08 February 2017

Daughter who escaped Singapore in 1942 returns to pay tribute to father who stayed behind

For Rosemary Fell, this year’s visit to Singapore may well be her last.

Mrs Fell, from Axminster, in Devon, is attending a commemorative service marking the 75th anniversary of the Fall of Singapore, along with other children of volunteers who gave their lives in World War Two.

She will lay a wreath at the ceremony at the CWGC Kranji War Cemetery on behalf of the Malayan Volunteers Group.

The 77-year-old was born in Singapore in 1940, two years after her parents were married in 1938 in the city’s St Andrews Cathedral. Her mother, Kathleen Reeve, was a nurse at Singapore General Hospital and her father, Eric Reeve, was a teacher at Raffles School and then a headteacher at a school in Malacca.

After the outbreak of the Second World War, Eric Reeve joined the 4th Battalion of the Straits Settlements Volunteer Force.

“The volunteer forces were raised as a defence force but they trained at evenings and weekends. They often had to clear up the aftermath of bombings and carry out burials of civilians,” said Mrs Fell.

“My father was in charge of the signals section of the Malacca Volunteer Force. He was moved to defend Singapore on the south coast.

“After the Japanese invaded, the volunteers were taken prisoner and sent to Changi barracks. In October 1942, my father was moved up to the Burma Siam Railway, where he helped construct all the camps for the men who were forced to build the railway. But equipment and food were in short supply.

“He developed an ulcer and, because there was no treatment, they had to amputate his leg below the knee. Then he suffered other illnesses including dysentery and was sent to Chungkai Hospital. He died from a combination of these things in December 1943, two days before Christmas.”

Eric Reeve is buried at Chungkai War Cemetery, near the town of Kanchanaburi in Thailand. Mrs Fell has visited the grave in previous years. She has also attended several ceremonies at CWGC’s Kranji War Cemetery in Singapore, where thousands of Commonwealth forces and Far East Prisoners of War are remembered.

“I‘ve been to Kranji before and I was there in 2015 for the 70th anniversary of the end of the war. It was very emotional,” said Mrs Fell.

“It’s always very poignant. But I think this will be the last time we will ever go out to commemorate. We are all getting older now, even the children. I think it will be difficult to take.”

On January 16, 1942, Mrs Fell and her mother Kathleen Reeve began a journey around the world to escape Singapore before the fall of the city, leaving her father behind.

“My father found a ship for us to leave on, the Aorangi, along with other volunteer families. We travelled south to the port of Fremantle in Perth, Western Australia. My mother found out there was a ship leaving for England, so we flew across Australia to Sydney to catch it.

“We travelled on the SS Ulysses, part of the Blue Funnel Line, but the ship was torpedoed in the Caribbean. Every single passenger and crew was saved and we were rescued by an American destroyer. Then we landed at Charleston, South Carolina, and from there made our way up to New York to stay with my uncle.

“But my mother was determined to get back to England and we caught another liner, the SS Myrmidon, which left Halifax, Nova Scotia, with a convoy of a hundred ships. We finally arrived at Greenock in Scotland in May 1942.

“We moved to London but the bombing was so bad that my mother’s nerves were suffering so we moved to Ipswich and later Devon. After the war, I went to boarding school but my mother was headhunted to return to Malaya to help with the rebuilding effort. She was there from 1947 to 1958 but she came back to visit me every three years.”

Despite the trauma of the war, losing her husband and helping to rebuild a shattered society, Kathleen Reeve lived to 102. She is pictured with her daughter Rosemary after receiving a card from the Queen on her 100th birthday.

Mrs Fell’s visit to Singapore with the Malayan Volunteers Group this month will include trips to other memorials and a visit to the Singapore Naval Base. She has no children herself, but hopes younger generations will continue to commemorate the volunteers who died defending Singapore.

“We started the group so that future generations will continue to take an interest in this part of history. We are interested in the civilian side of the conflict. Ships were torpedoed and bombed, thousands of people were killed or taken prisoner and kept in places like Sumatra. So many prisoners were kept in appalling conditions.

“I think it’s our job as survivors to try to encourage our children to carry on the memory of what happened. There are a few grandchildren in our group and hopefully when they retire, they will take it on. It is a worry, but we need to continue the act of remembrance, so we never forget the sacrifice of others.”

The commemorative event at CWGC Kranji War Cemetery is open to the public and will take place at 4.30pm on Wednesday, February 15.