The Men of the 196 Field Ambulance
On 1st December 1939, the 161 (East Anglian) Field Ambulance, Royal Army Medical Corps - Territorial Army, formed a training cadre for a new duplicate unit -The 196 Field Ambulance of the Royal Army Medical Corps.
An infantry Field Ambulance at that time comprised of a Medical Officer, his batman, 13 officers and 225 other ranks (Sergeants, Corporals and Privates). The unit also had 42 vehicles including 8 six wheeled motor ambulances, which were driven and maintained by members of the Royal Army Service Corp, who were attached to the unit. There were three Field Ambulances per Division and 1 per Corps. The 196 Field Ambulance was destined to become part of the 18th Division, 54th Brigade along with the 4th Royal Norfolk and 4th and 5th Suffolk Regiments.
The Headquarters of the 196 started in the Royal British Legion building in Coleman Street/St Margarets Plain, Ipswich, where they stayed until January 1940. During this time men from the 161 Field Ambulance were transferred to the 196 and the unit began to take shape.
On the 15th January 1940 the unit, with around just 30 men in total transferred to Necton Hall, Norfolk. The unit stayed at Necton until May 14th 1940 and during this period the 196 rapidly began to take shape as a unit. The 5th March 1940 saw the largest number of men enlisted to the unit.
During the period at Necton, more men came from the 161 (EA) Field ambulance and some from other units such as 2/5th (East) Battalion, The Essex Regiment. The men were sent on courses and equipment such as War Department Motorcycles and vehicles and clothing were gathered. Men were promoted within the War establishment to Staff Sergeants, Sergeants, Corporals and Lance Corporals.
As this complement of men was increased the 196 and it's training were put to use, as Germany had now invaded France and the Low countries and the first Luftwaffe raids were seen over East Anglia. 51 men moved to establish Advance Dressing Stations (ADS) at Loddon, Coltishall and Acle in Norfolk. With the move of the ADS's, the HQ of the unit was based at White House in Trowse on the 15th May 1940. The unit was formed into three companies, A, B and HQ. Each company was broken down into three sections. Each section contained a Medical Officer, a Sergeant, two other Non-Commissioned Officers (NCO) and fourteen men. There is also a cook, a Lance Corporal motorcyclist and three Drivers from the Royal Army Service Corps (RASC). Each section from A & B companies formed Advanced Dressing Stations (ADS), that collected wounded from Regimental Aid Posts (RAP) and transferred these to the Main Dressing Stations (MDS). The MDS was usually formed from the HQ Company.
On the 31st May 1940, the headquarters then moved to "Coonoor", 151 Yarmouth Road, Thorpe, Norfolk.
In July 1940 the unit was based at Witton House in Witton near Norwich having moved there on 6th July. On the 5th July Lt Colonel Huston reported for duty as the officer commanding the 196 Field Ambulance. He would stay as the last officer to command the unit. They stayed at Witton for a few months, not moving on again until December 1940, nearly a year since the unit was formed. The MDS was based at Witton House and there were two ADS's at Acle - "A" Coy, and Barton Hall - "B" Coy. There was also detachments of Regimental Aid Posts at Rollesby and Great Yarmouth. Private John Margerum remembers tearing down the "Acle Straight" when Great Yarmouth was raided by the Germans, to help with the injured at the hospital there.It appears that between moving from Witton to Newton Hall, Newton, Cambridge in December 1940, the unit was based at the Old Hall, Hethersett. "A" coy moved from Somerleyton Hall to Chatteris, Cambs and "B" coy from Witton to West Wratting, Cambs. This continued into January 1941 with the HQ operating a Main Dressing Station (MDS) and "A" and "B" Coy operating ADS's at Chatteris and West Wratting.
On 3rd January 1941 the unit moved to Yeltholm, Kelso, Roxburghshire, Scotland. It was reported that weather conditions were poor with snow and ice present during this time. Some of the unit were given leave during January during some severe weather conditions at times.
