John Alexander Fraser

There is an excellent article on John Fraser in the Chinese Wikipedia. I would like to acknowledge how helpful it’s been, in machine translation, in preparing this post.1

The voice of the accused was bold and clear, ringing resonantly through the courtroom. The prosecutor was keen for him to implicate others, but he refused to do so. He had, he insisted, acted solely on his own judgement, in the interests of the internees in Stanley Camp.2 The clarity of the voice and the measured defiance were all the more remarkable as the speaker was emaciated and bent, crippled by torture and repeated beatings – that very morning he had been cruelly hit with a truncheon by a warder because of his efforts to sponge himself clean after an attack of dysentery.3
No suffering and no mistreatment could break John Fraser’s spirit. But how had a ‘mild-looking civil servant of 47’4 found himself in a position where the fates of so many – he was lying when he said he worked on his own – depended on his fortitude?
Early Life
John Alexander Fraser was born in Edinburgh on February 12, 1896.5 He was educated at Trinity Academy, Leith where he was the Dux (best student) in 1913.6 He enrolled to study for a BA at Edinburgh University in 1914 and was in the School’s Officer Training Corps (Infantry) from April to September 1915, when he volunteered (conscription had not yet been introduced) to join the 9th Royal Scots Fusiliers as a second lieutenant. My source, the Edinburgh University Roll of Honour, states he was promoted to lieutenant in October,7 but this seems to be contradicted by the citation quoted below, unless the move to the 105 Machine-Gun Company8 in March 1916 involved a loss of rank. It was while he was in this Company that he was awarded the Military Cross in July 1916; the citation reads:

Temp. 2nd Lt. John Alexander Fraser, R. Sc. Fus.
For conspicuous gallantry during operations. When the enemy was working round the position, he took his machine-guns up to a position in the open in a shell-hole. Here he remained for four hours, and materially he remained for four hours, and materially assisted, first in checking, and then in stopping the enemy’s attack

Now definitely a full lieutenant,10 he was awarded a bar to his M.C. October 191711. My source claims he was promoted to Major in March 1918. However, it seems that he was demobilised on November 3, 1919 and at that point was granted the rank of Major, which he was presumably allowed to use in civilian life; it seems he ended the war as ‘Temporary Lieutenant’.12 A Japanese summary of his trial (discussed below) claims he was on the army Reserve List as a major.
He’d been wounded in August 1918 and was invalided away from the fighting – the wound was in his leg and he was lame thereafter.13

Civil Servant in Hong Kong
The 1920s: Broad Experience with a New Territories Focus

It wasn’t long before he’d left Scotland and Europe behind. In October 1919, he began his work as a Cadet (gazetted December 11, 1919;14 a Cadet was a fast track civil servant).
His career in the Government falls into three stages. In the first, he was gaining experience in a variety of fields, focusing on administration the New Territories (both North and South Districts),15 16 17 but also working for the Sanitation Department,18 The Department of Chinese Affairs19 20 and acting as a Police Magistrate.21 His salary in 1922 was £400 p.a.22
His rise in the first five years was steady; on May 10 1923 he was made acting Head of the Sanitary Department during a leave of absence.23 With effect from September 18, 1925 he was appointed Assistant Superintendent of Imports and Exports.24 This seems to have been a full-time post, as the 1925 New Territories Annual Report25 lists three other men as in charge of the North and South Districts during this year.
But in 1926 he was ‘in charge’ of the Northern District of the New Territories again – from February 20 onwards. This meant he was responsible for relocating those villagers displaced by the Shing Mun Waterworks Scheme;26 this seems to have been a precursor of the huge Shing Mun Reservoir, built in the mid-1930s, and Mr Fraser was again District Officer in 1929 when most of the work was competed. Interestingly, he praises the engineers responsible for the new settlements in which the displaced villagers were relocated for ‘meeting as far as possible’ the objections raised by the villagers on the grounds of ‘fung shui’, which he calls ‘a pseudo-science which trivial as it may seem to Western eyes, has an all-important bearing in the question of selecting or forming a site for Chinese village dwellings’.27 In spite of this lack of sympathy, not unusual at the time, for ‘fung shui’, I get the impression that Mr Fraser had a real interest and concern for the Chinese people whose lives it was his job to oversee. On indication of this is that in November 1933, when he was no longer working in the New Territories, he bought a house there: Tai Po Lookout, which is now a Grade 11 listed building.28 I wouldn’t be surprised if he also owned a property on the island, especially as the Lookout is in a remote location but, to the best of my knowledge, there weren’t many senior ‘European’ Hong Kong figures with a presence in the Chinese dominated (and sometimes wild) New Territories at all. He was obviously proud of his property, because he mentioned it to Gladys Loie when they were imprisoned together in 1943.29 With a savage irony this was used by the Japanese as a torture chamber.30 Another indication of his concern is that while District Officer for the Northern New Territories, he founded the 21st Hong Kong in Taipo in 192731. This was probably the first time scouting had been made available to rural boys.

