Second World War: Why we must not forget sacrifices the people of Suffolk made
PUBLISHED: 11:21 13 April 2015 | UPDATED: 11:21 13 April 2015
Here we begin a series remembering the Second World War.
Most articles will focus on the celebrations of VE Day, almost 70 years ago, but we also recognise the efforts of those who fought tyranny – often at great cost.
Steven Russell hears about a man in uniform from the age of 14.
When Colin Ranson was very young he’d often be woken by his mother and taken next-door “for safety and seclusion”. His father was gripped by terrors in the small hours and needed time and space in which to calm down. It wasn’t the best thing for a little lad to witness.
Ted had been a prisoner of the Japanese during the Second World War. For nearly two years his wife back in Suffolk did not know if he was dead or alive. He witnessed many atrocities and inhumanities, and they left a legacy.
The end of the war saw him released and back in Ipswich. But his memories travelled with him. Ted’s nightmares, which came at least a couple of times a week, often turned into murderous rants against his former captors – “the frustrations and anger of what happened to him and his friends coming to the forefront through his night-time horrors”, says Colin.
His dad – Edward Harry Ranson – had been in uniform since 1919. Ted was a tender 14 years old when he joined the British army as a band boy/stretcher bearer/medic.
There’s a picture of him, sitting and looking fragile, that was taken in Great Yarmouth – probably not long after he was signed up.
The boy from The Mount – a long-vanished Ipswich community in the Elm Street area – would travel to Ireland, and even further to Afghanistan and India (where there was a major uprising). He’d later tell his son about seeing the Himalayas: Everest and Annapurna.
In the mid-1920s, Ted’s battalion had a two-year posting to Gibraltar. It was there he met his wife to be.
Mary – known as Ena – was the daughter of a military master- armourer who had retired to The Rock to run a laundry business. Her mother was Maltese.
“Her family wouldn’t let her leave for the UK, to be with my father after he’d gone back to Colchester, until she was 21,” says Colin, who was born in 1949 and had an older sister and brother. “Then she stayed with my father’s mother, on The Mount.”
The young couple had an early-summer wedding at St Mary-le-Tower church in Ipswich and after a few years moved into a new council house in Raeburn Road.
“He left the regular army after 10 years and was retained by the territorials, as was normal for those days. He worked as a bus conductor/driver with Ipswich Corporation Transport until the start of the Second World War.”
The couple’s first two children – June and Edward junior – were born in the 1930s, before war broke out.
Ted’s battalion, the 4th Suffolks, were involved in building coastal defences and laying minefields to counter the Nazi threat.
By early autumn, 1941, the Suffolks were on their way to Singapore to help deal with Japanese forces.
Back in Ipswich, Ena heard that the survivors of the battle for Singapore had been under orders from Lieutenant General Arthur Percival to surrender. She was naturally extremely anxious about the welfare of her husband, who had risen to the rank of sergeant.
“For three long years she struggled to bring up my brother and sister, working at Pipers Vale Pool and helping run the Morland Road Allotment Association as well as maintaining the large garden in Raeburn Road,” says Colin of his mother, a strong and resilient woman. “It certainly was a case of ‘Dig for Victory’.
“It was to be three years or so before a telegram arrived from the War Office, informing her that her husband was on his way home.
“For nearly two years she had no idea if he was alive or dead. The Japanese were very lax in producing lists and forwarding these to the Red Cross.
“After a period of weeks post-VJ Day” – victory over Japan came in September, 1945 – “my father and his colleagues were transported back to the UK.
“In my father’s case it was on an American liner. The American medical staff had no preconceptions of how much the allied troops had been mistreated and starved, so being initially served with real food had a negative effect on most soldiers.
“Some died on the way home from what is now known as toxic shock syndrome simply because their stomachs could not handle the protein.
“Upon his arrival at Ipswich railway station there were of course tears from my mother. My father could not cry and did not do so for a considerable period of time. The mistreatment he and his army colleagues suffered, the atrocities witnessed – beheadings, torture and beatings – had drained them of being able to display emotion.
“He was fortunate in returning home in a reasonable physical condition, though he was very thin and could barely walk. This is compared with some others who would never walk again, or died, after a short period home, from malaria and other tropical diseases.
“However, the emotional scars soon came to the forefront and went on for a considerable number of years.”
Colin’s talking about those nightmares, of course.
“This condition is now known as post-traumatic stress disorder. There was no counselling then – people just got on with it, although short stays at Queen Mary’s Hospital in Roehampton helped tremendously.
