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Archive Report: Allied Forces

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George Cross. High award for gallantry
Flt. Sgt. Woodbridge Dies Refusing to Reveal Signals Secrets

Rank: Flight Sergeant
Trade: Wireless Operator
Service No: 1393806
Aircraft: Consolidated Liberator BZ-938
Date of Death: 07/02/1945
Age: 23
Regiment/Service: 159 Sqdn. Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve
Awards: George Cross (shown top right)
Buried: Rangoon War Cemetery Col. grave 3. F. 6-9.

Much of the air war in the Far East remained almost unknown to the British, Australian and US public for years. Sacrifices simply went unrecognized. Flying in impossible weather conditions, with extremely dangerous cumulo nimbus storm clouds often rising to 35,000 feet, crews risked their lives almost as soon as their aircraft lifted off. Deadly jungle below meant a forced landing would likely mean death, either immediately from the crash or, if they survived, from snakes or disease or both. And capture by the Japanese would not be accompanied by the Geneva Convention, as this harrowing experience of Flt. Sgt. Woodbridge exemplifies.

Flt. Sgt. Woodbridge rests in Rangoon War Cemetery (pictured above courtesy CWGC).

The 9 man crew of Liberator W (for Wottawitch) were tasked with performing intelligence surveillance operations on Japanese radar installations, known as ELINT (Electronics Intelligence). The work was hazardous in the extreme because in order to be successful an aircraft had to deliberately expose itself to enemy radar, becoming easy prey to fighters and anti-aircraft fire. This mission was successful but as the Liberator turned for home at 3. 10 am it suddenly developed engine trouble. The skipper gave the order to bail out. Six of the nine crew members managed to parachute into the same area and were reunited on the ground. The other three airmen, who were in the rear of the Liberator, were never seen again and are believed to have perished in the crash. The six survivors - two officers and four NCOs - started to trek towards the coast in the hope of finding a boat.

Their intention was to put to sea in the hope Allied Air Sea Rescue might be able to locate them. They had some hopes of this because Flt. Sgt. Woodbridge had managed to send a last minute SOS before the plane crashed into the jungle. Indeed, Air Sea Rescue did search the Bay of Bengal for four days before the crew was given up for lost.

The airmen found a small village and offered the headman a large sum if he would get them a small boat. He agreed and told them to hide. For two hours the six men waited, hopeful that they would soon be back with their friends in the squadron. But when the headman returned he brought with him a force of Japanese soldiers.

Bassein district, Myanmar (Burma)

The six airmen were conveyed down the Irrawaddy River to the Bassein district where they were handed over to the Japanese 55th Engineering Regiment. Lieutenant-Colonel Murayama, the regiment's Commanding Officer, instructed Lieutenant Okami, his civil defence officer, to question the six British airmen. The skipper was the first to be interrogated. He produced a document on which was written, in Japanese, an extract from the Geneva Convention stating that prisoners of war need only tell their captors their name, rank and serial number. Japan was ostensibly a signatory of the convention, although it had been no respecter of the rights of those prisoners who were forced to build the Burma railway. When the skipper refused to reveal the name of his base he was severely beaten for half an hour. The second officer, the navigator, was then questioned but was not beaten because the interrogator was only interested in learning the identity of the wireless-operator. All four NCOs were beaten, but when the interrogator recognized that Woodbridge was the wireless operator, it was he who bore the brunt of the tortures.

Woodbridge was asked to reveal his codes and wavelengths, to give technical details of the equipment carried in the Liberator and tell what link he had with operators on the ground who were responsible for providing details of Japanese targets. Woodbridge steadfastly refused to reveal one scrap of information to his captors. After the first interrogations, the two officers were taken away in the middle of the night to Japanese headquarters in Rangoon for a more detailed interrogation. When the British overran Rangoon these two officers were found in gaol and released. But the fate of the four RAF airmen had already been sealed. The beatings began again and continued for four hours. Fists, bamboo canes, and swords in their sheaths were used on the badly bruised Woodbridge. One of the soldiers, a ju-jitsu expert, threw the gallant airman around for some considerable time and at intervals another officer, Lieutenant Kanno, encouraged his soldiers to kick the defenceless airman where he lay. Eventually Kanno's patience was exhausted with the realization that no amount of torture would force the courageous airman to speak. Woodbridge was then told he was to meet the same fate as his colleagues, who had already been executed.