The 1930s: A New Direction

As we’ve seen, he was already a magistrate in 1922, and he was empowered to hold small debts courts in the New Territories.32 33 34 This was to prove the basis of a new specialism: he went on leave from his work in the New Territories on March 14/15, 193035 and travelled to London to study law. In 1930 he’s listed as being part of the Colonial Secretary’s Department (D/O Northern District) and having an annual salary of £1000 while having been absent from the colony for 9 months and 11 days during the year;36 in 1931 he was absent for seven months and 15 days.37
He became a barrister of the Middle Temple in 1931.38 39 40During the next decade he rose up the hierarchy of Government legal officials, starting with appointment as Police Magistrate for Kowloon with effect from 18 July 1931.41On October 8, 1932 he was made Assistant Attorney General42 with a salary of £1,100; he was now a senior Government legal officer. He was made Cadet Officer Class 1 with effect from 29th December 1936.43 In 1937 he was appointed to be editor of the new editions of the Ordinances and the Regulations of the Colony.44 He was made First Police Magistrate in addition to his other duties with effect from 7th January, 1937.45
It seems that during 1936-1938 he switched between senior posts in the Attorney General’s and Crown Solicitor’s Departments as needed.46 47 From August 6, 1936 he was acting Crown Solicitor during the leave of the incumbent,48 and was appointed to act as Crown Solicitor from February 1, 1937. With effect from February 5, 1938 he was acting Attorney General during C. G. Alabaster’s leave.49
His eminence brought responsibilities and rewards. He was one of two men appointed to the Directors of the Widows’ and Orphans’ Pensions with effect from 18 January, 1937 (2 others from December 1936).50 In 1937 he was awarded the King’s Coronation Medal in the category ‘Administrative and Professional Services’.51 He was appointed to a Commission to inquire into the sinking of fishing junks brought into Hong Kong on the Scharnhorst and Kaying.52 He was made a member of the Court of the University during an absence with effect from February 25, 1939.53 He was allowed to quit the HK Defence Reserve on 26th January1940,54 no doubt because he was considered an ‘essential worker’ who would be needed in a crisis.
Between 1938 and 1941 his career continued to flourish. He was appointed Proctor on July 29, 1938.55 During G. C. Alabaster’s leave he became an Official Member and Vice-Chairman of the Licensing Board.56 From August 4, 1939 he was a temporary additional judge in the Supreme Court57 and a member of the Public Services Board.58
In 1939, the last year for which full information is available, he’s described as ‘attached to the Attorney General’s Office’, on a salary of £1650, one of the top half dozen or so people in the Government.59

The Crucial Shift

Then something rather surprising happened: having retrained in the law, and pursued a legal career with some success for ten years, he executed a complete change of direction: with effect from April 26, 1941 he was appointed Defence Secretary60 (from May 31 he became an ex officio ‘additional Official Member’ of the Executive Council).61
A search for ‘Defence Secretary’ in the online Hong Kong Government Reports turns up only 7 uses, two of which relate to the appointment of Mr Fraser and his Executive Council seat. A third is dated August 7, 1941,62 a fourth to October 20, 1941,63 and a fifth to October 17, 194164 (confirmed at the Legislative Council meeting of November, which makes the sixth record65). All relate to the powers of the Defence Secretary – that he organised the General Group Essential Services, for example. These were men exempted from military service with the Volunteers so that they could be assigned to carry out the kind of work they did in peace time – there was another group for those who would stay in the exact same job if war broke out. Finally, a note of October 2, 1941 tells us that a woman was appointed to advise the Defence Secretary on the allocation of women to the defence services.66
In other words, all the documents relate to Mr Fraser, and they show us very little of his work. The first point suggests to me that the post was a new one, while the importance of secrecy is not hard to grasp. (For the one indication I’ve been able to find that Mr Fraser might have had a predecessor in the post, see the Note below.) I suspect that the post was created in 1941 and that perhaps Fraser was pressed to take the position and felt it his duty to accept. However, he might simply have wanted the job, or even felt that it was reasonable for him to hope for a future Colonial Secretaryship or even Governorship (he was only 45) and that a third field of experience would stand him in good stead.
I think that historian G. B. Endacott give us an idea of Mr Fraser’s main task: Hong Kong’s preparations for war ‘were co-ordinated by a Defence Secretary with a Defence Committee comprising representatives from the Armed Services and government departments most concerned with defence policy. It’s actual membership was never divulged’.67 The only other indication of Mr Fraser’s role that I’ve been able to find is also provided by Endacott: in November 1941, as part of a drive to get people (especially the Chinese) to sign up for civil defence work, he announced that members of the Civil Defence Services and their families would have preference over non-members for billets, food and medical attention, and that a scheme of compensation for war injuries would be applied to all members.68
His job was co-ordinating and organising defence measures with the secretive Defence Committee and will probably never be known in any detail.

