The Address by the Bishop of Ely at the 70th Anniversary of the Fall of Singapore Service of Remembrance in Ely Cathedral

2012 marked the 70th anniversary of the beginning of World War II in Southeast Asia.

The Fall of Singapore to the Japanese on 15th February 1942 was a historic event that changed the destiny of millions of people.

On 12th February 2012, in Ely Cathedral, the Bishop of Ely, The Right Reverend Stephen Conway, looked at how local people were caught up in one of the British Armed Forces most difficult moments in its long and complex history.

Here is the sermon preached by the Bishop of Ely at Ely Cathedral on 12th February 2012:

“It is a great privilege to be speaking to you at this special 70th anniversary of the Fall of Singapore. It is very fitting that we should be celebrating in Ely as the Eighteenth Division which served in the Far East was made up of East Anglian Regiments. The BBC recorded lots of testimony from former soldiers about the Fall of Singapore. ‘Snowie’ Baynes described the surrender when it came and how devastating that it was, with big men laying down their arms with tears streaming down their faces through the humiliation of it all. Many of General Percival’s troops were completely un-bloodied, over against Japanese veterans of the war with China. Singapore fell to the Japanese imperial army on 15th February, 1942. The Japanese had already systematically destroyed the air and sea capability of the British forces. Only the army remained. The collection of intelligence and the leadership failed dismally and a long, strung-out inland front of seventy miles left most troops incapable of dealing with a fast, concentrated and savage force of 20,000 Japanese soldiers. It remains one of the most conspicuous and humiliating defeats ever suffered by the British Army during the whole imperial period.

All the defensive operation assumed that the invasion would come by sea, and not through the Malay swamps and marshes. All the British defences were facing the sea. Most people pooh-poohed the fighting capacity of the Japanese troops because they had only fought against Chinese and Manchurian troops hitherto. They actually revealed an astonishing speed of reaction, and a level of ruthless savagery which was unprecedented and terribly cruel, intentionally. We remember all the British and Australian people who were killed; and we also remember the many thousands of Chinese people who were automatically slaughtered.

The Anglican Church in Japan apologised for all this savagery at the Lambeth Conference in 2008. We know, however, that the resonances of this kind of savagery can still be found in conflicts of today – in the disregard for human life by suicide bombers, in the wicked fighting already underway between North and South Sudan and in the heartless violence of the Syrian regime against its own citizens. We stand by all those who are asserting their humanity in justice and the service of others.

Most of us here are second hand keepers of the memory of Singapore. I know at least one senior retired officer who is here because his father was a POW among so many who suffered so terribly during three-and-a-half years of brutal captivity. For most of us, our sense of what people went through is conditioned not by direct memory, but by listening to our fathers, by reading heart-rending memoirs, like those of Dr Harold Churchill, an army medical officer who did all he could to tend prisoners in Changi Jail during the occupation, keeping a record on rice paper which he hid and buried in a tin, sincerely believing that no one would believe that he was not exaggerating the cruelty of the Japanese. We are grateful for such accounts because most survivors of that dreadful period have chosen not to speak about it. The pain of recollection brings back all the losses and the hardships. The father of a friend of mine was a POW survivor of Singapore. He came home robbed of most ordinary emotional reactions. His son, my friend, had never received a hug from his father. Imagine how he describes the scene even now when he scored the winning try for his school at rugby and saw his father running towards him with arms widespread to gather him up in victory. At last, Dad had a victory worth celebrating.

On the subject of sport, some people here will remember the well-known cricket commentator for the Daily Telegraph and BBC, Jim Swanton, who died aged 92 in the millennium year. He was a Bedfordshire Yeomanry veteran who was a POW in Singapore. He was a very devout Anglo-Catholic Anglican who maintained what he regarded as proper standards even in the POW camp. It is alleged that as Major Swanton, he put three other officers on report in the camp for not bowing properly to the makeshift altar he had built while they were building the railway. People had all sorts of ways of surviving. For him that was through two major religions, cricket and Christianity. Although they never understood it, the Japanese allowed cricket to be played, however much they mostly despised Christianity.

