The British Sumatra Battalion
The British Sumatra Battalion
Immediately prior to the Fall of Singapore on 15th February 1942 there was a panic to get out before the Japanese walked in the back door. Women and children, servicemen of all ranks, some individuals, some in groups, many separated from their Regiments all clambered on any vessel leaving Keppel harbour that would put distance between them and imminent presence of the Japanese Army.
Some made it to Australia, some to Java and others made it to Sumatra. For some, however, the Japanese were close on their heels. Java fell on the 8th March and those who had arrived three weeks earlier in their attempt to escape were now taken prisoner. Those who made it to Sumatra were to remain free only marginally longer before it capitulated on the 17th March.
One British officer, Captain Dudley Apthorpe of the Royal Norfolk Regiment, made his way to Padang, the former capital of Sumatra only to find he had missed the last rescue boat. On the deserted quayside, hiding in the darkness, he came across a number of other men all in the same plight. They numbered twenty in all, four of them army officers, thirteen other soldiers, including NCOs and three navy men. Between them they managed to locate an old Japanese sailing boat, fifty feet long, bearing the name 'Bintang Dua'. They managed to free the old boat from its moorings and sail out into open water. A chart on board showed the large island of Siberut which was their only navigational guide and they made for the island in search of fresh water and other supplies. Shortly after, and still in shallow water, they picked up eight men from a canoe-type boat who were also bent on escape. Among this eight was a former engineer and seaman. Apthorpe was the most senior army officer among the men, but he was glad to leave matters of seamanship to the newcomer and the 'Bintang Dua' managed to stay free at sea for two weeks in their attempt to escape.
By this time Padang was firmly in the hands of the Japanese who had ordered patrol boats to hunt down the escapers. They were finally caught and towed back to Siberut and the unlucky men were taken back to Padang to face execution, but they survived and became part of a large group numbering approximately one thousand and two hundred mixed British service personnel. This company of prisoners, about a battalion in strength, were to become known throughout their POW days as either the 'British Battalion' or the 'Sumatra Battalion' with Captain Apthorpe as their leader.
From the outset, it was quite obvious that the Japanese were not used to dealing with large numbers of prisoners. Little or no attempt was made to organise the camp (in the Dutch barracks) on normal lines. Even the food was supplied by a Chinese contractor and paid for by the prisoners themselves.
The Japanese were quick to realise that they now possessed a potential labour force. On the 9th May, 1942, a party of twenty officers and four hundred and eighty other ranks were paraded and told to move to another camp. The personnel making up this party were chosen by Captain Morley, Royal Artillery, the British Camp Commander. This was of little interest to the Japanese, who simply required five hundred 'bodies' on the parade ground. This was later proved to be normal practice. No information regarding subsequent destinations was given.
The first day's journey was by rail in moderately comfortable passenger carriages. From Padang to Fort de Kok was approximately one hundred miles into the Sumatra Hills. The night was spent in a vacated convent. Later the journey continued in lorries.
There was no organisation of the men by the Japanese, it was left to the prisoners to split into four groups, each headed by a British officer. The second night was spent in a disused school at Kota Nopan and the following night in the market place at Tarotoong. Each day became much like the last - an early start on an inadequate breakfast followed by a scramble for the lorries, then followed in turn by twelve hours of dusty and bumpy travel. Much of the terrain was jungle with occasional open stretches with views of the distant Sumatra mountains. The road wound up past Lake Toba, which was a well-known beauty spot, then over a moorland landscape not unlike parts of England.
On the evening of 12th May the group passed through the outskirts of Medan and arrived at the port of Belawin Deli. The entire party was then marched to Uni Kampong. This was a Dutch internment camp where the living conditions were poor. However, many of the civilians there shared both food and clothing, which was a marked improvement on the preceding days.
This improvement was short-lived, for on 15th May 1942, together with some Dutch, they were then marched to board a small steamer with the unlikely name of 'England Maru'. Conditions on board were not pleasant. Shelves had been built four feet apart and there was just room to lie flat touching on either side. The diet consisted of the usual rice with some vegetable water. There were no washing facilities and only a few men were allowed to go on deck at any one time.
The day was spent at anchor in Belawin Deli harbour and the 'England Maru' was joined by a convoy of ships with Australian POWs and sailed northwards up the Malacca Straits. There was a wait off Victoria Point whilst some Australians were disembarked. On 25th May 1942, after an uneventful but uncomfortable journey, the convoy arrived at Mergui in Burma.
