In Captain Belton's hand written war diary for Sunday 7th December, he writes:
"Decided to stay that night at Brigadier's flat in Argyle Street. Put all my personal belongings in the hot room and completed my own kit down to details such as hip flask of rum. Had quick dinner. James came in with Ned Curran and Vera Murrell, had a drink with them. Vera amused by my preparations - Ned laid a wager that this time it was 'the real McCoy'." (1)
Ned Curran won that wager. At 0545 the next morning the Brigadier was informed by phone from China Command Headquarters that war with Japan was imminent. A short while later the General Officer in Command, Major General Christopher Michael Maltby phoned with the message that "we are at war with Japan".
The brigade staff moved to Temporary Battle HQ at Jubilee Buildings, Sham Shui Po Barracks.
Just before 0800 a message came in from 2nd Bn. Royal Scots that 27 enemy aircraft had passed overhead flying towards Hong Kong. A short while later Kai Tak airport and Sham Shui Po Barracks were subjected to a massive air raid. Jubilee Buildings received several direct hits with other bombs falling on the barracks but casualties were light as most troops including the two Canadian battalions had already moved to their battle stations.
Let us return once more to that hurried dinner on Sunday night on the eve of war. Without a surname I can not identify James but what about Ned Curran and Vera Murrell. A quick search of the garrison list (2) showed that Ned was Major Edward J. Curran of the Royal Army Medical Corp (RAMC). He was a Hygiene Specialist and was Officer in Command Hong Kong Field Hygiene Section, RAMC. He was specialized in malaria and malaria prevention which at that time was a major problem effecting troops manning the Gin Drinkers Line.
I found a reference to him in Lt Colonel Cedric Shackleton's war diary. Lt Col. Shackleton, RAMC was Commanding Officer of the Bowen Road Military Hospital
"Major E J Curran and two Staff Sgts of RAMC together with 14 Chinese ORs of the Hong Kong Field Hygiene Section reported at the hospital and were accommodated. The Chinese personnel were more of an encumbrance than anything else, spending most of their time in the air raid shelters, until their final desertion on 24th December." (3)
Who I wondered was Vera. A search of the list of internees of Stanley Internment Camp held at the Imperial War Museum revealed that she was Mrs Vera Murrell. She had been allocated Camp No. 2223. She was born 20th November 1906 making her 35 years old at the time she was incacerated in a Japanese concentration camp. Her occupation was described as a Teacher and her billet was Block 10 room T5. This block was situated near St Stephens College and away from the Prison Wardens Quarters where many of the other internees were billeted.
She shared a room with Miss Elma Kelly an Australian journalist and Mrs Maud Minhinnick the wife of a Naval Officer.
She avoided compulsory evacuation of women and children because she had enrolled as a Nurse in the Auxiliary Nursing Service (ANS). After the capitulation on 25th December 1941 and before incarceration at Stanley Internment Camp she was held at the HK University Relief Hospital (5) .
We can assume that she was working in the University Relief Hospital from the outset of hostilities on Monday 8th December, the day after that dinner with Captain Peter Belton and Major Edward (Ned) Joseph Curran.
I had seen a reference to Vera in Barbara Anslow's (nee Redwood's) diary of her experiences in Stanley Camp for 24th Dec 1943.
"Draw for two 10 lb. iced cakes made by Father B. Meyer. Won by Mrs. V. Murrell and Mrs. B. Doering. Air raid during proceedings" (6)
A further reference to Vera was found in the Colonial Secretary's (Franklin Gimson's) diary.
"I saw Mrs Murrell and asked her to take responsibility for life saving on Tweed Bay Beach" (7)
Another reference was to the effect that she had signed off on a Life Saving Certificate issued to Herbert William Johnston in July 1943 at Tweed Bay Beach. Tweed Bay Beach was once a popular swimming beach now deserted and difficult to access but during internment the Japanese allowed internees to swim there during the warmer months.
The photograph below shows Tweed Bay beach as it looks today. It was here that one of the internees was killed by a shark only days after liberation in September 1945. It was here that Vera a strong swimmer gave lessons in swimming and lifesaving to other internees. It was here that three year old Brian Gill drowned in a fresh water pool near the beach in May 1944 and I assume it was in response to this that Franklin Gimson officially asked Vera to take responsibility for lifesaving on the beach.
|Tweed Bay Beach used by the internees|
|The Prison walls behind the beach|
In the photograph below Vera is third from the left in the front row.
|Vera Olympic Games Swimmer (Courtesy Marianne Sanderson)|
He was wounded at the Battle of the Somme in July 1916 in the 'no mans' land between the British and German lines. His hip was shattered but he managed to crawl back to British lines a feat which took him three days and accomplished at night under the cover of darkness. (8)
The marriage was not to last - they separated and later divorced. Vera travelled out alone to Hong Kong where she was employed as a teacher with the Hong Kong Government Education Dept. (8)
I subsequently learnt from Tony Banham (Author and Military Historian) that she had been a Mistress at King's College established in 1926. She was appointed to this role in 1939.
|Kings College (Source: Wikipedia)|
The building was badly damaged during the war mainly as a result of looting. For a time it was occupied by the Japanese Army who kept mules there. It was rebuilt after the war. The Principal in 1941 was Harold Wallington who with his wife Constance was incacerated together with Vera at Stanley Camp. Harold and Constance Wallington were in Block 2 Room 4. Two other colleagues of Vera who had joined the HKVDC were incacerated in Shamshuipo Camp these were Gordon Patrick Ferguson who after the war taught at Central British School (CBS), and James Johnson Ferguson who returned to King's College after the war. Another colleague Geoffrey Coxhead had taught at King's College but had left to join the teaching staff at CBS. He too was incacerated in Shamshuipo Camp. There were two other mistresses at Kings College who were incacerated at Stanley these were Margaret McGuffog (Block 2 Room 17) and Eleanor Beavis (Block 4 Room 19). They were nurses with the Nursing Detachment (ND) of the HKVDC.
