With today's means of communications it is sometimes difficult for us to understand that in the 1940's the passage of information was very different. This lack of news of the fate of Bill Lambert shows how difficult life will have been at that time.
From Geoffrey Lambert
My parents were living in Hong Kong before the war. My mother brother, and I were evacuated to Australia in September 1940. My father William (Bill) Lambert stayed on as he was working for E.D. Sassoons. He joined the Hong Kong Volunteer Defence Corps about this time. After the Japanese invasion in December 1942 it was quite a long time before my mother found out what had happened to my father, that he was killed on the last day of the fighting.
It was not until January 1946 that she received a letter from Harry Penn, his Company Commander, describing the events of that time. This is a copy of the letter sent by Harry Penn to Mrs Lambert who was then at:
265 St Kilda St,
352 London Road
20th January 1946
My Dear Mrs. Lambert,
I was very glad to get your letter of the 9th as I have been trying to get your address since my return a month ago – in fact I wrote to the Colonial Office some time ago for addresses of next-of-kin of all members of my Company killed in Hong Kong, so that I could give them such additional information as I have, but they have not even replied. The unavoidable uncertainty and lack of definite information over the last four years must have made the loss of your husband even more anxious and worrying matter than would otherwise have been the case and I would like to tender you my sincere sympathy in the loss you have sustained. I will endeavour to give what you such information as I can – I was wounded myself on the 21st Dec and I can only speak from information given me in response to enquiries regarding subsequent happenings. By the 24th Dec, the Eastern part of the defence of the island had been beaten back and cornered in the Stanley Peninsula with the Nips pushing forward into the narrow neck of the isthmus. My company had suffered heavy casualties and had only one officer remaining and in its depleted form was re-organized under the command of the remainder of a Company of the Middlesex Regt. A Platoon of our Company, under an officer of the Middlesex, named Scantlebury, was holding the Mary Knoll Mission, which you may remember as a large building on the landward side of the isthmus
Your husband was with this platoon. During the night of 24th/25th Dec the Japanese infiltrated in considerable numbers through our lines and past the Mary Knoll Mission and in the morning, just before daylight, Lt. Scantlebury decided to endeavour to withdraw the party back through the "neck" of the peninsula and rejoin the main defence line. He split the party into three sections of seven or eight each and each section was to find its own way back through the infiltrated Japanese forces., quite rightly hoping that three small parties would have a better chance of getting through than if they withdrew together. The last of the three parties to leave was one of seven with Lt Scantlebury and your husband was with this party. The first two parties got through safely with comparatively few casualties, although they passed through very heavy machine gun and mortar fire in the narrow confines of the isthmus. I am sorry to say that none of the third party got through and it can only be concluded that they were ambushed by the Japanese when making their way back and the whole section wiped out, probably by machine gun fire. Among those who were lost with this section, and whom you may possibly know, were John Potter of Leigh & Orange, Gaubert of Jardines, Lowry the Magistrate and with whom I think your husband was fairly friendly. Some two days after our surrender, a burial party was allowed out of Stanley Fort but were unfortunately unable to get as far as the area in which this party was caught and consequently, as far as I know, there is no record of the burial place of any of these men. No record was kept by the Japanese of those that they subsequently buried, so as far as I know. I am so sorry that I can give you no more definite information than the foregoing rather unsatisfactory details but I am afraid that there is no one who can do so.
Although the hostilities in H.K. were of such short duration, our company saw some of the stiffest fighting and are generally acknowledged to have put up a very creditable show – unfortunately our casualties in killed alone represented nearly one third of the Company strength. It seems such a pity that so many died on the last day of the fighting, and when the end was so obviously near. Our Company started operations on the mainland as local defence of the Kai Tak aerodrome and came in for the initial Jap bombing and machine gunning of the aerodrome on the first morning of hostilities and we were among the last troops to evacuate to the island. Thereafter we were involved in the hills behind Taikoo after another sharp engagement in the vicinity of the Tytam Crossroads and the Simmons Bungalow, "Erinville", and it was there that I collected a bullet through the face but which fortunately did no damage. Your husband was beside me at the time working a Lewis Gun and that was the last time I saw him. Apart from volunteering, he was a personal friend of mine and he, Vyner Gordon, Bowker and I used to pay quite a bit of tennis together – it is awful to think that they have all gone. During our short war, the men did have to put up with a considerable amount of privation and hardship. Naturally, I saw quite a bit of you husband during that period and I can only assure you that through it all, in his quiet way, he maintained the utmost philosophy and cheerfulness.
Please accept my very sincere sympathy with yourself and your two sons in your loss, which is no doubt unhappily revived at this time when so many of us have been fortunate enough to be reunited with our wives and families.
Yours very sincerely,
Harry A Penn
This letter does not relate the circumstances which saved Harry Penn. His son, John Penn, records that my father (AHP) was wounded on 21st December 1941 and ended up in the Field Hospital at St Stephen's, Stanley. He was remarkably fortunate having been shot through the face, with the bullet entering his right cheek and exiting through the left, without touching tooth! The next bit of good fortune was that he discharged himself (swathed in bandages) on 24th December, and returned to No 1 Company HKVDF somewhere in the Stanley area. In the early hours of Christmas Day, the enemy broke into the hospital bayoneting the wounded, killing the doctors and raping and killing the nurses. There were few survivors.
John Penn continues that we were on leave in the UK in 1939, and upon the outbreak of war in Europe, AHP returned to HK. We (my mother, my sister, Patricia, and I) followed in 1940, proceeding trans-Atlantic because of the war. We got as far as Vancouver when the evacuation of HK commenced and, as a result, we were stuck in Canada. After 18 months in Victoria, we moved across to Toronto and the first news that we had of our father was when HKDF member, Benny Prouxl, escaped from camp and reached Canada in 1943. We returned to the UK by convoy in January 1944, and AHP got back to the UK in December 1945, having stayed on to get the office up and running again.
This story is typical of many families divided by the war. It was concluded that John Potter died along side Bill Lambert and John Potter's family's story is much the same. His son Chris Potter relates that his mother and he stayed on in Hong Kong and were held in the Stanley internment camp until repatriation to the UK in 1945. He was only 3 months old when the island fell and his mother must have had a terrible time fending off the Japanese soldiers and looking after him, hoping against hope that her husband had not been killed. In later years she seldom spoke about those times and never again did she feel the joy of Christmas Day.
There must be many similar stories which can be told and, if appropriate, these will be added to this web site so that we, who did not experience these troubled times, may appreciate what suffering occurred so that we could benefit today.