Forty Miles from Freedom


Ernest Charles Rogers began his military career in the British Army at the age of 15. He spent the next 38 years of his life in the army. After WWII he became a member of the Royal Canadian Engineers. Upon retirement as WO I, Mr. Rogers continued his career in engineering, obtaining his PEng in both mechanical and electrical engineering. His responsibilities varied from working on the Alaska Highway and providing power to Whitehorse, Yukon to improving the housing conditions in the North with the Department of Indian Affairs & Northern Development (DIAND) in Ottawa until 1971. Shortly after hearing news that I had been accepted to attend Royal Military College, it was discovered that he had cancer. He died a year later on August 20th, 1972 from what I believe were war-related injuries. I was 19 years old.

My father left with me many fond memories, some of which I would like to share with you. The story itself will be presented as a serial comprised of three articles due to its length and deals with the four years my father spent in a Japanese POW camp during World War II.

Christmas Day 1941 will always be remembered by all who happened to be in Hong Kong on that inglorious day. I was there when the British Governor unconditionally surrendered to the Japanese. With great reluctance we laid down our arms and wondered what would be our fate. Had we known what miseries were to be endured during the next four years few of us would have obeyed our officers that day, and our reluctance would have turned to refusal. Like most other professional soldiers my bitterness at being defeated by the Japanese who had the audacity to take on the might of the British Empire and the USA was tempered by the complete self assurance that this was merely a temporary setback. I envisaged that within a few days our battle fleets from Singapore and Pearl Harbour would appear on the horizon and the very sight of them would be sufficient to scare the living daylights out of the Japs and we would all be free again. We had been so busy fighting these little upstarts that we had no news of the Pearl Harbour debacle. Within a few days of the cease fire the remnants of the British Army, the Hong Kong Volunteer Defence Force and the two ill-fated Battalions of the Canadian Army were all imprisoned in the partly destroyed barracks at Sham Shui Po. This British Army Barracks was situated on the Kowloon Peninsula on mainland China and had been knocked about quite a bit during the fighting. Many of the huts had been bombed out by the Japs, and Chinese looters had taken away windows, doors and anything else that would burn prior to the surrender. This, then, was to be the home for many of the prisoners of war for the next four years.

I was with the Royal Engineers and it became our job to make this shattered barracks more habitable. We covered window spaces with bits of cardboard, used old pieces of galvanized iron as doors, and in general cleaned up the mess of war as best we could. To facilitate this work, the Japs permitted me to have a sort of workshop and a few tools. From this bombed out hut we organized the repair of the camp with limited Japanese supervision. For our hospital, such as it was, I was permitted to run a few electric lights and bit by bit the rest of the camp got to know me as the camp engineer. As time went on various prisoners sidled up to me and offered me an assortment of bits and pieces of material that I might find useful. In this manner I acquired seventeen assorted radio tubes and other wireless components. It was then decided, that under the cover of my semi-official workshop we would attempt the building of a radio set. We were so starved of news that any risk was worthwhile. Little did I know, at the time, that this radio would play such an important part in my life to come.

I have to mention the set because it is the start of this remarkable story, which before it is over, leads to the execution of four brave men and the awarding of four posthumous George Crosses.

On St. Patrick's Day 1942, in a secret underground chamber, that had been surreptitiously excavated under the floor of the workshop, I heard the voice of an American news announcer. He was speaking in a hotel studio at Station KGER San Francisco, and I was hearing him in Hong Kong, on a radio set, the construction of which, to me, was one of the wonders of the world. From that day on, I was in touch with the outside world.

Although the news, at that time, was not good for the Allies, it was still wonderful to know what was happening, anyhow. This radio news was passed, by me, to the senior officers of the camp. Extreme care was required to keep the set hidden from the Japanese and from our own fellow prisoners, many of whom, we were well aware, were fifth columnists, ready to sell their comrades to the Japs for a few cigarettes. One of my trusted confidants was Capt Doug Ford of the Royal Scots. I had commanded one of his composite platoons during the fighting. He was undoubtedly the finest and bravest man I had known and he was to die bravely; this I did not know at the time. I remember it was one night I had been to tell him that we had lost two carriers, seven destroyers etc. etc., down around the Coral Sea. He said he had something special to tell me. We went for a walk so that no one could hear us. He told me he had received a secret note from the outside and was not sure how to answer it.

