A personal account of a Great-Grandfather's bravery during the Second World War

This year the 8th May marks the 75th anniversary of Victory in Europe (VE) Day. For the vast majority of us, this day is predominantly symbolic as we have no personal experience of the Second World War (WW2). But we are able to gain a greater significance from those who were there and are willing to share their stories and experiences of WW2.

I was asked by PFK to share a story of my family connection to WW2. I am Harriet Simpson, and I am the Manager of the Penrith office at PFK. My great-grandfather was Sir Robert Heatlie Scott, and he endured experiences I could not even begin to comprehend. He was a great public servant and a legendary figure of the Second World War in Singapore, where he was working with the Consular Service. At the beginning of the Second World War he was conducting British propaganda in Japan but in 1941 was transferred to Singapore to set up a branch of Ministry of Information. As the crisis deepened in Singapore he became a member of the Governor’s War Council. When Singapore fell in 1941 he attempted to get away on the last boat to leave. His wife, my great-grandmother, had gone on ahead to Australia. They had no idea then, that they were not to see each other again for four years. But his ship was intercepted by a Japanese destroyer, and there were few survivors. Robert succeeded in reaching Sumatra where he was briefly in hiding until he was returned as a prisoner to Singapore. After a period in solitary confinement he was put in Changi jail, where for weeks he was terribly beaten and tortured (he was always regarded with suspicion by the Japanese who equated the Ministry of Information with intelligence and spying).

In the summer of 1943, the Japanese became apprehensive about activities within the camp and were planning a dawn raid, but in late September matters came to a head when a commando reached Singapore from Australia undetected and blew up tankers in the harbour. The Japanese mistakenly thought that the raiders had accomplices in the camp. Robert was assumed to be the ring leader and he was found to have a radio. For weeks he was yet again beaten and tortured but no confession was ever obtained. He was put on trial by the Japanese and eventually sentenced to six years in prison.

During part of his time in Changi, he was held in solitary confinement at the top of the prison tower where from time to time he could be seen by his fellow prisoners below. He became known as the ‘man in the tower’ and was a symbol to the British and Chinese of defiance and resistance.

All this time, my great-grandmother was unaware of his fate and drew a widow’s pension, although she never believed he was dead, and each year on his birthday she made a cake and sang happy birthday with her children.

When the Japanese surrendered, the prisoners in Changi made their own way to the harbour as best they could. After his release he returned to the UK, and was at last reunited with his wife. He went on to work in the Foreign Office, and was sent back to Singapore as Commissioner General for the UK in South East Asia – a regional post with civil and military responsibilities. By a cruel trick of fate his only son, a Royal Marine Officer, was drowned in a training accident on the day of his investiture.

His unusual experience of both civilian and service affairs persuaded the Government to appoint him in 1960 the first civilian head of the Imperial Defence College. He was highly successful and moved on naturally to the Ministry of Defence in 1962 as Permanent Under-Secretary.

While Robert was not part of VE day, he would have been part of VJ day (Victory in Japan) at the end of WW2 had he been well enough to know, but he was so ill with disease and the lasting effects of malnutrition and torture, he wouldn’t have even known. Millions of families had someone like Robert in their lives. Not all of them were lucky enough to have them return home safely. Through telling our relative’s stories, not only do we gain some understanding of the true cost of war, but we see the greatness and courage in others. Robert was and forever will be a hero to his loving family.
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Tuesday, 17 May 2022

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