Nine lives and two tins

By Mike Appleton

To have almost no possessions except for the rags one stood up in, must have been a truly harrowing experience. This I believe explains the two tins shown below, which were with my father, Johnnie – Sgt J. G. Appleton 27 Sqdn RAF (pre-capture briefly attached to RAF HQ Communications Team) – throughout his time as a POW in Sumatra, as he moved from one jungle camp to the next. The fact that he brought them home and kept them all his life speaks volumes about their significance.

The discoloured tin held tobacco and matches. There were still shreds of tobacco in it when I was young. It also held a wad of occupation money. The Gold Flake tin held a Japanese toothbrush, with its bristles stained bright red from using tree bark as toothpaste (this has gone missing), some letters and his Japanese ID badge. On the right is his RAF insignia and on the left another badge which I don’t recognise, can anyone tell me what this is?

My father John Griffith Appleton (1917 – 2009) served in the RAF for 32 years (1935 -1967). During WW2 he was first stationed in India before flying down to Malaya. As the Japanese invaded from the north, he fled from one bombed-out airfield to the next and then, in a hazardous rush, to Singapore. During the invasion of the Island he was a key member of a team that, up to the last moment, kept open the communications links to India and Java.

On the night of 13 Feb 1941 Johnnie was ordered to leave with his team. They boarded the S.S Tien Kwang bound for they knew not where, and being exhausted, fell asleep on the deck. The next morning, they woke to the sound of low flying aircraft starting their bombing run and within moments the ship was holed, listing and there were many casualties. Another ship nearby the SS Kuala suffered a similar fate. Following the order to abandon ship, Johnnie managed to swim towards Pulau Pompong Island and being unhurt assisted in helping the wounded and disposing of the dead.

After several days and a hair-raising journey in a junk, he landed in the mouth of the Indragiri River on the East coast of Sumatra. There was then an arduous traverse of Sumatra to the West coast and Padang where it was hoped they would be taken off by a Naval ship. No ship arrived and instead they simply waited in limbo and trepidation for the arrival of the Imperial Japanese Army.

For the next three and a half years Johnnie was in a total of 10 camps in Sumatra, with progressively harsher regimes and ever-increasing levels of privation as the war progressed. The culmination of the experience was a year building the railway linking Sumatra’s east and west coast ports. This line was forged through virgin jungle with basic hand tools, in adverse climatic and disease-ridden conditions. The irony was that the track was completed shortly before the Japanese capitulated and was never really used thereafter. It is now in ruins and reclaimed by the jungle.

In 1999/2000 Johnnie compiled a detailed memoir describing his and fellow prisoners’ hardship and ill treatment. What is remarkable on reading his account, is not just that he survived, but that he did so with no lasting physical impairment and outwardly no mental issues. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he did relate stories and describe events, in particular about living in the jungle and the various wild animals encountered – and eaten! His explanation for survival seemed to involve using the hard work and squalid conditions as a challenge. He had the determination that however bad he felt he must rise and work hard all day.

At one point a Japanese camp commander called him out from a daily parade and, instead of beheading him for some minor misdemeanour, which was my father’s expectation, awarded him a tin of sugar, a reward for having worked 100 days without a break. Other contributory factors he offered were, the responsibility undertaken for looking after the RAF contingent, prior experience of living in Asia, an extensive inoculation programme when he was being trained pre-war and, being a boy scout!

Towards the end of the war it is clear from his account that survival was very much in the balance as the effort to overcome extreme beriberi and starvation became overwhelming. The descriptions of the excitement experienced as SOE operatives literally dropped out of the trees and liberated the camp, is thrilling to read. It does also appear that the RAF, within the knowledge parameters of the day, re- PTSD etc., did do much to ease him back into fully operational service as a ‘regular’, and promoted him several ranks to make up for lost time and in recognition of the responsibility he had taken on in the camps organising his RAF colleagues.

For many years post-war Johnnie played a role in his local FEPOW branch and acted as treasurer.

Johnnie Appleton, carrying a FEPOW Federation wreath, Manchester Cathedral, late 1990s (©courtesy M. Appleton)

My Grandfather’s List

By Andrew Easterbrook, a documentary researcher in Vancouver, Canada

Among the possessions my grandfather, Joe Harper, saved until the end of his life was a photograph taken at Clacton on 8 Nov 1941, days before his deployment overseas. The image shows his 251 Battery of the 85th Anti-Tank Regiment, RA, who were fated to sail to Singapore and become prisoners of the Japanese.

251 Battery of the 85th Anti-Tank Regiment, RA, 8 Nov 1941 (Image courtesy of A. Easterbrook)

The photo came into my possession when my grandmother died in 2009. Since then, I have often wondered what happened to the 140 smiling young men in the picture. What were their fates? Without their names, an examination of the usual official sources wasn’t much help. The breakthrough came when I discovered a list of surnames written in pencil on the back of an envelope Joe received from my grandmother, while he was a POW on the Burma-Thailand railway in the summer of 1944. Knowing that Joe was a meticulous man, I counted the names: exactly 140 in all. They were even arranged in six rows. It was a clue to the identities of the names of the men in the photo! With an initial list of names, the hard work could begin.

The initial list of names written on the back of an envelope (image courtesy A. Easterbrook)

For this I teamed up with Mick Luxford, Editor of the Queen’s Own Oxfordshire Hussars (QOOH) Association’s newsletter, and a fount of knowledge concerning Oxfordshire Regiments – from which 251 Battery originally came. The nominal roll of the 85th at the National Archives in Kew filled in some of the blanks, but some names on my list were duplicates, and others were unreadable. Clearly some detective work would be needed. A trawl of primary and secondary published and unpublished material, along with a deep dive into Regimental publications and memories, slowly began to produce results. After much hard work, we believe that we have identified 122 of the men in the Battery photograph, with nine ‘probables’, and another nine currently unknown.

The 140 men from all over Britain assembled on that autumn day met fates that were as varied as those of the British Army in Singapore as a whole. Some were killed in action in Singapore shortly after their arrival. Many went to Thailand to work on the Burma-Thailand Railway; many of those died while doing so. Some went further, to Taiwan and Japan; some of those men died in hellships on the way. But many returned to Britain, lived long lives, and had families just like mine.

We have begun to reach out to some of families of men we have identified, many of whom are unaware of the photograph, and are delighted to see a new image of their relative. Work continues to identify the remaining men and find their families. Our small group of researchers next hopes to unearth the missing pre-departure photos of the other three Batteries of the wartime 85th (45, 270 and 281), and begin work to identify those men. If your relative was in the 85th (especially 251 Battery), or you know of those pictures, please do get in touch. 

