James Wren

James Wren was a Royal Marine who arrived in the Pacific theatre in 1941. With his ship, HMS Repulse, sunk by Japanese bombers, he joined the ground forces in the final defence of Singapore.

James Wren

James Wren was a Royal Marine who arrived in the Pacific theatre in 1941. With his ship, HMS Repulse, sunk by Japanese bombers, he joined the ground forces in the final defence of Singapore.

Royal Marine James Wren was aboard HMS Repulse when it was sunk by Japanese bombers in 1941. Though hundreds died, he survived and soon joined with an Army unit defending the British fortress of Singapore. As the enemy closed in, he and the other men tried to escape on ships, attempting to save hundreds of civilian men, women and children fleeing the area. Sadly the Japanese military had captured the escape routes, and James, along with others on board, were taken prisoner.

James was subjected to brutal conditions in Japanese Prisoner of War Camps for three and a half years and was still a prisoner more than three years later when he found out that the war was over. Unlike many of the men who were first taken there, he was able to come home.

 
Joining Up

At the outbreak of the Second World War, 19-year-old James (Jim) Wren from East Grinstead in Sussex tried to ‘join up’ to the war effort. He applied for the Royal Air Force and the Army, but was turned away, as they were not yet in need of new recruits.

“I couldn't understand it. There we were at war and they were turning people away. I was a bit concerned. One day, my uncle who was a retired Royal Marine said he had been recalled on reserve. He came home one weekend and said, ‘Join us, we're taking recruits,' and that's how I came to be in the Royal Marines”

Jim officially joined the Forces on 9th January 1940, on a twelve-year contract. He carried out eight months training at the Royal Marine Barracks at Stonehouse in Plymouth.

“It was a bit strange, we arrived there late afternoon and of course it was already dark. It was a job to find your way around and they hadn't got any equipment to give us. For the first 2-3 days, we were sharing kits and knives and forks. It was so funny, really, to think that they'd called these men and they hadn't got the necessary gear to give them.

“As young men, we were excited, to a degree; many men, together in the same position, formed into a squad and training together.”

Convoys

In the autumn of 1940 Jim was posted to join the battlecruiser HMS Repulse at Scapa Flow in the Orkney Islands, Scotland under the command of Captain William George Tennant. For the next few months, he was part of the perilous Arctic and Atlantic Convoys, delivering weapons and goods to Allied troops fighting on the Russian Front and searching for German ships. He sailed through freezing waters, dangerously close to German held ports, facing imminent attack.

“You knew the danger was there, but it didn't come into your mind that anything would happen, and fortunately for us, we never had any problems at all. All the convoys we'd done, we never had any real problems at all, apart from the weather.

“It was gruelling, especially up in the Arctic. The small ships we were with had a particularly tough time of it. But it was all part of the job.

“HMS Repulse was a very well-organised ship. We had a great captain and everything ran quite smoothly. The camaraderie was marvellous. I met some really super men in those days. I can never forget those men.”

On 22 May, Repulse ordered to assist in the search for German battleship Bismarck. But running out of fuel left the search and went into St Johns Bay, Newfoundland, refuelled and picked up another convoy to the UK. The ship was refitted with new weapons between June and August 1941 and then Jim and the crew were tasked with escorting Commonwealth troop convoys Africa. Repulse was then transferred to East Indies Command and set sail for Singapore.

Force Z

Repulse along with new battleship HMS Prince of Wales and escorting destroyers were now Force Z, a group tasked to deter expected Japanese aggression. They arrived in Singapore on 2nd December 1941.

“We picked up the convoy, and we went the long way around. We went right up to the Greenland coast and down the east coast of America and across the southern Atlantic into Sierra Leone. We had a stop there, and then around the Cape to Durban, then up to Mombasa. Then we turned the convoy over to another escort, and we went farther east.

“We had no idea where we were going and we didn’t know why. We called in at the Seychelles, Colombo and Trincomalee in Sri Lanka and then finally Singapore.

“It was only once we got down into approaching Singapore that the captain cleared lower deck and informed us that the war with Japan was imminent. Then things began to happen quickly.”

The Empire of Japan declared war on the British Empire and United States on 7th December 1941, an hour after Japanese forces began a preemptive attack on the US Pacific Fleet's base in Hawaii, Pearl Harbor and on British forces in Malaya, Singapore, and Hong Kong. The previous year Japan had signed the Tripartite Pact with Germany and Italy, binding the three countries to mutual support. Japan had already occupied parts of China and was subjected to trade embargoes by the US.

