Kenneth Savin died whilst in captivity as a Prisoner of War of the Japanese in 1943. This account of Kenneth has been written by his nephew, Mike Savin who very kindly emailed me his Uncle’s information and gave me his permission to reproduce it on this site. It is reproduced here in Mike’s own words and also details much about the movement of the 4th Battalion Suffolk Regiment.
THE EARLY YEARS – Kenneth was born at 56 Alfred Street West Bromwich on the 3rd March 1919. His father William worked at the Metropolitan Cammell Works, Saltley Birmingham and his mother as was the case in those days stayed at home to look after Kenneth and his older brother Leslie (my father). When it was time to go to school at about the age of 4 or 5, Kenneth joined his elder brother at Christ Church, Church of England School, Walsall Street West Bromwich, which was a stones throw from their home at the bottom of Alfred Street. Kenneth’s enrolment number was 2358 whereas his brother Leslie who had joined the school earlier was number 2115.
Leslie moved to the senior school, Lodge Estate boys in June 1924 followed by Kenneth on the 2nd December 1932. After leaving school Kenneth started work with the Great Western Railway co., by this time Kenneth had become quite an accomplished accordion player, and played in local pubs around West Bromwich.
MILITARY SERVICE UNITED KINGDOM – 20th October 1939
Kenneth enlisted into the Suffolk Regiment and was posted to the 4th Battalion on the following day. Other known local lads posted to the Suffolk Regiment at the time were:
- William Markham (no 5830812) of Jervoise Street West Bromwich (who survived captivity as a POW);
- Arnold Clarke of Church Square, Oldbury;
- Thomas Jones of St.James Road, Pounds Green, Oldbury;
- Harry Lewis of Norfolk Road, Erdington Birmingham (no 5830658);
- Harold Ridge of Cross Street, Smethwick (no 5830825);
- Joseph Round of Waterloo Street, Tipton Staffs;
The Commanding Officer of the 4th Battalion of the Suffolks was Lieutenant Colonel A.A.Johnson and his second in command was Major S.G.Flick. Battalion headquarters was based at Ipswich, “A” company was at Felixstowe, “B” company was based at Bowdsey, “C” company at Leiston and “D” company was split up for general guard duties. Kenneth was a member of H.Q.
The main tasks at this time for Kenneth and the other soldiers was the security and defence of the East Coast from Lowestoft (Suffolk) in the south to Mundesley (Norfolk) in the north.
Early 1940 – Training continued.
4th November 1940 – Training at St.Neots Cambridgeshire.
January 1941 – Ordered to move to Scotland for further training at Stubbs Camp.
April 1941 – The soldiers are moved into Lancashire and continue training at Whitfield’s near Manchester.
May 1941 – Kenneth along with the other soldiers assist in clearing bomb debris from the streets and docks of Liverpool.
August/ September 1941 – Moved to Leicestershire to assist the farmers with the harvest, followed by a spell in Herefordshire where they undertake further training and also assist farmers there.
October 1941 – The battalion is advised that they are to go overseas. The assumption amongst the soldiers was that they were going to North Africa and in particular Egypt.
Military Service outside U.K. – Far East
4th November 1941 – Kenneth along with the rest of the 4th Battalion embarks at lunchtime from Liverpool on the S.S.Andes, a ship of 26000 tons. Kenneth’s Battalion was part of the 54th Infantry brigade commanded by Brigadier E.H.W.Backhouse. The brigade also included the 5th Battalion of the Suffolk regiment and the 4thBattalion of the Royal Norfolk Regiment.
