Cpl Doug Skippen remembers 27 Japanese aircraft dropping their “load” near to the MDS at the City High School, just after the surrender. There were no casualties luckily. The 196 had come through the battle with five men wounded, but no deaths.
For a short while the unit would stay at the City High School, until 22nd February when they were ordered to march to Changi prison, on the East side of the island, around 15 miles from the school. Here the 196 and 197 Field Ambulances shared accommodation and continued the care of the sick and wounded in very cramped conditions. Almost all of the 105000 prisoners were held at this prison and around the Island.
As time went on conditions and the treatment of the men started to deteriorate. The diet was the main issue, with very little food given out and there were very few Red cross parcels reaching the men, as the Japanese held them back. With virtually the only food available to eat being rice, the men started to contract diseases such as Dysentery and Beri Beri, due to a lack of vitamins.
Private Robert (Bob) Ungless, my great uncle, was sadly the first of the 196 men to die on 18th June 1942 aged 24. He died of a perforated appendix, following an operation 36 hours earlier, and was buried at Changi the same day. He now rests at Kranji Cemetery in Singapore. The next 3 and a half years of captivity in the hands of the Japanese, would see over 30 more men of the 196 lose their lives. Altogether 16000 Allied soldiers died during the captivity as the Japanese now embarked on building the Burma-Siam Railway, brought to infamy in the film “The Bridge over the River Kwai”. This entailed men from Changi Prison and smaller camps on Singapore island and other Japanese held territories, being moved in work groups, in appalling conditions “up country” by rail. This movement started for the 196 in June 1942 when on 24th June 1942 Major Read and Capt. Hetreed led some of the unit to start work in the hospitals along the railway. Major Read won a Military Cross whilst working at No.1 Casualty Clearing Station with the British Expeditionary Force in Dunkirk, between May 22nd and 26th 1940. Near Watteau he led the personnel and wounded of his and No.6 CCS to safety through a hail of bullets, enabling them to eventually reach Dunkirk and evacuation.
On 26th June Capt Davies led men of the 196 to Banpong. Banpong was the start of the notorious railway, that was to run for 415km, across dense jungle, through sheer rock and over rivers, all cut by hand and some explosives. The men of the 196 were sent to various places along the railway and even to Japan, where they had travelled across the ocean in “Hellships”. These ships stored thousands of men in the holds with little water, no facilities or even lighting. The temperature was very high and allied ships sunk some of them as they carried no markings stating they were transporting POW’s. The men who travelled to Japan, mostly worked in mines. Driver Frederick Carter of the RASC, attached to the 196, survived the sinking of the Rakuyo Maru and was rescued and liberated by the USS Queenfish in September 1944 following 5 days adrift in the South China sea. He was the first to make it home. Driver Thomas Waghorn, also attached to the 196, lost his life following the sinking of the Kachidoki Maru.
Driver Arthur Merricks (RASC attached 196) escaped from Banpong on 29/07/42 with Sgt Peter Yapp (RASC), but they were both recaptured within 24 hours. A local villager had reported their presence to the Thai Police. They were both sent to Singapore after being brutally punished and Merricks was sentenced to four and half years of solitary confinement at Outran Road Gaol. Merricks escaped again on 07/11/43, from Changi. What happened after this is not known by myself, but he is listed as having died the following day.
Some of the men of the 196 who worked on the railway, found themselves travelling to the furthest point in the Railway at Thanbuyzayat, with the ill fated “F” Force. 3600 British and 3400 Australian POW’s worked there between April 1943 and April 1944. L/Col Huston was part of this force. Over 60% of the British soldiers who worked there died. The 196 mostly worked at Hospitals in Sonkurai and Tanbaya. Cpl Doug Skippen was busy typing an atrocity report in Tanbaya when the chief of the Kempai came in and asked him how long it would take to type a passage of the Geneva convention up. Cpl Skippen calmly removed the atrocity report, placed it down and told him around 20 mins. The Kempai left and Cpl Skippen was informed who the man was!
Most of the men of the 196 continued in their roles as medical Orderly’s and worked in the “hospitals” at the camps. However, 43 of the 266 men died in captivity. Many of the 196 won praise from officers and patients who were looked after by them, and many put themselves at risk of catching cholera. Particularly at No.2 camp where Sgt Ken Clarkson was Sgt Wardmaster through an epidemic of the disease where up to 30 men a day died.
With the dropping of the Atomic bombs in August 1945, Japan finally surrendered and the camps across Japan, Malaya, Singapore and the other places in the Far East were gradually liberated in September 1945. The Japanese had been cruel captors, but I will not dwell on this here. It is well documented in books. What is clear though is the bond between all the men who shared this horrifying experience.