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Wilfred E Hicks - Wartime Experiences


My father was born on the 27th January 1920 in Newport, Monmouthshire. The second son of an ex soldier, then policeman. Following his earlier years of education in the village schools of Mitchel Troy and Trellech, where his father was village constable, dad was destined to follow his older brother, Arthur, into army service at the age of 14 in 1934. For the next four years he served and trained as a boy soldier at the Beachley training camp, near Chepstow in Monmouthshire. He was there until his 18th birthday in 1938, when he transferred into the regular army, as a private in the Army Service Corps assigned to the 19th Company.

At the outbreak of war, he was part of the British expeditionary force, landing in France on 27/9/39. Along with other members of his Corps, he was stationed along the French border with Belgium awaiting the next move from the Germans.

On the 10/5/40 the German blitzkrieg invasion of Holland and Belgium began. British and French forces, at the behest of the Belgian king, hastily deployed into Belgium to meet the rapidly advancing Germans. Within weeks the tanks and equipment they were there to service had been destroyed. Dad was attached to the 11th Ambulance company as an ambulance driver, recovering wounded from the front. He saw many horrific sights and found himself driving through German lines to escape capture as well as being shelled and chased by enemy tanks. He was just 20 years old.

His brother Arthur was rescued from Dunkirk in May 1940. My father was in central France with the army retreating south. He, along with many thousands of other British troops, were still fighting weeks after Dunkirk had fallen and were heading for the Southern ports of France for rescue. He was evacuated from France on 17/6/40, the same day that the French Government capitulated. That same day the ship ‘Lancastria’ was sunk with the loss of an estimated 5000 souls on board, with some 2000 survivors.

When he spoke a little of this time, he said the ship he was on had been hit and he had to swim to another, although he never confirmed which ship he was on. The Lancastria was known to have on board a large group of Army Service Corps personnel at the time. We shall never know.    

On returning to the UK and now a corporal, he was reassigned to the 26th Motor coach company. Their task at this time of pending invasion was to requisition and repair motor coaches, with a view to moving troops quickly to any frontline in the UK. In this period as a professional experienced soldier he was offered a commission. He refused, he told us his experiences in France showed him that officers were always targeted by the German snipers. Although his brother took up a similar offer.

In August 1941 my father received orders to ship out to Singapore, as part of the British effort to strengthen the garrison. He sailed via South Africa and India arriving in Singapore on 29/9/41. Along with many of the new troops he was transferred to Malaya to counter the current threat from Japan, as part of the Malayan Defence Force. When the Japanese attacked on 8/12/41, after some fierce fighting they were forced to retreat. At this point he was reported as missing in action. In reality he had managed to join the retreat back to Singapore. My grandparents did not know for many months whether he was still alive or not.

On 15/2/42 he, along with the rest of the Singapore garrison, was taken prisoner. The troops were held in the military camp at the Selarang barracks, Changi, He was present at the infamous 30/8/42 incident in which there were executions of 4 fellow prisoners.

On 16/5/43 he was included in a transfer of 950 soldiers from the camp at Changi to mainland Japan. The ship he boarded was the Wales Maru (J Force) which arrived at Moji port, Japan on 7/6/43. These ships of transport are now known as the Japanese ‘Hell ships’. Approximately 46000 allied troops were transferred to Japan of which over 11000 never completed the journey and a further 3500 died in the Japanese prison camps. The Japanese did not mark the ships as POW carrying and many were sunk by allied submarines, conditions on board were akin to the slave ships, with prisoners consigned to the holds with little or no sanitation or exercise. Dad witnessed the sinking of other ships in the convoy, but fortunately he survived the journey.

On landing in Japan he was moved to the Yackoma camp until 25/10/43, then transferred to the Muroran Branch camp/Ashibetsu Hakodata on Hokkaido island. The prisoners here worked at the Nippon Steel works and latterly at the Mitsui Mining Co. Conditions were poor with regular beatings and insufficient food. They were here until 5/6/45 and then moved to Nishi Ashibetsu until their liberation on 2/9/45 and eventually returned to allied hands on 5/10/45. At release there were 349 British, 155 Dutch and 5 Americans prisoners in the camp. 53 prisoners had died in the camp during their imprisonment. Their condition was extremely poor. My father at that time weighed five and a half stone, had temporarily lost his sight and was suffering from the effects of malaria, dengue fever, beri-beri, malnutrition and dysentery.

The prisoners were flown out of Japan and dad recalled that all their kit was ‘lost’ (with the exception of my fathers box), more likely jettisoned on purpose for hygiene reasons. The flight went via Okinawa, where Japanese snipers fired at the Dakota leaving a number of holes in the fuselage. The rest of the journey across the Pacific was by hospital ship to the US and then, for the British troops, up the coast by ship to Vancouver. Once landed they were transferred to the trans Canadian railway for the journey across Canada to Halifax on the east coast. The final leg of dads extended round the world trip was by ship across the Atlantic, arriving back in Liverpool on 31/10/45.

On arrival back in the UK, over two months after VE day, the world had moved on, there were few welcome home celebrations, people now wanted to leave the last five years of war behind them.