to perpetuate the memory and history of our dead

25.0 Saga of H & F

One cannot recount the story of the TBR without special reference to H and F Forces. These were rather late arrivals (Apr-May 43) in that they were essentially replacement workers. The conditions in the Thai Sector were so bad that there were not enough workers able to perform the remaining construction. These groups added another 10,000 to that work-force. But these were hardly ‘able-bodied’ men. They were literally swept up from those that remained in Singapore where conditions had been deteriorating for some time. Many of these men were already afflicted by the diseases and disabilities. Another factor is noted but it is difficult to judge just how much of an effect it had on their experience and outcomes: these men were never actually transferred to the Thai HQ but remained under the authority of Singapore. Following completion of the railway, the survivors were returned to Singapore. Surely many deaths occurred after their return to Singapore that would be difficult to link to their TBR experience. “Deaths in the A.I.F. [among F Force] were 892, and an additional 31 died on their return to Singapore, making a total of 923 known deaths at the date of compiling this report.”

There are other unique aspects of these to Forces. H Force included some Australian POWs who had been captured on Java and had been transferred to Singapore but never continued the journey to Burma like the other Java-based units. Until this point, all the Java POWs had been sent to the Burma Sector. Of the 3200 men in H Force, only about 700 were AUS POWs. These include nearly 600 Dutch and just under 2000 were British who were originally captured in Singapore. I had always thought that the famous AUS POW LtCol (Dr.) “Weary” Dunlop had arrived with H Force since he is most noted for his time at Hintok. However, I have since learned that he arrived in Thailand as part of the Java 6 work group in Jan 43, months before H & F.

As most of the prior groups were selected and shipped to the TBR, military units were generally kept together. But inevitably some men in any unit were not fit for travel when their comrades departed. So both H and F Forces were made up largely of individuals or at best small groups of men from the same unit. For example, F Force included 7 US POWs who had been separated from their units as they passed through Singapore. For reasons that are not clear and are discussed elsewhere, these men were eventually returned to control of LTC Tharp when their groups overlapped in the Thai highlands and therefore did not return to Singapore.

All of these factors weighed heavily, particularly on F Force. Most of H Force was assigned to work in the area known as Hintok, just beyond HellFire Pass; at about 155 Kilos into the Thai Sector. While the overall conditions there were far from good, they were very well off compared to F Force who had to trek many more kilometers to reach the point where they were needed to complete the railway. They all worked in Thailand but they were spread over many camps that overlapped into the Burma Sector. The first few camps near the border at Three Pagodas Pass were the worst hit especially by cholera.

Highlands location of most of F Force; the numbers shown are distance from Thanbyuzayat

By the time F Force arrived, conditions in the Thai highlands were already dire. The monsoon rains had disrupted the already meager amount of supplies reaching that far into the jungle. Add to this that cholera was devastating the romusha camps in that area and the conditions were ripe for disaster as these men came on the scene.

I was able to locate rosters of the men of these two groups that contained information on their causes and places of death. The diseases and illnesses that caused their demise do not seem too different from those that almost universally afflicted (and killed) POWs in the other TBR work parties. What does stand out are the vast number of deaths due to CHOLERA.

Within weeks, the 7000-man F force was largely out of action. Those at Changaraya, SongKuRai and Kami SongKuRai were all but wiped out as an effective work force. At first, the sickest were evacuated to the Tarso hospital camp, but this soon became untenable, both due to weather conditions and the numbers involved. Then things became even more complicated. For the first time, the engineers agreed to move these men by rail. But they could only go west, into Burma. So the IJA overseers created a new hospital camp at Thambaya (Kilo 50 [1]). Nearly a quarter of all the F Force deaths were recorded as occurring there. But not an insignificant number died en route. The following chart shows the place and number of F Force deaths.

campdeathscholera% cholera
Thambaya hosp57051%
Kami SongKuRai3264213%
Kan F & H hosp15321%
Tarso hospital12676%
Shimo SongKR523567%

and for H Force:

Kan F & H20024.5%21.0%
Malay Hamlet12515.3%7862.4%
Tarso hospital465.6%12.2%
other camps607.3%1626.7%
CngKai hospital151.8%00.0%

For obvious reasons, the cholera cases were not transported to the available hospitals. They were isolated and died at their assigned camps. Remember, too, that although many ill men were moved retro-grade these men had trekked across nearly 200 kilometers of Thailand. So they had passed through these lower camps en route and some men were lost there before they even began their TBR work. The chart above tallies deaths that occurred in 1943 only. Most of the H & F survivors were then returned to Singapore. This is borne out by the relative lack of post-construction deaths registered as occurring in Thailand in these two groups. There are a total of about 50 deaths occurring as late as Aug 45 among supposed F Force members who for whatever reasons were not returned to Singapore. Among these is what I refer to as an ‘outlier’. It is a cholera death at the Changaraya camp that is dated in the CWGC records as June 1945. I suspect that this is an error in the death year[2]. In fact, there are nearly 50 late-1944-into-1945 deaths recorded as belonging to F Force members. Could these late dates be attributed to the phenomenon seen elsewhere where the ‘official’ date of death as recorded in military records pertains to a ‘declared dead’ (versus MIA) date that is later than the actual date of death of the individual? Most of these 50 burials have a place and cause of death that would strongly suggest that they occurred during the Speedo period when F Force was being decimated by disease. Nine of these are buried in Burma. This would indicate to me that their deaths were more likely 1943 that 1945! I did find one individual whose year of death is recorded as both 43 and 45 with the same day/month. Given the situation, 1943 seems more likely. About a dozen of these ‘late’ deaths are recorded as occurring at what I refer to as ‘follow-on’ camps (here mainly PrachuapKiriKan) indicating that these men were transferred from Kanchanaburi to other locations in 1945. So for those dates, the causes (mainly malaria) would coincide with known movements.

