Notes on the life of Hugh Blackwell Layard Dowbiggin: View pages | Gwulo: Old Hong Kong

Notes on the life of Hugh Blackwell Layard Dowbiggin: View pages

((Letter written by Hugh Blackwell Layard Dowbiggin to his son Richard from Camp Stanley.))

Room 11. Block 15, Internment Camp Stanley, Hong Kong

Monday afternoon 3rd September 1945

My dearest son,

The most recent news from you was your 25 word letter written from very near Calcutta on 2nd March 1944!! Which I duly received here on 5th Feb. 1945. Since when your older letters of 11/10/42 (arrived 9/5/45) and 15/8/43 (arrived here 13/6/45) have turned up. Shortly before I got yours of 2/3/44 I had heard from Joan that you were then (ie later in 43) an Acting Colonel, so when I got yours of 2/3/44 I presumed that you were then in Command of a Battalion about to go into the big 'Push' into Burma, probably that army that went through Manipur (Imphal) & on to Mandalay etc. Very naturally have been very anxious and still am, to get news of you and how you have fared in this very successful campaign, and have prayed God daily that you have kept safe and well. Just aching, longing, to hear news of you. I hope that at the very least you have been awarded a DSO and further decorations, which I am sure you have rightly deserved.

In March 1945 I heard from Mother, (30/8/44) that she was safe in England etc. all cards have since been older ones of 1942 and early 1943. So you see that I am not very up to date with news from England etc. From Anne also I have had no recent news. Letters from Canada and USA have been scarce for all of us. I do not appear to have had any letter from her for 6 months and nothing dated later than 3/2/44.

Now at last I can write a long letter to you. You see, we have for some years now, only been able to write one card a month of 25 words, and I have felt that this must be addressed to someone c/o Milden, so that all news could be disseminated thence-- your possible movements were too uncertain to address this scanty card to you. Now we are again under the Union Jack -- or actually at present under the White Ensign. I may be able to write more often.

It is still almost too much for our hearts and minds to fully grasp this fact, and we are still rather numbed by the suddenness of the collapse of Japan and the change in our circumstances. We knew on 17th August that the war was really over out here and from that moment our food supplies from Japs improved, and we began to get Buffalo meat regularly. For 17 months we had no meat rations, then 6 weeks ago we started getting a few ounces per head once a week. Owing to this fact that the Navy was very nervous as to our fate here, (certain groups of internees and Prisoners of War having been massacred around Borneo and elsewhere) they rushed a few ships here without adequate supplies of food stuffs etc. (Transport @ slower ships are expected to arrive any day now)

The situation in H-Kong is very confused for there were some days of interregnum before the Navy turned up, and even then they had inadequate forces to land for Police work, etc. and there has been a good deal of looting by Chinese hooligans, and also by Jap troops, going on in Town and elsewhere.

RN Hospital ship Oxfordshire (Bibby Line) turned up with the advance guard and is taking away serious hospital cases and other sick folk including my partner Dick Hancock. I wrote a letter to Anne by one of the patients, asking him to post it by air at first opportunity.

On Sunday, (as I was coming out for Church service -- Choral Holy Communion) at 9am I heard that I could write an airmail to England and it had to be posted by 10:15am! So I had to rush to my room and dash off a pencil letter on Chinese toilet paper!) to your Uncle Herbert for them at Milden to spread my news.

Certain of what they consider to be essential Services, men have gone into Hong Kong. All plans are still in the air as regards Internees and myself. The Empress of Australia is one of the ships due any day now. Dr. Montgomery says that as I am over 61, it is most likely that I will be evacuated by her or another ship at an early date.

What I want to do (and what I wrote to Anne I hoped would be possible) is to be diverted somewhere en route, or on arrival in Sydney, as soon as possible to Vancouver, spend a month or so with her and then proceed to England. The official ideas appear to be that we shall all be better by spending some months in Australia, where food is plentiful, and where we would be arriving in their early summer, and be fed up and built up physically and mentally, before going to Europe. If we went straight to England, we would be arriving just before winter, and also rationing will still be in force, and food not too plentiful. I feel that after say, three or four weeks at sea, on good food, and four weeks in Canada, likewise, I shall be fit enough to face an English winter.

