Rev. Geoffrey Mowat
Born 4th June 1917
Malayan Civil Service
21st May 2008
The Rev Geoffrey Mowat: clergyman and PoW
One of the last survivors of the pre-1942 Malayan Civil Service, Geoffrey Mowat served in the Malacca Battalion of the Straits Settlements Volunteer Forces (SSVF) and was one of the few to escape from Japanese captivity, to be recaptured and live to tell the tale.
Geoffrey Scott Mowat was born in 1917 in Oxford. His father was a history don at Corpus Christi and later Professor of History at Bristol University; his mother studied at Newnham College, Cambridge. He was educated at the Dragon School, Oxford, and Clifton College, Bristol. In 1936 he too went up to Corpus Christi.
In July 1940 he married Louise Ethel Homewood and set out for Malaya with her to begin his service as a Malayan Civil Service cadet. It was at that time unheard of for MCS cadets to marry before their first home leave.
His first appointment was as district officer at Alor Gajah. On arrival there he enlisted in the Malayan Volunteer Forces and was an NCO in the 4th Battalion SSVF, a mixed-race unit of civilian volunteers.
On February 15, 1942, Singapore fell to the Japanese, and Mowat, with others of his battalion, passed into captivity. He was marched to the PoW camp at Changi from where, with a fellow Straits Settlements Volunteer, R. A. Elliott, he escaped and got across the Straits to Johore. There, after six weeks on the run, he and Elliott were badly beaten by local Malays and handed over to the Japanese, who took them to Pudu Jail, Kuala Lumpur, which was full of British and Australian PoWs captured on the Malayan mainland.
Meanwhile, Louise, who had been a stenographer at GHQ Singapore, had been evacuated to Java then to Sydney, where she worked on General MacArthur’s US Army staff.
In October 1942 Mowat was returned to Singapore where he and other PoWs were used as extras in the Japanese propaganda film made of the fall of Malaya. In May 1943 he was sent with the notorious H Force to Thailand to complete the building of the Burma Railway. Many died, among them Elliott in another escape attempt.
Mowat worked as a medical orderly at Hintock River Camp where many of his patients died for want of basic drugs and medicines. He was returned with other survivors to Singapore in December 1943. Liberated in September 1945 he was repatriated in the troopship Highland Chieftain.
He returned to the MCS after the war, becoming district officer at Butterworth, then senior lands officer at Negri Sembilan. He left Malaya in 1957, just before it became independent, and took orders as an Anglican clergyman.
His terrible experiences as a PoW of the Japanese had reinforced, not undermined, his faith. Indeed, an experience in Malaya had already served to bring him face to face with the question of forgiveness.
In the course of his work in the MCS Secretariat, he had had to deal with a query about Japanese war graves. With his heart beating fast, he took a deep breath before speaking to the Japanese official in a normal manner. In his own words, “I had taken the first step along the road towards forgiveness, which is the baseline of the Christian faith.”
His Christian ministry lasted 40 years, including more than ten years spent as a mission partner with the Church Mission Society and the Inter Continental Church Society. He was a priest in Singapore, Penang and Kuala Lumpur from 1976 to 1985, and a Canon of St Mary’s Cathedral, Kuala Lumpur. A further six months as a priest in Cairo followed, with other shorter locums in France and duties as a priest-in-charge at St Mary Magdalene, Combe Down, Bath.
He retired to Fairford, in Gloucestershire, in the mid-1990s and wrote his memoirs, which were published as Rainbow Through the Rain.
Mowat was a gentle but determined man and an accomplished cellist. His wife predeceased him, and he is survived by two sons and two daughters.