Taken from "The Royal Engineers Journal" Vol. 106, No. 1 April 1992.
Professor P.H.G. Allen BSc PhD AKC
Educated at Norwich School and at the time of his enlistment as Driver IC in the 251 Field Park Company RE in June 1939 working for the Norwich Union Life Insurance Society, the author served with the 18th Division RE from its formation after the outbreak of war. Apart from short periods at Brompton (where he witnessed the Luftwaffe's first mass daylight raid) and No. 4 MT Depot he spent his entire service with it.
Following demobilisation in May 1946, grant assistance took him through an engineering degree course at King's College, London and graduate apprenticeship with the British Thomson-Houston Company, Rugby. He worked there for a further eight years on high voltage transformer design and development, gaining a PhD for his work on transformer winding cooling, before joining the Department of Electrical Engineering, Imperial College for 25 years of lecturing and further research.
Little is said in the official history of the Corps about the 18th Division RE. Its arrival in Singapore during the last weeks of the Malayan campaign is recorded, together with the fact that one of its field companies, the 287th, fought in Johore, while the remaining companies penetrated no further than the island of Singapore. The inauspicious arrival of the 251st Field Park Company, less all their equipment and transport, as shipwrecked survivors - one asphyxiated -on the SS Empress of Asia, sunk on 5 February 1942 by Japanese bombs within sight of their destination, receives no mention. Indeed, their arrival is predated as "during the remainder of January" with the remaining two field companies. In fact, one of these companies, the 288th, is identified incorrectly as "the 588th". It arrived safely, together with the 560th, on the US Navy troop carrier USS West Point (the peacetime liner SS America) in convoy with HQ 18 Division RE on USS Wakefield (SS Manhattan) on 29 January 1942.
This article had its origins when the author was planning to join the 1973 party of ex-Far East Prisoners of War (POWs) visiting Thailand, already noted in a previous Journal. For guidance when visiting the graves of fallen comrades, I had approached RE Manning and Record Office, Brighton. They could not provide company nominal rolls nor casualty lists but could merely confirm whether or not names supplied were casualties. During the visit, I learned to use Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) grave and memorial registers so, after my return, I went through those appropriate at the Commission's Headquarters, picking out the Divisional RE casualties and compiling unit casualty lists. On these, and on documents subsequently acquired, the statistics in this article are based.
Landing from USS Mount Vernon (the peacetime SS Washington) with 53rd Infantry Brigade at the Singapore Naval Base on 13 January 1942, 287th Field Company fought in Johore and lost 21 other ranks (ORs) killed in action or died of wounds, eight taken POW and imprisoned in Pudu Jail, Kuala Lumpur and at least one, Corporal R C Tall, missing (see next paragraph). During the subsequent fighting on the island, the 287th incurred a further five fatalities while the 251st, 288th and the 560th lost two, two and four respectively. All companies suffered wounded casualties some of whom were evacuated from the island while others recovered in Roberts Hospital, set up in the Changi POW camp area at the eastern tip of Singapore Island. Company Sergeant Major (CSM) J. F. Sawyer (288th) was awarded the Military Medal for his conduct while acting as second-in-command of his company while Lieutenants W. E. Furse and A.N. Pringle (560th) were mentioned in dispatches "in recognition of gallant and distinguished services in Malaya 1942".
Of the 30 officers and the 979th ORs comprising the Division RE, RE Postal Section (REPS) and attached Royal Army Ordnance Corps and Army Catering Corps personnel, 22 officers and an estimated 877 ORs became POWs at Singapore, most marching from Singapore City to India Lines, Changi, on 17 February. Eight ORs were posted to No 7 Mixed Reinforcement Camp, presumably after recovering from wounds received in Johore, appear to have been successfully evacuated. The remainder had left in a variety of circumstances. First, the CRE, Lieutenant Colonel P St B Sydenham, Captains H Y Buchanan (HQRE) and J M H Lewis (288th) and Lieutenants R R L Harradine (287th) and A D Marmont (251st) together with 14 ORs were members of a party ordered away from the island on 13 February by the General Officer Commanding, 18th Division, Major General M B Beckwith-Smith. Three ORs of this party died, two on 13 February and one on 27 February. During their escape, up the Inderagiri River (on Sumatra's East coast) to Rengat and through Ayer Molek and Sawalunto to Padang and Emmahaven and thence to Colombo, they were co-opted into helping with the Sumatra Escape Route.
