Bell, Clephan William Hamilton

Clephan William Hamilton Bell was born on 7th January 1905, the son of Robert Hamilton Bell, FRCS., MRCP and Mary Leng (daughter of Sir William Leng, of Sheffield).     He came to Sunnyside (now Turner’s) where  the Reverend Arthur Bather was Housemaster in September 1918.  He was active in Dabating Society and spoke several times.  He went on to Trinity College, Cambridge with an Exhibition for History, gaining an Honours Degree but while there began an interest in the stage which eventually became his career.

On his mother’s side of the family he was the grandson of Sir William Leng of Sheffield, the owner of the Sheffield Daily Telegraph, and he served three years on the staff of the newspaper.

After a short experience of teaching in London, he trained at the Old Vic, and subsequently acted with several Shakespearian touring companies.    In 1935 he put on a  series of plays at the Grafton Theatre in Tottenham Court Road; and in June took the role in a play called “Pigs in Glory” by Erwin Pahr at the Arts Theatre alongside Rex Harrison.

When war came, rejected on age and medical grounds for flying, he volunteered for an R.A.F. medical unit, and went as Aircraftsman 2  to Singapore in June 1941. His escape from there, with other wounded, to Java, he notified by cable in the middle of February 1942.  Nothing more was heard until December 1943, when his family had notification of his death in Japanese hands on December 3rd 1942. He was Mentioned in Despatches on October 1st 1946, for his services to his fellow Prisoners of War.

When he arrived in Java, a Dutch colony, he and the rest of his medical team were pooled with other units to set up a hospital for Allied troops defending the country.  But with the capitulation of Java to the Japanese on March 8th the personnel of No.1 Allied General Hospital had little option but to go into captivity. For the first month the hospital was left alone and flew the Union Jack for three days after the surrender.

On April 17th 1942 Japanese brutality began and the authorities insisted that the hospital be disbanded the following day. The personnel were force-marched to a prison – a Dutch establishment intended to hold five hundred Javanese, but which was now filled with some five hundred British and Australian personnel, 250 Javanese and 1200 Dutch. Conditions were appalling, but attempts were made to keep up morale. Bell – known as ‘Tinkle’ to his comrades – gave a talk on April 29th on ‘The Trend of the Modern Stage’.

A major camp had been established at Bandoeng, which contained over three thousand Allied personnel.  Also in the group  was Lieutenant Colonel Laurens van der Post, who in an effort to maintain morale  set up a variety of classes ranging from basic literacy to degree standard ancient history.

On 26th August 1942 Bell was evacuated to hospital with severe dysentery.  Around this time the Japanese began to look around within the camps for personnel who might be of use to them in their propaganda programme: they had already allowed some captives to send messages home by radio from Batavia (shortly to be renamed Jakarta).   Bell was singled out and after his return from hospital was taken out of the camp for a day by the Japanese who tried to persuade him that he would receive better treatment as a reward for his co-operation.   There was concern that the Japanese would not be content with mere welfare messages and that Bell would find himself called upon to betray his country.    Nothing more seems to have happened for a few weeks, and on October 13th Bell and the rest of the party left Bandoeng.  Two days later the propaganda officer sent for him.

The full story of Bell’s death is contained in the National Archives file WO325/152,  labelled “Death of Captain Bell”.  He had been taken to the former Dutch “Nirom” radio station in what is now Jakarta. The Japanese tried to induce prisoners of war to broadcast for them.   One named in debriefing sessions conducted by war crimes units after the war was Lieutenant J. Lambert of 21st LAA Regiment RA who recorded Bell’s involvement.

In the beginning this station regularly broadcast Japanese orders. The Dutch director evidently had a habit of playing the Dutch national anthem after a broadcast but the Japanese only realised what the tune being played was in March 1942.  Brutal interrogations followed, with three Dutch employees all saying they were responsible.  All three were beheaded.

In his statement to the war crimes unit, Lieutenant Lambert recalled Bell’s arrival and death.       “Late in 1942, a member of an RAF medical unit, named Bell (rank LAC?) was removed from one of the Java camps by Japanese believed to be officials of the Japanese Military Radio organization in Batavia. A few days later, Bell was verbally reported to have died of dysentery. A considerable time later, towards the end of 1942, a death certificate concerning Bell came into the Tandjang Priok Camp registry, giving ‘suicide’ as the cause of death. In February 1943, under circumstances known to the army  authorities, I was taken out of camp by the Japanese and set to work in the offices of their radio organization. I learnt that an AIF [Australian] officer, Lieutenant A.F.D. Rodie (2/2 Pioneers) had been working in another department since late 1942. When we made contact, Rodie asked me what I knew about Bell. I told him, and he replied that Bell had been in the hands of the Japanese at those offices, that he had apparently been brutally handled, and that Rodie believed he must have been murdered. Rodie said that he and a Dutchman, named Ritman, one day heard Bell moaning in an out-house, apparently having been beaten up”. (WO325/152)

