William Amhurst Taylor
6th Royal Norfolk Regiment
Guest of the Emperor
(As told to him by his son William)
I remember the day we sailed into Mombasa harbour and they told us “You’re going to Singapore”.
Transported on Duchess of Athol to Halifax
We had left England some weeks earlier in October 1941, in the 18th Division bound for Basra in the Persian Gulf, via Canada, where we transhipped into American troopers, and then the West Indies and South Africa.
Transported from Halifax on USS Mount Vernon
Now this sudden switch sent us bowling across the Indian Ocean to re-enforce the garrison in Malaya, newly attacked by the Japanese.
Though none of us knew about Singapore, except that it was an island fortress somewhere in the Far East, we all alike reckoned the job would be “a piece of cake” and we’d soon be back on our way to Basra and the serious war against the Germans.
We landed at Keppel Harbour Singapore early in January 1942. Then they told us that the Japanese had broken through our lines on the Malayan mainland and we would be going straight into action. This was the first idea we got that things weren’t quite so umpty.
The next three weeks weren’t at all good – confused fighting, being cut off and trekking through thick jungle, until finally the Navy came in and took us out of it. My battalion took a real bashing, but we didn’t get much of a breather. As soon as they got back on the island of Singapore, we went up in the line again, this time to repel the Jap attack on the island.
The attack started early on February 9th and I don’t think any of us who lived to tell the tale will ever forget the next 8 days.
By February 14th we were back in a small perimeter, defending the city of Singapore at the southern end of the island. We had pursued a scorched earth policy as we withdrew and it now seems as though the whole 200 square miles of the tiny island were ablaze. Even the strong tropical sun was blotted out by the tremendous palls of smoke which rose from burning oil storage tanks and hung over us, turning day into night. Behind us the big buildings in the town centre were full of wounded, the guns had their trails to the water’s edge, people were fighting desperately for a place on the last boats to leave – we knew it couldn’t go on very much longer. We had no planes to defend ourselves with and only a few anti-tank guns to stop the hundreds of enemy tanks. Our ammunition was running low and the mains water had been cut.
Singapore Surrender by Leo Rawlings
So it was that the following day General Percival decided we must surrender, if only to protect the 700,000 civilians in the town.
The news came to us as a real shock. Somehow when you go to war, you expect to be wounded possibly, or even killed, but the idea of being taken prisoner never crossed people’s minds. Many men sat down and cried.
In the end I think the Japanese were much more embarrassed than we were. They had never expected to take so many prisoners and seemed at a loss to know what to do with us. Finally they made us march into our permanent camp in the north east of the island. Most of us carried what we had with us at the surrender, or any of our kit we could save from the natives who were busy looting it.
At first the Japanese left us pretty well alone in Changi. Then they decided to build a shrine on the old golf course to commemorate the battle for Singapore and we were sent to build it. While we were working at this job, the news came that other parties had been sent up to Siam at the end of June to build a railway.
For some reason the idea of going to Siam appealed to us. For one thing it was on the mainland of Asia, for another it seemed much nearer Burma and possibly friends.
By September we were all back in Changi, and we had just received our first Red Cross food – the last we were to see for nearly two years – when the Japanese started ordering all of us all up to Siam.
Railway Rice Trucks by Leo Rawlings
We made the journey in closed metal rice trucks, filthy, dirty and crawling with weevils. The trip on the railway northwards took 4 days. 4 days packed in 32 to a truck so you couldn’t sit up properly or lie down. 4 days when it was so hot you couldn’t lean against the sides of the trucks, while in the evening the temperature dropped and we just shivered in the cold night air.
Ban Pong by Leo Pawlings
Eventually we stopped at a town in Siam called Ban Pong. A real musical comedy place this, with hundreds of Thais running about in all sorts of fancy uniforms. The Japs marched us off through the town carrying all our kit, until we reached a bamboo and atap hutment camp on the outskirts.
A few sickly, emaciated men came out to greet us; they were the sick of the early parties which had come up in June and were now left at the base camps while the main party moved on into the jungle, making the railway track.
The state of the camp was indescribable. Some of the huts had collapsed, the monsoon had caused the latrines to overflow into others, and the whole place was running with bedbugs and lice. We were lucky only to spend one night there before marching off carrying all our kit along the 40 odd miles of road which led to Kanburi, the river and the jungle.
