Headquarters Ship HMS Bulolo. Its last wartime voyage

Glasgow-built HMS Bulolo rescued Dutch internees from the Japanese at the end of Word War II. Can anyone identify the children in the old photos below?

Many ships built on the River Clyde in Scotland went to war. HMS Bulolo was just one of them.

In fact, this 6267-tonner was built in 1938 at the Barclay Curle yard in Glasgow as the MV Bulolo for an Australia-New Guinea service run by Burns Philip on a British Commonwealth contract.

HMS Bulolo – requisitioned

When World War II broke out HMS Bulolo was requisitioned, refitted as an armed merchant cruiser then later as a headquarters landing ship.

To fulfil her latter role she was given state of the art communications capabilities and basically was in the thick of it thereafter. She took bomb damage at the Normandy landings, then was refitted again, this time to take her to the Far East early in 1945.

My father joined her on the Clyde – spotting the tropical gear being loaded as the only clue as to his final destination.

HMS Beachy Head, off Borneo?
What I at first thought was HMS Bulolo but turns out to be HMS Beachy Head.

(Pictured here) Not until I took a close look did I realise that this is HMS Beachy Head. Perhaps the guys going ashore are about to have their first experience of a tropical beach. I think WWII had just ended.

In any family research, the story changes as new material becomes available – in this case I chanced upon my father’s navy records in their original protective envelope.

From them I learned he was later transferred from HMS Bulolo to HMS Beachy Head. A quick check on Google images and, sure enough, that’s HMS Beachy Head, not HMS Bulolo pictured above.

HMS Bulolo crew
HMS Bulolo crew, Gilbert Summers (my father) top

Anyway, Petty Officer Gilbert Summers went to the Far East. (At least I think that was his rank.)

I suppose it was logical for a young man from a North-East Scotland fishing town (Fraserburgh) to join the navy. He was my father. (Pictured here) That’s him at the top of the line in this uncropped squinty horizon snapshot.

He seldom spoke about that Far East jaunt. Just some tales of Borneo and the strange noises one day on the jungle trail that led off from the beach. Every time  he saw an orang-utan on tv it would prompt the story.

Drama on HMS Bulolo

He related how, through half-closed eyes, half-awake in his hammock on deck, off-duty, at sea, he watched, uncomprehendingly, some unfortunate crew-member pack his case.

Next thing he saw was the young sailor, case in hand, jump over the rail – presumably because he couldn’t take the tension of sailing to some unknown destination.

Always a puzzle to me, that narrative. At this late stage – probably June 1945 – there were probably many lurid and terrifying tales circulating about Kamikaze attacks. A potential target, HMS Bulolo was to be the headquarters ship for Operation Zipper – the planned recapture of Malaya.

And Dad would sometimes say something about them being on an invasion fleet but the Americans dropped the bomb in time. And then he would change the subject.

Too late now to ask. He died in 1998.

Lord Louis Mountbatten on the steps of the Municipal Builings, Singapore
Lord Louis Mountbatten on the steps of the Municipal Builings, Singapore, after Japanese surrender ceremony

Surrender at Singapore

When I was very young, I remember that in my mother’s sewing box there were small and fading black and white snapshots of that trip. (Why they lived there, I do not know.)

Pictures of young men clowning about on a beach; of a military gathering on the steps of an imposing building; and, most mysterious of all, of women and young children at sea.

Now, I’ve done some research. But as in any Scottish family history, there’s always more to do. I know that these pictures show the surrender of the Japanese at Singapore.

Most sources say that Lord Mountbatten took the surrender in the Municipal Buildings in the centre of Singapore.  (There is even some film on You-Tube.) As one eye-witness put it:

“I looked at the dull impassive masks that were the faces of the Japanese generals and admirals seated opposite. Their plight moved me not at all.

For them, I had none of the sympathy of soldier for soldier that by the fortune of war I had seen surrender. I knew too well what these men and those under their orders had done to their prisoners.

They sat there apart from the rest of humanity. If I had no feeling for them, they, it seemed, had no feeling of any sort.” – Field Marshal Lord Slim, Defeat into Victory.

HMS Bulolo petty officers (maybe)
HMS Bulolo petty officers (maybe)

Other sources tell me that the ship took part in an earlier landing at Penang.

And I have a photograph –  pictured above – frustratingly captioned ‘L to R – The Broch, Fort William, Newcastle, Edinburgh, / Wishaw, Ayr / Borneo Tues 24th June 1945.’

(And my father on the left also sent all his love that day, according to what was written on the back of the pic. I kinda hope it was to the woman who later became my mother. But what the heck…)

It seems that Scotland was well represented on HMS Bulolo – unless Dad was being especially clannish! (‘The Broch’ is our name for Fraserburgh.)

Anyway, that date was ahead of the September 1945 signing of the surrender. And then there was the biggest mystery. Those women and children. Now that part has been solved.

The Bulolo rescue mission

See the pictured below

Shortly after the surrender, HMS Bulolo was sent off on a rescue mission to the city of Surabaya on what was then called Java. They returned with 500 Dutch civilian POWs.