After The Surrender

As yet, I have come across no references to his work during the hostilities, but he comes back into focus in the period after the Christmas Day surrender when he was living in the Prince’s Building alongside recently arrived Colonial Secretary Franklin Gimson and other members of the former Government.
On January 1, 1942 Fraser, accompanied by R. A. C. North (Secretary for Chinese Affairs) and the Attorney General C. G. Alabaster called on Sir Robert Kotewall and Sir Shouson Chow in the China Building and asked them to co-operate with the Japanese for the sake of the Chinese population.69
Hong Kong was generally crime-ridden during the occupation, and never more than in the early days before the Japanese had established full control. On the afternoon of January 4, 1942 Phyliis Harrop, who was also living at the Prince’s Building, went shopping for supplies for with secretary Barbara Budden and Mr. Fraser; an attempt was made to steal her shipping basket, a scuffle ensued as Harrop courageously defended the precious goods. She seems to be rather misleading when she writes, ‘John Fraser came to my rescue’ as it seems that the person in need of salvation was one of the two would-be robbers, whose head she was vigorously banging on the ground – ‘John said he could not pry me loose’. The incident had a happy outcome: the thief suffered no worse than wounds to his head and nose, which bled profusely, while a passer-by managed to retrieve the stolen goods from the second offender and ten minutes later returned them to Miss Harrop.70 Fraser’s concern for her is also shown by his advice to leave the Gloucester Hotel, where she was associated with the police and ‘the Chungking people’ (nationalists who would have been in great danger from the Japanese) and join the rest of the Government staff.71
However, what was perhaps Mr. Fraser’s main work at this point was in making sure that the future internees would be able to keep in touch with the outside world by radio. W. H. P. Chattey, an army officer who found himself in the civilian camp, reported after the war:

The original plans to establish and maintain a wireless set in Stanley civilian internment camp (caps sic) were made by Mr. J. Fraser…and certain members of the Cable and Wireless Company, immediately after the capitulation of Hong Kong…and during the interim period, before the Japanese authorities interned all the British subjects inside the camp. As a consequence, arrangements were made for all of the component parts of the wireless sets to be brought into the internment camp, hidden in the baggage of various civilians, mostly employees of Cable and Wireless, who were moved into the camp by the Japanese authorities in late January and early February 1942…72

According to lists published by Tony Banham, there were 8 Cable and Wireless staff who were held after the surrender at the Prince’s Building:they included T. W. Addingley, J. S. Logan, Stanley Rees, and Douglas Waterton, who are all known to have taken part in the radio operation,73 so it was almost certainly during this period that the arrangements were made.74
On January 25 Phyllis Harrop noted in her diary that Mr Fraser was one of a party leaving the Prince’s Building ‘mess’ to go into Stanley and ‘as an advance party to prepare the way for us and to establish some sort of accommodation for living and offices’.75 As Franklin Gimson stayed in the Princes Building until May, he became in effect the Government representative in Stanley, a tough task as, rightly or wrongly, camp opinion was violently anti-Government, blaming it for what was seen as the failure to put up an effective resistance.

Life and Work in Camp

While in Stanley, Mr Fraser’s high rank did not spare him from suffering the same deprivations as almost everyone else. He write to his old friend Dr Li Shu-fan describing his ‘failing vision and loss of weight’ and adding that the camp doctors said the internees’ diet was deficient in vitamins. Dr Li, who was helping other friends, responded generously:

I sent Fraser some capsules of carotene, Vitamin A pills, and cod-liver oil compounds, and included a tin of of precious tobacco and a small towel. The last was an item valued beyond words by the internees.76

At first, like most internees, he believed that Hong Kong would soon be recaptured – he estimated they’d be out of Stanley by late October, 1942.77Nevertheless, he supported attempts to get the British repatriated in a speedy exchange of prisoners. He represented Gimson on the Camp Temporary Committee, which operated until February 18, 1942. He was elected as an Executive Officer of the Committee on January 2478 and on the same day this question of repatriation was discussed:

Speaking with reference to the possibility of securing repatriation for men over military age, Mr Fraser expressed the opinion that such could be affected by arrangement between the two sovereign sates concerned, made through diplomatic channels.79

Of course, the British were never repatriated for reasons that do not concern us here.
In February the committee faced a crisis: the Chinese Camp Superintendent, Mr Cheng, demanded, with some Japanese support, that internees with bank accounts in Hong Kong withdraw $50 to cover rations of meat, fish and vegetables (everything but rice and salt).80 Mr Fraser, representing Gimson, refused and instead demanded full access to their bank accounts for the internees. Cheng, who regarded his position as an opportunity for private enrichment, threatened to stop sending in rations, and in the end two HKSBC bankers drew up an agreement for the money to be withdrawn. In the end a cheque was given to the Superintendent, for rations and for ‘rent’ with respect to the hotel-brothels that had been used to house the future internees before they were sent to Stanley. The cheque was returned uncased after he left his post,81 which suggests that the Japanese Foreign Affairs Department, which generally tried to be fair to the British, had second thoughts about supporting his actions.
The Temporary Committee was replaced by the British Communal Council on which Mr Fraser acted as senior Government representative, and a member of the Executive Committee. As the committee often clashed with his boss, Franklin Gimson, his must have been a difficult role, but sadly I have no details of how he filled it at the moment.

