Archival material, covering the possibility of granting
posthumous gallantry awards to PoWs who had lost their lives in attempting to escape, was discovered
quite by chance while on my first visit to the (then) Public Record Office(PRO) in UK.
The material was in an Admiralty file, the year was 1994. Some years
later it transpired that 15 or so Australian servicemen who had suffered this
fate while serving in Europe,
had been posthumously recognised as early as 1944. However, for those Australian serving in SE Asia who
lost their lives in similar circumstances, postwar recognition
was restricted to just one man out of 22. My research into this issue did not begin in earnest until 1999 when South
Australian Senator, Chris Schacht, was interviewed on local radio concerning a recent visit he'd
made to Sandakan in North Borneo, and had referred to the failed escape attempt by
two Australian soldiers: Albert Cleary and Wally Crease. I suddenly realised that the Admiralty file
I now had a copy of, might hold promise of a new and worthwhile line of research......
Archival material, covering the possibility of granting posthumous gallantry awards to PoWs who had lost their lives in attempting to escape, was discovered quite by chance while on my first visit to the (then) Public Record Office(PRO) in UK. The material was in an Admiralty file, the year was 1994. Some years later it transpired that 15 or so Australian servicemen who had suffered this fate while serving in Europe, had been posthumously recognised as early as 1944. However, for those Australian serving in SE Asia who lost their lives in similar circumstances, postwar recognition was restricted to just one man out of 22.
My research into this issue did not begin in earnest until 1999 when South Australian Senator, Chris Schacht, was interviewed on local radio concerning a recent visit he'd made to Sandakan in North Borneo, and had referred to the failed escape attempt by two Australian soldiers: Albert Cleary and Wally Crease. I suddenly realised that the Admiralty file I now had a copy of, might hold promise of a new and worthwhile line of research......
An article, outlining the case for the retrospective recognition of Far East
PoWs, known to have been executed for attempting to escape, appeared in the
June 2001 edition of "Barbed Wire and Bamboo" - the newsletter of the ex-PoW Association
of Australia. The hope was that the timing of this article would prompt the Department of
Defence/Veterans' Affairs to undertake a thorough review of the case for retrospective recognition
for these men during the Centenary of Federation year (2001). I could not have been
Arising from of a suggestion contained in some February 1943 correspondence between the War Office and the Admiralty, the gallant service of PoWs known to have had been shot as a result of attempting to escape was recognised by the award of posthumous Mention in Despatches (MIDs). At that time the MID was the only posthumous award, apart from the Victoria Cross, that could be granted and the view was expressed that this recognition would be seen as some slight consolation to the relatives of these men who had lost their lives in this manner. Attached to this correspondence were the names of 16 men, including four from Australia and two from New Zealand.
While it took some time before agreement was finally reached on this proposal, the names of the two New Zealanders eventually appeared in a March-1944 London Gazette, followed one month later by those of the four Australians.
In March 1944, a mass escape by allied airforce personnel from the Stalag Luft III - the so-called 'great escape' - resulted in 50 of those recaptured being summarily executed at the express order of Hitler. Of these, four were Australian. In addition there was a New Zealander serving in an RAAF squadron. Once the circumstances of these men's fate became known, posthumous MIDs were quickly gazetted. In addition, four Australian army personnel killed between 1942-45 while serving in Europe, had posthumous MIDs confirmed in an April 1947 Commonwealth Gazette (CG).
The situation with posthumous awards to Australian Far Eastern PoWs proved nowhere near as clear-cut. Wigmore's official history records 27 Army PoWs having been executed for attempting to escape and some June 1945 correspondence held at the National Archives lists the names of 22 Army personnel recommended for posthumous MIDs. These 22 names cover a number of separate escape incidents, yet only three of these names are to be found in CGs, opening up the possibility that Australian military authorities may have failed either to approve or proceed with the other awards.The largest single execution occurred on 6 June 1942, when a group of eight PoWs, all from Victoria and all serving in the 2/ 4th Anti-Tank Regiment, were recaptured soon after their escape from the Tavoy PoW camp in Burma. (Photographs of the 2/4th Anti-Tank Regiment's most famous action in the Malaya.) In spite of spirited appeals on their behalf by their senior officers, all were executed without trial. Forced to act as a witness to these executions, the camp's senior Australian officer, Brigadier A. L. Varley, noted:
Of the eight, only one man's name appears in a CG; and his MID entry is listed as 'live' rather then 'posthumous'. While close relatives of two of the men executed have been located (Quittenton and Emmett), they have been unable to confirm whether they received awards or not.
At the time of writing representations have been made to the Soldiers Career Management Agency (SCMA) to determine whether, despite their names not appearing in CGs, their service records show them to be in receipt of MID awards. Contrasted against the many personal details listed in the attached Tables freely available from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website, I have personally found it quite ludicrous that time delays caused by having to submit applications in writing (presumably to ensure 'confidentiality') have prevented me from determining whether these men received honours and awards, or not, far sooner.
