Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Medals of Welsh hero of 4,000-mile WW2 commando raid up for sale

Medals awarded to a British soldier who took part in one of the most audacious missions of the Second World War — a 48-day 4,000 mile round-trip commando raid on Singapore Harbour — are expected to make £60,000-£80,000 at auction.

Acting Sergeant Ronald George “Taffy” Morris was attached to the Special Operations Executive and Special Operations Australia when he served as medical orderly on the fishing boat MV Krait for Operation Jaywick. The 14-man mission, commanded by Captain Ivan Lyon, resulted in sinking or damaging six enemy ships totalling over 25,000 tons. With no uniforms or identity tags, and flying the Japanese flag, the men risked certain death if captured.

Informal portrait of Corporal RG Morris, RAMC, after the successful conclusion of Operation Jaywick. Photo: public domain, via Australian War Memorial

Morris, whose cheerfulness and devotion to duty helped the team through grave dangers, was born in the Rhondda Valley on Christmas Day 1918. After leaving school at 14 he worked for five years in the South Wales coal pits before joining the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC) in May 1938. He was serving when war broke out and, in 1940, was recruited to join the Oriental Mission of the Special Operations Executive (SOE) as a medic.

SOE was a secret organisation that carried out sabotage, espionage and reconnaissance behind enemy lines. In April 1941, 22-year-old Morris was posted to Singapore, where he met his fellow operative Ivan Lyon, of the Gordon Highlanders — a charismatic Old Harrovian. The pair were soon part of an unorthodox group training local guerrillas to resist possible Japanese occupation.

When Singapore fell, in February 1942, Lyon, Morris and a handful of others established a staging post on Pulao Durian — one of the islands between Singapore and Sumatra — for those fleeing. There, Morris gave life-saving medical care to many people injured by Japanese bombing. His son Evan Morris writes in his book The Tiger’s Revenge: “He set about making splints, setting broken bones, stemming bleeding, suturing gashes, and removing shrapnel embedded in flesh, all without anaesthetic.” Morris’ actions at this time earned him the British Empire Medal.

Eventually both Morris and Lyon made it to Ceylon, today’s Sri Lanka, after tortuous journeys. Lyon travelled on to Bombay, where — with Major Jock Campbell, of the King’s Own Scottish Borderers, and a 61-year-old Australian civilian, Bill Reynolds — he conceived of an extraordinary plan to take revenge on the Japanese. Commandos would travel to Singapore Harbour in an inconspicuous Asian fishing boat. Under the noses of the Japanese navy, they would use collapsible canoes — folboats — to attach limpet mines to Japanese cargo ships and tankers before slipping away.

The fishing vessel MV Krait, originally the Kofuku Maru, photographed around 1943. Photo: public domain, via Australian War Memorial

The scheme was approved by General Wavell, Commander-in-Chief, India, with Australia chosen as the starting point due to fears around Japanese spies in Asia. However, matters were briefly delayed when the commanding officer of the military hospital in Colombo refused to release Morris from medical duties there. Once he was overruled, Lyon and Morris travelled to Australia where they linked up with Z Special Unit — a commando force mostly comprised of Australian Army and Royal Australian Navy personnel organised by Special Operations Australia, the Australian SOE.

After months of training, the team finally embarked from Exmouth, Western Australia, at 2pm on September 2, 1943, with Lieutenant Hubert “Ted” Carse as skipper and navigator. Only three hours later, they nearly sank. “Outside the Gulf we ran into a heavy swell and confused sea from the south, with a fresh south wind,” Lieutenant Donald Davidson wrote in the log. “We very nearly foundered but just managed to carry on.”

The Jaywick team staining their bodies in preparation for the commando raid. Photo: public domain, via Australian War Memorial

Able Seaman Arthur Jones later recalled how, on September 5, Lyon told the men their destination was Singapore. Then, he produced a couple of tins of dark brown dye and sarongs and said: “You can take off that gear you’ve got on, put sarongs on and only come out in sarongs on deck.”

Much hilarity ensued. Jones added: “Everyone was stripped down and they started putting it on and somebody looked down and said, ‘Do I have to dye the old fellow?'”

Lyons answer? “Of course”

The same day, the crew lowered the Australian Blue ensign and hoisted the Rising Sun of Japan in its place. Judging the flag far too clean and new-looking, they bathed it in diesoline and scuffed it on the deck. Acting Able Seaman Berryman remembered coming under the observation of enemy seaplanes and even waving to one Japanese pilot who returned the greeting from his open cockpit.

After navigating the dangerous rip tides of the Lombok Strait and sudden violent tropical storms, they silently approached Pandjang Island, where the six canoeists led by Lyon were landed before dawn on September 18. Lyon told Carse: “Now remember, Ted, if we are not back by the rendezvous date [on the night of October 1-2] you are to take the Krait back to Australia.”

