...the worst disaster and largest capitulation in British history

[British Prime Minister Winston Churchill describing the fall of Singapore.]

When the Japanese conquered much of South East Asia in late 1941 and early 1942 they captured more than 50 000 British military personnel. Some 30 000 of these prisoners of war later worked on the Burma-Thailand railway. More than one in five of them died there.

The majority of British troops who worked on the railway were captured when Singapore fell on 15 February 1942. They consisted of the 18th Division, a second-line Territorial Army formation which had arrived in Malaya in January 1942 in a last minute bid to halt the Japanese advance; members of the local militia, the Malay States Volunteer Forces; and thousands of service and fortress troops. Survivors of the HMS Repulse and the Prince of Wales, which were sunk off the coast of Malaya on 10 December 1941, were also taken prisoner, as were airmen from the Royal Air Force.

Two divisions (9th and 11th) of the Indian Army who had failed to stop the Japanese advance down the Malayan peninsula also fell into Japanese hands in early 1942. However, perhaps 20 000 of these 40 000 men were later persuaded or coerced to fight for the Japanese in the Indian National Army, in the hope that a Japanese victory would liberate India from British imperial rule.

Elsewhere in the Pacific some 10 000 British, Canadian and Indian troops were captured when Hong Kong fell in December 1941 and further 5000 in the Netherlands East Indies (now Indonesia) in early 1942.

The first contingent of British to work on the Burma-Thailand railway were sent to Burma (now Myanmar) from Sumatra in May 1942, as part of the 500-strong Medan Force. This was the same time at which Australians in A Force left Changi for Burma.

However, the British would form only a minority of the Allied POWs in Burma. On this end of the railway the workforce was largely Australian, Dutch and local rǒmusha. By far the majority of British POWs—nearly 29 000 of them—were sent to Thailand.

The first contingent of around 3000 reached Thailand some months before the Australians in June 1942. They were set to work building a camp at Nong Pladuk which would form a base for future groups of POWs.

In October 1942 a similar-sized group of British POWs left Singapore for Thailand and were employed around Kanchanaburi and on building the steel bridge at Tha Markam which would later become known as 'The Bridge on the River Kwai' Another thirteen 'letter parties', L to X, soon followed, taking the number of British working on the railway at the end of 1942 to around 20 000.

During the first half of 1943 the British POWs continued to be sent to the railway as part of multinational forces. They were included in D Force (2780) in March, F Force in April (3600) and H Force in May (c. 1950). Around 200 British medical personnel also contributed to K and L Forces, which were sent to Thailand in June and August 1943 to try and remedy the catastrophic health situation of the rǒmusha.

The British POWs suffered the highest number of dead of any Allied group on the Burma-Thailand railway. There is a popular perception that they also died at a higher rate than Australians. This owes something to the fact that in F Force, where British and Australian numbers were roughly equal, some 2036 British died compared to 1060 Australians in the period up to May 1944. The Australian commander Lieutenant-Colonel Charles Kappe attributed the lower Australian death rate to …

… a more determined will to live, a higher sense of discipline, a particularly high appreciation of the importance of good sanitation, and a more natural adaptability to harsh conditions … [and to] … the splendid and unselfish services rendered by the medical personnel in the Force.

[quoted in Lionel Wigmore, The Japanese Thrust, Canberra, Australian War Memorial, 581].

In reality, however, the death rates of British and Australians across all sites on the railway were scarcely any different—22 and 21 per cent, respectively. The higher deaths in F Force were probably attributable to the fact that British workers contained a high proportion of men who were already ill when they left Singapore. The larger number of British deaths overall reflects the fact that there were simply more British working on the railway than Australians or Dutch POWs.

Possibly traditional Anglo-Australian rivalry, dating from World War I, fed the belief that Australians were more resilient in captivity than the British. Australian, POW Russell Braddon, for instance, wrote later that:

It's the old Australian thing, we need to sustain our own morale even to these days by talking about dirty poms and everything else.

[AWM S03005]

After the war ended British POWs were repatriated by the same organisation as Australians, the Repatriation of Allied Prisoners of War and Internees organisation (RAPWI). They spent nearly six weeks at sea, travelling via India, before reaching their homes in Great Britain.

British POWs received a small compensation payment of £76 after the signing of the 1951 peace treaty with Japan. In 2000, after years of campaigning, former POWs and civilian internees of the Japanese also received a one-off ex-gratia payment from the British government of £10 000. This payment formed a precedent for a similar sum paid to Australian POWs in 2001.

In the post-war years the experiences of prisoners of the Japanese tended to be marginalised in British national war memory. The central character of the 1957 film, The Bridge in the River Kwai, was British, based loosely on the commander at Tha Markam, Lieutenant-Colonel Philip Toosey. But even though the film was a huge commercial success, the image it portrayed of the British was hardly flattering. The memory of defeat and loss of Empire in 1942 was also not one that lent itself to celebration. Hence, the dominant memory of captivity in British cultural imagination became one of escape from German POW camps, and particularly from the Saxon fortress of Colditz and from Stalag Luft III in Sagan (now Zagan, Poland)—narratives that again gained fame through very successful memoirs, films and television series.

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