Frank ROBERTS [????-????] | Gwulo: Old Hong Kong

Frank ROBERTS [????-????]



Mr Roberts was one of the men the Japanese sentenced to imprisonment, and he was sent to a prison in Canton. He later wrote an article, "The Journey Back", which described his release from prison and return to Hong Kong at the end of the war. The article appeared in the Hong Kong Police magazine in the 1950s.

Richard Morgan has posted the text of the article to:

This is the full text of the post/article I made on the Stanley Internment Camp Yahoo Group.

I recently came across the Dix Noonan Webb catalogue concerning the 2016 sale of the George Cross of John Fraser, Assistant Attorney General, who was one of the group of 33 executed on 29 October 1943. The catalogue is located here :-


I noticed that whilst it relies heavily of extracts from G. Wright-Nooth’s “Prisoner of the Turnip Heads”, it also references “The Journey Back” by Frank Roberts, which is not easy to find. This article by Frank Roberts, appeared in a 1950’s edition of the Hong Kong Police Magazine. I have a copy which I made many years ago. I didn’t note down which edition, and it seems not to be one of those online via HKUL. - perhaps a 1952 edition, at which time they were published quarterly. I have scanned it using OCR and have corrected it and reformatted by hand, and it is set out below as it might be of general interest.


Apart from their return to HK, the article discusses the conditions in their prison in Canton. I wonder where that was, and why they only arrived there in June 1945? I’ve read elsewhere of POWs being detained on Shameen Island, but he doesn’t specify a location in his account. There are many individuals mentioned in the article, including matters concerning the personal effects of John Fraser, Preston Wong and Walter Scott.


In the final paragraph he highlights that there were 15 members of his group returning to HK, including Charles Boxer, and some of the bankers, but the article lists only 14, and some of the names are spelt phonetically, probably from memory. The correct spellings are, I believe, Camidge, Leiper, Bunje and H Foy.  Amongst the group is William Anderson who was sentenced to 15 years imprisonment together with Frank Roberts and 4 others in October 1943. Haddock, Hardy and Rutledge were sentenced to 15 years during the same trail as Colonel Newnham, Captain Ford and Lt Gray in December 1943.





One of the outstanding events, which I remember, was the train journey from Canton to Kowloon on 22 August, 1945. It was indeed the journey back, from imprisonment to freedom, from confined foul air to freshness, from despair to hope, To see the faces of people other than guards or fellow prisoners, to dream ahead to the meeting again of old friends instead of seeing the enemy constantly at one's side. Yes, it was the journey back, from the grave to life.


The journey to Canton is a different story and one which may someday be written together with other matters, all of which are true and occurred between the fateful 7 July, 1943 and the journey back.


If I remember correctly, 22 August, 1945, fell on a Tuesday. About four days before this, the fifteen of us, all prisoners, were marched from our cells to another room in the prison. There, the prison commandant, a Japanese Major spoke to us and Charles Boxer translated in approximately these words, "An armistice has been arranged between your country and mine. Should negotiations prove successful, you will be returned to your friends. Now, go back to your cells and act like soldiers until the outcome is known. That is all”.


These vital words made us break the prison rule not to talk. If we had done so before, it would have meant that the food ration would have been halved as a punishment, and this may well have proved fatal to all of us.


In my cell, ten by six feet, were crowded Commander Douglas Craven, W. J. Anderson, then Controller of Stores and now in Japan. Gamage, manager of the Chartered Bank, Cruikshank of the same Bank. Time does not matter in these circumstances.


In the daytime, blankets had to be folded in a certain way and woe betide the individual caught using the blanket as a cushion. To sit, one had to bend the knees and put the feet under the buttocks, crossing the ankles to do so. The prescribed kneeling position was effected by kneeling with the feet stretched out straight out to the rear and then sitting on the soles of the feet. This position quickly led to unbearable cramp and soreness of the knees.


A "banjo" was placed at the far end of the cell and this reduced the floor area to three boards each when sleeping at night. We lay alternately head to foot and it was a case of when one turned, all turned.


