The Fall of Singapore in 1942 was a triumph for Imperial Japan and almost certainly Britain’s gravest setback in WWII. Over 80,000 Allied prisoners were captured in a mass surrender against a numerically inferior Japanese force and a shocked Winston Churchill described the humiliation as “the worst disaster and largest capitulation in British history.”
One of the tens of thousands of men taken prisoner after the fall of the ‘Gibraltar of the East’ was Sapper Robert ‘Bob’ Hucklesby of the Royal Engineers. Like many of his comrades Hucklesby endured years of captivity at the hands of the brutal Japanese Army and was forced to work on the notorious Thai-Burma Railway (otherwise known as the ‘Death Railway’). He almost died of several diseases and maltreatment and by time he was liberated in 1945 Hucklesby only weighed just over seven stone. However, three-quarters of a century later this remarkable man spoke to History of War about his moving story of survival and experiences of unspeakable cruelty in the Far East.
What was your role in the Royal Engineers and how did your war begin?
I was a sapper, which was the technical side of things. I was a third class engine artificer because I was going under an apprenticeship to be a marine engineer but the war broke out when I was 18 and so I never finished my apprenticeship.
I joined the army in May 1939. Four of my friends and I could see that there was a war coming and we wanted to take advantage of what we’d learnt so far and that was more convenient by being in the Royal Engineers. To be in the Royal Engineers we had to travel from Lowestoft to Norwich where the Territorial Army was based for the Royal Engineers. We were fortunate in the travelling expenses, which was just enough to cover a third class rail fare so we weren’t out of pocket.
The Territorial Army used to have summer camps and we went to a camp in August 1939. We got to know terms such as ‘gunfire’ and things like that. War broke out on 3 September and I was called up on 1 September and there were no billets arranged for us so we slept on the floor of a drill hall for a couple of nights before they gave us billets.
There were many of us who didn’t have the chance to finish an apprenticeship and so we were all in square one when we got home seven years later.
I was conscripted. When I was called up I put my uniform on and went off with a kitbag and I didn’t know what was going to happen.
On 3 September we were on a route march exercise and we were passing through part of Norwich. It was 11 o’clock so we halted and a lady came rushing out of her home and said, “You’re doing it for real now!” It’s funny how you remember the little things.
For the first two years we of the 18th Division, Royal Engineers were part of the Home Forces and we did a lot of different jobs. I was transferred from one field-company to another and I finished up in the 560th Field Company. I worked a compressor truck, I didn’t drive it but I worked the tools and it was an interesting job.
We were helping at Liverpool during the Blitz building ramps at road junctions for the hosepipe to go under and I also worked on repairing trailer pumps. I once got called out with my compressor truck and we went to Formby. There was a large lighthouse at Formby and it was thought that it was used by the Germans as a marker so we blew it up!
Memories of The Fall of Singapore
Why were you diverted to Singapore instead of the Middle East in 1942?
Everything was stencilled in to go to Basra and we were in khaki drill and pith helmets etc, which was not the sort of thing for the jungle. When Pearl Harbor was bombed we were a few days out of Cape Town. I think it must have been between Cape Town and stopping off in Basra that the decision was made to send the whole division to Bombay.
The Americans lent Britain the transport to take us from Halifax, Nova Scotia to Basra but then that was altered to Bombay. From Bombay we were taken to Singapore. The reason we went to Bombay was to acclimatise because we had been at sea for almost three months. We left Liverpool at the end of October 1941 and we were at sea, except for stops at Cape Town and Basra, arriving at the second week in January 1942. We had a fortnight of acclimatisation in India and my field company was at Deolali (Doolally). It was a hot spot and I can understand where the phrase “doolally” came from! Then we took off and arrived at Singapore on 29 January. So we were at sea for a very long while.
What did you know about or were told about the Japanese before you arrived?
Very little. In my opinion I don’t think the British had considered the Japanese as being an enemy but they should have taken note at what had already happened in China. We heard a lot about that afterwards because I met up with people in the navy on the gunboats on the Yangtze and they used to tell me that every morning you used to see dead bodies floating down the river. So we ought to have known.
