Prisoner of war
South-African born New South Wales farmer, Charles Anderson, was the highest-ranked Australian soldier to receive a Victoria Cross (VC). His was the first VC to be awarded to an Australian soldier in action against the Japanese during World War II. Anderson was captured by Japanese forces in early 1942 and spent the rest of the war as a prisoner. After the war, he became a long-standing member of the House of Representatives in the Australian Federal Parliament.
Anderson was the son of a British father and Belgian-born mother. He was born in South Africa but raised on the family's farm near Nairobi in Kenya. When he was 10, Anderson was sent to boarding school in England.
Anderson became a lieutenant with the 3rd Battalion, King's African Rifles in World War I. He fought against the Askari who sided with Germany, and gained valuable experience in jungle fighting in German East Africa, a territory covering present-day Burundi, Rwanda and Tanzania. Anderson was decorated for bravery with a Military Cross (MC).
In February 1931, Anderson married Edith Tout. The couple met when Edith was visiting her uncle, Sir Frederick Tout, in Africa.
Anderson moved to Australia with Edith and their 3 children in 1931. They bought and lived on an 890ha property at Crowther, near Young, New South Wales.
World War II
Anderson joined the Citizen Military Forces in March 1939. He was made captain of the 56th Battalion (Riverina Regiment) and was promoted to major in October of that year.
Anderson was seconded to the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) in July 1940. He was second-in-command of the 2/19th Infantry Battalion, which was part of the 22nd Australian Infantry Brigade. He and his unit embarked for Malaya in February 1941.
Battle of Muar
As the first silvery lights of dawn crept through the trees the Japs launched their real attack on our left flank. Shells and mortar bombs rained on our positions in hundreds. Lucky were we that the screening rubber trees caused most of them to explode before reaching the ground and they were not taking their full effect. The trees began to take on the appearance of a forest swept by a tornado, split and broken branches stripped of their leaves by the blast, littering the ground. The trunks, splintered and torn by shell and bomb fragments, alone remaining upright in defiance of the attack, whilst underneath maimed and wounded men fought desperately to stem the attack and succeeding in driving the Japanese back.
[Sgt Fred Howe, 2/19 Battalion, in The Boorowa News, 3 December 1948]
The Japanese invaded the Malayan peninsula in December 1941. Some 20,000 Australian troops were sent to help defend the peninsula and Singapore alongside British and Indian troops. By January, they were forced to retreat. Casualties were high:
- 1,800 Australians killed
- 1,400 Australians wounded
- 15,000 taken prisoner during the Fall of Singapore
Anderson and his unit arrived in Bakri in the Muar area north of Singapore on 18 January 1942. Their job was to support the 45th Indian Brigade and 2/29th Battalion. Fighting was fierce and Allied troops faced ground and air attacks from the Japanese.
Anderson took command of the brigade when its headquarters were bombed on 19 January. By that evening, all escape routes were cut. The only option remaining for the Australians was to fight their way back towards Allied lines.
Led by Anderson and singing 'Waltzing Matilda', the men began pushing towards the village of Parit Sulong, 8km away. The next 4 days were some of the most difficult in Australia's wartime history. Surrounded by the Japanese and with no air support, many were wounded or died.
For his brave actions during this battle, Anderson was recognised with a VC. Using grenades, he took out 2 Japanese machine-gun posts and shot two enemy soldiers, allowing the Australians to break through the surrounding Japanese.
Only 20% of the original force of Australians and Indians, including Anderson, made it to British lines. They reached Yong Peng on 23 January.
Throughout the fighting, which lasted for four days, he set a magnificent example of brave leadership, determination and outstanding courage. He not only showed fighting qualities of very high order but throughout exposed himself to danger without any regard for his own personal safety.
[Victoria Cross citation, awarded to Charles Anderson, in London Gazette, 13 February 1942, supplement 35456, page 749]
Prisoner of war
After the Malayan Campaign, Anderson was taken to a hospital in Singapore. He was taken prisoner by the Japanese on 15 February 1942 during the Fall of Singapore.
Anderson was among the first 3,000 Australians to be sent to Burma to work for the Japanese in May. He was second-in-command of 'A' Force, under Brigadier Arthur Varley. Later, he led the smaller 'Anderson Force' work party.
Anderson, along with other Australian prisoners of war (POWs) from 'A' Force, endured a 12-day journey from Singapore. Varley's diary records the lack of shelter from the constant rain and inadequate facilities for men sick with dysentery and diarrhoea.
'A' Force was first put to work on Japanese airfields at Tavoy. When the work finished in September 1942, the men were sent to Thanbyuzayat to begin work on the Burma-Thailand Railway.
The railway connected Burma in the north to Thailand in the south. Its purpose was to allow supplies for Japanese troops to be transported overland, instead of by sea where the Japanese were more vulnerable to Allied attack.
Some 60,000 Allied POWs worked on the railway, along with some 200,000 Rǒmusha, or Asian labourers. By the time work finished in October 1943, more than 11,000 Allied POWs were dead, including at least 2,815 Australians.
Anderson was well-respected by the men of 'Anderson' Force. Accounts from those he served with remember his efforts in keeping their morale high. The 45-year-old Lieutenant-Colonel often risked Japanese beatings when standing up for the men he commanded.
Anderson was a POW for 3 years. He was released in August 1945, after Japan's surrender. He returned home to Australia in December 1945.
After the war
Anderson returned to his family and farm at Young. In 1949, he stood for election to represent the federal seat of Hume in the House of Representatives. He served 3 terms in Canberra, advocating for farmers and service personnel. In 1950, at the height of the Cold War, Anderson spoke in support of the Communist Party Dissolution Act.
Charles Anderson died at his Canberra home on 11 November 1988. He was 91. Anderson was given full military honours at his funeral.
- AWM (Australian War Memorial) (2020), Fifty Australians - Charles Anderson, Fifty Australians Exhibition, accessed 7 February 2020, https://www.awm.gov.au/visit/exhibitions/fiftyaustralians/1
- AWM (Australian War Memorial) (undated), Lieutenant Colonel Charles Groves Wright Anderson, accessed 7 February 2020, https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/P10676231
- DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) (2020), Malayan Campaign, DVA Website, accessed 7 February 2020, https://www.dva.gov.au/newsroom/media-centre/media-backgrounders/malayan-campaign
- Second World War Official Histories, Part II - South–East Asia Conquered, Chapter 12 – The Battle of Muar, page 236, accessed 7 February 2020, https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/C1417211
- Second World War Official Histories, Part III - Prisoners of the Japanese, Chapter 24 – The Burma–Thailand Railway, pages 541 to 592. https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/C1417223