Harry Rawling

Royal Corps of Signals

Dining near to four Japanese recently and briefly noting their easy use of knives and forks compared with my hopeless and once only attempt at chop-sticks, my thoughts turned to Harry Rawling whose funeral I had attended on September 24th 1999.

As many people fly off on exotic holidays all over the world, worrying about knee space, jet-lag and airline food, with a standard of living and way of life as never before. Harry’s mystery tour of Thailand and his experiences there may be worth telling, but won’t be easy reading. Harry had started as a lad at Page’s Mill, Tadcaster and finished up as a Director. We didn’t do much business with him, but nevertheless he was always most helpful and friendly. I can’t remember how I came to know about his war, but eventually I persuaded him to come to our discussion group at Selby Fork. Luckily I taped him and this is his horrific story…

Taken from the Selby Fork Discussion Group Recording in 1999.

“Don’s been nattering for many years for me to talk on this subject, but it’s a lot of years ago gentlemen, forty years ago, and the memory, thankfully fades. This story starts in late 1939 in Page’s office at Tadcaster. War broke out in September and I was earning a pound a week. Wheat had got up to ten pounds a ton, Woodbines five pence for twenty and a pint of beer was five and half pence.

I was twenty three and all the lads my age could not get into the forces quickly enough, so I went down to Lady Lane in Leeds to the recruiting offices. Everyone wanted to be among the glamour boys in the RAF, so I went in there. The chap said “What do you do?” and I said “I’m a clerk in an office in Tadcaster”’ He said, “That’s not much good to us is it?  Can you drive? Have you a Public Service Licence?” When I said “No” he said, “You are wasting my time. Your sort are ten a penny. We’ve no room for such as you!”.

I was that annoyed I went straight down to the Army Office. “What regiment would you like to join?” the Sergeant asked “West Yorkshire,” I replied, but he said “Full”. The next I could think of were the Duke of Wellington, but no vacancies there. “So where can I go?” I said and I signed on the dotted line for the Corps of Signals, which I had never heard of. So I became Private H Rawling regimental number 2591279 of the Royal Signals. Three weeks later came a letter to report to 760, Great Cambridge Road, Enfield, which turned out to be the biggest garage I’d ever seen. It was January 1940, fifteen degrees of frost and every place to lie down occupied except near a sliding door. I had arrived at elven at night, in my best blue suit. The stores were shut, no blankets, palliasses etc  and I sat on my case thinking I shouldn’t have been in such a hurry to go to war.

January and February 1940 was a pretty keen time and I trained as a wireless operator. After two months basic training there we moved into Norfolk for five or six months defending the perimeter of the aerodrome now called Colishall but known as Scotto then where 242 Squadron of Canadians were commanded by Group Captain Douglas Bader. We were supposedly defending the East Coast against a German invasion. We had guns but no ammo, so it’s a good job they never came. Then we hardened off in a Scottish winter, came back to Staffordshire and were then earmarked for embarkation.

On the thirty first of October 1941, half the Division went to Liverpool and the other half to Glasgow and we set sail into the unknown. I was on a boat called Orcades.

The SS Orcades, she was sunk in 1942 of Capetown by German submarine U-172.

The convoy joined up somewhere west of Ireland. Things were grim, sea support was limited and we were told the first three of four days would be the riskiest, as we would be in range of French based Stuka dive-bombers. Our only escort was one, Cruiser.

Just before dawn there was a lot of aerial activity and we thought “This is it, here come the Stukas” but it was a North American fleet coming to take over from the Cruiser, with one aircraft carrier, two heavy cruisers and nine destroyers. Remember this date gentlemen, October 31st 1941, six to eight weeks before the United States joined the war!!

We thought we were due for the Middle East but they escorted us to Halifax Nova Scotia, there we got onto American troopers (USS Westpoint). This ship was only a year old, had done one consular trip to Spain and carried then sixteen to eighteen hundred people. Needless to say they put nine thousand troops on her. Bunks were twelve high in the hold.

