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Tag "Prisoners of War"
Former POWs, Internees and the widows of POWs.

Special guests at June’s conference: former POWs (from bottom right: George Reynolds, Tom Boardman and Bob Hucklesby); FEPOW widow (Merle Hesp); and former internees (from top left: internees Els and Connie Suverkropp, Romee Hindle, and Olga Henderson). Courtesy of LSTM/Brian Roberts.

2015 has been a poignant year. Seventy years after the end of the Second World War, veterans and their families came together throughout the summer to reflect, remember and renew their commitment to sharing the stories of wartime.

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During the Second World War the German Army established a number of POW facilities in the artillery forts in the old Hanseatic city of Thorn (Toruń ) in northern Poland. The camp bore number Stammlager  (Stalag) XXA and held Allied prisoners of various nationalities.

Bridge linking courtyard and entrance gate to Fort XI of Stalag XXA. © IWM DC 552.

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Kanyu Riverside Camp

Stanley Gimson, Kanyu Riverside Camp: Dysentery Ward (1943) © IWM (Art.IWM ART 16893)

Throughout Southeast Asia during the Second World War, tropical diseases ravaged the bodies of those held by Japanese occupying forces:

 As our pocket book gets cleaner

All our frames get leaner and leaner

And the grass grows greener in the graveyard area

Still with spirits unabating

We will wait while flies are mating

For the dysentery cholera and malaria

–        Geoffrey Monument, ‘Rhapsody in Rice’ (circa 1944)

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King Georve VI letter Far East Prisoners of War

Letter from King George VI welcoming returning prisoners of war from the Far East. © IWM (MH 27887)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 IWM holds a vast collection of documents telling the stories of the men who were held captive by the Japanese during the Second World War. The collection includes diaries, memoirs, photographs, artworks and oral history interviews, and all of these resources are invaluable in helping historians, researchers, families and members of the public to learn about the day-to-day experiences of the men who were prisoners of war.

Alongside my research at IWM, I have written catalogue entries for documents that have been donated to the museum by men who were imprisoned on the island of Sumatra from February 1942 until August 1945. This has been a fascinating task.  The materials from Sumatra are exciting sources because there are very few first-hand accounts available from this theatre of captivity. Yet these documents tell the stories of the prison camps from the perspective of the men who were there at the time, and who continued to remember it after their liberation.

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Rod Suddaby

Rod Suddaby at a FEPOW round table meeting hosted by Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine on 15 February 2010 (detail from a photograph by Nick Parkes). Photograph by permission of Meg Parkes.

‘Never stray too far from your sources’.

This was the invaluable guidance of Rod Suddaby whom I had the privilege to have as my PhD co-supervisor for the last two years of his life – focusing on the stories of Far Eastern prisoners of war (POWs).

At first it was daunting to be Rod’s student. His knowledge was immense, and being an English graduate I had not studied history for at least a decade.  But Rod could not have been a more generous, patient, or thorough advisor, and my trepidation turned into delight. Rod put himself through the task of reading everything I churned out at least twice. First he did his ‘ring true’ test, to check whether what I had written was convincing historically. Only when he was sure of that did the pencil come out, and he would go through every sentence again, every footnote, and every reference with the utmost precision.

We would arrange to go to the museum café where an argument about him insisting on buying me a cake became customary, and as I nibbled my way through the cake he would make his way through each page – explaining his annotated comments, and the reasons for the suggestions he made. During a particularly tricky draft in which I tangled myself in theory, he cheerfully offered one concise comment: ‘I skipped all that’. Rod never strayed from his sources.

I laughed and learned a lesson he was keen that I understood – to keep my words grounded in the history of what POWs lived, to be sure of what we know by double checking everything against available records, and to let the stories of POWs speak for themselves.

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Image of an engraving from the Sumatra railway memorial on Sumatra itself

A engraving from the Sumatra railway memorial. Amanda Farrell.

February this year saw the seventieth anniversary of the Fall of Singapore on 15th of that month 1942. Between June of that year and October 1943, over 60,000 Allied troops would be forced to labour as prisoners of war (POWs) on the Burma-Thailand railway.  It is not so popularly known, however, that after this a second ‘Death Railway’ project was overseen by many of the same Japanese engineers. This second railway was built on the island of Sumatra, and its construction involved nearly 5,000 Allied POWs.

As an island rich in coal and oil, Sumatra presented a vital energy resource for the Japanese. Their intention was that the new line starting at Pakanbaroe in the east of Sumatra would connect to an existing track at the town of Moeara, and continue to the western port of Padang. By joining the new track with the old, and constructing a tributary line to connect the railway to Sumatran coal mines, the Japanese planned to transport fuel and troops by rail for shipping from Padang to Singapore.

The track between Pakanbaroe and Moeara was approximately 140 miles long, with a total of 17 camps made and lived in by prisoners. Since there was no place to which men could escape, very few were fully enclosed by the bamboo fences or barbed wire associated with typical images of POW camps. The railway was built through mountain ranges and thick jungle, and across swamp and river.

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