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1871429 Staff Sergeant
GERALD ROBERTS
Royal Engineers

by
Lieutenant Colonel Edward De Santis, 2001

1. INTRODUCTION

Numerous attempts were made to locate living relatives of Staff Sergeant Roberts in order to obtain his service papers from the Ministry of Defence. Unfortunately, all attempts failed. The author has attempted to reconstruct Staff Sergeant Roberts’ military career with as much detail as possible from the references listed at the end of this paper. The author will be extremely grateful to anyone reading this account who has first hand knowledge of incidents in Roberts’ life or who knows the whereabouts of any of his family.

2. EARLY LIFE AND FAMILY INFORMATION

Gerald Roberts was born on the 12th of November 1913 in Hackney, London, the son of Ernest and Ida Roberts.[1]

3. ENLISTMENT AND TRAINING

Roberts enlisted as a Sapper in the Royal Engineers on the 16th of March 1935. Upon his enlistment he was given Army Number 1871429.[2] Following his enlistment, Sapper Roberts reported to the Training Battalion Royal Engineers at the School of Military Engineering in Brompton Barracks, Chatham, Kent. He appears to have been a very athletic young soldier, for while in training he was awarded the Training Battalion Royal Engineers bronze medal for the Cross Country Run in the autumn of 1935.[3] In January of 1936 he was also awarded a Second Class Certificate of Education. [4]

During the period just prior to the outbreak of World War 2, the British Army was forming new fortress companies to guard against invasion by sea. The mission of these companies was to support coastal guns with searchlights against enemy ships approaching the coast. Later this mission was extended to defend against enemy aircraft as well. To form these companies, intelligent and energetic Sappers were selected from other units to attend the Searchlight Commander’s Course at the School of Electric Lighting at Fort Monkton in Gosport, Hampshire. Sapper Roberts appears to have been one of these men.[5]

4. ASSIGNMENTS AND CAMPAIGN SERVICE

Following his basic training at Chatham and the Searchlight Commander’s Course at Gosport, Sapper Roberts was posted to the 35th Fortress Company. The 35th Fortress Company was formed at Blackdown, Hampshire and after an intensive training period, the company was shipped to Singapore in December of 1936. Upon its arrival at Singapore, the 35th Fortress Company was stationed at Pulau Brani, an island just south of Singapore City. In addition to the 35th Fortress Company, the following units of the Royal Engineers were serving at Singapore at the time that Sapper Gerald Roberts was posted there:[6]

30th Fortress Company (at Singapore)

34th Fortress Company (a searchlight unit)

36th Fortress Company (at Penang)

41st Fortress Company (employed on coast defence)[7]

The units were generally employed on the operation and maintenance of coast defence lights and engine room operations for the coastal defence guns. The 30th, 34th, 35th, and 41st Fortress Companies were all under the Commander Royal Engineers (C.R.E.) Fortress Troops, Lieutenant Colonel H.M. Taylor, R.E. The 36th Fortress Company came under the command of the C.R.E. Penang, Lieutenant Colonel D.A. Rendle, R.E.[8]

On the 8th of December 1941, three Japanese divisions, later increased to four, landed at Kota Bharu in northwestern Malaya, on Penang, and in southern Thailand. The Japanese divisions pushed General Percival’s 9th and 11th Indian Divisions southward in a rapid advance through the Malayan jungle and took Ipoh, 150 miles to the south, three weeks later. The forces under Percival made a short stand at Kuala Lumpur, but not even the British and Australian reinforcements that increased his combatant strength to 70,000 enabled him to counter the enemy’s efficient jungle fighting tactics. Percival evacuated the Malay Peninsula entirely on the 31st of January 1942 and retired to Singapore Island.

As the British forces retreated across the Johore Strait they destroyed the causeway connecting the mainland with Singapore and hoped for some breathing space after their retreat down the length of Malaya. The men of the 41st Fortress Company, Royal Engineers destroyed the large arsenal of ammunition at Changi.