Thus, as things stand at present, there are two possible outcomes:
While I would naturally prefer to wait and receive a response from the SCMA before submitting this article for publication, I see little point in holding back any longer. If the awards were made, then publishing the article now rather than later can be justified on the grounds that no one appears to have been aware of the existence of these awards anyway.
On the other hand, if no awards were made when clearly they should have been, then representations should be made to the Australian Government to correct this situation. It would be most fitting in this, the Centenary of Federation year, for these ill-fated and luckless men to have their service, devotion to duty and gallantry recognised by present-day Australian awards.
*Crease and Cleary are not named in the National Archives file. In June 1945, nothing would have been known of the fate of the 1787 Australian and 641 British PoW's involved in the infamous Sandakan, North Borneo, death march. Of these men, only six Australians survived.
--------WOII Mathew Quittenton---------Gnr Aubrey Emmett-----------Gnr James Wilson------
I subsequently received a reply from the Soldiers Career Management Agency confirming my suspicions that the men had never received any recognition.
An article headlined "Posthumous Awards urged for executed WWII Diggers" and written by journalist Neil Wilson, appeared in the Melbourne Herald-Sun of August 16, 2001. A month or so later, I was interviewed on ABC radio in Adelaide. Neither drew any response from Federal government sources.
Sometime in late 2001 - early 2002, I wrote to an adviser at the Office of the Minister assisting the Minister for Defence, noting, 'Australian PoWs executed by the Japanese for attempting to escape should have received automatic posthumous MIDs, as suggested by the British War Office in 1943 and approved in 1944'.
Both in 2002 and later, Defence latched on to my use of the word 'automatic' and were prepared to play this card for all it was worth. In hindsight, I now see that my selection of 'automatic' to cover awards that were not intended to be subject to a quota system was ill-chosen, but at that time my knowledge of those who had actually received posthumous recognition was restricted to the 37 British and Dominion airforce personnel who had lost their lives in the 'Great Escape', the six Australians and New Zealanders included in the original list of 16 names in the PRO ADM1 file and the names of six Australians found through a National Archives search. It may have been an error on my part to assume that the awarding of 49 posthumous MIDS to the 49 men meant that the process could somehow be construed as 'automatic', however, as the European theatre statistics were indicating at that time, this class of award was obviously not being subjected to the usual quota constraints. Also, while I would not have known precisely when the policy was introduced, nor the conditions stipulated for its award, I would have deduced through entries in the London and Commonwealth Gazettes that such a policy must have come into being somewhere around late 1943 or early 1944.
Nonetheless, after much to-ing and fro-ing of correspondence between various departmental advisers and myself, I felt Defence/Veterans' Affairs were nudging towards a position where a precedent might apply; and if so, a present-day Australian award would be in order for these men. However, Veterans' Affairs first needed to confirm the existence of documentation setting out the terms and conditions under which those men, who had lost their lives while attempting to escape, received recognition.
Veterans' Affairs consulted with the equivalent authorities in UK, but over six months went by before they received a reply. And when they did, it was from the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Defence and Minister for Veterans' Affairs, Dr Lewis Moonie, MP. He stated 'that no documents have been found which support the automatic granting of the MID to PoWs who were killed in their attempt to escape. Such acts were still subject to the usual consideration of the Service Honours and Awards Committee and the Inter- Departmental Committee'. I was advised by Veterans' Affairs therefore that retrospective recognition could not be given.
This news was received just as I was about to set-off on a visit to UK, where I would once again have the opportunity to conduct my own searches at the PRO. Sure enough, within three hours of my arriving there, I had obtained the desired proof; namely, in November 1943, a body, known as the Sub-Committee A, Imperial PoW Committee, had decided that posthumous Mention in Despatches could be granted to PoWs who were found to have lost their lives in making genuine attempts to escape. The operative word in this decision was 'genuine'. Unlike other gallantry awards, the compassionate grounds behind the introduction of this award meant the usual honours and awards quota system need not necessarily apply.
Yet, having provided this crucial, new evidence to Veterans' Affairs, it was only to be told 'The Minister has no discretion and considers the matter closed.'
Parallelling these developments, I had brought the retrospective recognition issue to the attention of Graham Edwards, MP, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary, Defence /Veterans' Affairs. Graham had hoped to address the House of Representatives on this issue on June 6, 2002, this date marking the 60th anniversary of the execution of eight PoWs at Tavoy. Unfortunately, it was not to be. Neither was he able to raise the issue in the House on the next appropriate occasion: Remembrance Day, November 11.
Graham finally got to deliver his speech, on March 18, 2003. (Use 'guided search'-'All current/former senators/members then select Edwards, Graham and 18/03/2003 in from/to date.) To show that retrospective recognition could be given - no matter that almost 60 years had elapsed since the end of WW2 - he drew the House's attention to two precedents:
Late in his address, Graham drew the following analogy.
