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Guelph's military contributions go beyond Lt.-Col. John McCrae

Brig.-Gen. Kenneth Torrance grew up in the city, transferred to the British Army and spent years in a Japanese PoW camp
The British Army surrendered to Japanese forces on the island of Singapore in 1942. Guelph-born Brig.-Gen. Kenneth Torrance, second from right, was among the surrender party.

Guelph has produced several noteworthy military people. Among them were Admiral Charles Kingsmill (1855-1935), Brig.-Gen. Edmund Morris (1869-1939) and of course Lt-Col. John McCrae.

Another was Brig.-Gen. Kenneth S. Torrance, who was witness to one of the most dramatic moments of the Second World War.

Kenneth Torrance was born in Guelph on Aug. 22, 1895, the first of two sons of Agnes (nee Sanderson) and Robert L. Torrance. His grandfather, Rev. Robert Torrance, was a founder of the Chalmers Church – now the United Church. The city’s former Torrance Public School bore the family name.

The Torrances lived on Queen Street. Kenneth attended the Guelph Collegiate where his extra-curricular activities included the drama club. However, his greatest interest was in the school’s cadet corps and rifle team. Torrance was one of the leading cadets, and it was no surprise that upon graduation he chose to enrol in the Royal Military College at Kingston, Canada’s most prestigious military school.

At the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, Torrance joined the Canadian Expeditionary Force. In England he transferred to the British Army and served on the Western Front as a subaltern and then a lieutenant in the Manchester Regiment. By the war’s end he had been promoted to captain and awarded the Military Cross for distinguishing himself in action.

Torrance had decided to make a career in the military, so after the war he remained in the British Army. He was sent to India, where he attended the British Imperial Army Staff College at Quetta, a school that had been established on the recommendation of Lord Horatio Kitchener with the intention of preparing promising young officers for higher command.

After completing the course, Torrance served in India, Burma, Iraq and at the War Office in England. In August of 1939, Torrance was sent to Malaya. One month later the Second World War began.

By that time the soldier from Guelph had been promoted to the rank of brigadier general. That was an officer between the ranks of colonel and divisional general. A brigadier in the field commanded a brigade of four battalions, or about 4,000 troops. Torrance was chief of staff at the British fortress of Singapore under the command of Arthur E. Percival, the senior British officer on the Malay Peninsula.

Imperial Japan was waging a war of conquest in the region of Southeast Asia, and Singapore was a target. In December of 1941, an hour before the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor thousands of miles away, the Japanese launched an assault on Malaya, striking at the northern part of the country. The British, Australian, Malaysian and Indian troops under Percival outnumbered the attacking Japanese, but they were inexperienced.

They lacked sufficient air, naval and armoured support. Moreover, the British high command underestimated the fighting ability of the Japanese troops and mistakenly believed that the Malaysian jungle that lay before the landward approach to Singapore was impenetrable.

Singapore’s main defensive works and big guns were positioned to repulse an invasion from the sea. When the Japanese attacked from inland, the city was hopelessly vulnerable. Its resources were under enormous pressure because of hundreds of thousands of civilian refugees who had fled there seeking protection.

Facing shortages of food, water and ammunition, Percival capitulated on Feb.15, 1942. Torrance was a member of the surrender party that met Japanese general Tomoyuki Yamashita. The fall of Singapore was one of the worst defeats in British military history and a disaster for the Allies.

The Allied troops captured at Singapore now entered a long period of hell on earth. The Japanese government did not acknowledge the Geneva Convention which called for the humane treatment of prisoners of war.

The Japanese military followed a hard-line philosophy that held soldiers who had allowed themselves to be captured in contempt. The PoWs taken at Singapore were starved, beaten, used as slave labour and denied medical care. Officers didn’t fare much better than enlisted men. A third of the Allied soldiers in Japanese PoW camps died before the war ended.

Many of the prisoners were sent to Singapore’s Changi Prison where Torrance and other senior officers shared quarters with Percival. The British officers still had to maintain military discipline among their men.

They faced a very unusual conundrum. Under British military regulations it was a captive soldier’s duty to try to escape, if at all possible, and the Geneva Convention recognized that as a right. However, the Japanese camp commanders made it clear that anyone caught attempting to escape would be executed and that brutal punishments would then be inflicted on all prisoners, whether they were involved in escape plots or not.

The British officers therefore felt they had to discourage escape attempts, in direct contradiction to their official duty.

In August of 1942, Percival and all officers above the rank of colonel were transferred to a camp on the island of Formosa (now Taiwan) which they shared with American PoWs. Men died from the poor diet, malaria and frequent beatings. Many were worked to death. Japanese officers regularly humiliated the British and American officers in front of their men.

Torrance was later sent to a camp in Manchuria where, for a while, treatment of prisoners was better. But that was only for the benefit of a Red Cross inspection. Conditions soon returned to horrific.

Torrance was in a camp in Mukden, Manchuria, when he was finally liberated by Soviet troops after the Japanese surrender and sent to India. He returned to Canada in a very poor state of health.

Torrance had a summer home in the Muskokas and a winter home in Nassau in the Bahamas, but he frequently visited Guelph. He eventually bought the Guelph estate called Ker Cavan that had belonged to the Higinbotham family, to whom he was related.

Torrance died in Nassau on Oct. 15, 1958. He is buried in Woodlawn Memorial Park.

Torrance was among the officers King George VI awarded the Order of the British Empire for courage shown during the siege of Singapore.