In January 1942, the Allied Joint Command ABDA - American, British, Dutch and Australian was set up with its headquarters in Java.
About the same time, many troopships were heading towards the Far East. Having stopped in Cape Town the previous month around the Christmas period, they now found themselves heading for Bombay. Later, they were to learn they had originally been bound for Basra in the Persian Gulf, hence their sand coloured camouflage, but it was not until their stop in Cape Town that there was a subsequent change in orders and they were diverted towards the East. The Japanese had just bombed Pearl Harbour - 7th December 1941 - and the Americans had entered the War. But the troops, having been kited out with clothing suitable for desert warfare in the Middle East, were hardly equipped for tropical climates and jungle conditions.
Arriving in Bombay on Saturday 27th December the troops faced a night long journey to a place called Ahmednangar where they stayed for about three weeks during which time rigorous training took place.
But with the Japanese gaining ground every day down through Malaya, towards Singapore and with the next hop, skip and jump being Australia, the 18th Division was now hurriedly transported from Ahmednangar back to Bombay and many British carrying troopships found themselves heading across the Indian ocean to fight a different enemy to the one in the desert.
We now know that several of the troopships e.g. The Wakefield, carrying the 18th Division were diverted to Singapore and docked at Keppel Harbour on Thursday 29th January - the troops then being taken to Tanglin Barracks. Their arrival was of no consequence - Singapore was all but lost. Thousands of men were sent to a lost cause - they were sacrificed in the name of politics. Had they stayed and fought in the Middle East thousands might have survived to return back home.
But not all the troopships were fated for Singapore, e.g. The Warwick Castle was destined for the Dutch East Indies to reinforce the Netherland Forces who were also facing an invasion from the Japanese. The first air attack came on 3rd February at the Naval base at Surabaya and the airfields at Malang and Madion
Today the capital of Java is known as Jakarta, but to the thousands of POWs during their captivity from 1942 - 45, it was known as Batavia. It was here at the port of Tandjong Priok that The Warwick Castle found herself disembarking sometime in February 1942. They faced two major problems, much of their equipment and transportation had been damaged during transit and the regiments main equipment ended up in a different location to where its troops were sent. Transports and trucks belong to the Suffolk Regiment ended up in Tandjong Priok on Java, while the regiment itself was landed on Singapore.
It is known that about this time a large number of RAF personnel were also arriving on Java for, what was to prove to be, a short term refuge. Having been forced to retreat back down from the Malayan airfields, as they fell into Japanese hands, the depleted and broken RAF units arrived in Singapore only to be shipped onto large cargo vessels e.g The Empire Star to an uncertain future on Java and consequently became POWs. Only a few RAF personnel were sent onto Australia via Java and safety. Those who arrived in Java on troopships after escaping from Singapore, soon found themselves part of a road convoy heading for the naval base of Surabaya.
Surabaya was the same destination for the troops that had arrived on The Warwick Castle, for here was the main base of the naval headquarters of the Netherlands East Indies. But the drawback was that Surabaya was on the opposite far east side of Java to where they had landed, nearly a thousand miles away. A seven day journey lay in front of them, during which time they were the subject of many air attacks and thus realised the consequence of having the wrong colour camouflage nets that would have offered a little protection. Bright yellow colours, intended to blend with the desert, did little to disguise them against the dark green jungle terrain.
By the time the troops arrived in Surbaya it was now late February, they learned that the Japanese Army was completely in control of Singapore and the enemy invasion on Java was now imminent. Many troops were now boarding trains to get to part of the South Coast called Tjilatjap, where they were told shipping vessels would take them off Java prior to the Japanese landing. But before they reached their destination, the trains were stopped and although many of the men on board were RAF personal they were told they would now have to fight to hold off any possible enemy attack and no one would be leaving Java until the Japs were beaten.
As the Japanese landed, on the 28th Ferbuary, so the troops evacuated Surabaya and headed south to Tilitjap, a small harbour where thousands of Javanese, colonials and refugees were desperately trying to board any small vessel that would take them away from the approaching enemy and all the horrors that came with it.
The defence force spent a week bravely keeping the enemy at bay while troops and civilians fled on anything that would carry them away. The town and harbour of Tilitjap was destroyed by bombing and on the morning of the 6th March the Japs were sitting on the doorstep.
On March 7th 1943, three weeks after Singapore fell, the Dutch also capitulated and Java was surrendered to the Japanese. Of those taken prisoner, 3000 were mainly British and Australian combined forces.
Initially many prisoners were taken to an assembly point at Garoet, the centre of Java before being sent by rail to different internment camps that had been set up.
After two or three weeks at Garoet, many of the troops were then herded onto decrepit and antiquated old trains bound for Tandjong Priok, which they had left some weeks earlier, when they first arrived in Java.
The early months of captivity were undoubtedly the worse for all POWs. Having only recently arrived in tropical conditions, they were not as yet acclimatised to the heat, humidity and general conditions. The lack of a proper diet meant a lack of vitamins and protein, medicines were also very scarce. Added to their now poor living conditions and the shortage of food, water and sanitary conditions, the biggest danger was tropical diseases - malaria was particularly prevalent with the death carrying mosquitoes breeding in the surrounding swamps and dirty water - and very few men had received any proper inoculations prior to their arrival in the Far East.