Resistance in Stanley

But it was the late move to Defence Secretary that determined his role in the occupation. Franklin Gimson, who arrived to take up the post of Colonial Secretary on December 7, 1941, took overall responsibility for resistance activities,82 but it was Fraser who was in day to day charge.
The two best documented activities he was responsible for are the operation of secret wireless sets and the organisation of escape plans, but I’m sure he also knew about, and had a hand in, the smuggling of food into Stanley prison, the use of the ration lorry for conveying secret messages in and out of camp, and the contacts with the British resistance – the British Army Aid Group.

Secret Radios

The report of W. H. P. Chattey, part of which was cited above, gives an idea of the nature of Mr Fraser’s work and the care with which he carried out:

Mr J. Fraser…then organised the procedure whereby every morning he would transcribe these hastily written notes {BE’s note: radio operators Rees and Waterton et al. would listen in for much of the night and write down the most important pieces of news as they were hearing it} into longhand on his typewriter, one copy only at an appointed rendezvous. Mr Fraser detailed me to act as his staff officer in this respect. I prepared situation maps of the western, middle-east, and eastern fronts, which were kept as up-to-date as possible…I also had to arrange the rendezvous mentioned above and carried verbal messages to the various members of the wireless inner circle. By this procedure, the key people avoided being seen talking together, a precaution which served us in good stead for many months in a camp where, if two or three people had talked together for any length of time, it was bound to be commented on.83

A Japanese trial summary, captured by the BAAG after liberation, has this to say about his resistance work – my notes are in {}.

The accused John Alexander FRAZER {sic} was a major on the reserve list and was Assistant Public Procurator-General in the former HONGKONG Government. On the fall of HONGKONG he was placed in the Internment Camp, and acted as representative of the British Internees. Up to about April 1942 he caused the accused Waterton and Rees to listen in secretly to broadcasts from London and other places on a radio set they had and to report to him on what they heard. About May 1942 he caused a certain American (who has since returned to America on exchange) secretly to introduce a radio receiving set into the internment camp. About April 1943, acting on information received from the above-mentioned LOIE FOOK WING, {the late David Loie, a senior BAAG agent} he conspired with SCOTT to have REES arrange radio liaison between the camp and the British organisation at WAICHOW {the BAAG}.84

Another section of the Document specifies that Fraser got the unnamed American (probably Hill, Dwyer or Hunt) to bring in the set from outside.85 In fact, it’s possible that the American who provided the radio was still in Hong Kong, although the exact details of the American radios after repatriation aren’t clear.86 In any case, assuming the BAAG translation is accurate, the Japanese had been thoroughly confused as to Mr Fraser’s pre-war post; a number of sources, including his George Cross citation, get this wrong and I wonder if part of his ‘cover’ in camp was the story that he’d been ‘Acting Attorney General’ or something similar?
The significance of radios was twofold: firstly, they enabled the internee leaders to learn news of the war, which was an important aid to decision making and might also have had military significance: Gimson tells us that plans had been made for ‘all contingencies’ that might arise if the Japanese were forced to abandon Hong Kong, and this must have included an attempt to massacre the internees, something which was on the mind of everyone in Stanley; although Gimson didn’t hold out much hope in such an eventuality,87 any chance of saving a few lives depended on having an idea of when such a massacre might be imminent. Secondly, it enabled the internees to communicate with the BAAG: the captured Documents states that in April 1943 Fraser received a letter from their Field HQ at Waichow and that thereafter Stanley was in radio contact with the resistance.88
In spite of Fraser’s caution, rumours of radios circulated in camp.89 It seems that some of the operators became over-confident, perhaps because of having carried out their duties so successfully for so long, and talked about their work and even used a second radio set without authorisation.90
According to internee Canon Martin, there were at least three sets working, although only two became known – he believed through informers.91 According to another internee source, there were in fact four radios in Stanley.92 I think one was brought in by Cable and Wireless employees, the other was passed on by an American leaving Stanley either for home or after being ‘guaranteed out’ into Hong Kong, and a third was operated by M16 men George Merriman and Alex Summers and hidden in the wall of Summer’s room in the Married Quarters; they listened almost every night and asked George Wright-Nooth to pass on important information to Gimson.93 The fourth, according to the Captured Enemy Document, was found by Police Sergeant Frank Roberts in one of the buildings in Stanley Camp soon after the internees’ arrival; he kept it for a time, then handed it over to Rees and Waterton.94 However, the account given by Wright-Nooth is more plausible: Police Sergeant Roberts brought the radio in to camp with him, reported it to Fraser, who was at that time the senior Government officer in Stanley; the latter consulted with camp quartermaster William Anderson, and then gave the set to Messrs Rees and Waterton.95