They were overtaken by others who left Singapore "unofficially" at around the time of the city's surrender on 15 February. These included Captain S A W Johnson-Marshall (560th) and Lieutenant C E Jarrett-Kerr (HQRE) as well as 21 ORs, three of whom were made POW in Sumatra. In addition, Lieutenant F W Sibley (287th) and 16 ORs had been seconded to the Royal Navy to operate small boats, such as abandoned RAF air/sea rescue launches. Seven of the ORs appear to have perished, three on 13 February and four on 26 February, the remainder reaching Padang and evaded capture. In Padang, they were joined by Corporal Tall, of No 1 Section, 287th (Lieutenant P A D Jones). The section blew the bridge at Senggarang on 26 January and, cut off by the Japanese, were ordered "every man for himself". In a fracas with the Japanese the following day, Tall was among the wounded. In spite of this, he managed a six day crawl to the coast where he found a sampan. Drifting in this, he was rescued by Chinese fishermen and, after further adventures, reached Padang.
Immediately upon arrival at Changi, the Division RE, like the Corps generally, played a full part in providing essential sanitary facilities etc for the greatly overcrowded barrack area. Soon, however, the Japanese authorities demanded working parties for clearing, building and cargo handling duties in the city. So, on 13 March 1942, Major W A J Spear and Second Lieutenant B McD Buchanan (288th) led a contingent of Sappers, predominately from their own company, among the other Changi POWs who marched back to the city to occupy River Valley Road camp (between that road and the Singapore River on a site now occupied by Frazer and Neave's bottling plant). This camp, like the Havelock Road one on the river's opposite bank, had been built during the campaign to house civilian refugees from the mainland. From here, working parties were sent each day to all parts of the island and even across the causeway to Johore. There were no hospitalisation facilities and all cases of dysentery. avitaminosis, recurring fever etc were sent to Roberts Hospital, Changi. and thence, on recovery, back to the India Lines. Despite this continuous attrition, there were enough 18th Division Sappers left in River Valley Road to provide one officer (Buchanan) and 72 ORs for the 31 October 1942 draft to Taiwan. There, 29 of them worked in the infamous Kinkaseki Copper Mine and some were shipped to Japan early in 1945. Nevertheless, this draft managed to achieve 85 per cent survival.
Meanwhile, at Changi, on 18 June, Lieutenants J A Kerr and J L C Macaskill (288th), with 98 from 288th and 11 REPS ORs, were among the first of many train loads to make the five day journey, tightly packed into metre-gauge steel box-cars, from Singapore to Banpong, near the Thailand end of the notorious railway line to Burma, while a few (Second Lieutenant J E Palmer (251st) and 3 ORs) were among the 885 British who, with 115 Australians, made up the first draft from Changi to Japan on 16 August 1942.
The June Thailand party, totalling 3000 British, paved the way for many more to that country; in all of these 18th Division RE was represented. Over half the total POW movement north was in October and early November 1942. On 9th October, 13 18th Division Sapper ORs (mainly from 560th) were in the first of five parties of 650 transferred from River Valley Road to Banpong. 7 of the 8 287 Kuala Lumpur POWs were among the 401 transferred there from Pudu Jail on 14 October and, also in October, Captain G R Cheown (Division HQ) went directly from Keppel Harbour, Singapore.
Various of the 13 parties of 650 from Changi included Major F A Noble and Captain J P A Clymer (251), Lieutenants A Hepworth (HQRE), A N Pringle (560), W A Border (REPS) and the Medical Officer (MO), Captain J R Roulston, together with 277 ORs. The 47 major groups were all 251st with Clymer on 30 October and the 223rd ( nearly 60 per cent of 560th) were with Roulston, Hepworth and Pringle on the 3rd November. After a few days in a truly ghastly, monsoon flooded, transit camp at Banpong, each party set out for Tasau, then HQ camp of IV Group, Thailand POW administration, 130km up the track of the Burma railway. At Tamakan (55km) they marched past the early construction stages of the first. timber baulk version of The Bridge on the River Kwai (which actually crosses the Mae Khlaung River).