Months before hostilities commenced in the Far East the powers-that-be had secretly trained a group of men known only as "K" Force. The job of this force was to infiltrate behind the Japanese lines and interfere with the lines of communications.

A member of the Force, Lieut Clague of the Royal Artillery, had eluded capture and was now operating as a secret service agent, outside the barbed wire right in Hong Kong. The note that Doug Ford received was supposed to have come from Clague. Doug suspected that the note might be a trap, laid by the Japanese themselves, to test their own security. Doug, being aware that I was running the radio assumed, that since I possessed the "know how" to make a radio set, perhaps I would also have the knowledge of codes; "Do you know any codes?" he asked me. "No." I replied "however I'll ask my friend Pedlar Palmer of the Royal Navy, the radio brains behind our illicit set." I sought out Pedlar who had been in radio all his life. He knew of a radio code used by Naval Officers to plan little going ashore escapades during peacetime. This code went under the name of "Beer is Best" Code. I learned the mechanics of this code which I passed on to Capt Ford.

Capt Ford wrote only these three words, "Beer is Best," on a scrap of paper. He gave this to the Chinese truck driver go-between, who had brought the original note into camp. Several days later another secret note was received with just two words - "Silly Symphony" - written on it. Ford later told me that "Silly Symphony" was the name of a private code used by the Royal Air Force, and he was completely satisfied that we had established a bona-fide contact outside the wire. We made use of this code to pass out information to Lieut Clague and to the best of my knowledge the first message went out with the word "Australia" being the key to the deciphering of the note. Some days later Doug Ford called on me again and suggested that at 11:00 p.m. that night I should step inside a particular bombed-out hut because a certain unnamed gentleman wished to speak to me on a most important subject. That night I took a casual stroll past the bombed-out hut and having satisfied myself I had not been seen by anyone, I passed inside. It was very dark and I could see nothing in the inky blackness. After a moment I head a voice enquire "Rogers?" I answered "I'm here." The same voice asked me to sit down and listen. The gentleman with whom I spoke but did not see, informed me that he had been chosen to take charge of plans to make a mass breakout from our prison. He told me he had the approval of General Maltby, to make such an attempt, with the provision that a minimum of four hundred soldiers would be taken out. The General had decided that any reprisals taken by the Japs because of such an escape would, if four hundred men could gain freedom, be worthwhile. I had been recommended to the Escape Officer by Ford, who, himself was in this thing, up to the hilt. I told the unseen speaker that he could rely on me for anything. He knew that in peacetime I had been responsible, engineeringwise, for Sham Shui Po Barracks. He requested me to explore the possibilities of escaping from the camp via the sewers and to report my findings back to him.