Unfortunately, as far as creating any publicity was concerned, the timing could not have been worse. With the war against Iraq looming, Graham's speech never got a look-in.
At this time, I knew that Australian military authorities were aware, as early as February 1944, of the November 1943 decision. Around this time also, I had obtained a copy of a National Archives file of some June 1945 correspondence, indicating that the circumstances of the deaths of all save one of 22 Far East PoWs listed for recognition, were deemed to satisfy requirements for the award and would be processed accordingly. This file can be read online (see below for details).
Over the course of my correspondence with advisers from Veterans' Affairs, they have basically resorted to using three arguments to justify the case against retrospective recognition. They can be summarised as follows:
After a war, or campaign, an 'End of War' list is drawn up for actions which, for one reason or another, could not be assessed for gallantry awards during the period of combat. As noted above, for WWII, the time during which these actions could be considered for recognition was eventually set at approximately seven years. For those having the authority or responsibility of administering Imperial/British awards, this time limit clearly made sense, no one would want to see such matters dragging on-and-on indefinitely. Awards to PoWs of the Japanese would have fallen into this category, the majority of these, both 'live' and 'posthumous' being gazetted in 1947. Yet for some reason (except for Breavington, and two 'live' Mention in Despatches for Mull and Danaher, the gallantry of the other 19 men in the June 1945 list was never recognised. The point I would make here is that since these men must at one time have been included in the 'End of War' list, they should not now be prevented from receiving retrospective recognition, just because someone, somehow, somewhere stuffed-up on their behalf.
Not in dispute. But since documentation, dating back to 1945, exists in support of these recommendations, there is no need to conduct a review. Incidentally, while Veterans' Affairs use the term 'review' here, I believe the argument has relevance only for those instances where award upgrades are being sought.
I see this as the most powerful argument against retrospective recognition and one I basically agree with. However, what is meant by the phrase 'reverse the decisions taken by commanders'? In the context of upgrading an existing award then, like many observers before me, I would see this as opening up a veritable Pandora's Box and would certainly class such an action as being potentially divisive. On the other hand, if the sole intention is to bring 'justice' or 'closure' to a situation in the light of fresh evidence (and contemporaneous evidence at that) becoming available showing that awards should have been given, but weren't, then I fail to see how such intentions could be construed as being potentially divisive.
Veterans' Affairs have resolutely stuck to their own line of argument and have failed to address the issues I've raised. I have sensed an unwillingness on Veterans' Affairs' part to accept the detailed evidence that would enable these men to receive retrospective recognition. More than that, an attitude pervades there is little they can do, or should do, about it anyway - it all happened far too long ago. This I cannot accept. If the 'system' badly let-down these PoWs - and their next-of-kin - all those years go, that is still no reason for them to remain let-down by the 'system' almost 60 years later.
Even if Veterans' Affairs find themselves unwilling and unable to grant gallantry awards, the department must surely realise there is a national and moral obligation to finally acknowledge and honour the service, devotion to duty and self-sacrifice of these brave men.
The department might find the following words of Winston Churchill hold some
relevance to this issue.
Writing in 1919 in support of a change in
WWI posthumous recognition regulations, Churchill reasoned: 'I'm sure this would be welcomed by the
country, after all, we owe everything to these men, and they lost everything for
On February 6, 2004, a reported gathering of 10,000 people met at the Botanic Garden in Ballarat, Victoria, to participate in a dedication ceremony for the national Prisoner of War Memorial. Set along a 130-metre walkway, the Memorial lists the names of 35,675 Australians taken prisoner over four wars: the Boer war, both World Wars and Korea.
The Chief of the Defence Force, General Peter Cosgrove, AC, MC, attended the dedication, and said this of those who had battled for some seven years to see the PoW Memorial become a reality: “Those of the bureaucracy who stood in your way should have saved their time and grief. They didn't know what they were up against." I drew some comfort from his words, they spoke volumes for my own experience.
Sources close to the organisers of the Memorial claimed the original intention had been to postpone the opening of the Memorial until the Prime Minister, John Howard, was available to attend. However, given the mortality rate of the ageing former prisoners – reported to be something like 10 per week – and that only about 1800 men and women PoWs remain from the Second World War and the Korean war, the organisers felt they could not wait any longer. Again, these sentiments sat uncomfortably close to my own experience - over three years of unnecessary delays dealing with Veterans' Affairs advisers.
The dedication of the PoW Memorial, and the 62nd anniversary of the fall of Singapore some nine days later, provided an excellent window of opportunity to present arguments on a national stage. Accordingly, letters were sent to six leading ‘dailies’, setting out the background and reasons why these men should now be recognized. Of these newspapers, only ‘The (Melbourne) Age’ published the letter, while the ‘Canberra Times’ opted instead to develop the arguments I’d set out in this webpage. On February 21, 2004, a 1500-word article appeared in the weekend ‘Forum’ section, written by Robert Messenger, a columnist for the ‘Canberra Times’.
