Nurse who produced a harrowing account of her time in a Japanese prisoner of war camp after the fall of Singapore.
Phyllis Thom, who died on September 16 aged 100, was a nursing sister caught up in the Japanese invasion of Malaya in December 1941; the diary she kept of her three-and-a-half year internment, now in the Imperial War Museum, is all the more harrowing because of its abbreviated nature.
At the beginning of December 1941, Phyllis Briggs, as she then was, was one of four nursing sisters at the General Hospital in Alor Star, North Malaya. On December 8 her life of parties, dances and boat trips was rudely shattered by the arrival of Japanese bombers, followed soon after by troops crossing the Malayan border.
All the European women were evacuated, except for the hospital staff, who remained another four days to discharge the patients. On December 12, the nursing sisters were given the password "Curtain fallen" and joined the convoy south, travelling along roads jammed with refugees and dotted with burnt-out cars and rickshaws.
In January, Phyllis Briggs was evacuated to Singapore and assigned to a maternity hospital now used for air raid victims.The sight of a Chinese woman with half her face blown away and maggots crawling out of what was left of her nose was one she never forgot.
On Friday February 13 1942, as the Japanese bombardment intensified, she boarded the Mata Hari, a cargo ship with accommodation for nine passengers which sailed out of Singapore harbour with 320 aboard. There followed a hair-raising voyage, during which the ship had to dodge attacks by Japanese bombers. Two vessels that had been in Singapore harbour at the same time, the Kuala and the Vyner Brooke, were sunk. But as dawn broke on the third day, the Mata Hari was spotted by a Japanese destroyer and there was no option but to surrender.
Put ashore on the island of Banka and separated from their menfolk, the women and children were detained overnight on a jetty without food or water, huddling together to keep warm. As Japanese soldiers wrenched off rings, watches and other valuables, Phyllis Briggs knotted the jewellery she had into a head scarf and tied it under her hair for safety. It was to prove invaluable later as a means of bartering for food and medicines.
The following day they were transferred to a makeshift camp at Muntok, originally built for coolies in the tin mines, comprising a number of windowless stone buildings with sleeping accommodation consisting of raised concrete platforms, and rudimentary sanitation.
There they were joined by the survivors of other captures and sinkings, including Vivian Bullwinkel, the only survivor of a group of 22 Australian nurses who had waded ashore to the island after the sinking of the Vyner Brooke, and were massacred by Japanese soldiers.
Over the next three and a half years Phyllis Briggs was moved from camp to camp, enduring hunger, illness, the loss of friends, and arbitrary cruelties meted out by Japanese guards. At Palembang, Sumatra, she became seriously ill, passing blood, and nearly died.
Yet twice a day she had to line up for a roll call, a ritual known as "Tengko" (the answer required from prisoners): "We had to bow to the guards as they came by. If we did not bow low enough we would get a face slap". Ration lorries came up the hill every day and the food, often rotten and full of weevils, was thrown on the road. "The best rations came on the Emperor of Japan's birthday: four prawns each, one banana and a piece of pineapple!"
Phyllis Briggs did what she could to help the sick and dying. To keep her spirits up she joined a choir and sang hymns, a favourite being The Captive's Hymn, written by her fellow internee, Margaret Dryburgh: "Father in captivity/ We would lift our prayer to Thee./Keep us ever in Thy love/ Grant that daily we may prove/ Those that place their trust in Thee,/ More than conquerors may be."
Margaret Dryburgh died on April 21 1945 aged 54. The story of the choir inspired the film Paradise Road (1997), with Pauline Collins as Margaret Dryburgh.
By 1944 death had become an everyday occurrence, and entries from Phyllis Briggs's diaries of the time convey the mixture of tragedy and black comedy that were characteristic of camp life.
"May 3 1944: Mrs Colley ill. Mrs MacLelland died. May 11: Mrs Curran Sharp died. I ate chopped banana skins for the first time, which helped to fill a corner. Every day fresh orders from the Japs about gardening and grass cutting. July 4: Felt ill and fainted again. The Japs complain that the children pull faces and laugh at them. More threats to cut rations. Mackenzie ill with dysentery. July 19: Still no rain – water ration reduced. Baby Darling died very suddenly. July 27: Grace Guer died. She had only been ill four days – a great shock to us all. She was young and pretty and had kept fairly fit. A high official visited the camp so we had to do up the dormitories and sweep the road. July 31: Capt Siki made a speech – the black market must stop – we continue to work hard and we must obey all orders."
At one stage there were so many dying that the grave diggers could not keep up: "In the end the children were the strongest and it was they who did the digging."
Phyllis Briggs was perhaps most affected by the death of her friend Mary Jenkin, whose husband Charlie had died in a men's camp, but who was determined to keep going for the sake of her son in England.
On August 16 1945, a day after Japan's unconditional surrender to the Allies, Mary Jenkin succumbed: "At about 7pm the last thing she said was "I can't do any more – I'm going to join Charlie," Phyllis Briggs recalled. "I spoke to her and said I would see Robert, her son, when I got home to give him her love and to say how brave she had been – she gave a little smile – then soon after became unconscious and died within an hour."
It was not until August 24 that the Japanese camp commander told the survivors that their captivity was over. But Phyllis Briggs's ordeal was not. Evacuated to hospital in Singapore, weighing six stone, she shared the task of telling husbands from PoW camps looking for their wives that they had died. Later she discovered that Tony Cochrane, a young sailor to whom she had become engaged in 1941, was missing, presumed dead.
Phyllis Mary Erskine Briggs was born in Bexhill-on-Sea, Sussex, on June 14 1908 and spent her childhood in Paris, where her father was chaplain of Christ Church in Neuilly-sur-Seine and of the British hospital in Paris. Both her parents died while she was still in her teens and she was brought up by an aunt and uncle in northern England. She trained as a nurse in Manchester and at King's College London.
After the war she returned to nursing in Malaya in June 1946 and in 1947 was married to Robbie Thom, who became head of the Malayan Police Special Branch and a security officer in British Guyana before independence. After his death in 1967, she settled in Bournemouth, where she worked as a volunteer for Barnardo's.
She is survived by two daughters.