to perpetuate the memory and history of our dead

8.22 British Sumatra Battalion

My erstwhile co-researcher Marianne Lebutt developed a curiosity about the small group of British POWs who worked the TBR in Burma. She collated a number of sources of information about this group into the following narrative [1].   

The “British Sumatra Battalion” was a group of about 500 British POWs consisting of soldiers from various British Regiments who had escaped in early FEB 42 when the Japanese Army invaded Singapore. They found themselves stranded on Sumatra and were captured at Padang by the IJA in MAR 42. In MAY 42, they were chosen, from among other British POWs there, as a work party to be sent to Burma. They became known throughout their POW days as the “British Sumatra Battalion” under the leadership of Captain Dudley Apthorp of the Royal Norfolk Regiment. These were the only British POWs to work the Burma Sector.

The 500 soldiers of the “British Sumatra Battalion” left from the port of Belawan, Sumatra on 16 MAY 42 on the Japanese cargo ship the England Maru in a convoy of two ships. On the Koyokusei Maru were 1200 Dutch POWs from Sumatra. At some point on the voyage to Burma, this convoy was joined by the Celebes Maru and the Toyohashi Maru, both of which had departed from Singapore. These two ships carried about 3000 Australians who were in the A Force under the command of Brigadier Varley, whose journey had begum at Java.

Upon reaching Burma, The British Sumatra Battalion on the England Maru and a thousand of the Australians of A Force on the Celebes Maru disembarked at Mergui where they were forced to build an airfield.

The 1200 Dutch POWs from Sumatra who were on the Kyokusei Maru disembarked at Tavoy and also worked on building an airfield. Regarding the other Australians of A Force onboard the Toyohashi Maru, 1017 POWs disembarked at Victoria Point, Burma and 983 POWs disembarked at Tavoy, Burma to build airfields in both places.

The British Sumatra Battalion worked in Mergui until AUG 42. Twelve of their soldiers died of disease in Mergui. In AUG 42, the entire party was taken in motor launches to two small ships, one being the Tatu Maru and sailed on 16 AUG and arrived at Tavoy, Burma the next day where they worked on building still another airfield. The Dutch POWs who came from Sumatra on the Kyokusei Maru and the 983 POWs of A Force who had come on the Toyohashi Maru were already there working on the airfield.

On 21 AUG 42, the Battalion, with other Australian and Dutch soldiers, were marched from Tavoy to the river and traveled by boats to Moulmein where they spent the night in the jail. The next day they traveled in cattle cars to Thanbyuzayat where they remained for 3 days. Sick personnel were transferred to the camp hospital and the British Sumatra Battalion, on 25 AUG 42 were marched out again and went to Hlepauk, the K18 Camp, which was reached in the afternoon of 26 AUG 42. There were already five hundred or so Australians there.

Four months later on 3 JAN 43, the Battalion moved by lorries to Tanyin, the K35 Camp. In MAR 43, a party of American prisoners arrived there with their officer in charge, Army Captain Fitzsimmons. [The US Fitzsimmons Party were not newly arrived. They has been working at the 18 Kilo Camp railhead / supply depot since their arrival in Burma in NOV 42.]

The British Sumatra Battalion joined up with this party and on 20 MAR, went by road to Thetkaw, K14 Camp. This had the makings of a good camp but by this time, although not ballasted, the first thirty kilometers of rails had been laid and the POWs were needed farther along. Small diesel rail-road lorries were running, so on 5 APR 43, the Battalion moved together with the Americans to Kunhnitkway, the K25 Camp. There they met other Australians already working.

In Kunhnitkway the nature of work was changed. Instead of building embankments or laying rails, trains had to be unloaded and sleepers, rails and rations re-loaded into diesel trucks. Work went on throughout the night. Initially, three eight hour shifts were in operation. As the number of sick increased these were replaced by two twelve-hour shifts.

Midway through MAY 43,the railhead was moved to Retpu, the K30 Camp, and the Battalion followed. By this time the rain was continuous. The numbers of sick increased. Loading and unloading went on twenty-four hours a day.

The next railhead was to be at Taungzun, the K60 Camp. It already had a bad reputation. [This is one of the Burmese camps to experience an outbreak of cholera; killing 5 AUS POWs.] The Australians living there had experienced a large number of casualties. Fifty men were dispatched as an advance party in June and on 17 JUL 43, when the main British body had arrived, the Australians had moved out.

About 3 months later, the British Sumatra Battalion moved again. On 5 NOV 43, they left for Chaungena (aka Changaraya), the K113 camp next to the SongKurai (K114) camp just inside of Thailand. This move was carried out in two parties and occupied nearly one month. The first party went to Apalon the K84 Camp, remained for a month and then proceeded to Chaungena in Thailand. The second party, mostly sick, stayed another week at Apalon and then arrived at Chaungena, traveling partly by rail and by lorry. The move was completed by 14 NOV 43.