[1] A particularly good description of the origins and function of this facility is provided at:

[2] I have since been able to return to the original records were I recorded this data and his DOD is indeed shown in the original roster as 1943. So 1945 is most likely a transcription error. The data set has been updated to reflect this and one other mis-dated 1945 entry.

I have located additional rosters for these two groups. Some confirm the presence of the POWs in the assigned group but without noting the COD. I can now record deaths for 2311 UK, 58 AUS and 26 Dutch in F Force and 616 UK, 165 AUS and 33 Dutch in H Force. It still seems that the AUS and Dutch data is under reported, however. For example, we know that there was a hospital at the base camp in Thanbyuzayat, but so far the only deaths registered there are those KIA when Allied planes bombed the supply depot. That raid killed the one US POW who died at that hospital but there must have been other AUS and Dutch deaths that occurred there. We can also document that a US Marine, 1Sgt DUPLER died there of dysentery in May 43. So undoubtedly records of those hospital deaths did not survive.

The following Table shows the registered COD categories for these two groups. They are not dissimilar except that H Force had more cholera deaths as a percentage and F Force had more deaths by injury/TU.

COD codedietarycholeraGIINFINJMALnat caudeaths
H Force22.5%33.5%32.3%1.7%2.1%6.8%1.2%
F Force21.0%24.4%37.5%2.5%6.7%7.1%0.8%2445

It must also be remembered that after the construction was completed, the survivors of H & F were returned to Singapore. There, many undoubtedly died of conditions related to their time in Thailand. Since I am dealing only with TBR-related burials, the true depth of the horrible F Force experience remains to be told.


Within weeks of its arrival, F Force was a disaster. Its 7000 men were so depleted that it was all but useless. So much so that the cadre decided that they had to evacuate those camps. The locally established ‘hospital camps’ in the Thai Highlands were overcrowded and overburdened. So the only direction to go was into Burma. It is not clear why Thambaya (some 50 Kms from Thanbyuzayat) was chosen except that it was a now abandoned camp that had been used by A Force and more recently by a Burmese work group.

British LT John Stewart was also a Japanese interpreter. He was part of the advanced team sent to Thambaya. Travelling by truck, boat and walking they arrived there in AUG 43[1]. They found a camp in complete disrepair. There were a dozen of the standard long narrow housing units but no support buildings such as latrines or cook houses. The 70-man team set about doing what they could to prepare for the arrival of the ill men. The IJA had stock-piled a large amount of food stuffs but these were exposed to the monsoon rains and beginning to deteriorate.

Soon trains began to arrive with the F Force men. It was an unprecedented move for the Engineers to allow the use of the rolling stock to transport POWs. This also tells us that the Burma Sector of the railway was functional across the Thai border for some distance. It would not reach Konkoita until October.

These men who were deemed too ill to work were packed on to open gondola cars. Stretcher cases were laid side by side with no room for attendants. Ambulatory men were packed seated with no room to lie down. Stewart says that rarely was there a car without at least one dead POW. Even after arrival, there was little that could be done to alleviate their suffering. Although deemed a ‘hospital camp’ there were no drugs nor medical instruments available. Those men were sent there to die and die they did. The 1300 graves of British POWs at the Thanbyuzayat war cemetery are mostly F Force personnel; almost 600 of whom are thought to have died at Thambaya. The camp population peaked at some 1700.

Within weeks of completion of the Railway, F Force was being prepared for its return to Singapore. Trains once again carried the Thambaya survivors back to Thailand. Three hundred me were deemed too ill to travel but even some who boarded the trains died en route. Stewart describes it as a five day journey back to BanPong with frequent stops when the track was unusable for some reason as well as a lack of fuel.

In a statement of IJA efficiency, the same number of railway cars were allocated care F Force back to Singapore as had brought them there a few months before. But so many had died in those weeks that there was now a much less crowded ride back.

[1] By his report, although other sources say the camp was opened earlier.

as per LtCol. Peter Winstanley & LtCol C.H. Kappe:

This report is based on: (a) The personal experiences and first-hand knowledge of these two officers;
(b) Reports furnished by battalion commanders of the 27 Aust. Inf. Bde., who acted as commanders of various camps;
and (c) The detailed log books that were maintained in all camps in which A.I.F. troops were quartered.

“No word picture, however vividly painted, could ever portray faithfully the horrors and sufferings actually endured.  Incidents occurred repeatedly in which the heroism and fortitude of the prisoners equalled the highest traditions of the A.I.F. in war, but the written word again falls short in conveying to the reader an adequate picture.”

This is a highly informative but loosely written piece in which the authors oft speak of ‘the camp’ without clearly identifying which camp is being discussed. His timeline is often confusing as well. None the less, well worth the read.