Contact details: 85th.antitank@gmail.com

Artifacts of a Far East Prisoner of War

By Kurt Hughes

Whilst searching for an enamel mug on eBay, I happened across a group of items that appeared to belong to a FEPOW veteran. I searched the name and confirmed they did indeed belong to a FEPOW. Although not something I would normally be looking to buy, I purchased the items in order to keep them together as I feared the group being split up as, sadly, this does happen from time to time with military groups. I contacted the seller who was not related to the original owner but had purchased the items from a general auction.

I have a good knowledge of WW2 and, in particular military artefacts, but my wife is more knowledgeable than myself on the Far East campaign and POW’s experiences having had two great uncles that served in the Far East. One served in the Royal Marines 44 Commando, the other was Raymond John Marks (Royal Engineers), who sadly died whilst in captivity after the fall of Singapore. I have some experience researching the service of other family members and soldiers from different periods in history, so I helped research the history of my wife’s great uncle’s service.

These items belonged to Lt. John Fredrick Wright, the son of a Royal Navy Surgeon Captain; he was born in August 1919, and with the outbreak of War in 1939, he was a student living with his parents in Bournemouth. His POW report card has his occupation as an automobile engineering trainee. In 1940 he was commissioned and joined the Royal Army Service Corps attached to 196 Field Ambulance Royal Army Medical Corps; the RASC provided drivers for their ambulances. Lt. Wright travelled to Singapore with 196 FA part of 18th Division and was there during the fall of Singapore. I have managed to download several documents pertaining to his service; these include his captivity report, his record card and a number of camp rosters where he is listed. I have recently begun looking into the camps listed on his captivity report. Other than those, I currently have no further knowledge of his time in captivity or his life after WW2. I am still researching him, so I would be interested to hear from anyone who can provide any further information about him. It would be particularly special to be able to add a photo of him to the collection.

The group of items, pictured below, consists of:

  • His British Army issue 08 large kit bag with his name and number written in many places and numerous field repairs.
  • Mess tins, one with his name inscribed, and on the other his name, rank, number on one side and “18 DIV RASC SINGAPORE 15th Feb 1942”, and his unit and division insignia on the opposite side.
  • His 1939 dated fork with his initials.
  • His army issue WW2 water bottle, the stopper has been replaced with a bamboo one. His name is on the cloth cover, and the harness has a field repair plus the addition of a leather bottom. His initials are written on the harness’s underside and are not sun-faded like the rest of the water bottle.
  • His army issue white enamel mug which still has his fibre dog tag attached with string.

There are two clothing items: his “Jap Happy” loincloth and non-issue handmade shorts, possibly camp made.

Image courtesy of Kurt Hughes.

The following few items may indicate a medical link, firstly a set of unidentified kidney-shaped tins use unknown. The smaller section is able to sit on the edge of the main tin. Nearly all British army items are usually marked; however, these are not.

Next, there is an ivory tongue depressor, and finally, a piece of bamboo of unknown purpose that has been hollowed out at one end, creating a vessel for maybe a medicine or ointment. It has a staple in the bottom, perhaps to enable it to be hung up. Any suggestions as to its use would be appreciated. Given that these items are included, I think that Lt. Wright served in some sort of medical capacity. Although he was not RAMC, he was attached to them, and with his father being a Surgeon Captain RN, he may have had some basic knowledge or just willing to serve as an orderly.

Image courtesy of Kurt Hughes.

These items no doubt meant a lot to Lt. Wright as they were his worldly possessions for a number of years. Understandably many would be only too happy to part with any reminders of their time in captivity. For some, it might not have been easy to part with items that were so important to them after many years in captivity. He kept that simple, inconspicuous piece of bamboo, and the mug is still stained from use as is the clothing, one mess tin retains the burn marks of use, and the web material of packs holds dust from the Far East. Untouched, they tell the story of their use. They have not been cleaned, washed, or polished bright in later years; they look to have been brought home and just put away. Perhaps a reminder that he did not want to part with, but equally just wanted to put away.

Handling these historic items is a tangible link not just to Lt. J.F. Wright, but also Raymond John Marks and every other Far East Prisoner of War. I plan to donate the items to somewhere they can be preserved for the future and commemorate Lt Wright’s service.

Thank you to Meg Parkes for suggesting this post and identifying the loincloth, also thanks to Emily Sharp for help with this post and translating the report card.

Our tribute to warfare historian, Dr Clare Makepeace PhD, Honorary Research Fellow Birkbeck College, who died on 3rd April 2019, aged 40

By Dr Bernice Archer PhD & Meg Parkes MPhil
Clare Makepeace

In 2007 Clare Makepeace was working towards a Masters’ degree at Birkbeck University London, studying “Cultural History of War”, a course run by Professor Joanna Bourke. Having completed her MA, Clare went on to do a PhD, her thesis focused on the cultural history of British prisoners of war (POWs) in Europe during World War II. She later refined the thesis which then became her ground-breaking book “Captives of War British Prisoners of War in Europe in the Second World War”, published by Cambridge University Press (CUP) in November 2017. You can watch an interview with Clare here:

Cambridge University Press – Academic. (2017). He rarely spoke of what he went through.’ What was life really like for British POWs in WW2?. [Online Video]. 6 December 2017. Available from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5bSO2y-ROhA

In an article published in October 2017 on the Cambridge University Press history blog, “fifteeneightyfour”, Clare explained the reason for writing her book:  

“It was something my grandfather said, back in 2008, that inspired me to write “Captives of War. British Prisoners of War in Europe in the Second World War”. Towards the end of his life he opened up a little more about his time as a POW, and I started to encourage him to write his memoir. One day he said ‘Why would I record my story? It would just be one long tale of humiliation.’

At that moment, I realised the way he saw his experience and how I saw it differed vastly. I admired my grandfather for what he had endured and survived. He, meanwhile, was ashamed. I wanted to understand his point of view: how it felt to be a POW and how these men made sense of the experience”.

SOURCE: fifteeneightyfour (Academic Perspectives from CUP). 26 October 2017. ‘He rarely spoke of what he went through.’ Author Clare Makepeace reveals how her grandfather inspired her new book, ‘Captives of War’. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.cambridgeblog.org/2017/10/he-rarely-spoke-of-what-he-went-through-author-clare-makepeace-reveals-how-her-grandfather-inspired-her-new-book-captives-of-war/

Realising there was a much wider story, Clare began researching a more global view of wartime captivity, including those POWs captured in the Far East during the Second World War. Sadly, she did not live long enough to complete that important work.

