February 15th marks the 75th anniversary of the Fall of Singapore. Across the nation, commemorative events will be held to mark that fateful day British and Commonwealth forces surrendered to the invading Japanese forces. With fewer and fewer WW2 veterans still alive, the link to the greatest generation is gradually slipping away with each passing year. The surviving few carry with them incredible tales of hardship, suffering and survival. One of them is a 98 year old British Army veteran, Fergus Anckon.
Born on 10 December 1918 in Dunton Green in Kent, England, he became the youngest member of the Magic Circle, a British organisation, dedicated to promoting and advancing the art of magic.
His passion for magic begun at an early age, from the moment he was first given a box of tricks on his 5th birthday. Growing up as a child, he would often perform magic tricks to his friends, much to their enjoyment.
Shortly after the outbreak of WW2 in 1939, 20 year old Fergus was one of thousands of young men from South London who answered the call and joined the Armed Forces. He spent 2 years in Britain with the 118th Field Regiment, Royal Artillery. Even in uniform, he continued to perform magic to entertain his fellow soldiers.
In January 1942, the 118th was sent to Singapore as re-enforcement for the existing garrison. At the time, invading Japanese forces under the command of General Yamashita had already swallowed up much of the Malayan Peninsula and were poised to begin their assault on Singapore.
Fergus had his first taste of combat shortly after disembarking in Singapore when Japanese dive bombers bombed the port. Fergus narrowly survived the air raid by jumping into the waters off the dock
Less than a week after arriving in Singapore, Fergus was badly wounded in a bomb blast whilst driving a truck. He received a blow to the head, a leg wound and an almost severed hand. Fergus was warded in The British Military Hospital (Today, Alexandra Hospital situated near Queenstown MRT). The quick work of the medical surgeon saved his right arm from amputation. In spite of all this, greater horrors were to await Fergus. On the day before the surrender of Singapore, the British Military Hospital where Fergus was warded was caught between retreating British forces and advancing Japanese forces. Hardened by months of bloody combat, the Japanese soldiers stormed the hospital which at the time held 900 patients.
Japanese soldiers went from room to room shooting, bayonetting and beating up doctors, orderlies and patients indiscriminately. They even killed an anaesthetised patient who was still lying on the operating table. Fergus recounted the horrors of that day; hearing the screams of patients as they were being bayonetted, while putting his pillow over his head to await the inevitable. However, the Japanese soldiers simply walked past him, thinking that he was already dead because his wounds were bleeding so badly. He said of that terrible day – “When I came round everyone was dead except for me.” An estimated 150-200 soldiers, medical staff and patients were slaughtered in one of the worst massacres in Singapore’s history.
Fergus by a miraculous stroke of luck survived the massacre. But his ordeal was just beginning. On February 15th, 1942, British Commonwealth Forces in Singapore led by General Arthur Percival surrendered to the Imperial Japanese Army. It resulted in the capture of Singapore by the Japanese and the largest surrender of British-led military personnel in history. About 80,000 British, Indian and Australian troops became prisoners of war, joining 50,000 taken by the Japanese in the earlier Malayan Campaign. British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, described the fall of Singapore as the “worst disaster” and “largest capitulation” in British military history.
Fergus was subsequently taken prisoner, along with other soldiers from his regiment. He was interned at Changi Prison and warded at its hospital for further treatment.
In 1943, orders came for Fergus to go ‘up-country.’ At first he believed that soldiers were going to a new Red Cross camp, which entailed better treatment. However, it soon became apparent that they were being sent to work on the notorious Thai-Burma railway. The prisoners were herded into metal railway cars and traveled five days and nights with few breaks.
Fergus was interned in Chungkai prison camp in Bangkok, a hospital camp for those coming from the railway and suffering from exhaustion, sickness or injury. Fergus had the unenviable job of working in the camp’s mortuary, preparing up to 15 bodies a day. Amidst the unimaginable suffering, he still fell back on his life’s passion as a means of surviving – magic.
Fergus used his magic tricks to help him get food from the guards. Japanese guards saw their prisoners as inferior and wouldn’t eat anything they had touched. Fergus often used food in his tricks to obtain additional food. Once, the camp commandant ordered Fergus to perform magic tricks for a visiting Japanese general. He requested 50 eggs to help him practice even though the trick only involved one egg. Most of the eggs were then used to make giant omelettes for the prisoners.
By 1945, the prisoners were becoming aware that the war was nearing its end. After two atomic bombs and the Russian declaration of war against Japan, Emperor Hirohito surrendered. Just prior to the release of all prisoners, Fergus recalls a harrowing incident where he was nearly executed by Japanese guards.
“One day the Japanese decided to shoot five of us. Just for fun; there was no real reason for it. And they took five of us out and I was one of them and they took us into the jungle, stood us against some trees and got a machine gun out and put it on a tripod and aimed it at us. We didn’t have blindfolds or anything. And we waited for the bullets for ten minutes. You would’ve heard my knees knocking from here I tell you. We were talking to each other; you know ‘why don’t they just get on with it, get it over with, when are the bullets coming’ and then they decided against it for some reason or the other, thought better of it. They put the gun away, they took us back to the camp and when we got there we found the war had been over for three days. So now you know why i’m lucky.”
After being liberated, he was not allowed to go home for several months while he put on weight, for fear his appearance would shock his friends and family. When he arrived home to his wife, Lucy “Lucille” Hose he still weighed only 38kg.
After so many terrifying ordeals, Fergus resolved to live the rest of his life without fear. He said: “I am probably the luckiest man alive. I’ve been blown up. I’ve been shot at. I’ve survived a massacre. And I also got away with that egg trick. Every day is a wonder to me.”
In 2016, during the tenth series of Britain’s Got Talent, Fergus was featured during the final act of magician Richard Jones, who eventually was chosen as the series’ winner. He now lives in Hassocks, West Sussex, continuing his passion for magic as the Magic Circle’s oldest member.