For several nights after this I explored all the sewers in the camp, dressed in a specially padded boiler suit to protect my knees and elbows. I explored every trunk and main sewer. It's a miracle I didn't die of suffocation. Inch by inch I would propel myself down the sewers, lying in a filthy stinking mess, only to find that at each manhole, which led to the outside world, we had been outsmarted by the Japs. Every manhole was filled with a conglomeration of bomb damaged masonry mixed up with tangled barbed wire. I met the Escape Officer again. By this time I knew who he was. I passed on my tale of woe and told him of the frustrating effort. He was not as downhearted as I was but said we would resort to the alternative of blowing ourselves out of the prison. For this project I was to be demolitions officer. It then transpired that our outside contact, Lieut Clague had really been getting organized. Many of our fellow prisoners were Chinese and Portuguese members of the Hong Kong Volunteer Defense Force. Their wives and families were living outside the camp as civilians in occupied Hong Kong. They had organized themselves into parties which daily brought food parcels to the camp perimeter wire. Sometimes the Japs would allow these civilians to throw the parcels over the wire to their husbands, fathers, etc., but other times they would be chased away. Clague made use of these activities to pass to Ford, food parcels which contained escape material. Tins of Soya sauce contained kerosene, not sauce, and toothpaste tubes were filled with plastic explosive instead of toothpaste and so on. A plan was hatched that I should prepare bangalore torpedoes using the plastic explosive squeezed into lengths of water piping. These dummy water pipes filled with explosives were installed by us in the urinal near to the wire where we intended to escape. We planned to use the kerosene to set fire to the main cookhouse when we were ready to make our breakout. We hoped the burning cookhouse would act as a diversion to the Japs. When they were busy combatting the fire we intended, then, to let off other diversionary small explosions in various parts of the camp. During the confusion, we hoped this would cause, we would place our bangalore torpedoes in between wire strands of the fence and guided by some of Chiang Kai Shek's guerrilla soldiers and we would be required to make a desperate march of some forty miles to freedom. This sounded so wonderful; forty miles to freedom. How unreal it all turned out to be. I was to go many thousand miles before I found freedom.

Bit by bit our plans were made and one by one we became armed, ready for the big day. Our arms were very crude. Such things as old bed legs; I had a set of garage T-hinges the edges of which were filed sharp enough to the cut the head from any Jap who got in the way. Although I didn't know it, our escape was doomed to failure. How, why, or when I have never been able to find out but I believe the weak link in the escape chain was our Chinese contact man who somehow got caught. What I do know is sometime in June or July 1943, the hated "Kempeitai" (the Japanese Military Police) descended on the camp and took out with them Capt Doug Ford of the Royal Scots, and Flight Lieut Hector Gray of the Royal Air Force. I was most concerned, particularly for Doug Ford with whom I had grown very friendly. I did hear rumours during the next few days that four men were arrested in all because the Japs thought they were going to escape. For my part I decided to go much more carefully with my radio and went to the trouble of boring out a large piece of wood used as a chopping block, into which I hid my radio. Weeks later a Japanese interpreter Inouye came to my workshop and said I was to go out with him to a waterfront warehouse to pick out electrical equipment to be used to electrify a fence around Sham Shui Po Camp to stop prisoners escaping. Unsuspectingly I went with him and instead of taking me to the waterfront he took me to the Lai Chi Chok Police Station. In an office there I was asked all manner of questions but none relating to radio sets or escape activities and on the whole the proceedings were comparatively casual with an air of carefree banter and no signs of annoyance or nastiness on the part of the Japs. I was then told I would have to stay in the police station that night and would pick up the materials for the electric fence the next day. At this juncture I was fairly at ease, felt happy with myself and decided I had been scared about nothing. I was placed in a very small and filthy jailroom. The irony of it all. Here was an Englishman thrown into a dirty stinking jail that his own countrymen had built to house some poor ignorant Chinese evil doer but certainly never intended to imprison a white man. I was left alone the rest of that day and the night that followed. I saw no one but could occasionally hear voices in the distance. I needed the toilet badly but had no where to go. I could hold myself no longer and finally eased myself by urinating and defecating in the corner of my room. I had an inward feeling of amusement for after a great struggle with my conscience to relieve myself, I discovered I was certainly not the first to have done so. There was human excreta all over the place. The terrible stench gave me no stomach for food which was all to the good, for no attempt was made to feed me anyhow. Sometime the next day a Jap sentry came for me. He butted me in the backside all the way up the prison steps. His reason - I had messed on the floor. He took me to a sort of general office where there were gathered some half dozen Japs, some in shirt sleeves and some in jackets, none of whom seemed to take any interest in me, none of whom seemed to have anything better to do than to sit around "shooting the breeze." After some thirty minutes one of them came over to me and said "You English" I replied "Yes" and they said they had conquered India and Australia and would soon conquer the world. I laughed at this and said that the Allies would win in the end. Two other Japs then joined the party and the questioning was again resumed. This day I sensed they were not friendly and I was sorry that I had joked with them about the outcome of the war. I received several face slaps for not being able to answer their questions and the onlookers, I felt, were goading my tormentors into making things uncomfortable for me. At one time I was knocked down and kicked. While still down, one Jap tied my hands behind my back. Quite unexpectedly I was hauled to my feet and pushed onto the top of an old army six foot trestle table. One of the Japs sat on my feet and another stood by my head, which was hanging over the end of the table, and held me by the hair. Another brought some old rags and placed them over my nose and mouth. Others then came up with small wooden pails and poured the water in them over the filthy rags. Pail after pail was poured over me and I can remember fighting to get my breath and eventually choking. I then lost consciousness. When I regained my senses I found myself on the wet floor of the office.

