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British Houses of Parliment

British Prisoners of War, Siam (Conditions)

HC Deb 17 November 1944 vol 404 cc2244-7

The Secretary of State for War (Sir James Grigg) - I think the House would wish to hear a brief statement about ex-prisoners of war who have just returned from Siam. As the House was told on 31st October, some 150 survivors from a sunk Japanese transport carrying United Kingdom and Australian prisoners of war from Singapore to Japan were rescued by United States Naval Forces in September. The survivors from the United Kingdom have now reached this country. The result of preliminary examinations of the men gives at last a first-hand account of the way our men were treated in the Southern areas of the Far East; and there is now no longer any doubt about the policy which was pursued by the Japanese military authorities towards prisoners of war in these areas, which include Burma, Siam, Malaya and the East Indies. I should make it clear at once that this information does not relate to Hong Kong, Formosa, Occupied China, Korea or Japan, where we believe present conditions to be relatively tolerable. Nor does it refer to civilian internees.

The great majority of prisoners in Singapore and Java appear to have been moved, early in 1942, to Burma or Siam. The Australians were sent by sea to Burma, crowded into ships' holds which had been horizontally sub-divided so that ceilings were no more than 4 feet high. The prisoners from the United Kingdom were sent by rail to Siam so crowded into trucks that they could not even lie down during the journey. They were then marched some 80 miles. This and subsequent movement in Burma or Siam appears to have been on foot, regardless of distance, weather, or the prisoners' state of health. The United Kingdom prisoners were then set to work on the construction of a railway through primitive, disease-infested jungle passing over the mountain range between Siam and Burma to meet the Burmese end of the railway, on the construction of which Australians were engaged in similar country. The conditions under which all these men lived and worked were terrible, even for natives of the country who were also forcibly employed on the same work.

Such accommodation as was provided gave little or no protection against tropical rains or blazing sun; worn out clothing was not replaced; soon many lacked clothing, boots and head covering; the only food provided was a pannikin of rice and about half a pint or less of watery stew three times a day. But the work had to go on without respite, whatever the cost in human suffering or life. The inevitable result was an appalling death-rate, the lowest estimate of deaths being one in five. When the railway was finished about October, 1943, those not needed for maintenance work were moved to camps in Siam out of the jungle, and here conditions are less intolerable. From these camps, the fittest were later sent to Singapore en route to Japan. The rescued men were on a ship, which left Singapore early in September, 1944. There were probably 1,300 United Kingdom and Australian prisoners of war on board. After she was sunk, the Japanese deliberately picked up all Japanese survivors, but left the prisoners to their fate, and I fear the great majority of them were drowned. We have asked the Protecting Power to make the strongest possible protest.

I am sure that I speak for the whole House and for all the British people in expressing admiration for the way in which the United States submarine crews risked their own safety to rescue men from the sea, and our very deep gratitude to those crews and to the United States authorities for the care and attention given to them at every stage. Thanks to them nearly all the rescued men are recovering from their terrible experiences. There is one redeeming feature in the whole story. All the rescued men tell of the amazing way in which the morale of the prisoners has remained high, despite the worst the Japanese could do. In particular, tribute is paid to the medical officers who were captured with them and who have achieved little short of miracles in looking after the sick and injured despite lack of essential medicines, instruments, and hospital equipment. All that we have learnt from these men reveals that our prisoners have been true to the highest traditions of our race. To the relatives and friends of all the prisoners concerned, our deepest sympathy goes out. It is a matter of profound regret to me that these disclosures have to be made; but we are convinced that it is necessary that the Japanese should know that we know how they have been behaving, and that we intend to hold them responsible. Here I would add that we are collecting from the survivors every scrap of information they can give about other men, and this information will be passed on to the next-of-kin concerned as quickly as possible.

We are proceeding with the task of collating all the detailed information which has been obtained. This may take some little time but a further statement will be issued as soon as possible. Meantime, I understand that the Commonwealth Government are issuing a statement to-day, and I will arrange for this to be published in this country as soon as the full text has been received.


Sir Geoffrey Shakespeare - May I say that this news will shock the civilised world and cause the deepest distress and I ask the right hon. Gentleman whether any comfort can be given to the relatives of the men by informing us if there is any evidence that medical supplies and food comforts have been reaching these prisoners of war, perhaps through Russian channels?


Sir J. Grigg - Constant efforts are being made to get supplies to our prisoners of war. I think for the most part it has been easier to get supplies to prisoners in the Northern area. I will certainly make a statement later, when the evidence of these men shows whether anything reached the Southern area or not.


Lieut.-Colonel Sir Assheton Pownall - Can my right hon. Friend give any approximate figures with regard to the number of British and Australians who were subjected to these intolerable conditions?


Sir J. Grigg - Perhaps my hon. and gallant Friend will allow me to consider that, in connection with the fuller statement which I shall have to make later.


Captain Gammans - May I ask my right hon. Friend whether, as the result of interrogating the prisoners of war who have come back, he can give any idea of what is happening to civilians in Singapore and other parts of the Malay peninsula?


Sir J. Grigg - Not at present, but I will make inquiries about that in connection with the general interrogation.


Professor Savory - May I ask my right hon. Friend to have a copy of his statement transmitted to Dublin for the benefit of the Japanese consul-general who is residing in that city?


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