The commandos then island-hopped, paddling their canoes northwards to arrive at Pulau Dongas on September 22. From there they observed the maritime traffic at Singapore, with its huge tonnage of Japanese shipping. On September 26, the men, in three canoes, set out through the night towards their targets.

Ivan Lyon observes Japanese movements on Singapore from the forward observation post on Dongas Island. Photo: public domain, via War Memorial Australia

Once they got close, there was no cover of darkness, however. Jones remembered: “We paddled along parallel to the wharf, Bukum Wharf, and it was all alight, there was no black-out or anything and there was this stream of light right along parallel with the wharf. And when you’re out there paddling parallel, you look in and think there’s probably no way possible you could paddle your canoe in there without being seen because there’s so much light.”

Lyon and his companion Able Seaman Andrew Huston were, in fact, spotted by a Japanese crewman but ignored, while Davidson and Able Seaman Walter Falls were almost run down by a tug. In spite of all this, the canoeists managed to attached magnetic limpet mines to the hulls of seven ships and escaped the anchorage undetected. Jones remembered the tensest moments being when they had their backs to shore. “You can’t see, you don’t know whether you’re going to get a bullet in the back or what’s going to happen. So you had to turn around and paddle out and just hope for the best until you hit that dark patch again.”

The Singapore waterfront and mouth of the Singapore River during the war. Photo: public domain, via Australian War Memorial

There were to be no shots and they got away. Early the next morning, explosions shattered the calm and six of the mined ships were sunk or damaged. Jones described hiding out in mangroves on Batan Island later that day while aeroplanes buzzed above and patrol launches swept past.

During this time, Krait, with Morris and the rest of the depleted crew, had to avoid detection by enemy patrols while waiting to pick up the saboteurs at Pompong Island, southeast of Singapore. It was decided that, in the interval, they should head to the inlets on the south side of Borneo Island.

Author Brian Connell, in The Return of the Tiger, wrote: “Krait was left with a much reduced and rather subdued little company for the nerve-wracking fortnight that lay ahead. The taciturn Carse was now in command and with him were Cain, Marsh, Berryman, Morris and Crilly, with Young still on his wireless watch and ‘Paddy’ McDowell down in the engine room. In some ways theirs was the harder part to bear. The three canoe crews would be holing up by day and paddling their blacked-out folboats towards Singapore by night, with every hope of escaping detection, except during actual attack. Krait, with her reduced firepower, would be cruising day and night in the dangerous waters of the South China Seas, with only half as many men on deck to defend her should she run into trouble…”

They nevertheless made it through and eventually proceeded to the nighttime rendezvous, where a solitary canoe, paddled by Davidson and Falls, appeared out of the darkness. After it became clear that only one folboat had made it in time, Carse decided to disobey Lyon’s clear orders and to give him and the other canoeists a second chance the following night. In the meantime they would risk cruising up and down the Temiang Strait.

Some of the men of Operation Jaywick bathing on the uninhabited island of Palau Bulat near Singapore. Photo: public domain, via Australian War Memorial

They duly returned the next evening. Jones, with Lieutenant Robert Page, emerged first to ensure Krait had not been captured by the Japanese. Then Lyon and Huston came alongside the fishing boat. “Hello chaps,” Lyon said. The four men had, in fact, been on Pompong Island the previous night but had gone to the wrong spot.

The return leg was just as hazardous as the voyage out, or more so, including a tense encounter with a Japanese patrol boat in the Lombok Strait. As Carse recorded in the log: “I saw a large naval patrol, with a bone in her teeth, approaching rapidly on our beam. All hands were called and armed and everything prepared to evacuate [ . . . ]

Members of Special Operations Australia preparing for Operation Jaywick at Refuge Bay in New South Wales. Photo: public domain, via Australian War Memorial

“After pacing us for about five minutes she sheered off and went directly away from us. Although we were undoubtedly seen she did not hail or challenge us in any way, neither did she use a searchlight. As she turned a light was visible aft otherwise she was in darkness. It was midnight before she was out of sight. Whether it was because of the approach to the change of watches and the officer of the first had had a big day and wanted to go to his bunk, or they had got into trouble with some high ranking official over stopping similar boats we can’t tell, but it was certainly a miracle.”

Finally, after battling 40ft waves, Krait arrived at Exmouth at 6am on October 19, having been away for 48 days and completed what is thought to be the longest-distance commando raid by sea. Morris’ contribution had not only been as medical support. When the mens’ spirits risked faltering, he would break into song. While it is disputed that Men of Harlech was heard during the defence of Rorke’s Drift, it was certainly heard on Krait.