During the afternoon the S.S.Andes joined the remainder of the convoy in the Irish Sea, some of the ships having left from Glasgow. The convoy was then escorted out to the Atlantic by 4 very old destroyers. The first few days at sea were exceedingly rough and many of the soldiers were seasick. On about the third day at sea the S.S.Andes meets up with the remainder of the convoy which one eye witness describes as “the most enormous convoy of merchantmen he has ever seen with the horizon covered with ships.” At this stage the 4 old destroyers are replaced by American warships, a battleship of the new mexico class, an aircraft carrier of the saratoga class, 4 cruisers and 8 destroyers. Whilst the U.S.A was not at war at this stage theses ships were part of the lend lease agreement between the American president Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. At this time the Atlantic was a very dangerous place since Britain was at its lowest ebb during the battle with German U-boats in the battle of the Atlantic.
THE VOYAGE TO THE FAR EAST – 8TH/9TH November 1941
Following the crossing of the Atlantic the convoy including the S.S.Andes arrives at Halifax Novia Scotia during the evening. Here the soldiers change ships and Kenneth along with the 4th and 5th Battalions of the Suffolk regiment joins the USS Wakefield a ship of some 27000 tons. This ship was formerly named the SS Manhattan. This ship could carry some 4600 men and would be Kenneth’s home for the next two months or so.
17th November 1941 – The convoy dock at Port of Spain, Trinidad. Kenneth and the remainder of the troops stayed there until the 19th. No shore leave was permitted.
19th November 1941 – The convoy leaves Trinidad on the 19th November and sail down the South American coast crossing the equator on the 23rd November 1941. Kenneth and the convoy then sail east, and on the approach to Cape Town South Africa, the convoy runs into a mighty storm with furniture being hurled about. On the 9th December 1941 the convoy docks and here Kenneth enjoys some shore leave before the convoy sets sail on the 13th December 1941. It is whilst in Cape Town that the soldiers are informed over the ships radio that the Japanese have attacked Pearl Harbor.
13th December 1941 – The convoy leaves cape Town on the 13th December escorted by 6 American destroyers and the British cruiser HMS Dorset. Kenneth and the remainder of the soldiers are still at this point unsure of their destination but many thought they were bound for Egypt via the Suez Canal. Christmas December 1941 was celebrated aboard the USS Wakefield.
27th December 1941 – The convoy reach Bombay and the soldiers are disembarked on the 28th. Kenneth and the remainder of the soldiers travel by train over the Western Straits to Ahmednager. Here they spend 2 weeks training and acclimatising to the intense heat.
19th January 1942 – The convoy (BM,.11) leave Bombay at 1300 hours via the Sunora Straits on the 19th January 1942 as part of the 18th British Division commanded by Major General M.B.Beckworth –Smith (who was later to die of illness in November 1942 in Singapore). The 4th Suffolk regiment is part of the 54th Infantry Brigade commanded by Brigadier E.H.W.Backhouse. Kenneth and the rest of the soldiers travel once again on the U.S.S Wakefield. The convoy is escorted by the British warship H.M.S. Caledon for five days then the escort is replaced by H.M.S.Glasgow, Durban, and Dane. H.M.S.Glasgow is then replaced by H.M.S.Exeter and 3 destroyers. On the 27th January 1942.28th
January 1942 – The convoy comes under attack from a lone Japanese aircraft.
29th January 1942 – The U.S.S.Wakefield with Kenneth on board is the first ship of the convoy to reach Singapore harbour at approximately 20.00 hours. Ships in the harbour have been attacked by Japanese aircraft and some were ablaze smoke drifted across the sky and the smell of fumes was overpowering. Kenneth and the rest of the soldiers were unaware at this time that the Japanese had already captured the majority of the Malay Peninsula and were only some 30 miles away.
Kenneth and the rest of the troops were disembarked and moved to a tented camp on the Tempis road. During their journey the troops were given gloomy news by Australian lorry drivers about the retreat down the Malay Peninsula. At this time the British Commander general Percival had ordered a withdrawal from the Malay mainland to Singapore island (the island measured 13 miles north to south and 27 miles east to west).
31st January 1942 – Kenneth’s battalion the 4th Suffolk Regiment together with the 5th battalion is in position stretched from fairy point to the sewage farm.
5th February 1942 – Kenneth and the rest of the Suffolks come under Japanese shell fire and suffer their first casualties. They have had no time to adjust to the climate.
