On 8 May 2020, a series of events were due to take place to commemorate the 75th anniversary of VE Day, however they were seriously disrupted by the lockdown and the necessity for us all to maintain a safe distance from each other. So, I’m taking time to honour the civilians on my family tree who died in enemy bomb attacks.
Agnes McLay Greenaway Young was born on 11 October 1903 and was the daughter of George Young and Elizabeth Jeffrey. Agnes grew up in Larbert, a small village in Stirlingshire, alongside her brothers and sisters, however she eventually travelled south to train as a nurse at Salford Union Hospital in Manchester for three years.
Agnes qualified as a nurse on 19 November 1926 after taking her examination in London and then went on to qualify as a midwife on 13 August 1927. The Salford Union Hospital, located on Eccles Rd, originally tended sick paupers from the local workhouse but it expanded and was soon known as Hope Hospital. The hospital was rebranded as the Salford Royal Hospital during a major redevelopment in 2012 and is still a major university teaching hospital.
Agnes joined the Colonial Nursing Service in 1929 and worked with them for thirteen years but there is evidence of her having travelled to Japan as well as British Malaya. The Colonial Nursing Association, established by Lady Mabel Piggott in 1895, provided trained nurses to care for British personnel in the colonies, however its services were later extended to include the whole population. As well as teaching proper hygiene and Western nursing techniques, the nurses were also skilled in midwifery which would have made Agnes an ideal candidate.
The Straits Settlements were a group of British territories in Southeast Asia which were established in 1826 by the British East India Company and then fell under the control of the British Crown on 1 April 1867. The four original settlements were Penang, Singapore, Malacca, and Dinding, however they were later joined by other territories, including Christmas Island and the Cocos Islands. Following the end of the Second World War, British rule ended and the majority of the territories would evolve into the modern country of Malaysia, however Singapore would remain under British rule until 1955 after which it would become self-governing.
During the Second World War, the Imperial Japanese Army recognised the potential for securing a unified East Asia by taking back the colonies under European rule. A special military unit was established on Taiwan to gather intelligence from various spy networks and an attack was launched on Kota Bharu, Malaysia, on 8 December 1941, officially starting the Pacific War. An hour later, the Imperial Japanese Navy would launch a surprise attack on Pearl Harbour which would result in the United States finally entering the war. The Japanese continued to sweep through the Malayan peninsula until the British finally surrendered after the Battle of Singapore on 15 February 1942.
The Fall of Singapore was described as one of the worst defeats in British history with almost 85,000 British, Indian and Australian troops taken as prisoners of war and more than 5,000 killed or wounded. One of the most appalling acts occurred on 14 February when a group of Japanese forces advanced on the Alexandra Road Military Hospital and massacred more than 250 patients and staff despite a white flag being raised.
In December 1941, there were about 170 nurses spread throughout the peninsula and they had to be quickly recalled to Singapore where they were ordered to leave the colony by 13 February 1942. Agnes and her fellow nurses were taken on board the SS Kuala which was crammed full of families desperately trying to escape Singapore, however the ship was bombed by the Japanese the following morning. Many of the women and children were killed while still on the ship, however the Japanese continued to target those who had been thrown into the sea. The survivors swam desperately towards the nearby uninhabited island of Pom Pong but many were swept away by powerful currents.
The few survivors who made it onto the island’s inhospitable terrain continued to be targeted as they desperately tried to find cover in the jungle. The British and Australian nurses, including Agnes, cared for the wounded as best as they could with no supplies and no basic resources. After days of terror and starvation, the survivors were rescued by a number of different vessels but not everyone got to safety as some were captured or sunk. Sadly, Agnes was amongst 160 survivors who were rescued from Pom Pong by a small vessel called Tanjong Penang which was hit by a barrage of bombs and sank on 17 February. Only three are said to have survived the bombing but Agnes was not amongst them.
The Young family were initially informed Agnes had gone missing since there was a great deal of chaos following the evacuation, however a letter from the Colonial Office arrived in June 1942 advising Agnes was most likely a prisoner of war. The mistaken belief Agnes may have been a prisoner of war seems to have stemmed from the Malayan Bureau (India) who were given a list of names compiled by a survivor, Mrs. Luba Ruperti, who survived being marooned on Pom Pong. Somehow the list was erroneously attributed to a Japanese bulletin claiming those on the Tanjong Penang had been captured.
It would be another four years before the Young family received official confirmation of Agnes’s death from the War Office.
Agnes’ story has been pieced together from a variety of sources which were sometimes contradictory due to the chaos surrounding the evacuation of Singapore. Agnes was confirmed to have been on the SS Kuala, Pom Pong Island and the Tanjong Penang from testimony given by the few survivors. Agnes’ name appears on a war memorial outside the Dobbie Hall in Larbert and on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website. She is also listed amongst 67,000 names in the Civilian War Dead Roll of Honour in Westminster Abbey, London.