This is the true story as told to me Audrey Nola Cook (nee Phillips) wife of Clifford Montague Cook who was born on 7th November 1917 in Alexandra Road, Plymouth, and who with his family removed to Buckfastleigh and then in late teens removed to 92 Knighton Road, St. Judes, Plymouth.
His wartime memories started when he volunteered and joined the Royal Navy in September 1939. After initial training in H.M.S. Drake, Clifford was posted to H.M.S. Glorious, but on reporting to the recruitment officer, he discovered he had left his passport in his billet. Told to go back and get it, he found on his return to the recruiting office, the ship had its full complement of ship's company. As we all know the fate of H.M.S. Glorious, it meant that he had survived one of his nine lives.
THE SINKING OF HMS GLORIOUS
But more was to come.
Clifford was then drafted to H.M.S. Tamar, a shore base in Hong Kong. He, with others, were shipped to the Far East. On reporting to the Duty Office, Clifford reported to the person he thought was the senior rate, as this person had a bald head, a very nice desk and comfortable chair. Clifford gave a smart salute and proceeded to give details of his capabilities as a Leading Writer. This took approximately some ten or twelve minutes, when the bald gentleman then said to Clifford 'very nice', now go and tell it to the senior rate at that end of the room'. This proved to be a young man with a full head of hair sitting at a rickety desk and metal chair, with little to tell anyone he was in charge. What Clifford did not know was that in adversity the person he had first addressed would be instrumental in saving his life in captivity. He would learn that this man's name was George Bainborough.
As Christmas 1941 approached, the situation in the Far East was extremely worrying. The Japanese were making progress down the Malayan Peninsular toward Singapore and they were even closer to Hong Kong, approaching via the New Territories on the Chinese mainland. As Christmas Eve drew near, the Japanese did a dastardly thing by poisoning the water supply to Hong Kong, and because of this there was no way the defenders of Hong Kong could carry on the struggle to survive. During this brief period sniper fire was prevalent and on being given the order to collect the pay ledgers etc from the pay office, Clifford, while negotiating the outside corridors of H.M.S. Tamar had a bullet fly past his head, and not knowing anything different, he put his head out and shouted 'don't shoot - I am British'. He found out later it had been a Japanese sniper who had fired and then vanished. So that was another of Clifford's nine lives.
Hong Kong surrendered at 12 noon on Christmas Day 1941 and so began four years of captivity in ruthless hands. In the immediate aftermath of surrender they were told to carry a small amount of kit and Clifford and another leading rate were instructed by their senior Officer to take great care of the pay ledgers. However whilst making their way to the marshalling point, they were accosted by a Japanese soldier with a fixed bayonet and told to throw the ledgers into the water, and whilst Clifford's companion said they had been told to guard them, Clifford retorted that as the Japanese had a bayonet pointing at them he wasn't going to argue and throw the ledgers into the water they did. They were marched to Shamshuipo, a prison camp near Stanley. There Navy, Army and Civilian personnel were thrown together to await their fate.
Shamshuipo PoW Camp
In Clifford's case this was work detail until sometime in September 1942 when the Japanese decided they needed fit men to work in the Docks in Japan and some eighteen hundred men of all services were medically examined by men in white overalls and rubber gloves, with phials who took specimen fluids from their anus and if found sufficiently fit they were sent to the docks to board the 'Lisbon Maru'.
The Navy chaps in Hold No.1, the Army lads in Hold No. 2 and others in Hold No. 3. This became an incident in the Pacific War of horrendous proportions and is well documented in the war of the Far East.
Battened down in the holds when the torpedo struck, the Lisbon Maru settled in shallow water on a sand bank, but ready to slide to the bottom of the ocean as the currents swirled around her. Some eight hundred lads managed to hack their way out of the holds, out into the sunshine but approximately a thousand drowned when the ship eventually rolled on her side and slipped beneath the waves.
