This is the truly remarkable wartime story of Frank Clements, the man who took the dramtic photographs of Lancastria sinking. In 1940 Frank Clements was a 30-year-old volunteer onboard the HMS Highlander, a destroyer that was being used to ferry troops from Saint-Nazaire harbour to the anchored Lancastria.
Navy personnel were not allowed to take cameras on board but as a volunteer in the naval stores, he managed to keep his camera with him wherever he went.
His younger brother Arthur Clements says: “He was a photographic nut. He took thousands of ‘prints’ as he called them of his war experiences all over the world.”
But as well as taking pictures he also played his part in the rescue operation, downing his camera to help survivors.
“He did all he could,” recalls his brother. “He even pulled a little baby out of the sea.”
“He talked afterwards about the soldiers who had been ordered not to abandon their rifles. He watched them drowning under the weight of their heavy weapons and said he shouted at them to let go of them. Sadly many didn’t listen.”
Valerie Billings of the Portsmouth Naval Museum, who interviewed Mr Clements before his death in 1999, says it was an enormous stroke of luck that he was able to take the photographs.
“It was an amazing coincidence, firstly that he had a camera on board at all. Secondly, he had no film for the camera but happened to meet a sailor on his way to Saint-Nazaire who swapped him a camera film for a pair of socks from the NAAFI stores and it was with that film that he took these pictures.”
When he returned to the UK, Mr Clements handed over prints of his photographs to a man he met in a pub. The pictures were then sold to the press, although Mr Clements never made any money from them.
His story is told here courtesy of the Royal Naval Museum
Frank Clements served as NAAFI canteen staff with the Royal Navy during World War Two. He worked onboard HMS Exeter in the Far East, a ship attacked by the Japanese. Clements and the other surviving crew became prisoners of war.
Clements’ NAAFI Career
Frank Clements joined the Royal Naval Canteen Service in January 1940. He worked as part of the Navy, Army and Air Force Institutes (NAAFI) staff onboard various ships, rated as a Petty Officer.
The British government created NAAFI in 1921 to run recreational establishments for the Armed Forces. NAAFI also sells goods to servicemen and their families, as well as running canteens onboard Royal Navy ships. NAAFI personnel serving onboard ships are part of the Naval Canteen Service, wear naval uniform and have battle stations, although they remain civilians.
Clements initially joined HMS Anthony. He sailed to towns on the coast of France, such as Le Havre, Cherbourg and Brest, taking part in around 33 night convoys. He then sailed onboard HMS Highlander as part of a convoy to Norway in April 1940. The convoy was bombed by German aircraft during this voyage. He sailed in ships that formed part of the Atlantic convoys in September.
Clements left his post on HMS Highlander after eight months service in November 1940. He had a new appointment onboard HMS Exeter.
Clements took leave in order to marry his fianc’e, Molly, in Sussex on 1st March 1941. They managed to enjoy a few days honeymoon in North Wales. He left his new wife to work onboard HMS Exeter for trials in Scapa for a month during April. There were also other patrols to Ireland and Denmark Strait, Iceland.
HMS Exeter set sail for Freetown, Sierra Leone in June 1941, escorting a large convoy of troops to South Africa. Clements regrets the fact that he had been unable to say farewell to his wife before leaving. He recalls that:
‘They told me the ship was going to sail…on the Sunday. So I thought I’ll say good-bye to my wife of the Saturday night…and I crept out…Saturday morning, and saying I’ll say good-bye tomorrow, and I’d only just been married hadn’t I…And actually I got back on board ship and we sailed one day before we should have done. So I never said good-bye to her at all.’
HMS Exeter in the Far East
The ship came near to clashing with the German battleship, Bismarck, en route to Sierra Leone. Exeter then began a long journey around the seas of the southern hemisphere, sailing to Durban in South Africa. Clements had the chance to take part in a ‘Crossing the Line’ ceremony whilst onboard. This marked his first crossing of the equator.
The ship arrived at Aden in the Middle East in July, and then departed for Mombassa in Kenya. It then arrived in Bombay in August, then left with another convoy of troops for Syria. Exeter escorted troopships as far as the Persian Gulf, before returning to Bombay. Further voyages to Colombo in Sri Lanka, and the Maldives followed.
Japan entered the war in December 1941. Exeter sailed to Singapore in order to escort troops from the Far East. Singapore fell to the Japanese on 15th January 1942. Japanese bombers attacked HMS Exeter and various other ships for a period of eight hours. The ship suffered further Japanese bombing raids throughout February.
