Gunner D. W. Ratcliffe
5th Field Artillery
9th Indian Division
(P.O.W. Number – ‘ San, Roko, Ku’ – 369)
This is his story
Dennis was originally a Leicester lad, (Born 25.2.1921 now aged 85), whose father, as a Commercial Traveler, had gone to Scarborough on business and had finished up with the Prince of Wales Public House on Victoria Road. Dennis had been serving on the North West Frontier in the Khyber Pass Area. This is his story
I has had been sent out there in 1940 landing at Bombay where we had to travel on to ‘Nowshera’ about 30 miles from ‘Peshawar’ it took us four and a half days to get there in terrific heat. We also went to ‘Landikodal’ for about 2 weeks whilst we were here we got to meet the Ghurkas who cooked us a Curry with fresh Chapatti’s, now we had had Curry back in the camp but this was the pukka stuff and was really very nice, not like the stuff you get now from the local Chinese Take-a-way! We were there as the Allies thought that Hitler might invade India through Afghanistan.
Eventually we were told we were going to the Middle East with our guns, which were 25 pounders so instead, we set off for Singapore where we were of course taken prisoner with every one else. On our way out our Officers, had told us all about the Japanese, ‘That they did not like fighting in the dark so they would not fight at night, that they all wore glasses as they all had bad eyesight and buck teeth and were terrible fighters!’ What a load of rubbish, I’ll give them that they were very brave soldiers and good fighters when it came to it!
We had landed in Singapore from a New Zealand Troopship about September 1941, we were well trained for Desert Warfare with our 25 pound guns and all our other equipment all painted in Desert Sand colourings, hardly suitable for the lush dark green of the Jungle which was all new to us as well, for we had no knowledge what so ever of Jungle Warfare.
We were moved up Country to set up two Batteries of guns at Kuantan. Some of the lads heard a battle going on out to sea on 10th December 1941, about lunchtime, this turned out to be the sinking of the battleships, HMS Repulse and HMS Prince of Wales, but we had no knowledge of what was going on at the time, it was just the rumble in the distance of gunfire that was heard.
The other Battery was at Khota Bahru. We were in action against the invaders, although we never saw them as we were firing our guns over the heads of our infantry, (although we had no idea where they were either come to that!)
This we continued to do until the Jap's started to infiltrate through the jungle behind us, so it became a regular withdrawal about every two day; - Set up the guns, Fire, then withdraw again, it was a total shambles.
On Christmas Day 1941, we were working hard, shifting our guns and equipment on the hand pulled ferry across the Kuantan River, having had to leave our Turkey’s cooking in the ovens behind us! Which was pretty hard work as well, considering the weight of the equipment we were trying to shift.
We were supposed to be part of the “Mersing Line of Steel” which never happened and was a total cock up and never stood a chance of coming into being at any time.
We eventually continued to retreat, back across the Causeway until eventually we were on the beaches at Singapore, with our backs to the sea, firing our guns over the City itself to reach our designated targets. But, we were running short of ammunition, water and food as all our supplies and stores were held in the North off the Island, which was now in Japanese hands at Kranji. So we had no choice but to eventually surrender.
For some reason from now on I was known as ‘Harry’ Ratcliffe, don’t ask me why !
After capture we were doing odd jobs around Singapore until we were sent to Formosa (Taiwan), on board the Hell ship, ‘England Maru’ (a ship built in Girvan in 1889 on the Clyde which was a bit of a tub!). When we boarded there was a Red Cross Official on the Docks and we were all given a life jacket, but as soon as we were out of sight of him the jackets were taken off us and we were sent down into one of the four holds on the ship and battened down in intense heat, (in Singapore the heat was in the high 90’s at this time). That Red Cross Official was the only one we ever saw during the entire duration of the War.
In the holds it was pitch black and the only way to find your way around was by feel. We also had the pleasure of the company of rats as big as cats, just to make things worse. If you needed to go to the toilet, you went up on deck with your mates the ‘toilet’ was a piece of wood you sort of sat on and hung on to two pieces of rope or your mate if you were too weak with dysentery and did what you had to do over the side of the ship. You can imagine the state of the side of the ship can’t you? I have no knowledge of whether men died on board ship or not, but I am pretty sure with the conditions some must have died. I do remember an outbreak of Cholera but most of our men died in the mines or after they were moved by the Nips.
From Singapore we were moved to Saigon, for a few days whilst a Convoy was formed. From here we moved on to ‘Taipei’ (it was ‘Taiochu’ in our days,) where we worked here for about six months shifting muck. Then we were taken to ‘Kinkaseki’ the biggest Copper Mine in the Japanese Empire at that time, where we were to work for two years on 10th August 1943.
Here we were put together to work as a team of four, each team taking along one man who was too sick to work for himself, so that three of us had to do the work of four men or suffer the beatings that went with the job.
We were working about inside a mine which was inside a mountain, about 100 feet or more underground where we would work in two’s for about an hour, it was difficult to breath and we only had little Carbide Lamps to see to work by, which would often go out. Now to relight them you needed to see where to prick them and in the dark and with no proper tools it was almost impossible to do so. Some of the guys took bits of wire with them to do the job, but if they got caught they would be in for a beating.
