They are prisoners; they are safe – POWs 10

For Phyllis, and the other relatives in England of the men who vanished in Singapore on 15 February 1942, their greatest fear was that their men had died or been wounded in the fighting. The best news they could hope to hear was that they were prisoners. They might be bored or hungry, but they would be safe from death until the end of the war. In addition they could be sent comforts, they would be able to communicate (when the authorities had sorted a route out) and all would eventually be well. So Barry’s father wrote to him:

“I know that you will understand how important it is in spite of the many difficulties of being a prisoner to try and keep fit in mind and body. I hope you will try and find some special interest. You have a real gift for languages try if possible to keep up your French and Malay to learn to write in Arabic characters, and if possible also to learn to speak Japanese. Also learning good verse will be a help and writing and composing yourself. Also if possible work with your hands. I’m afraid that as yet we cannot send you any parcels but perhaps you can get some books in Singapore.”

Relatives have no information about those who have already died. Relatives of these men would go on writing into the blue, waiting and hoping, sometimes as long as three years. The War Office struggled to get reliable data, from any source. Sometimes relatives heard before they did. One wife wrote to Phyllis on 5 January 1943:

“I have had no official news of my husband, but a friend of his, serving in the Middle East, sent me an airgraph, telling me my husband was a prisoner, he wrote as though I had already heard the news, so each day I hope the good news will arrive, and as soon as it does I will let you know.”

The situation never improved. On the 5th of November 1945 nearly three months after the end of the war in the Far East, one of the mothers wrote to Phyllis:

“I am sorry to trouble you, but I wonder if you could try & find out any information about my son, we have not heard a word about him, & as they are nearly all home, makes us wonder if anything has happened to him.”

February 15 1942 – Singapore – POWs 4

On the 8th December 1941 [Pearl Harbour] Barry wrote to his wife Phyllis:

Darling Wife, very darling wife just now. War declared this am. You will have read all      about it in the papers. Bombs on S’pore, landing in Kelantan. All safe so far…

27 Line Section continued to put up communications lines in Malaya for anyone who asked, but found themselves slowly retreating down to the Island of Singapore and eventually, in February 1942, to the city itself. The bombing was continuous but, as signalmen, they worked on through it. While most of them received only minor injuries, one unlucky man, installing a field cable on an airfield, was wounded and died in Singapore. The oil stores and dumps of raw latex were on fire, the reservoir pipeline had been breached, and over a million unarmed civilians were being bombed daily. Singapore fell.

Barry remembers:

Fighting actually stopped on the 15th February 1942. I remember it very clearly as I was up the top of a telephone pole trying to regulate and terminate a new section of open wire, while meantime a brief air raid was going on at ground level. This consisted of the usual small high explosive fragmentation bombs, which killed people and broke shop windows but did little heavy damage except for holes in the road. The bombing and shelling suddenly stopped and one of my NCOs [Non-Comissioned Officers] on the ground shouted, “I think the war is over”. And so it was.

In the Jungle – POWs 3

Barry and the men of 27 Line Section, arrived in Singapore in the Autumn of 1941. They spent very little time in that teeming, multicultural city, before being posted into mainland Malaya as an independent unit.

This picture shows some of the men in a very relaxed state in Kota Tinggi. Barry and his Lieutenant were familiar with life in Malaya and unfussy about uniforms and the men adapted quickly to the climate and the work.


They did encounter occasional problems. Barry remembers:

So in late 1941, based at Kota Tinggi in Johore, No. 27 Line Section went on with their job of building telephone lines between the many small headquarters, unmanned but established, “Just in Case”, and the small air strips in Johore and Pahang. I don’t remember much in detail of this period just before the invasion but one incident vividly comes to mind. I was with a small party building a two-pair route in fairly heavy jungle, using trees instead of telephone poles. I had surveyed the route in advance and marked the trees which were to be used for the route. We had a light van to carry our ladders and all the other kit and of course, our packed lunches and drinks. Two members of the working party went ahead with a ladder and a hand augur to bore the four holes required, in the marked trees. The next group climbed up and screwed the L shaped bolts into the holes and fitted the insulators on to them.

Everything went on smoothly except for the odd leech. We were used to them and a touch from the hot end of a cigarette caused them to drop off quite easily. Then one of the forward party came rushing back to the van waving his arms and shouting “hornets”. He was followed by a cloud of very angry hornets eagerly seeking targets. We had no shelter except for the van which fortunately had an enclosed cab into which we all scrambled, about eight of us, a very tight fit but this discomfort was much preferable to being stung by a jungle hornet. They are much bigger than bees or wasps and have a reputation for very aggressive behaviour, and deliver a sting several times as powerful as a wasp. […]

So we sat or stood in the cab on top of one another for an hour or more with the hornets buzzing around looking for a way to get at us, but the windscreen and the windows were a good fit and a thoughtful Signalman had stuffed bits of paper or rags around the holes in the floor of the cab where the pedals came in. When the hornets eventually gave up we drove a circular course around their tree and continued our route building on the next section, taking great care to avoid any hollow trees. A day or two later we returned to the area and built a wide curve around the hornet tree. We had been lucky as three or four stings from jungle hornets could be fatal.