Her interest in Far East captivity had first been kindled at a conference at Cambridge University in 2009 when she met Bernice Archer and Meg Parkes. In August 2015, during the lead up to VJ70 commemorations, Clare and Meg co-authored an article entitled, “VJ Day: Surviving the horrors of Japan’s WW2 camps”. This featured in the BBC online magazine on VJ Day. Writing about her love of history Clare said:

“The thing I love most about writing history is that it is unique. By that I mean each historian has their own interpretation of the past, which no one else can replicate. The history they write is a product of academic rigour as well as their own character. That second component doesn’t make history fictitious. It makes it relevant. Through being written by historians living in the present, history speaks to today’s concerns. Historians shine light on possible future paths we might take from here, by illuminating those we took in the past.”

SOURCE: BBC News. 2015. VJ Day: Surviving the horrors of Japan’s WW2 camps. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-33931660.

By re-visiting Captives of War, we reflect on the importance and relevance of Clare’s work, which not only gives an insight into her love of writing history, but also her extensive and rigorous historical research. Her character and humanity is evident, as she sought to bring a unique interpretation and understanding of how the POWs made sense of their captivity.

While acknowledging and celebrating her contribution to the understanding of the effects of captivity in warfare, here we consider Clare’s much broader view of history and the important role of historians in shining a light on the “possible future paths we might take from here”.  “History” she said, “speaks to today’s concerns”. It is that final sentence that resonates with today’s challenges and which Clare’s husband, Richard Stokoe (lecturer at the University of South Wales on Planning for disasters and civil contingencies and on strategic leadership) and author Professor Bourke, addressed last year in an article entitled, “We can learn a lot in Coronovirus Lockdown from Prisoners of War “.

Published on-line in “Huffington Post” (18April 2020) during the first UK Lockdown, they reference Clare’s work in highlighting the parallels between C-19 Lockdown and POW captivity. While not comparing “what we are going through to what wartime PoWs suffered. That would belittle their years of deprivation…” they nevertheless stressed that, “the government must start planning now for the coming wave of mental health issues, otherwise we risk opening up a new front in the battle to reduce coronavirus suffering in the long term”.  

The mental stresses of POW captivity were indeed a concern for Clare, but she also expressed her anger and annoyance with:

“a society that seemed uninterested in the experiences of POWs and much more interested in those who had ‘heroically’ escaped”.

These comments raise a number of questions about how Clare may have viewed society’s interest in the lived experience of C-19. Would she, for example, have wanted to highlight the experiences of all members of society affected by the pandemic, not just the “heroes”?

Would her focus have been on those stuck at home and unable to ‘heroically escape’; those who want to get back to their jobs (like the soldiers who wanted to get back to their fighting roles), and who look forward to being able to resume normal life? Would their stories be considered part of the ‘bleaker story’, of which she wrote:

“…one of guilt, isolation, wasted time, failure to unite in adversity and of mental strains from which no prisoner could escape?”

Reflecting on Chapter 3 of Captives of War, Clare writes about the ‘less admirable’ ways prisoners coped:

“British POWs did not collectively unite around two of the most significant hardships of imprisonment; length of time in captivity and shortage of food”.

Would she have drawn parallels between the “soldiers who were ready to steal, be involved in rackets,” and the selfish stockpiling by some of the general public during the first lockdown? How might Clare have considered,

“the stress and the shallow and perfunctory nature of social (military) comraderie”.

in the context of today’s pandemic world, with the impact on masculinity and the rise of domestic violence?

Sadly, we will never know what Clare’s view would have been on these C-19 issues. But we do know from her writing that her cultural history lens would have focused on the important, the relevant, and the particular, and would have pointed a way forward.

As mentioned earlier, through her analysis of the ways in which POWs experienced and made sense of their captivity, Clare encourages present and future historians of wartime captivity to “shine a light on possible future paths we might take from here”.  Of her conclusions she writes:

“Some of these [conclusions] might give historians pause to consider the experience of captivity in other wars or spheres of incarceration in slightly different terms from how it has so far been conceived.

“…one area ripe for research is how POW experience has been remembered by post-war society, why it has been remembered in such a way and what effect that remembrance had on society, families and, most importantly, the veterans themselves”.

She ends with:

”…We still know so little about the long-term effects of captivity on former POWs and how society helped or hindered them. In the contemporary era, when warfare is being commemorated to an unprecedented degree, it seems particularly important research, if we are to fully support both those who served in the past and who do so in the present”.

Clare’s message to present and future historians is to look beyond the “heroic” and to consider how captivity/lockdown is experienced in real terms by the “ordinary”, the “non-heroes”.  She urges them to consider how and why the “non heroes” are remembered by society in a particular way, and what effect that has had on them and their families. How can Clare’s research be applied to today’s incarceration of society in a pandemic lockdown?

In challenging times society is fed “heroic” stories by the media, in newspapers, books, news bulletins, TV programmes and films: from 100-year-old Sir Tom Moore stepping out to help the NHS to 11-year-old Max Woosey camping out for a year in aid of a local hospice; exercise gurus on TV, 8pm clapping for front line workers, praise for doctors, nurses and the scientists. ALL of course worthy of praise, and as Clare would have said, ‘soldier hero ideal’ (those POWs who escaped were heroic, those that didn’t were not worthy of interest’). But what about those ‘ordinary’ people stuck at home unable to ‘escape’?

Applying and continuing her approach to understanding the immediate and the long-term effects of incarceration, would be a fitting and lasting tribute to Clare and those whose stories she has told.


Clare was a contributor to our blog, you can read her work through the links below:

The Use of Armoured Cars in Malaya

By Jon Cooper, Project founder of The Adam Park Project, Centre for Battlefield Archaeology at Glasgow University

It is often cited by historians that the British had no tanks in Malaya.

This is not to say that the Allies had no armoured vehicles, however. Notably the Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders were provided with 6 Lanchester armoured cars, each to be named after Scottish castles. These vehicles had been brought over from the Middle East and were notoriously temperamental.

Captain Wilson of the A&SH describes them as:

‘By anyone’s standards the Lanchesters were well past their sell-by date. They were designed for the Middle East and from their log books all had served there; they were well old, cumbersome and crotchety, but they packed considerable firepower (a .5 and .303 medium machine guns in the turret and another .303 machine gun in the hull) and they had a tolerably thick coating of armour for their day.’[1]

Vehicles loaned out to other units were returned as their new operators were unable to get them started. The Scots made good use of the five Lanchesters they took into Malaya however only one, the ‘Stirling Castle’ made it back to guard the causeway as the last of the allied troops crossed into Singapore. The last of the Scottish Lanchesters were knocked long the Bukit Timah Road during the fight for the Dairy Farm

The A&SH and the SSVC were also given Marmon Herrington armoured cars. But these lacked armoured protection, firepower and were open topped allowing the enemy to lob grenades and Molotov cocktails into the crew positions with devastating effect.