Not having been in England since 1932 I am very desirous of getting there as soon as possible to see all my loved ones. (June I have not seen for 13 years!) As regards our business here--this must just go hang for a time -- tho I do not anticipate there would be any business for some time, to be done. Health must come first, I feel that few of us Internees are fit to do a days work for any length of time. I was 184 lbs and not over weight, when war broke out here, and for months past I have averaged 117lbs -- so it is manifestly right that I should go away for a year.

By cashing cheques at exorbitant exchange rates, (this was only possible during the last 11 months,) and buying certain articles of food stuffs on the Black Market at still more exorbitant prices, we have managed to keep going. The Japs have not exactly starved us, but certainly we have been much underfed and nourished, and our rations have fallen far short of the minimum laid down by Geneva, or even their own Govt. (for a long time only two ounces of rice a day when Chinese prisoners in our gaols got 26 ozs. pre week) Today, things like Eggs, Butter, Milk, etc. are unobtainable. It is ages since we had any wheat flour, bread or the like, just rice and wamp spinach, a few Chinese melons and yams have been our rations - with issues of peanut or coconut oil - a few ounces of tea and sugar periodically, and for some time none of these.

Apart from the physical side, even more trying has been the mental cruelty - no letters - and since 31st May no newspapers - Chinese or Jap, from which bulletins can be translated and posted up. tho fragments of news has drifted in from time to time telling us how well things were going, of course the Japs hated us to hear this.

Cigarettes were very scarce and expensive - once a month we got an issue of 36 cigarettes at a more reasonable price -- but in the Black Market we were paying yen 45 for 10 inferior types of Jap and Chinese cigarettes! No fresh fruit ever came our way. For the past two weeks I have been smoking like a chimney - visitors to camp have inundated us with Chinese and Jap cigarettes, and since the Navy arrived I have had better types given me. Packets of Players, Pirates, Ruby Queens, Churchman's NO 1 etc. And today I was given 20 cigarettes Cork-Tipped Craven A.

From time to time, my very good friends the Van Wylicks, have sent me parcels of food stuffs - tin food etc. that helped to cheer me up and make a change in ones diet for a meal or two.

A few days ago I met the RN Matron of the Oxfordshire and she told me that the Australian Red Cross had been most generous in sending us wonderful parcels, month by month, NOT ONE of these reached us via the Japs and of all those went from England, USA and Canada we only twice got parcels from England Red Cross, and once from USA (and I had a parcel from Anne and Mother sent off Jly or August 42 which I got in 1945) The Japs are the most inefficient people on earth.

I hear everything in H kong is in rack and ruin. They just repair nothing - anything goes wrong in a car - machinery etc. - just put it aside and let it rust. I will not write of all the dreadful cruelties and atrocities and deaths they have inflicted on anyone who they suspected of helping or any slightest degree of being pro-Allied, or working for us. These are indescribably beastly to write about in such a letter. (They are only too true however.) As you will have learnt, no doubt, in Burma. They are not civilised - that's all. A Jewish refugee Doctor, from Central Europe, tells us that however bad the Japs have been here in H'Kong, they are not as bad as the Germans and what went on in the Concentration camps in Germany, Austria and Poland. etc. at the order of the Nazis.

It has been grand seeing some English and Australian papers of dates as recent as Jly 1945, brought in by the Fleet.

I have much to be thankful for, in that I have kept as fit as I have done. Two years ago I developed double hernia, and been under observation of Professor Digby FCCS, who fixed me up a temporary sort of truss - but I have not worn it for the past month - too hot. I have Not been a patient in the Hospital. Two weeks ago I had to keep to my bed for a few days, and then 4 days more in my room, with a go of Gastric flu and a touch of bronchial congestion in my R. lung, but I am quite ok again, and I hope soon to be playing a game of golf with you.

Of course, I lost everything I possessed, both in my flat at Happy Valley and house on the Peak. Both looted to Hell - not a thing did I save. The final blow was to hear, the other day, that a chest that had been stored/hidden away behind bank books and documents etc, in a cellar of the Mercantile Bank, had recently been looted by Japs. All the cups won by Ebony Idol, the beautiful silver salvers and rose bowls presented to me by the Volunteers Corps when I relinquished command in 1936, silver tea and coffee services (wedding presents), these things I had listed as heirlooms for our children, all gone.