The Japanese began to shell Singapore Island. They repaired the damaged causeway and began crossing 25,000 troops and light tanks by the 9th of February. In addition to firing from Johore, the Japanese also began to shell Singapore from gun positions on Pulau Ubin Island. Under the cover of this shelling, the Japanese spearheads advanced inland and seized the reservoirs in the centre of the island.[9]

In the period of waiting for the Japanese assault on the island, the engineer units were busy improving the defences and repairing damage to essential services caused by enemy bombing. Once the Japanese gained a considerable foothold on the island, the fighting spread in extent and intensity and gradually all soldiers capable of bearing arms, the engineers well to the fore, were swept into the fight. Gradually the British forces were driven back.

In spite of the efforts of the Royal Engineers, Royal Australian Engineers, Indian Engineers units and the Singapore municipal engineers, the water supply was badly damaged and began to fail. Many ammunition magazines and stores situated in outlying parts of the island fell into enemy hands, and the military reserves of food had almost disappeared. The obsolete aircraft that had been available in Singapore had been of little use in stemming the Japanese advance, and when new aircraft did arrive they were too little too late. On the afternoon of the 15th of February 1942, General Percival, the Commander of Forces in Malaya, was obliged to surrender to the Japanese.[10]

Gerald Roberts became a Japanese prisoner on the 15th of February, along with other men of his company and was taken to Singapore City.[11] Unfortunately, most of the 35th Fortress Company was lost at sea trying to escape to Java after the fall of Singapore. Because of the company’s location on Pulau Brani, the men thought that they might be able to get away by sea before the Japanese captured them. Unfortunately, most perished out on the ocean.

Most of the officers and men of the other Royal Engineer fortress companies were also captured on that same date. Initially, the British prisoners of war were marched off to Changi on the eastern end of Singapore Island where the jail and big groups of Army barracks were located. The military prisoners were marched the 15 to 20 miles to Changi in the hot sun in long columns headed by at least four files of brigadiers and colonels.

The barracks shortage at Changi was acute, but the food shortage was worse. The prisoners went hungry and had to manage as best they could until the Japanese issued them sacks of rice during the first week of captivity. At Changi the men were crowded to the extent of 200 to a space meant to house only 20 people under ordinary conditions. It was assumed that the accommodation would be temporary. The prisoners were soon organized into work parties, some of which, for the sake of convenience and not comfort, were moved into quarters nearer their place of work. All sorts of accommodation were utilized including schools, empty buildings of all kinds, tented camps on cricket fields, and thatched huts constructed by the prisoners.[12]

On the 26th of October 1942, after a period of over 8 months as a prisoner in Singapore, Roberts was transferred to a prisoner of war camp in Malaya, outside of the city of Singapore. Many of the other prisoners of war from Singapore and elsewhere were being used as forced labour by the Japanese in dozens of camps in Burma and Thailand on the infamous Siam to Burma Railway. In 1943 Roberts was transferred to a prisoner of war camp in Thailand. His prisoner identification number was IV 13647. This number indicates that he was prisoner number 13647 in the 4th sub-camp located in Thailand.[13] In all probability, Roberts and the other men from this sub-camp were put to work on the Siam to Burma Railway.[14]

The construction of a section of the Siam to Burma Railway was dramatized (although not accurately) by the movie The Bridge Over the River Kwai. The route of the railway stretched from Ban Pong in Thailand (then Siam) to Thanbyuzayat in Burma, over 415 kilometers of mountainous and virtually virgin and inhospitable jungle. Ban Pong was located at the junction between the east-west line to Bangkok and the north-south line to Singapore.

Squalid and disease-ridden as Changi might have been, the men who were sent to camps to work on this railway suffered a much worse fate. The causes of death and sickness in the camps along the route of the railway were starvation, climate, hardship, accidents, occasionally personal violence, neglect, poor physique, despair, neurosis and disease. The diseases included malaria in all its forms, recurrent fevers, dysentery, cholera, scurvy, pellagra, beri-beri, sleeping sickness, hookworm, ringworm, jungle ulcers and abscesses and general toxemia. The fatal casualties of all troops in captivity totaled about more than a third. Nearly every prisoner had some sickness, many had several diseases, and because of their poor diet every man lost weight, and consequently resistance to disease, to an alarming degree. They were always crowded together, so that contagion was inescapable. Washing was difficult, as water was in short supply. In some areas bathing in nearby rivers was allowed only rarely. Dirt encouraged swarms of flies as it was hard to keep eating utensils clean and in the damp heat of the jungle remnants of previous meals quickly went bad. The prisoners became vermin-ridden. The river water held the fearful risk of cholera unless it was boiled. Resistance was low so that the will to live was low too. Sick prisoners often preferred to lie down and die, for death for some was so much easier than going on under such conditions. Roberts, who was a runner and in top physical condition before he was captured, managed to survive these terrible conditions. His physical conditioning had paid him great dividends.

