Hell Ships: A Disastrous Sinking That Killed 828 British Prisoners of War

The Lisbon Maru was transporting the men to mainland Japan in 1942.

Within a year of entering the Second World War, in 1942, Japan began moving captured prisoners of war to the mainland to be put to work as slave labour.

The POWs were Allied military personnel who had been taken as prisoners across the Far East at locations such as Hong Kong and Singapore when those places fell to the invading Japanese. 

To deliver this large cohort of slave labourers, the captured men were packed into transporter vessels and sent to sea destined for Japan. They were referred to as 'Hell Ships'.

One such Hell Ship was the Lisbon Maru, which, on 2 October 1942, was sunk while carrying more than 1,800 British prisoners of war. 

Locked in the holds, 828 POWs perished as the ship sunk. Some were shot to death in the water by their Japanese guards in an act of massacre. 

Now, 79 years on, a new memorial has been unveiled at the National Memorial Arboretum, Staffordshire. 

This is the story of that fateful event.

The new memorial commemorates the 828 British lives lost when Lisbon Maru sunk on 2 October 1942. Picture: Paul Armstrong.

Resistance, Breakout, Escape, Massacre, And Rescue

At the recent unveiling of a new memorial, Vice Admiral John McAnally, Vice Patron of the Royal Navy Association, said that the 828 men lost when a transporter ship, the Lisbon Maru, was torpedoed in October 1942 "did not die in vain." He was right. Over 24 hours, British prisoners of war did not sit back and accept their grim fate. Quite the opposite. 

Theirs is a story of resistance, breakout, escape, massacre, and rescue. 

Amid the havoc and carnage, which included the gunning down of survivors in the water by guards, a remarkable tale of survival emerged, resulting in the preservation of almost 1,000 British lives.

Torpedo! Why Was The Lisbon Maru Sunk?

The Lisbon Maru had been requestioned by the Japanese. Along with transporting British prisoners when she was sunk, she also carried 788 Japanese soldiers. In her cargo, war-bound munitions were stowed, and she was equipped with cannons on her fore and aft. For those reasons, USS Grouper, an American submarine, sited the Lisbon Maru and readied to attack 

As the ship bared no markings to notify any potential attacker of the presence of innocent prisoners, USS Grouper engaged her, securing a single hit below the waterline. In the immediate minutes after the strike, the captured men were locked in their holds, where they remained in the hot, airless conditions for the next 24 hours while their ship slowly sank. The men had no access to food, water, fresh air or latrines.

Far Easter Prisoners of War were treated appallingly by their Japanese captors, many were starved to death.

Locked In The Holds To Suffocate And Drown

In the evening time, a Japanese ship came alongside and evacuated the troops from the stricken vessel. This gave hope among the British prisoners that they too would be rescued and transported to land. However, the prisoners in the hold realised they were being left behind as the Japanese troops made their escape. It was at that chilling moment, 12 hours into the ordeal, that word circulated around the cramped holds that they were going to be abandoned and left for dead. 

As the night set in, the prisoners' cut off fresh air supply began to take its toll, as did the rising water within the holds. It was during these hours that the first of the men began to perish. Some suffocated, others drowned. As the hours passed, the situation became ever more dire. By 9am the following day, the men had to make a decision over their impending fate.

It was decided there would be an attempt at a breakout. 

Lisbon Maru was a Japanese cargo liner launched in 1920. Picture: Public Domain.

Who Were The British Men On Board Lisbon Maru When She Sunk?

The Lisbon Maru counted three main holds. On 25 September 1942, when she set sail, they were each filled with British prisoners of war captured during the Battle of Hong Kong nine months earlier. 

In hold one near the bow of the ship, about 400 mostly Royal Navy POWs were housed. Hold two, being a larger space, held roughly 1,000 men from the 2nd Battalion The Royal Scots and the 1st Battalion The Middlesex Regiment. They were joined by members of the Royal Signals and Royal Engineers. Hold three, where the torpedo strike had occurred, consisted of about 300 members of the Royal Artillery. 

The Breakout

At 9am on the second day, Lt Col "Monkey" Stewart, the CO of the Middlesex Regiment, ordered the men to attempt a breakout following a violent lurch which left the ship listing heavily. After an exhaustive effort by 2 Lt Hargreaves Howell, an officer of the Royal Army Service Corps, a hole big enough for men to escape was established. 