Although now deteriorating in health, the men were sent out in work parties from early morning 'til late at night. The work was various, but hard and back breaking in the blistering heat. Roads needed repairing due to bomb damage, large areas needed clearing of the masses of debris, again caused by the fighting and bomb dropping. The worse and most demanding task for men who were far from fit, was loading shipping vessels with fuel drums. Abandoned vehicles were recovered and loaded onto ships for 'salvage' and all the time they were hungry - hungry and thirsty and becoming increasingly weaker.
News from the outside world was scarce and the only source was the hidden radios, but they brought the inevitable consequences if found
(Some of the above facts and the following excerpt have been taken from the book 'Not Much of a Picnic' by former Java POW John Baxter with his kind permission)
"Radios were our only reliable source of news and in spite of frequent searches, very few were ever discovered by our captors. When they did, the consequences did not bear thinking about and in retrospect, one shudders at what happened to some unfortunate POWs who were found in possession of or were in the process of constructing a receiver. Starting with a severe beating there would follow the inevitable interrogations and torture prolonged over a long period, interspersed with periods of solitary confinement in appalling conditions. No operator that fell into the clutches of the Kempetai, the Japanese Secret Police, ever survived their inhumane treatment. If they did not die as a result of the mental and physical torture, their tormentors sentenced them to death by beheading, bayoneting or simply shot them.
The Japanese treatment for even minor infringements was severe: even attempting to buy or barter food, from the natives was treated harshly. One of our number, who was caught exchanging a leather wallet for some bananas with a native, was beaten up by two guards and thrown into solitary confinement. The unfortunate Indonesian vendor was tied to a tree with barbed wire outside the main gate of the prison and left in the blazing sun with food and water placed on the ground out of his reach.Every work party entering and leaving the prison including passing natives sympathised with the poor wretched man who became delirious with heat and pain after three days without food or water. He received no medical attention, only daily taunts from the guards who often vented their spleen by kicking and punching him as they passed by. On the fourth day, mercifully, he died but his limp body was left for several days as a warning before being cut down and carried away.
Meanwhile, in solitary confinement, our own miscreant was being systematically starved by the Japanese by reducing his ration to one small dish of cold rice per day and one cup of water. No facilities were made for washing or tending his many cuts and bruises and his cell, which was none too clean on his arrival, became progressively worse. During the night, someone contrived to slip a banana and a hard boiled egg through the bar which the occupant immediately devoured. Such was his hunger that the banana skin was consumed as well, but the eggshell was his undoing. In spite of the general filth of the cell floor, an observant guard noticed the fresh fragments and an uproar ensued. The entire prison population was called on parade to hear a diatribe from the commandant about the evils of passing food to a man on sentence. The guilty person was ordered to own up, a request which naturally evoked no response.
The commandant then issued an ultimatum which stated that if no-one confessed, the entire parade "would stand to attention until further notice, without food, water or medical attention, come rain, wind or sun until all men die!" Naturally, no-one decided to come forward and a battle of wills commenced. The following ordeal lasted the remainder of a blistering hot day and extended well into the night. A heavy machine gun was brought out and trained on our assembled ranks who were encouraged to stand stock still by roving guards who beat anyone making the slightest movement. Towards nightfall many of the weaker men had collapsed, but no-one was allowed to attend to them and they lay where they had fallen. No-one was permitted to visit the latrines and several dysentery cases were in a parlous state unable to control their bodily functions. Around midnight, the infuriated Jap commandant had received no answer from our ranks and ordered his guards to drag al the seriously bed-ridden patients from the camp sick bay and place them on the ground in front of us."
**(To continue the story see details of this book at the foot of this page)
By April 1942, over 1,000 patients many Dutch and Australians were housed in a hospital at Bandung in central Java where Australian doctor "Weary Dunlop" was in charge.
On 20th October 1942 1,600 prisoners on Java were shipped on the Tacoma Maru, north via Singapore, to work on the Thai/Burma railway - "Weary Dunlop" included.
On the 26th October, 2,000 prisoners on Java were put on the Yosida Maru, via Singapore to Fukuoka in Japan.
And on 26th April 1943, it is believed that over 6,000 prisoners of different nationalities were sent to Ambon, Haruku, Ceram and Flores. Transportation of men from Java to different destinations continued throughout 1944.
As a point of interest, some of those captured at Tjilatjap on southern Java were sailors who survived the sinking of the USS Houston and the cruiser HMAS Perth which were both sunk in the Sunda Strait off Malacca. More than half of the crew of these two ships were drowned, the rest including 300 from the Perth became prisoners.
List of key places
** NBJohn Baxter's book 'Not Much of a Picnic' is his own story of captivity on Java and later Japan. His book is available in over 40 libraries in the U.K. and can also be reserved on request from local libraries or direct from the British Library, Wetherby, Yorkshire.
John has had spiral bound photocopies of his book done with an update of what happened to him after his return fron Japan. Copies are available for £10 (including postage & packing) and for every copy sold John will donate £1 to the upkeep of the FEPOW Memorial Building. Copies may be obtained by contacting John via his son, John Baxter Jnr, at email@example.com