Category Archives: Sharing Research

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 A trawl of primary and secondary published and unpublished material, along with a deep dive into Regimental publications and memories, slowly began to produce results.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.

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.

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’.

“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.