My Dearest Hilda… POW’s letter to wife
David Bishop (RGS staff 1993-2006) taught History and Politics at RGS, latterly becoming Head of Careers. David’s Uncle, Alan Newman, was a prisoner of war in Singapore between 1944-1945 and in one of the annual church assemblies for Remembrance, David shared his Uncle’s story.
Maybe some former students will recall the assembly in 2005 where I focussed on my Uncle Alan Newman (1906-1975). He joined the 137th Field Regiment, Royal Artillery in March 1941 at the age of 35 and was shipped out to defend Singapore from the Japanese invasion in June 1941. By 15 February 1942 some 70,000 British troops, including my Uncle, had surrendered to the advancing Japanese army. The whole concept of surrender was alien to Japanese culture and it was regarded as weakness and abject failure, where committing suicide (kamikaze) was preferable to admitting defeat.
Thus, British prisoners of war were treated appallingly in the heat, with exhaustion, starvation, bullying, torture and harsh cruelty. My Uncle had been a strong, fit 14-stone man before he went out there, but on his return weighed about six stone. He was involved in building the notorious Burma-Siam railway, a Japanese endeavour which claimed thousands of British and Commonwealth servicemen’s lives.
Alan Newman was born in Friern Barnet on 27 October 1906. He married Hilda Bissell on 19 October 1927 and fathered three children, Olive, Mary and Margaret, leaving them all behind when he set sail for Singapore. Throughout his time as a POW he kept a diary, written in pencil on rice paper. This was highly illegal and, had he been caught, he would have been executed. He bequeathed this diary to the Imperial War Museum on his death in 1975.
In my Remembrance assembly I read out a poignant letter (see below) which he had written to his wife Hilda on 10 February 1944 [transcription with thanks to the Imperial War Museum]. Even in his darkest hour Alan found hope for the future. Perhaps this resonates today with the current Covid restrictions, whilst also providing some perspective for those finding these times challenging.
Alan had been part of the ‘forgotten army’, thousands of miles away, but was determined to survive in spite of a 4×4 inch ulcer on his leg which was nearly amputated. On Alan’s return to England in May 1946, as well as losing almost eight stone, he was ill and terribly emaciated. Regardless of the odds against him, he had remained resilient to the end with an iron determination to have a wonderful reunion with his wife and daughters. The thought of them all had kept him going, even in the depths of adversity, together with his strong Christian faith. He never discussed his POW experiences with anyone but his diary is a fitting memorial in itself. After the horrors of war, he and his family moved to the Kent countryside where he and Hilda became sub-postmasters at Knatt’s Valley Post Office. Here he was able to appreciate England’s green and pleasant land.
A selection of entries from Alex Newman’s Diary