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Shropshire family's epic wartime escape

By Toby Neal | Shrewsbury | Features | Published:

As the 75th anniversary of VJ Day approaches, Merryn Godber has got her flag ready.

Baby Merryn with mum Molly

At the outbreak of war in the Far East, Merryn and her mother Molly made their escape from the advancing Japanese forces, making a hazardous journey to bring them thousands of miles back to Britain and their Shrewsbury home.

Her father, Captain Howard Bretherton, was captured on the fall of Singapore of February 15, 1942, and became a prisoner-of-war. He was to do a very rare thing – escape from Japanese captivity. Recapture would have meant certain death.

He was awarded the Military Cross. And after the war he returned to Malaya to find the fisherman whose boat he had "borrowed" during his daring escape so that he could repay him the cost.

Of those adventures Merryn has little memory, as she was only an infant. Born on August 20, 1940, she will turn 80 just a few days after VJ Day, August 15.

Receiving the MC

Yet she does have an enduring memento, Edward Bear, the much-loved teddy bear who accompanied her on her long voyage home.

"He is not the most handsome of bears, but he is a survivor," she said. "He is sitting on a bookshelf in my bedroom."

She had been looking forward to attending the 75th anniversary commemoration at the National Memorial Arboretum at Alrewas in Staffordshire, but of course coronavirus has seen it cancelled.

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"It's a big disappointment. I'm part of the MVG, or Malayan Volunteers Group, and also FEPOW (Far East Prisoners of War)."

So to mark the anniversary she will fly her Union Jack, which bears the VJ Day date, August 15, 1945.

Howard Bretherton's medals, including the Military Cross on the left

Her father never spoke about his wartime experiences, and died aged 58.

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"It must have affected his health. As for his Military Cross, he said he won it for running away."

Howard Bretherton, who hailed from Wem and was educated at Shrewsbury School, and Mary Elaine Russ-Wood, known as Molly, from Shrewsbury, had married at St Chad's Church in Shrewsbury. Throughout the 1930s Howard had a Colonial Office posting setting up an education system in Malaya.

On December 8, 1941, the Japanese invaded Malaya at Kota Bharu, 440 miles north of Singapore. This presented an immediate danger to all British families living in Malaya and Howard was anxious to get Molly and 16-month-old daughter Merryn out of the country as soon as possible.

A family friend, Mary Bain, agreed to share her booked cabin space on the Ulysses, which was a cargo vessel of the Blue Funnel Line which also had passenger accommodation, and they sailed from Singapore to Australia.

Howard stayed behind. A Territorial Army Captain in the Federal Malay States Volunteer Force unit attached to the Malay Regiment, he was captured when Singapore fell.

Shrewsbury's Captain Howard Bretherton successfully escaped from Japanese captivity

Molly and Merryn landed at Fremantle on December 31, 1941, but with Ulysses fully booked for its onward voyage to Britain, they travelled 2,000 miles by train to Sydney and stayed with Howard's brother Pat while Molly searched for a free cabin on another vessel. It was fortunate they did not travel on Ulysses, which was sunk by a U-boat on its journey, albeit without loss of life.

Molly found a place on another Blue Funnel Line vessel, the Sarpedon, which crossed the Pacific, passed through the Panama Canal, and up the American coast to Newfoundland where it joined a convoy bound for Liverpool.

Merryn has a vague memory of the trip: "One or two other children were on the boat. I was the youngest, the baby. I just remember there was a down pipe and the older children put me under the down pipe to wash my hair."

Apart from her few clothes her only possession on the voyage was Edward Bear.

The much-travelled and much-loved Edward Bear

Captain McClure of the Sarpedon decided that his youngest passenger Merryn was a good omen and referred to her as The Blue Butterfly, as her favourite outfit was her blue knitted bathing costume.

The voyage took seven weeks, the Sarpedon reaching Liverpool on April 27, 1942, and they made their way home to Shrewsbury.

Meanwhile Merryn's father had made his escape, along with a friend, a Major Richards, slipping past Japanese guards when they were distracted by a car accident. Using local knowledge they made their way to the River Pandon estuary where they purloined a 12ft Malay fishing boat with a sail.

Disguised in Malay hats and coats they sailed to Tanjong Bali on Karimoen island where Dutch settlers helped them escape to India.

"My father went back to Malaya after the war to continue his work," said Merryn.

Merryn Godber

"By this time my mother said she had to make a home for the children in this country, so we stayed, in Abbey Foregate in Shrewsbury."

Before marriage Merryn lived in Church Stretton. She met future husband Christopher Godber in the summer of 1958.

"I was a National Service officer with the King's Shropshire Light Infantry at that time," said Christopher, who lived then at Wilcot Hall, Nesscliffe, and whose father Geoffrey Godber was chief executive of Shropshire County Council from 1944 to 1965.

"In June the regiment returned from Kenya where we had been assisting in dealing with the Mau Mau rebellion. I took Merryn to the regimental ball which was held at Hodnet Hall in September 1958. We got engaged in December 1960 and we were married at Church Stretton on September 1, 1962."

The couple live now in Staverton, Daventry.

Toby Neal

By Toby Neal
Feature Writer

A journalist in Shropshire for 40 years, mainly writes features and columns, especially about aspects of Shropshire history. Lives in Telford and is based at the Ketley headquarters.

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