When Japan surrendered to Rotherham — a ship’s key role in a pivotal moment in the Second World War

When Japan surrendered to Rotherham — a ship’s key role in a pivotal moment in the Second World War

By Gareth Dennison | 06/06/2022

When Japan surrendered to Rotherham — a ship’s key role in a pivotal moment in the Second World War

 

IT WAS 6.30am on September 4, 1945 and HMS Rotherham was anchored in the Straits of Malacca in the Far East, awaiting the arrival of six Japanese minesweepers.

They arrived at 9am and took up station beside the ship — three on her port bow and three on her starboard bow — ready for the escort duties.

With HMS Sussex following behind, HMS Rotherham — under Captain Hilary Biggs — proceeded down the heavily-mined straights and entered Singapore Harbour.

The mission was to secure the surrender of all Japanese forces in the Singapore area.

High-ranking Japan officers boarded HMS Sussex to surrender all land forces to Vice Admiral Holland.

Next up was the Singapore Naval Base, where the Japanese fleet were anchored and where HMS Rotherham arrived the following day.

This part of the journey was alone, with no minesweeper escorts. There was a fear that Japan could launch a revenge attack after the sinking of its Haguro heavy cruiser three months earlier.

“On our approach to the Johore Bahru Straits, the ship went to action stations,” Robert Sandford, a telegraphist on board, would later recall.

“Eventually, and without mishap, the Rotherham entered the naval base where Japanese surrender envoys were waiting on the jetty to board when we made secure.”

As HMS Rotherham — an R-class destroyer — inched into position, Able Seaman Clifford Stones jumped ashore. The Sheffielder ignored the Japanese envoys as he walked past to secure the bow ropes.

Mr Sandford said: “Able Seaman Stones was the first free British subject to walk on the jetty for three years and seven months.

“At different intervals, several pairs of Japanese surrender envoys came aboard and were escorted to Captain Biggs’ wardroom.

“As the morning wore on Lt-Cdr Leslie Ellis, the first lieutenant and second in command, had a formidable task ahead of him.

“There were some 38,000 Japanese soldiers in the vicinity which he had to disperse.

“About 100 of the ship’s company were detailed to strip search as many Japanese soldiers as possible, while thousands were taken into Singapore, where they were given work to keep them occupied. Hundreds were cutting grass with scissors, with hundreds more sweeping the streets and clearing up in general.

“As darkness fell that evening, Japanese officers patrolled our upper deck until daylight, in case of treachery.”

In the afternoon of September 6, Cpt Biggs accepted the surrender of the Japanese Tenth Zone fleet together with 24,000 imperial Japanese naval personnel of all ranks — bringing peace to the island.

HMS Rotherham remained at the naval base for three weeks. The dockyard entrance was later renamed Rotherham Gate for the role the ship played in the end of conflict in the Far East.

The ship left Singapore for a base at Trincomalee, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), on September 27.

She left for the UK five days later, with the ship’s company looking forward to seeing their loved ones.

It had been a long couple of years sailing with the East Indies fleet — taking part in various operations, including escorting minesweepers as they cleared the Burma coast in preparation for Allied amphibious landings.

Part of its advantage was HMS Rotherham’s small size — it was able to pass over more underwater dangers without triggering explosions.

This meant the diminutive destroyer was chosen to receive the Japanese surrender. It is believed that the ship is the smallest ever to receive the surrender of a major power.

Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten, of the South East Asia Command, commissioned a plaque to record the event and which hung in the officers' wardroom in the Naval Barracks HMS Sultan for over 30 years until the Royal Navy left Singapore in 1977.

“The admiralty took no interest in the activities in the Far East, thus we were known as the Forgotten Fleet,” said Mr Sandford.

“As a result of this, Captain Biggs and Lt-Cdr Ellis received no decoration, which they so richly deserved for containing the situation where the ship’s company of 202 officers and men were at the time outnumbered by 160 to 1.”

A few months after the end of the war, the story appeared to be over with HMS Rotherham to be laid up.