8th/9th February 1942 – The main Japanese assault begins and is concentrated on the west of the island against a depleted Australian division The Japanese gain a bridgehead of some 2 miles.
11th February 1942 – Kenneth and the rest of the Suffolks are relocated from the beach to support ‘Tomforce’ and to cover the northern flank and protect the water supply of the island, and hopefully stem the advance of the Japanese. The journey from the beach is not without problems, the roads are congested and the troops have no adequate maps and become lost. They are also given conflicting orders. Eventually after a 12 mile march they reach their destination, the Swiss Rifle Club. Here an advance party are sent forward and make immediate contact with the Japanese. They suffer causalities and are forced to withdraw.
12th February 1942 – Amazingly the Suffolks are ordered to advance again and suffer heavy casualties following hand to hand fighting on the 13th February on the Bukit Timah golf course. The conflict takes place in blazing tropical sunshine. Eventually Kenneth and the rest of the troops are ordered to pull back to fill the gap between “tomforce” and Adam Road and the south bank of the MacRitchie reservoir.
14th February 1942 – Kenneth and the Suffolks come under heavy attack from mortars and heavy artillery, followed by tanks. (at this stage in the fighting LT.Col Johnson C.O is wounded) the soldiers are forced to withdraw toMount Pleasant Road persued by the enemy. At this stage in the fighting the Suffolks had lost some 250 officers and men. It can be argued that over the previous days the 4th battalion have had a raw deal. They had been fighting in enclosed country and were up against superior Japanese tactics, including coming under fire from snipers. It was a gruelling battle baptism for the troops. As night fell the troops bathed in brilliant tropical moonlight had to put up with a continuous Japanese onslaught. Fighting continued into a Chinese cemetery near Thompson village.
15th February 1942 – As dawn broke the Suffolks were under heavy attack and were fighting in the streets on the outskirts of Singapore. The situation at this time looked grim and heart breaking. At this time over 1 million people mostly women and children were trapped in a 3-mile radius and food stocks would only last for about a further 48 hours. Ammunition was dangerously low and the Japanese continued to bomb the troops.
At 11.30 am a cease-fire was announced and all allied troops were ordered to surrender at 4.00 p.m. Major Flick second in command of the Suffolks gathered as many men as he could and they remained in Mount Pleasant road for a further 2 days before being marched off to Changi Prison. Kenneth and the other troops had undergone 2 and half years training, were in transit from the UK to the Far East for three and half months and had finally fought for 17 days albeit in a confused and chaotic manner.
At the time of the surrender the 4th Battallion comprised 450 men, 18 officers and 432 other ranks. The battalion had lost 7 officers and 93 other ranks. Little did the men realise at this time that their most testing time was ahead of them and many including my uncle Kenneth would not live to tell their story.
Captivity – various camps Thailand (formerly Siam) – February 1942
Following the surrender, Kenneth and the majority of the remaining allied forces were kept in Changi prison. The staple diet was rice. Everyone at this stage was downhearted. Brigadier Backhouse, the commander of the 54th brigade addressed the men of the 4th battalion Suffolk regiment in an attempt to raise moral. During this time life was hard but bearable. The main problem at this time was dysentery. After some three weeks in Changi men of the Suffolks are sent into Singapore City to help clear up the debris.
March/April 1942 – During these months groups of soldiers from the Suffolks are sent from Changi prison to labour camps under the pretence that conditions in these camps were much better for the prisoners, the accommodation being superior to those at Changi prison.
Kenneth and the rest of the 4th Suffolks comprising some 6 officers and 250 men are sent to a camp in the vicinity of the Bukit Timah golf course. They were to remain here before being transported to Thailand to build the Burma railway. During their time at Bukit Timah their main task was to assist in the construction of a shrine to commemorate Japanese soldiers killed in battle.