Robert Messenger's article failed to make any impression on the Canberra bureaucracy, but any sense of disappointment I might have felt was relatively short-lived.
The 60th anniversary of the 'Great Escape' from Stalag Luft 3 on March 24-25, 1944 was not too far away and I foresaw there might be an opportunity to raise the retrospective recognition issue with TV current affairs, all the more so when ABC TV showed a one-hour, British-produced documentary on The Great Escape in the week prior to the anniversary. I therefore contacted the producers of The 7.30 Report, the national broadcaster's current affairs programme, to see if they were interested in running an item that would contrast the 100% posthumous recognition given the 37 airmen covered by the Imperial system with those of the 22 FEPoWs who had suffered a similar fate.
My luck was in and a programme, based largely on the failed escape of the eight PoWs from Tavoy, went to air on April 26, 2004 - one day after Anzac Day. The transcript of this programme can be found on the 7.30 Report's website.
The issue had now been covered by the full range of media outlets: radio, print and TV, and naturally I had hoped such exposure would hasten the process of bringing closure to this tragic affair. Sadly, none of this drew any reaction or comment from the government.
||Interviewed by Ben Knight on Victorian country ABC Radio|
Article: 'Posthumous Awards urged for executed WWII Diggers' by Neil Wilson of Melbourne 'Herald-Sun'
Interviewed by Ashley Walsh on Adelaide ABC 5AN 891 Radio
||Graham Edwards, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary, Defence/Veterans' Affairs gives speech in House of Representatives|
Article: 'True Anzac spirit ignored' by Alan Ramsey of 'Sydney Morning Herald'
Article: 'Mates stand up for war escapees' by Neil Wilson of Melbourne 'Herald-Sun'
Interviewed by Neil Mitchell on Melbourne 3AW Radio
||Letters-to the Editor: 'Lest we forget' in 'The (Melbourne) Age'|
Article: 'Long Campaign to honour executed POWs' by Robert Messenger of 'Canberra Times'
ABC TV 7.30 Report feature: 'Gallantry of WWII escapees not recognised'
ABC/PM: 'Historian seeks official recognition for POWs bravery' - producer Nance Haxton
Interviewed by Nick McCullum on Melbourne 3AW Radio
||Talk 'Gallantry Honours' on ABC Radio National 'Perspective'||
ABC TV 7.30 feature: 'Search to honour Australian POW Victims'
Through the latter half of 2004, there were some further developments to report. An article entitled "And they didn't live happily ever after" was published in Edition 28 of the AWM's magazine "Wartime". Written by AWM staff member, Jane Peek, the article told the story of Violet Glover (nee Lloyd), the widow of one of the men executed at Tavoy: Alan Glover. Alan and Violet had met in the mid-1930s in the small Victorian country town of Beaufort and moved to Melbourne in 1938. Although Alan could have continued in his reserved occupation as a truck driver, he had enlisted in the Army on June 2, 1941. With all the uncertainty prevailing at that time, Alan and Violet decided to get married, which they did on June 7, 1941 at St John's Presbyterian Church, Essendon. There followed a 10-day honeymoon, and between Alan's basic military training at Puckapunyal, the odd weekend together. However, their last meeting prior to his unit sailing to Malaya in September 1941, was on July 27, 1941. Violet had never re-married. Left unstated in the article was that she had died in 2003.
Before Violet died, however, she had decided to bequeath her late husband's war service medals and her wedding dress to the AWM, as Jane put it, 'to ensure her husband's courage should be remembered'. In my opinion the nation, through its government, should be doing better than that.
The "Wartime" article, coupled with news of Violet's recent death, left me with mixed emotions of sadness, anger and frustration: sadness - Violet could have been officially informed of her late husband's claims for recognition well before she died, anger - procrastination on the part of the bureaucracy had prevented her from ever knowing any of this and frustration - despite my efforts to seek-out the men's next-of-kin in Victoria via newspaper articles and radio interviews, Violet had remained unknown to me.
Violet's story prompted me to seek further interviews with national and local radio stations. On Remembrance Day, November 11, I was interviewed by ABC's Adelaide-based reporter, Nance Haxton, on ABC/PM. Shades of Graham Edward's speech to the House of Representatives just as the war against Iraq was about to begin, this time news of the death of Yasser Arafat took centre stage. With just the four minutes finally allocated for the interview, any reference I might have made to Violet was edited-out. Likewise, with only three minutes on Melbourne's 3AW on December 7, there just wasn't the time, or opportunity, to steer the interview down the path I'd wanted it to go.
In the mid-60's I recall seeing a TV documentary on the Vietnam war, the title of which, "Mills of the Gods", I'd never forgotten.
At the time, I presumed the title had something to do with the way American military forces were being fed
piecemeal-like into this conflict. The full quotation, attributed to Friedrich von Logau, a 17th century German poet, reads:
Around the time I came across the "Wartime" article, I was surprised to find that the June 1945 correspondence contained in the National Archives file was now available on the internet. The search page leading to this correspondence can be found at National Archives. Once the home page is up - click on 'Collection' then 'Record Search'. Log in as a guest, insert posthumous and desptaches in 'Keyword' and 1945-1950 in 'Dates'. One of the 'hits' will list the names of the 22 men. Then click 'view digital copy'.