Next stop was Port of Spain in Trinidad, but no shore leave there. We were still sure we were making for the Middle East. Three days out of Durban we deviated through the Roaring Forties nearly to Antarctica to avoid a large German raider. On December the seventh the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour, the Yanks came into the war and on December the tenth we arrived in Cape Town. We had a wonderful four days shore leave. The locals couldn’t do enough for us.

The American Fleet left us and the Dorsetshire took over, sailing up the East Coast of Africa. Just off Mombasa another big boat went off, we found later to Singapore and we changed course to Bombay. We always thought that the British Troops were sacrificed politicly in Malaya, because of the vast numbers of Australian troops struggling there. We stayed three weeks in Bombay whilst the powers that be saw how things were going in Malaya., and it wasn’t good. Two days out of Singapore our escort asked for all available air cover to see the large convoy in. Three bi-planes were all that were left. The Japs bombed the convoy but only got one ship which was beached successfully without many casualties. We knew Singapore was doomed before we got there!

We arrived January 31st and the capitulation was February 15th, so after all that training and travelling my active service lasted just sixteen days, and it was complete chaos. It was supposed to be impregnable. No one knew who was in command. The locals didn’t know there was a war on and were wining and dining up to the night before surrender. Heavy fifteen inch guns from HMS Elizabeth had been placed pre-war facing the sea. Other guns had no ammunition. The mile long causeway linking up with the mainland was blown up at the far end and easily repaired by the Japs. The reason for surrender by the GOC:- were no food, no water and no ammunition which came from the mainland along the causeway.

Our problems started on February 15th. The Japs had never heard of surrender, and we were the lowest of the low from the word go and only in retrospect can we understand how they treated us. During the Malayan campaign 140,000 Allied troops were involved , of these 30,000 were killed, 90,000 taken prisoner and 20,000 wounded. The Japanese casualties were 10,000.

I finished up in the regular army area barrack block in Changi, most of which had been bombed. We didn’t have many guards, as there was nowhere to go. Changing from army rations to a handful of rice and a few vegetables played hell with the constitution. Malaria and dysentery took its toll and moral got very low. There was nothing to do and about 70,000 in a very tiny area.

After about three months I volunteered to go and work on the docks as coolies. Loading ships and living in the warehouse, which was a great change from stagnation in Changi. We found some army rations in a corner and quietly mixed a bit of bully beef with rice. But the Japs were dead against looting as we soon found out. We hadn’t been there long, when one of their army drivers had been caught flogging petrol to some local Chinese. His officer executed him there and then in front of our working party, with a great two handed samurai sword. We hadn’t been happy to start with and that didn’t help.

Their favourite punishment was to put you into a sort of cane box. You couldn’t stand, kneel or sit. You just had to crouch and seven days without food or water was a very long time. Also standing holding heavy weights above your head in front of the guardroom was another punishment. We thought hard before looting with those sort of punishments!

About this time the Japs thought we should be paid, and they came out with a cardboard currency in cents. My rate was fifteen cents a day, being a sergeant. One egg from the Chinese cost about $2.50:- a fortnights work.

In December we were told we were going off to a land of milk and honey where the food and conditions would be a lot better. We had worked hard on the docks, and this was to be our reward. Thailand and some reward it turned out to be!! The British had laid the railways in Malaya and supplied the rolling stock. I had loaded sacks of corn into these iron box wagons with sliding doors before the war, and that was our transport- thirty five in each. During the day it was unbearably hot, and at night terribly cold. All we had was our few personal belongings. They only stopped once a day for a hand full of rice and a drink of water. Fifty percent of the lads suffered with dysentery which is more or less permanent diarrhoea. Hanging out of the sliding door over the chain was the toilet system. What a state we were in!

