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Heroes Of Our Time

In Memory LAC Len "Abbie" Abbs - 20 May 1920 - 28 March 2014

 

Most people on the Association will remember Peter Witts – believed to be the only person to serve in three separate Squadrons under RAF 100 Group: No. 223, No. 214 and No. 462 Squadron RAAF; commissioned after the war as a Pilot Officer. He and his brother-in-law Len Abbs shared a close relationship, and Peter named his son Len Witts after him. Len Abbs was a remarkable man. Carolyn Witts, Peter’s daughter, shares these words which lead into the story of her uncle, in commemoration of VJ Day:

 

"Uncle Len was my Dad’s brother-in-law, my Mum’s brother. They were like brothers, my father and he. The moving story of how they first met goes back to when my mother, then Joan Abbs, was a WAAF working in the Officers’ Mess when one of the Officers told her they had just admitted a Len Abbs, a prisoner of war; into hospital. As far as Mum knew, her brother was reported dead, missing in action. The Officer took Mum to the hospital to see if it was indeed Len. On entering the hospital ward she was confronted by all these skeletal men just lying there. She said: ‘I can’t see my brother’. Len heard her voice. ‘Joan … my sister Joan’. Mum said this skeletal man was walking towards her with no hair, having had a mass of blonde curls when he went to war. It couldn’t be Len! He put his arms out saying simply: ‘Joan.’ This was her brother … Mum started to visit Len regularly in the hospital where, in the next bed, was another prisoner of war, a Hugh Trebble from Woolacombe, my Dad’s home village. One of Mum’s jobs in the Officers’ Mess was to sort the mail. She noticed a letter post marked from Woolacombe to a Mr Peter Witts. Mum told Dad when he came to collect his mail that there was a Hugh Trebble in hospital, a prisoner of war, and did he know him. Dad said: ‘Know him? He only lives in the same street as me! We went to school together. He’s a mate. We’d been told he was lost in action.’ So Mum and Dad started visiting the hospital together and were married two years on. As a point of interest, Hugh Trebble had a brother who was killed on the last night of the war, so they had one son returned to them only to lose another."

 

Len Abbs was born in Norwich and lived in Lowestoft for many years, an East Anglian through and through. Aged eighteen, he was already working in photography when he joined the RAF in July 1938. He went on to train in RAF photographic work at Farnborough before being posted to 9 Squadron (Vickers Wellington Bombers). He was then posted to 211 Squadron, joining them at El Dabaa (seen right) on 12 March 1940 at that uncertain stage of WWII known as ‘The Phoney War’, before even the Battle of France had begun. One of the originals posted to 211 Squadron to the Far East, there he was taken captive along with over 300 other ground crew members of the Squadron at the fall of Java in March 1942.

 

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Repatriated from the Far East, Len met Betty Robertson in 1947. They were engaged that August and married on 27 December, facing the triumphs and hurdles of life happily together down the years with a growing family of five children, all daughters. In 2007, Len and Betty celebrated their Diamond Wedding Anniversary, with family in Lowestoft and a message of congratulations from HM the Queen.

 

However, reaching back through the years of wartime lay a stark tale of one man’s part in a great tragedy brought together in Len’s own hand, beginning at his arrival in Greece with the Squadron in November 1940.

 

November 1940

 

At Menidi airfield (ex KLM airport), seventeen kilometres from Athens; Jim Fryatt and I were in close proximity with the photo section room next to the Armourers on the side of a hangar. When things were quiet we shared a mug of tea together. One night, we celebrated a birthday and many of us were worse for wear drinking ouzo and mavrodaphne, drinks we weren’t used to, but cheap. I’d play cards with Jim, ‘Swede’ Revett, and Bill Pettitt. They were Armourers.

