I visited Jim in 2008. Although his memories are not of Brandon (he retied to the town in the 80s), his experience of being captured by the Japanese at Singapore, and being their prisoner for over three years, does give an insight into what Brandon men caught up in similar circumstances may have experienced.
Before the war
I was born in Folkestone, Kent, on 9th July 1920. In January 1939, before the start of the Second World War I joined the local Territorial Army unit on the promise of £5 a year, which was a lot of money in those days. Jobs were very hard to come by at that time, but I did also find a little job working in a leather factory . When war was declared in September 1939 I got called up immediately. You know I never did get that £5!
War in Europe
We were living in a little village called Charing, just a few miles from Ashford in Kent. So I went along to the drill hall in Ashford, joined up for the war and I think my parents were glad to get rid of me. I got my uniform and because I had taken a course in Morse code I became a signaller. We were given duties around Ashford, but when we really got going we were put into the 1st Artillery Regiment. They used to give the gun salute for the Queen in Hyde Park. I did look a bit of a Charlie though, putting on putties and spurs. Then by November we were shipped across into France.
I remember the first place we went to was a little village called Monchoun(?). We were there a few months before heading up toward Belgium. Then we got a sudden call to go back toward Dunkirk, to a place called Saint-Valery. The 51st Highland Division were there and they wanted a bit of help. We started on our trek back and as we passed through the Forest of Beau a plane attacked us and fired its guns on us, although I don’t know if it hit anybody. This did not help us at all. I dived right down as I didn’t want any of it! As we came into Saint-Valery there was firing going on and the 51st Highland Division had just been captured. We were then told to destroy the guns, bury the breeches and then make out way further along the coast. We went through Saint-Valery to a point where we waited to join a boat back to England. As we went we could see the poor old Scots being marched away by the Germans! We went along the top of the cliffs and some of the Scots were on the sands running away from the Germans, some were even trying to climb the cliffs. We could see a boat loading up with soldiers as we walked along the cliff. There was more chaos as we had to go through people’s houses to get to the shore and we were joined by some of the Scots by then, trouble was you didn’t know who was waiting in those houses for us. It was all a bit naughty! As the cliffs died away, a footpath went down the beach to the boat and from there we lined up for the one boat that was loading up with soldiers. Although it was a big boat it was very cramped and full of soldiers. By the time we got on the boat there was basically only room on top. So when we got on board we literally just laid down and fell asleep. We were exhausted. I never understood why the Germans didn’t attack the boat while it was loading up. Anyway I woke up as we approached Dover and from there we went to Aldershot
Back in England
We then had a bit of a rest before taking up stations in England, mostly along the Norfolk coast. We manned the 25-pounders, waiting for the invasion. Then we went to Liverpool and did fire watch duty on the rooftops in the docks. I didn’t enjoy that. Then we went to Lockerbie in Scotland where we did a lot of training. We knew we were going to be in trouble because when we were given our kit it was for going aboard, but we had no idea where we were going. I still remember us being dressed up in our new kit. Then we were moved up into the Glasgow area. Here there was a boat, ‘M.S. Sobiescki’, and we all climbed aboard and left Britain.
En route to Singapore
We arrived at Cape Town, South Africa, at about Christmas time in 1941 and here we changed boats and got onto an American boat. It was like getting onto a palace, I can tell you. In Cape Town they allowed some of us time to swim in the sea. The Blue sky and blue sea, with fish of all different colours, it was lovely. It was lovely relaxation. Those who had to stay on the boat were cooking eggs on the ship’s deck because it was so hot. They also gave us some shore leave, just to go round town. Me and my mate were stopped by some locals who asked if we would care to have lunch with them, so we did. I really don’t know what we looked like though. We had shorts that were buttoned up along the sides. Most of the lads went shopping and all they came back with was the turn-ups in their shorts full of bananas. You never saw such a sight in all your life. We played a lot of cards on the boat, but I got caught so they put me in the cookhouse. I have never been so happy in all my life! The stuff they gave me was fantastic!
Then we took the long way round to Singapore. There was a big raid going on in Singapore as we arrived. As we travelled through we could see there were loads of planes on the airfield but they were still in their cases. We didn’t see a lot of fighting because we were artillery men without guns but they put us into the infantry. I do remember one time we were put to use when we were laying lines along the top of the telegraph poles. I would climb up and tie them off at the top because I was good at climbing ladders. All of a sudden a bloke at the bottom of the ladder shouts, “look out Jim ‘cos there’s a bloody plane coming”. I looked round and there was this plane coming straight for me. It was too late to climb down so all I could think of doing was hiding behind the post and keeping still. I thought their guns might go either side of me. They did fire upon me and fortunately I was right. My mates were below the tree line so they were safe. That was the closest I came to being killed.
The fight for Singapore
The Japs were just across the water and they were all laughing at us on the other side. We knew we were in trouble and we could sense they were going to attack us the next morning. Our morale was actually quite good though. However if the Japanese had attacked we could never have held them off. We had hardly ever used rifles, as we were signallers and artillery. Then something happened that night and we capitulated. So we were taken prisoner. We did go into a hospital that had been attacked and it was not very nice. I didn’t see much in the hospital and I didn’t go in the wards. I do remember seeing three bodies laying in a cot and they had a handkerchief over their faces. We knew they were dead.