In August of 1945 the Japanese surrendered and the prisoners in Sapper Roberts’ camp were liberated. He was released from captivity on the 30th of August 1945 and was transported to Bangkok. From there he was repatriated back to England. Upon his return home, he and the other returning prisoners of war received the following note from His Majesty King George VI:

BUCKINGHAM PALACE

The Queen and I bid you a very warm welcome home.
Through all the great trials and sufferings which
you have undergone at the hands of the Japanese, you and your comrades have been constantly in our thoughts.
We know from the accounts we have already received
how heavy those sufferings have been. We know also that these have been endured by you with the highest courage. We mourn with you the deaths of so many of your gallant comrades. With all our hearts, we hope that your return from captivity will bring you and your families a full measure of happiness, which you may long enjoy together.

George R.I.

For his service during the war, Roberts was awarded the 1939-45 Star, Pacific Star, Defence Medal and War Medal.[15] These medals hardly seem sufficient reward for the service performed and the hardships endured; however, they were the medals authorized for all the officers, non-commissioned officers and men who were taken prisoner in the Pacific theatre of the war. Jack Firth,[16] an old friend of the author’s who was also captured by the Japanese at Singapore, once commented to the author that "they don’t give medals for being a prisoner of war." Well, perhaps they should have done. It took a great amount of courage to endure and survive the treatment imposed by the Japanese in the camps on the Siam to Burma Railway. Kate Caffrey put it very well in her book Out in the Midday Sun when she wrote the following:

"Courage in battle (which may be the courage of the fool who does not see the risk or the higher kind that shrinks from the terror and still goes ahead) is, rightly, recognized and awarded with decorations. But there is a higher kind still – that of solid endurance, when there is no way of knowing how long one must go on, when there is no sign of light at the end of the tunnel, and always the inner fear that one is forgotten. Sometimes ex-prisoners have felt almost ashamed to admit that they were in captivity, not realising that as prisoners who managed to survive they can justly be regarded as being in a special category of bravery. News, action, hope, company and the cheers of the multitude reinforce the soldier in battle; no such comfort is available to the soldier in enemy hands, whose daily companions are silence and despair."

After his return to England Roberts, who was still a Sapper at that time, re-engaged to complete 22 years of service with the Colours.[17] In 1948 Roberts was sent to Malaya to serve in operations against the Communist insurgents operating in the colony. After spending so much time in the tropics as a prisoner of war, it would have seemed more appropriate to assign him to some other area following his recuperation from the travails of being a prisoner of war. The needs of the service, however, required his presence in the Far East once again. Roberts’ recuperative powers must have been considerable, as many ex-prisoners of war took years to get over the many ailments and diseases they had contracted in the tropics.[18] Roberts, on the other hand, was able to return to Malaya after only three years.

It is not known to which unit of the Royal Engineers Roberts was assigned during his time in Malaya. The following units were there at the time of the counter-insurgency operations:[19]

11 Independent Field Squadron

50 Gurkha Field Engineer Regiment

51 Field Engineer Regiment

74 Field Park

75 Malayan Field Engineer Squadron

410 Independent Plant Troop

For his work in Malaya in 1948, Roberts was awarded the General Service Medal 1918-1964 (GVIR) with clasp [MALAYA].[20] Roberts was a Corporal at the time he served in Malaya and must have been promoted to the rank of Sergeant shortly after his return home.

In 1953 Gerald Roberts completed 18 years of service with the Colours and in that year he was awarded the Long Service and Good Conduct Medal (EIIR). Roberts was a Staff Sergeant at the time he was awarded the medal.[21]

5. EDUCATION AND QUALIFICATIONS

a. Education: Staff Sergeant Roberts earned a Second Class Certificate of Education in January of 1936.

b. Qualifications: Staff Sergeant Roberts qualified as a draughtsman during his military career.