It made it very simple for the Japanese to go from China into Hong Kong so Hong Kong didn’t last very long. By the time they had invaded Thailand to make the journey down Malaya to Singapore it was too late for us, or the powers that be, to realise that the tactics of the Japanese were different to that of the Europeans.
What were your first impressions of Singapore when you arrived on 29 January 1942?
When we arrived on the quayside there were civilians queuing up to get off so of course we realised that things were serious.
What did it feel like to be in that war zone?
It was difficult to have an opinion. It was a totally different environment to what we’d been used to. One thing I do remember is being on guard in our tented camp which was in a rubber plantation and with the trees in line, whichever way you looked it made it difficult not to see a Japanese coming in from behind because we knew they were on the island.
What were your duties during the battle?
I used my compressor and I cut two channels a good distance apart in a reinforced concrete jetty. I laid a charge down each channel and blew it up. It was far enough apart so that you could jump from one side to the other. It was meant to be a deterrent for the Japanese to use that concrete pier as a means of landing.
Not long after that of course, there were no particular duties for sappers in the Royal Engineers so we then became infantry. In a company of Royal Engineers there are three sections and one headquarters section. A section is about 25 people and we were ranged along a monsoon drain opposite a playing field because it was thought that the Japanese had broken through the first line and they would have an advantage if they came across this playing field. The field was also used by a herd of cows so that made it very difficult.
I think we were in that situation for about three days. We used to see the Japanese air force go over on a regular basis because there was nothing to stop them. There was no air force at Singapore when we landed or just afterwards because it was vacated to Java so the Japanese could drop bombs and do whatever they wanted at will. I do recall seeing a Tamil or an Indian of some sort in his white robes walking around in a circle and then you’d see a bomb drop. These bombs would blow up people but they missed us.
We thought being in this deep-ish monsoon drain, we were reasonably safe. It was comforting in a way.
Did you see or take part in any fighting?
No. We were in a monsoon drain as a slit trench but there was no action.
What were the circumstances of your surrender and what did you think about it at the time? What was the mood like among the British soldiers and how did you feel at the time?
After about four days we learned through a courier that the British had called it a day and capitulated (a word I don’t like using). We got out of the trench, and I took my boots and discovered they were coloured white because I’d been in water for days. Then we made our way to a large house and there I met up with others from the same field company that I was in and there was a compressor. I thought, “I’m not letting the Japanese use my compressor” so I got the tools out, took the head off one of the cylinders, took the valves out and threw them away so it couldn’t be used.
We then hung about all day and then later on we were told where we had to line up on this road ready to march off to Changi.
It’s interesting that you say you don’t like the word ‘capitulation’. Could you elaborate on that?
There were circumstances that meant the British and Allies were at a disadvantage from day one. It seemed to me that it was only the end when the Japanese got onto the island to have to call it a day when you realise that the water supply on the mainland. If there hadn’t been a capitulation there would have been no drinking water for the thousands of native who lived on the island. To me giving up wasn’t quite as definite because there were other reasons. Nevertheless, it was a hell of a blow.
It wasn’t long after becoming a prisoner of war and being without food for three days that we realised it was not going to be as short a stay as we originally thought. The Japanese decided that they had to do something with the vast numbers of prisoners. I didn’t expect that number and we ourselves didn’t expect that number to be there! We had no idea how many Allied troops there were on the island. You can understand landing on 29 January when the civilians were already leaving that there wasn’t a lot of options left at least for us.
Looking back, do you think there was any way the British could have fought on at Singapore?
The Allies had left it too late to stop the Japanese because there was nothing that got in the way of them making it all the way down Malaya. They had a good foothold in other words.
I don’t think the surrender was inevitable. The powers that be didn’t study the Japanese way of fighting and didn’t realise that in fact there was ever the possibility for them landing in Thailand and coming down rather than landing by sea. Its easy in hindsight but to me that seemed something they ought to have taken into consideration long before.
