The Envelope

I’m looking at this photograph of Edward Lynn, my father’s younger and only brother. He has short, blonde hair, and pale eyes and a long-stemmed pipe clenched between his teeth. With his awkward body stance he reminds me a little of Jacques Tati. He’s wearing a black jacket and striped trousers, morning wear for the better off, working wear if you were a shop assistant at Harrods. But Uncle Ted has Aunt Gladys on his arm and she’s wearing a cloche hat, coat with fur-trimmed collar, white stockings and buckled shoes and so I’m guessing that Ted is wearing morning dress for his marriage. The writing on the back of the photo tells me it was taken in 1931 at Cliftonville, a seaside town in Kent. Ted would have been 24 years old at the time and employed with his elder brother in his father’s timber yard in Rye Lane, Peckham, the strategic future of which was set out in its corporate name, W Lynn & Sons. Today it would have been called Timberco with an exit strategy for the family decided upon well before the company’s formation. Eleven years after this photograph was taken and only one year after I was born Uncle Ted died at the hands of the Japanese in South East Asia and so I never knew him, or at least, not until I opened the envelope.           Image

I was familiar with the envelope since my very early years. It rested in the drawer of my father’s tallboy along with a Webley pistol, a Rolls razor, some golf balls, a selection of coloured, wooden tees and silver medals from Alleyns School with my father’s name inscribed as the 1919 winner of the long jump and the mile. I suppose that all those times that I stood on a chair to look at the contents of this exciting cache I was chiefly attracted by the pistol and although the envelope was unusual with its crown seal and crossed bands of black, its contents – three stained and creased photographs, a letter and several pages of tiny, densely packed script – were uninteresting to a small boy. It was many years later, long after the death of my father, that I came into contact with the envelope once more and understood, for the first time, that its contents were the last personal belongings of the uncle I had never seen.

Soon after this rediscovery I gave the envelope to my sister. She and her husband had been on a holiday in Thailand and, on a visit to the River Kwai, had stumbled, by chance, upon our uncle’s grave in Kanchanaburi War Cemetery. It was her present to me of a photograph of Ted’s tomb – a polished marble plinth in the shape of a console – that made me remember the envelope, and I gave it to her to with the feeling that it may add meaning and interest to her recent experience. But I recall thinking at the time that it was strange, definitely unfortunate and perhaps even shameful that the envelope had never ended, as it should have, in the hands of my uncle’s widow or her two daughters.

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Now, 20 years later I have the envelope again. The three photographs are still there – a picture of Aunt Gladys with her two daughters, blonde Maureen and her darker, taller sister Audrey, walking along the front at Brighton, the pier clearly recognizable in the background, the girls with their buckets and spades, Madeleine clutching a Union flag. Another is of the two girls in the garden of grandfather’s house at Rottingdean; the last is of my father as a reserve officer in the Home Guard. Now I have time to examine the diary, evidently begun after his capture by the Japanese but beginning with the detailed events of an uneventful voyage from England to Singapore. There is no record of his capture, no reflections on his state of mind or descriptions of his Japanese guards, no mention of his wife or children. His dangerous and eventually fateful experiences evidently did not generate the poetic muse as they did for some.