For Vera the Civilian Internment Camp at Stanley was not much easier. The food rations were woefully inadequate and there were many cases of malnutrition and early deaths. Some PoWs and Internees who had friends outside benefited from receiving food parcels. Those with money or things to sell could purchase food on the black market but for many who did not receive parcels and had little money they had to rely on the standard rations - two meals a day, very often just a small bowl of rice and watery vegetables. The photograph below shows emaciated internees at Stanley Internment Camp standing outside Tweed Bay Hospital.
Emaciated internees at Tweed Bay Hospital Stanley Camp
|Liberation - hoisting the flag|
Ned had a very tough war just staying alive in the incredibly harsh and brutal conditions in POW Camps in Hong Kong and Japan. His son Bruce remembers his father telling him that on work parties from their camp in Japan - Japanese civilians mostly women would sometimes sidle up to the emaciated prisoners and surreptitiously pass them bits of food.
Bruce has a vivid memory of watching the film - "The Great Escape" where Steve Macqueen well fed and fit escapes capture at least for awhile on a motorbike. "My Dad got out of the chair behind me and said 'what a lot of piffle ! We did not even have enough energy to stand up to urinate when we were in prison with the Japs' ".
Ned remained in the Army after the war. He retired after 35 years with the RAMC and was awarded the CBE, DSO and OBE for distinguished service.
|Brigadier Curran presenting his son Bruce to Montgomery of Alamein in 1959 (Source: Bruce Curran)|
I wonder where they are now.
|Vera's swimming medals lost to the Japanese or other looters during WW2 in Hong Kong (Bruce Curran)|
11. Courtesy Bruce Curran
Message from Historian & Author Geoff Emerson to Marianne Sanderson:
'"Philip mentioned that Vera was in the same room as Elma Kelly. That rang a bell with me. I interviewed Elma twice way back in 1970 ! I searched my files and found the transcripts, and I think you'll enjoy reading what Elma said about Vera. Sadly, way back then I didn't take photos of the people I interviewed, but I recall that Elma was a very outspoken, opinionated business-woman, great fun to talk with.
Interview 26 June 1970 - Elma said that Vera was an Englishwoman married to a man in South Africa. She'd fallen out of love with him and came here (HK) for a holiday. One man said she came looking for romance. She got it, with a medical officer in the army, medical corps, who fell for her. They married after the war.
There was insufficent water to run lavatories in St Stephen's Block 10, so a trench was dug outside...bad because everyone could see. Vera and Elma got up at 5 a.m. to "spend a large penny in this trench".
Vera was friendly with Gimson (Colonial Secretary) and played bridge with Elma and Gimson.
Interview 28 May 1970 - According to Elma, Vera Murrell used to sit on a little camp wood box, very uncomfortable without a cushion, so she put Elma's cushion on it. Vera felt lumps and put her hand in the cushion and discovered money. Elma said "shhhh" and told her how she'd got this money from selling jewellery. They used the money (Japanese yen) for buying food."
Message from Marianne Sanderson to Geoff Emerson & Philip Cracknell
Hi Geoff and Philip,
Again, you have both added so much to the story of Vera - it really is coming together slowly but surely. Thank you both very, very much!
To add more information - Vera was employed as a teacher at Farnborough Convent (now called Farnborough Hill - address: Farnborough Hill, Farnborough, Hampshire, GU14 8AT) until 1969 (I am unsure when she started there as a teacher). She lived at Fairway Cottage, Blighton Lane, Seale, Surrey GU101PT which is 13 miles away. So these facts correspond with what Elma told you way back in 1970. It sounds as if Vera and Elma may have kept in touch well after the war ended or heard about each other through the grapevine. In 1951 Vera and Ned Curran moved to Singapore from Scotland with their 2 young children. I only found this information yesterday on a ship's passenger list.
Vera's daughter, Julia, has told me the story of Vera selling her own jewelry for peanuts which Vera told her kept her alive. This may have been related to the jewelry that Elma sold.
The following information came from Vera's son, Bruce:
Vera apparently had a date with with Johnny Wiessmuller (Tarzan) during the 1924 Olympics, who himself got one world record there in Paris and two Olympic records also in swimming. Vera may have also gotten a Bronze medal in the freestyle individual event in 1924. Vera may have been 1 of 3 pacers in the first swim across the English Channel in 1926 by an American swimmer (referring to Gertrude Ederle who just two years later, at the 1924 Paris Olympics, won a gold medal in the 4 x 100 meter relay and a bronze in the 100- and 400-meter freestyle races so she likely knew of Vera). I believe she had a world record for a woman swimming 1 kilometre and 1 mile but have never been able to authenticate these. At aged 3 she swam a quarter of a mile in the sea in Eastbourne and won a big box of chocolates - while running home she ran round a corner into a fat man and the chocolates were scattered all over the road.
While in Stanley Camp the Americans bombed the camp unwittingly and 3 of her friends were killed by an American bomb. She is also in the HK history books, as you probably know, as she and a Police Sergeant swam out to meet the first warship that entered HK after the 2nd WW to relieve it from the Japanese occupation. The warship stopped and picked them up out of the shark infested waters.
My husband remembers that Vera came to South Africa (once alone and then again with Ned) around 1967 and then 1970".