Also, those big guns at Singapore only had armour-piercing shells, they didn’t have any that split so they were not good. They could turn them around inland but they were no use because the shells were not good for that purpose. You can see how I feel when I think somebody should have realised that. I found this out years later and felt annoyed because it seemed to me that those who were there to advise hadn’t really studied the situation.
If you realise that you can easily land in Thailand and you knew that the Allies hadn’t really taken that on board, would you have then thought of coming by sea? In my opinion it was a huge strategic error.
Do you think they were incompetent?
I think some of the advisers hadn’t really studied the situation properly. I have read an article where there were advisors to the British government who had told them precisely where the Japanese would land. You’ve got to realise Britain was involved in a war on several fronts and Singapore and Hong Kong were a long way off. I would suggest that when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor without a declaration of war that things were going to be rough for those in the Far East. In my opinion it was too sudden and too late for the Allies to have taken on board correctly and with good advice the way to deal with that particular war.
Did you feel a sense of being abandoned to captivity by the British high command?
At the time I was disgusted. I felt that they hadn’t taken the Japanese seriously enough for long enough. To give you some idea, I didn’t apply for my medals until around 1965 because I didn’t really want to bother to wear them. However I never really blamed the commander Percival because he was really not a soldier but an administrator and he should have been surrounded by the right advisors. He tried to compensate as much as he could because he got involved with Far East POWs when we got home. He was the first chairman of the national federation and also chairman of the first funds so he didn’t he desert and he could have done.
Life as a Prisoner of War on the Burma Railway
What happened in the immediate aftermath of the surrender and did the Japanese treat you?
I was in the camp and I was told the Japanese were looking for working parties and carpenters because they had come across the Royal Engineers. I had realised from the little I’d seen that the Asians cut by pulling saws and planes towards them instead of pushing it. I thought “we’re all in square one here” so I volunteered as a carpenter. That took me down to Singapore where we built frames for warehouses for the Japs to store their loot.
On the way down we marched down some street and there on six bamboo poles were the heads of Chinese. They’d been slaughtered. Also, walking alongside me was a Japanese soldier and there was a yapping dog so he fixed his bayonet and charged it through the belly so I knew we were in for a tough time. It was a shock.
I was there in Singapore for about six months. While I was there I met two reasonable Japanese. One said in sign language that he sold hats in a shop and in his way tried to tell me he was a Christian. The other one was a young fellow who looked rather simple and he came back from a day off in Singapore and he brought me some sweets. There was only one other Japanese that I remember was reasonable.
While I was down there was another soldier who didn’t like the sight of me so he pulled me out, gave me a log and I had to stand there with this log above my head. I watched him all the time and fortunately for me it was near his lunchtime so he went for his lunch. I immediately dropped the log and disappeared into another working party so he couldn’t find me. I was holding the log for about three quarters of an hour, not too long. It wasn’t long enough for him to come back and have a go at me with his bayonet.
It was important to get streetwise very early. Two things about being streetwise: you didn’t stand still, you just kept walking or you always did an act and pretended to be doing something.
Where was your camp?
I think I was in Singapore for 4-5 months until this job was finished and it was during this period that malnutrition started to catch up with me. It was helped by having terrible dysentery. I got to the stage where I couldn’t read because people passed books around to each other in the hut and I was worried. I was told that what I needed was palm oil, that contained Vitamin A. I still had a few Singapore dollars left so I used those and got someone to go under the wire and get me a bottle of palm oil and that stopped it getting worse. I still can’t read for very long, I couldn’t read a book. I can read papers because the articles aren’t that long.
I not only had dysentery but in Thailand I had malaria every 10-12 weeks and then from the malnutrition I had wet and dry beriberi, pellagra, scabies, ringworm and other things during that period. You’re looking at a very fortunate person.
Because I was so fortunate one of the things I needed to do was not to forget those who were left behind and I’ve been involved with the Far East Prisoner of War associations since 1950.
When you’re in captivity does comradeship help between prisoners?