“I didn’t know anything about the Japanese before we got to Singapore, but it seems as though their strength was underestimated. I think many in power thought Singapore would never fall. It was all a shock to us. They were a lot more prepared, their troops were all in position well in advance of us.

“When we got there, we refuelled and were sent to Australia to operate but were quickly recalled back to Singapore. We knew then that things were beginning to kick-off, but it was all very, very sketchy at the time. Nobody seemed to really have an idea of exactly what was happening. Then we were told to engage with the Japanese.”

Sinking

In the early hours of the 8th December, HMS Repulse provided anti-aircraft fire against a Japanese attack on Singapore and the naval dockyard. No planes were shot down, but the warships were also undamaged.

Later that day, Force Z departed on a mission to attack Japanese troop convoys but were spotted by the enemy the following day. The operation was cancelled, and the ships altered course to provide support after word got through about Japanese landings in Kuantan, Malaya (a key military position). 

At just after 2am on the 10th, a Japanese submarine spotted Force Z and fired five torpedoes at the lead ship HMS Prince of Wales. All missed, but the submarine was able to report to their forces the ships’ position. 

Several hours later, now based just off Kuantan, Force Z was spotted by a Japanese reconnaissance aircraft, and less than an hour later, at 11:13 a Japanese air force attacked. Two bombs missed Repulse, but a third struck, penetrating through the hangar.

“It all happened so quickly, we were on our usual mid-morning break, all on the mess deck having a cup of tea, and the alarm was sounded. I dropped my tea and headed to my action station.

“There was such a confusion going on. The noise was terrific, it was one big noisy battle. Gun crews of all descriptions involved. There was no panic though, we’d been through the routines so regularly that we just got on it. Everyone knew their role and we had such a good crew. We all had faith in each other.

“The first bomb that hit dropped right behind me. Fortunately, it went down 2 or 3 decks before it exploded. I didn’t have time to think about it at that point.”

The battle continued for more than an hour, with Repulse moving at high speed to try and out maneuver the Japanese bombers. They narrowly missed several more bombs and the fire caused by the first hit was under control. They went to support HMS Prince of Wales, but both ships came under attack by 25 ‘Betty’ bombers carrying torpedoes. The Repulse crew shot two of the planes down but was soon pummeled by enemy shelling. Realising the ship would not be able to go on, Captain Tennant gave the order for everyone to come on deck and to cast out the life floats.

Men were pouring up on deck. They had all been warned 24 hours before to carry or wear their lifesaving apparatus. When the ship had a 30 degrees list to port, I looked over the starboard side of the bridge and saw the Commander and two or three hundred men collecting on the starboard side. I never saw the slightest sign of panic or ill-discipline. I told them from the bridge how well they had fought the ship and wished them good luck. The ship hung for at least a minute and a half to two minutes with a list of about 60 degrees or 70 degrees to port and then rolled over.

- Captain Tennant, HMS Repulse

 

HMS Repulse sank at 12:33 10th December. HMS Prince of Wales was sunk too.

“I didn't even hear the actual call for abandon ship at all, but when I left the ship it was laying completely on her port side, and she was gone within a matter of minutes from the time that she rolled over.

“Once you realised that the ship was going, it was every man for himself, just to get away as best you could. The sea was slick black tar and oil.

“I managed to grab onto some flotsam and sometime after I was dragged onto a Carley float (life float) which had been launched from the ship. I’d swallowed a lot of oil and was very sick.  

“Fortunately, the small escort ships with us were able to pick up survivors. I was eventually put onto HMS Electra. We continued to search for more survivors until the captain decided to return to Singapore, arriving early the next morning at the naval base. We were given a tot of rum and cleaned up. We were issued with some kit and waited for orders.

"We had well over 1,000 men on board Repulse and lost about 500 when the ship went down. With the sinking of both ships 840 men and boys were lost that day.

“I lost many good friends. I can still see images of them today in the mess deck. I was with them every day. I can still see their faces and remember them.”

Capture

Jim and the other survivors were initially put on duties within the naval base. Then, he and the remaining Royal Marines from Repulse and Prince of Wales were transferred to Tyersall Camp. There they were amalgamated with the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders Army regiment. They suffered huge losses in Malaya and Singapore protecting the retreating Army, as they were one of few British units prepared for jungle warfare at the time. The new regiment was named the Plymouth Argylls, in reference to the Argylls affiliation to the Plymouth Argyle Football team and the Marines being from the Plymouth Division.