The atrocious conditions under which the railway was ultimately built, have been well documented. IV Group's area probably included the most difficult construction terrain on the line but during the period to the end of April 1943, 18th Division Sappers suffered only 11 casualties in Thailand. However, disaster was at hand, preceded by reinforcements. First, in March 1943, 'D' Force, 2780 British and 2220 Australian POWs in nine train loads left Changi for Banpong. The last party, on the 23rd. included Major W A J Spear and 101 Division RE ORs. As they passed Tamakan, they saw the early stages of construction of the second permanent steel and concrete bridge. 'D' Force's first task was to help complete the railway between Tarsau and Wampo, 16km to the South. including the two stretches of wooden rock-face viaduct and associated embankments near Wampo itself. They then moved to camps between Tasau and Kinsaiyok (172km) where they joined the November arrivals on truly horrendous tasks such as building the "Pack of Cards" bridge at Hintok (155km) and "Hellfire Pass" cutting at Kanu (162km) which remained to be completed during the monsoon. However, their misery was soon surpassed by that of the next two contingents, 'F' and 'H' Forces.
All previous drafts had been transferred from Malayan to Thai Imperial Japanese Army (IJA) administration, but 'F' and 'H' Forces were, in theory, supplied and administered from Singapore. In practice, they depended mainly on the charity of their impoverished fellow POWs and 'F, Force had to march the whole way (between 250 and 300km) from Ban Pong to their allotted tasks near the Thailand-Burma border. Their arrival there coincided with the onset of the monsoon and the outbreak of a cholera epidemic which, together with overwork, starvation, vitamin deficiency diseases, tropical ulcers, malaria and murder by Japanese and Koreans, led to the deaths of over 44 per cent of the 7000 strong force.
Following heavy casualties in action, the 287th had contributed relatively few to previous parties. Now, with the Company Commander (now acting CRE) Major M T L Wilkinson and Lieutenants J B Bradley and P A D Jones, they comprised the 122nd of the 152th 18th Division RE (also including Captain J E Excell (HQRE) and Lieutenants W E Furse and E F Stacy (560th) who left Changi during the latter part of April 1943 and incurred over 68 per cent casualties, including Excell and Furse. The horrors of the experience have been chronicled by Bradley who, with Wilkinson and eight non-Sappers, escaped from Songkurai camp (287km). Incredibly, five of them - but not Wilkinson - survived the mountain crossing to reach the Ye River. Fortunately for Bradley, the local IJA, to whom a village headman betrayed them, could not believe that they were escaped POWs who had travelled overland from the Khwae Noi valley and by the time they were returned to Songkurai tempers had cooled so that, eloquently defended by Captain C H D Wild, the camp interpreter, they were not summarily executed.The 18th Division RE element of the 3270 strong 'H' Force included Captain C D Pickersgill (287th), Lieutenant D M Ross-Esson (288) and Sapper R W F Searle (287th). Ronald Searle has given us a well-illustrated account of this ill-fated contingent which left Changi on 8 May 1943 and marched from Ban Pong to the Kanu area. Pickersgill was among its 22 (estimated) casualties. The Division RE suffered 162 casualties between May and December 1943. 158 of these were in Thailand while two others died shortly after their return to Singapore.
On 25 October 1943, the line laying gang moving South from Thanbyuzayat (between Moulmein and Ye in Burma) met those moving North from Non Pladuk (near Banpong in Thailand). The monsoon began to wane and in the resulting respite the sick were evacuated to Tasao, Chungkai, Tamakan, Kanchanaburi and Nakhon Pathom. Thence 'F' and 'H' Force survivors were returned to Singapore, initially to Sime Road camp whence they were transferred to Changi Jail in May 1944. The comrades they had left at Changi had also been working for the IJA. Work on the Changi airstrip had begun in September 1943 and India Lines had already been cleared to make way for it, the 18th Division Sappers moving to other parts of the Changi area, such as Selerang and Roberts Barracks and a "garden and wood" camp. In May 1944 they were reunited in the miserably overcrowded Changi Jail, displacing the civilian internees hitherto held there - who themselves moved to Sime Road camp.
