Dowsett’s War, Part 6 – Changi Prisoner

Three prisoners at Shimo Songkurai in 1943. The effects of malnutrition can be seen in their skeletal frames and the stomach of the man on the right, distended by beri beri. The photograph was one of the last to be taken by George Aspinall on the camera he smuggled up to the Thai–Burma railway from Changi. [By courtesy Tim Bowden]

Three Australian prisoners at Shimo Songkurai in 1943. The effects of malnutrition can be seen in their skeletal frames and the stomach of the man on the right, distended by beri beri. The photograph was one of the last to be taken by George Aspinall on the camera he smuggled up to the Thai–Burma railway from Changi. [Photo by G. Aspinall]

“The place earned the title of Hellfire Pass, for it looked, and was, like a living image of hell itself.”
Jack Chalker, Burma Railway: Images of War, London, Mercer Books, 2007, 59

For the other chapters of Dowsetts War, click here.

Douglas France Dowsett, a driver with the 22nd Infantry Brigade Australian Army Service Corps Supply (AASC) Section was held along with roughly 15,000 other servicemen of the Australian Army’s 8th Division in the British Army’s Selarang Barracks, Changi. It was a prisoner of war camp holding some 50,000 Allied – predominantly British and Australian – soldiers captured after the Fall of Singapore in February 1942. From 1943 the prison also included Dutch civilians brought over by the Japanese from the islands from what is now Indonesia, then part of the Dutch East Indies. The name Changi has become synonymous in the UK, Australia, The Netherlands, and elsewhere with the horrific treatment suffered at the hands of the Japanese in the POW camps.

Extract from NX58454 D F Dowsett’s war service records. [© Dowsett Memorial Library]

Doug’s army war records are notable in that the pages are bare of much detail, essentially just a few lines recording his status as “missing” and then POW. It’s as if the silence of his service record speaks loudly of the suffering in the prison camps, such a long way from home and long way from the protection of his own unit. What we now know as the history that occurred between the dates recorded on those cards haunts the unknown time in between.

Newspaper clipping from The Australian Women’s Weekly society pages, Saturday 29 June 1946 reporting the wedding of Doug Dowsett to Milicent Sutton in Randwick, New South Wales. The officiating minister was former army chaplain George Polain, who was a POW alongside Dowsett in Shimo Songkurai and would later go on to give evidence against the Japanese war crimes in the labour camps. [© Dowsett Memorial Library]

The conditions experienced in the Changi camps by Australian soldiers have been memorialised in poetry, books and film by the number. The very name Changi immediately conjures emtions of dread amongst all who know anything of the horrors lived by the wretched souls sent to build the notorious Thai-Burma Railway. In his 1980 book One Man’s War, Stan Arneil quotes from his diaries: “If ever I see home again …I want nothing more … than to forget these awful days—swollen bodies, bloated from beri beri, walking skeletons from dysentery, eyesight becoming universally bad, malaria rampant. Surely this cannot last..?”

The Thai–Burma railway was built in 1942–43 to supply the Japanese forces in Burma, bypassing the sea routes that were made vulnerable when Japanese naval strength was reduced in the Battles of the Coral Sea and Midway in May and June 1942. Once the railway was completed the Japanese planned to attack the British in India and the road and airfields used by the Allies to supply China. Begun in October 1942 and completed on 16 October 1943, the railway stretched 415 kilometres between Nong Pladuk in Thailand and Thanbyuzayat in Burma. It wound not only through gentle plains but also jagged limestone hills, interspersed with streams and gullies. During the monsoon season, the land became waterlogged and unstable. Where the railway met unavoidable hills, cuttings were dug to allow the line to proceed. Often the line emerged from a deep cutting onto a series of embankments, and bridges. In all, 688 bridges were built along the railway system.

In order to complete the works in record time, more than 60 000 Allied prisoners of war were employed in the construction of the Thai–Burma railway, including British Empire troops, Dutch and colonial troops from the Netherlands East Indies and a smaller number of US troops. About 13,000 of the prisoners were Australian. Over 12 000 Allied prisoners would die during the construction of the railway, including more than 2700 Australians.

The isolation hospital area for cholera sufferers, Shimo Songkurai. The patients were housed under canvas to the left of the photo. In the centre is the operating table used for amputations, ulcer treatment and post-mortems. [Photo by George Aspinall, by courtesy Tim Bowden]

The isolation hospital area for cholera sufferers, Shimo Songkurai. The patients were housed under canvas to the left of the photo. In the centre is the operating table used for amputations, ulcer treatment and post-mortems. [Photo by George Aspinall, by courtesy Tim Bowden]

The required POW labour force was systematically transferred from the Changi barracks camps to various labour camps outside Singapore, including the Burma Railway and the Sandakan airfield. ‘D Force’, consisting of over 2220 Australians and some 2800 British, was sent from Singapore to Thailand in mid to late March 1943. ‘F Force’ was 7,000 strong; there were 3,338 British and 3,662 Australians and the first train left Singapore on the 18 April, 1943.

