‘We didn’t dream that would be the last time we would see Ken’ - recollection of last meeting with Wisbech soldier ahead of VJ Day

PUBLISHED: 18:11 12 August 2020

Corporal Kenneth Charles Harnwell in uniform (left). Right, Maurice Cowling with daughter Faith Cowling, Kenneth’s nephew and great niece respectively, standing by the Wisbech war memorial. Pictures: FAMILY

Corporal Kenneth Charles Harnwell in uniform (left). Right, Maurice Cowling with daughter Faith Cowling, Kenneth’s nephew and great niece respectively, standing by the Wisbech war memorial. Pictures: FAMILY

Archant

Whilst VJ Day was a cause of celebration for many, it also compounded the grief of countless families whose loved ones were lost during the Far East conflict.

Corporal Kenneth Charles Harnwell in uniform. Picture: FAMILYCorporal Kenneth Charles Harnwell in uniform. Picture: FAMILY

This VJ Day, the Harnwell and Cowling family will be honouring one such loved one; my great Uncle Kenneth Charles Harnwell, born in West Walton, and a member of the 2nd Battalion Cambridgeshire Regiment.

Kenneth was the younger brother of my grandmother Olive Harnwell. My grandparents Lionel and Olive Cowling lived on the North Brink, Wisbech and were fruit growers.

Ken rose to Corporal in the Cambridgeshire Regiment and Olive recollected with sadness their last meeting.

“In September 1941, my brother Ken came down to see us,” Olive said.

Maurice Cowling with daughter Faith Cowling, Kenneth’s nephew and great niece respectively, standing by the Wisbech war memorial. Picture: FAMILYMaurice Cowling with daughter Faith Cowling, Kenneth’s nephew and great niece respectively, standing by the Wisbech war memorial. Picture: FAMILY

“The Cambridgeshire Regiment were on embarkation leave ready to be sent somewhere, but we didn’t know where. Ken stayed and had tea with us and I cooked a brace of pheasants and he enjoyed that very much.

“He played with Richard, his baby nephew, giving him a swing. We didn’t dream that would be the last time we would see Ken.

“It was January 1942 and I was at my kitchen window when I saw my dad go past on his bike.

“I guessed he was going to the orchard to see Lionel. He had come to tell us they had had information that Ken was missing, presumed killed.

The Wisbech war memorial bearing Kenneth's name. Picture: FAMILYThe Wisbech war memorial bearing Kenneth's name. Picture: FAMILY

“He didn’t call at the house to tell me because I was expecting our second little boy the following April and wanted Lionel to be with me when he told the sad news.”

My father Maurice, of Wigtoft, was born on April 4, 1942. He was to be called Maurice John but naturally, my grandparents added a second middle name, Kenneth.

The Harnwells were never fully informed of Ken’s fate, but my research indicates that he was killed aged 22 during a rearguard action on the Malayan mainland.

His battalion was tasked with holding defensive positions between the towns of Batu Pahat and Senggarang about 30 miles from Singapore. Pursued by heavy enemy forces, the Cambridgeshire men were pushed back through thick swampy jungle.

Heavy casualties ensued at the hands of well entrenched Japanese mortars and well-conceived snipers. Those who surrendered faced three-and-a-half years in captivity.

The anguish of losing her only son stayed with my great-grandmother, Ethel Harnwell, until her own death.

She could not accept that Kenneth was dead. She never sought to obtain his medals; they would offer no comfort, no succour to her aching heart.

Ken’s picture stood on my grandmother Olive’s living room dresser for the remainder of her life and the image of the smart fresh-faced soldier, forever frozen in time, had a great impact on me as a child.

We remember Kenneth with great pride.

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