We usually think of Balkan countries like Serbia as those who put their greatest remembrance and celebration into their worst defeats. Today we are united in our thanksgiving for the veterans – soldiers, civilians and children, priests and nuns – who were caught up in a great surrender of what everyone thought was an impregnable fortress. We are not here to white wash Generals Percival or Wavell. We are not here to pretend that it was all alright in the end. This was a defeat of such magnitude that Winston Churchill was glad to have been on his own to receive the news because he was so singularly moved and devastated and it would have been dreadful for general morale for his reaction to have been public.  Thousands died during the construction of the Railway of Death. No, we are here to celebrate the resilience and courage of the human spirit which enabled people to endure the worst possible assaults and provocation of an occupying power which had contempt for any weakness in itself and so externalised this onto a population which it despised for having surrendered and had free reign to punish. We can only imagine the daily, even hour-by-hour courage of those who were determined not so much to survive as to sustain some element of human dignity by helping others and by sustaining a quiet resistance to the Japanese.

One of the people who exemplified this was Bishop Leonard Wilson, who had become Bishop of Singapore only in 1941, having previously served in Hong Kong. Initially after the Japanese invasion of Singapore, the presence of a Japanese Christian as a minister in the occupied territories of Malaya meant that Wilson was allowed to continue to move about and visit both Changi Prison and the POW camps. He was determined to maintain links between all groups of detainees. Because he served to keep up some morale, he was accused of being a spy and found himself being tortured savagely. Often he had to be carried back to the crowded, dark and filthy cell, almost unconscious from his wounds. He recalled in a broadcast sermon in 1946 how he often felt: “I remember Archbishop Temple in one of his books writing that if we pray for any particular virtue, whether it be patience or courage or love, one of the answers that God gives to us is an opportunity for expressing that virtue. After my first beating I was almost afraid to pray for courage lest I should have another opportunity of exercising it, but my unspoken prayer was there, and without God’s help I doubt whether I should have come through. Long hours of ignoble pain were a severe test. In the middle of that torture they asked me if I still believed in God. When by God’s help I said ‘I do’, they asked me why God did not save me, and by the help of His Holy Spirit I said, ‘God does save me. He does not save me by freeing me from pain or punishment, but He saves me by giving me the spirit to bear it,’ and when they asked me why I did not curse them I told them that it was because I was a follower of Jesus Christ, who taught us that we were all brethren.”

He asked himself then how he could possibly love these men with their hard, cruel faces, who were obviously enjoying the torture they were inflicting. As he prayed he had a picture of them as they might have been as little children, and it’s hard to hate little children. But then, more powerfully, his prayer was answered by some words of a well-known communion hymn which came to his mind: “Look Father, look on his anointed face, and only look on us as found in him.” In that moment he was given a vision of those men not as they were then, but as they were capable of becoming, transformed by the love of Christ. He said he saw them completely changed, their cruelty becoming kindness, their sadistic instincts changed to gentleness. Although he felt it was too blasphemous to use Christ’s words “Father, forgive them,” he experienced the grace of forgiveness at that moment.

After eight months he was released back to Changi—one of the few who survived. For the rest of his life he emphasised in his speaking and preaching the importance of forgiveness. This is a living example of our first reading from Romans, that we should leave vengeance to God and should seek to overcome evil with good. It was precisely because of Wilson’s attitude and courage that one of his guards became a Christian and repented of all that he had done.

One of the particular areas of thanksgiving for us today is the way in which people cared for one another as friends, in spite of the degradation the Japanese inflicted. Wilson recalled how hungry they always were.   “I do not know how many of you know what real hunger is, but the temptation to greed is almost overwhelming. Here again we were helped. There was a young Roman Catholic in the cell. He was a privileged prisoner; he was allowed food from the outside. He could have eaten all of it and more than all of it, but never a day passed without his sharing it with some people in the cell. It was a small amount we got, but what an enormous difference it made. It raised the whole tone of our life and it made it possible for others to follow his noble example and to learn to share with one another.”

All veterans still alive and with us today have experienced depths of suffering beyond what most of us can imagine. We honour the sacrifice of all those who died fighting the Japanese, those who died during their imprisonment and all those who have died since the liberation after years of further physical and emotional pain. Bishop Wilson went on to become Dean of Manchester and then Bishop of Birmingham. We celebrate the productive lives which so many survivors were able to live and we honour their contribution to our peace time society. After seventy years, there are not many veterans still with us; but their great courage must not be forgotten. We do remember and shall remember what they have taught us about sacrificial friendship after the pattern of Christ himself. We entrust them all to Jesus who is the way, the truth and the life. Amen.”

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