As Stanley Woodbridge reached the spot where his three fellow crew members had been executed he paid a silent tribute to them. They had been forced to dig their own grave, a trench about two and a half feet deep and long enough to take four, not three bodies. After digging the trench all three men were made to stand in line, then a Japanese officer, Lieutenant Matsui, invited his soldiers to kick and beat them. The airmen were then brought to the edge of the trench, blindfolded and forced to squat. Matsui ordered two prisoners to be beheaded and then Kanno ordered a corporal to behead the third airman. All the bodies were subjected to bayoneting. Woodbridge was beheaded by one of Kanno's fellow officers, Lieutenant Okami, and pushed into the grave. He died defiant.

In 1947 at the war crimes trial in Rangoon, Kanno, Okami, and a corporal were convicted and hanged. Lieutenant-Colonel Murayama was sentenced to death. It was established that Lieutenant Matsui had been killed in action during the Japanese retreat from Burma.

Published in the London Gazette, 28 September 1948:

"The KING has been graciously pleased to approve the award of the GEORGE CROSS to - 1393806 Flight Sergeant Stanley James Woodbridge (deceased), Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve, No. 159 Squadron.

Flight Sergeant Woodbridge was a wireless operator in the crew of a Liberator aircraft which crashed in the jungle in Burma whilst engaged in an operation against the Japanese on 31 January 1945. Together with five other members of the crew, he was captured by the Japanese. All six were subjected to torture at the hands of their captors in an endeavour to obtain information which would have been of use to the Japanese Intelligence Service. Eventually, the four non-commissioned officers were separated and conveyed by motor transport to a forest, where they were put to death by beheading. Three officers and three non-commissioned officers of the Imperial Japanese Army were subsequently brought to trial by a Military Court charged with the torture and murder of the four airmen, they were all found guilty. Three of them were hanged and three were sentenced to terms of rigorous imprisonment. At the trial, it was revealed that the Japanese concentrated their efforts on Flight Sergeant Woodbridge, the wireless operator, in an endeavour to obtain technical information regarding wireless equipment, secret codes, wavelengths, etc.

A Japanese technical officer was detailed to carry out the interrogation, and the services of two interpreters were engaged, but, in spite of repeated torture which including kicking, beating with belts and with a sword, Flight Sergeant Woodbridge steadfastly refused to reveal any information whatsoever. The final interrogation took place at the site of the execution; when it was obvious to the unfortunate prisoner that he was to be put to death, he maintained his courageous attitude to the end, merely remarking that if the Japanese were going to kill him they should do it quickly. After all efforts to make him speak, including further torture, were found to be fruitless, this gallant non-commissioned officer was beheaded on 7 February 1945. Flight Sergeant Woodbridge behaved throughout with supreme courage. His fortitude, loyalty to his country and his complete disregard for his own safety, even unto death, constitute one of the highest examples of valour in the annals of the Royal Air Force."

The full crew list of the Liberator follows:

Squadron Leader James Wilson Bradley DFC, pilot (survived)

Flight Sergeant Leslie Bellingan, 2nd pilot (beheaded)

  • Service No: 710193
  • Date of Death: 07/02/1945
  • Regiment/Service: Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve 159 Sqdn.
  • Buried: Rangoon War Cemetery Coll. grave 3. F. 6-9.