In April 1941 the whole unit stayed in Bury, Lancashire at "Two Brookes Mill", Hawkshaw until August 1941. The Nursing medics of the unit attended a course in Manchester at a rate of 12 men every 14 days. Training continued throughout July with courses on Law, messing, clothing and equipment as well. There was also joint exercises with other units from the 18th Division and Western command.
The unit moved on the 13th August 1941, by road and rail, to it's final British location of Norton Manor, Prestigne in Radnorshire, with all of the unit arriving by the 18th August. There it pitched in a tented camp and continued training as part of the 54th Brigade, 18th (East Anglia) Division. Here the unit had it's picture taken outside the manor.
On 24th September Lt Col Huston was told that the unit would proceed overseas at an early date as part of the 18th Division. The unit was then given embarkation leave at 30% of the unit a week, starting 26th September 1941. This leave lasted for seven days.
By the 27th October 1941 the unit was back to together at Norton Hall. Around 0830hrs they marched through the streets of Prestigne to a special troop train, that took them to Avonmouth and the Bristol Channel. This was the final step on the 196's journey of Britain.
The men boarded the 'SS Oransay', which was an Orient Line British ship of 20000 tonnes. There were two other Field Ambulances that were part of the 18th Division as well. These were the 197 and 198 Field Ambulances and were attached to 55th and 53rd Brigade's. A lot of these men were from East Anglia as well. The whole of the 18th Division boarded their troopships including the British vessels 'Reina Del Pacifico', 'Orcades', 'Andes', 'Warwick Castle','Durban Castle', 'Duchess of Athol'l and 'Oransay'. There was also a Polish ship the 'MV Sobieski'. These were escorted by British Cruisers, Destroyers and Corvette class ships.
Around 15 men of the 196 had already left for Liverpool for embarkation there and they travelled on the 'SS Andes' to meet the rest of the convoy. On each ship there was a detachment of Royal Army Medical Corps personnel away from the main body of their individual unit. This was known as "trooping" and had the purpose of caring for combatant troops medically when they went abroad on a ship.
On 28th October 1941 The 'SS Oransay' left Avonmouth and headed up the English coast in stormy weather, with nearly all of the 196 and around 3000 other troops.
On the 30th October the 'SS Oransay' arrived at Greenock in Scotland were it joined the rest of the fleet for an, unknown at that time, journey across the Atlantic to Halifax, Nova Scotia in Canada. The 4th Suffolks were also on the 'SS Andes'. A lot of the men realised that they were heading West and for Canada or the US.
The 2nd of November, in the middle of the Atlantic, saw the British convoy meet up with an American convoy of escort ships that would escort them to Halifax. The British escorts then left the convoy and this job was taken over by the US Navy. Of course the United States had not joined the war at this stage, so this convoy remained secret. They arrived in Halifax on 7th November 1941 and barely had chance to stretch their legs before embarking once again for another unknown destination. The 196 and most of the Division were kitted out for Desert fighting, so speculation ran that they were set for Africa or the Middle East. Transport this time was provided by the US Navy and the 196 embarked on the 'USS Joseph T Dickman', an American troopship.
The convoy set sail on 10th November 1941 and on 22nd November had travelled to Trinidad in the West Indies to refuel. There was no time to allow the troops onto land at this stage though and the convoy soon set sail once again. On the 24th the unit were "victims" of the American Crossing the line ceremony, as the convoy crossed the equator, many of the unit getting an impromptu soaking or haircut, by the US hosts.
The 7th December 1941 saw the Japanese invade the Malay Peninsula, and the sinking of'HMS Repulse' and 'Prince of Wales', off it's coast. This was a great loss to the Royal Navy, and soon after this Pearl Harbour was infamously attacked. It was noted that the attitude of the American sailors had gone from slightly patronising to much more friendly on 8th December and strong friendships were formed.