For the first three years or so of my research, I was unaware of the gallantry awards situation with respect to British FEPoWs who had lost their lives in attempting to escape.
Clearly, had all received posthumous MIDs then this must have strengthened any case for the group of Australians to receive retrospective recognition. On the other hand, if posthumous recognition hadn't been granted in the postwar period to all British FEPoWs, this would indicate there had been major differences in the way the rules governing posthumous awards had been applied to PoWs in Europe and the Far East.
Initially, all I knew was that two British privates, Harold Walters(23) of the East Surrey Regiment, and Eric Fletcher(21) of the Royal Army Ordnance Corps, had made their own attempt to escape. Re-captured, they had been executed at Singapore's Selarang Beach on September 2, 1942, along with the two Victorians, Private (acting Corporal) Rodney Breavington, then 38, of Fairfield and Private Victor Gale, 23, of Balwyn. A manual search of the London Gazette, revealed Posthumous MIDs for Walters and Fletcher were listed in the London Gazette (No. 37808, December 5, 1946). So, of the four, only Gale had failed to receive posthumous recognition.
(When the majority of gallantry honours and awards for Australian Military Forces personnel serving in SE Asia were posted in London Gazette (No. 37898, March 4, 1947), it was not clear whether MIDs were 'live' or 'posthumous', awards for Breavington, Danaher and Mull not being recorded as 'posthumous'. However, when their awards were included in the Commonwealth Gazette, only Breavington's MID was listed as 'posthumous'. It's possible that the awards for Danaher and Mull were 'live' awards for gallant service before the Singapore surrender. Another possibility is that prior to forwarding the names to London for gazettal, the Australian authorities had decided on which three, of the 22 names listed, would be granted posthumous awards and that administrative errors were subsequently responsible for two of the awards being gazetted as 'live'. Either way, a quota system was being applied where none had originally been intended.)
If indeed, such were the case, this went entirely against both the spirit and original intent of the awards. (Had a quota system governed awards for those killed in the 'Great Escape' this would have been viewed as the height of folly, for how could one possibly differentiate between one escapee's claim for recognition, vis-a-vis another man's claim? Ditto the Australians.)
Through my association with the FEPOW Community, I came to know of three other escape attempts that, all up, involved some 16 British FEPOWs. (Given the number of posthumous MIDS gazetted for British FEPOWs there may well be other cases, but currently I have no means of determining the circumstances of their awards.) I was both curious and surprised to find posthumous recognition had not been given in all cases.
One of the escape groups is referred to in 'Weary' Dunlop's diary-based book of his incarceration by the Japanese. For March 25, 1943, his diary contains the following entry:
In all probability, the four men were:
A few weeks after the fall of Singapore, three Royal Artillery gunners had
attempted to escape from Changi. Re-captured, they were executed on March 16, 1942. The men were:
On July 5, 1943, a group of 10 prisoners from 'F' Force escaped from Songkurai Camp (294Km from Nong Pladuc) on the Thailand - Burma railway. Conditions at the camp were deplorable and their leader, Major Wilkinson, considered it imperative that the outside world should know of the horrific conditions under which prisoners were literally being worked to death. Of the 10, five of the group subsequently lost their lives in the jungle. The five survivors, who were recaptured on August 21, 1943 were taken to Moulmein, where Nur Mahommed, an Indian fisherman, was separated from the rest of the group. The four who were left were sentenced to death after being interrogated by the Kempeitai, but amazingly this was later changed to eight to nine years hard labour. In 1982, James Bradley, one of the survivors, published an account of this incredible incident in his book, "Towards the Setting Sun".The 10 who escaped were:
Wilkinson, Feathers, Robinson and Jones received posthumous MID awards, (London Gazette, No. 38535, February 11, 1949) - almost the last-gasp chance for the gazettal of WW2 honours and awards. In the same Gazette, Anker, Bradley, Moffat and Machado were awarded MBEs. Brown, for reasons unknown, was overlooked. His name is not to be found in the London Gazette.
