Bert Grimes – Recollections of a Norfolk Soldier
With only a very small number of those who served in the Far East during WW2 still alive, we thought we would ask a family member for the recollections of their father’s time in uniform, which Colin Grimes from Roydon has kindly provided of his father, Bert Grimes’, war service in Burma.
Bert Grimes, who was born and bred in Roydon, was aged 18 when he was called up at the beginning of WW2, to serve in the 5th Battalion of The Royal Norfolk Regiment. He was quite a tall individual and was selected for the Regimental Police, something many of the close friends he made at the time never let him forget.
The training was all conducted locally, with the Norfolk’s Regimental HQ being at Britannia Barracks, Norwich. Whilst the Regiment recruited from throughout the county, many in the Battalion came from in and around King’s Lynn and being of a similar age, knew each other.
By the time of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour in December 1941, the Battalion was trained and ready to deploy. With Britain’s interest in the Far East under threat, the 4th, 5th and 6th Battalions of the Royal Norfolk Regiment were ordered, at the beginning of 1942 to travel from Liverpool to Singapore.
On arrival in Singapore, the Norfolk’s were quickly deployed in the defence of the island but with the Japanese already having almost overrun Malaya, it wasn’t long before Singapore was forced to surrender.
At this point Bert had been badly burned following an air attack and was being transported to a hospital ship in the port area of Singapore. However, when the surrender was announced, the drivers quickly fled leaving him and the other stretcher cases at the mercy of the Japanese. Knowing that they often killed those who could not walk, some of walking wounded were able to get Bert to his feet and help him into captivity in the notorious Changi Jail.
The jail was well overcrowded but rudimentary medical services were available from the prisoner medics whose treatment enabled Bert to recover from his burns.
Eventually the prisoners were all made to undertake hard labour in aid of the Japanese war effort and were sent out wherever required, a large number, including Bert, being set to work in the jungle on the notorious Burma (or Death) Railway. He was to spend nearly 3 years there, seeing many of his compatriots die through over work, starvation, lack of medical facilities and the beatings received from guards.
At one time Bert became so ill, with malaria, beriberi and dysentery he was sent to a ‘death camp’ from which prisoners were not expected to return. However, following the nursing he received from other prisoners who were also ill themselves, he slowly recovered and was eventually returned to work on the railway, quite near to the famous bridge over the River Kwai.
Later, having been identified as a truck driver, he was selected to drive one of the few lorries that the Japanese guards possessed, taking them on their regular journeys to their ‘R & R camps’ and on other errands to collect supplies in the local villages. It was on one of these trips while waiting by the truck with the guard, that a young Burmese lad approached him and quietly said “Churchill has won”.
On returning to the jungle camp, he quietly told his compatriots what he had heard but nobody believed him and that night they all settled down ready for another day’s hard labour the following morning. However, when they woke, they found that all the Japanese guards had disappeared, and
they were left to their own devices. It was some time before the first Allied soldiers arrived at the camp to begin the task of caring for all the sick and getting adequate supplies of food and clean water to those who has survived for so long in such appalling conditions, on a starvation diet.
The return to the UK and back to Liverpool docks came much later; on arrival the prisoners were met by the Salvation Army who provided food and drink, before they were issued with rail warrants for their journey home.
It was to a quiet King’s Lynn Station that Bert and a few of his colleagues arrived, without fanfare and with the job of getting to their homes, which they managed, arriving quite unannounced but to a loving welcome by parents and in some cases wives and children.
Having left three and a half years earlier weighing 10 stone, Bert was now back weighing just over 7 stone and with a serious kidney complaint, which he was never to shake off. His burned but healed legs were also to cause him problems throughout his life, as were the recurring nightmares.
Life has, of course, to go on, without complaint in Bert’s case, and it wasn’t too long after his return that he formed a relationship with a young lady from Pott Row, who was to become his wife.
His family grew to include one girl and four boys, and he and his wife took over as landlords of the Three Horseshoes, which they held for 18 years.
He was not one to close himself off from the world and was proud of his Regiment, joining the Far East Prisoners of War Association and attending all the reunions, meeting with those with whom he served and had survived the experience. They would all recall the comradeship which saw them through, and he often said that it was the strong belief in God and the friendship of others that helped them to survive.
Bert was to die at the age of 82, of the kidney problem he suffered from as a prisoner. He never lost his sense of duty and was buried wearing his beloved Royal Norfolk Regiment tie.
