For Ely and the surrounding villages, like many places across East Anglia and beyond, this news not only meant peace but also the eventual return of hundreds of local men captured by the Japanese at Singapore in February 1942. These men, many serving in the 2nd Battalion, Cambridgeshire Regiment (part of the 18th (East Anglian) Division), had taken part in the bitter fighting trying to hold back the Japanese advance in January and February 1942. Little news reached home of their fate after the surrender, for many families it would take months and sometimes years to find out if their loved ones had been killed in the fighting, were missing, or if they were now Prisoners of War. Slowly, over time, lists of those held prisoners began to appear along but news was scarce.
The conditions and treatment endured by these Far East Prisoners of War (FEPoWs) over the next 3 1/2 years can hardly be put into words. Starved, beaten and used as slave labour in the most horrendous jungle conditions, many succumbed to disease or the cruelty of their captors. Despite all the hardship and at great risk if discovered, many were still secretly defiant of their captors, including a well known local Ely figure - John Goodwyn Allden Beckett.
John Beckett, nephew and godson of Lt. Col. Archer, was born in Ely in 1914. Once of age he followed in his uncle's footsteps becoming both a solicitor and taking a commission in the Cambridgeshire Regiment (TA). By the time of the fighting at Singapore, Captain Beckett was serving in the 2nd Battalion alongside many other men from the Isle of Ely. Four months after his capture, John along with several other men, came up with the plan of assembling a secret wireless set from scavenged scraps and electrical parts. Writing about it later he said: "The lack of reliable news and the prevalence of wild rumours was at this time a bad influence on morale; we had been cut off from the outside world for some four months and it was vital to obtain reliable information. I discussed the matter with Victor Mapey (Commanding Officer) and he was very anxious that an attempt should be made to construct and run a wireless set, if at all possible. I said that I was quite prepared to have a shot at it but knew very little about such things. Victor said he would not ask me to do it but would appreciate it if I decided to try it."
Despite huge personal risk if the wireless was discovered, John and several other men were able to build and hide it, initially in a secret roof space above their latrine. Soon, not only were they able to build a working wireless set, but also provide parts for a few other groups to build their own. Beckett and the others were able to take the wireless with them when they were later moved to Thailand by hiding it inside resealed empty bully beef tins. Once at the next camp, with the assistance of an officer of the Royal Signals who had been an engineer for the BBC, several more portable, smaller versions were built from the parts.
Some months later, with his wireless set now hidden in a water bottle, John was caught jotting down a news bulletin by a Japanese sentry who, unfortunately, could read English. John's life was spared due to the sentry wanting his Rolex watch, which was quickly handed over and in exchange the guard remained quiet about his discovery. In early 1944 John was moved to a camp that already had a wireless set, so his was no longer needed. He later wrote the following about the wireless:
"The Cambridgeshire Wireless operated from June 1942 to March 1944, and though a good deal of sweat and bad language, if not tears, were expended on it, at least it proved a very good stimulant to morale at a time when it was most needed."
Captain Beckett returned home after the War and became an influential and well known figure in Ely. He continued to serve in the TA for many years, reaching the rank of Colonel. He is well remembered in Ely where he lived, worked, served as Mayor and was involved in many organisations including Ely Museum.
The pictures below show;
- JGA Beckett as Mayor of Ely dated 1978
- A drawing of the water bottle version of Beckett's wireless
- Captain Beckett leading former Cambs FEPoWs through Ely in November 1945