Post-war statements by the Japanese Lance-Corporal Karl Kaoru Oda, who worked at the radio station, record:   “Towards the evening of December 2nd 1942 I saw that the said European had been confined alone into the rear room of the office by Matsui (a Japanese possibly in charge of the office), and I was given to understand by Muramaru (the Director of the Radio Station) that Matsui had taken this action because the said European did not agree to make broadcasting, in spite of Matsui’s instruction. Most probably, this [was] the third occasion [that] this European [was] seen in the station. At this time, I had my quarters at XVI Army HQ, and, after seeing that the man had been locked inside the room, I went back to my quarters, leaving behind Muramaru, Matsui and Kiyokawa still in the office. I saw when I was leaving that the key of the room had been put into the drawer of Lieutenant Miyake’s desk. The next day, December 3rd 1942, at about 0530, I went into the office, and from pure curiosity I went to the room where the said European had been locked inside, and knocked the door. There was no answer. I thought it was strange about the room, and therefore went back to the office, and with [the] key I came back to the room. Upon opening the door, I saw to my greatest surprise that the man was lying on the concrete floor in the blood. I yelled out, approaching to him, what he was trying to do”. (WO325/152)

In an earlier statement, Oda had described the moment:  “One morning I heard a noise in a room. I investigated and there found a man… He was lying on the floor and appeared to be in pain. He had a safety razor blade in his hands and had cuts on his temples and both wrists from which he was bleeding. As I speak English, I said: “What is wrong?”  He replied: “I am tired of this and am putting an end to myself,” or words to that effect. I rushed out and notified my superior officers, who brought a Japanese doctor, and they took Captain [sic] Bell away.  I found Captain Bell in this state about 0800; it was about an hour later when the doctor arrived. I do not know whether Captain Bell was dead or not when taken away, or what became of him afterwards; nor do I know how he came to have a razor blade among his possession”.  (WO325/152)

In his later statement, Oda attributed different words to Bell:   “He answered in a low voice, but still steady, that he was doing what the Japs would do. I saw him bleeding heavily at both wrists and the face. I understood instantly the meaning to be that he was trying himself to commit suicide. As I could not do anything at the spot, I hurriedly came back to the office, after locking the door where the man was lying inside, and rung to either Muramaru or Miyake – to which I could not recollect.  Soon after my telephone call, Muramaru, Kiyokawa and Miyake and a certain Japanese doctor, who lived at a house near to Miyake’s one, had arrived to the office, and went into the room where the man was lying. I saw then that the man was brought out of the room and was laid on the easy cane chair, and the doctor had examined [him].

I was watching the scene from the distance, but Miyake, seeing me, had warned me off the spot. I did not know then what had been discussed among Miyake, Kiyokawa, Muramaru and the doctor, but soon afterwards a military doctor [came] to the office, and took the said European away with him in his car. I did not know what had happened afterwards to the man, but some time later I heard from someone in the office that, according tothe military doctor’s opinion, the man had cut the veins of the wrists and face with a sort of razor blade, and died in the military hospital soon after he was brought into the hospital. Muramaru had taken charge of the dead man’s body, and buried him somewhere which I did not know”.  (WO325/152)

After the Allied landings, Oda seems to have been given a job, as an English speaker, helping RAPWI (Recovery of Allied Prisoners of War and Internees). It seems that in 1946, impressed by Bell’s courage, he voluntarily went to the authorities with his information about Bell’s death:

I did not know the name of the dead man until some time after the Japanese capitulation, when I was told by Muramaru that this man’s name was Captain Bell. As I was working at that time in RAPWI, I made an enquiry myself about this dead man, and found out that he was an Aircraftsman Second Class and was an Englishman. I make this statement on my own free will and voluntarily, and on my word of honour it is true and correct in every detail”. (WO325/152)

Bell was mentioned in despatches on October 1st 1946 for his services to his fellow prisoners of war, and is commemorated on Panel 419 of the Singapore Memorial. It seems unlikely that it will ever be known how Muramaru disposed of his body.

He is commemorated on Column 419 of the Singapore Memorial.

Sources:   “The War Diaries of Weary Dunlop”, Lennard 1987;   “Forty Years On: As I Remember” by D A V Thomas, Melbourne 1988

War: World War 2

  • Surname: Bell
  • Forenames or initials: Clephan William Hamilton
  • House: I
  • Years in School: 1918-1923
  • Rank: Aircraftsman
  • Regiment: RAF Volunteer Reserve
  • Date of Birth: 7th January 1905
  • Date of Death: 3rd December 1942
  • How Died: Died as Prisoner of War
  • Location in War Cloister: Inner D2
  • Decoration: NA
  • Burial Site: Unknown but commemorated on Panel 419 of the Singapore Memorial