A comparison of posthumous MIDs in Europe for men who lost their lives through attempting to escape, against those awarded in the Far East, highlights the marked differences between the two sets of figures.
| No. PoWs
|12||11*||No. 36403||5 awards. Possibly 12 other British Army awards||ADM1/16672|
|No. 36426||3 awards. Possibly 2 others: 1 NZ & 1 Canadian MF|
|No. 36544||3 awards: 2 RAF, 1 RCAF|
|4||4*||No. 36456||All Australian. Possibly 6 others - 5 British and||ADM1/16672|
|06/04/1944||1 South African|
|1||1||No.36508||1 Australian. possibly 2 others: 1 Australian, 1 Canadian||AWM119-A111|
|50||37**||No. 36544||'Great Escape' Stalag Luft 3. All British/Dominion/Empire||AIR2/9625|
|08/06/1944||(BDE) PoWs recognised. Includes 4 Australians.|
|1||1||No. 36903||Royal Marine||ADM1/29917|
|2||2||No.37361||Possibly 2 other British Army awards||WO311/215|
|Total: 77||63||There may have been 24 other post MIDs awarded for failed escape attempts.|
* A search later conducted on the London Gazette website showed that only one of 16 men named, Stoker Norman Greaves, P/KX 130745, of HMS Manchester, was not granted posthumous recognition. Shot while cutting his way through the prison camp wire, he died later in a military hospital. See Greaves' escape attempt. All these years on, it comes as something of a surprise to find he was not recognised. He was not the only one. of the 16 men who lost their lives, to be shot in the act of cutting his way through the wire.
** 13 'Great Escape' foreign national airmen - many classed as serving in the RAF - were presumably deemed not eligible for Imperial system awards.
Thus of 77 men recorded as having lost their lives through attempting to escape, 13 were ineligible for Imperial awards, 63 men - of whom 15 were Australians - received posthumous MIDs and one man was overlooked for recognition.
|No. PoWs killed||No. Awards||London Gazette||Comment/Incident||Archive|
|22||1||2 Australians shot in 'Selarang Incident'.||AWM119|
|Only 1 posthumous MID given|
|2||2||No. 37808||2 British soldiers shot in 'Selarang Incident'.|
|05/12/1946||Both received post MIDs|
|3||1||No. 37808||1 British post MID. Same escape group|
|4||1||No. 37808||1 British post MID. Same escape group|
|4||4||No. 38212||MID awards to 4 Canadians serving in Hong Kong.|
|17/02/1948||Not listed as posthumous. All executed 26/08/1942*|
|5||4||No. 38535||4 British post MIDs, 4 MBEs in same escape group|
|11/02/1949||One post MID not granted|
|3||3||No. 37744||1 RAF, 2 RCAF serving in Java. Post. MIDs|
* 5 British PoWs who attempted to escape from Hong Kong about the same time as the Canadians were executed on 14/09/1942. None of these men received posthumous MIDs.
Of the 14 British FEPoWs named (above) who lost their lives, six did mot receive posthumous recognition. For all intents and purposes, the risks confronted by these men must have been identical, thus the singling out of just one man for a posthumous MID from two of the groups has to be seen as an extremely illogical and petty act on the part of the British War Office.
In direct contrast, Canadian military authorities showed no such reluctance when recognising four of their soldiers who attempted to escape from Hong Kong. As with Australian military authorities, their Canadian counterparts would have been empowered to process and confer these awards. They were duly gazetted in February 1948.
The British decision of 1952 to draw a bottom line on further honours and awards for gallant service in WW2 would effectively make it well-nigh impossible mow for the six men to receive retrospective recognition. Nevertheless, for their undoubted devotion to duty and gallant sacrifice in the most extreme of circumstances, their next of kin deserve at least some form of explanation - no matter how belated this might be - of why they were overlooked for recognition. (As happened with the Australians, it's more than likely the next-of-kin were never informed in the postwar period why their loved ones were passed over for recognition.)
2006 was noteworthy for three items of correspondence being received; two were from Defence Ministers Robert Hill (signed-off on pretty well his last day at the office) and Dr Brendan Nelson. Sandwiched in between was the third, from Veterans'Affairs Minister, Bruce Billson.
Inter alia, Robert Hill's correspondence claimed that since British awards could no longer be given for WW2 service, the Australian government was 'not in a position to advance the matter any further'. Having previously provided reasons and quoted precedents why present-day Australian gallantry awards - not British awards - could be conferred, I was not over impressed with the advice given to Hill by his department.
But having rebutted this and other Defence arguments in mid-February 2006, the issue was shuffled over to Veterans' Affairs whose eventual response offered nothing new.
Finally in November 2006, Defence claimed I had 'never tendered any documentation to prove (my) claims that all PoWs killed as a result of attempting to escape would be automatically awarded the MID'.
Once again my 2002 use of 'automatic' was coming back to haunt me.
Defence's statement came as something of a surprise because just a few months earlier, Prime Minister's and Cabinet Office had requested I forward all necessary documents that would support the existence of the posthumous MID policy. I had complied with this request by sending copies of not only the two files located in 2002, but also a file directly associated with the November 1943 decision. Of course, there was no mention of the word 'automatic' in any of the files I forwarded, but from where I stood it seemed to me Defence and I were now reduced to arguing at cross purposes - very much an exercise of playing with words.
