Cyril Beatty Bix Interview (1996)
The Changi Ashes
POW Remembers the ‘Test’series played under Japanese rule
Allies in captivity play cricket to find solace in the ashes of war
Changi POW Camp, Singapore Island,
September 20, 1942
Watched by their suspicious Japanese captors, Lieutenant L.W. Curtis of the Royal Norfolk Regiment and Captain Ben Barnett of the Australian Imperial Forces exchange handshakes in the middle of a baked- earth parade ground.
From a canvas kitbag the British Officer produces cricket stumps, balls, pads, bats and a shiny new ball: a coin is tossed and so begins the most heroic but least heralded ‘Ashes’ series in history.
Leornard William Curtis (Capt) - Lieutenant, 134181, 5th Battalion, Royal Norfolk Regiment
Eric Pryke, Lieutenant, 164502 - 4th Battalion, Suffolk Regiment
Geofrey Arthur Edrich - Sergeant, 5776667, 5th Royal Norfolk Regiment (Professional cricketer for Lancashire)
Cpl. Roy Arthur William High - Corporal, 5777170, 5th Battalion, Royal Norfolk Regiment
Eric Adrian Milne - Company Quartermaster Sergeant, 5774789, 5th Battalion, Royal Norfolk Regiment
Geoffrey Allan Porter - Lance Corporal, 5773804, 5th Battalion, Royal Norfolk Regiment
Edward John Miller - Corporal, 5777125, 5th Battalion, Royal Norfolk Regiment
Albert Edward Braines - Lance Corporal, 5777215, 5th Battalion, Royal Norfolk Regimen
Harold Arthur Milligan - Private, 5779613, 5th Battalion, Royal Norfolk Regiment
Cyril Beaty Bix - Lance Corporal, 5774743, 5th Battalion, Royal Norfolk Regiment
Maurice Mason, Private, 5772223, 5th Battalion, Royal Norfolk Regiment
Frederick Bagley - Private, 5776715, 5th Battalion, Royal Norfolk Regiment
Frank William Walter Kettley, Lieutenant, 160496, 5th Battalion, Royal Norfolk Regiment
N.F. Robinson, Lance Corporal, 2577365, 5th Battalion, Royal Norfolk Regiment
Years of unspeakable hardship lie ahead - malnutrition, beatings, torture, murderous toil on the ‘Railroad of Death’ through the jungle between Thailand and Burma, being cast adrift in the South China Sea courtesy of an American torpedo, being force-marched hundreds of miles in subzero temperatures wearing boots fashioned from straw - but for the moment, 23 year old Private Cyril Bix is experiencing real joy for the first time since the Allies surrender seven months earlier.
Had war not broken out England’s cricketers would have toured Australia in 1940: now somewhat belatedly, at 10.30am on a Sunday, thousands of PoWs have gathered under enemy machine gun towers to witness the two countries resume ancient rivalries for the alternative Ashes. “The Japanese prison camp officer allowed us a yasume - a half day holiday - every three weeks,” recalls Bix, the defiance and pride in his voice undimmed by the passing of 54 years. “So Lieutenant Lewis, I think it was, challenged the Aussies to a three-match Test series.”
Dick Curtis, now 85, had contrived to keep the regiments cricket kit hidden away from their Japanese keepers throughout the surrender of Singapore and subsequent march to Changi, “Not only that, he also managed to find a typewriter in the camp - goodness knows from where - so the ‘England’ team sheet was beautifully typed up. The surroundings may have been unusual, but it was serious stuff. I’d played village cricket here in Norfolk and had always dreamed of playing for England against Australia. Well every lad does, doesn’t he? So we didn’t think much of ourselves as PoWs all that morning. It was the first day of the first test match and we were representing our country. Not on a stretch of rough earth with a marl wicket in Changi, but a perfect but a perfect pitch at the Sydney Cricket Ground.”
“We had some right good players, which is why we whitewashed them 3-0. Geoff Edrich [brother of Bill, uncle of John and scorer of 26 post war centuries for Lancashire] score a hundred in all three matches and I think took a few wickets, but it’s hard to remember now after all this time. The Aussie skipper and wicket-keeper Ben Barnett, was a test player who’d toured England in 1934 and 1938. He was also a brilliant conjurer, which helped pass the long hours in the camp.”