 

When Germany invaded Greece, 211 withdrew to Menidi. We went to Corfu first, to this day don’t understand why; we were there only a week with no aircraft. But then we were pinned down in slit trenches, being attacked by 109s and 110s (Messerschmitts). They carried extra fuel tanks and destroyed all 211’s remaining Blenheims on the ground. Orders came to make for the port of Argos to be evacuated by troop ships. We travelled at first in convoy, but it was apparent we were too big a target, so split up. Gerry ‘shufti kite’ (‘shufti’: Arabic for ‘look see’) would fly over followed by Stuka (Junkers Ju 87) dive bombers. The section I was in, three lorries, saw the fighters and ran for cover. They destroyed all the lorries and we legged it for Agrinion where we caught a train. We never made the town before nightfall, so sheltered in an olive grove, meeting up with other RAF bods with the same idea. We were fortunate they had cooked some Maconachies. Tins of soup with vegetables and meat. Absolutely beautiful at such times, having not eaten for 14 hours. We had water bottles, carried tins of bully (corned beef), but that meal was one never forgotten. Little did we then know what fate had in store for us! Next day, we travelled in small groups to catch the train at Agrinion for Argos.

 

The town was packed with British Service personnel, some Army operating the ack-ack guns at the aerodrome had orders to leave. We were on the train 15 minutes before being attacked by dive bombers and fighters. The train stopped. I went to open the door and make a run for it. ‘Knocker’ Wade, one of ours, grabbed hold of me: ‘Stay, you stupid bastard!’ He had a way with words! Sure enough, many ran into the fields. Gerry returned and machine-gunned them, some 50 hit, 15 killed. When it quietened, we carried them into Agrinion. Some transport did come out and must have seen what happened.

 

We carried on walking by night, sheltering by day; safer with hundreds of us making for Argos. After eight days struggle, scrounging drink and food, the Greeks were kind but unsure what tomorrow would bring. In the distance, we saw Argos, rising columns of smoke where Gerry had sunk the ships waiting for us. Walking along the road, six of us in total, an elderly Greek came out beckoning us into his bungalow, gesturing we eat and drink. With him was Grandad, Grandmother, daughter, two granddaughters Rhola

and Christine, twelve and fourteen. Both granddaughters spoke good English. But what a meal! Spaghetti, tomatoes and meat (goat or sheep) washed down with red wine. After eight days on hard tack biscuits and bully beef we enjoyed that so much! We must have smelled, for Mama suggested we take a bath. Mama’s husband was in the Greek Army, serving on the Albanian border. A tin bath was produced. We filled the copper up from the well at the bottom of the garden, and when the water boiled, the bath was

duly filled and tested for the right temperature. We tossed a coin for who would go first. The family never left the room. I took Rhola outside, explaining we’d need privacy, and she spoke in Greek to the family who all burst out laughing, but then left us alone. We emptied and refilled that bath three times, a toss of the coin deciding who would get fresh water.

 

While bathing, the two girls went into Argos to buy us cigarettes. We had a whip-round, telling them to buy sweets and chocolates for their parents. Coming back with the goods, they warned that German motorcycle troops were in town and at once, everyone was talking excitedly, while Grandad signalled for silence and spoke to us through the girls. He’d listened to the radio, heard that Australians were holding the line at Kalamata where British forces were being evacuated. ‘I will take you at nightfall to the pass through the mountain range that leads to Kalamata.’ We left at 7pm with torches and lanterns, walking and resting every half hour through mostly olive groves. It was almost midnight when Grandad said: ‘There is the pass ahead’. We had walked an estimated 15 miles. We shook hands, hugged goodbye then walked the rest of the night, through the next day, finally making Kalamata to discover about 500 airmen sheltering in a disused brewery. On entering, four airmen at a table took name, rank and number. A Sunderland aircraft came in every hour, landing in the bay, taking fifty men off. Fifty names were called and you sheltered, waiting at the dockside. As one party left, another assembled. Eventually they took seventy, stripped to underpants. It was hot in Egypt. We were there 2 days, our names not called. We had two bad air-raids with civilian casualties making our presence unpopular. It was a beautiful place, but a ridiculous situation to be in. With a crowd of us still there, one amongst us Flt/Sgt Wrightson, Wireless Operator/Air Gunner, saw a light flashing out at sea: ‘It’s the Navy! They’re coming in to get us.’ We ran to the dock to drop its gang-plank. Then taking us out of the bay in threes and fours to a waiting troopship, we laid our legs across one another amongst 3,000 troops on the Delwarra. Come dawn, I looked around. There were 7 merchant ships, 5 cruisers, 12 destroyers, and it wasn’t long before we were attacked by high flying and dive bombers, the first hitting a merchant ship while two cruise ships, one either side, held her upright until they took 1500 men off, with some 500 lost. Late afternoon they hit another, same procedure, with most off. When the cruisers pulled away, the ships sank. Second day a bomb dropped that blew a hole in our side and we listed over. The Captain announced he was shutting the hold to save the ship with 250 men inside. Our speed dropped, the convoy left us with one cruiser, and we limped into Alexandria harbour a day later with all docked ships blasting their sirens. On the dockside, benches were set up and WVS women and Salvation Army served hot drinks, rolls, bowls of soup, cigarettes, sweets, you name it. Bath, change of clothing, pay and a month’s leave.