By this time the unit had arrived in Cape Town, South Africa and was given four/five days shore leave. This was a welcome relief to the unit, having spent 10 weeks at sea. Some of the unit describe Table Mountain and the sight seeing that they done. They also describe route marches and continued training. It was around this time that the convoy was officially diverted from its original secret destination of the Levant-Caspian front to the Malay Peninsula.
The 196th spent Christmas Day in 1941 aboard the 'Joseph T Dickman'. The menu was Roast Turkey, Giblet Gravy, Pickles, Sage Dressing, Cranberry Sauce, Mashed Potatoes and Buttered Peas to start. Plum Pudding, Camperdown Sauce and Fruit Salad for afters. There was also Bread, Candy, Tea, Raisin Cookies, Butter and Cigarettes. The ship's food was complimented by many in the unit.
The 27th December 1941 saw the unit arrive in Bombay, India, where they disembarked before getting on a train to Ahmednager, where they stayed for around two weeks. The living quarters were huts with a verandah, and the first encounters with mosquitoes were experienced.
The next stage of this epic journey was a train journey back to Bombay and another sea journey, this time aboard the 'USS West Point'. This was a magnificent vessel that had been the'SS America' before it was converted into a troopship. The same detachment, originally on the'SS Andes', travelled on the 'USS Wakefield'. The 'West Point' and 'Wakefield' were part of a convoy destined for Singapore, and it left Bombay on 19th January 1942. The journey saw the first encounters with the Japanese, as an escort vessel fired on a Japanese plane, apparently on a recce mission.
The convoy reached Keppel Harbour in Singapore and the 196 disembarked on 29th January 1942. They were taken by lorries to a tented camp on the Tampines Road. They were to provide medical treatment to the soldiers of the 54th Brigade who were now to be deployed in the North East sector of the island, next to 55th Brigade and the Singapore City troops. The men of the Royal Army Medical Corps were not issued with any weapons, and relied on the fighting troops around them for protection, as much as the fighting troops relied on them for medical treatment. This North East Coastal sector faced the Malay peninsula, where the Japanese had been steadily advancing, and were expected to attack from.
All of the 196's equipment had been unloaded and delivered to them by the 31st January. This equipment included 8 Austin K2 ambulances, 19, 3 tonne Bedford Lorries, 5 motorcycles and a water tank. These vehicles were driven and maintained by members of the Royal Army Service Corps, who were attached to the 196 since they had been formed.
One Section established a dressing station behind the 5th Suffolks and another Section established a dressing station behind the 4th Suffolks. These contained around 20 men of the 196 each. A further Dressing station was established at the camp where the pool of Ambulances were kept, ready to take cases from Divisional HQ, Royal Artillery and reserve battalions. A lot of the men's time was taken digging trenches for themselves and for the tents to protect them from small arms and explosive rounds.
On 1st February 1942 the unit experienced the first enemy activity with Artillery fire and Air bombing. By this time, the Japanese had almost complete air superiority, as the RAF had been evacuated from the Island. 20 more men of the unit formed a dressing station behind the 5th Beds & Herts, who were part of 55th Brigade, to the left of 54th Brigade.
Between 2nd and 5th February the unit maintained it's position and treated the wounded from the Japanese fire. The minor sick were treated and held in the dressing stations, with the major casualties evacuated in ambulances, to one of three hospitals in Singapore, as they were quite close to the dressing stations.
On 6th February the Dressing station of the 196 behind the 5th Suffolks area was shelled by the Japanese and Private Moffat was seriously injured by shrapnel and Private Goldthorpe was also slightly injured. These were the first casualties of the war for the unit. The day before the Japanese landed a small force on an island opposite 54th Brigades position.
The Japanese landed on Singapore island late on 8th February 1942, in the North Western sector. This was held by the 8th Australian division. They quickly established a bridgehead and began to work their way inland towards Singapore City. Lt Col Huston noted that he was informed of this landing on 10th February. In between this time he withdrew the Dressing station from behind the 4th Suffolks, due to an Indian Brigade taking over their position.
