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In the Second World War, there were approximately 30,000 Australian prisoners between 1940 to 1945. Whilst Australian forces were in the Mediterranean and the middle east undertaking campaigns it left an opening for the Germans and Italians to capture some of the Australian soldiers. This also happened at the sea in the Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific Oceans. The associates of the RAAF aircrews that had bailed out during operations over Germany, occupied Europe or North Africa, also became POWs. Of the 8,000 Australians taken prisoner by the Germans and Italians, 265 died during their captivity.
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One of the most dramatic moments in the war for Australian soldiers was the fall of Singapore on February 15, 1942. The British army surrendered to the Japanese. The island of Singapore had been considered a strategic stronghold for the British and Australian armies. Britain’s Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, had called it the ‘Gibraltar of the Orient’. While Britain had promised to send a great fleet to protect the island it never materialised. The only two ships protecting Singapore were the Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse. Both were sunk by the Japanese air force. The only air squadron in Singapore was three squadrons from the Royal Australian Air Force. These were no match for the vastly superior Imperial Japanese Army Air Service.
Japan was determined to take control of Singapore which they saw as a serious threat. Just hours before the attack on Pearl Harbour, at 4am on the 8 December 1941, the Japanese invaded Malay Peninsular by air. An Imperial Japanese army force of 30,000 troops moved quickly on bicycles with light tanks in support. The Japanese would not confront the Australian troops until January when the 8th division inflicted significant losses upon them at Gemas and Bakri. Eight weeks after their first landing the Allied troops were captured and surrendered. The Australian soldiers were significantly understrength after the desperate actions of the previous weeks.
It ended with 140,000 troops and citizens in Singapore captured, wounded or killed. It is estimated that about 15,000 Australian soldiers were captured by the Japanese and these were largely army soldiers from the 8th division. The 8th division was made up of volunteer personal who had joined the army from July 1940. The prisoners ended up spending a torturous three and a half years in cruelly administered Japanese prisons and camps.
It is estimated about 1,800 Australians were killed in Japan’s push into Singapore. Of the 22,000 Australians captured by the Japanese in the first weeks of the war in the Asia-Pacific it is estimated one third died in brutal and often criminal circumstances.
The main POW camp in Singapore was called Changi. It was a collection of up to seven POW camps occupying an area of approximately 25 square kilometres. Prior to the war, Changi had been the British Army’s principal base in Singapore where it had well-constructed buildings. Most of the Australians captured in Singapore were moved to Changi on 17 February 1942. While the conditions at the beginning were reasonable they suffered after May 1942 when large work parties were sent out of Changi on projects such as the Burma-Thailand railway. The number of Australian prisoners fell from 15,000 to less than 2,500. Starved of food and medicines, and forced to work impossibly long hours in remote unhealthy locations, over 12 000 POWs, including more than 2700 Australians, died building the railway.
In May 1944 all the Allied prisoners were concentrated into an area less than a quarter of a square kilometre. Rations were cut, camp life was restricted and Japanese senior soldiers took a greater role in the camp. David Manning, an Australian POW in Singapore mentioned a ‘good friend’ who starved himself to death rather than continue to endure the horrific conditions in the camp. Colin Hamley, another Australian POW, noted “I saw so many of my mates die along the line.”
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It wasn’t until more than three years later, on September 5, 1945 that Changi was liberated by troops of the 5th Indian Division. The death rate among Japanese POWs was 27%, compared to 4% for Allied prisoners held in German and Italian camps. One of the reasons why POWs were treated so poorly was because of the Japanese belief that surrender was dishonourable.
It is important for us to remember the suffering that volunteer army personal suffered for the freedom of our country. Even though the allied forces ended up winning the war many Australians suffered years of brutal treatment at the hands of the Japanese army. These men came to be portrayed as men who had triumphed over adversity.
While everyone has heard of the invasion of Pearl Harbour, few people would be aware that on the exact same day the Japanese attacked British and Australian forces in Singapore which ultimately left thousands Australian soldiers dead. This compares to the 2,403-military personal killed at Pearl Harbour. As a nation, we need to remember the hardship, suffering and inhumane conditions that the Australian personal endured throughout World War Two. We also need to remember the brutality of war in general, it is imperative that we do not end up in the same position in the future.
The defeat of Singapore is a significant event as it was the largest defeat of the British empire in World War Two, one of the greatest defeats in the history of the British Army and probably Britain’s worst defeat in World War Two. It is significant for Australia, as approximately 20 percent of all Australian death in World War 2 were Australian captured by the Japanese, men and women, who died in captivity.
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