Arnie Topliff was one of only two men to earn a gallantry award in the aftermath of the sinking of the prisoner of war transport SS Lisbon Maru in October 1942. This award of the British Empire Medal was one of 13, specifically for gallantry, to Royal Signals soldiers during the Second World War. In addition to telling something of Topliff’s story, there are links below to accounts by other survivors, including his friend Corporal (later Lieutenant Colonel) Monty Truscott.
The eldest of two sons and two daughters, he was born in Derby on 9 March 1919. He started school there before the family moved to a small-holding in Quarndon. Arnie was a keen sportsman, representing the village at cricket and football, and a strong swimmer. He was also a chorister in the parish church, St Paul’s. His father had served with the Royal Navy before, during and after the First World War, initially on battleships and later as a submariner and after the war he joined Derby Corporation Electrical Department. When he left school, Arnie Topliff also joined the Derby Corporation, as an electrical cable joiner. It was natural, therefore, that when he enlisted on 6 December 1939 and joined the Royal Corps of Signals he became a Lineman. During his training, early in 1940, Arnold Topliff married Nellie Moseley. After his training he was posted to the Far East, to the Hong Kong Signal Company.
On 8 December 1941, the Japanese attacked Hong Kong. After 17 days of hard fighting the garrison surrendered; approximately 11,000 men went into captivity on or near the island. In late-September 1942, over 1,800 men were moved aboard the cargo ship SS Lisbon Maru destined for labour camps in Japan. On 1 October, in the East China Sea the Lisbon Maru was hit by a torpedo fired by the United States submarine USS Grouper; she sank the next day. That story, and an account of Signalman Topliff’s gallantry, may be read here.
The survivors were shipped first to a camp near Shanghai and then on the Shinsei Maru to Osaka in Japan. Something of the story of the Hong Kong Signal Company—captivity in Hong Kong, the sinking of the Lisbon Maru and subsequent events—were described by a good friend of Arnold Topliff’s, who was also sent to Japan aboard the Lisbon Maru, Corporal ‘Monty’ Truscott. His wartime experiences were captured by the Imperial War Museum’s oral history project and may be heard here. Another of the Signal Company survivors taken to Japan on a later transport was Sergeant Vic Ient—his story may be read here. Signalman Maynard Skinner also survived the sinking of the Lisbon Maru and Vic Ient’s son interviewed him—his story is here. He also interviewed Signalman Bill Butler—his story is here.
‘Topper’ Topliff, as he became known, spent most of his captivity here at Osaka Main Camp No. 1B. The camp, called ‘Honjo’ or ‘Chikko’ and known by many of the prisoners as ‘Hoincho’, was established in September 1942 with the arrival of 150 men from another camp. On 11 October, around 500 survivors of the Lisbon Maru arrived. The camp was established to provide a workforce of stevedores for the commercial transportation companies using the nearby port. A detailed description of the camp and the role of the prisoners may be found in the report for the Supreme Commander Allied Powers written in February 1946.
In May 1945, Topliff was amongst a group from Osaka transferred to the small branch camp Notogawa (Camp No. 9B), which was on the shore of Lake Biwa near Notogawa Station in Shiga Prefecture, about 30 miles north-east of Kyoto. Here the men, Americans, Australians, British and Dutch, were engaged in dike and canal construction to create rice fields. Like Osaka, conditions were harsh, food poor and the two barracks were over-crowded. James McHarg Miller, a soldier of 2nd Battalion, The Royal Scots (The Royal Regiment), described that camp.
The camp was abandoned by the Japanese guards just after the end of the war. During the planning for the Allied occupation of Japan—Operation Blacklist—work had been undertaken to locate where prisoners were being held and to plan a series of airdrops to provide them with food and essential equipment. By the end of September almost all the 32,000 prisoners in Japan were on their way home. Most of the British and Australian prisoners were taken to Australia and Arnie Topliff arrived in Melbourne in mid-September. One of the first things that he did was to telegram his parents to let them know that he was safe.
