Bart Richardson's veteran story

Barton (Bart) Richardson enlisted at Rutherford, New South Wales, in June 1940. He served with the 2/20th Australian Infantry Battalion as a lieutenant in Malaya and Singapore. He was taken prisoner in Singapore on 15 February 1942.

As a prisoner of war (POW), Bart was interned in Singapore and Thailand. He was one of a group of officers, known as H Force, who worked on the Burma-Thailand Railway. One of their tasks was to build an embankment for the railway. This back-breaking labour involved carrying hand baskets filled with about two shovels-full of soil to the embankment.

Bart also worked on the Konyu cutting, now known as Hellfire Pass, where his party laboured in 2 shifts of 12 hours during ‘speedo' time.

One of Bart's strongest memories of his time in Thailand is the commitment the men had to ensure no man died alone. He recalls that often men would hold the hand of their dying mates as they slipped away.

In December 1943, Bart returned to Singapore, spending time at a former school before being moved to Changi prison until his liberation in August 1945.

Second World War veteran (Army)

Transcript

Vickers machine gun

The 2/18th, 2/19th, and 2/20th used to alternate between Port Dickson, Seremban and Port Dickson. There were two camps in Port Dickson. So we did about three months in Asia and everything was going fine. And then it was time to move us over to Mersing on the east coast.

And there we set up the best defensive work anywhere in the whole Malaya campaign. We had everything there, even had Vickers machine guns. Nobody knew how to handle them. But I'd grown up with Vickers in the militia. So they pulled me out, gave me a squad and said go and train these fellas. And we did. It was a lot of fun.

And I went to the armoury sergeant that I knew pretty well and suggested we might think about making a tripod to put the Vickers machine gun on for anti-aircraft fire. We had no anti-aircraft fire of any sort.

At that stage the Japanese were coming every day, throw a few bombs at us, we wanted to stop that. So we set the Vickers up and surrounded it with a big earthen mound, which was just as well because the Japs dropped a bomb right beside it. And no one was really hurt. And we'd been doing this for a few days and word came in, "You're not to fire at the Japanese anymore with that Vickers machine gun."

"Why not?"

"You're drawing the crabs."

"No, we're not. They know where everybody is here. They've been coming over rooftop height slowly"

"Orders are, you're not to fire the anti-machine-gun".

So that was that. So we packed up the tripod. And eventually, of course, we had to move from Mersing. We met the Japs the other side of the river… and then we had to withdraw from Mersing because out on the west side, they were falling back there.

Singapore: Rearguard

So we finished up back as rearguard for crossing the causeway and that was all quiet, nothing happened there. Got over all right and got across to the other side.

The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, there was a few of them got left and had a battle with Japanese further up north, one of the first to meet them, and those who were left piped themselves across the causeway in the middle of the night. And of course, when we got out to Singapore Island there was no defensive work of any sort.

Now it had been said to the commanding general twice as we were coming back down the peninsula, that it would be a good idea to set up some sort of defensive equipment on Singapore Island. And the answer was, no, we won't do that. That would be bad for the morale of the people.

When we got back on Singapore Island, there was not a strand of barbwire erected, there was not a trench dug, there was nothing. Singapore was never, never, ever, ever an impregnable fortress. And two big guns on the south of Singapore Island, big, big ones, nine-inch gun. They were mounted to fire seaward there was one at Changi, big one mounted to fire north. And nothing else.

Now we were given a piece of ground to cover by our battalion that should have been covered by the whole division. When you've got a man here, a man there, a man ... that's not defence. And of course, the Japs knew this. They hammered us all one day and night, the eighth, ninth of February.

The artillery did a good job. All our mob did a good job and the Japanese were surprised at the reception they received. They lost heavily, very heavily. But we couldn't stay there, we had to move back anyway. That's just the way it went.

Eventually, the Japanese captured the only two water reservoirs on Singapore, turned off the taps and there was no water going in Singapore City. There was no water to wash, to drink, toilets, anything. And Percival, the DOC, was wondering whether he might counterattack. That was one of the silliest things he did, not the only silly thing, but most. He was incompetent. I'll say it straight out, he was incompetent. He couldn't handle the job. He had no idea. Made a mess of everything he touched. And he told his men to surrender, so surrender it was.