As the situation began to grow more desperate, 30 men from the Royal Army Service Corp were taken from the 196 and told to report as riflemen. 54th Brigade and forces in the North East now began the move to the West of Singapore, in an effort to contain the Japanese advance. The dressing stations were called back to the main tented camp on the Tampines Road, except one, which remained in support of the 5th Suffolks. The 13th of February now saw the 196 deployed in the Thompson Road/Bukit Timah Road area of the island, just north of Singapore City and almost exactly in the middle. The unit was heavily shelled around Thompson Road, though and almost immediately they were ordered to move from that location. The unit came under Japanese rifle fire as it prepared to move. The further withdrawal resulted in the 196's MDS being set up at the City High School around 1800hrs on the 13th.
Other men of the 196 where still in the thick of the action as Regimental Aid Posts and an ADS were still supporting the fighting men away from the MDS on the 14th. At one of the RAP's the Captain commanding two men from the 196 was killed by heavy shelling. This Captain was a member of the RAMC, but not attached to the 196. This day was one of the busiest for the unit and they treated large amounts of casualties. Private Stewart of the 196 was injured following the shelling of the Thompson Road and RAP's and ADS's were bravely assisting the troops where they could and evacuating many wounded men from the 5th Suffolks, 4th Norfolks and 1/5th Sherwood Forrester's mainly. Men of TOMFORCE had to surround and protect the 196 Field Ambulance as they attempted to withdraw casualties from the frontline to the MDS.
The morning of 15th February saw large numbers of severe casualties received at the MDS, and Lt Col Huston reports that 200 were being treated. Only the cases requiring difficult surgery were withdrawn to local hospitals. The MDS buildings at the City High school were being straddled and strafed by artillery and air attack and Lt Col Huston ordered the evacuation of the wounded to the same hospitals as the morning wore on. The 196 suffered more casualties as Major Read and Sgt Cain were wounded and Lt. Cuthbert was severely wounded at the 4th Suffolks RAP.
It is difficult to tell where individuals of the 196 were at this stage, but the battle was coming to a close. There were many wounded being treated by the medical units, and many men survived due to their skill and care. The War Diary of the unit shows records of 426 men treated between 12th-15th February and 11 of those treated that died. The records are not fully complete and won't ever be, due to the extremely trying conditions.
The early afternoon of the 15th saw the 196 set up an Aid Post at the Goodwood Park Hotel. Around this time, the commander of the Allied forces in Singapore unconditionally surrendered the Island and City to the Japanese. The Japanese had complete air superiority and had captured the Island's water reservoirs, giving Percival no choice but to surrender. Cpl Doug Skippen remembers 27 Japanese aircraft dropping their "load" near to the MDS at the City High School, just after the surrender. There were no casualties luckily. The 196 had come through the battle with five men wounded, but no deaths.
For a short while the unit would stay at the City High School, until 22nd February when they were ordered to march to Changi prison, on the East side of the island, around 15 miles from the school. Here the 196 and 197 Field Ambulances shared accommodation and continued the care of the sick and wounded in very cramped conditions. Almost all of the prisoners were held at this prison and around the Island.
As time went on conditions and the treatment of the men started to deteriorate. The diet was the main issue, with very little food given out and there were very few Red Cross parcels reaching the men, as the Japanese held them back. With virtually the only food available to eat being rice, the men started to contract diseases such as Dysentery and Beri Beri, due to a lack of vitamins.
