My Grandfather’s Watch

WIB history September 8, 2016 0

Matthew Moss photo John James Moss and his timepiece survived World War II by MATTHEW MOSS In 2005, when I was still in high school, I interviewed...
Matthew Moss photo

John James Moss and his timepiece survived World War II


In 2005, when I was still in high school, I interviewed my then-86-year-old late grandfather John James Moss about his experiences during World War II.

He joined the British Army in 1940 at the age of 20 and trained as a Universal (Bren Gun) Carrier driver with the 18th Reconnaissance Battalion of the Reconnaissance Corps.

The 18th Reconnaissance Battalion was formed from the 5th Battalion, Loyal Regiment (North Lancashire). In one surviving photograph, my grandfather is wearing the Loyal Regiment’s cap badge.

In 1941, my grandfather’s unit posted to Singapore. The 18th Reconnaissance Battalion arrived without much of its equipment and fought as regular infantry against the invading Japanese.

His battalion was evacuating from Singapore aboard an Australian ship when the vessel came under attack by Japanese aircraft. The ship was forced to return to Singapore and my grandfather became a prisoner of war when the city surrendered on Feb. 15, 1942.

The Japanese forced him and 80,000 other Allied soldiers they had captured in Singapore to work on the Burma Railway.

British troops surrender to the Japanese in Singapore. Photo via Wikipedia

He was marched to Changi Prison and, from there, worked on the railway between Rangoon and Bangkok. “The Japanese guards took the barrack rooms to sleep in and made us sleep outside with the mosquitoes,” Grandfather recalled.

“We had terrible rations,” he continued. “For our main meal we had either rice, wheat or barley … with potatoes and carrot tops. We grew our own vegetables in our own manure and we got some seeds from the locals and maybe some meat.

“The rations where poor because the Japanese were eating the Red Cross parcels instead of giving them to us. The air was humid and mosquitoes were everywhere. Men had malaria, beriberi and our hands became blistered. The blisters were filled with yellow puss. We had to cut them off and put Condeys Fluid on them. Condeys Fluid was a substitute for iodine.”

“Men got cholera from drinking water from the Kwai [River]. There were about 400 men from different regiments. There were Australians, Indians, Canadians and British troops. There weren’t any toilets so we had to go in the jungle.”

The Bridge Over the River Kwai: A Novel

“Four men tried to escape. They where caught and made to dig their own graves and then they where shot. [There were] other punishments like tying you to a stake in the sun and not getting any water and making stand outside the guardroom and every time a guard came out, they would beat you.”

U.S. forces liberated the camp on Oct. 2, 1945 and, in April 1946, the British Army discharged my grandfather. Later in life, he suffered from skin cancer and lost an eye — consequences of his long hours working in the sun during the war.

You can read the full interview here. I wish I could have learned more, but I could tell there were many things John James Moss didn’t wish to tell his 15-year-old grandson.

The watch is marked “GS/TP,” meaning “general service temporary/trade pattern.” Pieces of this type were made by a number of manufacturers including Cyma, Rolex, Frenca and Helvetia.

After some research I learned that these pocket watches were bought from the watch trade for issue to the British military between 1939 and 1945.

It’s extremely unlikely that my grandfather carried the watch during his time as a prisoner. It’s more likely that he picked it up or was issued it after he was freed and before he was discharged.

I had no idea when it was last wound. After some coaxing, cleaning and winding, we got the watch working. As I write this, it’s noisily ticking beside me and, despite its age, still keeping perfect time.

Originally published at

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