Singapore: Working party

A month later I was given 50 men as a working party to go to Singapore … what else. So we camped at the great well, which had an amusement park… and we used to go down from there, down Outram Road we marched down there a mile or so to the school ground, which we used to call the sales centre because there we would split into groups to do whatever and we always at that stage went down to the wharves cleaning up the mess after the bombings, and it was a mess too. But there were also the big sheds that were full of tin food there for the asking.

Well, we didn't ask the Japs. They didn't say no, they didn't say yes. But we took the stuff out just the same, kept on doing that, which added considerably to the flavour of fried rice, and this went on for some time until the Japs suddenly realized, "Oh can't be done. You can't do that".

So they used to search us then going out the gates every night. Well, they put a stop to it. And then it was about that time that the Krait came in. Remember the Krait that came in from the islands off Singapore and came over to Singapore itself in canoes and attached limpet mines to a lot of ships in the harbour, got away before they started to blow up.

It was just about then that the Japs stopped us going down on the wharves again. I don't think they wanted us to see the mess that was made. And we moved from the great well to Selarang which was only next door anyway. Didn't do much there for a while. And we went back to Changi.

Burma-Thailand Railway

Well, hours of working 24 hours a day. We split into two groups, the 28th, and one would do day shift, one would do night shift for a while then we'd swap over. But we'd be going all day. We'd be up in the dark. We'd have the best part of a mile to walk up to the cutting. When we got there, we'd be moving rocks, mostly, that was what we did.

There were other parties, of course, the whole cutting was full of people working. And one group was drilling holes, another group was putting dynamite in and blowing the rocks and our group, or one of our groups, was moving the rocks, pulling them out of the cutting and dropping them over the side. They'd go back with a little thing on wheels, rail wheels and ...

Oh, they were too heavy to carry, they were great big goonies. That was our whole day. Night-time, the Japs would light oil fires and then that lit up the sides of the cutting and down in the cutting itself in certain places. You have to be able to see something. And daylight would come, and the other half would come up and we'd go back to camp and you'd just get nicely asleep and the Japs would wake us up to go unload the barge.

Ill-treatment of locals

We only met them once, fortunately. They were hopeless. The unfortunate ones, really unfortunate ones, were the locals.

The Japs would bring them up from the south and advertise they show you a picture show somewhere in the town and everybody was invited.

Of course everybody would go. And when the hall was full, they'd kick out the kids and put the men on trains and send them up to Thailand. There was no record of who went up, they didn't know who they were. They had nothing with them when they got there. They had nothing to eat with. Used to put their tucker on a bamboo leaf and eat with their fingers. And they died like flies. They really did. They were the ones that really suffered. Nobody would ever know how many there were.

Finding his brother

My brother was with the 2/18th Battalion and when we were back in Singapore Island he was with his battalion, was put on an island just offshore. And of course, the Japanese weren't interested in islands. They bypassed everything.

They suddenly realised what had happened. And they knocked up a Chinese boat and set sail from Singapore. Now, currents up there do funny things. And they had a few brushes with Japs here and there. But finished up in Sumatra. And he was there for, I think, a good long time.

Then the Japanese were about to move, and he thinks to Japan. They're on a boat going from where they were in Sumatra heading for Singapore and in the straits of Malacca they were torpedoed by American ships. They wouldn't know what was on board. And the ship went down of course. So did some of our people. And so did as many Japs as our fellas can push their heads under the water.

He finished up in Changi, a great whack about that long on top of his head, and so we got together again there and then he finished the rest of the war in the same hut as I was. Came home with the same ship and everything. So there you are.

Changi: End of the war

And we went back to Singapore. And there we went into another camp, not the side of the island. And that wasn't a bad camp, we were left alone there. And we just sort of tried to become normal again.