Marmon Herrington Armoured Cars being prepared for combat at the Alexandra Depot. (IWM)

In July 1942 Lieut. R L Rendle of the FMSFV Intelligence branch wrote a ‘secret’ report on the action of the F.M.S.V.F armoured cars units in Malaya from the 6 – 15th February 1942. He states that the armoured cars were prone to ambush, a skill quickly developed by the Japanese. He does note however that early in the campaign the armoured cars were effective against what he considered ‘irregular’ Japanese troops who were untrained and unequipped to attack armoured vehicles and suffered heavy casualties for their efforts. Notably he reports that second-hand accounts were telling of Japanese troops attacking with magnetised mines and bottle bombs of Nitric Acid in almost suicidal assaults on the armoured cars.

There was one additional problem though in the Herrington steering position. The small view port used by the driver to see behind the vehicle when they were reversing was set too high up to be any use. The driver depended on another crew member to say what was behind them. When reversing out of an ambush all the crew were too busy to keep a look out and many Herringtons ended up driving into the drainage ditch by the side of the road forcing the crew to abandon the vehicle. Simple design faults that ultimately cost lives.


[1] Wilson 2001 p56

Sharing Research REALLY helps! Collaboration on the ‘Flying Kampong’

By Meg Parkes, in collaboration with Michiel Schwartzenberg and Keith Andrews

Fourteen years’ ago, I began recording interviews with Far East prisoner of war (FEPOW) veterans for the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine (LSTM). Sixty-seven interviews later, during lockdown centenarian FEPOW Bert Warne accepted an invitation to be interviewed.

I spoke to Bert, who lives in Southampton, via Zoom In early November 2020. Interviewing anyone of such a great age is a privilege. However, when relying on technology, it’s not without its challenges. Bert’s voice is strong, and he speaks quickly with a broad Hampshire accent, which when coupled with a fractional time delay initially led to some confusion. Regrettably, worried that he could not hear me, I ended up shouting at him!

Like thirty-seven of the previous interviewees, Bert was captured in Singapore and later sent to Thailand. Every interviewee has a unique story to tell, Bert mentioned something about the railway that I’d not heard before:

Well then what happened was, when we went from that camp [Konkoita] we didn’t go back on the barge and what we done we used to travel, when we built that railway you could only go so far on what you call a steam locomotive. The thing is they’re heavy see, they’re a terrific the weight you see. So if you’d have gone up country and put a steam train on, it’d have fell through you see, ‘cos it was green see [referring to the wood used to build it]. So, what the Japs did do, which I thought was quite a good idea, their diesel trucks, their lorries, what they done they converted the wheels from the trucks to go on the railway, you see. So, what we used when we were on the railway, when you talk about people being transported on the railway, they weren’t transported with steam locomotives, they were transported by lorries.

Puzzled, I emailed members of the Researching FEPOW History Group (RFHG) to see if anyone had heard about these truck trains. Without delay our Dutch research colleague Michiel Schwartzenberg, emailed:

“He is talking about the ‘Flying Kampong’ a diesel lorry adapted for railroad usage.

The diesel-powered lorries were very practical, and to the Westerners a novelty. The Japanese had to devise something that could move heavy goods along the railway, as there was no road or a dependable river…. There was another advantage as a lorry can move short distances. A steam train has to develop pressure, power and then can move long distances. Obviously, a train can move much heavier loads, but on the railway this was restricted to 10 boxcars”.

Michiel sent these photographs:

Archive photograph of a Flying Kampong at work in Thailand during captivity – Australia War Memorial Reference P000761.043
Archive photograph of a Flying Kampong at work in Thailand during captivity – Australia War Memorial Reference P000406.016

Keith Andrews also responded:

“They were certainly used in some sections of the Railway. Capable of pulling four of the specially built wagons they were excellent for transporting maintenance parties or Japanese troops. They had been used by track laying groups and were in use until the end of the war. I will see what else I can dig up”.

(NB Bert had mentioned that the trucks could only go about 40 miles before they needed diesel).

And he contacted Terry Manttan the manager of the Thailand Burma Railway Centre in Kanchanaburi, who added:

“The converted lorries (truck-trains or “flying kampongs”) were mostly used for short to medium distance movements of working groups of PoWs as they were much more versatile and more readily available for such a function”.

If anyone has any further information about the Flying Kampongs do please share.

Medical hero: Lieutenant Colonel Malhotra in Singapore, 1942-1945

By Kevin Noles, DPhil Student, New College, University of Oxford

Two years ago I wrote a blog post outlining my research project on Indian PoWs. Since then, I was lucky enough to complete my research in India and elsewhere before the Covid-19 pandemic closed the archives, and I have now begun writing my thesis. One of the reports I found in India detailed the work of Lieutenant Colonel Malhotra of the Indian Medical Service (IMS), who played a pivotal role in providing medical services to Indian PoWs in Singapore and the surrounding region.

Among the 67,000 Indian troops captured by the Japanese were thousands of IMS personnel, including 180 officers. Singapore became a major hub for medical provision to Indian PoWs, with the whole operation being commanded by Malhotra. At one point in 1944 he had direct command of a hospital in Singapore with 4500 patients and staff, although there was also a second hospital with another 2500. While most Indian patients only remained in hospital for a limited period, there was a core of around 500 permanent invalids, most of whom were battle casualties from the Malayan campaign.

Malhotra and his men faced three broad challenges: dealing with the Japanese; obtaining sufficient medical supplies; and providing food for the patients. In terms of the Japanese, a constant feature was the poor treatment of his staff, with Malhotra stating that they ‘suffered both mental and physical torture’. In addition, decisions made by the Japanese, for example to amalgamate three Indian hospitals into two in 1944, often caused unnecessary hardship.

Unsurprisingly, obtaining medical supplies was a major challenge, particularly given the large numbers of patients being cared for. There were however two significant deliveries of supplies: one in January 1943 consisting of fifteen lorry loads of medicines and dressings, and another smaller one in May 1945. Even so, there were acute shortages of medicine at times (for example in 1944), despite attempts to find substitute drugs locally.

Obtaining enough food for the patients was another major concern. Although the Japanese provided subsistence rations for patients, they were inadequate to assist with recovery. Malhotra oversaw the establishment of duck farms to provide eggs for the patients, although the farms were closed due to Japanese policy in late 1943, an outcome he viewed as a major setback. Rations deteriorated to the point where there was an outbreak of Beriberi among patients in 1944, although improvements in rations overcame this by the end of the year.

While the challenges were many, it is clear that Lieutenant Colonel Malhotra and his staff saved the lives of many Indian prisoners during the years of captivity. In recognition of his service he was awarded the Order of the British Empire after the war, but despite this, the story of the IMS in Singapore has been largely forgotten.

Please get in contact if you have any information of Indian PoWs of the Japanese.