6. MARRIAGE AND PERSONAL INFORMATION

Gerald’s parents, Ernest and Ida Roberts, were living at 118 Lawrence Road in Southsea, Hampshire at the time they received notification that their son had been taken prisoner by the Japanese. Gerald Roberts had a brother-in-law named Roy Alfred George Simmonds. Mr. Simmonds’ name is listed on his death certificate. One may infer from this that Gerald Roberts had a sister who married Mr. Simmonds, as the author could find no evidence to indicate that Gerald Roberts had ever married.

7. DISCHARGE

The date of Gerald Roberts’ discharge from the Army is not known. If he completed 22 years of service with the Colours, then his year of discharge would have been 1957. Since his military service records were not available to the author, his various postings and periods of service are, per force, sketchy. The following tables indicate, as accurately as could be determined, a summary of his service.

Location

Period of Service

Home

16 March 1935 to December 1936

Singapore

December 1936 – 15 February 1942

Singapore, Malaya and Thailand (as a Japanese prisoner of war)

15 February 1942 – 30 August 1945

Home

30 August 1945 – 1948

Malaya

1948 - ?

Home

? – 1957

Location

Period of Service

Home Service

13 years and 222 days

Service Abroad

8 years and 123 days

Total Service

22 years

8. POST SERVICE LIFE

After his discharge from the Army, Gerald Roberts was employed as a local government building inspector, probably in the Portsmouth area where it appears he resided after leaving the service. He worked in this position until his final retirement.

On the 9th of December 1980, Gerald Roberts had a will prepared by his solicitor, Peter Langrish Broadway of South Portsmouth, Hampshire. Roberts was living at 85 Grayshott Road in Portsmouth at the time the will was prepared. The executor of his will was Roy Alfred George Simmonds of Portsmouth. His estate was bequeathed equally to Roy Alfred George Simmonds and Constance Ella Joyce Kelly of Sheffield, South Yorkshire.[22]

Gerald Roberts died at St. Mary’s Hospital in Portsmouth on the 13th of November 1982. The causes of his death were listed as 1a) Congestive cardiac failure, 1b) Renal failure, and 1c) obstructive uropathy.[23] His brother-in-law, Roy Alfred George Simmonds, was the informant of his death. Mr. Simmonds was living at 28 Cornaway Lane in Portchester, Hampshire at the time. Roberts’ death was registered in Portsmouth on the 15th of November 1982.

REFERENCES

Books

1. CAFFREY, K. Out in the Midday Sun: Singapore, 1941-1945 – The End of an Empire. Stein and Day, New York, 1973.

2. HARBOTTLE, T. Dictionary of Battles. Stein and Day, New York, 1971.

3. KINVIG, C. Scapegoat: General Percival of Singapore. Brassey’s, London, 1996.

4. MERRIAM WEBSTER. Geographical Dictionary. Springfield, MA, 1997.

5. PAKENHAM-WALSH, R.P. The History of the Corps of Royal Engineers, 1939-1948. Volume IX. The Institution of Royal Engineers, Chatham, Kent, 1957.

6. SWINSON, A. Defeat in Malaya: The Fall of Singapore. Ballantine Books, Inc., New York, 1969.

Correspondence

1. ANSELL, T. Personal correspondence, 5 February 1999, Dorchester, Dorset.

2. FIRTH, J. Personal correspondence, 13 June 1986, Formby, Liverpool.

3. SUMIDA, TAKASHI. Personal correspondence, 28 September 1998, Tokyo, Japan, with translation of Japanese Prisoner of War Record card.

Documents

Certified Copy of an Entry of Death, QDX 182865.

Japanese Prisoner of War Record card for 1871429 Sapper Gerald Roberts, R.E.

Last Will and Testament of Gerald Roberts.

Welcome Home Letter from King George VI.

Internet Sites

British and Commonwealth Forces at Singapore, 1941-1942.

www.quoteland.com/baronies/war/singapore.html

ENDNOTES

[1] This birth date was obtained from a Certified Copy of an Entry of Death, QDX 182865, General Register Office, 18 September 1998. Roberts’ Japanese Prisoner of War Record (JPOWR) card shows his date of birth as the 12th of November 1914. Attempts were made to locate his birth certificate by looking for births on the 12th of November in 1913 and 1914. All attempts were unsuccessful.

