Story 3 - Captain Lionel Matthews GC, MC

The Story of a Signals Hero
Captain Lionel Matthews GC, MC Memorial Portrait by Robert Anderson
On display at the Defence School of Signals, Watsonia

The Story of a Signals Hero

Early Years

Lionel Colin Matthews was born on 15th August 1912 at Stepney, Adelaide, third child of Edgar Roy Matthews, plumber, and his wife Ann Elizabeth, nee Jeffery.  Lionel was educated at East Adelaide Public and Norwood High schools, then worked as a salesman in a department store.  Assistant-scoutmaster (from 1931), 1st Kensington Sea Scouts, he was a powerful swimmer, a lifesaver, and a good amateur boxer. At St Matthew's Anglican Church, Kensington, on 26th December 1935 he married (Lorna) Myrtle Lane, a 21-year-old packer. Under the auspices of the Boy Scouts' Association, he was involved in social work at Pentridge gaol, Melbourne, in 1937-38.

Joined the Army

After training as a signalman in the Citizen Naval Forces, Matthews enlisted in the Militia in April 1939. Posted to the 3rd Division Signals, he was commissioned lieutenant in January 1940.  On 10th June he transferred to the Australian Imperial Force and in February 1941 sailed for Singapore with the 8th Division Signals. Sporting a clipped moustache, he was nicknamed 'The Duke' because of his resemblance to the Duke of Gloucester.  Matthews was athletically built, stood 6ft 1in (185 cm) tall, had a ready smile, and liked to dress well.  As signals officer, 27th Brigade, he maintained cable communications while under fire at Gemas, Malaya, and on Singapore (January-February 1942), and awarded the Military Cross.  In January 1942 he was promoted captain.  After Singapore fell on 15th February, he was interned in Changi prison.

POW Intelligence Officer

In July 1942 the Japanese shipped 'B' Force, which comprised 1496 Australians (including Matthews), to Sandakan in British North Borneo.  Soon after his arrival he was largely responsible for setting up an elaborate intelligence organization.  Contact was made with Dr J. P. Taylor, an Australian in charge of the nearby government hospital, and with European internees on Berhala Island.  Matthews and his second-in-command Lieutenant R. G. Wells contacted a number of Asians - some of them were Chinese and others belonged to the British North Borneo Constabulary - who gave them a revolver, maps, information, medical supplies and parts for a wireless receiver.

By September 1942 the intelligence network had been consolidated and extended.  All information was reported to Matthews and collated for future use.  He got in touch with Filipino guerrillas operating in the Sulu Archipelago and enabled parties of Australian prisoners to escape.  In January 1943, when the Japanese transferred the civilian internees to Kuching, unofficial control of the armed constabulary passed to Matthews.  He developed a contingency plan to overthrow the Japanese in the event of an allied landing in Borneo.  At his direction, work began on the construction of a wireless transmitter.

Capt Loinel MatthewsIn July 1943 four Chinese members of the organization were betrayed to the Japanese. Under torture, they admitted supplying radio parts. The Japanese arrested Matthews, Wells, Taylor and those who had helped them.  The suspects were interrogated, beaten, tortured and deprived of food before being taken to Kuching.  Matthews was sentenced to death, as were two members of the constabulary and six other Asians. Declining a blindfold, he was executed by a firing-squad on 2nd March 1944 at Kuching and buried there.  In 1946 his body was exhumed and interred in the Labuan war cemetery.

Prince among Men

Matthews had encouraged his fellow accused throughout their ordeal. Although he knew the consequences, he refused to implicate or endanger the lives of his associates.  Described as a 'prince among men', he was posthumously awarded the George Cross (1947).  His wife and son David survived him. Robert Anderson's portrait of Matthews is held by the Defence School of Signals, Simpson Barracks, Melbourne.  Matthews' brother Geofrey served in the army in World War II and was awarded the Distinguished Service Order. 