In common with the practice of publishing awards to prisoners of war after their repatriation, the award of the British Empire Medal to Arnold Topliff ‘in recognition of gallant conduct in carrying out hazardous work in a very brave manner’ was published in the London Gazette on 15 March 1946. The full (unpublished) recommendation stated:
Signalman Topliff was a prisoner of war aboard the Japanese Army transport ‘Lisbon Maru’ when the ship was torpedoed by a United States submarine on 1st October, 1942. He was one of a small number of survivors who escaped by swimming to an island about eight miles distant, despite the ruthless efforts of the Japanese to destroy them by machine gun fire and other means. Another survivor was Captain C. M. M. Man of the Middlesex Regiment, and this officer had almost reached the same island when a change of current began to carry him out to sea. Seeing that Captain Man was in imminent danger, Signalman Topliff, himself in an almost exhausted condition, immediately re-entered the water, swam to the officer and brought him safely to land.
Signalman Topliff was demobilised on 1 May 1946 and returned home to Quarndon. His marriage to Nellie did not last and the couple were divorced in June 1947. More happily, in early 1951, Arnold Topliff married Evelyn Sturgess and the couple had a son, Ian, born in November 1957. Arnie went to work with the East Midlands Electricity Board, where he became a mains foreman and later a manager. It was said that Arnie knew the position of every cable in Derby and could almost ‘smell’ electricity underground. He regularly got together with other survivors of the Lisbon Maru and he attended the first reunion of the Hong Kong Signal Company (organised by Monty Truscott) on 17 May 1969, which was attended by 35 survivors of the wartime Company.
Arnold Topliff BEM died suddenly after a heart attack on 24 December 1969, aged 50. Typically, he had been into work only hours before, to check on ‘his blokes’ who were working on an electricity breakdown in the town and were struggling to reconnect the power in time for Christmas Day. He was buried at St Pauls’ Church, Quarndon.
His medals group comprises the British Empire Medal (GVIR); 1939-45 Star, Pacific Star, British War Medal 1939-45, and Defence Medal.
Ian Topliff for the Photographs and information about his father.
1. (Back) Ernest Osmond Topliff (18 June 1895-October 1970) married Annie Elizabeth Lynch (13 September 1894-September 1972) at Holy Trinity Church, Derby on 11 February 1917. Both are buried at St Pauls’ Church, Quarndon. The couple had two daughters, Joan, born in 1926, and Annie, born in 1928. A second son, Barry was born in 1938 (another son died in infancy).
2. (Back) After serving on the battleships HMS Renown, Revenge (both pre-war) and Dreadnought, Able Seaman Topliff (a 1st Class Stoker) retrained as a submariner in 1916 and served on the submarine C-13. He was based in various submarine service depot ships in the war (HMS Dolphin, Bonaventure, and Titania) and at the end of the war was posted to the minesweeper HMS Hebe. He joined the submarine K-22 on 4 February 1919, and then submarine H-23 in September 1922, which was his last boat. He was rated as a Leading Stoker in 1923, posted ashore in April 1924 and transferred to the Royal Fleet Reserve in August 1924. He was awarded the Royal Fleet Reserve Long Service Medal in 1928 to add to his 1914-15 Star, British War Medal 1914-20 and Victory Medal. Ernest Topliff’s brother John William Topliff (11 December 1893-16 April 1969) also served in the Royal Navy from 1911 until 1933 (his wartime service was in the dreadnought battleship HMS King George V), and then briefly at the beginning of the Second World War. He was awarded the Royal Naval Long Service and Good Conduct Medal in 1926.
3. (Back) 6746367 Corporal Montague Edward Ephraim Truscott, later Warrant Officer Class 1, later Lieutenant Colonel M E E Truscott.
4. (Back) LG 15 March 1946. 37500, p 1372.
5. (Back) TNA. PRO. (1945-1946). Recommendation for Award for Topliff, Arnold Osmond. WO 373/69/830.
6. (Back) Nellie Moseley (6 April 1917-14 January 2009) married Cecil Rupert (Jack) Simpson in Derby on 10 August 1947.
7. (Back) Mary Evelyn Sturgess (2 February 1925-26 January 1982). She was buried with Arnold Topliff at St Pauls’ Church, Quarndon.