I think that the full extent of Mr Fraser’s work in planning escapes will never now be revealed. We know that he plotted escapes with Assistant Police Commissioner Walter Scott, radio operator Douglas Waterton and Police Sergeant Frank Roberts;96 the source, police officer George Wright-Nooth, found it surprising that two such senior figures would co-operate in this way with a mere sergeant, but he, rightly in my view, accepts Roberts own testimony. Camp Secretary John Stericker gives more details of the escape plans with Scott:

A further tragedy lay in the fact…that John Fraser and Scott had made almost foolproof plans to escape. They were asked not to go because of the mass punishments which had been vested on the camp as a result of earlier escapes.97

Two sources98 claim that Fraser had a role in planning both sets of escapes on March 18, 194299 It’s almost certain he had nothing to do with the American party, which was led by the Marxist journalist Israel Epstein and seems to have been organised without any involvement of the camp authorities,100 but he might well have had helped with the flight of the British pair, policeman W.P Thompson and Gwen Priestwood.

Other Activities

As I said above, although Mr Fraser’s roles in overseeing the operation of secret radios and in planning escapes are the best documented, he undoubtedly knew about and engaged in other ‘illegal’ activities. We get a glimpse of this in Family Romance, a book in which novelist John Lanchester tells his family”s story. Two grandparents, Jack and ‘Lannie’ Lanchester were in Stanley:

John Fraser, in his capacity as Assistant Attorney-General, {B.E’s note:. A common mistake, possibly resulting from an attempt to conceal Fraser’s role from the Japanese.} had some of the paper-work with him when he went into the camp, hidden in his personal belongings. He didn’t think he would be able to keep it a secret indefinitely, so he asked my grandmother to hide it for him. Lannie was able to do that because the Japanese always searched the camp in the same order, so there was notice between their first arrival in the camp and the time they reached the laundry where she worked; she managed to hide the papers inside sheets that had been folded over the clothes lies. In this way Lannie kept the documents safe for the duration of the war.101

Fraser was one of the closest friends of the Lanchesters, and ‘Lannie’ never forgave the Japanese for his treatment.102
According to his George Cross citation,103 picked up by an article in a post-war China Mail, Fraser was not only the ‘brains’ behind the escapes and organiser of the radios, but he also sent ‘vital information’ to the outside world.104 If Tony Banham is right in thinking that no radio in Stanley was capable of transmitting,105 then this must have been through a system involving messengers – the camp ration lorry, perhaps, or BAAG agents.

Personal Character

John Stericker, who as Camp Secretary must have worked regularly with him, calls him ‘brave, inflexible, little John Fraser’106 and I’ve already quoted Wright-Nooth’s characterisation of him as ‘mild mannered’. But the longest account I’ve been able to find is by internee Jean Gittins:

Mr Fraser lived in our block. He was a retiring person, well-liked and highly respected. I cans till recall his iron-grey hair and kindly face and his slight, trim figure always clad in well-pressed grey shirt and khaki shorts on his way to and from the food queues.107

The testimony of Phyllis Harrop, quoted above, also suggests a kindly man, who was concerned about the welfare of his subordinates.
He was married to K. E. Fraser, of South Kensington, London.108 Mrs Fraser wasn’t with him in Stanley; perhaps she was one of those evacuated from Hong Kong in the summer of 1940.

Arrest, Interrogation, Trial and Execution

He was arrested on July 7, 1943 on the evidence, of a wireless technician who’d been arrested on June 28 and subjected to severe torture – he and the others whose names were given never blamed this man.109 Mr Fraser was held in ‘a filthy makeshift cell…in a garage’ in the Gendarmerie in Staley Village and subjected to interrogations under torture, sometimes in his cell, after being sometimes taken away in the middle of the night, returning semi-conscious and covered in blood.110 The Japanese rightly regarded him as the main organiser of the Stanley resistance, so he was given particularly brutal treatment; he knew the names of almost everybody involved, but gave none of them.111
One Sunday in early August he was thrust into cell number 10 in Stanley Prison where he was seen by town resistance worker Gladys Loie:

He was of small stature, wore a blueish badly torn shirt, and a pair of shorts also torn. He had long hair, a grey beard, eyes were sunk in his head, cheeks hollow and an emaciated body.’Poor devil,’ I thought, ‘I don’t know where you have come from but you sure have had a hell of a time’.112