Yes. Comradeship between prisoners is more intense than anywhere else. What you needed was to have three of you muck in together. The Aussies called them “muckers”, we called them “mates”. You didn’t need to be friends, you just needed to have that feeling that someone else is there to look after you. You needed three because it was not always possible for one to be available. They would look after you when you had malaria, get you water, help you to drink and do other things for you. They would clean you up when you had dysentery and boil you water when you weren’t well. The bonus was that they would share the food that you didn’t eat. The intensity of that comradeship has lasted, it doesn’t disappear.
Can you describe your experiences working on the Thai-Burma railway?
I think I went up to Thailand early in 1943 and landed at the railhead that was at Ban Pong. From there we took off and walked through the jungle and stopped at two plots. One was to help another working party and then we carried on. I was on the camp at Canyu 3 which was the section of laying the base of the railway.
There were three camps and mine was in the one that was highest up. It was here that my malaria and dysentery got me down.
A working party included 120 men of which 100 had to go out, the other 20 were either sick or worked in the camp preparing the food or keeping the place clean. It got to the stage where I couldn’t really walk and I used to be carried out for three or four days and I would be sat next to a fire and I would keep the fire going boiling the water for people to drink.
One morning they came and threw signs that a person told me to get on his truck and he was the only other decent Japanese that I met. He got me on his truck together with two others and took us down to the riverside and with sign language told us to sit there and a barge would come along and pick us up. You were never certain things would happen but it did come along and pick us up and took us down river. It was there during that period that I ended up in the death hut.
What were your conditions like on a day-to-day basis?
Days and months don’t mean a thing because you haven’t got any way of registering it. You just know that next morning you’ve woken up!
As I’ve said you had to be very streetwise and be on the move. Even if a Japanese soldier were 60-70 yards away you still stopped and you’d bow because otherwise he’d come for you and he’d either hit you with his rifle butt or with his foot. You realised that you had a different environment that you needed to adapt to.
Those that didn’t adapt suffered and a lot of those that didn’t adapt didn’t come home. They either wouldn’t stop or they’d try and argue with the Japanese guards. If they didn’t agree with what he was saying or indicating, or perhaps trying to be a bit clever. Its simple.
You could tell that they were soldiers and came from this brutal regime and that it was best to bide your time and leave things as they were.
In your opinion, what motivated the Japanese to mistreat prisoners and how did it manifest itself?
Because that was their culture at the time. Not only were the Japanese brutal but so were the Korean guards. It was part of their culture. In my opinion, the Japanese should be pleased that the Americans dropped that atom bomb because it stopped that culture. The Japanese realised that they needed America to put them back on their feet and it would help if they became more westernised. In my opinion it’s a different race to what it was. With this brutal regime the emperor and the ordinary people didn’t have a chance in my opinion.
Liberation from the Burma Railway
Did you know anything about the war’s progress during your captivity?
Not a thing. I didn’t know when the war was over. The first thing we knew that the situation was changing was when I could hear an aeroplane in the distance in daylight. The noise got nearer and nearer and then I could see the markings on the plane and they were RAF. It flew over the camp and the airman in this Dakota opened the door and waved and I thought “This is it.” It was marvellous, I thought “I’ve made it.” You can roughly understand just trying to live how fortunate I was. The aircraft then turned around and waved again to tell us to clear the central roadway down the camp and they dropped provisions. It was something I shall never forget.
That plane came over on 28 August 1945, which was 13 days after the end of the war but we didn’t know. It made sense to me later because within a day an officer and his driver came in a Jeep into the camp and I thought “How did he get as near as this?” but of course he would have already known that the war was over and he must have been waiting outside.
The Japanese just disappeared. We didn’t see them anymore, which was sensible because I’m certain we would have taken revenge so long as it didn’t hurt us.
What physical condition were you in when you arrived home?
About a fortnight before the camp liberation I had washed myself in a pond that had been created out of water that had come from the monsoon period and that was silly of me because I got a bug or something in my ears and I couldn’t open my jaw so I had lockjaw more or less. The only thing I could do was eat my rice through my teeth. So I was still in a poor way then!