The journey took five days, and we arrived in a place called Banpong in Thailand. The grapevine had it that the idea was to join a railway from Bangkok to Rangoon. Bangkok to Banpong was already built. We were actually on the stretch between Banpong and Mulmain. The Germans had surveyed this jungle in 1936 for the Thais, with the idea of completing the line, but had said that it was absolutely impossible. The Japs intended tackling it, and all they had was rolling stock in Malaya, and lines that were to be ripped up and moved to Thailand. They had an unending supply of labour, Allied prisoners of war and natives.

We got there and were dumped in bare jungle, just one mass of bamboo, which we chopped down for huts and shelter. The only consolation for us was the temperature was reasonable. As you may have gathered we were underfed and under clothed. We had hardly any medicines, no treatment for malaria or dysentery. In our poor conditions the slightest scratch from a bit of bamboo produced festering sores, which spread and often led to amputations. I was lucky with a small leg ulcer, I could see daylight past my shin bone and was beginning to think of amputation. But a pal of mine came back with some carbolic acid from the cookhouse. The doctor said it might do the trick, if I could stand the pain. He plastered it for three days, and eventually it healed.

At first, when we had anaesthetic, doctors asked for volunteers to keep the flies off, but later in cold blood we had to hold people down. At one camp there were about two hundred with something or other off. We used to time various surgeons – six and a half to seven minutes was about the best for a leg. In the early days one or two tried to escape. Eventually they were caught and brought back. Everyone was paraded after work to watch them dig their own graves and if they were lucky they were shot, if not bayoneted.

But back to the railway. It was purely chopping down the bamboo for various uses. Stretchers were made by putting two poles through either side of a bag, and with a man at each end and were very efficient. The Jap engineers would come along and put levelling poles up, and then we were either digging a cutting or building an embankment. We worked 18 hours a day. The rice ration was eight ounces per man, and if anyone was sick, meaning they couldn’t work their ration was stopped. Eventually we got so many bags of rice for so many yards of line, and no more ’til it was completed.

I’ve seen men carried to work, lying at the line side breaking stones. There were no excuses, and the Japs were the same with themselves. If a soldier was injured in action, the next senior had to assess if he could be any further use, and act accordingly. Every morning, where ever he was, a Japanese soldier would take his hat off, bow to the sun and mutter something like, “Emperor. I’m sorry I didn’t die for you yesterday, but I’ll do my best to die for you today”.

So you can appreciate our situation. They were madly fanatical. All the supplies came up river and as we got up the line, illnesses got worse and more people died, but replacements kept coming up from Singapore plus more native labour.  As long as the work rate was acceptable, they didn’t care how many died, and it was no use complaining.

Well the line was four hundred and fifteen kilometres long the total casualties were 116,000 which works out at one death every eight yards. It took three and a half years to build. Two thirds of the way we ran into cholera, which is a painful disease, and you could be dead in twenty four hours. There was a special camp called Konkri, sixteen hundred British troops went in and twelve hundred died, mostly from cholera. At this time we never expected to survive this railway line. You were always suffering from something and less food and no medical supplies and then came the monsoons. Three months rain, very little clothing and we worked right through it on a handful of rice. There were a lot of accidents too, but I suppose some of us believed in miracles which might get us through and one happened. They dropped the bomb.

It was a pretty grim time. We never got any news, and it was all of a rush to finish because they wanted to use it. Eventually it was completed at a place called Konkuita where both ends met up. The Japs actually used it for five or six days bringing up troops and supplies. They were so unsure about the bridges that one driver walked across first, the other set it off and got out, and his mate got in at the other side to stop it. Then the RAF set about it from the Burma end and demolished it in six weeks. To try and stop this the Japs moved lots of prisoners-of-war to strategic points and lots of lads got killed by our own bombs.