Doug Dowsett was transferred to Changi with ‘H’ Force in May 1943. This group consisted of nearly 3300 men including 600 Australians commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel R.F. Oakes. Arriving at Ban Pong from Singapore in mid-May 1943, ‘H’ Force then had to walk to various work sites along a twenty-kilometre stretch of the railway between Tonchan and Hintok. Given the heat and the fact they were carrying too much equipment, men arrived at their destination in the last stage of exhaustion, staggering and swaying like drunks.

The bulk of the workforce arrived utterly exhausted in mid-May at Shimo Ni Thea, which became the local headquarters. Most of the Australians under Lieutenant-Colonel C.H. Kappe were then put to work at Shimo (Lower) Songkurai and Kami (Upper) Songkurai. In these remote and primitive camps, the acute supply problems were aggravated by the fact that F Force was under the administration of the Imperial Japanese Army Malay Command rather than the Thailand administration that controlled most other POWs in the region. The arrangements for these forces were inferior and the two administrations competed rather than cooperated in managing the workers under their control. Profoundly malnourished, overworked and ravaged by diseases, including cholera, F Force suffered one of the highest death rates on the railway: some 1060 Australians and 2036 British.

Working on a Thailand Railway Cutting, July 1943 by the official war artist Murray Griffin. This has become one of the most famous images of the hellish conditions experienced when constructing the Thai–Burma railway, though Griffin painted this from accounts by other POWs. He spent the whole of his captivity in Changi. [AWM ART25081]

Working on a Thailand Railway Cutting, July 1943 by the official war artist Murray Griffin. This has become one of the most famous images of the hellish conditions experienced when constructing the Thai–Burma railway, though Griffin painted this from accounts by other POWs. He spent the whole of his captivity in Changi. [AWM ART25081]

What is now known as ‘Hellfire Pass’ is a dramatic cutting some 75 metres long and 25 metres deep. It was the deepest and longest cutting along the entire length of the Thai–Burma railway which over the years came to symbolise the suffering and maltreatment of Australian prisoners of the Japanese across the Asia–Pacific region. The name ‘Hellfire Pass’ came from the appalling working conditions at and around this site, some 150 kilometres from the start of the railway at Nong Pladuk. In mid-1943, when the Japanese introduced impossibly fast work schedules to meet tight deadlines for completing the railway, prisoners were forced to work long hours into the night. Their work site was lit by oil lamps and bamboo fires. This flickering light, the noise from the drilling of the rock and the shuffling of hundreds of poorly fed prisoners seemed the very image of hell.

“Our emaciated, cadaverous bodies were covered in rags, we were all barefooted with bandages covering our ulcers and we were almost all rotten with malaria and beri beri. … our own Black Jack Galleghan, the Iron Commander of the A.I.F. at Changi … was shocked to the point of silence and tears.” – Stan Arneil, describing the return of F Force to Changi in December 1943, One Man’s War, Sydney, Alterative Publishing 1980

Hellfire Pass was lost to the jungle in the years after the war when the railway was demolished. But it was rediscovered in the 1980s. It is now the site of Anzac Day ceremonies and the location of the Australian government’s Hellfire Pass Memorial Museum and a walking trail for visitors.


Every Man Remembered


The Royal British Legion, a welfare agency for all British Armed Forces, operates a memorial website titled Every Man Remembered which has the daunting mission of keeping alive the memory of every soldier that fell in the First World War, and inviting the public to register a virtual ‘poppy’ as a commemoration for every grave.


Registering a commemoration for David Dowsett who was killed in the Battle of Passchendaele, during the Third Battle for Ypres on 8 August 1917 Age 36.

The information on casualties from the First World War has been supplied by The Commonwealth War Graves Commission which was established by Royal Charter in 1917 and maintains the graves and memorials of the 1.7 million men and women of the Commonwealth Service nations who died during both world wars at 23,000 locations in 153 countries.

“Disability, homelessness, bereaved and desperate families, poverty – these were typical issues in Britain after the First World War. Today, The Royal British Legion resolves similar issues – providing practical and immediate support to injured veterans and bereaved families, helping people into jobs, into homes and offering them hope for the future. The Legion is committed to helping those who serve with the British Armed Forces today as well as those who have served in the past, now and for as long as they need us, whether that is for a few weeks or for many years.”

