Many of us have a World War II story today. When ordinary men and women overcame amazing situations and became unsung heroes.
Today I will share my World War II story. The story of my great uncle, Denis Whitehouse, and his amazing story. Today is the perfect day to share his story, as today would have been his 96th birthday. Sadly, he passed away in 2004, aged 82.
The younger brother of my grandfather, uncle Denis and granddad George were raised in Bromley despite being born in Canada in 1920 and 1921. Their parents separated when uncle Denis was 6 and granddad was 7 and their mother returned home to Britain to be closer to her father and their father remained in Canada and they never saw him again.
They grew up together living with their mother Nellie and her father in Bromley. When war broke out he was conscripted into the Royal Navy in 1940 aged 19. He became a gunner in late 1940 and was transferred aboard the Norwegian merchant ship D/S Woolgar in 1942.
On the 23rd February 1942 the Woolgar departed Trincomalee, Sri Lanka bound for the straits of Tjilatjap where she was delivering ammunition and TNT to British forces in Java (now known as Indonesia). This was just before the defence of Java broke down and in the chaos that followed she wasn’t notified of the new situation and she headed straight into danger. On board were 48 souls, of whom 38 were Chinese.
In the morning of March 7th, 1942, about 150 miles south-west of Tjilatjap, an aircraft was spotted overhead. The aircraft circled above them several times before disappearing to the north. Woolgar turned around and headed south again, having decided to return to Ceylon (Sri Lanka). A few hours later several Japanese aircraft appeared and opened fire with bombs and machine guns and a lucky shot hit where the ammunition was stored, resulting in a tremendous explosion and within 12 minutes the Woolgar had disappeared beneath the waves.
Of the 48 souls aboard, 41 made it into the lifeboats (a 42nd soul also managed to escape, the captain, but he was separated from the crew and after 18 days at sea alone he also became a prisoner of the Japanese). Three of the crew had been injured during the attack, which included my uncle who received a head injury. Tensions grew between the Chinese crew and the Norwegian officers, mostly due to the differing views on what had to be done with the rationing of food and water, which was frequently stolen and when officers confronted the thieves they were met with violence and threats with axes, along with demands for more food. This resulted in very little sleep as no one felt safe enough to let their guard down.
Initially, they headed in the direction of Columbo via Cocos Island rather than risking imprisonment if they headed towards the much closer Java. After 12 days at sea, the Chinese refused to continue, they wanted to get to land at either Java or Sumatra. The situation became intolerable and eventually, the two crews separated with those who wanted to go to Java in one boat and those for Columbo in the other. Nothing is known of what happened to the other boat.
They sailed on and after a big storm pushed them off course they realised they were a couple of hundred miles closer to Australia than their intended destination, so they made the decision to head in that direction, a decision which was also based on the wind direction. Slowly the Chinese crew members amongst them began to lose their will to live and died one by one. By the 70th day, all the Chinese and one European has passed away leaving 6 people still alive.
They drifted for 88 days across the Indian Ocean and endured terrible suffering. Uncle Denis said “It was horrendous on the boat but we tried to keep our spirits up. There were many times I thought we would die. There were Norwegians and Chinese who couldn’t speak English but the chief engineering officer Olsson (1st Mate Birger G Olsson from Sem) did and we became friends.”
A heavy rainfall provided them with extra drinking water, while seagulls supplemented their rations of food. These were cooked in coconut oil which they had found in the boat. After 86 days they saw land. By then the wind conditions had forced them to change course again towards Ceylon and thinking they were now approaching India their spirits rose. The disappointment when they landed and spotted a ship with a Japanese flag approaching must have been heartbreaking. For 88 days they had fought for their lives in the lifeboat, only to end up in Japanese hands. They had landed in Port Blair on the Andaman Islands off Burma (the islands had been captured whilst they had been at sea) and they were about 600 miles east of their intended landing points.
The date was June 7th 1942 and during their 88 days at sea, on the 18th May their 72nd day at sea, uncle Denis turned 21. Out of the 48 aboard the Woolgar when she set sail, with the whereabouts of the other lifeboat unknown and all presumed to have perished, 6 survived to reach Port Blair, this would eventually drop to 5 with one officer dying within a few days of their arrival from dysentery and exhaustion.
On arriving at Port Blair uncle Denis said “We couldn’t walk, we had to crawl on our hands and knees and eventually we were dragged to shore by the Japanese soldiers, our clothes were rags and we were starving. On the edge of death, I suppose. They gave us a bowl of rice that night and were fascinated to know how we had survived so long.”
After 3 months in a hospital they were moved to a labour camp, then 6 months later all but my uncle Denis was taken to Singapore. However, he was told that they were being sent back to Norway as the Japanese were not at war with their country. He then had to deal with another deprivation, for the next 3 and a half years he was unable to have a conversation with anyone as there were no English speakers on the island, apart from him. He said “I didn’t have a proper chat with anyone for the whole time. That was the hardest part. I was kept in the servants’ headquarters with all the Burmese refugees, but we found ways to communicate but it was hard. As I was a driver the soldiers used me to drive them from place to place. It became my life for three years.” It seems that one day uncle Denis and the four remaining Norwegian officers were ashore at Port Blair when he saw some Japanese beating up an Indian who could not get their car to start and uncle Denis went to the car and started it. The Japanese considered him a wonder man and used him as their driver from then until he was sent to Ross Island (an island near Port Blair) in 1944 where he was then used as a labourer/general dogsbody until the British arrived on the 7th October 1945.
Uncle Denis’ story is a very curious one. The Japanese on the Andamans were very brutal towards the Indians living there. There were frequent beheadings and beatings were a daily occurrence. There were even some poison injections. This means they could have killed uncle Denis at any time, yet for some strange reason, they didn’t. He cannot have been of any intelligence value to the Japanese, he was an anti-aircraft gunner with no access to secret equipment or codebooks. They never sought to get any propaganda value out of him, for example, parading him in front of newsreel cameras or newspaper reporters. When questioned the Japanese admiral/governor could not offer any real explanation, other than that the Japanese sailors had regarded him as “some sort of pet.” There was never any question of uncle Denis having helped, or even offered to help, the Japanese, so it remains a very odd, one-off event.
Following the reoccupation of the Andaman Islands by British Forces on the 7th October 1945, uncle Denis was finally released. “When the war in the Pacific finished, I made it to India. I stayed in a hospital in Bangalore and was treated for dysentery.” Despite his ordeal at sea, he still knew how he wanted to get home, back to his mother and older brother. “I got a ship back to Southampton in November 1945. I could have got a plane but I got over there by boat and it seemed right to go back by sea,” he said.
Uncle Denis lived out his final years in Bromley but was left with a legacy of the horrors he endured during his time on the lifeboat and as a POW, he suffered a broken back and problems with his legs. In fact, as a child, I used to wonder why he still walked like he was still onboard his ship!
So today on his birthday, just like I do every remembrance day, I will pause and think about him and what he must have endured on that lifeboat, did he know it was his 21st birthday or had he lost track of days, did he wonder if he would see his birthday or would it be his last one? Back home, did his mother believe he had perished along with the ship, did my grandfather marry my nan missing his brother and believing he couldn’t be there because he had died!