Research & Articles by Lt. Col. Peter Winstanley OAM RFD (Retired), JP
Research, Interviews and Articles about the Prisoners Of War of the Japanese who built the Burma to Thailand railway during world war two. Focusing on the doctors and medical staff among the prisoners. Also organised trips to Thailand twice a year.
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Life for Prisoners of War during their period of incarceration was harsh. However, it was also very hard on the civilian internees in Burma, Malaya, Singapore, Timor, Java and Sumatra , to name some of these locations. This is the story of an Anglo Burman family. It is worth reflecting on the effect on the women and children.



Beginning of trouble in Burma. 23rd December 1941.  
Rangoon was bombed on the 23rd December1941 at about 10.30am.  I was in Insain at the time in Mrs. Cotton’s house.  About 80 aircraft were over the Rangoon area, docks, Phayre St., Lewis St., Judah and Ezekiel St., Boatatam Mingaladon Aerodrome were bombed badly, more than 2000 people were killed.  After the bombing there was a terrible stampede and over 100,000 citizens fled overnight, leaving the docks and railways deserted.  Fires broke out and destroyed the homes of many more.  On Christmas Day they came again.  The RAF and the American Volunteer Group (AVG) fought the raiders, bringing down 52 for the loss of two defending aircraft in the two attacks.  In the meantime, the Japs were advancing from the south (Moulmein).  For a month no air raids over Rangoon.  But they started bombing Rangoon once again, mostly by night. The RAF strength was by now reduced to (?) Hurricanes, 10 Blenheims and 43 Buffaloes.  With the AVG, they had brought down more than 200 enemy aircraft, exacting a 6 to 1 casualty rate.  But Rangoon burned.  Once more a multitude of refugees poured down the roads from the city, crammed the outgoing trains and fled into the jungle.

The “E” evacuation warning signal was hoisted on February 20th, 1942.  The last days of dear old Rangoon was at hand.  Singapore had fallen, releasing Jap troops and airforces from Malaya.  With the loss of Singapore there passed also the command of the Indian Ocean.  Rangoon became indefensible.  The British Army withdrew to the North, scorched the oilfields.  On the 7th March 1942 at 2 pm the demolition squad started to dynamite Government buildings, powerhouse, post office and industrial installations.  To the east of the port (Syriam) a billowing black cloud rose; the B.O.C refineries had been blown.  The Allied Air Forces received a mortal blow when the Japs  destroyed  most of the remaining aircraft on ground at Magwe Airfield.  The AVG withdrew into China.  At the time of the battle of Prome, the Burman 5th Columnists were about 4000.  As the Japs were winning, the recruits swelled to 30,000.  Three years later disillusioned by Japan’s broken promises, many of them passed over to the British side as the “Patriot Burmese Forces” and rendered some service.

My own experiences after the bombing of Rangoon 1941

Nadine and I evacuated Rangoon for Maymyo about the end of January 1942.  We had to travel in a 3rd class compartment together with a number of criminals who had been released by the Government.  On the journey, food was distributed by the villagers all along the railway line; water also was supplied in earthware pots (an act of charity by those villagers – “God bless them”).  We arrived in Maymyo after 2 days and 1 night (after a most uncomfortable and tedious journey).  We stayed in Zigon Pagoda Road for five days only.  Betty, (Nadine) went to live with Mrs O’Reilly in Forest Road and I stayed with Mrs. Visalovich in Burma Road.
(Note:  In our compartment were 8 folks– Mrs. Nasse, her married daughter, Mrs Brady and 2 young children Violet Nasse and her 2 brothers and I with George Andrews and the rest of the boys who were on duty at Ywataung in another compartment when the accident occurred.  They had many guns in their compartment (military).

Here there seems to be a page missing and I continue at the next point in the manuscript as it was found:-

…had to join the unit as Ashton was on duty, his family had already left Sagaing with Harold Payne’s family as things were getting too hot* around that area (*means Japs coming closer to the units – closing in).  We left Ywataung on 21st April by the night train; we arrived at Shwebo next morning (all’s well).  Ashton managed to get out of the train and prepare us some tea while the train was at the station.  The Treasury was attached to our train as Shwebo too was getting too hot*.  Well, we moved off (I mean the train).  Two or three hours after our departure we met with a terrible accident somewhere between Kinu and Madaung Hla, (work of the Bumans – Sabotage.  They were after the currency which was attached at Shwebo).  Many people died, Ashton very badly hurt and had to be taken to the military hospital.