Thailand In The Second World War

By Ray Withnall, Author

My research may be summarised as a discourse that examines Thailand’s transition from the 1932 coup d’état through subsequent turbulent years leading up to the Japanese accessing its territory at the start of the south-east Asia War. It follows Thailand’s role during the war and culminates with the outcome of end-of-war peace treaties. It is divided into five parts.

The first part briefly considers the years before the 1932 coup to show how the aspirations of successive monarchs established relationships with the West, particularly Great Britain and France. This takes into account the conclusions of gifted and talented Thai students who were studying in Europe and wanted to change Thailand’s monarchy from ruling with absolute power to one in which the monarch was governed by a constitution. The events prior to the coup d’état are studied.

The second part examines the period from the coup up to December 1941 when Japanese military forces entered Thailand. Difficulties between the civilian and military factions of government arose as army officer Pibul Songkhram became prime minister at the end of 1938. Nationalistic policies dominated his domestic agenda, and the international landscape evolved as diplomatic relations with Great Britain and the United States were tested against a background of increasing influence from the Japanese. The atmosphere intensified following a brief military conflict with France over a border dispute between Thailand and French Indochina.

The third part looks at the events leading to the Thai government permitting Japanese military access into its territory as it advanced towards Malaya and Burma at the start of the south-east Asia war. This was a crucial period during which Thailand abandoned its policy of neutrality and became a Japanese ally. The military and diplomatic response from the Western allies to Japan’s advance is closely examined with emphasis on Great Britain’s response to Thailand’s predicament and its corresponding attempt to defend Malaya.

Image of a Thai World War 2 propaganda poster from the Royal Thai Air force museum in Bangkok, the Thai wording on the poster translates as follows:

“We are at war with the English. England is not a friend of Asia. Together with the Japanese army we are fighting against the English. England has put pressure on Thailand for a long time. Japan wants Thailand to prosper more and more and more.”

Image & translation courtesy of Ray Withnall.

The fourth part studies Thailand’s role throughout the War. Attention is given to the broadening rift between the military and civilian factions of the government as Japan’s idealistic promises caused frustration and economic chaos. Thailand declared war on Great Britain and the United States. The Seri Thai resistance movement was organised by Pridi Banomyong. He made contact with Great Britain and the United States and convinced them that the Seri Thai could become a credible fighting force in the defeating Japan in Thailand. Prime minister Pibul lost domestic popularity through eccentric attempts to westernise Thai society. He realised Japan was losing the war and disassociated himself from them but lost his position to a new government that supported the allies. During this period thousands of Japanese Prisoners of War and civilian Romusha were sent to Thailand to construct the Thai-Bura railway. The response from the Thai government and the attitude of its people to the treatment and cruelty dispensed by the Japanese towards these men is examined.

The final section considers Thailand’s post-war agreements with the British, American and French and concludes with a summary of Thailand’s achievements as it looks towards its future.

The research draws on published books by respected historians, documented personal accounts and theses that are available in the public domain and records from the National Archives Kew.

Stitched Up… A Little Piece of History

Marking the 79th anniversary of the Fall of the Netherlands East Indies, Meg Parkes shares what her father called “his little piece of history”
Fig.1 first of five typed pages setting out the Dutch capitulation ©M.Parkes
All five pages of the original Dutch notice of surrender are reproduced in Meg’s book, “Notify Alec Rattray…”, the first part of her father’s diaries.

In the early 1990s while I was transcribing his diaries, my dad told me the story behind this  document and its important place in Second World War history. It is the first of five pages of the official order to surrender the Dutch East Indies. The order was issued on 8 March 1942 by General Ter Poorten Commander-in-Chief of Dutch Forces. It is believed to be the only copy in existence, thanks to the squirreling tendencies of my father Captain Andrew Atholl Duncan A&SH.

Dad served briefly as senior cipher officer in British Headquarters in Java. On 15 January 1942 General Wavell moved GHQ from Singapore (where Dad had been one of four cipher officers) to the village of Lembang just north of the regional city of Bandoeng in the Central Highlands, to bolster Dutch defences against the imminent Japanese invasion.

On 25 February, Wavell was recalled to India taking with him two of HQ’s senior cipher officers. Left behind to serve the newly appointed commander, Major General H. D. W. Sitwell, were Lieutenants Duncan and Campion[i]. Dad was then promoted to captain by Sitwell

On Sunday 1 March the Japanese assault on Java began. At 4a.m. on 7 March the British secretly abandoned HQ, omitting to inform the Dutch Liaison Officer Capt. Barron Mackay. He turned up for duty next morning to find British HQ in disarray and no sign of where the staff had gone[ii]. The British trekked into the mountains to the south eventually assembling at the Santosa tea plantation. Dad briefly acted as A.D.C to Sitwell at talks with Ter Poorten’s HQ regarding Sitwell’s plan to wage guerrilla warfare against the Japanese. However, the Dutch would not countenance the plan.

During the early hours of the next day, Dad was on duty when the order to surrender came from General Ter Poorten. A long message set out the terms of surrender the Dutch had accepted from the Japanese. What must it have felt like for him to write the words, “Raise white flag as sign of surrender”? Once decoded, the handwritten copy was passed to the stenographer for typing, Dad instructing him to “shove in a carbon”. The typescript filled five RAF message forms which were taken to the general who was sleeping. Sitwell, having read the message, responded with, “No reply, Duncan”.

Amid the chaos and confusion that followed the surrender Dad had the forethought to keep the carbon copies of the surrender document and at some point prior to captivity they were neatly folded and stitched into the lining of Dad’s glengarry. There they stayed undetected during the next eight months in Java and for the subsequent years in Japan.

Capt Duncan’s glengarry

Keeping hold of this important historic record had mattered greatly to Dad and I came to believe it was talismanic. Dad and these records were intrinsically linked; each helped the other to survive and much later to tell their Far Eastern Second World War stories.


[i] Diary of Lt Desmond Campion, private collection

[ii] Report by Dutch Liaison Officer Capt R.A. Baron Mackay KNIL, IWM Documents https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/1030008098

Remembering our friend, FEPOW Bob Hucklesby

Bob Hucklesby
3rd January 1921 – 26th February 2021

The Researching FEPOW History Group (RFHG) first met FEPOW Bob Hucklesby in October 2011 when, as President of the National FEPOW Fellowship Welfare Remembrance Association (NFFWRA), he led the group’s visit to Liverpool. There they joined over 600 people gathered for the unveiling of RFHG’s first Repatriation Memorial on Liverpool’s Pier Head.