This camp was without question the worst the Battalion encountered. It was not even a working camp. The POWs were too sick to work and Japanese efforts to get maintenance parties met with little success. Huts were situated on the side of a hill. Some were without roofs and all were under the trees which dripped continuously. Rations which up to this time had been poor were now reduced almost to starvation level. [Changaraya was one of the F Force camps worst hit by cholera. By the time the British Sumatra Battalion arrived that outbreak had all but subsided.]

In DEC 1943 and JAN 44 in the Chaungena camp, 37 deaths had occurred in the British Sumatra Battalion. [Capt Apthorp’s list of deaths has these occurring at the Kami SongKurai Camp (K114).] There was no prospect of any improvement in living conditions. The Battalion, which up until this time had remained as one unit, was beginning to be split up.  

Since their time at Taungzan-K60- the sick had been sent to Khonkhan-K55 hospital and now numbered about forty. There was still a small party at the Aungganaung-K105 Camp who, on their way to Chaungena, had gotten no farther. A number of lorry drivers and specialists were still at Thanbyuzayat over eighty miles away.

The Chaungena camp was so bad that early in JAN 44, the Japanese decided to evacuate it. They left behind about one hundred British, mostly for maintenance work. The other 250 went by rail to Kanchanaburi on 12 JAN 44. [They had already moved many of the non-cholera cases of F Force to a new camp at K50-Thambaya.]

The British Sumatra Battalion was by this time less than three hundred strong. It was again split up and some of them were selected for a “Japan Party”. On 23 MAR 44, these men were marched to Tamarkam. This was an Australian camp, eight kilometers away, and was the collecting point for the POWs destine fro Japan.  

There were to be 2,034 in the Japan Party comprising of Dutch, Australian, American and British POWs; 130 of whom were from the Sumatra group. These POWs traveled to Saigon where the Japanese plan was to send them to Japan. There were, however, many delays. As time went by the prospect of being moved to Japan became remote. The Saigon camp was grossly overcrowded. In JUN 44, an Australian contingent began to move out of the Saigon Camp to Singapore. The remaining English, Dutch and Americans, plus eighty Australians spent the remainder of the war in the Saigon camp. As the war was entering its final phase, the Japanese separated the officers and men. Early in MAR 45, many of the high ranking officers were returned to Kanchanaburi in Thailand. Some other junior rank officers and enlisted ranks remained in the area of Saigon.

The British Sumatra Battalion that had three and a half years earlier in Padang, Sumatra, consisted of 500 POWs was greatly reduced and scattered. In 1945, at the end of the war, the Battalion was now broken up residing in a number of different camps. Almost one third of the Battalion had died – about 156 POWs. Two hundred sick personnel were left at Kanchanaburi [of whom 35 died] and 40 remained in the railway camps.

During the three and one half years in captivity as POWs the British Sumatra Battalion had passed through five countries, Malaya / Singapore, Sumatra, Burma, Thailand and Vietnam / French Indo-China. They lived and worked on the TBR in more than 22 permanent camps.

British Captain Dudley Apthorp,the leader of the British Sumatra Battalion remained in the Saigon Camp with the other 130 men of the Battalion and was liberated there at the end of the war in 1945.

[1] edited for content and brevity. I have also inserted notes on events that were occurring concurrently.

==============

Capt Apthrop also complied a list of the deaths that occurred among his charges. It lists slightly fewer deaths than the narrative above relates but given the limitations of many of the other rosters his is mostly complete. One difference is that he attributes the 37 deaths that the narrative says occurred at at Chaungena as occurring at the nearby Kami SongKurai Camp (K114).

work groupBr Sumatra
 place of deathdeaths%camp name
0prior-TBR1510.2%Tavoy/Mergui
K0503423.1%Kanchanaburi
K2993725.2%Kami-114
K31010.7%K105-Aungg
K31510.7%K100-Regue
K33710.7%Apalaine
K3581711.6%Taungzun-K60
K3602013.6%KhonKhan
K38564.1%K30-Rephaw
K39610.7%Hlepauk-K18
K412138.8%Thanbyuzayat
other-NKP10.7%NKP hospital
Total147

Uniquely (for this data set overall), the dates and places of these deaths align perfectly with the known movement of this group as described above. One-third of their deaths took place prior to their TBR time or after consolidation at Kanchanaburi.

This was indeed a ‘composite’ unit. Men from some 40 different units were thrown together. I have only the units from which men died but 36 (24%) of those belonged to 3rd Heavy Anti-Aircraft Artillery Regiment. There were 18 deaths among Royal Navy and 14 in RAF members and 16 in the 7th and 9th Coastal Artillery Regiments. One can only assume that these units contributed the most men. As to COD, they were not really different from the other Burma Sector deaths. 63 were due to dysentery and 54 dietary maladies. 13 died of malaria and 1 each died of cholera, smallpox and diphtheria. Two were KIA in the JUN 43 Allied bombing at Thanbyuzayat.