Clifford spent some eight hours in the water before being picked up by another Japanese ship with several of his mates, among them George Bainborough and another good friend to Clifford, a young lad of the Royal Scots, Donald Plimer. Clifford said that when picked up by the Japanese ship he was as naked as the day he was born. His most vivid memory of this horrific event was that of seeing a man who had been in Sham Shuipo, and who was a greedy man by virtue of never sharing anything during their nine months in that camp, ie never parting with any of his clothes to fellow prisoners who had very little, and wearing all he had whilst in the hold of the Lisbon Maru including a great coat, getting onto the deck of the ship, jumping into the water and sinking like a stone. His greed had killed him; something Clifford never forgot.
Clifford and his close friends found themselves taken to a camp in Osaka, a base on the river that linked Osaka with Hiroshima, although many miles apart.
Put to work in the Docks, loading and unloading ships seemed to take men’s minds off the endless days, months and years of captivity, but starvation diets and little recourse to medicines, eventually took their toll of their health. A young Japanese girl, who had been caught trying to pass in quinine to the medical doctor, was served barbarously and then killed, by her own people. Many times, Clifford looked at the moon and said to himself that it shone over his home on the other side of the world, and again at Christmas time, his thoughts were of home and the wonderful Christmas’s they had had with his parents, brother and two sisters.
Ill-health took its toll of Clifford, who suffered from Beri Beri and Malaria. One day towards the end of the fourth year of captivity, Clifford felt he could not go on and went to a quiet corner of the camp and lay down to die. However, the ever-watchful George Bainborough found him, got him to his feet and shook him like a rat - Clifford’s words - and told him to get a grip. They all felt that things would go their way eventually. The young Royal Scots laddy, who was six years younger than Clifford, looked up to him as a father, because, when Plimer was not well, Clifford would get his own food and share it with him. This was never forgotten by Donald Plimer when they returned eventually to the United Kingdom. Any misdemeanours, and punishment was meted out to all, either by standing all day or all night in pouring rain, or by parading and watching the Japanese burn their letters from home in front of them, before they had a chance of reading their contents.
Came the day the Atom Bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Clifford said “whilst we saw no mushroom cloud, or heard anything, we knew something had happened, as the guards were jumpy and very wary”. He went on to say that “not a bird sang or any breeze rustled the trees. Everything was stillness and silent. It was ghost-like”. On the third day, and the second bomb on Nagasaki, the guards disappeared and they were left wondering what had happened, but not for long. Aircraft eventually flew over the camp dropping food parcels, and leaflets telling them to stay where they were, help and freedom was not far away.
And so it proved. The Australians came marching into their camp within days, giving them clothing and blankets, and hand-shakes all round.
After four years as a prisoner, Clifford, at five foot ten inches tall and twelve stone in weight at the beginning of the war, was now five foot ten inches but just SIX STONE in weight. Emaciated as they were, in order to build them up, Clifford, George, Donald Plimer and many, many others were taken to Canada and treated royally by all Canadians, particularly those men handling the trains and stations in the Rocky Mountain region. I still have the enamel cup, which was the top of a tea flask owned by a Canadian engineer, which Clifford used the rest of his life as a shaving mug, but in Canada drank his tea from.
Clifford returned home in the French liner ‘Ille de France’ during the third week in November 1945. Home to his mother, a brother, who had served in the Middle East in the Army, and his two sisters - all there to welcome him back. One sister had gone to Friary Station to meet him off the train, but failed to recognise him so returned home to 92 Knighton Road, but he was already there to embrace her. She must have passed him and not recognised him. One can only imagine the emotion of that re-union, marred by the fact that Clifford’s father had died whilst he had been a prisoner. His father had been caught in a bomb blast in an air raid on Plymouth, was severely injured, and died in a hospital in Newquay months after the incident.
The end of this story is that Clifford and I met up and courted each other and married on 10th April 1948 at St. Jude’s Church, Plymouth. We had two sons, and on our forty-second anniversary, 10th April 1990, Clifford quietly passed away having suffered cancer for several months. His family were by his bedside as he wished.
A deeply loving and honourable man, he was a good son to his mother, a kind and loving husband, and a shining example to his sons, who miss his words of wisdom to this day.
A big thank you to Julia Cook for letting us share this story.
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