In February 1942, as the Japanese gained a foothold in Singapore, Jim and the Plymouth Argylls tried to defend the territory, but suffered heavy losses.

“We amalgamated with them and we sought to defend Singapore the best way we could, but honestly, the equipment we had was very, very poor. We had no experience with the jungle at all. The only time we had ever seen the jungle was when we looked towards shore from the dockyard. It was a complete surprise.”

As the Japanese continued on, plans were made to evacuate the area. Civilians and colonial personnel based in Singapore at the time were also arriving at Keppel Harbour, hoping to escape to safety. Jim boarded HMS Mata Hari, which set sail for Batavia (now Jakarta, Indonesia) on 12th February 1942, along with three other ships.

“I and other Royal Marines on hand manned the ships and loaded men, women and children. I’m sorry to say that almost all those ships were sunk by bombers or captured at sea. Apparently, there was an escape route planned, but we were not aware of this after loading the ships with large numbers of civilians. There were more than 480 aboard our ship.

“We left Singapore under the cover of darkness, but we were bombed by two Japanese aircraft on the first day. They failed to make a hit and we continued down the Sumatra Coast.

“Our Captain received a signal that the Japanese had cut off the Banka Straits and Sundra Straits and that we should go into Palembang, Sumatra where the civilian personnel could escape.

“But as we approached, we could see Sumatra already being invaded by the Japanese, so the Captain anchored overnight in the mouth of the river going into Palembang. At daybreak on 15th February, illuminated by the searchlight of a Japanese destroyer, we received a message saying we were their captives and they were sending a boarding party.

“I won’t ever forget seeing them. Nobody could speak Japanese, and the Japanese sailors came onboard, tearing around the ship, shouting and hitting and striking people, and the children were absolutely frightened to death. I can see the fear on their faces even today.

“They put the ship out of action and demobilised every 4-inch gun. We had already dropped small arms overboard so the Japanese couldn’t get them. Then they left us. We were low on food and water with hundreds of people on board. Later they came back and mobilised us, taking us to Bangka Island, Indonesia.”

Prisoner

Once captured, the military personnel on board the ship were taken to a broken-down building without water or sanitation, just one open drain. Some of civilian personnel were placed in an empty school. Many aboard other ships had died or were murdered at the beach when they were unloaded.

“The treatment at that stage, let me tell you, it was abominable. We never expected to see troops or civilians treated in the way they were. They took us ashore and stripped us of every valuable thing we had. All I had left was a few bits of clothing, they stole my watch.

“Then they put us in a warehouse and for several days and nights we slept on the concrete floor. They had no idea how to deal with prisoners of war. No idea at all. The officers were stepping in and trying to get some form of food arranged for us.

“The numbers grew daily, because of all the ships that left Singapore with evacuees, hardly any of them got away. They were either bombed, captured at sea or sunk. And many atrocities occurred.”

Jim and the other POWs were then taken to a disused school in Palembang, Sumatra.

“Again, we were sleeping on a brick floor with no bedding, sanitation or water. Oil drums were used as toilets which had to be taken away and emptied daily. The water which was brought in was unsuitable for drinking unless boiled.

“Daily working parties began. Our two most senior officers went to the Japanese guards to discuss the way POWs should be treated as outlined in the Geneva Convention. They were taken by the Kempeitai police (the military police arm of the Imperial Japanese Army) and were never seen again. It showed the kind of people we were dealing with.”

After a few days, Jim and the prisoners were moved on again, marched to a Dutch settlement. The captors presented a document for the officers to sign to say that the prisoners would make no attempt to escape, which they refused.

“We returned to camp thinking we had given them a black eye, but a few hours later they arrived with all the sick men from the hospital and dumped them in camp. They removed all food and water, secured the camp and left. It was left to the next senior officer to decide what to do: refuse or save more men from punishment and death. He decided to sign.

“We started to get food and water again and work parties started up again. I was moved to work on an airfield camp, levelling the site at the end of the parking area. It was slavery of the first order. No shelter or clothing to protect us from the sun, this lasted for a long time.”