The British contingent, together with one thousand Australians, were disembarked and marched a mile to the Mergui National High School. That evening there was heavy rain and insufficient cover for all the POWs. School furniture was thrown out and eventually everyone found a place to sleep. The evening meal was, as usual, very poor and prepared by the POWs themselves in a shed which became the 'kitchen'.
Two days later, working parties were called for to enlarge the aerodrome. About half the number of prisoners worked and the Japanese eventually issued some pay. This was inadequate and only sufficient to purchase a few bananas or a little tobacco. This merchandise was sold inside the camp by a Burmese trader, and it was suspected, rightly, that this concession was allowed only because the Japanese made a large profit on the transaction!
The Japanese always demanded an excessively large working party each day and provided this demand was met (it seldom was) they took little interest in the prisoners. Accommodation and food rations were inadequate and there were occasional roll-calls. For their part, the POWs did the minimum quantity of work and seized every opportunity to disobey regulations and to supplement their meagre rations from outside sources. One Japanese sergeant plus thirty other ranks were considered sufficient to oversee five hundred prisoners and from that time this was the usual ratio.
The Japanese promised better quarters, having received continuous complaints about the National High School and on 21st June everyone moved to a new camp near the jail. Although the huts were only wood and bamboo there was much more room. Food began to improve and a better supply of local goods came in to be sold in the camp. Some Australians improvised an oven and a doughnut became the highlight of the day's menu!
At the beginning of August there were strong rumours of another sea voyage. On 10th August 1942, there was a parade at which numbered discs were issued to each man, and the 'British or Sumatra Battalion' (from now on referred to only as the 'Battalion') were marched down to the landing stage.
It was about 11 p.m. and quite dark. The entire party was taken in motor launches to two small ships which were to sail at one o'clock in the morning. Rain was falling but with so little room below a large number of men had to remain on deck. The next day was uneventful. There was an issue of bread, a luxury which up to that time had been extremely scarce. That evening the ships anchored at the mouth of the Tavoy River, Burma.
The 'Battalion' transferred to barges which were then towed by a motor launch. After an hour, one barge broke away and there was an interminable delay whilst it was chased, secured and brought upstream again. Following an exceptionally uncomfortable journey Tavoy was reached at one o'clock in the morning and the party was marched four miles to a camp
There were already some Dutch prisoners in the camp who provided breakfast. Conditions here were very much the same as those experienced at Mergui. Once more working parties were required for an aerodrome and, in addition, the town. The latter party was popular. An Indian-Burmese resistance movement had sprung up and POWs going to and from Tavoy were receiving food, money and medical supplies.
The death rate, which at Mergui was high, decreased. Once again the hospital was in the town and the Japanese, except for the guards on working parties and the weekly roll-call, were not much in evidence. However, another move was under consideration. The 'Battalion' were given new number tags (always a sure indication of a move) and on 21st October 1942 were paraded ready to leave the camp. The march to the river was hot and dusty but the heavy articles of kit were carried in lorries and soon the familiar barge journey was underway.
The mouth of the river was reached at dusk and again the whole party embarked on two small motorised vessels. Rain fell during the night and early morning and for obvious reasons the Japanese kept close to the shoreline. One of the craft had a small gun mounted in the bows but was rendered useless by two enterprising Australians who had thrown the breech-block overboard during the night.
In the early afternoon of the following day the party disembarked at Moulmein, still in Burma. The destination was the jail and the march was almost one of triumph. Despite strenuous efforts by the guards a large crowd of Burmese congregated. Fruit and food arrived from all sides much to the annoyance of the Japanese.
The night was spent under lock and key and an early start was made on the following morning. A march of some two miles ensued to the railway station. POWs were crowded into an inadequate number of cattle trucks and with a series of bumps started off for Thanbyuzayat some thirty miles down the line.
Thanbyuzayat lies at the junction of the Moulmein to Ye and Moulmein to Bangkok railways. The base camp for the construction of the latter which, even then, November 1942, was in the process of being built. It was constructed from two sides, Siam (Thailand) as well as Burma and was to join in August 1943 near the Three Pagoda Pass high up in the mountains of the Temasserim Peninsula.