Early in June 1945, when we first entered the cell, it was decided to elect a captain of the cell and the lot fell upon myself. Because of the sickness in our group, it was imperative to enforce the "no talking" rule. As I have mentioned before, the penalty for breaking the silence, besides corporal punishment, would be a collective food cut.


Coconut matting ran the whole length of the corridor outside the cell doors and the guards, walking silently in their slippered feet, used to peer through the spy-hole in order to ensure that the order was obeyed. One was not permitted to look at the spy-hole but had to face the blank wall, which made it extremely difficult to detect whether anyone was observing us. However, opportunity was taken when folding and unfolding blankets to “prison whisper” to each other if the coast was clear.  My position was next to W.J. Anderson and we carried on a conversation by means of the deaf and dumb alphabet and the morse code, extending one finger for the dot and two fingers for the dash. Another occupation was house-designing which was done with pieces of torn paper. The plan of the house under construction was placed in the foot space between us and away from the door, so that the guards could not see what was happening. Many fantastic designs were evolved.


Tasks were allotted to each person in the cell, from passing the rice bowls through the six inch drop aperture in the cell door, to sweeping the floor with a small piece of teased rope. The daily "banjo" parade was quite a feature but the time came when only one person was allowed from the cell daily. The floor of the cell was covered with movable wood sections and plugging the cracks between these sections in order to keep out the crawly specimens, was done by carrying back into the cell, inside the “banjo", long narrow strips of cardboard. These were obtained from some paper cutting machines which had been dumped near the sluice used for "banjo" emptying.


Many are the incidents which occurred during this period and one in particular stands out in my memory. This was the sound of the digging of graves outside the cell window, which was fortunately stopped by the heavy rain which fell continuously up to the time of the commandant's announcement about the armistice. Once the announcement had been made frantic steps were taken to fit us out with clothes for the return journey. A pair of coolie shorts and a khaki blouse were run up on the machine, by the "tailor". A pair of slippers made from rubber tyres and without tops, were also provided. We could not be described as well dressed, but the clothing served to cover the human frame in the usual custom of civilised countries.


On the morning of 22 August, 1945, we were called early and giver a decent meal. Food had improved in quality and quantity since the disclosure that an armistice had been arranged. We then knew that we were caching a train back to Hong Kong. Before knowing this, we had discussed at some length, the manner in which we would get to Hong Kong once we were re- leased. It. was only ninety miles away but an impossible journey for m on foot because of our physical condition. Some of you in the Colony today saw us on our return and will know what I mean.


We were then taken to the prison office, where much to our surprise, our clothing which had been taken from us in Stanley in 1943, was handed back. My bundle included the clothing of John Fraser and Preston Wong and also the Bibles of John Fraser and Walter Scott. All these items were later returned to their next-of-kin. John Fraser's and Preston Wong's, together with their last messages,were delivered by myself, and Walter Scott's Bible through his solicitor "Judge" Wadeson.


We were still chary of a trap, as we all knew that the graves, that we had heard being dug, were for us. The blessed rain combined with a clay soil had fortunately delayed their completion.


We had also heard, a prison whisper that an allied plane had flown over the-prison and dropped a message. This was reputed to have demanded immediate re-lease of the fourteen British and twenty-three American prisoners. Apparently, our-people had thought that one of our members, Ralph Hardy, had died from his severe illness. I am very happy to say that Ralph was with us and is at present in Hong Kong. No American prisoners were released with us, but I do know that there were other European prisoners in the same block. One was in the next cell, and during.


the bustle and excitement of our own release, I managed to speak to him. He was alone in that cell and he told me that he had been there for several years. Unfortunately, I did not have a further chance to get his name, nationality or other details. However, on arrival at Hong Kong, I informed the authorities that there was at least one other European, possibly a Frenchman in the prison.