Mrs. Brady too was hurt; we were all taken back to Shwebo, where we stayed under trees for 2 days. We had to continue a journey back to Shwebo, but poor Ashton had to remain in hospital as they said his leg was broken because he was in great pain.  Anyway I reached Mayan at 8 pm the next day where I met Kay and the Payne family who had settled down in the village among the Kachins.  Karenhla was the headman (pro British fellow), he was very good to us.  Myitkyina was bombed in May 1942 – the Aerodrome was the target and many of the wounded soldiers and also the civilian evacuees who were waiting to be flown to India were killed that day (curse the yellow dogs).  There were no more planes to India after that terrible day so all those who were at Myitkyina came down to Mayan (our village) and lived among the Kachins.  The Japs entered Mayan at the end of May, the yellow dogs managed to get a train assembled at Myitkyina to proceed on their journey down South.  They, of course, stopped to inspect us (poor Anglo-Burmans), we were scared out of our wits.  I remember the time clearly, it was at 7 in the evening.  A Jap Officer and his orderly came up to our bungalow ( a Kachin school in the British time).  It was our dinner time and our grub was on the table.  I remember we had pork curry and rice and fish fry.  The two yellow dogs had dinner at our place; after dinner they returned to the railway station where their soldiers were cooking their dinner.  These fellows ransacked the village, took away poultry which belonged to the Kachins and relieved our people of their jewellery such as wedding rings, bracelets and wrist watches.  After a while they moved off down south.

In the month of July the Japs sent 10 cattle wagons from Myitkyina for the refugees to return to their respective homes.  There were 20 in each wagon plus all our paraphernalia.  No WC or water for 2 days and 2 nights, but we were allowed to get down at places where the train stopped for half and hour.  We got into Sagaing  after a very tedious journey.  Kay, Ashton, the 2 children (Michael and Gloria) and I lived near the Ava Bridge in Mg Mya’s house, after 2 weeks we shifted to Mg Kan Nyun’s house.  Most of the folks went down to Rangoon and a few went to Maymyo (I made friends with Mrs. Joe Martin at Mayan), she went to Maymyo.  Sagaing was bombed by the RAF sometime in January 1943.  Good work done that night, the ammunition dump got a direct hit and we saw fireworks till 4 next morning.  Most of our crockery broke that night as the vibration was terrible, but we were very happy (cheers to the RAF).  “God bless them” and keep them free from harm.

We had to thank God for keeping us safe that night because what we saw the next day was a sight never to be forgotten.  There were shrapnel of all sizes and shapes all over the ground around where we lived as the ammunition dump was quite close to our house and it was the railway Bund which protected us.  Well we got into a boat and ‘hooked it’ to the other side of the river (a place called Inura or Ava) but we were not allowed to stay there.  The Kempetai (the Gestapo of the East) Jap police ordered us to be interned at the police station at Tadau which is in Sagaing District.  The Police Station Officer (P.S.O.) was pro-British, so was kind to us but was afraid to help us on account of the Japs.  We managed to live by selling our good clothes and we also had to do some needle-work and knit sports shirts for the villagers (the yarn they supplied).

The price of foodstuff was rising by leaps and bounds.  Rice was 1100 Rupees for a bag, oil was 180 a viss, brown sugar 75 a viss, milk 10 R’s a viss, onions 6 R’s a viss, tomatoes 5 Rs a viss, eggs 5 Rs each and beef 6 Rs a viss.  We managed to live on rice with tomato curry & boiled white peas.  We could eat beef twice a month; it was a luxury.

No news at all about the arrival of the British and we were getting down-hearted.  We dared not ask about the pamphlets which were being dropped by our planes.  The police station was turned into a sort of camp for the Jap soldiers, some going up north and the sick fellows returning from the front line at Myitkyina.  Some of them had malaria and beri-beri.  The P.S.O. and the police sergeants sent their families away to the jungles to be out of the way of the Jap armies but we internees had to stay put.  Those were dark days for us, some of the stores which were in the police station (such things as wire, cement, petrol and different items) were moved down South.  We began to get suspicious.  We asked each other, what are the yellow dogs up to now?  And we came to the conclusion that they were retreating and we were glad but frightened because we did not know what they would do to us.  Whilst all this was going on, our police station was bombed sometime in January (about the 24th or 25th 1945) and, believe it or not, our house was bombed.