Beginning in Thanbyuzayat, the Japanese had already cut the trace of the line and along it had built camps at five kilometre intervals. Some were occupied by POWs and others by Burmese coolies. A small number of Japanese engineers, engaged in the construction of the railway, lived near the camps. Apart from directing the pattern of work they left the 'Kumies' (as the Japanese called the work-groups), to get on with the construction.
Colonel Nagitoma was responsible for organising not only the base camp at Thanbyuzayat but all the camps on the Burma side of the line. With the customary propensity for neglecting this kind of work he allowed the POWs to do it themselves. As time passed he came to rely on them to an increasing extent. At Thanbyuzayat, Brigadier Varley, the Senior Australian officer, gradually assumed control of all the POWs in the area. Together with a small staff, he virtually ran everything from POW movements, working parties, hospitals, money and a mountain of clerical work. Nagitoma seemed helpless without this effort.
Although it was not immediately recognised the prisoners derived a very real benefit. A threat of non-co-operation was usually sufficient to bring Nagitoma to heel.
What it was not possible to do was obtain extra food and the medical supplies so badly needed. Colonel Nagitoma had not got it and his superiors were not prepared to supply.
The 'Battalion' arrived at Thanbyuzayat and stayed there for only three days. Sick personnel were transferred to the camp hospital and the 'British Battalion' were marched out again. Heavy kit was carried in lorries which eventually returned and picked up POWs.
Hlepauk, the '18 Kilo Camp', was reached in the afternoon. There were already five hundred or so Australians in occupation and it proved to be typical of the jungle camps that the Battalion was to live in for the next eighteen months.
Built in a valley, it consisted entirely of bamboo huts roofed with strips of palm leaves. On one side there could be seen a range of hills running up to one thousand feet. The camp was adjacent to the railway and road and on the other side the ground sloped gently upwards. In the valley was a small stream and the whole area was covered with clumps of bamboo and small bushes.
There was the now familiar open square in the centre of the camp. The living quarters for the Japanese, well-built wooden huts, were situated at one end. POWs were housed on two other sides of the square in much inferior huts. The cookhouse was in one corner of the camp and the guard-room at the gate marked, as in all Japanese establishments, by two large wooden posts.
The Japanese had installed no fence around the camp believing, quite rightly, that eight hundred miles of jungle was rather more effective than barbed wire. All water had to be brought from the stream and there was no provision for washing or sanitation until improvised by the POWs.
At 12.30 p.m., working parties were given a break of two hours for the midday meal. Normally the meal was sent out but those working near the camp returned. Work finished at 8 p.m. when everyone returned to camp, went down to the stream to wash and then had the evening meal. The Japanese had no objection to private fires. In the evenings the majority found something extra to cook and numerous fires sprang up all over camp. The camp canteen was reasonably good and eggs, bananas, native sugar, coffee and tobacco could be bought. Though never sufficient they served as a very welcome addition to the rations issued.
As might be expected, the Japanese made every effort to reduce the numbers of prisoners working inside the camp and therefore, in their eyes, a complete loss to the Japanese government. They allowed ten cooks, six sanitary men, four medical orderlies and four office staff - considered quite sufficient to look after the needs of five hundred men. The POWs took every opportunity to increase the number with so-called 'light sick'. The Japanese, just as often, reduced them, but two weeks after arrival at Hlepauk, the Japanese guards were replaced by Koreans.
On 3rd January 1943, the 'Battalion' moved by lorry to Tahyin, the 35 Kilo Camp. It proved to be much the same as Hlepauk and noted only as clothing was issued. This was the first issued by the Japanese.
On approximately 10th March a party of American prisoners arrived with an officer in charge, Captain Fitz-Simmons. The 'Battalion', much against their will, joined up with this party and one week later, on 20th March, went down by road to Thetkaw, the 14 Kilo Camp.
This had the makings of a good camp but by this time, although not ballasted, the first thirty kilometres of line had been laid and the POWs were wanted further up. Small diesel rail-road lorries were running so on 5th April, 1943, the 'Battalion' was required to move together with the Americans to Kun Knit Kway, the 25 Kilo Camp. Here they met the Australians, only to move three weeks later to Ansakwin, the 45 Kilo Camp.
Soon the nature of work was to changed. Instead of building embankments or laying rails, steam trains had to be unloaded and sleepers, rails and rations re-loaded into diesel trucks. The opportunities for acquiring extra food were considerable and sweet potatoes, dried beans and peas made a useful addition to an otherwise inadequate diet.
Work now went on throughout the night. Initially, three eight hour shifts were in operation. As the number of sick increased these were replaced by two twelve hour shifts.