Exeter left port during the night of 1st March in the hope of making Colombo, despite its disabled condition. HMS Encounter and the American ship, USS Pope, escorted Exeter but the ships were sighted by Japanese planes. A Japanese destroyer hit all three ships at 11.25am. The Captain of HMS Exeter ordered that the ship be deliberately sunk.
The Navy was unsure at the time what had happened to the crew of HMS Exeter. Frank Clements’ wife received a letter informing her that her husband was missing, presumed dead.
Surviving as a POW
Clements and the crew of HMS Exeter were picked up by a Japanese destroyer in the Java Sea. Clements had kept afloat in the ocean for about four hours before this rescue. The Japanese extended a bamboo pole over the side of their ship for the survivors to clamber up. He remembers:
‘Whether I was weak or not I don’t know, but I got about two thirds up this pole, and slid back again. They [the Japanese] weren’t going to help you, weren’t going to help you at all. And I slid back and eventually in franticness I did try again, and eventually got up this pole and got on board the Japanese destroyer.’
The survivors arrived at Makassar on 10th March as Japan’s prisoners of war. Makassar was the capital of Celebes [now South Sulawesi], in the Dutch East Indies [now Indonesia]. Clements remained in this same area of Makassar throughout the war, at first billeted in a Dutch naval barracks. The inmates later built a camp, using bamboo, to accommodate themselves. The camp was enclosed with a ten foot high fence.
The conditions in the camp were very basic and the men lived under a harsh regime. The diet was monotonous and predominantly consisted of boiled or raw rice served three times a day. Clements states that:
‘It was no good thinking of home. It upsets you too much if you did. And I must be truthful, I never thought much of home. Because I thought my one thing is to get out of this camp first and just put up with what I had to do.’
Clements’ health was poor throughout his time in the camp and he lost a lot of weight due to the meagre diet. He also suffered from Beriberi whilst a POW. This is a nervous system ailment caused by a deficiency of thiamine which often occurs in people whose staple diet consists of white rice. Clements’ body tissues swelled dangerously due to the condition and he very nearly died. He was only saved by contracting a bout of dysentery.
The Japanese organised the prisoners into working parties in order to carry out various tasks. They raided the former homes of the Dutch who had lived in Celebes in order to find supplies for the Japanese. They also performed heavy, manual labour, such as unloading ships at the docks and cutting down bamboo. These tasks became increasingly difficult for the men later on in the course of their incarceration as their physical strength decreased.
Clements remembers his captors as being particularly brutal. The Japanese beat many of the men for allegedly failing to carry out their work properly. Clements found a spoon when ransacking the former Dutch quarters on the island, which he used to eat rice. He kept the spoon tied on a piece of string, carried around his back. He recounts that:
‘One day I did something wrong, I don’t know what it was I’m sure, but that [the spoon] was on my back you see… something went wrong and ten strokes across the back, or five, I don’t know which it was, and it was so hard it broke it there. But I still wanted it, didn’t I, so I picked up the two pieces and brought it back.’
They had to endure long periods of boredom when they were not working and had little to entertain them. A few of the men, including Clements, found some instruments in the Dutch homes that they ransacked and were able to start a small band. Clements partly occupied his time through carving woodwork scenes as well. He obtained the wood from the planks upon which he slept. The men’s great sense of camaraderie also helped them to survive.
The dropping of the atomic bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 marked the end of the war with Japan. A hundred and ninety members of the camp had died by the time of the surrender, with 154 perishing in the last six months of the war.
The Japanese sent the POWs to a hospital in Makassar at the end of the war. They boarded HMS Maidstone and sailed to Australia after the signing of the peace treaty. Clements spent a fortnight in Australia at a naval barracks recuperating from his ordeal. He was able to send a message back to his wife in England whilst there in order to let her know that he was still alive. His wife had waited for him throughout the war despite the letters she had received. Many former POWs were not so fortunate and returned home to find that their wives had remarried in their absence.
Clements sailed for South Africa along with around another 200 former prisoners. He then sailed on to Great Britain from there and finally returned home in December 1945. He remained on leave in England until his release from naval service in April 1946.
Frank Clements later stated about his time as a prisoner of war that ‘I suppose basically you could only sort of hope, hope that the end would come, and you would be safe enough to be about.’