The order went out we had to be graded, those unfit for work to stay in Thailand and the others back to Singapore. I had weighed in on joining up at thirteen stone four and at this time I was down to six stone five pounds and passed fit for further work. In due time we were hauled back and the change was amazing. They were very anti-British after the capitulation, with Japanese flags coming out from under the beds. Three years later there was a complete change of attitude. They had had enough of them, as they plundered and shipped everything back to Japan. One of the most welcome sights to me was a four engined US plane bombing the docks, which were about derelict anyway.

Then we found out we were bound for Japan, to work in the salt mines. For three weeks we lived off rice and horrible fish stuff and nothing else till they took us to the docks. We’d had a pretty rough time on the line, but the next three days were about the worst! Eight hundred of us were stuffed down the hold of a little coaster.  You could neither stand, sit nor anything, just one human heap at the bottom of the boat. They pulled the hatch covers over and took us out waiting for a convoy to form. After three days without food or water they took off the covers and we pulled out thirty seven dead.

Eventually a convoy of about eleven boats set out, containing three oil tankers, three destroyers and coasters including ours full of prisoners-of-war. Around dusk on the third or fourth night out there were a series of terrible explosions and the same at dawn. We learned later that two American submarines had sunk them all bar ours, and Chinese spies had saved us.

They dare not go any further towards Japan, so we went to Saigon, which was French Indo China, and very friendly towards us, and the food improved. The eventually we started building an aerodrome, nearly on the border of China, at Phnom Penh in Cambodia. I was then June/July 1945 and the Japs were very touchy, as things went very much against them. They told us they expected an invasion of Malaya, and possibly parachutists. We were set to dig a large moat around the camp as a defence against them. We found later it was our own graves, but fortunately it didn’t come to that because the atomic bomb was dropped and the Japs surrendered. They still carried on with their atrocities and thousands were murdered in out of the way camps. We were lucky being near Saigon, and US planes were soon dropping leaflets telling us and them what to do and what not to do. A fortnight later a regiment of Gurkha’s came in and sorted them out. There were thirteen hundred prisoners in our camp and the quinine ration had been nine tablets enough for one person for one a day. The day after the bomb dropped they brought us twenty thousand bottles! Their excuse had always been there wasn’t any! They did start treating us a little better, but it was too late then for many.

In due course we assembled on Saigon airfield and some old Dakotas came in. After surviving the last three and a half years I didn’t fancy them, but quickly got on, when told the alternative might be an extra six months.. We flew to Rangoon via Bangkok, we were screened and went through an army hospital. Lord Louis Mountbatten met every consignment that came back. They wanted evidence of all the ill treatment we’d had, names and witnesses, and he was keen that anyone, who so wished could stay behind and witness the executions. We were happy to say our bit then get out. Doctor Derrick Smith from Barwick in Elmet was in Singapore and one of his jobs was signing death certificates. A lot committed harikiri but not many guilty ones got away.

We left Rangoon on a boat called the Orduna, calling at Colombo and Port Suez.

We got our first mail for three years at Gibraltar, when I found out my father had died two years before. We were occasionally given postcards to send with five things to fill in:- I am well, I am working, I am ill, and I’ve forgotten the others. The only ones sent off had to be:- I am well or I am working. Two of mine got home but took three years. On October 31st 1945 we arrived back in Liverpool, the same place we had set out from so long ago..

A few weeks ago there was a letter in the Daily Telegraph from a chap called Stan Cherry of West Moore, Dorset who I was with for quite a while.

Harry Rawling.

Daily Telegraph Monday October 17th 1983.


Sir – Forty years ago, on October 17th 1943 a ceremony took place in the middle of the Siamese jungle. The present anniversary is one that not many former Far East prisoners-of-war would care to celebrate joyfully, even if they remembered it, and indeed there is a far too rapidly diminishing number of them still around to do so.

All the same it was on October 17th that the two portions of the Burma-Siam Railway met at Konkuita, the one coming from Thailand totalling 265 Kilometres and the line from Burma 152 kilometres.