I was in a very poor condition at the end. You could tell because I was one of the first to leave the camp when arrangements were made to transport us. I was taken to the railhead and put on a cattle truck and went on my way to Bangkok but I couldn’t go all the way because the rail bridge across the river had been blown. I had two options, I could walk across on the plank or I could wait until there was a barge to take me across the river. I looked at that plank and the river and thought “I’m not doing that!” I got on the barge and was taken down to Bangkok and I think I spent about four days sleeping on the floor of a house while arrangements were made and then I was taken off to this airfield and we were put in groups and flown to Rangoon.
At Rangoon there were people to meet us. I remember that a nurse took my arm and took me to a marquee, sat me down and made me a cup of tea with sugar in it. I couldn’t drink it because I hadn’t had been used to sugar for three and a half years.
I weighed about seven and half stone, I was all ribs of course. Then I was in this hospital and it was really jammed full. Lady Mountbatten came round and we were all told we could send a message home and so I was able to tell my parents that I was alive.
After about ten days I was then transferred on a hospital ship to Calcutta where I was reassessed. The doctor said to me, “Why is your skin that colour?” and I told him it was because I had had pellagra. None of them had seen pellagra so I stripped off and walked up and down these tables so they could all see what pellagra was like!
I was then to a hospital up in the hills where I was treated very well. I could eat what I wanted as I wanted it and I had medicine. I must have been there for about three weeks. I then had a bed on a hospital train, which was very nice because the bed was at window level and taken to Poona. It was wonderful because I could sit there and see wonderful scenery.
I was then at Poona for a while and they said “Hucklesby you’re now well enough to fly home” and I said “Have I an option?” and they said yes. I said I didn’t want people to see me as I was and I’d rather come home on a hospital ship from Bombay. I learned afterwards that it was an international order from the Red Cross that we should have that option.
How did it feel to come back to England?
When I saw those white cliffs at the Isle of Wight I said to myself “You’re not leaving Britain again.” I realised that I was fortunate and ought to take advantage of that. There have been two things that I’ve always considered since coming home. One of the things you mustn’t do after being that fortunate is to not put yourself under pressure because it is not everything in life. The other thing is, its important if you want respect to give other people respect. Also, in the back of my mind I’m always grateful.
Remembrance of Prisoners in the Far East
What do you think people should remember about the experiences of prisoners in the Far East?
Just give that person respect. I had to go to hospital recently and one of the staff realised I was a POW and came across to shake my hand. I don’t want any more than that. It means a lot because it meant that someone else would know that there were prisoners of war.
What would you say to young people about your experiences and how to remember it?
I’d like them to remember that so many didn’t return. I’d like them to remember that they’re in a grave or they’ve got a stone in their memory thousands of miles away from Britain and in a totally different culture.
It only needed the Japanese to say “We will provide a basic standard of First Aid or medication” and a lot of this wouldn’t have happened. They didn’t even let the Red Cross provide it either. I shared two parcels in my time. One was for 17 of us and the other one was for 11. If they could do it twice there was no reason it couldn’t have been done more often. I also heard that they did receive them but they used them for themselves. I don’t think we got all of them and it makes me feel annoyed because a lot of my friends would still be here otherwise.
How important to you is your work as Chairman of the National FEPOW (Far East Prisoner of War) Fellowship Welfare Remembrance Association?
It’s important to me because it means that those who were left behind are not forgotten.
What was it like when you met the Queen at the 2015 VJ Day commemorations?
She was very nice. We had a bit of a chat and I said “Thank you ma’am for coming to our service” and she looked me straight in the face and said “I wanted to come.” She and the Duke (of Edinburgh) had asked to come. It wasn’t an official event, the BBC and others hadn’t responded beforehand so I was grateful to her. That made all the difference because the BBC got involved and the Royal British Legion made a better showing than they would have done. Prince Philip was in Tokyo Bay a few days after the atomic bomb dropped so he knew about us. At the event he was talking to other POWs while the Queen was talking to me and when he left he came and slapped me on the back and said “Good luck!”
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