Unveiling of Liverpool’s Repatriation Memorial on the Pier Head, 15 October 2011

From then on Bob became a keen advocate for, and supporter of, RFHG’s efforts to establish the second Repatriation Memorial at Town Quay Park in French Street, facing the waterfront in Southampton. What drove Bob’s need to help was a vow he had made nearly 70 years earlier never to forget the friends he left buried in a foreign land, their young lives needlessly cut short. He wanted to ensure that we and future generations never forgot them either.

Two years after the Liverpool unveiling, on Sunday 27 October 2013, Bob was among the FEPOW veterans at the Service of Dedication at St Michael’s Church in Southampton. Following the service, the congregation walked down to Town Quay Park overlooking Southampton Water where the Repatriation Memorial was unveiled. Back at St Michael’s the veterans chatted to the RAF and Army cadets who served as the Honour Guard for the day.

Bob forged links with St John’s Church of England Primary School, situated next to Town Quay Park. Each November since 2013, on or around 18th, Bob joined civic dignitaries, children and teachers from the school and volunteers from Friends of Town Quay Park at the memorial for a brief Remembrance Service. It was on 18November 1945 that Bob landed back in Southampton on board an Italian hospital ship, Principessa Giovanna.

In November 2014 at NFFWRA’s Llandudno reunion weekend, Meg interviewed Bob for the FEPOW oral history project. At the end Bob said:

I’m grateful to be alive. I’m grateful that I’ve had an opportunity to serve others and I’m grateful it gave me the experience to know that everyone should be respected… I’m very keen that those we left behind in the Far East, in a totally foreign culture, and having served to the best of their ability, that they’re never forgotten”.

Robert “Bob” Frank Hucklesby was born and brought up in Lowestoft in Suffolk. He served as a sapper in the Royal Engineers, was taken prisoner of war at Singapore and survived captivity in Thailand.

Post-war and once his health had recovered, Bob trained as an engineer working near Manchester, before settling back in Suffolk where in 1950 he served briefly as Secretary of the Ipswich FEPOW Club. In 1951 he moved the family to Poole in Dorset to take up a job in Town Planning and soon after joined the Bournemouth, Poole and District FEPOW club, serving in various roles on the committee including Welfare. Caring for people mattered to Bob. In 1996 he was appointed Trustee of the FEPOW Central Welfare Fund and the Far East POW and Internee Fund, helping to ensure that FEPOW would always be able to look after their own.

We have lost a good friend. Bob may be gone but he will not be forgotten.

Bob, at the Cenotaph in Whitehall, during the FEPOW Parade, 15 August 2015 (©M.Parkes)

Bob wrote a brief history of the National Federation of FEPOW Clubs and Associations (NFFCA), including the annual FEPOW Federation conference, together with a summary of his various roles with NFFCA over the years. You can view this by clicking the link below.

Stories to Tell

By Louise Reynolds, Author

RFHG is very much about sharing research and information, and sharing was the main aim of my book Echoes of Captivity, published last March.  Sharing the unique experience of belonging to the family of a FEPOW.  Most of the FEPOWs didn’t talk about their experiences, indeed they were instructed not to talk, but we, their children, have always been aware of something unspoken and disturbing. Did it affect us? I believed so.  My aim was to gather interviews with the families, the ‘children,’ now in their 60s, 70s, and 80s, and to share their stories.  I knew that, sadly, I could only manage a tiny and non-scientifically selected sample, but I felt I was on the right track when one of the contributors said to me “It’s nice to know there are still people in the country wandering around in the same state of mind as me.”

I approached the project with some trepidation.  Would people want to talk?  Was I being intrusive?  I put the word out on some FEPOW websites and I was surprised by the number of people who readily agreed.  Some interviews were conducted over Skype, but the majority were in person which I preferred

I’m a trained counsellor/psychotherapist, but this was something I never revealed because I am too close to the subject to keep a therapeutic distance.  I think people may have trusted me because they knew my own father was a FEPOW.  In fact they were astonishingly honest and the words simply poured out of them. Their testimony was often very poignant and I remember particularly, speaking on Facetime to a contributor in Australia.  It was a struggle  to feel connected because I couldn’t see her face clearly but then I saw tears trickling down her chin and I knew we’d made a connection.

And what did I discover from my small sample?  That many people feel they have been profoundly affected by their fathers’ trauma both positively as well as negatively.  One or two have had breakdowns, many feel haunted by the unspoken horrors and some of them are carrying ‘live’ and unprocessed trauma they have inherited from their fathers.    Recently there’s been a lively response on a FEPOW Facebook site to a BBC World article which was posted there entitled ‘Can the legacy of trauma be passed down the generations.’  It included a reference to the controversial subject of ‘epigenetics’ which is the, as yet unproven (in humans) theory,  that in response to trauma actual chemical changes are made to the surface of the genes which are then passed on in the DNA to the next generation.   Several people remarked on odd characteristics both physical and mental which they felt might have been passed down to them.  All I can say for sure is that there are many more stories waiting to be told, more research to be done, and I’m aware that there is a whole new generation of grandchildren who are interested in research.  My own contribution is just the tip of the iceberg.


email:   louisereynolds99@aol.com

Echoes of Captivity edited by Louise Cordingly,  published March 2020

The Writings on the Wall – POW Pay Days

By Jon Cooper, Project founder of The Adam Park Project, Centre for Battlefield Archaeology at Glasgow University

In 2015, the tenant at No.5 Adam Park made a remarkable discovery as she was preparing a wall in the outbuildings for decoration. Beneath the layer of paintwork was a calendar drawn onto the plaster in pencil. It was dated 1942 and covered the months from September to December. Each day up until the 31st October had been carefully crossed out. Notably the date 25th October had been annotated with the statement ‘two years’.

Image courtesy of Jon Cooper
Image courtesy of Jon Cooper

The graffiti had been drawn by an Australian POW, most likely of the 8 Division Signals, who had been billeted in the house while working on the Shinto Shrine at the MacRitchie Reservoir. However, what was notable was the regular addition of the phrase ‘Pay’ every few weeks throughout the period.

It is a little-known fact that the POWs were reimbursed for the work they did for the Japanese. Soldiers were paid between 10 and 15 cents a day. Apparently, according to the calendar, this was then toted up and paid in a lump sum every 4 weeks. Assuming a man worked on average 24 days this would give him a couple of dollars to spend each month. The POW was not short of places to go to spend their money. The Adam Park Camp had its own canteen run by Chinese tradesman and hawking a selection of fruits, vegetables cakes, soaps, cigarettes, and a few household luxuries, all at a reasonable price. With a banana at 10cents each and butter at $1.50 a pound the POW could in theory purchase enough foodstuffs to liven up the dullest of rice dishes. The money could also be used to fund black market transactions.

In stark contrast, the officers were paid at the same rate as their Japanese counterpart anything between $30 to $50 a month. The officers put some money towards their accommodation and a Mess Fund that bought food and drugs for the hospital and supplement the camp rations.