But by early 1947, she had been put into full commission again and was working under the experimental torpedo school at Portsmouth.

The Advertiser said at the time: “This is good news for the people of Rotherham who had come to love the ship that bears the town’s name and on which the plaque that the residents presented is vigorously polished each morning.

“First ship into Singapore when the Japanese capitulated, the ship’s company of HMS Rotherham are as proud of its achievements, as are the people of Rotherham.”

Lt-Cdr FM Crichton, HMS Rotherham’s commanding officer, visited Rotherham Town Hall, where the mayor was trying to maintain our link by arranging for a party of Rotherham sea cadets to spend a week or two aboard.

The ship was sold in 1948 to India, formally transferred to the country’s navy on the next year and remained active until being placed on the disposal list in 1976 and scrapped.

HMS Rotherham was bought with money raised by people here — but she was not originally named after our town.

She was built by John Brown and Co at Clydebank, Scotland, and launched in 1942 — bearing the name Rotheram.

The ship had initially been called after Cpt Edward Rotheram, a naval hero who was born in 1753 and served in Admiral Nelson’s era. The Admiralty tweaked the name of this new destroyer in honour of the town which had raised the money for her.

The Forgotten Fleet was really beginning to live up to its unfortunate nickname in the decades after the war ended.

But veterans of the ship continued to campaign for recognition — and to keep the exploits of HMS Rotherham alive.

In 1994, Lt-Cdr Ellis told how a scale model of a timber storage shed — containing a tin of Bluebell metal polish — evoked memories of his HMS Rotherham days.

While surveying the Singapore dockyards after the Japanese surrender, the men had discovered dozens of Royal Navy storage sheds stacked to the roofs with pre-war items, untouched since Japanese occupation.

There were hundreds of tins of Bluebell, which became part of Royal Navy folklore.

For the crew’s 1994 reunion, Mr Sandford had a replica of the shed made — containing an original Bluebell tin — and presented it to Lt-Cdr Ellis.

“I am afraid the lieutenant-commander wasn’t very popular issuing polish to Royal Navy ships entering the dockyard,” said Mr Sandford, then of Norfolk.

“I thought I would remind him of that say some 48 years ago and had the storage hut made by a cabinet maker.”

After the reunion the previous year, organiser Clifford Stones — a bus driver after the war — told the Advertiser: “Our ultimate aim is to get recognition for the ship’s captain Hilary Briggs, who took the Japanese surrender in Singapore on board the ship in 1945.

“I would like to see his name on a plaque to the ship in the town centre.”

In September 1999, a new road at Treeton was named Admiral Biggs Drive in honour of the ship’s captain.

And in 2001, former crew members were honoured when HMS Rotherham had conferred upon it the freedom of the borough.

Now there are new calls to celebrate Rotherham’s often overlooked role in the nation’s maritime force — although HMS Rotherham 2 is highly improbable given the shrinking fleet.

This move to bring navy matters up the agenda came after a VIP guest at the 2019 Rotherham Show enquired with the Mayor of Rotherham, Cllr Jenny Andrews, where the flag was kept.

After lengthy delays because of the pandemic, Lt-Col Guy Balmer, deputy naval regional commander with the Royal Navy, visited Rotherham to see the ensign and other artefacts in storage last Thursday.

“It isn’t just about the flag,” said Cllr Andrews. “It’s about getting the ball rolling on celebrating Rotherham’s naval history, and showing our young people the opportunities like sea cadets.”

Lt-Col Balmer told the Advertiser: “There are a whole number of towns, cities and borough’s which have connections, be it the navy, army or Royal Air Force.

“Rotherham has the York & Lancaster Regimental Museum, and the strong history and traditions that go with that.

“But it’s also truly amazing and wonderful that a landlocked town like Rotherham is keen to celebrate these naval links, too.

“From our perspective in the Royal Navy, we will do all we can to support Rotherham Council to promote opportunities for young people and provide community support for serving personnel and veterans.”

With thanks to Ian Hawkridge, of Rotherham District Civic Society, and Rotherham Archives service for their assistance.

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