Conditions at the camp were not good and prisoners suffered from dysentery, malaria, and also because of vitamin deficiency many prisoners developed tropical ulcers, ringworm and other complaints, it was not uncommon to see the chests and backs of men covered in ringworm.
June 1942 – Lieutenant Bennett and 61 other ranks from the 4th Suffolks are sent to Bangpong to construct camps for the main labour force.
August 1st 1942 – Soldiers remaining at Changi prison celebrate Minden day.
1st – 3rdSeptember 1942 – The prisoners remaining in Changi are given an ultimatum to sign agreeing not to try and escape (in contravention of the Geneva Convention which governs the treatment of prisoners of war). The prisoners refuse to sign and as a result they are surrounded by Japanese machine gunners and are refused food or water. After 2/3 days the prisoners still refuse to sign and during this stand off disease rose by some 200%. 15000 men are in this predicament. However when the Japanese decide to bring the sick out into the open it was decided that the ultimatum would be signed to avoid further suffering.
THAILAND AND THE BURMA RAILWAY
Late October 1942 – Kenneth and the Suffolks leave Changi to be transported to Thailand. Kenneth was part of letter party “R” under the command of Lieutenant Colonel A.A.Johnson.
3rd November 1942 – The Suffolks leave Singapore at 17.30 hours in 28 steel trucks bound for Thailand. Their food consists of mainly rice, which is distributed 3 times per day.
4th November 1942 – At 7.00 hours Kenneth and the remainder of the party arrive at Bampong and are checked in by a Major General of the Imperial Japanese army. They are then moved to a staging camp about 1-½ miles from the main camp.
6th November 1942 – Some troops including Kenneth are moved by trucks to Kanchanburi ( now one of the main allied war cemeteries).
7th November 1942 – The prisoners leave Kanchanaburi for Chungkai camp home to some 6000 British troops. The camp commander here is Colonel Yanajuta. In each hut (atap hut) there were some 350 men.
9th December 1942 – By this date 50% of the men are suffering some form of sickness, chiefly diarrorhea and malaria.
12th December 1942 – For some reason the Japanese carry out a search of all huts.
16th – 20th December 1942 – Officers are ordered to work but refuse. They are then surrounded by the Japanese and under threat of being shot the officers agree.
20th December 1942 – The Japanese order a parade from which men are selected to work on the railway. Kenneth was one of many selected.
26th January 1943 – At 9.00 hours Kenneth and the rest of those selected are marched to Bannkau camp. The camp is only half built but is well laid out. At the time of arrival there were only 5 large huts with only one having any beds. The beds were made of bamboo.
17th February 1943 – The troops are given a second inoculation against cholera.
11th March 1943 – The troops are marched to Wun Tow Kin situated in dense jungle near to a school and temple. At this point the troops are some 110 kilometres from the beginning of the railway.
29th March 1943 – At 9.00 hours Kenneth and the remainder of the Suffolks leave Wun Tow Kin and travel by truck to the jungle camp called Arrowhill (Arukiru).
30th March 1943 – The prisoners leave Arrowhill for Wampo situated on the banks of the River Kwai. Major Flick second in command of the 4th battalion is in charge at this stage.
24th –25th April 1943 – The Suffolks are marched to Tarsoe camp and then on to Tonchan camp, 137 kilometres from the beginning of the railway.
28th April 1943 – The commander of the 4th battalion Lieutenant Colonel A.A.Johnson arrives at Tonchan. Prior to Johnson’s arrival the British were under the command of Captain Vinden. At this stage there were some 255 men of the Suffolks in camp. Conditions at Tonchan were pretty awful.
Monday 12th July 1943 – Kenneth dies having endured 18 months of captivity under pretty severe conditions. I recall being told as a small child that my uncle died as a result of contracting one of many of the tropical diseases prevalent in the camp, possibly malaria. Beri-beri or dysentery. His condition was almost certainly caused by lack of food and being overworked on building the railway.
Medical staff clearly did their best to treat the sick but because of the lack of proper medical equipment and medicines many prisoners did not make it.