The Japs were sitting around chatting and joking with each other. They left me there quite some time, long after they were aware that I had recovered from their drowning game. After what seemed to me like hours, one of them came over, dragged me to my feet, untied my hands and shoved me onto a chair. They brought me a bowl of hot rice and a small Chinese cake which I ate with relish. To top off the meal, which I had eaten amidst lots of laughing and joking on their part, one of them then offered me a cigarette. By this time I was beginning to feel on top of the world. I began to wonder why these little devils would be so sadistic one moment and so seemingly kind the next. I came to the conclusion that perhaps they had a sneaking regard for me because I had not answered their questions. These thoughts did not prevail for long however. I had hardly taken the last delightful drag on that cigarette when it began all over gain.

This time my hands were tied behind me and my feet were tied in the sitting position; the rope around my feet was secured to the rope around my hands and pulled up tight. One Jap stood behind me and again held my hair, while another sat in a chair to my front and proceeded to roll a bamboo pole up and down my shins. He did this with his feet, pushing with his leg muscles so that the pole dug down to my shin bones. I remember screaming with pain. Eventually they tired of this fun and I was untied and thrown into my cell again. I must have been delirious as my memory of the next few hours is quite vague. I remember feeling terribly cold and shivering so much that my teeth chattered. I hurt all over and was having awful stomach cramps; my crotch felt hot and sticky. I quickly dropped my pants and stared in horror at the mess I had made. Blood and mess was flowing from my rear end over which I had no control whatsoever. The sight of this made me vomit and in my vomit I could still taste the Chinese Cake I had eaten earlier. I had the awful feeling that the Japs had stuck a bayonet in my stomach and blood was somehow flowing from the wound into my bowels. I frantically searched my person to find the wound; finding none I decided I'd not been stabbed after all, but with every little movement that I made I was spurting blood and mess from my rear end. I became hysterical and must have fainted several times. I have hazy recollections of the Japs hollering and shouting and then being jostled around. After dying more than one death, and wanting to at that, I eventually became conscious of the fact that I was not in the prison cell any more. I was back in the camp at Sham Shui Po and was a patient in the dysentery ward of the hospital. Apparently, when the Japs found me in this filthy mess of blood and diarrhea, they had engaged some Chinese Coolies to take me back to the camp. I lingered in hospital for sometime before I was fit to be discharged and was never again interrogated by the Japs during my stay in Hong Kong. In retrospect, I believe the Japs were so terrified that I would pass on my chronic dysentery to them that they wanted no further part of me.

To complete this story, here quoted verbatim is a newspaper report that my father discovered weeks after he had been repatriated home to England after the surrender of the Japanese in 1945.

"Officers Tortured and Executed"

"Four Posthumous G.C.'s"

The King has approved the posthumous award of the George Cross to the following officers in recognition of most conspicuous gallantry while they were prisoners of War in Japanese Hands: -

"Colonel Lanceray Arthur Newnham, M.C., The Middlesex Regiment; Captain Douglas Ford, the Royal Scots; Captain Manteen Ansari, 7th Rajput Regiment, Indian Army; Flight Lieut Hector Gray, A.F.M., Royal Air Force."

