Author: Lt Col (Rtd) Steve Colling, Corps Historian

Lieutenant Colonel (Lt Col) (Retired) John Edwards flagged up a memorial service taking place at the National Arboretum on Wednesday 29 November 2023 to mark the 80th anniversary of the sinking of the Suez Maru and the tragic circumstances concerning the loss of life of the Prisoners of War (POWs) it was carrying.

The Suez Maru was sunk by the USS Bonefish at 8.17am on Monday 29 November 1943 with the loss of 414 British POWs. The ship took about an hour to sink and about 250 survivors were shot in the water by the Japanese. Among them was Craftsman (Cfn) Rowland John Phillips.

A stone in the ground engraved with memorial, a small wooden cross laid beside it.

Memorial Stone at the National Arboretum. Photographer: Steve Colling.

Two images of a memorial stone with crosses around it. One shows a man holding a flag upright.

Images from a service held at the Memorial, with crosses laid in memory of every soldier lost on the Suez Maru. © Gilbert Mould.

All we knew about Cfn Phillips until now was the detail held on our Died in Service Database, which came from the same source as used by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC), and on a Tracer Card held in our Archives.

A database file with entry fields for soldier details

Died in Service Database Entry for Cfn Phillips.

Index card with writing in various different pen and pencil colours detailing soldier movements.

Cfn Phillips’ Tracer Card.

A REME tracer card records number, rank and name and shows he joined on transfer from the Essex Regiment. He was a fitter who served with 7 Anti-Aircraft Division Workshop Company. In June 1943 he was logged as a Prisoner of War in Japanese hands following a notification from the International Red Cross.

Extract of a typed document recording the details of a soldier.

The CWGC Ledger Entry for Cfn Phillips.

Neither the CWGC Website nor the REME database records the circumstances of his death.

Find a more detailed story of the sinking and the full roll of honour on the FEPOW Family website. The Roll of Honour names Cfn Rowland John Phillips REME amongst those who died and places him with 21 Light Anti-Aircraft (LAA) Regiment.

The Regiment comprised of a headquarters, 48, 69 and 79 Batteries LAA equipped with Bofors 40mm Anti-Aircraft guns and some maintenance support. On 7 December 1941, the Regiment set sail for North Africa. Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour and invasion of Malaysia at Kota Bharu on 6 December, plus the subsequent threat to Singapore, plans swiftly changed. The Regiment was sent to Java, Indonesia. On arrival, A and C Troops of 79 Battery were sent to Timor.

79 Battery arrived and disembarked at a time when troops were being evacuated, and became part of Sparrow Force. With no airfields to defend, it was used in the ground attack against the invading Japanese. Sparrow Force achieved some successes but, up against overwhelming odds, was forced to surrender on 23 February 1942.

With the availability of online sources growing almost daily, we ought to be able to find out more about Cfn Phillips.

The 1939 Register was taken on 29 September 1939 and recorded the names and addresses of all residents of the UK less those already serving in one of the three services. Rowland Phillips is not listed but his widowed mother and brother were registered in Ilford. This implies Rowland was already serving in the Essex Regiment at that time.

There is a probate record for 1944 at Llandudno, naming his mother, and a POW record online.

Document with a table of details, typed and handwritten, partially in japanese.

POW Record WO 345/1. © Crown, OGL. Source: Findmypast and The National Archives (TNA).

The regimental number, name, rank and trade are as expected, though Rowland has been transcribed as Roland. His mother’s address matches the probate record.

So after service, or perhaps just basic training, with the Essex Regiment, Rowland transferred to the Royal Army Ordnance Corps (RAOC) and trained as a fitter. A second record shows he was captured on 8 March 1942, but it seems likely that prisoners were 'documented' a few days after capture.

Extract of a document with typed details of soldiers in a list.

POW Record WO 392. © Crown, OGL. Source: Ancestry and TNA.

REME was formed in October 1942. At that time a large number of the RAOC transferred to the new Corps and many RAOC sub-units and units were re-titled as REME. Clearly, Private (Pte) Phillips was amongst the list of names to be transferred. At that point he became Cfn (the REME equivalent to Pte) Phillips REME, though like many other POWs he may have been unaware of his change in cap badge.

A comprehensive account of events leading up to the sinking of the Suez Maru by Dennis Courant, and details of the memorial service at the National Arboretum, can be found on the COFEPOW website.

Rowland John Phillips is remembered on Column 112 of the Singapore Memorial.

On a lighter note, whilst at the National Arboretum on Saturday last, I couldn't help notice the advert for ice cream!

A freestanding sign for ice cream outside.

The ice-cream advert, fittingly branded ‘Bluebells’. Signage artwork: © remains with the copyright owners. This photograph does not indicate endorsement of this product.

During the 70s and 80s, before secure communications, each arm or service had an appointment title; 'Shelldrake' for artillery, 'Ironsides' for tanks, 'Foxhound' for infantry etc. REME‘s appointment title was 'Bluebell'. Can anyone tell us why?

Find out more

Death in Service Database and Research

War Graves Project

Behind the Scenes: Records of Remembrance

Remembering: D-Day and Beyond

REME Prisoners of War

REME History: Capture at Arnhem

Collections in Focus: POW Toothbrush