Early in 1944, the finer members of IV Group were concentrated in a large camp at Thamuang, between Kanchanaburi and Banpong. The June 1942 party were mostly at Non Pladuk. From the working camps, parties went out to perform various chores, either locally or in small up-river camps. The permanent way had to be maintained, bridges repaired, trees felled and chopped up for locomotive fuel, trains derailed and all kinds of stores in transit handled. Within months, damage from Allied bombing and strafing had also to be repaired. However, in June 1944 parties were detailed in Thailand camps for shipment to Japan. Following an abortive attempt to embark part of it at Saigon, this force ended up at the River Valley Road, Singapore camp. Work in Singapore occupied them until, on 6th September, many were crammed into the holds of two ships in a convoy of six merchant (unmarked as to their cargo!) and five naval vessels. The remainder, including 16 of the Division RE, sailed from Singapore on 2 February 1945 but travelled no further than Saigon. They worked in French Indo China for the remainder of the war.
During the night of 11/12 September 1944, the 6 September convoy was attacked 300 miles off Hainan and late on the next day USN submarine Pampanito torpedoed the 10,509 ton Kachidoki Manu with many 18th Division Sappers and their MO aboard. Twenty six perished (the 251st lost 6, the 287th lost 5, the 288th lost 4 and the 560th lost 11); the remainder, including Captain Roulston. were rescued by the Japanese from Hainan and, together with survivors of another sunken boat, the Rakuyo Mani, sailed from Hainan to Moji, in Kyushu, in a whaling mother ship. From Moji, they dispersed to working camps all over Japan. Typically, Roulston's party spent the remainder of their captivity at Sakata, filling and moving trucks at a chemical factory, transferring coal from barges to rail, dismantling log rafts and loading the timber on to railway wagons.
The remainder of the September l944 Japan party, including Regimental Sergeant Major R W Woodward, duly reached Japan and were similarly employed. The 1940/41 winter that 18th Division spent in Scotland was the coldest ever recorded. There, however, they were in better form to endure it than the Japanese winter of 1944/45, the coldest for 70 years. Out of ten deaths in Japan, eight were in the months of December, January and February. The 26 were not the only victims of Allied action in September 1944. During the night of the 6/7th there were three among those killed in an otherwise successful raid on an ammunition train in sidings adjacent to the Non Pladuk POW camp. Later, three others died when, on 8 December, a train evacuating sick from an up-river camp was under air attack
One result of the Rakuyo Maru sinking was the rescue by the American submariners of over 150 British and Australian POWs from the sea. Their debriefing gave authentic intelligence of the disastrous course of events in Thailand. However. eight months earlier, on 28 January 1944, Anthony Eden made a statement to the House of Commons which he began by saying that a "large number of postcards and letters have recently been received in this country from prisoners in the Far East and that these almost uniformly suggest that the writers are being treated well and are in good health. There is no doubt from what we know about particular areas that some of these communications, at any rate, are in terms dictated by the Japanese authorities." At least one was not. It was, in several senses of the word a fabrication, the creation of Lieutenant Arthur Hepworth of the 3 November 1942 Thailand party. This postcard was addressed to a Mr Moorsplit at the address of Mr Moor, a friend of Hepworth, and purported to come from Private A Moorsplit. In standard IJA phrases, it advised that this hypothetical soldier was interned in Thailand in excellent health and working for pay. It requested "that yourself and Waters is taken care" and signed "Inky". Moor realised that there was something special about the card and he tried soaking it in "water" to see if it would 'split"; it did! Hepworth had managed to split the card in its own plane, write a message on one half and reassemble it with rice water as adhesive. The message ran:
RAIL BANKOK KANBURI 3 PAGODAS BURMA OCTOBER
40,000 POW USED, 4000 DEAD, 30,000 SICK. DEATH RATE GETTING HIGHER. MEDICAL SUPPLIES VERY SHORT, VITAMIN DEFICIENCY. CHOLERA. DYSENTERY 70,000 TAMIL AND CHINESE ON LINE PRO BRIT GOOD LUCK MORE HAPPY LANDINGS FROM INKY I0.4.43 SEND TO WO
Eden's statement continued: "I regret to have to tell the House that information which has been reaching His Majesty's Government (HMG) no longer leaves room for any doubt that the true state of affairs is a very different one so far as the great majority of prisoners in Japanese hands is concerned." He went on to say that for some time past, information had been reaching HMG regarding the conditions under which prisoners were detained and worked in some areas. He said that HMG felt bound to satisfy themselves that the information was authentic before making it public. No doubt "Inky" provided a small but vital part of the authentic information.