The Allied prisoners spent a couple of months in B Block awaiting trial. By a quirk of Japanese regulations, the civilians wee allowed to receive food parcels, but not the soldiers. Parcels were sent in regularly to the Stanley internees, but they were often intercepted by the Japanese at camp headquarters, who it seemed had a particular liking for those sent to Fraser and Scott. Nevertheless, when Fraser received his first parcel, he gave half to Colonel Newnham, a POW resistance leader.113
It seems that during this time one of the prisoners was persuaded by the Japanese to try to gather information about the others in return for better conditions and a reprieve (which was not actually granted). This prisoner was also put in charge of the organisation of the daily cleaning parties – this work was popular as it gave some relief from sitting cross-legged staring at the wall. Mr Fraser, along with Walter Scott and William Anderson, were dropped from these details because they were unwilling to offer post-war guarantees of protection for this man’s father, who’d made pro-Japanese broadcasts.114
Mr Fraser was tried in the largest of the Japanese trials of Allied nationals, which took place on the morning of October 21. I began this post by quoting from William Anderson’s account of bis courageous demeanour at this trial. Just as he had done under torture, he refused to implicate anyone else, and in particular resisted the prosecutor’s attempts to get him to admit to the role played by Franklin Gimson.115
He was sentenced to death, alongside 32 others in the two trials that day. His behaviour after this verdict continued to be remarkable. After the court adjourned for lunch, the accused from the first trial were all served a ‘meal’ of rice, the first food they’d had since 4.30 pm. The previous day.116 Nevertheless, many of those sentenced to death were understandably too upset to eat; luckily, the warders were sympathetic and allowed the dejected group to converse freely. William Anderson tells us that ‘Fraser was quite unperturbed and chatted as they ate’.117Some people felt that the fact that the chairman’s last words were ‘the court is adjourned’ meant that there might be future developments, and on reflection Mr Fraser supported this view, which lifted the mood a little.118 It turned out, he’d simply meant that the court would reconvene to try the second group of prisoners, but there is something a little strange here: Japanese procedure usually allowed for a review of the sentence by the same judges who’d passed it. In theory, the penalties could be made more or less severe, but greater leniency seems to have been the usual direction. This does not seem to have happened on this occasion, which perhaps supports the claim by BAAG agent (and former prisoner) Marcus da Silva that some extra-tough ‘thought police’ (probably senior Gendarmes) had come in from Tokyo and were imposing tougher treatment on ‘criminals’
The prisoners were sent back to Stanley Prison to serve their sentences or to await execution. Their fellow internees made a courageous, but desperate effort to save them. Jean Gittins, who could write Chinese, was asked to translate a message which was written on a piece of cigarette paper and pasted on the back of a matchbox tray:

Fraser and Scott sentenced to death. Others in grave danger. Request immediate intervention by British Ambassador in Chunking. Most urgent.119

Mr F. Shaftain, head of CID, was still in touch with the resistance, in which some of his former Chinese detectives were working. He had revived the secret route through the ration lorry workers that had been broken in the spring of 1943, so he was quite right to warn Mrs Gittins that ‘there is considerable risk attached’. The message was never heard of again, and it’s doubtful the Ambassador could have done anything even if he’d received it.120
At about 2 pm on October 29, 32 condemned men and one woman were taken out of solitary confinement and assembled inside Stanley Prison. They were refused a visit from a priest, but were allowed five minutes together to compose themselves. Captain Mateen Ansari said a few words of encouragement and then Mr Wong Shiu Pun was asked to say prayers.
The prisoners, bound together in threes, were loaded into a van for the short drive to Stanley Beach. Once there they were lined up in single file, told to sit down, and blindfolded by the guards. They came forward in groups of three to be beheaded. The Japanese seem to have given rank a grim precedence in death, and Mr Fraser, Walter Scott and Captain Ansari were the first to die.121

George Cross

The full citation for his George Cross was published in a supplement to the London Gazette of 25 October 1946 and read:

St. James’s Palace, S.W.1, 29th October, 1946.

The KING has been graciously pleased to make the undermentioned awards of the GEORGE CROSS: —

John Alexander FRASER (deceased), lately Assistant Attorney-General,122 Hong Kong.
Fraser was interned by the Japanese in the Civilian Internment Camp, Stanley, and immediately organised escape plans and a clandestine wireless service. He was fully aware of the risks that he ran but engaged continuously in most dangerous activities and was successful, not only in receiving news from outside, but also in getting important information out of the Camp. Eventually he was arrested and subjected to prolonged and severe torture by the Japanese who were determined to obtain information from him and to make him implicate the others who were working with him. Under this treatment he steadfastly refused to utter one word that could help the Japanese investigations or bring punishment to others. His fortitude under the most severe torture was such that it was commented upon by the Japanese prison guards. Unable to break his spirit the Japanese finally executed him. His devotion to duty, outstanding courage and endurance were the source of very real inspiration to others and there can be no doubt the lives of those whom the Japanese were trying to implicate were saved by his magnificent conduct.