Jim was a Prisoner of War for three and a half years and spent time in four different camps. He was subjected to slave labour and brutality every day. He witnessed many atrocities in that time, which he finds it difficult to discuss, even 75 years on. 

“You had to be very, very, very careful in how you approached the guards. Normally, we do not salute a private in the quarters, only commissioned officers and that's that. The Japanese expect a private to salute another private, and if you failed to salute, you would certainly get a beating.

“There were no acts of defiance as that would have been fatal. I can only give one instance. One chap had been quite sick for a long while with a badly injured knee, and he wasn’t able to work, which meant he didn’t get given rations. He had to go back to work to get fed, and on the very first day, he dropped a case of tinned food, and the guard struck him. He lost his temper and he struck the guard back. He was taken away, and we never saw him again. You never knew how these people were going to react, and we were all warned, not to antagonise them.

The heat and humidity were tough, and it was quite cold at night. The only covering I had at night was a couple of hessian bags. I turned them into a sleeping bag. I cut the bottom out of one end, and sowed the two together, and made a sleeping bag out of it. That's the only bedding I had, all the time I was a prisoner-of-war. We slept on raised bunks made of bamboo, like sleeping on corrugated sheets of metal.

“In the final camp I was in, there were about 1,300 men, though many died, especially when rations were cut back. We did have to put our lives on the line to get hold of food, anything we could get our hands on, for example while unloading shipping on the work parties. We went for anything edible. Otherwise we were fed on a daily ration of tapioca flour boiled up to a glue-like paste and 100 grams of rice and stewed river weed. It was like watercress but coarser, and it squeaked when you bit it. We called it whistling weed. Those fit to work shared food with the men who couldn’t, who were refused food. They wouldn’t survive without it. Everybody lost weight, I was only about six stone by the end, we got really skinny.

“Towards the end of the war, everyone was suffering from skin disease owing to poor hygiene. We had no toiletries or washing facilities and only boiled water for drinking.

“When the Japanese captured us, I had been sleeping on the upper deck and I took my boots off. In the confusion someone took one of my boots instead of their own so I was left with two boots of different sizes. I couldn't manage with the smaller shoe, so I cut the heel off. I was walking around with the heel sticking out the back of my boot for quite a while and over time it fell apart. Then I had to make do with clogs made out of pieces of wood and pieces of strapping across the toes. That's all we had available.”

Despite the atrocious conditions, Jim says the bond between the prisoners was strong.

“The Royal Marines, a group of 30 of us, were extremely good friends. And we made friends with other branches of the service too. It's incredible really. We looked out for each other. If you were out on a working party, and you noticed someone was starting to strain, you would try and jump in, and help him out. You had to, because if a guard saw a chap not doing the amount of work he was intended to do, then the beating started.

“We still had to be very careful what we were talking about, especially after dark, at night. We didn’t have lights, or anything like that, and so you didn't know where the guards were as they patrolled. There was a Japanese soldier who could speak fluent English and he used to wander around at night. If you were talking about anything related to the Japanese or anything they didn’t like, then you would be dealt with in the morning.”


VJ DAY

While in the camps, Jim and the other prisoners had no contact with the outside world. They were given no information and were unaware what was happening with regards to the war.

“From day one, almost to the final few days, we didn't know a thing that was going on, the war in Burma, or anywhere else, come to that.

“In a way I suppose it made it harder because we thought after the first 6 months, we would all have been free again, but it didn't happen. We were roundly told we had to accept what had happened and take what was coming to us.

“We knew nothing about Victory in Europe or the German surrender. We could only imagine that things weren't going well for the Japanese when their attitude, at different times, changed. In the final few weeks, they were on the desperate side. We assumed, then, that things were not going their way. No doubt that the Burma situation was one of them. It took that tension off of us, and threw it back onto them, really. We were never getting any real information at all. We never had any equipment to pick up news or anything.”

In August 1945, the Royal Navy raided an oil refinery in Sumatra, opposite where the working parties were forced to labour. After that, the Japanese stopped sending the prisoners to work.

“That was when we first got the idea that things were getting very close, because all the working parties stopped.

“A few days after that, we were all called out one morning onto what they used to call 'Tenko', which is a roll call and count of the prisoners. We stood there, and waited, and waited, and waited, and the Japanese camp Commander came. He got up on his rostrum and told us ‘the war is over’. And then, he ran and left.

You can just imagine. Some chaps just stood there, dumbfounded. Others hugged their chum, next to him, others just went to the ground and shed a few tears. I shed a few tears, I can tell you.