“By the time I was about 11, at the start of the ’60s, these episodes had largely died down and as I was old enough at this time he related some of his experiences to me and my older brother. I don’t believe he told my mother much.
“He was of course sensible enough to realise that the Japanese armed forces and general population had always been subjected to a ‘fight to the death, never surrender’ doctrine. This doctrine did not excuse the horrendous mistreatment inflicted on the allied troops and civilians in the captured territories.”
Colin says his dad told him a lot of stories about the fighting in the Far East. “His words were – excuse my French – ‘we were beating the little b*****ds back and we were told to surrender. We couldn’t believe it.’
“If you read the accounts of Singapore, there was an almighty mistake about a bridge that was going to be blown up and stop the Japanese advance, and it didn’t happen. The explosives never went off.”
Ted was also a regimental marksman. “When they surrendered, he took off his cross-rifles (a sewn-on badge) and chucked them away. If he’d been caught with them, the Japanese would have shot him straightaway. They would have known he would have killed a lot of their compatriots.”
Ted and fellow prisoners of war were transported to Burma.
Thousands of prisoners died as they were forced to build the notorious “Death Railway”, portrayed in the film The Bridge on the River Kwai, between Thailand and Burma.
“Because he was a medic, I don’t believe he actually did much work on the actual railway itself. He was obviously working in the camp ‘hospital’, doing the best they could. He did tell me a story that the camp medics made up tablets from chalk and other things and actually conned the Japanese guards into believing it was a cure for VD! They bartered the tablets for medicine.
“He also said that the local tribesmen, as they called them, had access to medicines by various means. I don’t know if I can believe this or not, but he said he used to creep out of the camp and go and get the medicines, and then get back in again. He said that was probably the most frightening time he had.”
Food was usually just rice – in small quantities and invariably of the “polished” type that had its nutrition stripped away. “They obviously suffered vitamin deficiency. They got beri-beri; they got all sorts of diseases.”
Does Colin know if his dad suffered much personal harm? “Generally speaking, I think they all got treated pretty badly. They used to have camp punishments – he used to talk about that. Because someone had done something, they’d punish the whole camp by not feeding them for a week, or something like that.
“He did say they used to catch snakes and beetles, and anything possibly they could eat. Insects are very high in protein.
“When the camp was relieved – it may well have been by American soldiers; I’m not sure – the liberating soldiers shot the guards out of hand. They shot them all, except one after the prisoners said ‘Don’t’. I think his name was Happy Joe and he was always getting beatings from his commanding officer for being kind to the prisoners.
“There’s a story that the relieving troops actually gave rifles to the prisoners who could still pick one up and let them shoot the guards themselves.”
After he returned to Ipswich at the end of the war, Ted had a period of convalescence at home before starting work as a security officer with the Central Electricity Generating Board at the new power station on Cliff Quay. Most of the time was spent manning the gatehouse at the entrance.
He worked there until his retirement in November, 1970.
“By then he and my mother had moved from Raeburn Road to a prefab on the Rushmere estate. He enjoyed 10 years of leisure time until he sadly died in 1980, aged 75, and my mother lived on till 2005.” She died a few months shy of her 100th birthday.
Ted had always enjoyed horticulture – they’d had a very big garden at Raeburn Road – and the couple had also been keen on ballroom dancing.
In 1953 they’d been dancing at Felixstowe when the murderous floods came. The North Sea crept not over the prom but from behind, after breaking through further down the coast. “They all piled out into their various cars and were driving through water until they got to Garrison Lane and up the hill.”
Ted had been a nice and happy dad, he says, and had gone on to enjoy his retirement. “They used to like going out driving and visiting places; liked going to the seaside a lot. And camping. They had a camper-van for a while,” says Colin, who lives in south Ipswich.
“He was a polite gentleman. You could call him that. He always used to dress smartly.
“I remember an incident when we went to Gibraltar. I was probably about 13. We flew and he was allocated a seat next to, would you believe it, a couple of Japanese businessmen and he refused to sit by them. They had to change seats around. But he didn’t hold a huge grudge against the Japanese.”
What does Colin think now, when he reflects on what his father had to endure? It’s a lot to take on board, isn’t it?
“Oh… well. It is. Trouble was, in one’s younger days – and I think it applies now – you don’t always appreciate what pain and suffering others have been through. It’s the same today with the young: many of them haven’t got a clue; and I’m sure I hadn’t got a clue either, when I was younger.”