“The Japs did not know what to make of it. Australia batted first and I think the very first ball went all the way to the boundary and under the barbed-wire fence where it landed at the feet of a giant Sikh guard - a lot of Sikhs had gone over to the Japanese side after the fall of Singapore - who refused to give it back. So Lieutenant Colonel Prattly marched into the cam[p commandant’s hut to issue a protest. When the Japanese CO appeared - and he was only a little fellow - he walked over to this huge Sikh, who looked about seven feet tall in his turban, and laid him out with a single right hook. In the Japanese army, that’s how they dispensed instant discipline. Instead of putting someone on a charge, they would give each other a doing over.”
The four survivors of the Changi Ashes - Dick Curtis, Cyril Bix, Geoff Edrich and Australian Richard Conway - remain in regular contact to this day although the English and Australian PoWs were split up immediately after the end of the Test series when the Royal Norfolk Regiment were transported to work on the ‘Railroad of Death’. “ No one will ever know what it was like, “ whispered Cyril, his eyes moistening and his mind a million miles away from the laughter-filled semi-detached bungalow near Kings Lynn he shares with his wife, Daisy, “ No one could ever understand ... unless they’d lived through it. “
Bix’s weight dropped from 12st to a little more than half that, his body became infested with parasites and he was badly weakened by a cocktail of various diseases. “But I was one of the lucky ones,” he said “I survived one of the hellish 250 miles on earth.” Geoff Edrich, a platoon sergeant, was in charge of 36 men when the Royal Norfolks were dispatched to Burma. Only six would come home. “What can I say?” asks Bix “We were starved, tortured, deprived of water. But what is the point now? I’ve never told anyone what is was really like. Thousands died, thousands of young men who might be expected to spend the summers of their youth on a village cricket field in England, not being starved in a jungle on the other side of the world.”
Through it all, Dick Curtis carried the typewritten scrap of paper detailing the England XI, while Cyril Bix carried with him the blessed memory of what he assumed would be his last game of cricket. “In truth, we had no expectation that we would live through it all. But somehow, little things like that Test series helped keep me alive, I reckon. We tried to concentrate on anything which would keep our spirits up.” The bridge over the River Kwai serves a a monument to those who did not survive, but it was amongst the sharks in the South Cina Sea that Private Bix all but perished after the railroad to hell had been completed and the sad remnants of the Norfolks had been rounded up for transportation to a prison camp in Japan.
“We sailed on the President Harrison, an American ship which had been captured by the Japanese and converted into a troop-carrier named the Kachidoki Maru. We were part of a huge convoy but we didn’t see another ship for days at a time. Then on the 10th day, there was a hell of a bang. We were attacked by an American submarine (USS Pampinito) in the middle of the night but three of us managed to find life jackets and jump over the side. We stayed afloat till dawn - the Kachidoki Maru slowly sank before our eyes - when we could finally see the extent of the devastation. The sea was covered in wreckage to the horizon and beyond. Not a single ship was afloat.”
“When the sun came up, we also found we were clinging to a life-raft with a number of Japanese soldiers. As you can imagine, they looked decidedly unfriendly so we swam off on our own. By a miracle we found a capsized lifeboat which we managed to turn the right way up. Even better, we found a drum of supplies - tins of condensed milk and a single bottle of whisky.” Private Bix and his two comrades rescued a further 34 Allied soldiers - “the whisky was heavily rationed” - before they were picked up by a Japanese whaling boat and returned to captivity in Yokohama.
A year of unremitting hard labour, 12 months of starvation, illness and hideous cruelty. Bix and his fellow PoWs were reduced to stumbling skeletons but worked on in rags and straw boots through the depth of the Japanese winter. “We were told that those prisoners who were too ill or too weak to work would be shot. So we carried on shovelling snow for them. There was no option was there? But I was very lucky, I survived the shooting when Singapore fell. I survived the railway, I survived the sinking and I survived the last year in Japan.
The Americans released us after Hiroshima and Nagasaki and I finally sailed home from New York aboard the Queen Mary. Yes I was one of the lucky ones all right.”
Postscript:- Private Cyril Bix continued playing village cricket in Norfolk for Hillington and Flitcham CC until well into his 40s and now watches his son, Ian, batting for North Runcton CC most Sundays. He walks with the aid of artificial limbs, having had both legs amputated above the knee in recent years.
(Geoff Edrich was asked to visit India not long after the war to represent England but declined, his reason was it too soon after the war where he had experienced malaria and other the tropical diseases as a Far East POW.)
Private Cyril Beatty Bix is remembered in the Roll of Honour
My thanks to Ian Bix for sending me the paper clipping