Note: The only indication of a pre-Fraser Defence Secretary I have been able to find is the statement by George Endacott that the Defence Secretary was a member of a War Taxation board set up in 1940; 123 John Fraser was a member of this committee124 while he was still a legal officer and perhaps that misled Endacott. The first reading of the relevant Ordinance refers to the composition of the Board as ‘the Financial Secretary and four other members appointed by the Governor, of whom not more than one shall be an official in the employment of the Government’.125
The original members were Fraser, Eric Macdonald Bryden, an auditor, Lo Man-kam, a Eurasian Solicitor and George Gwinnett Noble Tinson.126 Only the last named, who did have a Military Cross, is a plausible candidate for Defence Secretary, but, if he was in this post, it was kept very secret indeed, as his appearances in the online records relate only to such things as his membership of the Medical Board and his status as a Magistrate.127 I suspect that Endacott was misled by Fraser’s membership of the board and assumed he was there ex officio.
The highly reliable Chinese Wikipedia article on Fraser128 considers his final post a ‘New Creation’, so I regard the matter as settled unless more evidence emerges.



2George Wright-Nooth, Prisoner of the Turnip Heads, 181.

3Wright-Nooth, 1994, 144; 180.

4Wright-Nooth, 1994, 144.



7John E. Mackenzie, University of Edinburgh, Roll of Honour 1914-1919, Mackenzie, 307.


9 Supplement to the London Gazette, 20th October, 1916, 10181.

10 I assume that the designation ‘Temp’ or ‘T’ before rank, which is common with these recipients means that they were not career army officers.

11Supplement to the London Gazette, 17th December 1917, 13180.

12Supplement to the London Gazette,November 2, 1920, 32110.


14Hong Kong Government Gazette, December 19, 1919, 513.

15Civil Establishments of Hong Kong, for the Year 1922,, J 55.

16The Hongkong Government Gazette, June 15, 1922, 240.

17The Hongkong Government Gazette, August 31, 1928, 396.

18Civil Establishments of Hong Kong, for the Year 1922, J31 notes he also worked in Chinese Affairs from January 4 to April 20.

19Report of the Secretary for Chinese Affairs, Appendix C, 15.

20Hongkong Government Gazette, January 6, 1922,

21Annual Report 1922, Police Magistrates Courts, Appendix H.

22Civil Establishments of Hong Kong, for the Year 1922.

23The Hongkong Government Gazette, May 11, 1923, 140.

24The Hongkong Government Gazette, September 25, 1925, 448.

25J1; J13.

26Annual Report, New Territories, 1926, J1; J5.

27Annual Report, New Territories, 1926, J2.


29Wright-Nooth, 1994, 173.


31Paul Kua, Scouting in Hong Kong, 1910-2010, 2011, 150.

32The Hongkong Government Gazette, June 15, 1922, 240.

33The Hongkong Government gazette, November 9, 1922, 425.

34The Hongkong Government Gazette, February 26, 1926 68.

35He’s listed as being ‘in charge’ of the Southern District until March 14 and having gone ‘on leave’ from the Northern from March 15- Report On the new Territories for the Year 1930, J1 and J10

36Civil Establishments for Hongkong for the Year, 1930, J58.

37Civil Establishments for Hongkong for the Year 1931, J62.


39Civil Establishments for Hongkong for the Year 1930.

40The Hong Kong Government Gazette, December 24, 1936, 1138.

41The Hongkong Government Gazette, July 17, 1931, J129.

42The Hongkong Government Gazette, October 7, 1932, 681.

43The Hong Kong Government Gazette, July 23, 1937, 569.


45The Hong Kong Government Gazette, January 8, 1937, 15.

46Civil Establishments of Hongkong for the Year 1936, J43.

47The Hong Kong Government Gazette, January 29, 1937.

48The Hong Kong Government Gazette, August 7, 1936, 766.

49The Hong Kong Government Gazette, February 4, 1938, 72.

50The Hong Kong Government Gazette, December 24, 1936, 1139.

51The Hong Kong Government Gazette Extraordinary, May 14, 1937.


53The Hong Kong Government Gazette, February 24, 1939, 153.

54The Hong Kong Government Gazette, July 26, 1940, 1225.

55The Hong Kong Government Gazette, July 29, 1938, 536.

56The Hong Kong Government Gazette, March 18, 1938, 145.

57The Hong Kong Government Gazette, August 4, 1939, 696.

58Civil Establishments for Hongkong for the Year 1939, J3.

59Civil Establishments for Hongkong for the Year 1939, J2.

60The Hong Kong Government Gazette, June 20, 1941, 929.

61The Hong Kong Government Gazette, June 13, 1941, 905.

62The Hong Kong Government Gazette, August 8, 1941, 1218.

63The Hong Kong Government Gazette Extraordinary, October 20, 1941 (No. 65).

64The Hong Kong Government Gazette, October 17, 1941, 1505.

65Legislative Council Minutes, 218.

66The Hong Kong Government Gazette, October 3, 1941, 1471.

67G. B. Endacott and Alan Birch, Hong Kong Eclipse, 1978, 43.

68Endacatt and Birch, 1978, 55.

69Endacott and Birch, 1978, 242-243; Philip Snow, The Fall of Hong Kong, 2003, 108.