As for the ‘two years’ annotation on the calendar, well this meaning remains unclear. It is thought it could have been the date this particular ‘Cove’ left Australia. This graffiti as well as the Chapel Mural at No.11 Adam Park are currently under the careful custodianship of the National Heritage Board.

Survival in Extreme Conditions and Transition to Peacetime

By Edgar Jones, Professor in the History of Medicine & Psychiatry, King’s College London

Much has been written on the physical privations and diseases suffered by Far Eastern prisoners-of-war (FEPOWS) but less has been said of the psychological challenges and the post-traumatic illnesses that they experienced when in civilian life. The resourceful, fortunate and resilient group who survived provide an opportunity to study coping mechanisms and survival techniques in the most extreme circumstances.

Evidence gathered from survivor accounts suggests that there was no single method that worked for all. Prisoners devised coping strategies that fitted with their pre-capture skills and personality traits. Alistair Urquhart, for example, distracted himself through music and song, and a determination to survive:

‘I decided to stay apart from everyone else and focus totally on survival. I lived a day at a time in my own little world, a private cocoon, and adopted the position of self-sufficient loner… If someone spoke to me, I replied but there was no sense of community’.

By contrast others formed themselves into small groups so that if one fell sick or struggled to work, the others would provide cover or find extra food. Crucial for many was a skill or experiences that had prepared them for the challenges of captivity. Lt Arthur Scrimgeour of the Straits Settlements Volunteer Force had medical knowledge acquired in his job as manager of Glaxo’s Far East Company. When suffering from beriberi, he treated this by swallowing the husk polishings of uncooked rice as they contained vitamin B and used banana leaves as dressings for leg ulcers.  Religious faith has been shown in many studies to serve as a protective factor during captivity and torture. Eric Lomax, a member of the Episcopal Church, wrote that his ‘moral conviction of being saved, that I really had found God’ reinforced his determination both during captivity and afterwards. Ashley Prime who had grown up in multi-cultural India was able to identify the good in people from whatever race they came.

Although these coping mechanisms enabled prisoners to survive extended periods of privation and danger, they were not a guarantee of an easy transition to civilian life. Urquhart and Lomax both reported troubling thoughts and enduring symptoms even when settled in civilian life. Recurring dreams of war were often a reminder of the trauma they had suffered. Urquhart wrote, ‘even after I married, life could be hell. To this day I suffer pain, and the nightmares can be so bad that I fight sleep for fear of the dreams that come with it’. Yet Urquhart also demonstrated the skill of being able to take something positive from adversity, adding ‘my sufferings as a prisoner taught me to be resilient, to appreciate life and all, to appreciate life and all it has to offer’.

“I Was There”: Frank Percival on The Fall of Singapore, 15th February 1942

Introduction by Martin Percival

May 1976 – what was about to become the longest, hottest and driest summer in memory for many people in the UK.

My father, Frank Percival, turned 58 years old that month. He had retired 2 years previously and his time was now spent raising two young sons, watching his beloved Queen’s Park Rangers have what was to be their most successful season in his 50th year as a fan and getting back in contact with some friends and relations in London and the south of England who he hadn’t seen for a long time, having lived in the north for many years. He re-joined the London Far East Prisoner of War Association for the first time in nearly 20 years and was to subsequently write a couple of articles for their bi-monthly “FEPOW Forum” magazine.

That month the “The Observer” Sunday newspaper magazine started a series entitled “I was there”. It consisted of eye witness accounts to various events that had gone down in history. My Dad was inspired to write up his memories from 34 years previously of the fall of Singapore – the greatest mass surrender in the history of the British Army.

Within a few weeks the 4 page typed manuscript was returned with a “thanks but no thanks” type note from the newspaper. My father filed it away. After all, he had been in the Royal Army Service Corps, so presumably that’s what he had been trained to do!

Whenever my brother or I asked Dad about his experiences in World War 2 he would tell us whatever we wanted to know. I later discovered that this was rare for men who had been Prisoners of War in Japanese hands in the Far East. Most just tried to bury the memories.

In December 1982 my Dad died, aged 64. Within 18 months my brother and I sold the family house and went our separate ways. Fortunately I had enough presence of mind to not just throw away my Dad’s papers, books and other mementoes from his time in the British Army from 1939 to 1946. Instead they headed up to the loft of my newly purchased house. 20 years later it was time to move house again and in 2004 I then re-discovered all of the items that I had packed away carefully in 1984. I sat and read a few of the articles my Dad had written. A lot of memories came back to me. I was thus inspired to start to research more of my father’s story. Within a year I had met other FEPOW descendants like Meg Parkes and Julie Summers and these meetings helped me to develop an even keener interest in the story of WW2 Far East Prisoners of War.

79 years after the fall of Singapore I hope the following pdf that contains my father’s previously unpublished memories of February 1942 are of interest to others. Maybe they will even inspire people to find out more about their own family history.

“Living with My Absent Father”

By Toby Norways, Senior Lecturer for Scriptwriting at the University of Bedfordshire and PhD Candidate in English (Creative Writing) at Newman University, Birmingham.

Toby Norways passed the viva for his PhD English (Creative Writing) in March 2020 and is currently finishing his thesis ‘corrections’ required before graduation. He has been researching his FEPOW father William ‘Bill’ Norways (1918-86) since 2015. His research took him to Singapore, Thailand, and to Japan where he met the family of one of his father’s camp guards. Toby’s thesis includes a 70,000-word creative manuscript Living with my absent father, a memoir of his father, and a corresponding 20,000-word critical commentary of the creative work.

Bill Norways was a commercial artist prior to World War II, before enlisting in the 2nd Cambridgeshire Regiment. He was taken prisoner in Singapore when the allied forces surrendered to the Japanese on 15th February 1942. In May 1943, he was transported to Thailand to be used as slave labour on the construction of the Thai-Burma Railway. Bill suffered great hardship but survived the war. He rarely talked of his experiences.

Close-up of an illustration drawn from memory while in captivity, by Cpl Norways (© courtesy the Norways family)

Toby’s research begins with a study of the artefacts his father assembled from the Far East (including the above illustration). The collection includes Bill’s original artwork and photographs from the prison camps in Singapore and Thailand. Amongst these items are a series of post-war letters. They reveal the unlikely friendship between Bill in Cornwall and one of his former prison guards in Japan, Kameo Yamanaka. He disapproved of Japanese hostility. During Bill’s captivity in Singapore, Yamanaka would share his food rations and supply Bill with pencils so he could continue to draw. The two men expressed a wish that their families would remain friends, but the correspondence ends with Bill’s death in 1986.