 

November 1941/1942

 

We were in Egypt being re-equipped. They flew by hops to Palembang, Sumatra then the Dutch East Indies. Besides crew, they took tradesmen, a skeleton staff sufficient to get airborne on arrival. Assisted and working with the Dutch Air Force who went on raids on approaching Japanese landing craft. The aerodrome was defended by Indonesian forces who put up no resistance when Jap paratroopers landed at dawn. Some 80 of 211 Squadron personnel got away, making it to Java. Remaining ground staff who

hadn’t flown with the advance party to Palembang went by troop ship. We had one naval cruiser escort. It always amazed me how around the world in different theatres of war all hell is let loose, and here we were lying sunbathing in the Indian Ocean listening to Vera Lynn singing: ‘We’ll Meet Again …’

 

We disembarked at Oosthaven, Sumatra, 1600 hours Friday 13 February 1942: ‘unlucky for some’. We board a train, with Palembang next stop … not so! Approximately three hours on the train stops and we’re ordered to dismount, lining up outside a small railway station. We are addressed by our Squadron Adjutant, Flt/Lt Bright known affectionately as ‘Bright Eyes’. Wearing spectacles, an ex-schoolmaster, he is loved and respected by every PoW who unfortunately were in the same camps as him. Meanwhile, at

the station he informs us that Japanese forces have landed at the other end of the island. The train driver refuses to go further. We march to a sugar plantation where we spent a night in one of the warehouses, with no grub available, so we consume our emergency rations. Next morning, we commandeer every available transport and at speed make for Oosthaven, hoping the Yoma troop ship is still there. We made it back to the ship where the Captain said he would wait until dusk for stragglers. Weighing anchor, he set

sail for Batavia, sailing close to land in shallow water, afraid of submarine detection. We made it midmorning next day and Bright Eyes informed us we were to march to a Dutch Army barracks on the other side of town to be billeted … We had two weeks at the barracks and looking back it was hard to believe it happened. We were actually paid by the Dutch Military Command and a guilder a day colonial pay extra; Guilders in those days about two shillings. But they didn’t know what to do with us, reporting each day at

8am, with it being a supply base with no planes, no equipment, and sufficient staff. But then the Japs landed. There was a huge sea battle off Java. Six British destroyers actually sailed between the landing barges picking them off. Heavy Japanese battleships from a distance of 15 miles picked off the destroyers one by one, ignoring the fact they were hitting their own troops, estimating they could lose a third of their invasion forces and still take Java … which as history records, they did! Day after day, steamship ‘Orcades’

berthed in Batavia and we boarded her bound for Australia, believing we could get away from Java. We must have numbered 150 of 211 Squadron. Bright Eyes approached our gathering: ‘There is a Yank auxiliary unit holding the approach bridge. The Captain asks for 100 men to leave the ship to let Dutch women and children board’. Every one of 211 Squadron followed Bright Eyes off that ship. We were going to Jamis in the hills where all British Forces would make a stand. Ye Gods! Brave words indeed …