[2] The Sapper, February 1983, p. 3.

[3] This medal is in the author’s collection.

[4] The Sapper, February 1936, p. 188.

[5] Captain Thomas Ansell, R.E. (Retd.), formerly 1868811 Sergeant Thomas Ansell, recalls attending the Searchlight Commander’s Course with Gerald Roberts. He remembers his being about 5’8" or 5’9" tall, open-faced and cheerful. Sergeant Ansell also was sent to Malaya, but he volunteered for the Royal Engineer Works Service and was sent to Kota Bahru were the Japanese invasion of the peninsula began. He withdrew back to Johore and was posted to Java before the fall of Singapore, where he was assigned to a Royal Engineers team working with American engineers on airfield and camp construction. Ansell returned to the U.K. in December of 1943 and was appointed Temporary Lieutenant on the 4th of June 1946. He was promoted Temporary Captain on the 1st of November 1947 and was granted a Regular Army Short Service Commission on the 4th of June 1952. He retired from the Army in 1959.

[6] Letter to the author from J. Firth dated 13 June 1986.

[7] Some of this unit managed to escape to Sumatra and returned home after the fall of Singapore.

[8] Corps History, Volume IX, p. 135.

[9] HARBOTTLE, T., pp. 172 and 260.

[10] Corps History, Volume IX, pp. 153-154.

[11] This is the date of his capture given on the JPOWR. The JPOWR also indicates that he initially was held prisoner in Singapore.

[12] CAFFREY, K., pp. 187-190.

[13] Sumida translation of the JPOWR.

[14] There are some interesting notes made on Roberts’ JPOWR. Apparently, another prisoner by the name of R.G. Roberts (ID No. XXV 14436) was mistakenly confused with Gerald Roberts by the Japanese camp administrators. R.G. Roberts was sent to the 15th sub-camp in Fukuoka, Japan on the 29th of September 1944. Fukuoka was one of the industrial cities and prefectures that was heavily bombed by the Allies during the war. Fukuoka is located on the north side of Kyushu Island and its primary industry was steel production. It was also a coal rich area. Many Koreans, who were Japanese subjects at that time, were brought over to Japan during the war to work in the coal mines. It is possible that enemy soldiers with engineering skills may have been useful to the Japanese in a prisoner of war camp near Fukuoka, not only as forced labour, but also for their technical skills. Roberts’ JPOWR was signed by a Japanese official named Kusuyama. He was the Japanese official who amended the form to correct the erroneous entries made regarding R.G. Roberts.

1871042 Sapper R.G. Roberts also survived the war. He enlisted in the Royal Engineers on the 5th of September 1934 and was probably assigned to Singapore with one of the four Royal Engineers Fortress Companies stationed there. According to The Sapper magazine of October 1947, R.G. Roberts extended to complete 12 years of service with the Colours in August of 1947. During this same month he re-engaged to complete 22 years of service. By the time he left the Army he had reached the rank of Warrant Officer Class I. The Sapper magazine of May 1982 lists him in the Deaths of Old Comrades section.

[15] The medals are all in the author’s collection.

[16] 1870074 Staff Sergeant John Firth, R.E. was serving in the 30th Fortress Company when the Japanese took Singapore. He was captured and put to work on the Siam to Burma Railway. He was also released in August of 1940 and flown to Burma by the New Zealand Air Force

[17] The Sapper, October 1946, p. 48. It is interesting to note that Staff Sergeant John Firth mentioned in the note above appears on the same list for re-engagement to complete 22 years of service. 1863544 Warrant Officer Class I J.W.S. Lister, whose medals also are in the author’s collection, appears on this same list.

[18] Warrant Officer Jack Firth actually never did recover completely from the intestinal ailments he contracted as a Japanese prisoner of war. He had to leave the Army before the end of his final engagement in order to seek help from a hospital in Liverpool that specialized in the treatment of tropical diseases.

[19] GORDON, p. 335.

[20] This medal is in the author’s collection.

[21] This medal is also in the author’s collection.

[22] Last Will and Testament of Gerald Roberts, dated 9 December 1980.

[23] Death Certificate. Uropathy is a disorder involving the urinary tract