“It was an emotional reaction through my whole body. At that stage, we had almost got to a point of no return.”

Very soon, Allied troops came to the aid of those in the camp, but it would still be some days before Jim and the rest of the men were able to leave the camp.

“Fortunately, the Japanese had been ordered to mark all their prisoner-of-war camps with big white lettering on the decks, and the Royal Air Force then flew in search aircraft to locate them all. That was the only way that they could find out exactly where we were.

“Once they'd pinpointed us, parachutists parachuted in with electrical wireless equipment and connected with their base to send for more RAF crew to fly in supplies. There were two air drops at our camp.

“That was a great day, that nobody was expecting to ever see. At that stage, from early 1945 through to August that year, men were dying on a daily basis, and you didn't know whether it was going to be you next, or not.

“We still had to wait for arrangements to get us out. When the time came, the Australian Air Force came in with Dakotas, and flew us out to Singapore.”

Once in Singapore, Jim was given clothing and equipment and was put on troopship HMS Antenor to return home. The journey took six weeks, and they stopped once at a port in the Suez Canal to get kitted up with winter clothing. Special meals were prepared for him to aid his recovery. He arrived in Liverpool on 27th October 1945.

Reunion

Jim was the youngest of five siblings and had met his future wife Margaret while posted in Scotland in 1940. When he had first been captured, they were told Jim was missing, presumed dead.

“There was a big kerfuffle up in Parliament about this, because how can some thousand-odd men disappear off the face of the Earth? Eventually, the government looked into it and our families were then informed that we were captured as prisoners-of-war.

“Of course, we had no means of informing parents of any death in the camps and that's where the big shock came to many families, I'm afraid.

I did receive just one letter from my mother. She wrote on both sides of the paper due to a shortage at home, but the Japanese ciphered the whole of the letter before it got to me. I couldn't make head nor tail of it. It just signalled to me that my mother was still alive.

“I had no way of communicating with my family until I was released. It was a shock to them that I was still alive. When I arrived in Liverpool, I was put on a train to Plymouth. We stayed in the barracks and the next day I was sent straight to Sussex.

“I arrived home on the Monday morning and my mother and father were there, and to my huge surprise, Margaret was also there waiting for me.

“Before I was sent to Singapore, we’d been together for about four months. I had not heard anything from her for all those years, so it was the last thing I expected to find. To think that she waited all that time, not knowing whether it was going to be a success or not. She was communicating with me when I was missing, but none of her letters arrived to me, at all. They were all returned to her as 'unknown'. She'd worked in munitions in Scotland through the war, but once she heard the news that I was on my way home, she moved down to Sussex to be there when I got back. We got married the following year.

“Fortunately, all the family (except one brother in the Army who was heading to Singapore at the same time I was leaving it) managed to get home that night and we had a whole family gathering. There were some tears that day too.”

Post War

By the time Jim had been home, and had leave, he had served just half of his 12-year contract with the Royal Marines. He served on HMS Vanguard as part of the home fleet for the rest of his service.

“I did wonder to myself if my health was going to stand up to it, but I thought, I'll stick it out until retirement.

“There certainly wasn’t any special treatment in those days, regardless of what I’d gone through in the camps. You just had to get on with it and do your job.”

After 12 years in the service, Jim worked with the Parks Department in Salisbury, and then as a groundsman and gardener for a local school until he retired. He is a member of COFEPOW - The Children (& Families) of the Far East Prisoners of War organisation and wants people to remember what happened in the Far East during the war, as he continues to feel the mental scars today.

“It’s had an effect on me mentally over the years. I find it rather difficult to communicate, or converse with people. That whole experience is in the back of my mind all the time, because some things never go away.

“I don’t know what happened to the Commander of the camp, or any of the other Japanese officers. I wouldn’t wish what they did on anybody. 

“I’m glad the war ended, but it’s important to remember the world has changed too. The Japanese today are different people to the way they were then. And what happened at the end of war shouldn’t be forgotten either. The atom bomb saved my life, and the lives of thousands of men, but it took lives as well. It's a thing I never want to see again. Never.”

Jim is one of four men who served on HMS Repulse still alive today. Prince Charles has now commissioned a portrait of Jim, to be hung in Buckingham Palace. It’s being painted by artist Eileen Hogan from the Royal School of Drawing.