 

While waiting at the railway station, a Dutch Army convoy stopped to replenish their water supply. They gave us permission to travel with them as they were going near Jamis. It was an Infantry Company. They were going post haste to join the main Dutch forces engaging the Japs, having guarded an area of coastline where they might have landed. But on the road we were fired on by machine guns. We sheltered under the lorry, lying behind the wheel. Paratroopers blocked the road ahead. We had rifles and ammo

and fired into the trees where they were hiding. Knocker, a regular defence Gunner, reminded us not to waste ammo. We were all tense. Dutch soldiers lobbed grenades where enemy fire was coming from. God, I thought, I’m glad I joined the Air Force! Eventually, it fell quiet. Dutch medics came round, seeing to the wounded. A Dutch Officer spoke to us: ‘Are you glad you joined our convoy! My Wireless Operator has been in touch with HQ and information is that British are assembled at Jamis’. Later they dropped us off,

pointing us in the right direction and we climbed upwards and upwards, walking a mile or so before finding the camp. There were hundreds of airmen assembled. It was here we were to make a stand. However, Gibson, Knocker Wade, Bob Kerswell and myself had a chinwag, deciding for our sins to pinch a truck and make for the coast to persuade a fisherman to take us to an off-shore island. We picked a 30- cwt truck with a nearly full tank, but as we were pulling away a Flying Officer signalled we stop. Bob drove

on and as we passed, the Officer shouted: ‘I’ll have you court-martialled!’ We passed thousands of Dutch troops carrying white flags, some with Japanese flags, and eventually made Tjilatjap where airmen sat on either side of the road. ‘What’s the gen, fellas?’ ‘What’s your unit?’ We said 211. ‘There’s loads of your fellas on the ‘drome’. Following instructions, we found the ‘drome and there was Bright Eyes, also Sqd/Ldr Padre Rourke who was to be remembered as one of the finest, bravest men who ever lived!

 

Padre Rourke took off his uniform and changed it for an airman’s. He seemed pretty wised up, knowing they separated senior Officers from other ranks. The Padre said his place was amongst the men and he slept in our billets. I saw him when a prisoner, take a rifle off a Japanese guard who was beating the hell out of an English prisoner. The Padre took the rifle, stood to attention, bowed to the guard, and handed him the rifle back. The guard stood flabbergasted, raised his rifle to hit the Padre, but then stopped. ‘Muchigo’ he said, meaning ‘come with me’. He took the Padre to the guardhouse. This was at Yar Mari Camp, Surabaya, where there were at least 3,000 prisoners mostly Dutch. Rumours spread round the camp like wildfire. They will shoot him, beat him up … About three hours later, Padre returned to his hut with a packet of Japanese fags and a bag of fruit. The interpreter said the Camp Commandant, a Major in the Emperor of Nippon’s Imperial Forces, was a true Bushido and admired the courage of the Padre. From that day, some of the guards even saluted him. At Malang camp when we were made to witness the execution of four prisoners, I said to Padre Rourke: ‘Where is your God now? He let that happen’. He replied: ‘What you witnessed this day is not God’s work, but man’s’.

 

At the aerodrome at Tjilatjap we met several of our old comrades, so decided to wait our fate with them. Bright Eyes told me to destroy photographs I had, about 150. Also my Log Book. The first few days we saw few Jap soldiers, doing pretty much as we liked. For our own safety, we were advised to stay on camp at night. I made friends with a Dutch girl, Pam de Bly, and met her family. When we were eventually moved from the drome, I left her with souvenirs I accumulated on my travels. Also medals and a cup I won in

boxing and swimming whilst in the Forces. She promised to send them to my parent’s address. I heard no more. Who knows what fate awaited them, for eventually white Dutch women too were interned. Lt Colonel Soni, a Japanese Camp Commandant, once said if the women had fought for Java they would never have lost it. Soni lived in England at one time, spoke perfect English. He was one of the better ones.