Then after a while, the Japs decided they wanted to use Selarang barracks so they moved the civilians out of the Changi gaol, which was ... Changi gaol was a huge building built in two great sections three stories high. It was, Maitland gaol could fit in it 100 times. It was huge. And we were there for a while. And our quarters were the punishment cell. There was nothing there, everything had been taken away, but you could see where everything had been. This big steel door and the hardest concrete floor I'd ever met.

We were there for a while. Everybody was moved out of Selarang into the gaol. And we moved from inside the gaol to huts outside the gaol. That's where we stayed until the end of the war. We knew what was happening, we had the wireless every day. It was very well done, actually. There was one official and unofficial, there were several of those around. But the official one worked this way, one fella would get the news from BBC, write nothing down, of course, and he'd get together half a dozen people, tell them, they'd go out and meet a half a dozen other and so it'd spread right round the gaol.

And then one day I was on the cook house duty at the time, we'd go down to the cook house to peel spuds. No, they weren't spuds, they were yams and whatever, getting ready for breakfast for the mob. And one of the fellas came and he said, "It's all over, fellas."

We said "Don't be silly. They've been saying that for three and a half years".

"No, I think it's right this time."

"No".

One man in our group said, "Oh, I know a fella with a wireless. I'll go and find out." And he did. And he went away for a long time.

And when he came back, he said "That's right. It's all finished. The Japs have surrendered, but we must act as normal because the guards don't know".

So for a couple days we just acted as normal, but no working parties went out, nothing happened, we were just left alone. And then one day two British army medical officers dropped in onto the Changi airport which our people had levelled off and planes could actually land on from 44. And they came down with two medical orderlies, went up to a Jap guard and they said "We want a transport to Changi gaol" and he had not understood.

So the Pommy doctor produced a Tommy gun and said "We want a transport to the gaol". He got transferred very quickly.

Here Come the Girls

That was the first contact we had with the outside world. And then, oh, it must have been a couple weeks after. We're just lounging around doing nothing, one of the fellas had been out, he walked, came back and, "Put your strides on, boys, here come the girls."

And two girls from some recovery organization came in and we sat them down and said, right, now talk. Poor kids, I think we drove them mad.

Journey home

We left Singapore with a naval escort. Oh, the sea was calm and nothing much was happening and we're here and the naval boats over there, a few of the boys on the back skylarking, going mad and one of them fell overboard. So they just backed up, picked him up and kept on. Wartime, of course, he'd be locked up and thrown back.

And we pull into Darwin, which was good. The people there were magnificent. They adopted us for the day. They took us all around Darwin, they fed us, they showed us a picture at night, took us back to the ship and off we go for Brisbane.

And we were moving so slowly through the waters. The tide would beat us up by the time we got back. And we went up the Brisbane River, unloaded six people and then back down the river, turn south to go down to Sydney. And I said to one of the officer's crew what time are we likely to pass Nobbies? "At one o'clock in the morning." Thank you, so we went down below deck.

I woke up with the watch, nearly one o'clock. I didn't have a watch, but somebody had a watch. I couldn't find mine earlier. Got up, it was Nobbies, we're nearly home. Then down to Sydney, met there on the wharf. Two people on the wharf waiting, one was Gordon Bennett, he came nowhere near us. The other was the Salvation Army bloke, Woody. He'd been in Malaya with us was sent home by his own crew. He didn't want to leave us, but he had to. And he was there to meet us.

And as I walked down the gangplank, he asked me about so and so and so and so. Sometimes I could tell him, sometimes I couldn't because I didn't know, we'd been so scattered. Got a double-decker bus out to Ingleburn and then we were told "Meet your families over, then come back some time. You'll be staying here for a week before you go home".

We almost said as one voice, "We are not".

Of course, "You can't ditch the army, it's not possible. No one can do that".

"Well, we are. We've been away from home for a good five years. They're not keeping us here another week".

So they got their silly little heads together and said, "All right, come back in a week's time". And then the army, somebody, didn't want to pay us for our three and a half years. "You can't do that, we've earned that money, we worked for you!" They paid us. But that's the sort of thing that went on.


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DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) ( ), Bart Richardson's veteran story, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 28 February 2024, https://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/stories/oral-histories/bart-richardsons-veteran-story
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