History of the 196th Field Ambulance
When war with Germany was announced the 196th didn‘t exist, but the nucleus for it‘s formation did, the 161st Field Ambulance. This was a Territorial unit based in Ipswich, Suffolk. The 196th was a duplicate of the 161st and was formed on the 1st December 1939. The 18th Division that was eventually landed in Singapore was itself a duplicate of the 54th East Anglian Division that fought in Gallipoli and the Middle East in World War 1. The 18th Division came into being on 30th September 1939 and 196th became part of its 54th Brigade. Each division had three infantry field ambulances and one per brigade. The 197 and 198 Field Ambulances joined the 196 in the 18th Division.
The role of the Field Ambulance was to treat and evacuate the wounded from the front line to a Casualty Clearing Station where more advanced medical care could be given. This was done through a series of Dressing stations. Each unit had a Regimental Aid Post (RAP) as close to the front line as possible. This was usually the first stop for all casualties. Most casualties were brought to the RAP by Regimental Stretcher Bearers. Basic treatment and assessments were carried out by an RAMC doctor attached to the unit, before more serious casualties were evacuated to an Advanced Dressing Station (ADS) by Field Ambulance stretcher bearers. From here the casualty was again treated or assessed before being taken to a Main Dressing Station (MDS) before finally being evacuated to the Casualty Clearing Station (CCS) or hospital. The Field Ambulance was responsible for everything coming from the RAP and going to the CCS. Ambulances were driven by members of the RASC attached to the unit, who were also armed for the protection of the RAMC. The RAMC men did not carry or have access to any weapons and relied solely on the soldiers around them for protection.
The 196th travelled on the SS ANDES and the SS ORANSAY leaving Great Britain on the 30th October 1941. The unit comprised 253 men, 54 RASC and 199 RAMC. On arriving at Nova Scotia in Canada the unit travelled on the USS Joseph T Dickman and eventually disembarked in Singapore on 29th January 1942. While they had been travelling, war had been declared with Japan, following the attack on Pearl Harbour, Malaya and Hong Kong on December 6th and 7th 1941. They had stopped in Cape Town and India prior to reaching Singapore, their destination originally to have been the Middle East.
During the fighting the 196 was based behind the 4th and 5th Suffolks and the 5th Beds and Herts from the 55th Brigade. Some men were attached to other units such as the Royal Artillery and 1st Cambridgeshires and they soon began to take casualties themselves.
As the situation grew more and more desperate 30 RASC men were taken from the unit to act as riflemen, along with RASC men from other units. The allied forces were slowly withdrawing closer to Singapore City and the 196 was based to the East of the Mac Ritchie reservoir near to the centre of the island. Men of the 196th were in support of one of the final British attacks of the campaign when Tomforce went into action. As the assault petered out the 196 unit found itself surrounded and had to evacuate the wounded protected by Tomforce.
The 196th finally withdrew to two Main Dressing Stations. One was based at the City High School next to Government House and behind the Cathy Building, and the other at Goodwood Park hotel, later to be occupied by Japanese officers. This is were they remained until the surrender.
Records indicate that the 196th had treated 426 men and of those, 11 men had died. These figures come from the War Diary of the unit that ends on 15th February 1942 and I am quite sure that the information is incomplete. The 196th had suffered 6 casualties, but no fatalities, although Lt Cuthbert did not recover from his wounds for some months.
In captivity 46 men of the 196th Field Ambulance died. The first to die was Private Ungless, my great uncle of a perforated appendix, 18th June 1942, in Roberts Barracks, Changi. The last was Driver Bowden of the RASC, who died 12th October 1945 in Rangoon hospital, nearly two months after liberation.
Most of the men who died did so in the worst period of the captivity between the months of May and December 1943. During this time 30 men died.
Of the 144 British Other Ranks on “F” Force medical personnel the 196 provided at least 66 men and around a further 30 on the “H” force. These two groups widely recognised as the harshest on all of the terrible railway project. L/Col Huston OC 196 Field Ambulance was the medical officer in command of “F” Force.
Around 77 men of the 196th went on the June mainland parties as the medical team.
18 men were sent to Japan. Driver Carter was on the Rakuyo Maru when it was sunk by the US Navy. He was rescued after 5 days at sea by the USS Queenfish. Driver Waghorn was on the Kachidoki Maru when it was also sunk in the same action. Sadly he was lost at sea.
7 men went on the Wales Maru on 15th May 1943 and were based at or around Hakodate camps in Japan.
9 were on the Hioki Maru in June the following year and were mostly based at the Fukuoka camps. Two men, Lance Corporal Ball and Driver Minns died in Japan and are buried at Yokohama Cemetery.
Of the whole unit 18 men only remained at the Singapore camps following the death of Private Ungless. They suffered one death, Private G A Lewis, who died in January 1943.
Driver Merricks escaped captivity with some others from different units but was recaptured after being discovered by locals in Thailand who reported their presence. He died in November 1943.
7 of the 25 private ranked RAMC soldiers mentioned in despatches were from the 196th Field Ambulance. In total 12 members of the unit received the award.
The achievements of all of the medical soldiers during this awful period as prisoners of war is frequently expressed in books and accounts written and told by Far East Prisoners Of War.
They will not be forgotten.