Copyright, and included with permission, of The TIMES

Published. November 25, 2009

Ron Bowey:

Naval photographer   


Ron Bowey was a Royal Marines physical training instructor who became a naval photographer after war injuries made it impossible for him to continue in that specialisation. In 2004 he fulfilled a long-held intention to visit the graves of three comrades, two Marines and a naval aviator, who had been murdered by the Japanese in 1945.

Making his way to Singapore he sought out Kranji cemetery where, by that time in a wheelchair and accompanied by a nurse, he was able to pay his respects at the graves of Major John Maxwell, Colour Sergeant Ernie Smith and Sub Lieutenant John Tomlinson. The two Royal Marines had been members of a special operations group captured by the Japanese after they had landed on the island of Phuket off the coast of Thailand to reconnoitre Japanese dispositions. Along with the naval pilot whose aircraft had come down in the sea, they were executed by the Japanese in 1945 after refusing to give information under interrogation. Bowey had become aware of their fate when he gained access to an intelligence document of HQ Malaya Command. What he read there haunted him for many years afterwards.

Ronald Arthur Bowey was born in 1919 and joined the Royal Marines in 1938 specialising as a PT instructor and later training to become a corps photographer and film cameraman. Injuries received during the war left him badly disabled in both legs, but he was able to transfer to photographic duties, recording events for the Chief of Naval Information, the Chief of Naval Intelligence and the Commandant General Royal Marines. One of his assignments was to photograph the Japanese surrender in Singapore in 1945. He subsequently went to Rangoon, and then visited the Htaukkyant war cemetery in which lie most of the 27,000 British and Commonwealth dead of the Burma campaign.

But what particularly prompted his wheelchair-bound visit to Burma and Malaysia many years later was a Malaya Command intelligence summary, which described the suicide of three Japanese intelligence officers at Rengam on December 28, 1945. The three officers had killed themselves in circumstances described as “amende honorable” after confessing that they had personally tortured and then beheaded three British PoWs, Major Maxwell, Colour Sergeant Smith and Sub Lieutenant Tomlinson in July 1945.

Maxwell and Smith had been part of a small special forces group that had landed on Phuket by canoe from a submarine in March 1945 to reconnoitre the dispositions of Japanese airfields on the island and also pass back information on the landing beaches. Smith had been badly wounded in a battle with Japanese troops. Maxwell remained with him and both men were captured.

They were subsequently joined in captivity by Tomlinson, who had been picked up from the water after the Hellcat reconnaissance fighter he was flying from the escort carrier Empress had ditched in the sea. After refusing to give their captors any more than the basic information required by the Geneva Convention they were, after several months of interrogation and torture, taken to a hill on Singapore island and beheaded. According to their executioners the men had given an impressive display of light banter as they said their farewells to each other.

Bowey was increasingly affected by the account he had read, and could not rest easy without visiting the graves of the three men. He recalled: “When I visited the cemeteries, I faced the headstones, closed my eyes and said a short prayer. I felt my years slip back to my early twenties, which would be the average age of the majority here. They had been gently recovered from the jungles, the swamps and the jails and brought to the cemeteries. They were no longer in isolation scattered across the battlefields. Now they were all together in serene peace.”

Bowey, who had transferred from the Royal Marines to the RN School of Photography in 1949, travelled the world in his new job. Among his assignments were several state occasions, and he accompanied the Duke of Edinburgh on a world tour. After retiring from the Royal Navy in 1964 he worked as a television cameraman. Latterly severe diabetes had led to the amputation of both his legs and a number of his fingers, and he had been wheelchair-bound, which made his Singapore pilgrimage the more remarkable.

His wife Joan, whom he married in 1957, died in 1993. He is survived by three daughters and a son.

Ron Bowey, Naval photographer, was born on September 14, 1919. He died on November 2, 2009, aged 90