More than 22 000 Australians were taken prisoner in the Asia-Pacific region in the early months of 1942. In contrast, only 4000 Australians were captured by the Germans and Ottomans in World War I.
Java was the place where the second largest group of Australians was captured. Troops from the 7th Division embarked on the HMT Orcades arriving at Batavia from the Middle East in early 1942 in a last-minute effort to defend the Netherlands East Indies from Japanese attack.
Most of the prisoners of the Japanese were Australian Army — about 21 000. A further 354 were from the Royal Australian Navy and 373 from the Royal Australian Air Force.
Fifty-nine were women from the Australian Army Nursing Service. In all, over 8000 of these men and women — around 35 per cent — would die during captivity, more than 2800 of them working on the Thai–Burma railway.
The majority of the army personnel were from the 8th Division.
Nearly 15 000 were captured on Singapore in February 1942 and over a thousand on each of Ambon, Dutch Timor, and New Britain. The second largest group of prisoners — more than 2700 — were captured on Java. These were men from the 7th Division who had been brought back from the Middle East to help defend the Netherlands East Indies (now Indonesia) from the Japanese attack in early 1942. They were joined in captivity by three hundred survivors of the sinking of the HMAS Perth in the Battle of Java Sea in late February 1942.
In the years that followed the military units to which the Australians belonged were broken up into work forces to meet the Japanese need for labour. From late 1942 more than 13 000 Australians were sent from Singapore, Java and Timor to work on the Thai–Burma railway.
Australians were not the largest national group on the railway. They were outnumbered by the British, the ‘Dutch’ and large cohorts of Asian labourers (rǒmusha), particularly Burmese and Tamils from Malaya. Yet in relative terms, Australian POW deaths were very significant, accounting for around 20 per cent of all Australian deaths in World War II.
The youth of many Australian prisoners of war was very evident and many enlisted at an age younger than 20.
Little detailed research has been done on the background of Australian POWs and how this affected their chances of survival. However, it is known that all of them had volunteered to serve. Under Australian legislation prior to 1943 conscripts could be used only for the defence of Australian territories.
It is also known from a study of the Australians who joined the army in World War II that they were generally young and unmarried. In 1939 the age limits for enlistment in the AIF were 19 to 35 years of age (higher for officers and some NCOs). In 1941 these were adjusted to 19 and 40 years. Most recruits were in their twenties.
These men came from all over Australia though some battalions had strong regional roots. The vast majority of the men of the 2nd AIF were of European descent.
Little is known of why the men of the 2nd AIF volunteered to serve. Probably their motives were mixed: a desire for adventure, a sense of duty, nationalism and a conviction that they were part of a proud Australian military tradition dating from Gallipoli.
Since the 8th Division was raised during the crisis of the fall of France in mid-1940, these men would also have chosen to play a role in averting Allied defeat.
After the war ended some Australian POWs remembered their captivity as a time in which the ‘typical’ qualities of the Australian soldier came to the fore. Even though defeated, they displayed the Anzac skills of resourcefulness, laconic humour, mateship and survival against the odds.
Undoubtedly Australian POWs did display such qualities on the Thai–Burma railway and elsewhere. It is also the case that Australians’ distinctive national characteristics did not give them a greater chance of survival, as is sometimes assumed. Their death rates on the Thai–Burma railway were little different from the British and higher than the Dutch.
What mattered in captivity was not so much a man’s nationality but the particular circumstances and location of the places in which he worked, his access to food, medicines and medical care, his genetic inheritance, and even his luck and will to survive.
When the Japanese conquered much of South East Asia in late 1941 and early 1942 they captured more than 50 000 British military personnel. Some 30 000 of these prisoners of war later worked on the Thai–Burma railway. More than one in five of them died there.
Elsewhere in the Pacific some 10 000 British, Canadian and Indian troops were captured when Hong Kong fell in December 1941 and further 5000 in the Netherlands East Indies (now Indonesia) in early 1942.
The first contingent of British to work on the Thai–Burma railway was sent to Burma (now Myanmar) from Sumatra in May 1942, as part of the 500-strong Medan Force.
This was the same time at which Australians in A Force left Changi for Burma.
However, the British would form only a minority of the Allied POWs in Burma. On this end of the railway the workforce was largely Australian, Dutch and local rǒmusha.
By far the majority of British POWs — nearly 29 000 of them — were sent to Thailand.
The first contingent of around 3000 reached Thailand some months before the Australians in June 1942. They were set to work building a camp at Nong Pladuk which would form a base for future groups of POWs.
In October 1942 a similar-sized group of British POWs left Singapore for Thailand and were employed around Kanchanaburi and on building the steel bridge at Tha Markam which would later become known as ‘The Bridge on the River Kwai’
Another thirteen ‘letter parties’, L to X, soon followed, taking the number of British working on the railway at the end of 1942 to around 20 000.
The British POWs suffered the highest number of dead of any Allied group on the Thai–Burma railway.
There is a popular perception that they also died at a higher rate than Australians. This owes something to the fact that in F Force, where British and Australian numbers were roughly equal, some 2036 British died compared to 1060 Australians in the period up to May 1944.
The Australian commander Lieutenant-Colonel Charles Kappe attributed the lower Australian death rate to a more determined will to live, a higher sense of discipline, a particularly high appreciation of the importance of good sanitation, and a more natural adaptability to harsh conditions … [and to] … the splendid and unselfish services rendered by the medical personnel in the Force.
In reality, however, the death rates of British and Australians across all sites on the railway were scarcely any different — 22 and 21 per cent respectively. The higher deaths in F Force were probably attributable to the fact that British workers contained a high proportion of men who were already ill when they left Singapore.
The larger number of British deaths overall reflects the fact that there were simply more British working on the railway than Australians or Dutch POWs.
The Dutch formed the second largest contingent of Allied prisoners of war on the Thai–Burma railway, after the British. Estimates vary but the number who worked on the railway was possibly as high as 18 000.
They were some of 42 000 Dutch military and naval personnel and 100 000 Dutch civilians who were captured when the Japanese conquered the Netherlands East Indies in early 1942.
Since the Netherlands East Indies had been under Dutch control for centuries, the ‘Dutch’ POWs included not only Europeans but Eurasians, who had acquired full civil rights, and indigenous soldiers, including Sundanese, Javanese, Menadonese, Ambonese and Timorese.
Navy and the auxiliary forces of the Royal Netherlands East Indies Army.
In 1943 Dutch prisoners were sent to Thailand where they suffered the same hardships as other Allied POWs.
Whatever tensions there may have been during captivity, the Dutch, British and Australians who died on the Thai–Burma railway were buried together after the war.
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery at Thanbyuzayat, Myanmar, holds 621 Dutch graves,
Chungkai, Thailand, 314 Dutch burials,
and Kanchanaburi war cemetery, 1,896.