When Signalman Thomas Edward Lynn marched out from Catterick Camp with the rest of 2nd Company Royal Signals on Monday, July 27 1941 Britain had already been at war for nearly two years. “There was much speculation about our destination” writes Ted. There was talk of the possibility of an occupation of the Azores and Canary Islands and of various destinations in North Africa, the Middle and Far East; it was, after all, a World War. The first leg of the journey to an unknown destination was a march of a few miles to the station at Richmond and then, by train, first to York and then to Liverpool where they embarked on the Stirling Castle. The 25,000 ton former passenger ship, equipped to transport 6,000 troops was only carrying 1,700 soldiers and airmen and so Ted and his friend Jack found themselves in relative comfort, sharing a cabin on E (top) deck. During the evening of August 2nd, after a brief stop in the Clyde estuary, convoy WS10, consisting of 19 merchantmen and an escort of 17 destroyers, slipped into the Irish Sea and headed south. Early the next morning Ted is on deck experiencing the departing soldier’s nostalgia for the vanishing landscape of his native land. He notes the names of some of the other ships – Andes, Strathallen, Windsor Castle, Vollendam. Two weeks later the convoy arrived at Freetown, the only incident during the voyage a collision in fog between the Windsor Castle and Warwick Castle. Ted records watching the locals diving for small change as if he were on a Cooks Tour. There was no shore leave and after four days the convoy turned south again, this time unescorted, reaching Cape Town on September 9th. To Ted it looked “like a place that you see in the films”. This time there was shore leave and Ted remembers 3 trips to the “pictures” and the hospitality of the locals who invited the soldiers into their homes and took them on sightseeing trips to Table Mountain. The convoy, now reduced by the dispersal of some ships to other South African ports, resumed its journey on September 13th, this time protected by the armed merchantman Carnarvon Castle. On September 20th the convoy entered Bombay and after a brief stay the Stirling Castle continued alone berthing finally, on September 30th in Singapore’s Kepple Harbour where the 120 men of C Company were taken by lorry to Alexandra Barracks on the outskirts of Singapore city. At this point the narrative part of Ted’s diary ends.

On December 8th the Japanese, desperately short of raw materials to fuel their invasion of China after the USA’s embargo on exports, set about the conquest of Britain’s rubber rich Malayan colony and the emasculation of American naval power in the Pacific. In lightening fast attacks on British airfields on the Malayan peninsula, all the allied front line planes were lost, exposing the battleship Prince of Wales and the cruiser Repulse to Japanese torpedo bombers which sent them both to the bottom of the South China Sea as they attempted to stop the enemy landings on the Eastern coast of Malaya.

On December 23rd, as the Japanese under the command of General Tomoyuki Yamashita completed their invasion of the Malayan peninsula and pushed South, Ted wrote to his brother and sister-in-law enquiring after my birth, encouraging my father to stay out of the war and hoping that ‘this muddle’ (WW2) will be over soon.

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Kuala Lumpur fell January 11th and on the last day of the month the British withdrew across the Causeway, demolishing it behind them.

Singapore, with its garrison of 80,000 British, Australian and Indian troops, was not expected to fall to the Japanese and it was partly this complacency that ensured that it did. There were, of course, other factors – lack of air cover, guns facing the sea from which any invasion was confidently expected to come, incompetent commanders and a more determined enemy. The allied soldiers were also shocked by the ferocity of their opponents, operating with complete disregard to international rules of war and under orders to take no prisoners. The Japanese also had a frightening obsession with sharp instruments. In 1941 British officers carried a swagger stick, their Japanese counterparts a Samurai sword. Even now the classy Japanese suicide option is ritual disembowelment with tanto or wakizashi rather than the noose, overdose or gas oven. World War 2 footage of Japanese soldiers shows an army with permanently fixed bayonets. To kill someone with the bayonet (especially with the 20 inch long blade of the Type 30 model) was infinitely more satisfying than a bullet to the brain. It was slower, more intimate, more personal, it hinted of ancient Samurai martial arts and it gratified the need to inflict pain. And so it was that on February 14th when the invaders arrived at the Alexandra Barracks Hospital and were met by a British Lieutenant carrying a white flag he was casually dispatched by bayonet. Over the next two days all but 5 of the patients and medical staff of the hospital were similarly put to the sword.

Ted does not record how he was rounded up after the formal surrender the next day, only that on February 17th he marched with other prisoners the 16 miles to Changi, where the British barracks had now been converted to their prison. Ted found himself in the Selarang Barracks. Not all of the Allied soldiers went to captivity; 30,000 of the 40,000 Indian personnel elected to join the Indian National Army and fight for the Japanese.