My big bungalow at the Peak, was pulled down, along with 3 adjoining houses, by the Japs to put up their War Memorial on the combined site! Against them, I have put in a formal claim, which I hope, some day, our Govt. and their bankers, will obtain payment for me. It is indeed hard at the age of 61 to start all over again to reconstruct ones foundations. God give me health and strength to do so for the sake of my children, if nothing else - I will trust and hope for the best.

It is rumoured that Arthur Morse, who has been in London for 7 years, is coming back as Chief Manager of the H&S Bank, which is encouraging, if true, for he is a good friend of mine.

Am only allowed to write these three pages - so must stop this very disjointed long winded epistle - I hope soon to have a more collected mind that can concentrate, after being semi-dead from the world for nearly 4 years - you can perhaps appreciate this state of mind, and forgive your Dad's rather drivelling letter.

God Bless you my dear boy, May we meet very soon - sooner than at this moment I could expect to do - I am, as ever, your devoted Daddy, or Father, Longing to hear from you that you are safe and well.

((Hugh was in fact with his daughter Anne for about six months before he was able to get back to England to see the rest of his family. In September 1945, when the liberation of Hong Kong took place my Grandfather was to have been shipped to Australia for recuperation. A tall man over 6'3" I can remember my mother saying he weighed in at about 95 pounds...though she did tend to exaggerate, I do not think he was much heavier. However, he managed to change direction in Manila and get himself onto the Prince Rupert going to the west coast of Canada, headed to Vancouver to his daughter Anne. I have a transcript of his letter describing this journey.))


((The letter is dated Tuesday, October 18th, 1945, which is when the first part was written. The later part was written a few days later on the 23rd.))

HMCS Prince Rupert

My Dearest Hilda -- Well, I have been in this nice ship with a good lot of fellows as officers since pm 29th September - the same night I was taken ill. The kind surgeon Lt. Com. Jack Hackney immediately took me in hand - had a temperature of 105 - and next day I was moved from his cabin, which I was sharing, to the "Sick Bay" & spent 12 days there. Suffering, as his report says, (1) Acute Bronchitis, (2) Primary & typical pneumonia (3) nutrition edema.

On arrival at Pearl Harbour on Fri. 12th - he took me to the US Naval Hospital to have an x-ray taken of my lungs. The report seems OK. I have marvellous care and attention from Dr. H. thanks to him & my constitution made a remarkably quick recovery -- much sooner than he expected. Now I am quite fit again-- tho' I take it easy - and have had at least 2 to 21/2 hours 'lie off' on my bunk every pm after lunch.

On Sat. 13th he allowed me ashore for 2 hours, in am to go into Honolulu to do a little necessary shopping. We have had a fairly heavy swell all the way from Honolulu which makes us roll - this ship was always a roller in peace time. Quite a new ship, converted into a 5500 ton cruiser when war broke out. She did a lot of convoy work in Atlantic for some years.

We were to arrive in Vancouver on the am of the 21st -- but now have orders to go to the Naval base at Esquimalt on Vancouver Island, and are due there early on the 20th. I hope the Red X, and other officials, do not delay me unduly in a camp there.

There are about 60 men of other ranks on this ship to be dealt with & 6 officers to be forwarded to the United Kingdom via Halifax -- as well as Professor Digby & myself, who desire to spend some time in Canada. Since Pearl Harbour, we have also had 2 nice USA officers as passengers.

The various RedX people in Manila were most generous to us (at Pearl Harbour we were given more things by the Canadian Red X) in giving us US Army clothing, blanket, toilet gear, a warm pull-over together with a comfort bag containing lots of toilet requisites, writing paper etc. cigarettes and sweets. I am in consequence, well stocked with safety razors, toilet and washing soap, tooth brushes, tooth powders and creams & toilet powders etc.

I suppose Anne is still in West Vancouver, but not having heard from her since Feb. 1944, I sent my cable to Mr. Blackaller to be on the safe side. Previously had addressed 2 to Anne from Manila Camp. I am so very anxious for good news of Richard, and how he got through the terrific Burmah campaign etc. and wonder if June has been demobilised as a WRNS and what she is doing.

Tuesday 23rd October 1945.