Charles Williams, 100, Reigate
So tell me what you remember about your time out in Burma?
It was a very long time ago, I may have forgotten things.
I was with the 3rd battalion of the Nigeria regiment. I volunteered a few years in to the war to go to out and join them. It was just to get out of England and get somewhere where there was a war on. Nigeria was the place I selected and I went out with other guys and became a company sergeant major in the Nigeria regiment.
I was at university originally but I left and volunteered to join the army and found myself in the 6th rifles – the King’s Royal Rifle Corp. I got cheesed off because I was stuck in England not doing anything so I volunteered to go abroad and found myself in Nigeria.
We did our training there and we eventually sailed from Nigeria – Lagos I think – and sailed on over to India where we disembarked at Bombay and it took us five days in a railway train to get across India to Calcutta – five days believe it or not!
What was it like out there? Was it what you expected?
I knew what to expect really because we’d done so much training. We did a fair amount of training in India, just outside Calcutta, then we sailed across the sea to a port in Burma, the name of which I’ve forgotten. And from there we started to chase the Japanese out of Burma and in to Thailand. It was loads of jungle, we were going through jungle most of the time.
What about the day to day – what did you wear, what did you eat?
I was wearing khaki shorts and a jacket – well, during the day we did but when it got dark, we had to wear trousers so you had to carry them in your rucksack to change in to. You couldn’t wear shorts at night because of the mosquitos – you were liable to get bitten.
We were on the move the whole time so we set up camp every night. You did need the Gurkhas to carry the stuff – I didn’t have to carry much so I couldn’t complain. We had a few Gurkhas around but by and large we were a mostly Nigerian regiment.
For food we did get army rations, quite a lot of stuff was brought to us by air – by the American Airforce. It was pretty good but there was a lot of stuff that we didn’t really like…that we’d never seen before. But it came to us in big tins which you had to open with a tin opener – luckily they sent that with the tin. They dropped it all from the air. And we opened these tins and found American food inside – I can’t remember exactly what it was but it was stuff we didn’t like. Mostly we starved ourselves because it was horrible.
Who did you go out there with?
A group of about half a dozen of us went out from England at one time in 1943 I think and we joined the Nigeria regiment at Lagos.
The Nigeria regiment that I was with was part of the West African Corps which was out in Burma – it consisted of Nigerians and there was a battalion from the Gold Coast (now called Ghana) and there was a battalion from Sierra Leone as well. There were probably about 5000 African troops out there and some Europeans in charge of them. They were a good force – the Africans were very good – they went out in to dangerous situations – even if there was a risk of getting killed.
Who decided what you did and where you went?
I was a Sergeant Major and was in charge of probably about 100 men – it was a good force. We were receiving orders from higher up, from quite high powered officers who were running the whole campaign. We just did what we were told. We had radios for them to tell us what to do – we used our own particular wave length so nobody else could hear it. The radios were quite big things which we had to carry with us.
What about VJ day itself, what do you remember of that?
By the time VE and VJ day happened I was back in Nigeria, I’m not totally sure but I think so. I remember hearing the news – we were a bit cheesed off that we weren’t in London at the time as it was all very dull where we were.
We did celebrate eventually when I got back to London, I can’t remember quite when but I remember celebrating – I went in to Piccadilly and the place was full of people and everyone was celebrating even then so it can’t have been too far off the end of the war – just a few weeks.
I was living in London, we lived in north London so it was quite easy to just walk down in to the west end – I didn’t even need a bus. It was good fun and a terrific day and everyone was celebrating like mad.
Neither of my sisters were around when I got back – they worked in the services so they weren’t at home but I did manage to see them. Gwen was in the Wrens and so she was celebrating and was in uniform.
VJ day was effectively the end of the war. We’d already had VE day earlier in the year in May which was the end of the war in Europe but at that time we were still fighting against the Japanese out in Burma. When that finished, VJ Day, that was when the Japanese eventually gave in.
There were many prisoners of war, some people were captured and even died in the prison war camps. Fortunately it didn’t happen to me.
How long were you out there in total?
I was out in Burma for about 18 months. I got the Burmese medal – the Burma star – it’s a nice medal to have, it’s got a nice ribbon.
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Lance Corp. Raymond Edward Manning
An account from his daughter, Leslie Bambridge