The memoir has three plot strands: Toby’s research journey to discover a father he scarcely knew; his father’s history as a prisoner of war; and a Bildungsroman, as Toby comes to terms with the absence, then the death of his father. Alongside these storylines, a correspondence between two opposing soldiers is gradually revealed as Toby travels to Japan to track down the family of the Japanese guard.

Toby Norways with the Yamanaka family, 2015. A poem written by Bill Norways is engraved on the Yamanaka family shrine (© courtesy the Norways family)

On completion of his PhD in 2021, Toby hopes to publish both the memoir of his father and an illustrated book containing the 200+ photos, paintings and sketches that his father Bill managed to bring home from the Far East.

Toby’s research and Bill’s artwork have been featured twice in the Guardian newspaper. Toby’s research journey is described here.

Bill’s artwork is featured in the Guardian gallery found here.

Into the jungle

By Louise Reynolds, Author

Good research requires several specialised skills but I never thought that the ability to decipher my father’s handwriting would be one of them.   When my mother died in 2011 we discovered files full of papers connected with my father’s time as a FEPOW in Changi and then up-country in Kanchanaburi.  My father, Eric Cordingly had brought home with him maps, artwork by fellow POWs, and even a complete typed diary of his first year in Changi, together with a Burial Records book, some  hand-written sermons and some scribbled notes on odd pieces of paper. It was an extraordinary and vivid collection from his three and a half years as a Padre and prisoner of war, during which he faithfully carried out his duties as a priest under the most desperate conditions.

I immediately decided to publish a book containing these unique papers and set about putting it all together.   The typed diary was a gift, it was just a matter of choosing sketches and paintings to illustrate the text.  And, fortunately, for his final year back in Changi,  he had written a report for the Assistant Chaplain General’s office in Rangoon.

But how could I cover the most critical time when, with F Force, he was based in Kanburi (as they called it) beside the River Kwai ?  I came across a thin and flimsy Thai child’s exercise book containing detailed pencilled notes and some airmail paper with more notes about the conditions in the hospitals where he was working and from where he buried over 600 young men who had been labouring on the Thai Burma Railway.  He instructed the doctors to let him know if anyone was close to the end and he would try to be at their bedside when they were dying.

The exercise book containing Eric Cordingly’s notes, image courtesy of Louise Reynolds

But his writing, never easy at the best of times, was scribbled in haste and sometimes words or sentences were crossed out and so I began to transcribe it with great care and a lot of anxiety. I gradually discovered that if I took a run at it, so to speak, it was much easier to read because often the clues were in the context. Turning these delicate pages which may not have been touched for 70 years was a tactile experience in itself, and reading his eye witness account of the horrors of daily life was breath-taking:

A page from the exercise book, , image courtesy of Louise Reynolds and partly transcribed below.

“It is too harrowing to picture vividly a ward of men whose sole kit consists of a tin and a spoon and a haversack and a piece of rag, lying on bare bamboo, or rice sacks with no covering until later,  blankets were issued.  The patients present a sorry picture, their exhaustion is so complete that no pain is suffered, they slip into a coma and the end is peaceful.  Each morning several bodies are lying still.”

The words I was transcribing told a sorry tale.  The strange thing was that after twenty minutes or so of this painstaking and absorbing work, I felt that I had plunged into the jungle with them, and, when I emerged, blinking, into daylight, I was astonished to find the normal world going on around me.  This happened to me several times. The cumulative experience of touching and transcribing the papers was very powerful.  I wonder if other RFHG researchers have encountered this phenomenon?


You can read more in Down to Bedrock  The Diary and Secret Notes of a Far East prisoner of war Chaplain 1942-45,   by Eric Cordingly    Published in 2013

Contact details:  louisereynolds99@aol.com

The search for the missing in Singapore

By Jon Cooper, Project founder of The Adam Park Project, Centre for Battlefield Archaeology at Glasgow University

One of the most startling facts to come out of the review of Singapore casualties is the high number of men listed as ‘missing’ and have never been found. This may well be understandable when we think of the nature of the combat in Malaya. Often allied troops were overwhelmed by the Japanese attacks and forced to abandon their positions and escape into the jungle. They then spent many weeks wandering the hills trying to get back to the allied lines. It is easy to imagine many men simply collapsing with fatigue and disease, being buried by their pals but destined never to be recovered after the war.

A well-tended soldier’s grave in Singapore

However, men going missing in Singapore is another matter. Not only was there time in many occasions to bury the dead and record the location of the graves during the fighting there was also opportunities in the first few months of captivity in Changi to return to the old battlesites and inter the unburied bodies. So how is it that so many men who were killed in Singapore appear on the war memorial in Kranji and have no known grave?

Post war newspapers are scattered with reports about the recovery of bodies. In June 1948, the Sunday Tribune in Singapore ran an article on the British army’s search for missing men. The Graves Registration unit, Far East Land Forces (FARELF) estimated that there were 1,500 corpses of allied troops buried in private gardens and waste land across the island. The article concludes with a statement from a spokesperson for FARELF who said

Several of the 1500 corpses scattered all over the island may be presumed as lost. Many of the corpses in the reported graves have not been discovered although the graves were located.[1]

A similar report in August 1947 tells of the circumstances under which FARELF Grave Recovery Teams worked in Singapore. The report suggests that unlike the Thai Burma Railway, where there were already established cemeteries, Singapore only had a handful specific locations associated with POW camps and hospitals, and hundreds of isolated graves of which there was little information.

It is true that there were many plans made by those who had conducted the burials in the tragic days of 1942, but most of these had been drawn under stress of battle or from memory when the person drawing the plan had been away from the scene for some years.[2] The results were often inaccurate and, in many cases, completely wrong.’ [3]

The reporter also points out that many of the soldiers were buried by local Malay and Chinese who kept no record of the interment and were, by 1947, unable to remember the location of graves. No comment is made as to how many of the 1,500 missing men were recovered The records maintained by the Bureau of Record and Enquiry in Changi often provide a description and six figure grid reference for the location of the grave or at least where the man was last seen, and it was this information that was being used by FARLEF. Today armed with such evidence could it be  possible to find these missing men with all the new technology available to the archaeologists? In theory yes. The work done at the likes of Adam Park, Bukit Brown and Mount Pleasant proves that old sites still exist in the landscape despite urban development and the latest geophysics can in theory detect grave sites. It is possible some missing men could still be found. However, after 80 years in the ground there would be few remains to recover, although grave goods and grave cuts may still be present.


[1] Sunday Tribune (Singapore), 27 June 1948, Page 3

[2] This is not necessarily the case, much of the burial information given to the BRE was recorded in the weeks and months after the surrender and compiled on organised and authorised burial parties.

[3] Morning Tribune, 18 August 1947, Page 6

Remembering captivity across Southeast Asia and the Far East during the Second World War