Thomas’s mother Alice had been a domestic servant and his father, Herbert was a soldier-turned-driver. In other words, an absolutely typical background, one shared by hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of British people over the ages.
They lived in a house in the ‘royal” town of Windsor that had been partly paid for by the proceeds of Thomas’s win on the Happy Valley Sweepstake. They almost certainly read The Daily Mirror. This was the newspaper Thomas himself chose on his return to England in 1951 and The Mirror in the 1940s and 1950s could reasonably claim to be the main voice of the English working class. It had a huge circulation and its Labourite politics expressed perfectly the ideas of Thomas’s family. After the war Alice was to become one of the first ever Labour JPs in Windsor, appointed by the Attlee Government to provide some working class input into the Magistrates Courts in an overwhelmingly conservative town.
In order to try to help myself imagine Alice and Herbert’s thoughts and feelings about their distant son, I’m going to provide summaries of and extracts from The Mirror’s coverage of the war in Hong Kong, supplemented where necessary by news from another influential wartime paper, The Daily Express.
What comes across from the early days of the war coverage is that Hong Kong did not loom at all large in people’s minds – it wasSiam(Thailand), Malaya (Malaysia) andSingaporethat were important. And as we shall soon see, even reporters on major newspapers knew very little about the tiny Colony!
Alice and Herbert – and thousands of others with relatives in the Far East – would have woken up on Monday, December 8, to some very upsetting news:
Daily Mirror, Monday, December 8
Page 1 headline:
JAPANESE BOMB US NAVAL BASES IN THE PACIFIC
JAPAN last night started the war in the Pacific by bombing the United States naval and air bases at Manila, in the Philippines, the Hawaiian base at Pearl Harbour and naval and military objectives on the chief island of Oahu.
Thomas had raised the possibility of war in a letter he wrote back in 1938 when Japanese forces were close to the Hong Kong border, but that’s care had soon died away; his parents might well have put the idea out of their minds until this shocking news.
The main Mirror story was entirely focused on the attacks on Pearl Harbour, and they would have had to look carefully to get any news of Hong Kong at all – there was just this snippet on the final page:
The Governor of Hong Kong issued a proclamation calling out volunteers.
Well, humble as this little item is, it’s almost the last completely accurate information they’re going to get for some time!
Sadly the Daily Mirror for December 9 is not available on the archive I’m using, so over to the Express:
Daily Express, Tuesday, December 9, 1941
HONGKONG, Monday. — Hongkong had two air raids today. The Japs dropped 1,000 pamphlets and a few bombs in the morning, begging the Chinese to attack us, and a few more bombs in the afternoon, causing some damage and casualties.
The raiders—there were about a dozen—scattered as soon as they were fired on. One is reported to have been shot down over Green Island, off the western entrance to the harbour.
At dawn several hundred Japanese approached the frontier, but found we had already blown up the strategic positions.
A Tokyo broadcast picked up here claimed the destruction of 12 planes on the ground. It was also said that the Japanese Navy was blockading Hongkong.
Don’t know why the Japanese are bothering really. Their planes either get shot down or turn tail as soon as they’re fired on and their land forces seem to have had a disappointing time of it too. That plane was shot down though, an early success for the heroic but doomed defenders; Tony Banham, in his definitive account of the unfolding of the Hong Kong fighting, gives the location of the ‘kill’ as Aberdeen, not Green Island – the poor old pilot was hammered into oblivion by no less than ten anti-aircraft sites simultaneously! (A cash prize was offered for every plane shot down, hence the deluge of claims.)
Two short items on December 10:
Daily Mirror, Wednesday, December 10
Japanese trying to cross Hong Kong’s mainland frontier have been halted by our artillery fire, it is announced officially.
The border was manned by British troops at 5.30 a.m. yesterday and we started the demolition of roads and bridges.
Berlin adds that two Japanese Divisions are attacking Hong Kong.
And on page 4 a brief note that no news has come in about the fate of Far East missionaries, including those in Hong Kong.
Alice and Herbert must have had a very happy breakfast indeed on December 11, especially if they didn’t bother to read beyond the headline:
Daily Mirror, Thursday, December 11
Jap attack on Hong Kong fails
The Japanese attacking Hong Kong have suffered a reverse and a Japanese patrol has been wiped out.
“Our land forces have halted a Japanese attack, although fighting is continuing,” stated a communiqué in Hong Kong yesterday.
Chinese forces in Kwangtung Province are attacking Canton from east and west, thus relieving the Japanese pressure on Hong Kong, according to a dispatch to a Chinese language newspaper.
Keep your eye on that Chinese army; it’s going to be fighting its way down through southern China until well after the surrender. Actually, this is interesting: I’ve got it in my mind that the story was invented by a British official in Hong Kong who couldn’t bear having to pass on such unremittingly bad news, so invented a Chinese army rushing to help the defenders, but I can’t remember where (or indeed if) I read that. Anyway, here’s the story appearing at an early stage in the British press.
On the last page Thomas’s parents would have read:
The King has sent messages to Sir Shenton Thomas, Governor of the Straits Settlements, and to the Governor of Hong Kong, expressing confidence in their leadership and in the “fearless determination” of the British defenders to crush the Japanese assaults.
Notice that the ‘Governor of Hong Kong’ was not named. That was because the Mirror reporters didn’t know who he was. Give them a little time and they’ll find someone suitable for the job.
Daily Mirror, Friday, December 12
Chungking radio announced last night that heavy fighting had been in progress for forty-eight hours….The Japanese had suffered heavy casualties, estimated so far at 15,000 with the Chinese forces attacking along the whole front.
Sounds promising. And the Latest News section at the bottom of the page sounds better still:
Chinese Cutting off Japs at Hong Kong
General Chiang Kai Shek is personally directing large Chinese forces coming to the aid of Hong Kong.
Chinese are cutting off the Japanese from rear and flank, and the enemy power is diminishing.
The weekend will soon be with us, and things are looking good.
But on the next day came the first indication that perhaps things weren’t going quite so well, although The Mirror did its best to reassure its readers.
Daily Mirror, Saturday, December 13
In Hong Kong our advanced posts have been withdrawn, but Chinese are attacking the rear flank of the Japanese there.
Page 8, Continued from page 1:
Hong Kong Outposts Retired
Japanese pressure on our advanced positions at Hong Kong has caused us to withdraw in the direction of Kowloon, but this movement is from our advanced positions only.
Chinese forces under the direct command of General Chiang Kai Shek are cutting off the Japanese from the rear and back in their attempts to take Hong Kong.
Of course we must remember that it was hard enough to get accurate information about the fighting in Hong Kong itself, and that all British papers were subject to draconian censorship (which The Mirror was sometimes famously willing to defy). But it’s no wonder that this style of extreme news management went out of fashion in later wars. The coverage so far was hardly preparing Alice and Herbert for the moment – less than a fortnight away – when they were to learn that their son (if he was still alive) was a prisoner of the Japanese.
In any case, the reporting in The Mirror and Express was soon to get much better, and for that reason considerably less re-assuring.
 Tony Banham, Not The Slightest Chance, 33.