Flying Officer Allan Graham Jeffrey, navigator (survived)

Flight Sergeant Robert James Snelling, flight engineer (beheaded)

  • Service No: 1234723
  • Date of Death: 07/02/1945
  • Age: 25
  • Regiment/Service: Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve 159 Sqdn.
  • Buried: Rangoon War Cemetery Coll. grave 3. F. 6-9.
  • Additional Information:
  • Son of Robert John and Kate Snelling, of Brightlingsea, Essex. His brother, Peter Roy Murray Snelling, also died on service. Details of brother: Rank: Gunner Service No: 983222 Date of Death: 26/06/1944 Age: 25 Regiment/Service: Royal Artillery 129 Field Regt. Buried: Imphal War Cemetery Grave Reference 5. A. 13.

Flight Sergeant John Derek Woodage, wireless operator/air gunner (beheaded)

  • Service No: 1803337
  • Date of Death: 07/02/1945
  • Age: 22
  • Regiment/Service: Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve 159 Sqdn.
  • Cemetery: Rangoon War Cemetery Coll. grave 3. F. 6-9.
  • Additional Information: Son of George William and Charlotte Woodage, of Maidenhead, Berkshire.

Flying Officer William James John Lowery, special operator (missing, presumed dead)

  • Service No: 156576
  • Date of Death: 31/01/1945
  • Age: 28
  • Regiment/Service: Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve 159 Sqdn.
  • Memorial: Singapore Memorial. Panel Reference: Column 447
  • Additional Information: Son of Arthur and Edith Lowery; husband of Nellie May Lowery, of Bow, London.

Warrant Officer Arthur Roland Williams, RAAF, wireless operator/air gunner (missing, presumed dead)

  • Service No: 421484
  • Date of Death: 31/01/1945
  • Age: 34
  • Regiment/Service: Royal Australian Air Force
  • Memorial: Singapore Memorial Panel Reference: Column 458
  • Additional Information: Son of Eli and Maude Victoria Williams, of Bagotville, Richmond River, New South Wales, Australia.

Flight Sergeant Leslie Adams, air gunner (missing, presumed dead)

  • Service No: 1592986
  • Date of Death: 31/01/1945
  • Age: 35
  • Regiment/Service: Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve 159 Sqdn.
  • Memorial: Singapore Memorial Panel Reference: Column 449
  • Additional Information: Son of Henry and Mabel Adams; husband of Gladys Adams, of Leeds, Yorkshire.

Researched by Stefan Pietrzak Youngs from The Forgotten Air Force by Air Commodore Henry Probert, CWGC, private sources, the work of Robert Quirk who quotes an account from Jim Fail, Wikipedia

SPY 20 December 2013

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Sources used by us in compiling Archive Reports include: Bill Chorley - 'Bomber Command Losses Vols. 1-9, plus ongoing revisions', Dr. Theo E.W. Boiten and Mr. Roderick J. Mackenzie - 'Nightfighter War Diaries Vols. 1 and 2', Martin Middlebrook and Chris Everitt - 'Bomber Command War Diaries', Commonwealth War Graves Commission, Tom Kracker - Kracker Luftwaffe Archives, Michel Beckers, Major Fred Paradie (RCAF) and MWO François Dutil (RCAF) - Paradie Archive (on this site), Jean Schadskaje, Major Jack O'Connor USAF (Retd.), Robert Gretzyngier, Wojtek Matusiak, Waldemar Wójcik and Józef Zieliński - 'Ku Czci Połeglyçh Lotnikow 1939-1945', Archiwum - Polish Air Force Archive (on this site), Anna Krzystek, Tadeusz Krzystek - 'Polskie Siły Powietrzne w Wielkiej Brytanii', Franek Grabowski, Norman L.R. Franks 'Fighter Command Losses', Aircrew Remembered Databases and our own archives. We are grateful for the support and encouragement of CWGC, UK Imperial War Museum, Australian War Memorial, Australian National Archives, New Zealand National Archives, UK National Archives and Fold3 and countless dedicated friends and researchers across the world.
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