Midway through May the railhead was moved to Retpu, the 30 Kilo Camp, and the 'Battalion' followed. By this time the rain was continuous. The numbers of sick increased and working parties were increasingly difficult to find. Loading and unloading went on throughout the twenty-four hours. The drumming of the rain, the croaking of bull-frogs and the clang of rails as they slid off the trucks made an unforgettable sound.
Despite the weather work continued. Thanbyuzayat had been bombed early in January and on 15th May, four Liberators flew low over the camp. These aircraft were the first that the POWs had seen. The Japanese became very agitated but there was no bombing of the line. It was learned later that the aircraft had turned west for a raid on Tavoy.
As always food was the main consideration on everyone's mind. Due to the devaluation of the Burmese rupee, canteen supplies became increasingly expensive and the Japanese ration was deteriorating both in quantity and in quality, especially the already meagre meat ration. This was provided from the cattle driven up the road by Australian POWs who volunteered for the job. Besides tending the cattle they also provided a news service and smuggled through wireless batteries and medical supplies.
The next railhead was to be at Taungzan, the 60 Kilo Camp. It already had a bad reputation. The Australians living there had experienced a number of casualties but, despite the unfavourable report, a move was welcomed. Fifty men were dispatched as an advance party and on 17th July 1943, when the main body had arrived, the Australians had moved out.
Once more the 'British Battalion' moved on. The bridge was still standing when, on 5th November 1943, they left for Chaungena, the 114 Kilo Camp. This move was carried out in two parties and occupied nearly one month. The first party went to Apalon, the 84 Kilo Camp, remained for a month and then proceeded to Chaungena. The second party, mostly sick, stayed one week at Apalon and then arrived at Chaungena, travelling partly by rail and by lorry. The move was completed by November 14th.
Chaungena, in Siam (Thailand) was reached by rail, crossing the frontier at Three Pagoda Pass. The pagodas lay on the right of the road, small and inconspicuous, and the pass itself only a slight depression in the hills which marked the frontier. This camp was without question the worst the 'Battalion' encountered. It was not even a working camp. The POWs were too sick to work and Japanese efforts to get maintenance parties met with little success. Huts were situated on the side of a hill. Some were without roofs and all were under the trees which dripped continuously. Lower down in the valley the 'wore wore' monkeys made whistling sounds of a most melancholy nature.
Rations which up to this time had been poor were now reduced almost to starvation level. Canteen supplies were non-existent, apart from an occasional bag of dried beans! Red Cross supplies, now received for the first time, were so inadequate as to make little difference.
By the beginning of January in this camp thirty-seven deaths had occurred in the 'Battalion'. There was no prospect of any improvement in living conditions. Thankfully the monsoon had finished. At night, an almost nightly occurrence, could be heard the steady drone of bombers on their way to attack shipping in Bangkok harbour.
The 'British Battalion', which up until this time had remained as one unit was beginning to be split up. Since Taungzan the sick had been sent to Khonkhan (the 55 Kilo Camp) hospital and now numbered about forty. There was a small party at the 105 Kilo Camp who, on their way to Chaungena, had got no further. A number of lorry drivers and specialists were still at Thanbyuzayat over eighty miles away.
The camp was so bad that early in January 1944, the Japanese decided to evacuate. They left behind about one hundred British, mostly for maintenance work. The other two hundred and fifty went down by rail to Can Chan Buri on 12th January. It was a normal trip in cattle trucks lasting two days.
Can Chan Buri was situated in a well cultivated area of the foothills, a large camp already occupied by over one thousand British. When the party arrived in the evening of 13th January, it was the first time that other British personnel had been encountered.
Before leaving Chaungena, Colonel Nagitoma was reported to have declared that when the line was built, the sick would go to Bangkok and a hospital camp whilst the fit personnel would go to Japan. The latter part of his statement was to come true.
The 'Battalion' was by this time less than three hundred strong. It was again split up. Selection for the 'Japan Party' was simple. On 23rd March 1944, a Japanese medical officer had a brief inspection of the likely candidates, wrote down their names and instructed the men to parade that evening for a march to Tamarkan. This was an Australian camp, eight kilometres away, and was the collecting point for the Japan parties. At approximately 6 p.m., eighty of the 'Battalion' paraded with their kit. By now they were used to moves and stood around with assorted bundles and packs. Although it was known that a voyage to Japan would be dangerous, the general feeling was 'anything to be on the move'.