70Phyllis Harrop, Hong Kong Incident, 1943, 103.

71Harrop, 1943, 95.

72Birch and Cole, 1982, 128.

73Wright-Nooth, 1994, 156.


75Harrop, 1943, 126.

76Li Shu-fan, Hong Kong Surgeon, 1964, 142.


78Endacott and Birch, 1978, 351.

79Minutes, cited in Geoffrey Emerson, Hong Kong Internment, 2008, Kindle Edition, Location 1560.

80Emerson, 2008, Location 1520.

81Emerson, 2008, Location 1533.

82Wright-Nooth, 1994, 156.

83Birch and Cole, 1982, 128-129.

84Captured Enemy Document, page 6 – kindly sent to me by Elizabeth Ride.

85Captured Document, page 5.


87F. C. Gimson, Internment in Hong-Kong (sic) March 1942 to August 1945, unpaginated hand-written introduction, section headed ‘Re-occupation’ (Rhodes House, Ms. Ind. Ocn s222).

88Captured Document, page 5.

89Allana Corbin, Prisoners of the East, 2002, 208.

90Wright-Nooth, 154-155.

91Alan Birch and Martin Cole, Captive Years, 1982, 131-132.

92Wright-Nooth, 1994, 153.

93Wright-Nooth, 1994, 147.

94Captured Enemy Document, page 6

95Wright-Nooth, 1994, 153-154.

96Wright-Nooth, 1994, 156.

97John Stericker, A Tear for the Dragon, 1958, 182-3.

98Birch and Cole, 1982, 95. Endacott and Birch, 1978, 194.


100Israel Epstein, My China Eye, 2005, 140-145.

101John Lanchester, Family Romance, 2007,193-194.

102 Lanchester, 2007, 190.

103Given in full below.

104China Mail, October 30, 1946, page 1.


106John Stericker, A Tear for the Dragon, 1958, 182-3.

107Jean Gittins, Stanley: Behind Barbed Wire, 1982, 143.


109Wright-Nooth, 1994, 162.

110Wright-Nooth, 1994, 173.

111Wright-Nooth, 1994, 156.

112Wright-Nooth, 1994, 172.

113Wright-Nooth, 1994, 179.

114Wright-Nooth, 1994, 179.

115 Wright-Nooth, 1994, 181.

116Wright-Nooth, 1994, 182-183.

117 Oliver Lindsay, At the Going Down of the Sun, 1982 (1981), 127.

118Wright-Nooth, 1994, 83.

119 Gittins, 1982, 144.

120 Gittins, 1982, 144.

121Wright-Nooth, 1994, 186-187.

122 This is of course a mistake.

123Endacottt and Birch, 1978, 43; 32.

124The Hong Kong Government Gazette, May 3, 1940, 672.

125GA 1941 (suppl) no. 265, No S. 188, 414.

126The Hong Kong Government Gazette, May 3, 1940, 672.

127Mr. Tinson was killed by a sniper on December 19, 1941.




Filed under British Army Aid Group, Hong Kong WW11, Stanley Camp

13 responses to “John Alexander Fraser

  1. Pingback: Walter Richardson Scott | The Dark World's Fire: Tom and Lena Edgar in War

  2. Do you know anything about John Alexander Frasers life before the war in hong kong – his wife children etc?
    thanks marion hebblethwaite

  3. Any chance of finding his family now?

    • The only reference to his family I can recall seeing is the name and ,location of his wife on the CWGC memorial. If anyone on the internet has any contacts with the family it would be Tony Banham at Hong Kong War Diary. If my memory is correct Tony wrote the article on John Fraser in the HK Biographical Dictionary

  4. Hi
    Any chance of finding Fraser’s children?

    • Marion: a tiny clue in tracking down Fraser’s family.
      ‘Mrs. Fraser of Canterbury’ received his posthumous GC in 1946. She’d been evacuated from Hong Kong, presumably in 1940.
      Source: Dundee Evening Telegraph, 26 November 1946, p. 7

  5. Hi, Marion.
    A number of relatives of the people I write about have made contact, but none of Fraser’s – so far!

  6. Pingback: Ghosts of Stanley, Part 4: Notes from Visits to the Camp Cemetery on January 18 and 21, 2009 | The Dark World's Fire: Tom and Lena Edgar in War

  7. Peter

    Were any of the Japanese involved in John Fraser trial ever charged with War Crimes

    • To the best of my knowledge, no. The gendarmerie station at Stanley doesn’t feature in any trials I’ve studied, and I don’t recall anyone from Stanley Prison being charged either. But I’m not sure if mistreatment of him was in the indictment of any of the warders who were tried on lesser charges. I’ll check that and update here.

  8. Tim Mo

    Thank you so very much for this article. Fraser’s extraordinary bravery – and that of Ansari – should have been more publicly honoured in HK. Fat chance of that now. My father began practising law in HK in 1950 and said Fraser had been renowned for his “obstinacy” in pre-war days but still well-liked.

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