So, if not 'automatic', just what conditions needed to be satisfied in order for these awards to be conferred? In February 1944, the UK-based Imperial PoW Committee informed the Defence Committee in Australia of their November 1943 decision, and set out just two guidelines that needed to be followed:
However, there was an additional caveat, or if you will, an 'out':
By June 1945, of the 22 Australians FEPoWs known to have suffered this fate, only in one instance was there some doubt expressed as to the genuineness of the escape attempt. One year or so later - save for Breavington - none of this mattered. Nobody else was posthumously recognised. So much for the 'uniform system'. Clearly, even though Australian military authorities would have been well aware of how the policy was being administered in relation to Army and Air Force personnel in Europe, they had presumably fallen back on the 'sole discretion' clause to absolve themselves from taking any positive action. What could have caused them to be so uncharitable?
Unfortunately, the precise reason for this mysterious about-turn by our military authorities in the postwar years is unlikely to be satisfactorily resolved. The National Archives trail goes cold after January 1946, and one can only speculate on what might have occurred. One possibility is that the change of heart might have had something to do with the tragic Sandakan death march where, from an initial 1787 Australian and 641 British FEPoWs, only six Australians successfully escaped and survived. Yet, of the six, only one, WO Bill Sticpewich, received an MBE; there was no recognition in the form of the British Empire Medal (BEM) for the other five - the most common award for those, other than officers, who succeeded in escaping from the enemy. However, the absence of any paperwork covering possible awards for the six men who escaped, and Cleary and Crease who were executed, again makes it is extremely unlikely if anything could now be done to honour these five men.
During the Sandakan marches there must have been many men who took their chance to escape and failed. Faced with this, perhaps it all became just too difficult for our authorities to differentiate between what was seen as a genuine attempt and one that was not. But if indeed such were the case, that was still no reason to deny the claims of those whose attempts at escape had been assessed as genuine in June 1945. If ever there was a case of 'throwing the baby out with the bath water' this had to be it.
There was further correspondence from Defence in March 2007 which harked back to previous 'detailed explanations' of my claims and which presented the all-too familiar argument on why British/Imperial awards could not be given.
My evidence had been reviewed within both the Directorate of Honours and Awards and the Awards and Culture Branch of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet and their conclusion was that the documents I had supplied did not support my contention - they merely indicated that it was British Government policy that all escaped and executed PoWs could be regarded as eligible for consideration for the Mentioned in Despatches, and that Australia could consider doing similarly. However, Defence considered that the term "eligible for consideration" was important here. It indicated that there was a discretion to be exercised with the policy, and no automatic entitlement accrued. There was no evidence that the Australian Defence Committee (ADC) agreed to this policy for Australia. Defence concluded that the document I had supplied concerning the award to a Royal Marine, supported the position that each instance was considered on its own merits.
I found the logic of Defence's arguments quite extraordinary. Quite apart from raising the old chestnut of 'automatic', would it really have been the case that the ADC would not agree to this policy 'for Australia' when the British War office and Air Ministry had already processed and gazetted 15 posthumous MIDs to Australians serving in the European theatre - awards which had subsequently appeared in the Commonwealth Gazette? And if it were really true that each instance was considered on its own merits, how could the ADC have possibly ignored poor Gale's claims for posthumous recognition, let alone those for the 'Tavoy 8'?In mid-October 2007, the Liberal and National Party Coalition Government called a Federal election to be held on 24 November. The Opposition Labor Party's policy on Veteran's Affairs included the following,
'The tribunal will constitute seven members appointed by the Minister. For each issue a three-member panel will be formed from the appointed seven members'.
'The tribunal's decisions will be binding upon the government. The tribunal will have matters referred to it by the Minister'.
'A Rudd Labor Government will also task the Tribunal to investigate other longstanding issues including (there followed a list of nine such issues. one of which was)........Far East prisoners of war killed while escaping'.
The Rudd Labor Government was duly elected, so one must naturally hope that after having been overlooked for so long, the men - and their next of kin - will finally receive the justice and recognition their sacrifices deserved all those years ago.
While 2008 did not present much opportunity to advance the case for retrospective recognition, it certainly did not turn out to be a year for marking time.
I had been fortunate enough to receive financial assistance from the Darwin City Council to conduct further research into what I had good reason to believe were myths and misinformation associated with the bombing of Darwin. These concerns primarily related to various aspects of the first raid on 19 February 1942, but also covered aspects of censorship and newspaper reports over the period March 1942 - November 1943.
However, two external events occurred which I thought would later prove of great assistance when it came the time to develop and publicise arguments for retrospective military honours and awards.
The first, in March 2008, was the publication of a report by the three-man Long Tan Review Committee, who had assessed their assigned role as being 'to examine the documentary evidence available, consider the nature and context of the battle and the process that followed concerning individual and collective recognition, and seek to arrive at a fair and sustainable response to claims for further recognition.'
The report, 'Review of Recognition for the Battle of Long Tan', stipulated seven principles, or guidelines, of which I reckoned four would be appropriate in any future determination of retrospective gallantry awards and, of the four, two were particularly relevant to the line of argument I proposed to follow should the opportunity arise to appear before the Tribunal. They were:
Any decisions by the Panel to recommend further recognition must be based on official records or other compelling evidence, and
To maintain the integrity of the system of honours and awards the Panel reaffirms its respect for the protocols of the operational awards system. Decisions to recommend new or higher awards will only be made where a clear anomaly or manifest injustice (my emphasis) can be established. In cases where the Imperial system did not provide recognition but where the Panel believes recognition is warranted, it should be made under the Australian system.
