I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
An Historic British Defeat
Singapore is an island at the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula. It was colonized by Britain in 1819 and was considered an impregnable fortress. It wasn’t. On February 15, 1942, it fell to the Japanese in what is considered one of the worst defeats in the history of the British Army; it was certainly the worst defeat in World War II. Winston Churchill called it “the worst disaster and largest capitulation in British history.”
The Fall of Singapore
Late in 1941, the Japanese Imperial Army crossed from Thailand and began marching down the Malay Peninsula. The island of Singapore, a major British base, was a prize that needed to be captured.
The British were taken completely by surprise.
The Allied force had 85,000 men to the Japanese 35,000. But, the Japanese were nimble, had better tactics, and knew a thing or two about jungle warfare, which the Allies didn’t.
Military planners had always assumed any attack on the base would come from the sea so all the gun emplacements to defend the colony were constructed to point out to sea; they could not be turned towards the land.
The Japanese ignored the British supposition that an advance through the jungle and mangrove swamp to the north was impossible. On Valentine’s Day 1942 the British were forced to surrender and that’s when Alistair Urquhart’s ordeal began. He was not alone; thousands of other Commonwealth soldiers were taken prisoner as well.
Treatment of Prisoners of War
Alistair Urquhart has chronicled the misery of being a Japanese prisoner of war in his memoirs, some of which are posted online. A more extensive account is given in his 2010 book, The Forgotten Highlander: One Man’s Incredible Story of Survival During the War in the Far East, published by Little, Brown.
The first taste of captivity was a forced march to a POW camp along a road that was lined with spikes on which were mounted the heads of decapitated Chinese.
At first, prisoners of war were not treated really badly, says Urquhart, although the food was just rice filled with weevils. Then, he and others were taken to work on building a railway between Thailand and Burma.
Miserable Train Journey to Thailand
Herded into wagons, the men were taken from Singapore to Bam Pong in Thailand; it was a six-day “journey of hunger, stifling heat, cold nights, and sheer misery, and we will never forget the stench of human excrement” and the putrefaction of those who died. The steel sides of the wagons became so hot during the day that they burned any skin that touched them.
Those who survived the journey had to endure a five-day forced march into the jungle where they were to begin years of hard labour on starvation rations. Malaria, beriberi, dengue fever, and dysentery were common with no medicine to treat disease.
In one harrowing passage, Urquhart describes how the prisoners “used maggots to eat away the decaying flesh” caused by tropical ulcers. And, through it all, the men had to undergo constant beatings if the guards thought they weren’t working hard enough.
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Building the Burma Railroad
During 1942-43, 60,000 prisoners of war like Alistair Urquhart were forced to work on building the 415-kilometre-long railway between Thailand and Burma. According to The Burma-Thailand Railway Centre, an estimated 240,000 native people from Burma, Java, and Malaya worked alongside the POWs.
The centre reports that “Over 13,000 prisoners of war perished during the period between late 1942 and late 1945. The numbers of deaths of the Asian labourers is harder to calculate; around 100,000 seems to be the most reliable figure.” As noted by The Telegraph “One man died for every sleeper (tie) laid,” so the Burma Railway is also called the Death Railway for good reason.
In 1957, David Lean’s movie The Bridge on the River Kwai told the story of the men who built the railroad. But the BBC program Today says Urquhart doesn’t think the portrayal of the soldiers’ suffering was accurate: “The film sanitizes the depths to which the men sank on the building of the infamous railway bridge.”
Alistair Urquhart Faces New Ordeals
Eventually, Urquhart and other survivors were taken on another death march out of the jungle to Singapore. There, he and 400 others were loaded into the hold of a cargo ship.
The conditions were appalling, as described by The Telegraph: “Inside the hold, it was standing room only and there were no lavatory facilities. In the hot, dark, fetid atmosphere, men were driven mad by thirst. Cannibalism and even vampirism were not unknown.” But, worse was yet to come.
The vessel was torpedoed by an American submarine and sank. Again, Urquhart beat the odds and survived four days alone on a life-raft before being picked up by a Japanese whaler. He and a few other survivors were put ashore and paraded naked through a village.
The BBC’s Alan Little describes the next incredible adventure: Urquhart “ended up in a camp in mainland Japan. He was there when the war ended. But his prison camp was a few miles from the city of Nagasaki.
“The blast of hot air from the bomb that fell on August 9th knocked him off his feet.”
Within a few days he was liberated, but it wasn’t until November 17, 1945, that he finally reached the British Isles aboard the RMS Queen Mary.
He worked in the plumbing supply business, married, and had two children. In his memoir, he wrote about his anger that Japan never fully acknowledged the atrocities committed by its armed services.
He died in October 2016 at the age of 97.
- The few surviving prisoners of war were awarded £76 each for their suffering under the terms of the 1951 peace treaty with Japan. After a long and unsuccessful legal battle with the Japanese government, the British government awarded £10,000 to surviving servicemen and widows.
- Sir Harold Atcherley was an intelligence officer with the British Army and was captured when Singapore fell. He survived the ordeal of the Burma Railway. In 2013, at the age of 95, he told The Telegraph, “There are certain things I know that I have never talked about and never would.”
- “The Man Who Refused to Die.” Allan Little, BBC Today, February 25, 2010
- “A Brief History of the Thailand-Burma Railway.” Thailand-Burma Railway Centre, December 2, 2005.
- “Alistair Urquhart.” Far East Prisoners of War.
- “Burma Railway: British PoW Breaks Silence Over Horrors.” Tom Rowley, The Telegraph, October, 18, 2013.
- “Alistair Urquhart, Death Railway Survivor – Obituary.” The Telegraph, October 26, 2016.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2017 Rupert Taylor
Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on June 11, 2017:
What strength that caused these men to survive the atrocities of the prison camp and then live to such old age! Long live the mystery and power of inner strength! Story well-told.