Before leaving the cell for the last time, I went through all the blankets and picked out the best one. I folded it lengthwise and wrapped it around my middle, which owing to my usual slimness did not show too prominently. Bill Anderson was not too keen on the idea, but considering the fact that Dixon was laid out with dysentery, the risk in order to keep him warm on the way back would be well worth while.


You can imagine my surprise when on boarding the train, I found that the Japanese had provided blankets for Dixon and there were two N.C.O. s acting as escort, I was forced to sit with the blanket wrapped around my middle until we reached Kowloon.


During the train ride we were not handcuffed as we had been on the way up, and, in addition, the journey was made in daylight without air attacks. This compared very favourably with the journey up which lasted seventeen hours during which there were three air attacks. The journey down was not without its incidents how- ever, and at one stage we were told to duck down below the windows as there was a possibility of guerillas firing on the train. The radio was working continuously ensuring that the various sections of the line were clear before the train proceeded.


As the countryside passed by, I thought to myself “It will not be very long before we reach the bridge”. Just then, Bill Anderson and the others returned to the compartment and Bill touched me on the shoulder and said, "Robbie, we have just been discussing out in the corridor which person stood the most and carried on and came out best. It is agreed that it was you”. I said “Thanks Bill”. That was all I could say. The proudest moment of my life. After all the ups and downs of those trying years, to be spoken to in such a way is something that I will treasure for the rest of my life. Strangely enough, whilst my throat felt full and dry, "Trader Horn", one of the Japanese N.C.O's, opened a bottle of Saki. He had a very small glass and he passed it around the compartment. Thus we had a drink in Chinese territory. Then the train rumbled over the bridge at Lo Wu and we were home. The Saki was still operational and "Trader Horn" passed it around again, not realising that he had given us a farewell drink on foreign soil and a welcome one on home soil.


At Kowloon, Colonel "Pig" was there to meet us. Some of you will remember "Pig". I certainly do. We lined up, having been well-trained in a foreign word of command and ‘Pig” walked along the line. He said “Welcome back, gentlemen. I see you are in good condition”.  Since no word was said to this solicitous welcome, he produced a packet of Lucky Strike cigarettes and went along the line giving each person one of them. Unfortunately for “Pig”, some of us tacked on to the end of the line next to the fifteenth man, so that “Pig” went on distributing cigarettes until he came to the end of the packet.


Outside the railway station a fleet of large cars was drawn up, each with a chauffer and Japanese officer escort, all complete with swords. We travelled in convoy to the Military Hospital at King George V School where we were given cigarettes and a meal was prepared. Whilst waiting for the meal, one of the medical orderlies told us a tale of something the size of a golf ball being dropped on Japan and causing them to surrender. 


A tasty meal of stew and meat was then served followed by coffee, delicious coffee with plenty of milk and sugar. Beds were made up with clean sheets and wonderfully soft mattresses, and after being given a sleeping draught, we quickly fell into a heavy sleep.


The morning of 23 August, 1945, dawned and many visitors came to see us, including Dun Ruttonjee and his kindly father bringing a suitcase full of ten thousand yen notes.


Later the Colonial Secretary, Mr. Gimson arrived and we were handed over to him. A launch trip across the harbour to Queen's Pier, a fast run to Stanley and beds in Tweed Bay Hospital and the meeting of old friends. The journey back was over.


The fifteen involved: Commander D. Craven, O.B.E. R.N., Major Charles Boxer, O.B.E., Lieut. Commander Young R. N., Lieutenant Dixon, M.B.E., N.Z.R.N.V.R., Sub-Lieutenant J. R. Haddock, H.K.R.N.V.R., Sergeant R. Hardy of the R.A.F. (awarded D.C.M.), Sergeant R. Rutledge of the Canadian Army (also awarded D.C.M.), W. J. Anderson, Gamage, Cruikshank, Dr. Bunji, G. Leaper, M. Foy and myself.

In the report by Frank Roberts, he uses the word 'banjo' several times. He means 'benjo', which was the then current Japanese word for toilet. The literal meaning of 'benjo' is 'convenient place'.