It would be amusing to record that the two ends missed by half a mile. Perhaps presaging Japan’s rise as an industrious engineering nation they met exactly, whereupon a copper rail was laid and secured with a golden spike – quickly removed by the Japanese before the prisoners could get at it.

Probably more to the point as statics are the number of Allied prisoners who built it: 30,000 British, 13,000 Australians, 18,000 Dutch and 700 Americans. Of them 13,000 died. At the height of the Japanese “Speedo” we were joined by an unknown number of impressed local labourers, of whom 90,00 died.

On a 250-mile railway line between us we had shifted 150 million cubic feet of Siam and Burma and counting the local labourer, had left one dead body for every 13 feet of track. As an exercise in managerial ability it was abysmal: as a way of reducing prisoners it had proved first class.

What can one say about such figures and such an enterprise? That the railway was built against the rules to provide a sea/land link for the Japanese armies fighting in Burma and for the eventual conquest of India: that it was built in not much more than a year from June 19, 1942 when the 600 prisoners of “B” Battalion under Major R.S.Sykes, RASC left Singapore, until that in October 1943: that it was a figure hugely in “The Bridge on the River Kwai”, and that there never was such a Colonel on either side, nor such a bridge, come to that: that the boys who built it have never been quite the same since and in far too many cases are now either dead or pre-maturely ageing men; that when the war was over – an unkind cut, this- the unhappy railway was deemed not to be viable and for the most part pulled up

My reason for adding to all that has been written is the hope that my letter will be a reminder to those who care to listen that while the mainstream of hostilities ground on inexorably during those years, something much worse than they can possibly imagine was also going on, in a backwater of the war, an undeveloped tropical wonderland with almost every tropical disease in the book, and probably some that weren’t.

We were young, and had been fit, at the beginning. I was young, Royal Signals (Territorial Army) and about as young and fit as it was possible to be, at the beginning.

It is now “40 years on”. I hope there will still be some of us around to remark the 50th anniversary. Rather sadly I feel there will not be many.

But those who did come home came with something more than a disinclination to love their late enemy or when they grew older to buy his cars. They had been together up that famous creek, without any paddle, and came through.

Their lives may have been shortened, but there wasn’t much that could be done to them in the years ahead that hadn’t been done already. Three-and a half years of deprivation and misery, sickness and tears, and the occasional laugh, had been traded for a marvelous feeling of “we made it” that we shall carry with us to the end. Or maybe it is because we were young and those times now seem great because it is our youth that we look back upon with envy.

We left too many good men behind in the military cemeteries at Chungkai and Kanchanaburi, and others still buried in jungle graves with the great trees their only memorial. And the ones who came home, and are now wearing out-if your readers know who needs a helping hand please give it.

As for me, I would like to have three wishes. One is that the young of today will peer at us, all of us who came through the Second World War, and resolve that Britain must remain strong, another is that we must try never to be so colossally stupid again. The third? Of course, to go back to see what is happening to our railway.

Ps.      Stan Cherry had written such a good, moving letter back in 1983 that I couldn’t resit the temptation to see if he had survived to the fiftieth anniversary. Helpful directory enquires gave me three S. Cherry’s in that area. Number one, no reply, number two, a fax; number three, please leave your message after the tone. The message left went: “If you are the Stan Cherry, ex Japanese prisoner-of-war, who wrote a letter in the Telegraph in 1983, please phone this number” .

At ten o’clock next morning, seventy-nine year old the Mr Cherry is on the line for a helpful and interesting chat. The following morning as promised, a copy of the letter, various snippets and useful facts about the Railway of Death  are in the post.

Although I have had the odd bad dream just writing about it, this has been a worthwhile exercise, and Stanley Cherry’s presence on the phone, and in real life too, makes for a Happy Ending.

Harry Rawling

WarGen would like to thank John Rawling (Harrys son) and Fred Reed for providing this moving account of Harry Rawlings time in WW2.

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