Private Robert (Bob) Ungless, my great uncle, was sadly the first of the 196 men to die on 18th June 1942 aged 24. He died of a perforated appendix, following an operation 36 hours earlier, and was buried at Changi the same day. He now rests at Kranji Cemetery in Singapore. The next 3 and a half years of captivity in the hands of the Japanese, would see over 30 more men of the 196 lose their lives. Altogether 16000 Allied soldiers died during the captivity as the Japanese now embarked on building the Burma-Siam Railway. This entailed men from Changi Prison and smaller camps on Singapore island and other Japanese held territories, being moved in work groups, in appalling conditions "up country" by rail. This movement started for the 196 in June 1942 when on 24th June 1942 Major Read and Capt. Hetreed led some of the unit to start work in the hospitals along the railway. Major Read won a Military Cross whilst working at No.1 Casualty Clearing Station with the British Expeditionary Force in Dunkirk, between May 22nd and 26th 1940. Near Watteau he led the personnel and wounded of his and No.6 CCS to safety through a hail of bullets, enabling them to eventually reach Dunkirk and evacuation.
On 26th June Capt Davies led men of the 196 to Banpong. Banpong was the start of the notorious railway, that was to run for 415km, across dense jungle, through sheer rock and over rivers, all cut by hand and some explosives. The men of the 196 were sent to various places along the railway and even to Japan, where they had travelled across the ocean in "Hellships". These ships stored thousands of men in the holds with little water, no facilities or even lighting. The temperature was very high and allied ships sunk some of them as they carried no markings stating they were transporting POW's. The men who travelled to Japan, mostly worked in mines. Driver Frederick Carter of the RASC, attached to the 196, survived the sinking of the 'Rakuyo Maru' and was rescued and liberated by the 'USS Queenfish' in September 1944 following 5 days adrift in the South China sea. He was the first to make it home. Driver Thomas Waghorn, also attached to the 196, lost his life following the sinking of the 'Kachidoki Maru' in the same convoy.
Driver Arthur Merricks (RASC attached 196) escaped from Banpong on 29/07/42 with Sgt Peter Yapp (RASC), but they were both recaptured within 24 hours. A local villager had reported their presence to the Thai Police. They were both sent to Singapore after being brutally punished and Merricks was sent to 4 and half years of solitary confinement at Outran Road Gaol. Merricks escaped again on 07/11/43, from Changi. What happened after this is not recorded, but he is listed as having died the following day.
Some of the men of the 196 who worked on the railway, found themselves travelling to the furthest point in the Railway at Thanbuyzayat, with the ill fated "F" Force. 3600 British and 3400 Australian POW's worked there between April 1943 and April 1944. Lt Col Huston was part of this force. Over 60% of the British soldiers who worked there died. The 196 mostly worked at Hospitals in Sonkurai and Tanbaya. Cpl Doug Skippen was busy typing an atrocity report in Tanbaya when the chief of the Kempai came in and asked him how long it would take to type a passage of the Geneva convention up. Cpl Skippen calmly removed the atrocity report, placed it down and told him around 20 mins. The Kempai left and Cpl Skippen was informed who the man was!
Most of the RAMC men of the 196 continued in their roles as medical orderly's and worked in the "hospitals" at the camps. However, 43 of the 266 men died in captivity. Many of the 196 won praise from officers and patients who were looked after by them, and many put themselves at risk of catching cholera. Particularly at No.2 camp where Sgt Ken Clarkson was Sgt Wardmaster through an epidemic of the disease where up to 30 men a day died.
With the dropping of the Atomic bombs in August 1945, Japan finally surrended and the camps across Japan, Malaya, Singapore and the other places in the Far East were gradually liberated in September 1945. The Japanese had been cruel captors, but I will not dwell on this here. It is well documented in books. What is clear though is the bond between all the men who shared this horrifying experience.
Surviving member of the 196 held regular reunions up until 2000, these were organised by Cpl Douglas Skippen and held in Ipswich, where it all began. I have been lucky enough to have met some of these brave and remarkable men and I was proud to have shaken their hands and to have my great uncle serve alongside them.
Dedicated to the memory of 7368909 Private Robert Joseph Ungless and all of his mates and comrades in the 196th.
Please contact me if you have any information you wish to share with me about the 196 Field Ambulance. Email: email@example.com