The Building of Hellfire Pass

It seems to run without much regard to the landscape as though someone had drawn a line on a map!

[E.E. Dunlop, The War Diaries of Weary Dunlop, Ringwood, Victoria, Penguin, 1989, 212.]

A section of railway line extending through a deep, narrow vertical channel cut into a hill

Chungkai Cutting, sixty kilometres from the start of the railway, was cut by British prisoners based in a nearby camp which later became a major POW hospital. The River Kwai Noi is to the right, out of frame. This section of the railway is still in use and the cutting has been widened to accommodate the modern gauge. [Photo: Kim McKenzie]

The Burma-Thailand railway was built in 1942–43 to supply the Japanese forces in Burma, bypassing the sea routes that were made vulnerable when Japanese naval strength was reduced in the Battles of the Coral Sea and Midway in May and June 1942.

Once the railway was completed the Japanese planned to attack the British in India, and in particular the road and airfields used by the Allies to supply China over the Himalayan Mountains.

Begun in October 1942 and completed on 16 October 1943, the railway stretched 415 kilometres between Nong Pladuk in Thailand and Thanbyuzayat in Burma (now Myanmar).

A rail connection between Burma and Thailand had been proposed decades before World War II. In the 1880s the British had surveyed a possible route but abandoned the project because of the challenges posed by the thick jungle, endemic diseases and lack of adequate roads.

The Japanese also carried out a survey in the 1920s and, after completing a further survey in early 1942, decided in June to proceed, using the large workforce of Allied POWs now at their disposal. At this time Japanese engineers were assisted by small numbers of prisoners marking and roughly clearing the route of the railway.

Aiming to finish the railway as quickly as possible the Japanese decided to use a massive workforce of prisoners and Asian labourers or rǒmusha. The railway was to be constructed by units working along its entire length rather than just from each end.

The terrain the railway crossed made its construction very difficult. However, its route was not entirely the dense and inhospitable jungle of popular imagination. At either end, in Burma and Thailand, the rail track travelled through gentle landscape before entering the rugged and mountainous jungle on the border between the two countries.

When the track reached Wampo, about 112 kilometres from the Thai terminus, it started to meet jagged limestone hills, interspersed with streams and gullies. During the monsoon season, the land became waterlogged and unstable. This posed problems for construction as well as for transport and supply.

As far as possible the railway track proceeded at a gentle gradient, as steam trains could only climb a slight incline. Where the railway met unavoidable hills, cuttings were dug to allow the line to proceed. Often the line emerged from a deep cutting onto a series of embankments, and bridges. In all, 688 bridges were built along the railway. In addition, over sixty stations were built to allow trains to pass one another, as well as refuelling and watering points.

More than 60 000 Allied prisoners of war were employed in the construction of the Burma-Thailand railway, including British Empire troops, Dutch and colonial troops from the Netherlands East Indies and a smaller number of US troops. About 13 000 of the prisoners were Australian.

In addition, the Japanese enticed or coerced about 200 000 Asians labourers (rǒmusha) to work on the railway. These included Burmese, Javanese, Malays, Tamils and Chinese.

Over 12 000 Allied prisoners died during the construction of the railway, including more than 2700 Australians. Around 1000 Japanese died. It is difficult to determine precisely how many rǒmusha died, as record keeping was poor. The number is estimated to be between 75 000 and 100 000.

Despite being repeatedly bombed by the Allies, the Burma-Thailand railway did operate as a fully functioning railway after its completion. Between November 1943 and March 1944 over 50 000 tonnes of food and ammunition were carried to Burma as well as two complete divisions of troops for the Japanese offensive into India. This attack, one of their last, was defeated by British and Indian forces.

As the railway was used to support the Japanese in Burma until the end of the war, prisoners of war and rǒmusha continued to work on maintenance and repair tasks after the railway construction was completed.


Last updated: 12 March 2020

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