Tracing my grandfather – a Far East POW


21 October 2011
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We’re just putting the finishing touches to the latest issue of Family Tree, so I snatched a few minutes for some family history.

We’re just putting the finishing touches to the latest issue of Family Tree, so I snatched a few minutes for some family history. Well, it was supposed to be just a few minutes but you know how it goes…

The article that inspired the latest discovery tangent on my tree was ‘Tracing FEPOWS’ (due to be published in the December issue, on sale Friday 2 November 2011), by Family Tree reader John Howard, whose father, Jack McNaughton, was captured in Singapore. My maternal grandfather suffered similarly, imprisoned as a ‘Rangoon Rat’, having been shot down in October 1944 – and although he died when I was 11, I’m lucky enough to have heard stories about his wartime experiences from my granny in the decades since. But, as she’s alive, she doesn’t quite feel like family history, so I’ve sort of skipped researching her generation, taking it for granted, and have instead made explorations further back.

Anyway, as I said, John’s research galvanized me and Googling commenced and I set out on a long-overdue journey to learn for myself about my grandfather’s wartime experiences. Now Googling certainly is a lucky dip approach to family history (and I’m the first to agree that we must check and double-check our sources, go back to originals, and use memory as a starting-point rather than hard-and-fast fact), but a rummage on Google can reveal a treasure trove.

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My memories of my grandfather are just childish snippets (such as being taught to use chopsticks with sugar lumps – as an adult, I now know why he was so adept at using them himself), but Google soon took me on a journey back to a time when he was just 18 and the world was gearing itself up for another terrible war. Before long I was immersed in the memories and anecdotes of fellow squadron members (he served in 177 and 211 Squadron), with a jolt recognizing his face from among the other tiny faces in photographs online ( And while the formal citations of him in the London Gazette provided invaluable clues about his service (and gratifyingly tallied with notes I’d made when chatting to my granny), the thing that has touched me most is finding glimpses of personal memories that refer to him (that he ‘had the respect of all’, A Sutherland Brown).

And respect is certainly something I feel too. It’s a funny old thing, researching our ancestors, but it can sometimes feel so like a quest, almost ancestor worship – an attempt to make sure that lives once led are not forgotten but cherished or at least tried to be understood. Maybe it’s the time of year making me misty-eyed and a touch melancholy, with Remembrance Sunday coming round once again, but I won’t be forgetting my grandfather, and I join you with remembering your ancestors too.

Back to the merits of Google, I do wish my grandfather had had a better surname for searching on when combined with the phrase ‘RAF’ – no, Google, not Biggin Hill – John Elliott Scott Hill, that’s who I’m after.

Helen Tovey