bishop of Singapore – and he used to have long talks with Father, and through him Father was enabled to start to forgive the Japanese. My parents were then posted to Malaya in Cameron Highlands, after leaving school I joined them for six months.

In 1953 my father retired and my parents bought a cottage in Irstead, Norfolk, next to my future husband’s family. One day, in 1954, my father took me to a fellow P.O.W. in Suffolk. After exploring his friend’s garden, he took me aside, and said “I want you to know what a wonderful, generous and courageous person Ralph had been in the railway camps in Siam. He thought of others first and shared, whatever he had, which was so little.” I was so grateful to have had this said to me. Daddy lived until 1987, when he died aged 85.

In 2002, my husband and I were able to return to Malaya, and I had the joy of showing him many places. We had a delightful Malayan taxi driver who drove us up to Cameron Highlands. He left us at a hotel the first night, while he went to stay with some friends. They were curious, as to why we wanted to go to C.H. and were told of my flight as a 7-8-year–old. They told him that they remembered that very day as the Japs had come through the hills, shooting everyone in sight that afternoon. We had escaped in time by only a few hours.

So you see why I call the whole of that time KEPT BY THE POWER OF GOD.