 

A company of Japs turned up one morning at the ‘drome and everything changed dramatically. 750 of us were put on a train and taken to Malang. We travelled all day while the Japs treated us well. When the train pulled in at a station they let us buy refreshments. Most of us had money. One Jap Sergeant told us to hide it as when we got to Malang the Kempe-Tai (Gestapo, Secret Police) would take it from us. Our escort to Malang were the Jap Imperial Guards who actually fought taking Java. They treated us with respect and some played cards with us on the train. Many times I thought of them, thinking they can’t all be as bad as this bastard who is kicking me as I lay on the ground! We arrived at Malang … and then things really did change … and for the worse!

 

As a PoW I was shipped to Haroku Island. 2,000 Dutch and English. At one time we were burying 15-20 men each day with dysentery, beri-beri, and malnutrition. I left the Island with the first batch of sick to return to Java. At that time, 400 were buried there, 950 on our ship. By the time we reached Java, 300 were dead and thrown overboard without ceremony. When we docked, I was taken to De la Rosa Hospital, Batavia, unconscious when I went in. I awoke thinking I had died and gone to heaven for I was in bed with clean sheets and above me a fan spinning. I weighed 7 stone, 3 lbs. and was there three months, to leave weighing 10 stone, 7 lbs. It was brilliant, the only Japs we saw were Medics.

 

I then went to Sumatra working on building a railway. They only speak of the Thai railway. In Sumatra, they built a railway from end to end … Pakenbaroe to Palembang. Workers started from both ends and met in the middle. At one time, building a bridge over the Inderhari, we were 60 feet above water. 650 men lost their lives building that bridge. I was working with an Aussie who came from Tasmania. I only remember him as Blue. Going to work one morning he said: ‘Abbie, if that bastard sticks his bayonet in my arse today, I’m jumping!’ He did, and took the Jap with him. I last saw him when they surfaced, he still had hold of the Jap. The current was fast, both were never seen again.

 

All survivors of Haroku worked on that railway. Of the original 2,000 that went to Haroku at the end of the war, 80 survived. I had malaria 28 times on Sumatra. We worked in gangs of ten, if seven were sick the gang got rations for three. No work, no food. We were counted out of the gate to calculate next day’s rations. Sometimes fit men helped the not-so-fit to work to boost the rations. I never made it to the link up, the meeting of the railway lines, as I went back to Base Camp with dysentery and malaria. Normally they would not have bothered, but it was June 1945 and for them the writing was on the wall.

 

19 August 1945: a Major, two Staff Sergeants and 100 paratroopers dropped in on our Camp. The next day planes dropped food supplies and medicine. Suffice to say I was one of the ‘Fortunates’. I spent 26 weeks in RAF Hospital when I returned home, and was discharged on medical grounds. It broke my heart for I loved the RAF life and had intended to sign on. I have had a wonderful life since thanks to my Betty and family.

 

Gathering Sunset

 

Len turned 93 in May 2013. His memory was failing, but he continued well enough and safe in care, though missing Betty greatly. Her health declined. The role of Carer had fallen increasingly on him at their home in Lowestoft. She departed this life on Friday 14 January 2011 after a long illness. The couple are seen left, sharing a happy day on their Diamond Wedding Anniversary, December 2007; courtesy Abbs family. Leonard William Abbs died peacefully on the morning of 28 March 2014, aged 93. As the years passed and their five daughters flourished, Len had come to refer good humouredly to his home-life as ‘petticoat government’, with Betty cast as OC and Maz Second-in-Command. Maz and her four sisters were by his bedside at the end.

 

Len played a very big part in keeping the Squadron operational. No mean achievement. Not only that: he was one among some 340 of the Squadron’s Ground Crew to be taken prisoner on Java in 1942, and one of only 159 to survive the next three years of captivity.

 

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This article is from the Autumn 2015 issue of Confound and Destroy