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CWGC Commissioner Sir Bill Rollo recalls the fate of his grandfather during Singapore tribute

15 February 2017

Commonwealth War Graves Commissioner, Sir William Rollo has delivered a moving speech at a remembrance service marking the 75th anniversary of the Fall of Singapore.

During the ceremony, at CWGC Kranji War Cemetery, in Singapore, Sir William recalled the fate of his New Zealander grandfather, CC Best, who escaped Singapore in 1942 but went missing and was never seen again.

Sir William also unveiled a plaque dedicated to the men and women of Malaya Command.

Below is the full speech:

“Ministers, Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen.

“We’ve come here today to remember those who died in and around Singapore during the Second World War.  4500 men and women are buried here, and the names of 24,000 whose bodies were never found are recorded individually on the Memorial behind us. They include those who died fighting, principally in 1941 and 1942, under Malaya Command, those who died as prisoners of war, and, as always, those who died through accident and sickness in their daily business.

“The Commonwealth War Graves Commission, which I represent here today, looks after the mortal remains of these men and women, as it does those of all 1.7 million men and women who lost their lives in the Commonwealth Armed Forces in the two great wars of the last century. All are commemorated equally, without regard to rank, race or service, on the basis that equality of sacrifice should be equalled by equality of commemoration. 

“We do so on behalf of all the Commonwealth nations, but in particular the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, India, New Zealand and South Africa who together support the Commission’s work. And we acknowledge with much gratitude the support of the Singaporean government in all that we do. 

“This was not a campaign to recall with satisfaction. There were many reasons for the result, good and bad, but it resulted in defeat, in the death or captivity of most of those involved, and in destruction and hardship, amongst many others, for the civilian populations of Malaysia and Singapore. In the long run it brought catastrophe even to those temporarily triumphant in 1942.

“But today is not about strategy. It is about people. Soldiers, or sailors, or airmen, of any nation, don’t choose the campaigns in which they fight. They are told where to go and they have to get on with it, whether fighting in the jungle for which they had not been trained, piloting old and obsolete aircraft, or putting to sea in ships without air cover. Civilians in wartime are even less in control of their fate,

“I have a personal stake in this. My grandfather, a New Zealander, was a surveyor here between the wars, who escaped from Singapore with 2 friends on a small sailing boat, He made it to Sumatra and boarded a ship bound for Australia which was never seen again. My grandmother was interned. And my father had been a young officer on HMS Repulse but mercifully had left her before she came to the Far East - or I would probably not be standing here.

“It is impossible not to be moved, reading about this campaign, by the courage, dedication and discipline of people who saw all the certainties of their lives collapsing around them, and can have had few illusions about the outcome, but continued to do their jobs to the best of their ability. “Nothing is easy in war, but it is relatively easy to be part of a victorious force. Much more difficult to be part of a losing one. Still more so to be a PoW.

“So for those of us who were not there, let us exercise our imaginations, look around us now, and see, not rows of headstones, but individuals, often very young, who did their duty, and deserve our respect and thanks for the sacrifice they made.”

Afterwards, Sir William unveiled the plaque on behalf of the Commission at CWGC Kranji War Cemetery.

The plaque reads: “This plaque commemorates the 75th anniversary of the Fall of Singapore. Dedicated to the 137,000 men and women of Malaya Command who defended Singapore and Malaya in 1941-42 and to those who continue to defend Singapore today. Lest we forget.”