Little did we know when we marched through the town of Kanburi that it would be the last civilised place we should see until 1945. We crossed the river there and marched on a few kilometres, moving all the time into thicker jungle, until, all of a sudden, we found ourselves in a large clearing by the river bank, where huts were going up. This was Chungkai, our new camp, and later to become one of the base hospital camps for the railway.
Chungkai Camp by Jack Chalker
The huts were still the same atap and bamboo, but the camp site was a good one and remained so, even during the very worst period when we had over 12,000 people in the camp most of them sick.
The work was hard, but conditions weren’t too bad to begin with and we had plenty of things we could buy from the local Thai vendors who came round the camp, and we quickly settled down.
I went back to my old love, hair cutting. I had been lucky enough, at the capitulation, to save some of my kit with my barbers’ tools in it.
From the start I was greatly in demand, because we had few trained barbers, and even under those conditions most men liked to keep their hair cut, for coolness sake if nothing else.
For many months I had work like the others on the railway, digging out earth and piling it up for an embankment, blasting and clearing rock, and laying rails and sleepers. My hair cutting was done at night.
More and more prisoners, Dutch, British and Australian were sent to join us, until by January 1943 nearly 60,000 of us were working on the railway.
Daily the work got harder as we pushed North and West into the deep jungle. Parties of us leap-frogged each other to make new stretches of line. Our camps had to be built in our spare time, and were often only the rudest lean to shelters. Food was rice and a little dried vegetable or fish. Men began to fall sick. Malaria took its toll. Then diphtheria broke out, followed by dysentery which hit me among many others. But worse was to come. In May 1943 cholera broke out up and down the river. By then we had several hundred thousand native coolies working with us. It hit them first. In six weeks 40,000 of them died. We fared better and managed to control the situation, but we still lost over 1,000 men from this dreadful disease.
Tin Inscribed ‘THAILAND 42, at Chungkai
Tin Inscribed ‘Chungkai 43’, at Chungkai
Tin Inscribed Inside, at Chungkai
Constant bouts of malaria and dysentery sent me back down the line to Chungkai, now a vast rambling hospital camp with 10 men dying daily – this was the their average figure for 8 months.
For a while I took little interest in anything, but after a few weeks I recovered and was sent on light duties. Someone remembered that I could cut hair, and the British C.O. of the camp sent for me.
“Sergeant Taylor” he said. “I want you to cut the men’s hair. We need a barber’s shop; I want you to create one”.
Simple enough in London, but no mean task for me out there surrounded by jungle.
The first thing I did was to appeal for barbers. Some men came forward and I tried them out. Few of them had much idea of the techniques, but were a willing lot, and I thought I’d have a bash at teaching them.
The next thing was a site. We chose it under a group of trees, cleared the space and began to make our chairs out of wood with the aid of the camp carpenters. These chairs I designed as close as possible to the “Simpson” model. By the end of the week we were ready to go.
Our collection of tools was a motley one; several old pairs of scissors, some broken combs, and a dozen or so cut-throat razors of every known make, while we even boasted the odd brush.
Soap was our major problem, and it took me many hours of experimenting with one of the chemists in the hospital laboratory, before we hit on a formula for shaving soap. But in spite of all these difficulties we had a great success. People flocked to “Simpson’s of Siam”, as they called it, for their early-morning shave and fortnightly haircut.
Soon we had a staff of 41 barbers, trainees and latherers to deal with 12,000 customers.
“Simpson’s of Siam” became a centre of camp news and views. We were put under contract to the Camp Theatre as wig makers and make up experts; we took our fee in fruit. I used to make the wigs myself out of old Scotch sporrans, cow’s tails and even bits of string.
“Simpson’s of Siam” ran most successfully for 2 years under its roof of trees. During that time we made 11,000 Thai dollars for the camp welfare fund and the sick. We also gave free service to the hospital.
In March 1945 we had to close since the camp was being evacuated. The Allies were on their way to us and the Japs wanted every available man up the line on repair work. I was detailed in charge of a party and said goodbye to those first day “Sweeney’s” who had helped me turn an idea into reality.
The story was copied from the original typed document found in the possessions of the parents of Linda-Lee Nicholls the great niece of William Amhurst Taylor.
William was born on the 27th October 1909 and died in 1984 aged 74; his death was registered in June1984 in Basingstoke, Hampshire, England. He is believed to be buried in the cemetery in Basingstoke.