Shipwrecked, starving story of navy veteran’s
SCHOOLS AND COLLEGES ARE READY TO WELCOME PUPILS BACK SAFELY – AND THE BENEFITS TO THEIR WELLBEING AND MENTAL HEALTH ARE HUGE
SHIPWRECKED and starving. Bitten by a deadly Black Mamba snake in the jungle - his life saved by an Army lieutenant who sucked the venom from his bloodied leg.
Face-to-face with a tiger. Surviving on sugar cane, stagnant water and oranges as blisters and sores paralysed his feet from days and nights of endless walking.
The remarkable story of a young Naval officer’s escape from Singapore the day it fell to Japanese forces during the Second World War can be revealed by the Express after the nation observed the 75th anniversary of VJ Day.
Robert Gerrard Curry trekked across Sumatra, part of Indonesia, with a group of Army soldiers to the west coast, where he was picked up by an Australian ship and taken to Ceylon, now Sri Lanka.
He was 32 at the time in early 1942, three years before Japan surrendered, ending the war.
Mr Curry survived his ordeal and returned to work at the Admiralty to help with preparations for the D-Day landings of 1944.
He ended his navy career as a Lieutenant Commander.
After the war he lived in Cheadle Hulme and worked at ICI in Blackley before his death at 70 in 1980.
Though the memories endured, his family said he never spoke of what he went through.
But, before his death, he was encouraged to write down his experiences.
What followed is a fascinating memoir of one man’s battle for life in the harshest of conditions.
His son Robin Curry, 71, from Congleton, said: “It is such a remarkable story that for years I have been sending it to friends and family, who all say I should have it published.
“Years later, just before he died, he visited hospital for cancer treatment and the consultant, who was from Sri Lanka, asked my dad what the two black marks were on the back of his leg.
“My dad explained about the snake bite.
“The consultant looked really worried and said the poison sacs were still there. He was rushed across the hospital in a wheelchair and had a small operation to remove them.
“We encouraged him to write it all down – and I am glad he did.
“His story will be passed down the family for generations to come and he will never be forgotten.”
The Express picks up Mr Curry’s recollections in late January, 1942. The allied armies had been driven out of Malaya, and all who survived were in Singapore.
“Well over one million people crammed on an island about the size of the Isle of Wight, separated from the mainland by the waters of the Jahore Strait,” Mr Curry wrote.
At the time, he was attached to the RAF as a liaison officer, and with Singapore under continuous bombing raids by the Japanese, the RAF were preparing to evacuate his base. “Being a naval man, they were not sure what to do with me,” Mr Curry wrote.
“They left, and I found myself alone.
“Next morning I was woken by explosions and peeping out of a window, I could glimpse Japanese soldiers across the Jahore Strait, firing mortar shells at our airfield.
“I could see no future in this for me so packing a suitcase, I let myself out of the back door and set off to walk to Singapore City, followed by mortar shells.”
Mr Curry writes of ‘dodging bombs and shells’ as he walked and ‘hundreds of unburied dead’ blocking the streets.
“I eventually found a naval HQ in a sandbagged shack, reported what had happened, and was immediately drafted to a minesweeper – HMS Jarak.
“I literally fought my way to the docks, brushing aside armed and dazed soldiers trying to force their way on to anything that would float.
“Armed police and army officers controlled the gates, and on showing my papers through the bars, I was allowed in – alone.”
He was taken out to HMS Jarak on a small wooden boat.
“From the ship’s bridge I was horrified to see scores of children, and women, standing right up to the very edge of Clifford Pier, waiting desperately
for rescue,” he wrote.
“Japanese planes were slowly circling over the city.
“The captain told me that our job was to proceed to a minefield at dusk and guide escaping ships and craft through the minefield, then return to base at dawn.”
While on board and during a Japanese bombing raid, he recalled scrambling below deck and finding a makeshift shelter built entirely of tins of corned beef.
“As I dived in, it was explained that the bomb splinters could slice through the sides of a ship, but could not penetrate the corned beef.