Earlier, at Changi, between Christmas 1942 and the departure of 'F' Force, another victory was won. Captain Pickersgill decided that the recently completed camp cemetery should have a lych gate entrance and drew plans for one. He enlisted the help of Lance Sergeant R C Ringer (287th) to design the Old English lettering and national emblems (leek, shamrock, rose, thistle) for its frieze and of Lance Corporals H E Broom and T H Whisker (287th) and Sappers R 0 W Duke (287) and H Ralph (288th) to carve them. All the materials had to be scrounged; the nails were made from barbed wire. After the war, the dead were re-interred by the CWGC at Kranji and the handsome lych gate was put into store until 1952 when it was re-erected outside St George's garrison church at Tanglin Barracks. As the British garrison in Singapore was run down, once again it went into store. There, fortunately, it was spotted by Brigadier Arthur Reading, Corps of Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, who arranged for its shipment to the United Kingdom. It now stands beside the A14 at Bassingbourn Barracks, Cambridgeshire as a memorial to the men on the 18th Division, in particular those who died in Changi.
Of those who evaded capture, at least two attained distinction. A book has been devoted to the life and architectural work of Captain Johnson-Marshall while Captain Lewis attained the rank of Major General as ACOS (Intelligence), SHAPE. Among the captives, Ronald Searle's reputation as a serious and comic artist needs no comment here. Less well known is that Sapper A W Palmer (288th) helped to revive Brandon's gun flint industry by learning the craft of knapping. Major E J Harper (560th) and CSM G H Morris (287th) were among those mentioned in dispatches for "services while POWs". James Bradley was awarded the MBE for the part he played during and after his escape attempt.
The last few months of the war found our protagonists spread far and wide over eastern Asia, from Hokkaido in the North to Sumatra in the South. Most were engaged in hard physical work and/or were in a very poor state of health. The 18th Division Sappers among the Japanese parties were dispersed in small groups (typically between two and six in number) throughout the camps serving Japanese industry with slave labour from the drift coal mines of Ashibetsu to the shipyards of Nagasaki, with camps such as Sakata, Onahama, Funatsu and Omine in between. Much larger concentrations were in Changi Jail (including 'F' and 'H' Force survivors), on the island of Taiwan and at Ubon in northeast Thailand, where many of the June 1942 party were engaged in airfield construction. Not all those on Singapore Island were at Changi; a few were held on the off-shore island of Blakan Mati (since renamed Sentosa) and at Kranji, providing services for the hospital there. Scattered groups in Thailand were at Thamuang, Nakhon Nayok (where officers, separated from ORs since February 1945, had been concentrated). Pratchai, Takli (whence Dakotas evacuated them using the airstrip they themselves had constructed) and building a road from Prachuap Khiri Khan to Mergui (a disastrous project through jungle, infested with a virulent, hitherto unencountered, fever).
The end of hostilities on 15 August 1945 did not, unfortunately, imply the complete cessation of casualties. Sapper N C Blogg (HQRE) is believed to have been killed, like several fellow newly liberated POW in Taiwan, by a food container dropped from a United States Air Force B29 (5). Sapper W Owens (288th) died at sea on 15 October from the after effects of work in the Kinkaseki mine and its sequel in the hills above Taipei.
Near its conclusion, the brief official history account notes: "Many a gallant Sapper from the United Kingdom, Australia and India died in the prison camps, or after release, as the result of starvation, disease and ill treatment" This article has sought to provide some facts about some of these ill-fated soldiers.
THE author is indebted to many ex-POW survivors of 18th Division RE who have tolerated his questioning over many years and to those of them who have read through the draft of this article. Others who have been particularly helpful include Mr R C Tall, Mr P Reed (Imperial War Museum) and Mrs P Wakefield (CWGC). A valuable work that has been used as a source of statistical data, but has not been cited as a reference, is: The Story of Changi Singapore, by D. Nelson.