VJ Day in West Norfolk: Colin Grimes talks about his father's war service in Burma
With only a very small number of those who served in the Far East during World War II still alive, we asked Colin Grimes, of Roydon, about his father, Bert Grimes’, war service in Burma.
Bert, was born and bred in Roydon. Aged 18 at the beginning of the war, he went to serve in the 5th Battalion of the Royal Norfolk Regiment.
He was quite tall 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 Lynn and being of a similar age, knew each other.
By the time of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the Battalion was 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, 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 overcrowded but rudimentary medical services were available from the prisoner medics whose treatment enabled Bert to recover.
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 three years there, seeing many of his compatriots die through over-work, starvation, lack of medical facilities and beatings 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 guards had disappeared, and they were left to their own devices. It was some time before the first Allied soldiers arrived to begin 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 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 to go home.
It was to a quiet Lynn Station that Bert and a few of his colleagues arrived, without fanfare and with the job of getting to their homes,. They arrived quite unannounced but to a loving welcome by parents, wives and children.
Having left three and a half years earlier weighing 10st, Bert was now back weighing just over 7st 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 became 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 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. 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 died aged 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.