Sketch by Jack Chalker

WX6865 8th Division A.I.F.

Cecil Douglas Francis Cooper

Known as ‘Don’

Dons Picture 1

WX6865 - 8th Division A.I.F.

by

Patrick Cooper

 

On April Fools day in 1901 his proud parents named him, Cecil Douglas Francis Cooper, and to his friends and family he became known as ‘Don’.

Don was too young to enlist for the Australian Army and fight in the Great War like his brothers. So when hostilities once again broke out between England and Germany, Don’s chance to do his bit for the Empire had arrived. Or at least the wait did as he was forced to continue in his civil life until he was released from his job with the Post Master Generals Office. Then on the 20th of July 1940 Don enlisted in the Australian Army at Claremont, Western Australia where the Australian Army numbered him WX6865.

After Training at Northam Army Camp he went on to specialise in Signals and became a Signalman in the 8th Division AIF.

Don was not a young recruit as he was 39 years old at his enlistment. But for the 8th Division this was not so unusual as many older and married men enlisted as the very real danger from Japanese aggression towards Australia was becoming more apparent.

Queen Mary

Queen Mary - H.T.Q.X

On February 2nd 1941 Don and the 8th Division embarked on the Queen Mary, (renamed H.T.Q.X. and painted a drab grey), for Singapore arriving there on February 18th 1941.

After the initial Japanese assaults of December 1941 the 8th Division AIF found themselves part of a collapsing front in Malaya.

By the 10th January 1942 the Japanese Forces were south of Kuala Lumper and approaching a defence line stretching from coast to coast across the southern part of the peninsula. The central portion of this line was manned by the Australian 27th Brigade of the 8th Division together with the 2nd Loyal British Regiment and the remnants of 9th Indian Division. This force was known as Westforce and placed under the command of General Bennett. Defences at Mersing became part of East force together with the 11th Indian Division and were under the command of Brigadier Taylor, Lt. Gen. Heath of the 3rd Indian Corps was in overall command.

By the 14th January a strong Japanese force was trapped in an ambush by 2/30 Battalion at Gemas and received many casualties when the bridge over the Gemencheh River they were crossing was blown up. However a small advance party had been allowed through the trap, and following their usual procedure, immediately cut the telephone lines to the gunners and H.Q. As a result the artillery barrage which had been planned did not occur until much later and when much of the target had deployed in the usual encircling movement.

The Japanese managed to cross the river and cut off the ambush party and the Japanese engineers quickly repaired the bridge with timber from a near by sawmill. Although the Japanese had received a severe setback it was not long before their light tanks and infantry were exerting considerable pressure on the 2/26th Battalion near Segamat, as the forward unit of the main defence group.

With superiority and command of both sea and air, Yamashita, the Japanese General, was able to mount a giant pincer movement aimed at bottling up and destroying the whole of the army in Malaya.

On the west coast again defence was not going well, the Japanese had practically wiped out the 45th Indian Brigade and the Japanese Guards division had very little between them and Singapore. Two Australian battalions, the 2/9th from the east coast and the 2/29th from Segamat had been hastily dispatched to the Maur area to try to stem the tide and were now heavily engaged.

At this stage Lt. Col. Anderson, C.O. of 2/19th Battalion gathered most of the remnants and took over command of the group. They fought gamely knowing that the fate of the whole of Westforce depended on their efforts. They suffered appalling casualties but succeeded in blocking the advance of a whole division of crack Japanese troops. Finally after food, water and ammunition had run out, they were  ordered to disband in the night rather than surrender, and made their way out as best they could.

The withdrawal from Segamat and the east coast had been completed. Westforce had been saved from the threatened pincer grip. When General Percival heard the news he said, “We breathe again.” There was now no alternative but to retreat to the Island of Singapore. This was completed without incident on the night of 31st January 1942.

On Singapore Island the two brigades of the 8th Division were given thirteen miles of mangroves on the North West to defend the beaches. The forces were very tired after their long withdrawal down Malaya and were given an extremely difficult area to defend which was entirely devoid of any form of prepared positions. In spite of everything morale was good, but the puzzle persisted. Why were the gunners forbidden to fire on the towers of the Sultans Palace or the Administrative Building in Johore Bahru where the Japanese could be seen only a gunshot away ? These were on the narrowest part of the Strait and the Japanese could be heard preparing their assault craft for the crossing.

Patrols sent across at night brought back reports that thousands of Japanese troops massing opposite the 8th Division positions. Requests for reinforcements were sent to Malaya Command  but  General Percival persisted with his belief that the attack would come from the North East, the most difficult part of the Strait to cross. To strengthen this belief, Yamashita ordered shelling of the North East area. These moves together with a small feint attack were sufficient to convince Percival that he was right.

On the 6th February, the heavy bombardment started. Hundreds of sorties by bomber aircraft from aerodromes only a few miles away in Johore dropped tons of bombs with great accuracy on the 8th Division positions. As fast as the Signals repaired cut telephone lines they were cut again. The signals soon ran out of telephone wire and had no wireless as the sets had been sent days before to Malaya Command Ordinance stores for overhaul and repair but had not been returned.

