A Document of August 1945: Thomas, Ng Yiu-cheung and the Sheridan Escape

Philip Cracknell, working in the Hong Kong archives, has found a document written by my father, one that gives us another glimpse of baking in occupied Hong Kong, throws a little more light on the escape of Staff-Sergeant Sheridan, and pays tribute to the role of a man who was to become his life-long friend Ng Yiu-cheung.. Moreover, it opens up the possibility that Thomas was in one of the earliest batches to leave Stanley Camp after the Japanese surrender. In any case, this document will be a good excuse for an early post describing the chaotic and dangerous conditions that meant the vast majority of internees were told to stay in Stanley for their own safety!

Firstly I’ll give the whole document then go through it bit by bit.

Note Titled: Continuation of Report by T H Edgar June 20th 1943

On March 31st Staff Sergeant Staff-Sergeant Sheridan Received an Irish Pass. As soon as he received this we made preparation for him to get away. We sold one case of Baking Powder for HKD600 to raise money for him to go. He left early in May 1942, for Kwang-Chow-Wan from there to walk to Chunking. Sergeant Hammond has since heard that he arrived in England safely. Without help of Ching Loong it would have been impossible for us to have carried on. He gave us every assistance and often when we could not get ingredient hops, flour, firewood etc he supplied them without payment. He never asked for nor received any rent, and any repairs to the ovens etc he paid for himself.
Due entirely to his loyalty we were able to produce bread free of charge to Hospitals and the numerous people outside who sadly needed our help.
Signed by T H Edgar
23-8-45

Now for my commentary.

Note Titled: Continuation of Report by T H Edgar June 20th 1943

Thomas and Evelina were sent into Stanley on May 7, 1943. He wrote almost immediately to his family, the first of his cards or letters to have survived, telling them he’d finally been interned and saying he wasn’t yet working. By May 13, he’d been given the obvious job of baking. It seems that he was asked (or decided) to report to the internees’ leader, Franklin Gimson, about his experiences baking in the occupied city; this report has not yet been located. The continuation under discussion dealt with a particular aspect of this period, the contribution of Mr. Ng.

On March 31st Staff-Sergeant Sheridan Received an Irish Pass. As soon as he received this we made preparation for him to get away.

There were three bakers living in the French Hospital alongside Thomas: Serge Peacock, who had worked for Lane, Crawford before the war, James Hammond and Patrick Sheridan. The last two were in fact military bakers (RASC) but had been ordered to pose as civilians by a Japanese officer, Captain Tanaka, in order to prevent his (Tanaka’s) negligence in not sending them to Shamshuipo POW Camp from becoming known to the Kempeitai (Military Police, feared even by the Japanese). Staff-Sergeant Sheridan was introduced to an Irish family by my mother Evelina (who’d started dating Thomas in early January) and he then got the idea of using his background (he’d grown up in County Cork) to claim to be Irish as the first step in organising an escape – the Sullivans told him that the Irish were being treated as neutrals.

The date of March 31 given for the receipt of a neutral’s pass is a little too early; Staff-Sergeant Sheridan probably got the pass in the middle of April, as the previous passes had been extended to April 15. He immediately confided his plan to the other three bakers, who were all supportive, in spite of the risk to themselves, and made suggestions to help him with the planning. It was Thomas who came up with the idea of selling some baking powder to Mr. Ng – tickets to Kwong Chow-Wan were expensive, and money for the long journey onwards through Free China was also needed.

We sold one case of Baking Powder for HKD600 to raise money for him to go.

Staff-Sergeant Sheridan gives the sum raised as both $500 and $560. According to a post-war interview he gave to The Soldier, the transactions were conducted with the Japanese close by, both men facing torture and death if discovered. The same article says the baking powder and some yeast was ‘borrowed’ little by little from Captain Tanaka’s stores ostensibly to make bread. I’m not confident that the bakers were still drawing on stores under Tanaka’s control, but my other sources don’t clarify this point.
In his escape statement Staff-Sergeant Sheridan described the money as a ‘loan’ and there’s a document in the Ride Papers in which it’s stated that the British Army couldn’t pay back the money because Mr. Ng (wisely!) refused to accept a receipt. It seems as if Mr Ng paid over the odds for the baking powder, or at least that Staff-Sergeant Sheridan was so conscious of the value of the money to his escape, and the huge risk of providing it, that he tried to arrange for an additional payment.

He left early in May 1942, for Kwang-Chow-Wan from there to walk to Chunking.