After a dusty march, Tamarkan was reached in the evening. In most respects similar to Can Chan Buri, there were a number of the 'Battalion' present who had come direct from Chaungena.
There were to be two thousand and thirty four in the Japan Party comprised of Dutch, Australian, American and British POWs. The Dutch and Australians were each to provide seven parties or 'kumies' as the Japanese called them. Each 'Kumi' consisted of one officer, one medical orderly and one hundred and fifty other ranks. There was also a 'Kumi' of Australians, Americans and British and lastly a 'Kumi' of British, one hundred and two strong. The latter were know as '51 Kumi' with the motto of 'Watch your kit!'.
The 'Battalion' which had started out in Sumatra was now broken up. One hundred and forty men had died in Burma and Siam (Thailand), one hundred and ninety sick personnel were left at Kanchanaburi and there were still forty in the railway camps.
In the Japan party there were one hundred and twenty one men, and, on arrival in Tamarkan, were joined by fourteen others, mostly planters from Sumatra who had fought with the Dutch forces. Number '51 Kumi' was, therefore, one hundred and two strong and there were thirty three of the 'Battalion' in the mixed Kumi. The Japanese quickly organised the Australians into 'kumies', with numbers from thirty five to forty one, the Dutch numbered forty two to forty eight, the mixed 'Kumi' numbered fifty and the British numbered fifty one.
Many personnel were really ill and unfit to travel and after protracted argument replacements were found. Clothing, consisting of jackets, shorts, underclothes and footwear were issued. This was to be the last issue on a reasonable scale. Innoculations for cholera, TAB and tests for dysentery were given. This was nothing new as this occurred every two months, carried out by Australian or Dutch POWs.
By the beginning of April 44, kumies began to move out of the camp. Starting with the Australians they went at intervals of a few days. Last to leave were 49, 50 and 51. It was a hot day, the road which led back past Kanchanaburi Camp six miles away was long and dusty and, carrying everything, the party arrived at the station. Then by train to Non Pladuk forty kilometres down the line where there was to be a week's break. After that, via Bangkok, four hundred miles to Phnom Penh in Indo-China. Phnom Penh was on the Mekong River and the final stages of the journey would be by barge to Saigon. At Saigon there was a transit camp and ships for Japan.
Water was now the urgent need. A small foraging party visited a nearby POW camp and returned with a medium-sized drum of tea substitute. Water bottles were empty and after much opposition water was issued. The Japanese now had other concerns. The sounds of aircraft and a series of muffled explosions told their own story. Tamarkan was receiving one of the raids which were to continue until the end of the war.
The large steel bridge (the Kwai Bridge), brought in sections from Sumatra and re-built by POWs was an obvious target and regrets at leaving the camp were tempered by thoughts of the proximity of the bridge. It was only a thirty mile journey to Non Pladuk but it took until four o'clock in the morning.
Little happened during the halt of a week. On 18th March as night fell, '51 Kumi' marched to the station. After loading, the train left in the early hours of the following morning. Passing through the outskirts of Bangkok was the first glimpse of civilisation for more than two years. The wait outside Bangkok station was passed in the company of vendors of fruit, biscuits and local produce. The Japanese guards made futile attempts to get rid of them.
The system of feeding was simple. When the train stopped at a station with a Japanese cookhouse, rice and vegetable stew was collected in large tubs. These were then carried in to the already overcrowded trucks until a convenient halt gave sufficient time to issue the food.
The Japanese apparently considered eating utensils unnecessary. During the previous two years their sole contribution had been an issue of one hundred and four inferior tin discs. Anything which could possibly be adapted was used. Electric light shades, car hub caps and empty tins supplemented a decreasing number of British Army issue mess tins. Water-bottles were also in short supply and hollow bamboo tubes and glass bottles took their place.
Phnom Penh proved to be another surprising place, proving to be a modern, well-built town. The river landing stage was only half a mile away and the early morning march enabled the party to see something of the town. Even two hundred miles above its mouth the Mekong River was a tremendous width and the rise and fall of the river was shown by steel gangways which sloped steeply to the floating landing stages.
Some of the guards had been to Saigon before and they told stories of well-built barracks, running water, electric light and a canteen where eggs, bananas and other luxuries could be bought. The POWs who had heard these stories on several occasions were naturally sceptical. However, for once the Japanese had told the truth and Saigon was to prove an exceptional camp. Next morning above the winding banks of the river appeared endless masts of ships in the Saigon Naval Base.