“As the bombs exploded all around us, I thought of those children standing on Clifford Pier unprotected.”
On one minefield clearing mission, Mr Curry recalled his ship being spotted at sea by a Japanese battle force comprising of destroyers and a carrier.
They were on course for a small island called Saya and came under fire. The order was given to abandon ship.
“As we rowed away towards the island, we could see in the dusk our ship listing badly and smoke belching from her.
“Between us we reached the islet at about midnight, carrying our wounded up the rocky face to comparative safety. At dawn we found a sandy beach quite near and managed to get our wounded on the sands.
“We found coconut trees and our five Malayan ratings soon climbed them, providing us with food and drink to augment our lifeboat stores of 12 tins of sardines, one tin of biscuits and a few pints of water.”
Mr Curry told how they took cover in the jungle nearby as a Japanese plane appeared overhead.
“We decided to make for Palembang, in Sumatra, at crack of dawn next morning – February, 16, 1942.”
Singapore had fallen the following day and Palembang, the place they were headed, had also been captured.
“While we were talking, a Japanese plane appeared with machine guns blazing away. We rushed into the jungle carrying our wounded. The plane machine-gunned the Jarak, the beach, and the jungle.
“We had a meeting and decided we could not stay there.
“We could not make Palembang or Batavia so we decided to make for the Indragiri River on the east coast of Sumatra, and attempt to cross to the west side.”
Barely afloat, they rowed the lifeboats back to HMS Jarak and managed to reach the island of Singkep in her.
There they scuttled the ship. Trying to sleep in the jungle, Mr Curry recalled the snake attack.
He said: “I woke up as something was itching under my left knee and putting my hand down to scratch, I felt something wriggle, then a sharp pain - it was a snake about 18-inches long, black with white spots on it.
“I yelped and an Army lieutenant immediately kicked the snake away, slashed my leg with a knife, buried his teeth around the bite, and drew out the poisoned blood, calling for a tourniquet – all in a few seconds.
“The Malayan ratings told us in horror that the snake was a black mamba, deadly poisonous, and I would know in 10 minutes whether I was going to live, or die in agony.”
Both he – and the lieutenant – survived.
Mr Curry told how they struck a deal with an Indonesian man to be taken across the Berhala Strait to the east coast of Sumatra, hiding under leaves in a small boat as they sailed.
“I do not think any of us knew exactly where we were, but we had a small compass and set off immediately to walk the 300 miles to Padang on the west coast of Sumatra,” he wrote.
“All I had for this 300mile trek were white canvas shoes, shorts, an open-neck shirt and a small pillowcase containing a few odds and ends.”
Mr Curry recalled walking through endless mud and being ‘covered by large black leeches’.
They were aided by Indonesians as they walked.
“We continued to the west, through prickly bamboo which tore at our clothes, the leeches were more determined than ever of getting their share of blood, and dysentery made progress very trying for me.
“What was left of my canvas shoes was tied up with string, and in the heavy rain and deep mud I lost one, then the other.
“Soon my bare feet were in a sorry state, with blisters, cuts and thorns and at each stop I became muscle bound.
“During the night I was given a gentle nudge by one of the chaps and, looking up, saw in the undergrowth a large pair of murderous yellow eyes lit up by the fire flies.
“It was a tiger alright.
After a while the tiger, perhaps confused by the conflicting smells and deciding that as a main course we had gone off and were not fit for inhuman consumption, gave an angry snarl which rattled our back teeth and sloped away.
“After several more days and nights of this trekking - and towards the end we were carrying each other - we arrived at a gravel road and hid in the jungle waiting to see what happened.
“Eventually a car appeared, which we held up highwaymen-style with our revolvers and we persuaded them to take an armed officer to the nearest town.
“Four hours later the resourceful officer returned with a small bus, driven by an Indonesian and, cheering like mad, we clambered aboard.”
With the help of Dutch soldiers, Mr Curry recalled reaching the coast before a small British destroyer – HMS Tenedos – arrived at the beach. They clambered on board and set out to sea, before being switched onto Australian cruiser HMAS Hobart and shipped to Colombo, Sri Lanka.