In fact, the escape began on June 4. This is what Staff-Sergeant Sheridan has to say about leaving the French Hospital that day:

On the morning of 4 June 1942 I am up early, not having slept very well, worrying about many things that could go wrong and knowing the consequences are very serious. Josephine Chan ((One of the students at the French Convent School)) comes and says goodbye and gives me a small photograph of herself. Also her home address in Penang. I promise to write after the war. She has a real good heart and is a loyal and true friend.
After a final farewell, Leung Choy and Tam Tong, two of my Chinese bakers carry my kit and accompany me on a tram to the Wing-On pier at West Point. Although it is nearly two hours before the boat sails, there is an enormous crowd of Chinese waiting. I say goodbye to Leung Choy and Tam Tong and join the waiting crowd.

The other bakers must also have been nervous, worried for Staff-Sergeant Sheridan and themselves. They’d all given advice and presents, and must have been aware that, if caught, he’d have been brutally questioned as to those who’d helped him.
More extracts from Staff-Sergeant Sheridan’s post-war description can be read here: http://gwulo.com/node/13914

Sergeant Hammond has since heard that he arrived in England safely.

This is new information. For cards in and out of Stanley see

https://brianedgar.wordpress.com/2012/08/05/from-the-dark-worlds-fire-thomass-cards-from-stanley-camp/

Without help of Ching Loong it would have been impossible for us to have carried on. He gave us every assistance and often when we could not get ingredient hops, flour, firewood etc he supplied them without payment. He never asked for nor received any rent, and any repairs to the ovens etc he paid for himself.

An interesting mistake: Thomas gives the name of the bakery instead of the manager and part-owner! In a post-war article for his trade paper, The British Baker, and he paid tribute to the loyalty of the whole staff of the bakery, and perhaps that came into his mind here. There are a number of accounts suggesting that long-term malnutrition had caused confusion and slowness in the minds of some internees and that’s also a possible explanation.
But the question remains: why was Thomas telling Gimson this at all and why at this time? Unfortunately his original statement of June 20, 1943 has not yet been found, so it’s impossible to know what he was adding and what merely re-iterating in August 1945. My guess is that he was hoping that Gimson would find the time to check on Mr Ng’s welfare and make sure he received any help needed. Mr Ng seems to have been a reasonably wealthy man, but after almost four years of war and a predatory occupation the whole colony was close to starvation.

Due entirely to his loyalty we were able to produce bread free of charge to Hospitals and the numerous people outside who sadly needed our help.

On February 16, 1947, the Hong Kong Sunday Herald reported (page 10) that Ng Yiu-Cheung was to be given a Certificate of Merit by the Governor for his role in Staff-Sergeant Sheridan’s escape. A report of the ceremony suggests he lived in Tai Wai in the New Territories.
That reference to the people ‘outside’ who needed help is intriguing. When the bakers began work on January 9, 1942 their bread went to some of the hospitals and to Stanley Camp. The Camp gradually switched to a flour allowance in lieu of this outside delivery and it seems that from then on the bakers were working mainly for the hospitals – different ones at different times perhaps. But Selwyn-Clarke or his agents are often described as giving people bread, and it seems that the dependants of imprisoned Hong Kong Volunteers (usually Chinese ones and hence uninterned) were given a small allowance. The article in The Soldier cited above states that Staff-Sergeant Sheridan and Sergeant Hammond stole some of the bread they were baking to supplement their meagre rations, and I think it’s a racing certainty that Thomas and Serge Peacock did as well. They would have been crazy not to.

Signed by T H Edgar
23-8-45

I think this makes it possible that Thomas left Stanley between August 21 and 23. Although not impossible, it seems unlikely that he would compose a message about Ng at this time unless either he was certain he could get it delivered to Gimson or he was with him in town (three weeks later we know that he was with other ‘essential workers’ living at the Hong Kong Hotel).
Gimson had left Stanley on August 21, leading a small team tasked with establishing a provisional British administration. Orders had been carried from Macao by three agents of the British Army Aid Group, one of who also contacted Thomas’s old wartime boss, Dr. Selwyn-Clarke, who at this time was leading Ma Tau-Chung Camp.
Perhaps the default assumption should be that Thomas wrote the memo in Stanley and had it sent out to Gimson, but his presence in the Hong Kong during the uncertain and dangerous period between the Japanese surrender and the arrival of Harcourt’s fleet on August 30 can’t be ruled out.

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