Yamashita kept up shelling on the North East sector with his mobile gins hoping to conceal his real intention and Percival remained stubbornly unconvinced that the North West was in danger.

The heavy artillery barrage planned never came and the Japanese took advantage swarming ashore on the North West coast of Singapore and with no radio the 8th Division were soon forced to withdraw. Rather belatedly, the British and Indian Units from the North East positions were brought into action, but now fresh Japanese troops were pouring across the repaired causeway bringing their tanks with them.

Singapore was a shambles. There were now over a million civilians crowded into the city and Japanese bombers had concentrated on their destruction.

Large areas of the city were alight, water was short as the Japanese had cut the main pipeline from the mainland. Dead bodies were lying unburied in the streets, the defenders had been forced back to the outskirts of the town and food was running out.

The situation was hopeless to the point where continued resistance could only result in a massacre. Finally despite continued urging from Churchill to fight on, General Percival very sensibly decided to surrender. Singapore was lost and the men of the 8th Division who had fought so bravely and so well were ordered to cease fire – maintain their positions- and reluctantly become Prisoners-of-War on February 15th 1942, another day that ‘will live in infamy!’.

No longer an armed combatant, Don was now a Prisoner of War of the Imperial Japanese Forces initially interned at Selerang Barracks near Changi Jail and was renumbered by the Japanese Imperial Forces as P.O.W. 2437.
Pow Card 1b
POW Card 1a

By April the Japanese Commander of POW’s was asking for volunteers to ‘go to a rest camp up country, with plenty food and medicine’. As such on 15th  May 1942 Don sailed with what became known as ‘A’ Force, 3000 Australians sailed from Singapore under the leadership of Brigadier A.L. Varley A.I.F.*.

These men were put to work on the airfields in Burma at Victoria Point, Tavoy and Mergui. At the end of September the airfield work was finished and “A” force was moved by ship to Moulmein and then by road to Thanbyuzayat. These were the first working parties on the Death Railway in Burma and consisted of:

Green Force: Under Major Green of the 2/4th Machine Gun Battalion. This force started work on the Railway on the 1st October 1943, and were the first of No 3 Group to work on the Railway

Ramsay Force: Arrived at the 26 Kilo Camp 20th December 1942 on the 18th March 1943 they moved to the 75 Kilo Camp, then to 105 Kilo Camp on the 22 May 1943 where they were amalgamated with Black & Green Forces.                            

Anderson Force: Made up into Kumis of 50 men each, No 37 to 51, 750 men Kumi 37 officers Kumi, 38 Warrant Officers Sergeants, arrived in Thanbyuzayat on the 5th October 1942. On 10th October only 710 marched to the first camp which was the 18-kilo camp ALEPAUK (Hlepauk) On the 3rd January 1943 this force moved to the 35-kilo camp Tanyin to join Williams Force, later became No 1 Mobile Force.

The prisoners found the Japanese talk of a rest camp and promises of ‘plenty food and medicine’ all lies and most prisoners were to look back on Changi as a resort camp.

pow card2b
POW Card 2

By September 1942 the Japanese High Command had assigned the Prisoners of war and Asian labourers to build a railway between Thanbyuzayat in Burma and Bampong in Thailand. The Thai/Burma railway was to become known as the ‘Railway of Death’, due to the brutality and sheer beastiality of the Japanese Military forces. The railway was built to supply troops and supplies to the Burma campaign as the Americans were intercepting troops and supplies by ship.

By the end of 1943 the Japanese were desperate to have the railway finished and applied ‘Speedo’, no work - no pay, the guards being even more brutal.

Anakan (Anganan) (Aungganuang), Burma. c. September 1945. Members of the War Graves Commission survey party

Aungganaung, 105 kilo Camp

Don was moved to Aungganaung, 105 km from Thanbyuzayat (310 km from Nong Pladuc), this was a work camp which housed Black, Green and Ramsay Forces in April 1943, later being used as a grouping camp before the POWs were evacuated to Tamarkan in Thailand.

Don died at 105 kilo camp at the height of speedo, on the day after Christmas 1943.

The total deaths on the railway were:-

            Australians    2815

            British           6318

            Dutch            2490

            American        356

            Asiatics     approx. 200,000 (final count unknown)

* Brig. Varley was later to die when the hellship Rakuyo Maru was sunk on its way to Japan.

In Memory of
Signalman CECIL DOUGLAS FRANCIS COOPER
Dons Medals2

WX6865, A.I.F. 8 Div. Sigs., Australian Corps of Signals
who died age 42
on 27 December 1943
Son of John Wright Cooper and Elizabeth Cooper; husband of Mabel Cooper.
Remembered with honour
KANCHANABURI WAR CEMETERYKanchanaburi

Commemorated in perpetuity by
the Commonwealth War Graves Commission

 

 

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