From there – via numerous other stops and convalescence – he finally returned to Portsmouth.
Mr Curry, who was awarded the Burma Star, said: “It was a hell of an ordeal.
“But when I heard later of the sadistic treatment of prisoners in Japanese prison camps, many of whom were my friends, and one a relative, I realised only too well how very fortunate indeed I was.”
It’s the start of a new term, and time for children across the country to return to nursery, school or college. Many parents, pupils and teachers are excited to get back into the routine and, although it’s understandable to have a few worries, the advantages of going back into education are clear.
Not only will pupils be learning again, but they’ll benefit from a sense of routine, the chance to see their friends and a boost to their wellbeing.
With new safety measures in place, things won’t look quite the same, but pupils will be guaranteed plenty of support from their teachers.
Dr Paul Phillips CBE, the principal and chief executive of the Weston College Group in Somerset, is one of many leaders who has worked hard to make the learning environment a safe and welcoming one for returning students. “If you came into my campuses you’d see the one-way system, the sanitisers, the counselling service and the ability for us to check temperatures,” he says. “But behind all that are the individual learning plans for each student. That’s where the crucial planning really takes place. “We’ve increased the number of mental- health advisors and support workers, and we’ve put a massive investment into all levels of additional learning support at tutorial level, mentoring and one-toone teaching.
“I’ve doubled the amount of cleaners in the college too – I need to be assured that everything we do is protecting everyone.”
And parents like Clare Rushforth, mum to 11-year-old Lily, are grateful for the efforts schools have gone to with safety measures – especially with the about to move from primary to high school.
“They’ve got good hand-washing rules, and have put additional cleaning measures in place,” she says. “It’s quite a large school, but they’ve managed it so well, and their communication with parents has been amazing. They treat their students very much like their own children, and I’ve got faith that the school will keep everyone as safe as possible.
“Children need their education, to get back to learning and to get back into a routine,” she adds.
Home schooling hasn’t been easy and many parents are worried that their children have fallen behind, but parenting expert and author Dr Kalanit
Ben- Ari believes they’ll catch up quickly, and getting back into the classroom will help them in other ways too.
“I’m not worried about the academic gap, because I think kids will soon pick up. But it’s starting to affect their mental health, so it’s good that they will be back in school from September,” she explains.
“Children are not designed to sit down all day. They need to be out in the fresh air and moving their bodies. It’s so important for young people of all ages to communicate with their friends face to face.
“During lockdown, kids at home have been spending a long time on screens while parents are working, and
I need to be sure everything we do is protecting everyone DR PAUL PHILLIPS
If I have any worries we are all helping each other CHLOE WILLIAMS
often those parents don’t have the resources to entertain and teach their children. That increased screen time will have affected children’s mental health: it increases anxiety, especially with those who are more vulnerable to that.”
For Chloe Williams, a beauty therapy student at Weston College, Somerset, the return can’t come soon enough. “I feel ready to go for a long-awaited 2020, and seeing the new socially distanced facilities has been great,” she says. “My tutors are very approachable if I have any worries, and we are all helping each other.”
Public Health England chief nurse Viv Bennett says: “Parents can be reassured that to maximise safety in schools, an extremely stringent system of controls has been advised by PHE and is published in Department for Education guidance. Evidence so far indicates that schools do not appear to be a primary driver of coronavirus infections in the community. Globally, children and young people have been found to experience coronavirus asymptomatically or as a minor illness.”
The Government’s new Wellbeing for Education Return package has training and resources for teachers and young people to protect their wellbeing and mental health. Now the NHS Test and Trace system is up and running, and there’s more understanding about how we can stay safer. Children should stay at home if they have symptoms such as a fever, continuous cough or loss of taste and smell. If there is an outbreak at a school or college, local health protection teams will work with staff to agree what action is needed. Schools shouldn’t need to close fully, but if they do there’ll be a contingency plan in place to make sure children’s education continues.
Kids need to communicate with friends face to face DR KALANIT BEN-ARI