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Portsmouth men building the Burma Railway

In 1942, after invading Burma through Thailand, Japananese forces needed to bring supplies to the front in Burma through the straits of Malacca, which was vulnerable to Allied submarines. The only feasible alternative was a railway.

Construction started in June 1942, at both ends. Part of the work included the famous Bridge over the River Kwai, made infamous by the film starring Alec Guinness. The work was completed by Allied Prisoners of War and local Slave Labourers. The Japanese Government had not signed up to the Geneva Convention on the treatment of Prisoners, and Japanese military culture looked down on surrender as a shameful act. As a result Prisoners were treated brutally. It is estimated that 160,000 Prisoners and locals died building the railway, due to overwork, malnutrition, and diseases such as cholera, malaria and dysentery. An estimated 6,318 of these were British, and the total death rate was a staggering 25%. Many war crimes were perpetrated by the Japanese military against prisoners during the building of the Railway.

On 17 October 1943 both ends of the line met, and most the surviving prisoners were transferred elsewhere. Some, however, remained in the area in order to maintain the line. They continued to live in appalling conditions. Using Prisoners for work was not illegal – my own Grandfather worked in a sugar beet factory in captivity in Germany – but mistreating them to such an extent consituted a serious war crime.

Many men from Portsmouth died working on the Burma Railway. We can only guess at the horrors, ill-treatment, illness and brutality that they must have endured.

In Burma, Aramament Staff Sergeant Edward Rex, 25 and from Southsea, was serving with the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers when he was captured in Singapore. He died on 5 September 1943. Private Sidney Rich, 31 and from Southsea, was also captured at Singapore with the 5th Battalion of the Suffolk Regiment. He died on 27 Octmber 1943. Both are buried in Thanbuyayzat War Cemetery, Burma.

Many more worked on the Thailand end of the line, all of them having been captured in the fall of Singapore in February 1942. Most of them are buried at Kanchanaburi War Cemetery. Gunner Arthur Denmead, 22 and from Fratton, serving with 135 Field Regiment of the Royal Artillery, some time in June 1943. Sergeant Frank Hudson, 28 and from Landport, was captured while serving with 125 Anti-Tank Regiment, Royal Artillery. He died on 5 August 1943. Signalman John Morey, 36 and from Southsea, was a member of 9 Indian Division Royal Signals. He died on 17 September 1943. Gunner Walter Cottrell, from Southsea and at the young age of 19, was serving with 3 Heavy Anti-Aircraft Regiment, Royal Artillery. He died on 22 October 1943. Lance Corporal Derek Foster, from Southsea and serving with 18 Divisional Provost Company, was 29 when he died on 27 November 1943. Private John Moore was a qualified electrical engineer, who was evidently working in Malaya, and having joined the local volunteer defence force was captured in the fall of Singapore. He was 38 when he died on 19 December 1943. Gunner James Hammond, age 38 and from Fratton, had been captured with 11 Battery, 3 Heavy Anti-Aircraft Regiment, Royal Artillery. He died on 11 January 1944.

Several Portsmouth men are also buried at Chungkai War Cemetery in Thailand. Lance Sergeant Phillip Lansley, age 31 and from Paulsgrove, was serving with 1 Heavy Anti-Aircraft Regiment, Royal Artillery. He died on 9 January 1944. But perhaps the saddest story, amongst a tragic situation, is that of Captain Cecil Lambert. He was aged 60 and from Cosham, and was serving with the Royal Army Ordnance Corps. He died on 24 June 1943. Clearly even the old were not excused from the brutality.

That they died, in such a terrible manner and so far away from home, should never be forgotten.

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Filed under Army, portsmouth heroes, World War Two