One of the Guards was known as ‘The Ghost’ and he would delight in creeping around in the dark in an attempt to catch us having a bit of a rest, then he would beat us with the shaft of the big hammers we had to use to break up the rocks with so we could handle them. He would hold the head of the hammer in his hands and lash out at you with great delight. The rest of the Guards I remember were nicknamed by us as “Laughing Boy”, “Christian”, “Frying Pan” and “5 Bar Honcho”.
So we often worked in the dark, using a Chungkal to rake the fallen rocks and then put them down a shoot which led to large wooden trolleys, which when they were full were moved along and so on to the next one until we had filled our quota. Some times the roof would collapse and men would be trapped. The Japanese, just ignored them and made you carry on working. We lost many, many of our friends like this. As an example, we had an experienced driller who used to be a miner once, who was caught by a roof fall and who fell about halfway down one of the chutes, the roof fell after him and he was crushed in the chute. The Jap's just made us use another chute until we had finished our quota. By the time we had managed to free him from the chute he had been dead quite a while. Working in the Copper Mine turned all our clothes, (what little we had), and our skin an Orange colour because of the continual dripping on to us of the Copper Acid Water from the roof of the mine and working in the rotten wet conditions. (When I got back to Scarborough, my mother commented as to my healthy sun tanned complexion, but I did not put her straight about how I came to get it!)
Eventually I was moved to ‘Kukutsu Mountain Camp’, on 30th May 1945 where our job was pulling up Tea Plants and planting Potatoes, here you were not allowed to stand upright, if you did so, the Nips would lash you across the back and legs with thin ‘Whips’ made of wood or wire. We did this for about five or six months, but you have to remember we had no sense of time, every day was like every other, we did not know what day of the week it was or in fact what time of day it was, we were just concerned with getting our next meal of rotten rice and junk and surviving to see that day out. One thing we were very certain of was that the Japanese were intending to move us up into the Mountains to a Camp where we were to be ‘Disposed of’ probably by shooting or poisoning. Thank God it never came to that.
From here we were moved down to a big Camp where I was to stay till the end of the War this would have been Taiahke on 23rd August 1945. Many of our sick mates had been moved by the Nips to a “Red Cross Camp” – “Where they would receive much better treatment and medical care” We never saw any of these guys again. They had been taken away to either be killed or left to die, because if you were sick you got no food and without your mates to keep you going and get some kind of food to you, you would not last very long.
When we were in the Big Camp, the American’s came over and dropped 40 Gallon Oil Drums full of food, some of them falling on the P.O.W.’s and killing them after all that they had been through up till now.
I had damaged my foot and was sent to the hut which served as the Medical Centre/Hospital Hut and put into a bed in a corner until I was told I had to make room for more seriously ill. When the American planes came over for a drop, one of the drums crashing through the roof of the medical Hut killing the people in the corner where I should have been.
Regardless of all these trials and tribulations, the spirit of the Lads in our Camp could not have been better, we knew we were going to beat them and just wanted to show that we could not be beaten regardless of what they threw at us. It must be realised that we never had any soap, or toilet paper and the clothes we wore were never washed and we were crawling with lice. Our enjoyment was killing the eggs by squashing them in the seams of our clothes.
As the Winters were very cold, we were issued with a quilted jacket and trousers by the Japanese, which we would wear when we were not at work. There was no heating in the Camp and no glass in the windows just bamboo bars. Most of the Lads who died did so from malnutrition brought about by starvation and neglect. Our captors were very, very cruel people, who delighted in playing mind games along with their usual beatings, including the Mock Firing Squads and other such terrible things, which they did to us. During our period of time travelling home we were also told not to discuss anything that had happened to us as the general opinion would have been that we were cowards by surrendering and we should have fought to the last man, this was drummed into us and even the RSM on the boat home did not help us in any way to come to terms with what had happened to us. This is why so many of us never talked about our experiences as we believed that people just would not believe what had happened to us during our incarceration by the Japanese. They would see us as making it up and telling lies, but I can assure you that was not the case.
When we came to start our journey home from Keelung Harbour and Docks around the beginning of September 1945, an American Destroyer came and collected us and ferried us out to an American Aircraft Carrier, the ‘Santee’ which then took us to Manila, here we were held for about two weeks whilst they checked us over and ‘fattened us up’ a bit.
Empress of Australia
Then it was home on the “Empress of Australia” where we arrived in Liverpool on a Saturday in mid October 1945, on the Sunday I was back with my family in Scarborough. (My Medical Classification from the Army was A1!)
Of the 600 men who went out to Formosa with me, only 29 were to survive until the end of the War.
After the War we had a Fish and Chip shop and another Ex POW used to call in he was Jack Hart and worked at a Grocer’s on the Corner of our Street.
One thing I do know is that they say “Join the Army and see the World” well in my case if I had not joined up I certainly would never have seen as much of the World as I did, for that I have no regrets, only that it could have been under much better circumstances !
For Dennis’s information, the USS Santee was a CVE, a (Carrier Vessel Escort in American, a small Carrier in English). The Task Group consisted of, The USS Santee, the USS Block Island (CVE), USS Thomas J Gary, USS Brister, USS Finch and USS Kretchmer all Destroyer Escorts. Dennis being mentioned in the Nominal Roll at the back of “Banzai You Bastards” by Jack Edwards.
My Thanks to Keith Andrews for all his hard work in acquiring the Information on Dennis’ s P.O.W. Record Card and the above information.