Members of the Jaywick team with Major Jock Campbell — front row, second from right — who did not accompany the mission. Morris is on the right of the middle row. Photo: Noonans

Back in safety, Morris received treatment for an ankle injury — the only injury suffered by any of the men on the mission. He was then actively employed by SOE for the rest of the war. Six of the Jaywick team members went on to serve in Operation Rimao, led by Lyon, which sought to destroy even more ships at Singapore. This follow-up ended in failure with all 23 men killed in action or executed after capture. Lyon, Davidson, Page and seamen Falls, Huston and Marsh had already left on Operation Rimao when gallantry awards for their parts in Jaywick were approved. They never learnt of them.

Lyon was recommended for the Victoria Cross but received the Distinguished Service Order. The Australian Jaywick veteran Jones remembered him as “a typical English officer ‘do or die,’ you know, and bugger the expense.”

Morris, for his part, was awarded the Military Medal. The original recommendation stated: “Participated in operations against the enemy under conditions of extreme hazard. His general bearing, cheerfulness, and devotion to duty in most difficult and dangerous conditions were of the highest standard throughout.” Due to wartime secrecy, the citation was only published in the London Gazette more than a year after the war’s end, in September 1946.

The medals of Ronald George “Taffy” Morris, RAMC, medical orderly on MV Krait during Operation Jaywick, are coming up for sale. Photo: Noonans

In fact, it was not until August 1, 1946, that any public reference was first made to the two missions that Lyon led deep into Japanese-held territory. On that day, Australian Minister for the Army Francis Forde told the Australian House of Representatives: “The story of a well kept secret has now been released with the publication of the awards for gallantry of a small but determined band of officers and men who carried the war thousands of miles behind the Japanese lines during the days of 1943 when Japan was flushed with the fortunes of her conquest [ . . . ]

“This attack resulted in the loss by the Japanese through sinking and burning of seven ships of the tanker and freighter class totalling 37,000 tons at a time when her shipping was hard pressed to support her armed forces. The party was then faced with the 2,000 mile return journey with the constant danger of detection which they well knew meant certain death.

“This disorganisation caused to Japanese transport in Singapore Harbour by this heroic group, I believe, shortened the duration of the war and thus saved the lives of many other Allied servicemen.”

Later research indicates that one of the mines planted by the men didn’t detonate, hence the discrepancy between Forde’s seven Japanese ships and the six recognised by historians. As for the effects in Singapore, an unintended consequence was Japanese reprisals that included the torture and killings of civilians and civilian internees.

The Japanese on Singapore surrendered to the Allies two years after Operation Jaywick. Photo: Imperial War Museum, © IWM A 30483

Lyon was not the only one of Jaywick’s three architects to die on daring covert operations. Bill Reynolds, the Australian civilian, arrived on Laut Island, near Borneo, in November 1943, on a mission for US intelligence. He was betrayed and captured by the Japanese. Before his execution, he scratched his name and other details on a doorframe at the prison where he was held. The inscription was discovered by Australian soldiers in August 1945 and donated to the Australian War Memorial.

After the war, Morris, the only surviving British member of Operation Jaywick, continued to serve in the RAMC and was posted back to Malaya with Far East Land Forces in March 1949. He was later responsible for the setting up of emergency medical facilities in the jungle of Borneo, before being seconded to the Malaysian Armed Forces to train the 1st Malaysian Field Ambulance. He retired from the Army with the rank of major in 1972 and returned to Wales, where he died in Wrexham on January 19, 1999.

Reflecting on his father’s career, Morris’ son Evan later wrote: “My father’s life was shaped by his war experiences as he had achieved the almost impossible by joining the army prior to the War as a private soldier and rising up through the ranks to become a major. Something quite incredible for an ex-miner from the Rhondda. However, in the following years and throughout his career he never forgot the loss of his wartime colleagues, especially Ivan Lyon. From Miner to Major — a fitting epitaph.”

Morris’ Military Medal and British Empire Medal will go up for auction with his Pacific Star; Defence and War Medals 1939-45; General Service Medal, 1918-62, with Malaya clasp; General Service Medal, 1962-2007, with Borneo clasp; Long Service and Good Conduct Medal.

The lot, in Noonans sale of orders, decorations, medals and militaria on January 17, also includes two photographs of the recipient, copied service records and other research, and a copy of The Tiger’s Revenge by Evan Morris, who is selling the medals.

The image at the top of the article shows a group from Z Special Unit, with Ivan Lyon second from the left, on board MV Krait during Operation Jaywick. RG Morris is not in this picture. Photo: public domain, via Australian War Memorial

Share post:

Popular

Archaeology

Victorian map unlocks ‘incredible’ tale of Romano-British metal hoard

Archival detective work and scientific analysis by archaeologists have...

Mysterious Roman dodecahedron is ‘find of a lifetime’

A Roman dodecahedron unearthed on a community dig in...

Cambridgeshire bones may hold first DNA evidence of Sarmatians in Britain

Remains of a man buried near a rural farmstead...

‘Backwater’ town was bustling trade hub that rewrites Roman history

A Roman town once considered so unpromising that no...