Howell took fellow officer, Lt Potter, a St. John's Ambulance medic who could speak some Japanese, with him to barter with the remaining guards on the sinking vessel. They were met with gunfire. Lt Potter died a short while later. This, and the ever-worsening condition of the vessel, prompted Lt Col Stewart to order the prisoners to abandon ship. Climbing a ladder, the men clambered through the hole and onto the deck. 

Families laying wreaths at Lisbon Maru memorial. Picture: Paul Armstrong.


Upon the deck, the men were met with the harrowing menace of the guards shooting at them at will. As the prisoners continued to spill out, the other holds were opened, allowing many more to reach the deck. Despite this, for the members of the Royal Artillery, too much water had already entered hold three, and soon, their single ladder collapsed, leaving many trapped.

Faced with their fate, honourably, survivors later told how they sang Abide With Me and It's A Long Way To Tipperary as the ship went down.

Those who had reached the deck entered the seawater. Around them, Japanese soldiers shot at them from nearby so-called rescue ships instead of offering help. An act that would now be considered a war crime. Many drowned. Others clambered to driftwood and were shot. For the stronger swimmers among the men, a distant shore was their only hope of survival. 

It is among this turmoil that the individual stories of those who survived help paint the bleakest of pictures. One such example is that of 2 Lt Douglas Baird of the Royal Scots, who felt he could go on no longer after swimming for many hours and turned his thoughts to suicide. Baird later told how he tried drowning himself by holding his head underwater and swallowing seawater. When that failed, he stabbed himself in the heart with nails from the driftwood he was clinging to. After passing out, he was miraculously saved by a Chinese fisherman, who plucked him out of the water.

The new memorial, unveiled in October 2021, is situated at National Memorial Arboretum. Picture: Paul Armstrong.


When Lisbon Maru went down, an explosion occurred, likely the ship's boiler, which nearby Chinese fishermen saw. True to tradition, the fishermen placed all their efforts into rescuing the men who were not just in danger of drowning but also of attack from the sharks. Their arrival prompted the Japanese to halt their war crime activities. Fearing the fishermen would testify to those crimes, they instead started rescuing the remaining British prisoners. 

Thanks to the intervention of those local fishermen, nearly 1,000 lives were saved that day. 

The next day, Japanese forces arrived on gunboats at the Chinese islands where the survivors had been taken. The British men, aware that any resistance might lead to a further massacre, this time involving those who had saved them from the sea, gave themselves up without challenge. 

Gunner Charles Jordan was one of the few lucky Royal Artillery soldiers to escape hold three. After clinging to driftwood for hours, he was rescued by the fishermen and taken to the island. In 2005, 63 years later, he returned there and experienced an emotional reunion with the very man who had rescued him that dark day in October 1942. 

The surviving men, prisoners again, were taken to Japan as initially planned and interned in some of the hundreds of POW camps erected on the mainland. More than 200 of them would die while being used as slave labour in the remaining years of the war, including Lt Col "Monkey" Stewart. 

By initiating the breakout from the ship, Monkey Stewart's actions were the catalyst that allowed so many to survive and, eventually, go on to living fulfilled lives after the war.

Picture: Paul Armstrong.

The New Memorial

On 3 October 2021, more than 650 people, including surviving relatives of those who perished in the Lisbon Maru sinking and subsequent massacre, attended the unveiling of a new memorial commemorating the tragedy. 

Susan Wilkinson from Lichfield, whose late father was Private William Spooner of the Royal Scots and a survivor of the tragedy, said that the new memorial was "inspiring."

Describing her childhood memories of her father, Susan said: 

"In the earlier years, he used to do nightwork because the nights were unbearable for him. He was so affected by it. 

"I was interested in his story, and he used to speak to me a great deal about it. I was young and I felt powerless. When he died I felt bereft, and somebody said that it was because I felt his pain – and that's right. I did feel his pain. He was four and half stone when he came out." 

Speaking at the event, Major (Ret'd) Brian Finch, one of the organisers of the memorial, told how the "terrible event" had "remained hidden and forgotten for too long," adding:

"The number of descendants who attended the service is a testament to the sense of importance attached to this memorial and the need to ensure that those who suffered and died during the Lisbon Maru incident are remembered."

Susan said the memorial, which is situated at the National Memorial Arboretum, would allow her grandchildren and great-grandchildren the opportunity to understand more about their family history. 

She added:

"He was on a raft for four days. One of his friends drank seawater and jumped overboard. Dad had passed out when he was rescued and when he awoke, he thought he was in heaven because an angel was caring for him. It was one of the women on the island. 

"Me and my family will make an annual visit to the memorial."


Cover: The unveiling of the Lisbon Maru memorial. Picture: Paul Armstrong.