The first half of the journey to Japan was nearly completed. The steamer now turned out of the main river and proceeded through a maze of small rivers and canals to tie up in Saigon docks.
Following disembarkation there was a march to the camp. It had been a French barracks and besides the Australian and Dutch 'Kumies' who had already arrived there were four hundred British POWs who had resided there for two years. They occupied five larger wooden buildings near the road. The Japan party were housed in some temporary huts at the rear and '49' and '51' Kumies (who had just arrived) were put into a disused jail at the far end of the camp. Conditions were far better than had been expected. Food was well above the normal standard. For the first meal there was an issue of one egg per man and the canteen supplied as much additional food as was required.
On the following day the Japanese, anticipating some delay in leaving for Japan, called out working parties. The camp was divided into two groups. Resident POWs or 'E.R.Ts' - (English Resident Troops) in one group and 'Kumies' (Transit Troops) in the other.
From Saigon Docks Camp the main working parties went to the aerodrome, oil storage plant, ammunition depots and Japanese H.Q.. At first the working hours were from 9 a.m. to 6.30 p.m. with a break of two hours for lunch. When a ship was in dock, night parties were called out.
The dock camp-site was a small one and comprised the old French Barracks, a field on which some huts had been built and at the far side a small civil jail. A very inferior fence surrounded the whole area, put there more for show than to prevent any serious attempts to escape.
Although living in the same camps the two groups, 'ERTs' and 'Kumies' were kept separate. Different Japanese were in charge and their lack of co-operation with each other was an object lesson in 'red tape'.
The 'Kumies' were expected to embark at any time after the first week in May 1944, and on 17th May '35' and '51' Kumi were ordered to stand by. Two days later however, only '35' Kumi paraded, much to the relief of '51' Kumi. Colonel Ebico, the Japanese Group Commander, delivered the customary speech but some hitch occurred for instead of marching out of the camp a telegram arrived and all returned to their huts.
As time went by the prospect of being moved to Japan became more remote. There were rumours of going 'up country' again. No one relished this but the camp was grossly overcrowded and it was only a question of who would go,.
The Australian contingent were chosen. Midway through June they began to move to Singapore and by the end of the month were gone. The remaining English, Dutch and Americans, plus eighty Australians, were amalgamated with the 'ERTs' and settled down to pass the remainder of the war in comparative comfort,.
The 'comfort', though not perhaps readily appreciated by a modern observer, was real enough to the POWs. It consisted of three moderate meals per day, not only rice as previously. Well-built sleeping quarters which, although crowded, gave adequate protection from the weather. Outside was a supply of running water in concrete tanks. For the first time in any of the POW camps the canteen had sufficient items for sale. Each morning a dilapidated lorry arrived and unloaded eggs, biscuits, bananas, tobacco, etc., which, after checking, were taken to the canteen and were on sale an hour later.
Saigon was something of a show camp. In the town the French continued with their normal occupations. The Japanese were anxious to impress with efforts to maintain reasonable standards in the camp.
Clothing was issued on an irregular basis and, except during rush periods, every tenth day was a holiday with a concert in the evening. These were full-dress affairs. The stage was built of wood, had electric lighting, curtains and scenery. The Japanese Commander attended regularly. Dutch POWs were the star performers. Their orchestra, equipped with instruments sent in by the French Red Cross, provided the music in a most professional manner.
Every Sunday morning there was a Church Service. Beyond directing that the prisoners were not to pray too hard for Japan to be defeated the Japanese raised no objections.
June, July and August 1944 came and went. The French newspapers, smuggled into camp, carried stories of axis defeats on all fronts. Air raid alarms were frequent and built-up shelters were constructed in a marsh at the rear of the camp. An air of optimism was apparent. The Japanese were reluctant to accept the possibility of defeat. The Commandant remained fair in his dealings with the prisoners but a source of trouble was the office staff. Whenever possible they blocked all complaints and took the law into their own hands.
Unrest was brewing and in November one of the 'ERTs' walked off from an aerodrome working party and couldn't be found. New regulations were drafted and restrictions were imposed. A bamboo fence was erected. 'Sotchees', 'Gunsoos' and other Japanese N.C.Os. were eager to enter the camp to make life as unpleasant as possible but this was to no avail. On Boxing Day, an American Airforce pilot also walked out. Hourly roll-calls were instituted. The officers, now under great suspicion, moved to the end of the Japanese office hut. The guards borrowed civilian clothing and went into the town to look for the latest escapee but accomplished nothing.