I spent 1 1/2 hours last night, and over an hour in bed this am reading lots of letters written to Anne from England during the past 2 or 3 years. (& have still some more to read) getting up to date in some family news. I learnt all sorts of things therefrom -- ie June's appendix op. Marjorie Carter in England, dear Mr. L M Armstrong's death, (a great shock and loss to me) Joan in Trincomalee etc. etc. and that you were living at the Triangle, (from a plan that Joan sent me it is much more roomy than I had imagined, pictured it). Herbert's 2nd accident - your (gastric flu attack in Chester.)

It was grand to hear from Anne that Mark had obtained his FRCS (Edin). It should help him a lot in his career. Anne was disappointed that Mark does not appear to have sailed on the Queen Elizabeth -- she has had no English mail for some days -- trust she gets one soon.

It was a delightful surprise to see Anne standing on the wharf as the ship came along side at Esquimalt, on the morning of the 20th -- she was early on board to embrace me, - she is looking well-naturally a little matured. Very smart in grey suit, fur cap - silk stockings and new skin shoes & after a time in the wardroom, the Red X drove Anne, Prof. Digby and myself out to Colwood Golf Club House, now a RedX convalescent home. A most delightful place, lovely park, flowers and golf course. I would not have minded staying there for a few weeks (if Anne's home was not here) to recuperate.

After lunch there and a gift of some clothing (air force stuff -- nice cotton shirts, 2 ties, a pr of thinnish tweed trousers, 2 thick vests, 2 warm long underpants, a sort of jacket pullover) I was told I was free to go with Anne, whenever I wished. They posted a letter and sent a cable to you, free of charge, then Capt. Curry RCN called for us and my luggage & drove us to their charming home in the dockyard. He is younger than me - 56 - they treated me just like a long -lost brother and made us feel at home, from the moment I crossed their doorstep. Lovely garden and view there from, - sat out in the sun enjoying the view for an hour or so then into a scrumptious tea, and later a wonderfully cooked dinner, and I was sent to be early and they made me have breakfast in bed!!

At 10:30 we all left in their car - they went to check our luggage whilst I had talks with Mr. D. L. Newbigging and Mrs. Oliver, The Currys, Fred Toone and his wife & child ((DavidBellis: Newbigging was in Stanley Camp - were any of the others that he lists here?)) lunched with us at the Empress Hotel, then Anne and I caught the 1:30 ship to Vancouver, of which she has written to you. Quite a rough passage. Had tea at 4pm. Discovered a good barber on board and had my hair cut by him very well - I needed it ! We were 45 minutes late arriving at Vancouver and were met by Mr. Blackaller, (pouring with rain!) and drove to their home to find Patsy asleep in bed. Nice supper with them in their home.

Anne has kindly given me her bed, have lovely hot baths of an evening. She and I spent the whole of Monday in Vancouver, RedX called for us and took us into town where I visited immigration and RedX offices. Had Mrs. Cambridge to lunch with us, and spent 1 1/2 hours in Spencers' store, where, through the kindness of my friend Mr. Gale, I was given a Priority Card, entitling me to buy certain clothing etc, at reduced rates, (A great reduction in some cases) allowed to Repatriated personnel, etc. I was fitted for a dark blue suit, a pr of brown shoes, bought 3 shirts (only allowed 2 really) a felt hat, tweed cap etc. Next time I go I will get black or blue socks, warmer pyjamas and suitcase etc. I also bought a cheap diary, Liquid Petroleum, which Dr. Hackney said to use very sparingly, (and to take no other aspirants) and a supply of vitamin tablets.

I had got Can//221.50 equivalent of 50 pounds clothing allowance from RedX which I banked with Spencers, and opened a credit account with them. Will buy everything needed there. The RedX, have told me I can spend a month here and cross Canada and Atlantic when I like, a great boon. If I had gone with the 'gang' they would have paid my train & ship expenses, and the British Govt. would have later recovered it from me in England. Now I pay them myself over here--it comes to the same thing in the long run, and I can arrange it all right.

All sorts of forms had to be filled in & signed etc. Anne had to guarantee that I would not be a charge on the Canadian Govt.!! I will tell you about Anne's house, Patsy etc. in my next letter. I make myself as useful as possible about the house.

Everyone remarks what a wonderful recovery I have made already & how well I am looking - (which latter is a fact) I was granted cards for double rations on which to recuperate. Anne is waiting for us to go up to the village so I must close up. She has just received a letter from June written from Berkhamsted.

God Bless you dear, and keep you fit & well

Ever so much love from Hugh