Prisoners of war
Just a few lines to assure you that although a prisoner of war I am in the best of health and spirits and well treated so there is nothing for you to worry about. Please give my love and best wishes to all. - typical POW postcard home
277 members of Aviva group staff are recorded as having been held as POWs in the Second World War and a further 17 staff from Far East branches were held as civilian internees. Concern in the offices back home for those held in captivity was high and colleagues on the home front made great efforts to improve the lot of the prisoners by keeping in contact and sending gifts.
Many prisoners sent thanks back to their offices for these home comforts such as Mssrs Jolly and Hayter of General Accident who reported that cigarettes being sent from branches were arriving safely and James Anderson also of General Accident who received books and gramophone records from the company while a prisoner.
Died in captivity
Of those held as POWs, 25 died in captivity. Some, like Harry Cambage of General Accident, were killed in allied air raids which accidentally hit their prison camps and many held by the Japanese, like Alan Seager of Norwich Union Fire, died of illness.
Others died in POW transportation ships like Edmund Hall, also of Norwich Union Fire, who died when his Italian POW ship was sunk and his colleague Albert Carr who died, with over a thousand others, while being transported in the Montevideo Maru which was hit by an American torpedo.
The stories of the 252 who survived reflect the very different experiences of captivity encountered by those held in the Far East and those held in Europe and, to a lesser extent, between the enlisted men and those of officer class.
While some POWs in Germany, like E V M Allen of Norwich Union Life, played hockey and "rugger" (Jack Lauder of General Accident broke his ribs playing rugby while a prisoner) their colleagues in Japanese hands would have been hard pressed to find the energy to do the same.
Recollections of life in the camps in the Far East given by men like Harry Cook of Norwich Union Fire, describe some of the conditions in which they were held and forced to work. Cook was one of several group employees who are known to have worked on the infamous "Bangkok-Moulmein railway" and describes his experience as follows:
Then the work began from dawn to dusk, felling trees and dragging them to the sites where bridges were being built. We were assisted by elephants but when they got tired they stopped. After a month of this, cholera broke out-a most virulent disease, death in some cases taking place within six hours of the initial attack. As all available manpower was pushed onto the line to work we had to dig graves after we returned to camp in the dark. - Harry Cook
Others involved in this work were Robert Henly of North British & Mercantile and Maurice Ditton of Commercial Union who later wrote: "There we were set to work building the Bangkok-Moulmein railway. Many men died daily from starvation and from lack of drugs to combat tropical diseases. The survivors, working in the steaming jungle, became weak".
Prisoners of the Japanese were not alone in working during their time in captivity and men from Aviva constituent companies held in Europe were involved in a variety of manual labour from unloading trains, shifting bags of cement and working in mines to stripping bark from trees. However, it appears both from the extracts of their letters home, which were of course censored, and from their later recollections that despite the endless rolls calls and searches life in the camps was not all bad.
Descriptions, such as those of Wally Blackah of Norwich Union, indicate the level of organisation the prisoners imposed on camp life and the resourcefulness with which they attempted, and succeeded, in carrying on "normal" activities. At his camp, as at many others, prisoners arranged their own lecture series and formed bands and orchestras.
Reg Pope of Railway Passengers Assurance describes the building and fitting out of a theatre in his camp and some of the plays they put on while others, such as A Sulston of General Accident, were involved in making and painting the scenery or conjuring up props and costumes from thin air and Red Cross parcels.
The ingenuity of the prisoners and their determination to make the best of their situation is also evident in the description given by David Todd of Norwich Union of his "Heath-Robinson" contraption to make tea and toast which was constructed, amongst other things, from bits of skirting board, jam tins and a bootlace belt.
Chartered Insurance Institute exams
Some prisoners were also keen to continue the professional education interrupted by the war and used their time in the camps to study for and take their Chartered Insurance Institute exams. R Chapman of Ocean Accident later wrote an article in the staff magazine on his involvement in setting up a Chartered Insurance Institute branch in Stalag Luft III.
Also among those involved was Alexander Burton of Commercial Union who, according to the staff magazine "has formed a branch of some 20 institute members among his fellow prisoners. The CII have sent necessary text books for their studies".
Other men who studied during their captivity were Allen Howarth of Norwich Union Fire, Douglas Blake of Union Assurance and S J Price of General Accident. Andrew Duff, also of General Accident, passed his exams despite having all his books taken from him so he could only study from his notes and George Menzies of General Accident not only passed his exams but also managed to sell an endowment policy to a fellow prisoner while in captivity!
Many of "Our Boys" were involved in escape attempts. Some were successful like Edmund Bird of Norwich Union, K R Harvey of Northern Assurance, G A Phalp of Scottish Unionand his colleague Eric Millar who escaped and rejoined his unit to continue the fight.
According to the staff magazine Eddie Dewar of the accounts department at General Accident: "fell into enemy hands. After three days he and some companions escaped. They walked 26 miles over rough country and desert, eventually coming across a British unit".
Another escapee, N H Manning of Commercial Union, who had been held in Italy "decided to make a break for it when that country collapsed". He had taught himself Italian in captivity and lived for nine months behind German lines travelling some 250 miles across Italy and 500 miles in the mountains.
Naturally not all escape attempts were successful and the mother of James Berry, a messenger on the staff of Union Assurance, wrote to the company in January 1944 to inform them that he was in solitary confinement after two unsuccessful attempts to escape:
He and two Russian friends were working in a sugar factory and stole workmen's dungarees hid them and took them back to camp. They escaped during the night but after nine days with no food were recaptured. - Mrs Berry
Men from companies which would eventually form the Aviva group were also involved in the most famous of the escapes, the so-called "great escape" from Stalag Luft III. James Tyrie of General Accident was engaged in the preparations as was Alex Lees of Northern Assurance whose reminiscences describe his role in covering for one of the officers on the list to escape.
Also involved was James "Cookie" Long of General Accident who, having been active in the tunnelling operation, was one of those listed to escape which he briefly did. After his re-capture he was, according to the staff magazine: "One of the allied officers so brutally shot by the Germans at Stalag Luft III last March".
Long forced marches
Towards the end of the war in Europe many of "our" prisoners such as Len Harvey of Norwich Union Fire, A G Searle of Ocean Accident and Douglas Blake of Union Assurance were involved in the forced POW marches ahead of the Russian advance.
According to the General Accident staff magazine: "When the Russians made their advance in January last Mullenger and his fellow prisoners were marched from East Prussia to Hanover (a distance of 700 miles) and then back again East on account of the approaching Americans. However, he managed to escape and was harboured and fed by some French prisoners of war - fortunately without detection".
Sadly Harold Dowsett of Commercial Union was not so lucky and was reported, like many others, missing presumed killed on one of these marches.
At the end of the war all returning POWs were greeted by the home offices with great relief and the branch notes of the various staff magazines are filled with notices of their gradual return to fitness and to office life.
The excitement at the early repatriation, due to ill health, of William Gallie of General Accident was described as follows:
"He was met at the station by all members of the executive and Staff; in fact it would seem that the entire population of Perth turned out to give him welcome. The procession to the waiting taxi was headed by pipers and the spectacle was a most moving one".