After the bombing we managed to collect some bedding from under the debris and a few pots and pans which were all dented and bent, but could be used.  We had another raid the same day and this time the village was dive-bombed and I was the unfortunate one to run into the village not knowing it was the next place to be bombed.  Well God spared my life as the trench I was in got a near miss as the exit was blocked.  Thank God that there were two entrances and thank God my children were not in that trench.  Well after the 2nd raid we hooked it into the jungle and stayed there till nightfall.  We slept in the trench that night at the police station and all night long the tanks, soldiers and their paraphernalia moved down south, making a hell of a racket.  The RAF too was busy in the air, going backwards and forwards.  We did not hear any bombs being dropped and we presumed that paratroops were being dropped in the jungle instead.

After the bombing of Tadau Police Station and the village, all the people evacuated and ran into the jungle and we followed suit of course.  That night was slept under a tree and next day the P.S.O. sent a man with a cart to fetch us to Gadoseik, a small cultivating village with about 60 houses, mostly bamboo shacks; the people were illiterate.  I must say it was a filthy village, no latrines of any kind and the cultivators were 100 years behind time. Some of them had never seen a white man, but they were honest and simple folk; they hated the Japs.  The policemen and their families were now stationed at that village.  We were given a barn to live in but we were thankful to have a roof over our heads once again (we could not possibly get back to the Police Station at Tadau as everyone fled with their belongings and Tadau was a dead city and we could not remain on in the Jungle for fear of the Dacoits and jackals).  We stayed only 10 days in the barn and we were asked to shift into a bamboo shack which was quite close to the barn and was required for the prisoners and Gadoseik was the headquarters of the policemen.  So we humbly shifted to the tumbled down bamboo shack which was quite close to the barn. We had just made ourselves at home in this shack when the Japs came to stay a month in our village and the villagers took their paraphernalia and hooked it into the fields and the police too ran away so we too followed suit and ran once again.  All the trees in the field were taken up when we shifted to where had to live under a small tamarind tree right out of the village.  The large trees were taken up by those who went first into the field and I must say the villagers made themselves comfortable by building mat huts under the trees but we Anglo-Burmese had to make the best of it by hanging mats to keep away the sun during the day.  What a miserable existence, the British were quite close, but we did not know it at the time. 

Our money was coming to an end and we sold 2 towels and some baby sheets and bought some tomatoes and oil with the money.

It was a hard, hard struggle.  Just imagine living under a tree for 1 month and 18 days without proper food and not enough water.  There was only one well in the field and we could not go to the village as the Japs were there.  All the wells were in the village so the headman allowed people to take water only for cooking and drinking from the well in the field.  One blessing, the Japs did not come into the field to pester us but kept to themselves.  One day we were told that they had left the village and we thought we had got rid of them forever, but no such luck because some of the retreating troops from the North came into the fields and took up the huts which the Burmans had erected and worse luck, a few of them came and paid us a visit under our tree and they took Ashton away with them.  We could not stop them. I mean they would not leave him alone.  Two British planes were hovering around our village and the Japs hid in the huts.  More troops came in the afternoon and this time we decided to run back into the deserted village as our field was full of Japs.  In the meantime Ashton managed to join us and we were just getting away from our tree when one of the Japs lay hold of him and threatened to throw a hand grenade at him if he ran away.  So Kathleen and I and the two children ran back to the village but poor Ashton had to stay back with the Japs.  Kay and I reached the village and had barely jumped into a trench when the British started shelling our village.  God help us, the shelling lasted a few hours; after it stopped we got out of the trench which Hla Shin kindly allowed us to share, as our trench was taken by another family of Burmans.  At about 9 pm the shelling started all over again, but this time it was going over the village (I mean the shelling).  Having no where to sleep we changed into our own trench as the Burmans had run away to another jungle.

All peaceful to 2 am, except for the noise of the shells passing over.  Well, at about 2am a Jap who was prowling around fell into our trench and seeing it was nice and spacious asked us to move out as he said the Big Master (meaning his officer) wanted to come into our trench.  So we quickly got out and ran back to Hla Shin’s trench, who kindly allowed us to enter.  We were awakened by Hla Shin’s mother at 4 am who informed us that Jap troops had come into our village and that they were digging fox holes.  She presumed that they were getting ready to defend from our village.  She kindly advised us to follow them as they were leaving before sunrise, so Ashton, Kay, and the 2 children joined the crowd of Burmese people and managed to pass the Japs.  They thought we were Burmese because we had longyis (Burmese skirt type garment) on.  We walked towards a huge tree where all the villagers from the surrounding villages had congregated.  I left the crowd and went towards our tree in the field to get some food for the children, when on my way a Jap got hold of my hand and dragged me about.  I yelled blue murder and he let me go.  I ran back to our tree, I mean the tree we lived under for 1 month and 18 days.  I was just trying to kindle the fire when I heard the tanks coming towards me.  I looked up and there I saw the dear British soldiers.  I was so overjoyed and I cried.  I never felt so relieved in my life as I did that day, a day of deliverance, a day of liberation, a day never to be forgotten – the 13th March 1945.  God bless our 14th Army, 2nd Div (Cross Keys).

