War & Peace

Tom Lambert some years ago...

A Story about HMS Exeter -1942
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War and Peace, those two great certainties which each bring stories of great human fortitude, great courage, great humour and great resolve amongst other human characteristics. What follows is an incredible mixture of all these, making a story to touch the heart and to give profound relief at the end that it could all have concluded so happily for the people concerned.

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In 1938, two young men joined the Royal Naval School of Music at Deal in Kent. They joined within a short time of each other and quickly thereafter moved to Malvern to commence their training as Royal Marine Musicians. Almost simultaneously HMS Exeter, after her well documented exploits in the Battle of the River Plate, was being repaired and refitted for further action at sea.

Now fully trained as musicians these two young men, RMB X1136 Musician A. E. King and RMBX1179 Musician T. E. Jones were nominated in a band, under Bandmaster Vidler to join HMS Exeter for normal wartime sea service. All too soon the ship had progressed to the far East and became engaged in the Battle of the Java Sea against superior Japanese forces, the ship being obliged to retire to Surabya to bury their dead and effect some repairs. At sea once again they were heavily engaged by the Japanese and the ship was sunk on March 1st 1942. Amazingly, on this occasion, the band lost no men at their action station. All too often, when ships were sunk by enemy action all the men in the band’s particular action station, the Transmitting Station, suffered a particularly gruesome fate as the ships plunged to their ends in the depths of the sea. However, a new hell awaited them when they were made prisoners of war of the Japanese and incarcerated in the MAKASSAR prisoner of war camp in the Celebes.

The privations they were to suffer were in every way similar to those men who were forced to build the Burma Railway, the poorest rations imaginable, little or no medical attention or supplies, and under constant threat from brutal and bullying camp guards. It was not surprising therefore that numbers died from starvation, from one medical condition or another, particularly beri beri, which was endemic. The Bandmaster himself, died of this awful condition having first done much to ease the suffering of his colleagues. One of our two friends, ”Bertie” King also suffered from it but managed to survive. There are few people of today that have not seen ghastly pictures of survivors of Japanese prisoner of war camps and given thanks that they themselves had never to undergo such inhumanity.

At the war’s end both Jones and King, having survived those years, were repatriated to the United Kingdom. King stayed in England and eventually lost touch with his great friend, who, in the 1960's emigrated with his family to Australia. Now the story starts to take a strange turn. Thinking that he may well be the last surviving member of the Exeter’s band he wrote a very detailed account of his travails to the Regimental Magazine of the Royal Marines School of Music, the Blue Band. The result of this was that the Principal Director of Music, Lt.Col Chris Davis, DMD BA(Hons) MMus LRAM made arrangements for him to be presented with a recently written history of the Band Service. However, this is where fate really kicks in.

It comes to light that King was not in fact the sole surviving member. His great wartime friend, Ted Jones is alive and well, and living in South Australia, where also live several ex members of the Royal Marines Band Service. Arrangements were immediately put in hand for telephonic communication to take place between them. On the evening of November 4th the two old boys, one 85, the other 86, were united in a very long telephone call, which will no doubt be repeated many times between now and Christmas, and who knows, Father Christmas, who may get to hear of their heart-warming story may be even more generously disposed towards them.

Tom Lambert

[Editor's note] Written pre Xmas 2007

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