British soldiers don’t have the same attitude to capture and imprisonment as the Japanese. The British join life drawing classes, form clubs to study the local insect life and present pantomime shows for fellow prisoners and enemy guards alike. The Japanese prefer suicide. My housemaster at Cranleigh School, Captain Lovell H Garrett, completed a thesis for his Oxford history degree while languishing as a prisoner of war in Colditz Castle. The British also like to escape and begin tunneling as soon as they’re incarcerated. And so it was inevitable, notwithstanding the fact that Singapore was an island and that swamps, dense jungle and a bloodthirsty enemy stood between the POWs and liberty, that some would try. On August 30th two British and two Australian soldiers attempted the impossible and were quickly recaptured. General Shimpei Fukuye immediately ordered all 17,000 allied prisoners of war onto the parade ground of the Selarang Barracks (an area of 128 x 210 metres) where each prisoner was required to sign a pledge that he would not attempt to escape. In the face of almost unanimous refusal General Fukuye applied pressure, first by ordering the escapers to be executed by a firing squad of soldiers of the Indian National Army and then by forcing the prisoners to stand, unfed in the heat and filth of the compound. On September 4th, after dysentery broke out and the sick began dying, Lt. General Holmes, in charge of the allied prisoners, ordered the pledge signed. Most signed with absurd or fake names. Ted merely records “Signed parole. Forced into it. Some funny business somewhere.”

In the autumn of 1942 Ted notes the arrival of Red Cross parcels (flour, ghee, sugar, jam, dried soup and fags) and pay reductions from 15 to 10 cents per day. During this time the Japanese were busy shipping the allied prisoners to Japan and other parts of Asia to be used as slave labour. Ted’s turn arrived on 15th October. There was no respite even though he writes that he had reported sick a week earlier. “Left Singapore. 4 days on train. Arrived Bangkok early Sunday morning. Left Tuesday; walked 15 miles. Walked another 15 Wednesday. Rest Thursday.” Ted died on January 2nd 1943 a little over 2 months after joining the teams of forced labour working on the infamous death railway, just one of the tens of thousands who succumbed to dysentery, malaria, starvation and the Type 30 bayonet. As the famous bridge over the Khwae Yai River was completed only one month after Ted’s death, we can assume that his last days were spent near or on that section of the 400 km long railway.

In spite of the slaughter unleashed by Little Boy and Fat Man it took the prospect of fighting the Russians and a series of ritual suicides by his military commanders to convince Emperor Hirohito to agree to the terms of the Potsdam Declaration. The Japanese would later renounce any form of nuclear armament and for many years limit any aggression outside of their borders to the world’s whale population and to the export of gruesomely explicit martial arts cartoons.

In 1971, during a state visit to England, Emperor Hirohito, in a morning suit similar to Ted’s wedding outfit, was taken by open carriage to visit the London Zoo (he was a keen amateur botanist). Wherever he went, he was greeted by silent crowds. “We cannot pretend” said the Queen in front of the unexpressive face of her guest, “that the past did not exist.” Not all escaped retribution. General Fukuye was shot in Selarang Barracks after being found guilty at the Singapore War Crimes Trial in 1946. General Yamashita was hanged by the American military in the Philippines in the same year.

It seems odd that Changi, once the location of an infamous prison, is now the site of a modern airport, that the island of Singapore, 70 years ago a key fortress in a world empire, is now a hub of Asian technology and political correctness and that the children of those Japanese who bayoneted helpless patients in the Alexandra Barracks Hospital, or even Signalman Lynn for that matter, may be now calmly photographing each other in front of Sydney’s Opera House.

3 thoughts on “The Envelope

  1. John – you are SO cool !! Love this blog. Can’t wait to be with you guys in NO in just 5-6 weeks !! We have to remember to tell you about Jim’s transcription of letters from a Civil War sailor to Jim’s ancestors. xxoo. Gayle

    iPhone … over and out !

  2. Although you have told me this story many times and I have read various draft versions of the blog, the emotions that it calls up are so vivid – the tragedy of war, the wasted lives, the lost days of the past, the understated British sense of humour (even in the midst of battle) – that each time feels like the first. A testament to your skills as a writer speaking from the heart!

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