The George Cross (Porthumous Award)

The George CrossVX24597 Captain Lionel Colin Matthews, 8th Australian Divisional Signals, was a prisoner of war held by the Japanese in Sandakan, Borneo, between August 1942 and March 1944.  During this period he directed personally the underground intellgence organisation and arranged through native contracts for delivery into the camp of sorely needed medical supplies, food and money; factors which not only kept up morale and courage of the prisoners but which undoubtedly saved the lives of many.  He instrumental in arranging a radio link with the outside world and was able to send weekly news bullelins to civilan internees of Berhala Island.  He was also responsible for arranging the delivery to a secret rendezvous of firearms for future use.  Although a prisoner of war, Captain Matthews was appointed to command the North Borneo Armed Constabulary, and at great danger organised that body, together with the loyal native population in Sandaken, into readless for rising against the Japanese.  He gained contact with guerilla forces in the Phillipplnes and successfully organsised escaple parties.  He continued these activities at the greatest peril to himself until arrested by the Kempel Tal.  Captain Matthews, although subject to brutal torture, beating and slarvation, stedfastly refusing to make admissions to implicate or endanger the lives of his associates.  His conduct at all times was that of a very brave and couagenous getleman and worthly upheld the highest tradition of an Australian Officer.

Captain Matthews was executed by Japanese firing squad  at Kushing on the 2nd March 1944, and even at the time of his execution he defied the Japanese.  Lest we forget. 

The Military Cross (For outstanding service)

The Military CrossDuring operations at Gemas, this officer succeeded in maintaining cable communications between his brigade headquarters and units under heavy artillery and mortar fire and aerial bombardment displaying a high standard of courage, energy and ability in doing so.   Later, during the operations on Singapore Island, Captain Matthews succeeded in laying a cable over ground strongly patrolled by the enemy thus restoring communication between his divisional hedaquarters and the headquarters of a brigade at a critical period.






Medals donated to AWM: The Director of the Australian War Memorial, Dr Brendan Nelson, on the 2nd March 2015 was honoured to accept the donation of the rare George Cross posthumously awarded to Captain Lionel Colin Matthews for extreme and selfless courage while a prisoner of war.

Captain Matthews’ son, David, surrounded by family and friends, formally presented the medals to Dr Nelson, who was touched by their generosity.

“It is the most humbling and honourable of gestures that the Matthews family has allowed the Australian War Memorial to preserve this award in its display,” Dr Nelson said.   “My pledge to Captain Matthews and his family is that these medals will be kept safe and preserved for posterity.   They will be proudly displayed here in the Hall of Valour so that generations to come can acknowledge the courage and sacrifice made by Lionel and his mates in service of our nation.”

The event was also attended by Lieutenant Russ Ewin, the last surviving member of Matthews’ underground movement, who risked his own life on many occasions working closely alongside Matthews and acting as a link to the outside sympathisers.

Medals being donated to AWM 
L-R Dr Berndan Nelson, Lt Russ Ewin and David Matthews (son) with Capt Loinel Matthews
medal group being handed the the Australian War Memorial 2 March 2015

The George Cross is ranked just behind the Victoria Cross and is awarded for acts of extreme bravery.  It is no longer awarded to Australians, being superseded in 1975 by the Australian Cross of Valour. There are currently no military recipients of the Cross of Valour.

The medal group donated also includes Captain Matthews’ Military Cross and campaign service medals. 

The Lionel Matthews Merit Award:   The Lionel Matthews Merit Award was established on 1st January 1966 for presentation to other ranks of the Corps for achievement on School of School courses, in Honour of Captain Lionel Matthews GC, MC.  The award is normally awarded yearly to an exemplary student.

The award takes the form of a medallion depicting the Corps Badge on the obverse side and Inscribed with the words 'LIONEL MATTHEWS MERIT AWARD'. The reverse side shows a laurel wreath and space for the presentation inscription. The presentation inscription will show the serial -number and abbreviated title of the course, student's regimental number and name. The date, recipient's rank and name shall be placed on an Honour Board, donated by 8th Divisional Signals Association, on display in the foyer of the School of Signals.

Lionel Matthews Merit Award

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