The Gurkhas, apparently, got them down to the harbour and kept at bay the already hostile Indonesian nationalists who appeared literally within days of the surrender. 

(Who can blame them. They didn’t want Japanese rule, but neither did they want a return to any other colonial overlordship.)

I have found out that the crew gave up bunks and cabins to accommodate the freed former prisoners of the Japanese on the voyage back to Singapore. And that they entertained the children on the voyage.

Crew entertaining children
HMS Bulolo entertain Dutch children with water slide

(Pictured). What’s going on here? Well, I reckon it’s a waterslide rigged up for the kids by the crew. You can just make out the hose spraying the slide. 

More entertainment for the children
On the way back – HMS Bulolo crew entertain the Dutch children with a fishing game.

And here? Well, I think the crew filled a liferaft maybe and played fishing games. Wonder what the children caught?

HMS Bulolo rescue mission
At sea with the Dutch women and children, Surabaya rescue mission.

(Pictured here) Presumably on the Singapore voyage. Some of these kids would have been babies in the Surabaya internee camps. Where are they now?

So that explains the pictures of a water slide and the liferaft (is it?) filled with water and the women seated on the deck.

I now know that Lord Mountbatten assembled so-called RAPWI teams – Recovery of Allied Prisoners of War and Internees – and that Singapore was used as an assembly point for all kinds of POWs.

Because of the barbarity of the Japanese – that nation back then without a trace of compassion or simple humanity- most of the unfortunates were in far worse state than the internees pictured here.

Maybe it affected my father more than I ever knew. He never mentioned this voyage, nor much else in those two or three years or so he spent away from the little coastal Scottish town where he otherwise lived his entire life.

He was always noticeably kind to children, hugely popular later on with his own grandchildren and their little friends. And I sometime wonder what sights he did see as the interned families came aboard.

And, of course, he never experienced at first hand the utter degradation and mindless cruelty that was the hallmark of the Japanese in the Pacific theatre. His was a tiny mark in a very big picture.

HMS Beachy Head

But isn’t it strange that unknown faces of Dutch children from more than seventy years ago, should emerge from a box kept in a little house in the north of Scotland?

As for the transfer to HMS Beachy Head, as a late call-up, dad was to be only released from the navy later as well. He once told me he was involved in servicing minesweeper engines.

Beachy Head is sometimes described as a submarine depot ship but – and I’ll soon look into all this – presumably was a depot and base for the maintenance of the all-important minesweeping vessels – especially as all the mined channels could be safely swept after the cessation of hostilities. 

Anyway, dad finally got home in January 1947, married my mum later that year and lived happily ever after…

Thinking of researching your family history? Scotland is very well resourced. 

– HMS Bulolo in the Far East

Searching for HMS Bulolo online has brought in a few pieces of the jigsaw and I still have plenty to do!  General info on HMS Bulolo here. (Wikipedia.)

Eye-witness account of the Japanese surrender at Singapore, here, down the page a bit. See http://www.rquirk.com/no26.htm (NB insecure site)

An informative website on the Dutch POW camps.

The grimness of this account from the BBC history website speaks for itself. See http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ww2peopleswar/stories/06/a2013706.shtml (NB insecure site)

Amongst the many books on the treatment of POWs in Japanese hands, most poignant is The Forgotten Highlander written by Alistair Urquhart from Aberdeen. (I am sure he danced, as a young man, at the same dance halls at the same time as my mother!)

A period-piece from 1954 is  And All the Trumpets by the late Donald Smith, who also had Aberdeenshire connections. He became the Rev J Donald Smith later in life.

His book evokes the ghastliness of captivity under Japanese attitudes, yet somehow avoids rancour.  

Finally, the adventurous career of Geoffrey Brooke at sea is told in his extraordinary work Alarm Starboard! which includes the tale of how he got away from Singapore as the Japanese came in.

He then went on to write the harrowing Singapore’s Dunkirk which tells in depressing detail of the fate of the evacuees, including many women and children, who fled Singapore in a variety of craft. 

Few of them made it, as Japanese aircraft controlled the skies and their naval vessels the sea-lanes. (It’s an almost unbearable read – small wonder ‘Britain’s’ wartime narrative prefers to dwell on Dunkirk.)

The movie The Railway Man, from the late Eric Lomax’s book of the same name, was premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2013, starring Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman. (Personally, didn’t find it characters very convincing!)

After that there was Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken – her first movie as Director and Producer. Again, from a book of the same name, It tells the story of Olympic athlete Louis Zamperini and his fate at the hands of his Japanese captors.

By a strange coincidence, my son, Kinnaird, was travelling around Australia at the time and just happened to be in Brisbane as the shoot for ‘Unbroken’ got under way in October 2013.

As a tall white skinny guy he got a part as an extra in the prisoner of war camp scenes filmed there, complete with 1940s haircut and uniform.

Don’t know what his late grandad would have said about that – but it certainly freaked me out when he skyped me ‘in costume’…I now know what my son might have looked like as a POW. Very unsettling…

More on tracing your roots here.