Leslie John Collis: POW Rover Crew

Cambridge District Scout Archive

Les Collis was a member of the 25th Cambridge Scout Group both before and after WW2.  Born in 1920 he became Leading Aircraftsman during the war and was deployed to the Far East. 

Here with the 25th Cambridge Victoria Road Congregational Church

Les shipped to Java, via Singapore, where he was captured in March 20th 1942.  After a brief period at Boei Glodok (elsewhere Boi or Boie) POW camp Batavia, Java he and a number of largely RAF men were shipped to Innoshima POW camp on an island about 55 km. east of Hiroshima. Innoshima camp went by a number of names, sometimes Imoshima.  He was there from November 28th 1942 until September 14th 1945. He was repatriated via Australia returning to Southampton on November 15th 1945.

Leslie Collis: taken on embarkation leave

Les was ‘Missing’ for 18 months, that is the RAF did not know that he was alive or where he was – and in consequence nor did his family.

Les’s note beside this photo reads ‘Received with one of my rare letters. The Old Man was very impressed with the happy faces.’

Les has been mentioned elsewhere in the archives as an example of a POW and as a ‘Missing’ serviceman who was relocated. 

In August 2020 his son, Martin, contacted the archives with copies of two works of art made for Les whilst in the camps.  One was for his 25th birthday, the other on leaving the camp.  The pictures are not yet fully deciphered but they both contain Scouting symbols and one directly refers to the Boei Glodok Rover Crew. 

Birthday Card

The two names Albert and Charlie have been identified as Albert Hodson (known as Gee) and Charles Eric Philtrip.  They were ‘firm friends’ and after the war Albert and Les were reciprocal best men and maintained contact.

Birthday card
Scan of the letter inside the birthday card

The Boei Glodok Rover Crew in the bottom left quadrant is a Number 1 behind bars superimposed on an outline of Innoshima Island.  The relevance of the Red Cross and the symbol bottom right of this quadrant are unknown.   The symbol bottom right of the bottom left quadrant is similar in format to the ‘Wireless mans’ proficiency badge, without being so pictorial as to tell a tale if seen by the guards.  It would have been drawn from memory. In the same vein the Red Cross might mean just that, a Scout First Aid badge.  Both of these suggest skills that may have been useful in the camp.

A radio did exist in Boei Glodok as described in the Imperial War Museum Oral History by James Kirkwood.  From context this was 1942. An electric phonograph was made available in Innoshima and broadcasts made to the rooms of the prisoners.  If Les was involved in providing access to external news he would have been held in high esteem – being found with a radio was a death sentence.

The existence of a Rover Crew does suggest that he was not alone in maintaining Scouting whilst a prisoner and that the Crew had been formed during the short period after capture in Java, or maybe comprised only those who had shipped from that place.  The Red and black chequered shield has not yet been identified.

The second piece of Camp Art celebrates the end of their internment.  It is not known whether all the prisoners received a similar remembrance.  Most of the signatures have been identified as coming to the camp from Java with the addition of Frank Perry an American civilian, James Woodrow Bab (elsewhere Babb) an American marine from Guam and Ronald Sharp.  Most of the Java group were RAF men.

Again the Boy Scout symbol is central to the design and it is tempting to read both of these as recognising the work by Les through the structure of the Rover Crew in the camp. The few documents concerning this small camp do not mention the Crew.

On his return Les spoke little of his time in captivity but returned to the 25th.  His son recalls:

After the war, I know that when there were scout camps in Hemingford Grey (about 11 miles from Cambridge), Dad would cycle over, help set up the camp, spend the week-end and nights with the scouts, leaving for work in Milton (approx 11 miles each way) each morning, returning after work in the evening.  I do not have any names of the adults that stayed at the camp, whilst Dad was away at work, but perhaps you do?  This he did by bicycle, as he didn’t have a car. I don’t have any idea how many camps were spent at Hemingford, but there were quite a few.

Indeed, my Mother recalls cycling out to Hemingford after they were married (1948) and staying at the camp.’

He completed a summary of his travels, probably for W T Thurbon, which is notably lacking in other details.  WTT, as District Secretary, was involved in gathering details of scouting involvement during the war.  He was aware that Les had been listed as Missing.

JWR Archivist Aug 2020

The following review from 1952 Scouter is of a book that gives details of many Rover Crew in the region. Self Published it is not readily found and as yet I have not had the opportunity to read it. A copy is held by University of London, School of Oriental and African Studies.

Bamboo Thumbsticks (C. Weston, 88b High Street, Sevenoaks,
Kent.) Even the best of us “Out East” in World War II knew the
“Browned-off” and “Forgotten Army.” There was the immense
distance from home, and the strangeness of it all. For some the daily
challenge of the jungle gave life tang enough, but for others there
was more often – frustration.
Thus it was that men remembered their Scouting background and
training, or looked to a continuation of their Rovering as an antidote
to all this. A few bright spirits, a sympathetic commanding officer –
and, priceless, a padre in the Movement – and a crew was formed.
How these Services Crews in the Far East grew and flourished is
told with distinctive modesty in Bamboo Thumbsticks. There is the
spirit of adventure in every page. Those dealing with long hikes into
Tibet and Kashmir have it in every line. Here is an enlightening
record of no less than 60 Services Crews, stretching from the Passes
of Northern India to the Cocos Islands – and they were 500 miles
from any other land.
But in all this stimulating story there is none more lasting than that
told in such simple and yet moving style of the prisoners-of-war in
Japanese hands who banded together and continued active Rovering.
In the depths of grim, utter misery, the Scout spirit gave men
glimpses of the peaks.
Padre Westcott has edited this very readable book which includes,
incidentally, some apt little illustrations. And the adventurous note,
given in the manner of its production by a hardworking little committee, is in keeping with the tale it has to tell.

See also: Structure/ Sections/ Rovers, Ventures and Explorers/ Rover Crew in POW camps