'It wasn’t excitement, it was just sheer emotion': sharing the untold stories of the British, Allied and Commonwealth forces who served in the Far East

Alan McQuillin joined the RAF in 1941
Alan McQuillin joined the RAF in 1941

As we mark the 75th anniversary of VJ Day, The Royal British Legion is shining a spotlight on the untold stories of British, Allied and Commonwealth forces who served in the Far East and is encouraging the public to remember and recognise all those who served and sacrificed in the conflict and ultimately brought an end to the Second World War. 

Jim Kemp

At just 18 years old, Jim Kemp was conscripted to the Army and left his family home in Cambridgeshire to join the Essex Regiment.

One of three children, having two older sisters, Jim began his training at Bury St Edmunds and felt excited about the prospect of travelling and was sent out to Burma as an infantry soldier with the 26th Indian Division after just six weeks. 

Jim’s jungle training prepared him for patrols in blazing heat and monsoon weather, not conditions he was used to. Yet he adapted to his surroundings quickly, conducting combined operations in air, on water and on the ground. 

As one of the first units to land in Rangoon, Jim first saw action on Ramree Island in early 1945 and further into the year was then part of Operation Dracula, the Battle to take back Rangoon, and was part of the invasion in May 1945. It was during this operation that he heard about the end of the war in Europe - though it was four days after VE Day that the news finally reached them.

Jim Kemp witnessed the sound of the atomic bomb which had dropped on Hiroshima, Japan from where he was stationed

Jim said, “It was an unseen part of the war, we had a job and got on doing it. We had no idea what was going on in Europe and when we did hear the news about VE Day we hoped we would be able to come home, but that wasn’t to be until a long time after.

“We witnessed horrendous sights out there, but my service was my job and we got used to things quickly.”

Jim also witnessed the sound of the atomic bomb which had dropped on Hiroshima, Japan from where he was stationed. He said, “I saw the tip of the cloud but at the time we had no idea what was going on, we just got on with it.” 

Jim was demobbed in 1947 and was married to his wife in 1952 for 52 years before she passed away. Jim is a father to two sons, a grandfather and great grandfather. He is a member of the Burma Star Association and the Royal British Legion branch in his local area.

Richard Llewellyn

Richard Llewellyn, 94, from Wirral was a midshipman in the British Navy during World War Two.

He was just 18 when the Allies invaded Normandy during the D-Day landings, and he was later destined to head for the Far East before the United States detonated two atomic bombs over the Japanese cities of Horoshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, effectively ending the Second World War with the surrender of Imperial Japan.

Recalling that time, Richard said, “I was Navigating Officer on HMS Easton, which was refitted at Chatham dockyard in preparation for the Far East, because the war was still going on there – we were an expendable destroyer, so we were on our way there when the first of the nuclear bombs was dropped, which effectively ended the war.“Whilst many people said they should never have been dropped, personally we were very grateful for the fact that it happened because the war in the Far East was a very bitter conflict, so we weren’t unhappy to be turned around. It’s an opinion that has got me into a few heated discussions down the years, but that was my feeling.“The Japanese had already said they were determined to hang on until their last man, so it was a fairly bloody fight out there, and I wasn’t particularly anxious to get there, although obviously I would’ve gone and done my duty.“Overall, the war was an exciting time for me, I never considered that I was likely not to be hit by a bomb or anything. We liberated Europe and for those of us who survived, I feel very lucky, and the sea has been my life.”Richard was demobbed in 1946. He now lives in Greasby, Wirral, with his partner of 25 years Elly Gibbs.

Betty White (was Betty Ketley)

Betty White, 94, from Cambridge joined The Women’s Royal Naval Service (the Wrens) in 1944, initially working as a Watchkeeper in Brightlingsea, Essex, taking messages and distributing them around the base. Before VJ Day, Betty had relocated to Ayr in Scotland where she was training to be a coder. 

Of VJ Day, Betty said, “We knew that the A bombs had been dropped, then about midnight a very excited announcement was made over the camp tannoy that the war was over.

The emotion was terrific, it wasn’t excitement, it was just sheer emotion. I’ve not experienced anything like it since," remembers Betty White, 94

“There were strict rules on camp about mixing with the men but these were all broken that night and we danced all around the cabins; doing the conga, laughing, singing and cheering. After a few hours I think we were told that was enough. 

“Each morning we usually had a parade to start the day, but that morning it poured with rain so we went into the assembly hall and everyone was so excited and cheering. The emotion was terrific, it wasn’t excitement, it was just sheer emotion. I’ve not experienced anything like it since. 

“We were given the day off and went into Ayr to celebrate with all the locals, where we danced the night away.”

Alan McQuillin

Alan joined the RAF in 1941 and was part of the RAF Servicing Commandos who set up new air bases and repaired aircraft.  He saw service  in Europe, where he set up eight airfields in Normandy.

Alan was later deployed to the Far East, via Calcutta and saw action in the Dutch East Indies, Java, Sumatra civil war (1945-46).

After Normandy, Alan was sent back to the UK before being deployed to India at Christmas in 1944. 

He said, “We departed Liverpool on a Dutch cruise ship and the RAF made a big mistake - they put 4,000 RAF men with 400 WAFs in the same boat.

“The women were dropped off at Columbo and we left at Bombay. We then spent four days and four nights on an Indian train to Calcutta. It wasn’t nice, no windows and no toilets.

“At Calcutta I was part of the RAF repair and salvage unit, 3210. I was in Calcutta, India for VE Day. Our Commanding Officer told us the news and then he gave us all a bottle of beer to celebrate and we were given the day off. We were happy and drank beer for those in Europe, but we wondered how long the war would last in the Far East where we were.

“We were preparing for Operation Zipper, the invasion of Malaysia, when the atom bomb was dropped. We went to Malaya and it was wonderful, we were really looked after by the Chinese and the Malaysians.

“Then there was a panic and we were being sent to Java to the civil war. When we landed there were 40 rebels at the airport, jumping up and down shouting ‘merdeka’, which meant freedom. We were back on the war footing. 81 Squadron, which had Dakotas. RAF Thunderbolts came over from India.

“The rebels had swords and it was more dangerous than Normandy. Many members of the British force had their throats slit. I was in Sumatra with 500 Squadron when I was demobbed in August 1946. I boarded the Monarch of Bermuda for the journey home and arrived home in the UK in September 1946.”

To learn more visit rbl.org.uk/vjday75