Capture and life as a POW
We didn’t know what to do and we knew nothing about the Japanese, so we just waited for them to arrive. When they did, they put us in trucks and took us to billets where we were split into parties for clearing up. I was taken with a load of others to the old golf course where we had to make a shrine. They called us the boys who built the shrine at Buka Tima. I can still hear them singing it…
“As we walk along the Golf Course,
With an independent air,
You’ll hear them all declare,
He must be a millionaire,
With ten cents a day and five cents bonus,
The Japanese to feed and clothe us,
We’re the boys who built the shrine at Buka Tima.”
Then one day the came and took us to the railway station to board trains. The train took us right up through Malaya. We weren’t in carriages, they were cattle trucks and there were about 20 to 30-odd men in each truck. Once the heat got to the trucks then they were stifling, so we often travelled with the doors open just to get some air. If you wanted to go to the toilet then you would get to the front and men would hold you out through the open door at arms length while you had a pee. It wasn’t a very nice journey I can tell you. The journey must have lasted two or three days before we arrived up in Burma, where we were unloaded. We then started building huts for us to live in and next we built roads. They fed us rice and vegetables. No meat. The cook would build a fire and cook rice in huge containers, but of course the rice would burn inside the containers. We had to line up for it and eat the burnt rice. There used to be a skin on the rice too, so if you were lucky then you used to get a bit of that too. We did have a little bit of veg with it sometimes, but there were not enough calories when you are building.
From there we got up as far as the River Kwai. I helped build that bridge! I can assure you we never walked into came singing Colonel Bogey. We were bedraggled and basically crawled back on our knees. They used to take us all out into the jungle and told us “EVERYBODY WORKS!” The Colonel said “officers don’t work”, so the Japanese Commander said again, “everybody works … officers and men”. The Colonel still said no, then the commander said, “I shall say this once more, EVERYONE works or we get the machine guns out.” So in the end the officers worked, but the Colonel ended up in a little hut at the top. It was bloody scary. Then we started building the bridge. It was okay actually because it meant we got regular meals and we would take the ‘mickey’ out of the guards. We would make the cross pieces on the bridge, where they overlap, and saw the ends off. Sometimes the men would saw into the inner parts, so by the time the Japs walked onto the outer ends it would give way. Then there was a bang and a splash, down they went. The Japs would retaliate though, shouting at us, “this soldier no good”. Otherwise they didn’t trouble us much, as long as we worked. Sometimes we could even have a bit of a joke with them.
There were a lot of Scots with us. I remember on my 23rd birthday (1943), the Scots had made some drink and very potent it was too. Well I had too much and started singing. One of their senior NCOs came up and said, “Put that bloody man down that hole and sit on his head! Otherwise we’ll all be in bloody trouble”. We would wash in the river and sometimes have a bit of a swim there. I remember one time I was swimming when the men on the bank began shouting for me to look over to the other bank. There was a bloody great 20-foot long snake. So I didn’t hang about and quickly I swam back.
There was a lot of illness and quite a few deaths. They would not allow us to bury our dead. Instead we would have to put them in a rice sack and set them alight. That wasn’t very nice at all, especially when the heat from the fire got into the body and it would sit up. I know a couple of squaddies who volunteered to carry me from one camp to another, that must have been about two or three miles. They had one at the front and one at the back, and they carried me all the way because I was ill. That was bloody lovely though. Toward the end there was quite a few fellas dying because of the poor food. We would moved camp as we worked further along the road. We still worked even when we were ill. I don’t recall anyone trying to escape, during my time. Where would you go? What would you do?
We worked on the roads further up into Burma. Then one night, after going so far, we went to bed and when we got up in the morning everything was uncannily quiet. It turned out the Japanese had quit. They had just left us during the middle of the night. We had no idea this was going to happen because we did not know how the war was going. Everyone was looking around and asking, “Well what are we going to do? What the hell is happening?” Then our NCOs said the Japs must have capitulated. I just couldn’t stand it, so I walked right round the inside of the camp to where there was nobody. I laid down on the ground, put my hands together and said, “Thank you Lord”. And that was it! It was a very emotional time. We then had to stay in camp and wait for someone to come to us, but it wasn’t too long. I think the reason we had to wait was they had to bring boats up to us, but finally it was the British who came to us. Then we were took up to some port, boarded a boat and came back home. It wasn’t a straightforward return and we stopped at Ceylon for a rest. Here they gave us a packet of tea to take home! It did mean that by the time I got home I had time to stop along the way and recover, so I did not look too bad when I got home. I think we came back to Scotland, because I remember coming home on the train.
Afterwards I was demobbed and straight away got a job in Ashford, Kent. Then I went to London because one of my old mates invited me up there. Here I met a girl and we married. So I lived in London. Then when I retired, I came to live in Brandon.