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The 1942 Java Railway Tragedy

by Ex-Fepow Bdr. A.E. Williams

It was early February 1942 and the Empress of Australia, the Warwick Castle and other ships in their convoy had just berthed at Batavia in the Dutch East Indies after long weeks at sea.

The officers and men of the 77th (Welsh) Heavy Anti-Aircraft Regiment disembarked from the Warwick Castleat Batavia (Jakarta) in February 1942 in the half-light of early dawn. They were the first British troops to land on Java since the days of Sir Stamford Raffles, founder of Singapore.

Less than 24 hours later many were involved in an horrendous train crash which killed 26 men and left many more crippled for life.

After disembarking from the Warwick Castle, some personnel, partly headquarters and maintenance staff left for Surabaya (a Javanese city, some 500 miles across the island) in a road convoy. The remaining unfortunate troops were ordered to Surabaya by rail and were put aboard a train in order to make the journey. The men laughed and joked among themselves - they were in high spirits, and although the country was strange, they were making themselves at home with the usual complacency of the Tommy all over the world. The trains in Java were hauled by wood-burning locomotives, and soon after all were aboard, started to move off with a shower of sparks and shouts of cheering from the men.

All day long it sped on its way, and the troops looked out of the window at the endless succession of paddy fields. It was all there seemed to be. Rice, nothing but rice. Occasionally the train would pull up at a station for water, and then Dutch women would rush aboard with iced coffee, cigarettes and strange fruits which the British troops had never even heard of. Soon darkness fell with the strange suddenness of the Tropics, just as if someone had switched off the daylight. The train thundered on into the darkness, leaving behind a trail of sparks. The Tommies sprawled across seats and along floors in an attempt to get some sleep, and maybe they dreamt of that other island thousands of miles away. One or two stirred in their sleep, the train made an uncomfortable bed, but slowly the night wore on.

At approximately 3.00 am there was a sickening crash which wakened everyone instantly. Screams of agony rose above the hiss of escaping steam. The train was a shambles. Those who could fought their way out. Everywhere there seemed to be injured men. Those who were lucky or only slightly injured toiled in the darkness freeing their trapped comrades and digging out those for whom the Last Post had already sounded. (Among those injured was Rev. Hugh Edwards, father of COFEPOW members Peter and David Edwards. He received serious injuries to the spine and after the war spent six months receiving treatment ).

When the grey dawn at last appeared, a party of Dutch military and some nurses arrived to help and organisation was possible. The dead and injured were many, and these were sent down the line to an ambulance train which had been sent out to the scene of the accident.

Our train had crashed into a freighter loaded with bombs and benzene on a single-track line. Some act of providence prevented an explosion.

Photographs of the wrecked train

The crash took place at Lawang, about fifty to sixty miles from Surabaya; the date was 6th February 1942, and by 10th March, after being in action against enemy aircraft many times, the remnants of the Regiment were captives of the Japanese Imperial Army, and subsequently helped to build the Railroad from Burma to Siam and the airfield on the infamous isle of Haruku.