"Colonel Newnham succeeded in gaining contact with our agents early in 1943. While correspondence was being exchanged, a code being agreed upon, and suggestions for a general breakout being arranged, the Japanese discovered the organization and on July 10, 1943, Colonel Newnham and a number of others were arrested. He was starved, tortured and finally brought before a Japanese court martial and sentenced to death. He was subsequently executed. In spite of his acute suffering, both physical and mental, over a period of five months, he refused to implicate any of his senior officers or connections, thus saving their lives."

"Captain Ford, who remained in the other ranks camp at Sham Shui Po, was the leader in gaining contact with our agents. Similar arrangements to those made by Colonel Newnham were being made when he too was arrested. He was tortured and starved and finally met his death with Colonel Newnham. Throughout his terrible ordeal the behaviour of Capt Ford was superb. He refused to implicate any others. He maintained his spirits and those of his fellow prisoners, until the end."

"Capt Manteen Ahmed Ansari, from the time of the capitulation of Hong Kong was separated from his fellow officers and confined with the Indian other ranks. Because he was closely related to the ruler of a great Indian State, every effort was made to obtain his influence to lead the others away from their allegiance. He steadfastly continued to counteract all traitorous propaganda, and resolutely opposed all attempts at undermining the loyalty of his compatriots. In May 1942, by which time owing to starvation and brutal ill-treatment which is alleged to have included mutilation, he had become unable to walk. He was then released to the camp hospital. On recovering sufficiently he again returned to the Indian other ranks camp and not only resumed his previous efforts but also organized a system for aiding escapers. In May 1943, he was betrayed, and again thrown into Stanley Jail, where he was starved and brutally tortured for several months. Finally he was tried by a military tribunal and sentenced to death, along with over thirty others, British, Indian and Chinese who on October 20, 1943, were executed by "beheading."

"Flight Lieut Gray was one of a small group of officers and men engaged in organizing a general escape. The Japanese discovered the plan and on July 1, 1943, Flight Lieut Gray and two non-commissioned officers were arrested. Two Army officers were arrested later. He was starved, tortured, and finally brought before a Japanese court martial, and sentenced to death. He was subsequently shot. As the first officer to be arrested he bore the brunt of the torture inflicted by the Japanese. In spite of this, and the fact that he was suffering from illness during the five months of his imprisonment, he steadfastly refused to implicate any others."

W.G. Rogers


The story of Ernest Charles Rogers - Forty Miles from Freedom, which has appeared in serialized form in the last three issues of the Arch has in it a message to all of these who serve in the profession of Arms - the Canadian Armed Forces. To those of you who have taken time to read these three serials you may or may not have realized that in this story of brave men there is a message for those of us who serve in the military profession.

Mr Rogers explains, in story form, how so many important attributes of a military professional are "ways of life" which must be part of the "life-style" of the military man. In 1941 many men obeyed the order to surrender even though it was the most loathsome thing for soldiers to have to do. Obeying without question is essential in the military man. Mr Rogers explains how he and others worked to make the life of fellow prisoners an easier one by improving the standards of their prisoner's cage. Hard work to help one's fellowman is an attribute of a military man. The story of the clandestine radio and the escape plan is all shrouded in the importance of secrecy. Other, not so dedicated men, would sell their principles for a package of cigarettes. Maintaining secrecy for the sake of the cause is an attribute of a military man. When the escape plans were made, Mr. Rogers placed his total reliance in an unknown person. He did not shirk his responsibilities because of danger, torture and other inhuman treatment. Providing leadership under the most adverse of conditions is an attribute of a military man.

In conclusion, we have in this short story the personal reminiscence of a brave man who talks about other brave men. Bravery or courage is in each one of us in a greater or lesser degree. The attribute of bravery lies hidden until the time arrives when bravery must be shown. Bravery is an attribute of a military man.

Mr. Rogers lives no more, but the things he lived and died for are the better life which you and I enjoy today. Mr. Ernest Rogers is the kind of man that would make any person proud to call him Dad.

Col J.A.R. Gardam