Remembering: Major Murray Ormsby

Major Murray Ormsby, who has died aged 93, served as both judge and prosecutor at the Hong Kong war crimes trials after the Second World War – without having passed any legal exams.

Recruited in Burma while he was waiting for a new posting, Ormsby took part in 27 of the 46 trials held in the colony. As a member of the three-man judges’ panel he made notes alongside the presiding colonel . The court sat for two hours in the morning before rising to salute the firing of the noonday gun and have lunch, then returned for an afternoon session.
Most of the evidence was submitted as affidavits, though some nurses gave evidence in camera about being raped at the Jockey Club. Ormsby could ask permission to put his own questions about anything he felt was unclear; and the court’s verdicts had to be unanimously agreed . After a year a prosecutor left , so Ormsby volunteered to take his place in order to be more closely involved in the judicial process.
Like all prosecutors, Ormsby relied largely on the Manual of Military Law. He found that the most difficult cases concerned responsibility for atrocities: it was often unclear who was in command; and whether it was officers, or the ordinary Japanese soldiers who claimed they were only carrying out orders, who were responsible. “How do members of the Japanese peasant class know the difference between a lawful and an unlawful order?” he asked himself. For them, all orders came down from the Emperor, and what the heavenly sovereign said went.
Ormsby was also uneasy about the Japanese insisting on defence lawyers who spoke English but had no experience of English law. At first the duty had been undertaken by British officers who were aggressive in challenging prosecutors, but the Japanese counsel who succeeded them were too polite.
When hearings were concluded the papers were dispatched to Singapore for review by a legal team who sent them back to Hong Kong, where the Commander of Land Forces would sometimes ask Ormsby his opinion – though this was strictly against the rules, particularly during the time in which he was prosecuting. After sentences had been passed, Ormsby had to watch several of the condemned men being hanged. Each made a short speech, thanking the court and concluding: “Now I’m going to the land of my forefathers.” There was no expression of remorse.
Murray Incell Ormsby was born on October 9 1919 in New York, where his father, a businessman, died shortly afterwards. His mother took him back to England and sent him to Haileybury, from where he went to Sandhurst and into the West Yorkshire Regiment. He first became a battle school instructor, then was issued with tropical kit and (with military logic) sent to the Falkland Islands. On returning home 18 months later he was too late to join the regiment in Normandy. On D-Day plus 10 he waded ashore at Gold Beach to join the 2nd Devons, but soon received a shrapnel wound in the leg and was evacuated. After five months recuperating he joined the West Yorkshires in Burma. He was commanding 20 men in a forward outpost within yards of a Japanese unit when the locals announced that the war was over. Although given no training, Ormsby started to attend the Singapore war crimes court, where he absorbed the procedure, eventually advising the Japanese defence when they could get up to re-examine or make their closing addresses. After the war he took part in courts martial but had no ambition for a legal career. Instead he taught at Stouts Hill prep school, in Gloucestershire, where he married Christina Lankester, the matron. They then emigrated to Australia and for two years he taught English at Trinity College School in Sydney before returning home because his mother was ill. He then joined the Bank of England for “five boring years” as a clerk before becoming a member of its security staff, involved in the transfer of bullion around the country. In retirement Murray Ormsby helped his wife, a Saluki Club judge and owner of the celebrated show and coursing dog champion Yazid Burydown Yehudi. When interviewed in 2011 by Professor Suzannah Linton of Bangor University he gave a lucid account of his experiences of 65 years ago. He had no regrets about the roles he had performed, but remained upset by the memory of one case: On the last day of the war, August 15 1945, sub-lieutenant Fred Hockley, a 22-year-old Seafire pilot, was shot down in Tokyo Bay. He was then executed – nine hours after the Emperor had announced the surrender – by Japanese officers whom Ormsby later prosecuted. Ormsby was so concerned about Hockley being forgotten that for some years he placed an annual In Memoriam advertisement in The Daily Telegraph. Maj Murray Ormsby, born October 9 1919, died December 6 2012
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