Nearing Christmas 1944, another large batch of POWs arrived in Saigon Docks. They moved into the old Hospital Camp and were just in time for the first big air raid on 12th January. It came early in the morning whilst the mist still lay over Saigon. One hundred and forty dive-bombers flew in from the sea and began attacking the aerodrome and shooting down the only three Japanese fighter aircraft to leave the ground. Sirens sounded and the POWs, who knew the drill in the event of air raids, moved into the marshes at the back of the camp. It was generally considered to be yet another false alarm but inside the camp the aircraft could be seen clearly circling the camp. The airfield lay four miles away across the marshes but even at that distance it became obvious that this was no practice raid.
Eventually a group of three broke away and headed for the docks. These aircraft were quickly followed by others and an uncomfortable few minutes were spent wondering if the camp location plan and nominal roll, smuggled out some months earlier, had reached Allied hands. The question was quickly answered. The dive bombers were greeted by a tremendous volume of shellfire from ships in the harbour and ground defences, but continued to bomb and machine gun all around whilst leaving the camp area untouched. A tanker some four hundred yards away was hit and was quickly engulfed in flames. An ammunition warehouse was blown up and clouds of black smoke drifted over the whole area.
Meanwhile more bombers were arriving. The sun glinted on their wings as they turned to dive. Two destroyers in the docks put up a tremendous volume of pom-pom fire and a bomber, caught as it turned away, disintegrated into small pieces. The majority of the AA fire was inaccurate and started to die away when shortly after 12 noon the destroyers were sunk. By this time a large part of the dock area was burning.
An inspection of the damage by the Japanese revealed that over thirty ships had been sunk, one hundred and twenty aircraft damaged or burned out on the runway, warehouses destroyed and the oil tanks at Harbay, twenty miles away, were ablaze.
In the words of one Japanese "Saigon all finish". It was not only Saigon that was finished. Both Japanese and the POWs began to feel that the war was entering it's final phase. To meet this possibility the Japanese separated the officers and men. Early in March 1945, the officers were returned to Kanchanaburi. The other ranks remained in the area of Saigon. Four months before the end of the war the 'Battalion' was thus broken up. It had begun three years earlier in Padang, five hundred strong. During the years in Burma and Siam (Thailand) one hundred and fifty had died, most of them on the Moulmein-Bangkok railway, whilst two hundred men had been too sick to be sent to Saigon.
The 'Battalion', reformed in March 1944 as '51 Kumi' numbered less than one hundred and thirty of the original five hundred but they retained the reputation for being a disciplined and hardy group. During the three years in captivity they had passed through five countries, Malaya, Sumatra, Burma, Siam (Thailand) and Indo-China (now Vietnam). They travelled further than any other unit and lived and worked in more than twenty-three permanent camps.
The majority had escaped in the confusion following the capitulation of Singapore. Some in junks and other craft, making their way to Sumatra over eighty miles away. All could have told their story of weeks spent sailing from island to island, of forced marches through the Sumatra jungle, or days moving slowly up the Indegari and Kampar rivers. Many had turned back to work on the Sumatra evacuation route, giving up their turn to embark at Padang, thus sacrificing all chances to escape.
As prisoners, they began with every disadvantage. No clothing, boots, equipment. Many in bad health and suffering from a sense of disillusionment. With few exceptions officers, WOs, NCOs and men carried out their duty. After three years, although reduced in numbers, they remained a disciplined, organised and, in the circumstances, a well turned-out body of men.
The following lines are said to have been composed by Corporal Arthur E. Ogden, No. 4857249 of the 1st Battalion of the Royal Leicestershire Regiment and The British Battalion - 1941-45, when he was in Queen Mary's Hospital, Roehampton in December 1974.
And we that are left, grow old with the years
Remembering the heartache, the pain and the tears.
Hoping and praying that never again
Man will sink to such sorrow and shame.
The price that was paid, we will always remember.
Every day, every month, not just in November.
The extracts relating to Captain Apthorpe in Sumatra were taken from Joseph Kennedy's book 'Andy Dillon's Ill-fated Division' and those relating to the fate of the British Battalion from Ken Maguire's 'Sunset over Saigon'.