The second development occurred in May 2008 when the new government initiated its election promise to create an independent Honours and Awards Tribunal. Advertisements appeared in the national press seeking applications from suitably qualified personnel for the positions of Tribunal Chairperson and seven members - subsequently increased to ten.
On 23 July 2008, Parliamentary Secretary for Defence Support, the Hon. Dr. Mike Kelly AM MP, announced the appointment of the inaugural Chairperson, Emeritus Professor Dennis Pearce AO, and ten members of the independent Defence Honours and Awards Tribunal.
Following the establishment of the Tribunal I had had some correspondence with Defence, questioning what priority - relative to what other matters might be coming before the Tribunal - the FEPoW issue should be given, However, the best advice I received was that the matter was unlikely to be addressed by the Tribunal before 2009.
Early in 2009 the Tribunal requested me to forward any archival material I possessed. This set the ball rolling and formed the basis of the formal, written submission which was eventually presented to the Tribunal on 23 July. The positive outcome was that I was invited to come to Canberra in early September and be interviewed by two members of the Tribunal. However, since my wife and I were due to be flying to the UK two days after the proposed date, I requested a postponement until such time as we had returned to Australia. This was granted, and I eventually appeared before the Tribunal on 27 October.
I recall asking at this meeting how long it might be before I could expect to receive a decision from the Tribunal? The general expectation was that they hoped to conduct their own research, arrive at a decision and write their report sometime within the February-March 2010 timescale.
As I was to find out later, the Tribunal's report was actually presented to Defence in April 2010 but this was not, by any means, the end of the story, its public release would be governed by the time it took for the Department to assess, and then finally accept, the Tribunal'a recommendations. Unfortunately this process had not been completed before the political mayhem in June had led to Julia Gillard replacing Kevin Rudd as Prime Minister. The delay in getting the report accepted was further aggravated by the Government deciding to call a Federal election for 21 August. This meant that general government business would have to be put on hold as the parliamentary system entered its so-called 'caretaker' period. But when the election result became just too close to call, release of the Tribunal's decision was, inevitably, once again postponed. A group of independent members held the balance of power and had the responsibility of deciding which party should take over the reins of government. It was not until 7 September that two Independent members, by giving their support to the previous government, enabled the Labor Party to finally stagger over the line.
Once returned to office, the government took the opportunity to initiate a series of ministerial reshuffles, one involved Senator the Hon. David Feeney who,as Parliamentary Secretary for Defence, replaced Mike Kelly. This occasioned yet another delay since no decision or announcement by Defence could be made until Senator Feeney had been fully briefed on current matters before the Tribunal.
In 19 November correspondence to Senator Feeney I expressed concern about the likelihood of no decision being forthcoming until the New Year. This must have done the trick, for within a week I had been informed. in confidence. that the Tribunal's decision would favour of most of the men concerned receiving retrospective recognition.
On 11 February, the report finally went public on the Tribunal's website, followed on 6 March by Senator Feeney's media release which called on the next of kin of those honoured to come forward and receive the Commendation for Gallantry. The media release read:
Senator David Feeney, Parliamentary Secretary for Defence, today announced that twenty servicemen who were killed while escaping from Japanese forces during World War II will be posthumously awarded the Commendation for Gallantry.
Senator Feeney accepted the unanimous recommendations of the independent Defence Honours and Awards Tribunal and called on the next of kin of those honoured to come forward and receive the Commendation for Gallantry.
The Tribunal inquired into recognition of Australian prisoners of war who were killed while escaping from Japanese forces during World War II. Among the twenty servicemen are the ‘Tavoy Eight’, members of the 4th Anti-Tank Regiment who were executed by firing squad in Burma on 6 June 1942.
“The Commendation for Gallantry recognises the bravery and courage of these World War II servicemen.
“Each has his own story. Some were killed while trying to escape, others executed after being recaptured. But what is common to all twenty men is the Australian spirit that they showed before their deaths.
“Gunner Cleary was one of approximately two thousand Allied prisoners of war held in the Sandakan POW camp. The retribution he experienced after an attempted escape was brutal. The ‘Tavoy Eight’ were refused last rites and final messages to their families before their execution in Burma,” Senator Feeney said.
“Today, we recognise and remember these heroic escape attempts.
“I am calling on the next-of-kin of these twenty men to come forward and register their details with the Government. They will be invited to accept the Commendation for Gallantry on behalf of the servicemen. We are keen to hear from family members who currently possess the campaign medals of these men,” Senator Feeney said.
The Tribunal recommended that the Commendation for Gallantry should be presented to the family member in possession of the deceased’s World War II medals.
This page last updated: April 2011