I was so happy when I saw white faces after seeing yellow ones for 3 years that I forgot all about the Japs for that moment.  All of a sudden a soldier said to me, “Are there any Japs around here?”  Then only I remembered I gave them all the information they wanted.  While I was talking to a British soldier, pointing out the Japs positions, the battle began as the Japs started shelling.  God alone knows where the Japs had their big guns, but thank God the shells were going over our area and no-one was hurt by the shelling.  While the shelling was going on we jumped into our trench.  After the shelling subsided we (the civilians) were told to go into another village which was already in British hands.  I ran with the crowd and remained in a Phoongyi Kyaung (pronounced paonji chown) in the meantime.  Ashton, Kay and 2 kids were still under the tree where the villagers where congregated.  You see they were still in the Japanese lines and were nearly killed by bullets flying all over that area.  Most of the time they had to lie flat anyway.  One of the Burmans who knew the place well managed to bring them into the British lines that same evening, and they were taken by a jeep to a place of safety where the other Anglos were stationed (Mrs. Talbot and daughter and Brian her son.  Mr. McMinus, Bridie and Eilene Mathews were the other folks).  I was left behind in the Phongyi Kaung (different spelling – which is correct?) when they were taken away by a jeep, so I slept at night in the Kaung and next morning I went back to our tree to see if I could find any of our belongings were there.

The British army was still in the field, it was waiting to push forward into the village (our village).  I saw the officer in charge and told him I wished to be taken to my people and explained how I happened to be left behind.  He was very kind to me and asked one of his men to take me to join our Anglo-Burmese crowd, so one of them got a truck and took me into the village where they were being looked after by CAS officers.  When we arrived I saw my children safe and sound and all beaming with smiles.  (God bless our British).  Next we were sent to Nazoon Island by bullock carts.  After about 2 miles we hailed out to a British soldier who was driving a ration truck and asked him to take us to Nazoon town.  He helped us to load our paraphernalia into his truck and we all got in and drove off to Nazoon.  When we arrived we lived in a bungalow (Dak) for 1 day after which Captain Webb came across from the Island and took us across by carts right through the stream at low tide. When we got there we were given Mat bashas to stay in, remained on the island for 6 days then we were sent to Ye U by trucks.  In that place there were about 1000 refugees, each family had a basha with a kitchen, bathroom and latrine attached.  Rations were issued every week.  Capt. Murrell and B.A. Williams were in charge of the Refugees.

The first night of our arrival we were given blankets and longyis (Burmese skirt type garments).  We stayed in Ye U for 2 months and a few days.  We were very happy at Ye U; there was a terrible storm some time in May and some of the basha’s collapsed and we were sent up to Maymyo.  We lived in Kachin barracks from 20th May till the 1st November 1945 after which we were once again shifted to Alexandra Barracks.  In the meantime, Ashton was taken back into the railway and posted at Thazi (where Charles and Lorna were born in 1946 and 1947) so Kay and family left the camp, but I stayed on till the 28th December 1945.  About 30 of us refugees left Maymyo for Rangoon to sail to India.  We left by trucks from Maymyo to Myitgne, from there we travelled by train right into dear old Rangoon (a place we hadn’t seen since 1942).  From the station we were taken once again by trucks to Kamaynt to Ali Khan’s house until 12th January 1946 when we left for India in the troopship, Nevasa.  We had a glorious time on board, arrived Calcutta on the 15th.  We were housed at Lake House for a few days then left for Lahore and met Nadine after having been separated for nearly 3 years. 


Written by Alice Hanks and given to Lt Col Peter Winstanley by Gloria Senior (grand daughter of Alice Hanks and the infant mentioned in the article) of Merriwa, Western Australia.  Kindly typed by Edna Wright and proofed by Helen Winstanley.


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