Lest we forget.


Dowsett’s War, Part 5 – New Guinea

“Festering swamp and sodden jungle, snakes, crocodiles, myriads of scorpions,
centipedes, ants, leeches, typhus bearing mites, malaria;
this stone age land of tropical diseases and appalling climate was
the setting for a campaign that would cost the Japanese 100,000 lives.
And it was the Japanese who chose to campaign there.”

From New Guinea – The Tide is Stemmed by John Vader.

AWM 014001

1943-01-02. Papua, Giropa Point. Australian manned M3 General Stuart tanks attacking Japanese pillboxes in the final assault on Buna. Men of D Company, 2/12th Battalion, fire on 25 Japanese defenders (not seen), using Bren Mk 1 machine guns and SMLE No. 1 Mk 3 rifles, who are fleeing from a wrecked pillbox 150 metres away. The pillbox was destroyed by the General Stuart tank also seen here. In the foreground in the heat of battle are Private J. Searle and Corporal G. G. Fletcher. This photograph was taken by noted war photographer George Silk during the actual fighting.

For the other chapters of Dowsetts War, click here.

The New Guinea campaign of World War 2 was a series of engagements fought between the Japanese Army and the Pacific Allied forces consisting primarily of divisions of the AIF. It began after Japan invaded the Australian-controlled territories of New Guinea and Papua and also conquered western New Guinea, administered by the Netherlands and part of the long history of the Dutch colonial East Indies. It lasted from January 1942 until the end of the war in August 1945.

New Guinea was of strategic importance to Australia at the time, as it represented the last major landmass in the South Pacific region before the Australian mainland that had not yet been invaded and controlled by the Japanese. At this point in 1942, the Allies had the majority of their fighting resources committed to the numerous front throughout Europe and northern Africa, and with the recent attack on Pearl Harbor the United States 3rd fleet (later becoming the 5th) was busy defending their own bases in the Pacific.

This situation meant that in late 1941 and early 1942 the available resources for defending Allied interests in South East Asia and the South Pacific were relatively threadbare. That fact coupled with the slowing progress of the German war machine in Europe – Japan’s ally – meant that the time was right for rapid Japanese expansion through their region. One by one they had fallen to Japan – Manchuria, Burma, Thailand, Malaya, the Philippines, and Singapore. The sights were then set for New Guinea and strategic base of Port Moresby.

AWM 095167

Kiarivu, New Guinea, 8th November 1945 – a 75mm howitzer M1A1 field gun manned by a battery of the 2/1st in position on the emergency landing ground. They are supporting the 2/7 Infantry Battalion troops during their attack against Kiarivu Village.

The 2/1st Anti Tank Regiment, Royal Australian Artillery first fought in New Guinea with the 7th Division in both infantry and artillery roles, during the Battle of Buna–Gona in 1942-43.  This battle was part of the New Guinea campaign fought by the Allies against the Japanese in the Pacific Theatre during World War II.  It followed the conclusion of the Kokoda Track campaign and lasted from 16 November 1942 until 22 January 1943.

My grandfather, NX93909 Royston Percival Dowsett was field battery gunner with the 2/1st Anti Tank Regiment, Royal Australian Artillery. I believe the Australian War Memorial photograph 095167 shown left features him standing centre of shot. This photograph was taken at Kiarivu, New Guinea, on the 8th of November 1945. It shows a 75mm howitzer M1A1 field gun manned by a battery of the 2/1st in position on the emergency landing ground. They are supporting the 2/7 Infantry Battalion troops during their attack against Japanese positions at Kiarivu Village. The gun is being cleaned with a pull through after firing.

The 2/1st returned to New Guinea as part of the 6th Division in late 1944 for the Aitape – Wewak Campaign and subsequent ‘mopping up’ operations, fighting in Maprik, Tazaki and Shiburangu until late 1945.  The Aitape–Wewak campaign was one of the final campaigns of the Pacific Theatre of World War II. Between November 1944 and the end of the war in August 1945, the Australian 6th Division, with air and naval support, fought the Imperial Japanese 18th Army in northern New Guinea.

Roy Dowsett was hospitalised once with dengue and twice with malaria during his time in the fighting in New Guinea, and like many gunners suffered from tinnitus after the war. I have fragmentary memories of a tall, quietly loving gentleman who cared very much for his grandson after losing his beloved wife to cancer the same month I was born. He has been described as reserved but troubled by his experiences in the jungle campaigns of New Guinea which he never spoke of save briefly to his son-in-law, my father, not long before Roy died. He passed away in 1981 in the house he shared with my family and I.

Dowsett’s War, Part 4 – Malaya & Singapore

For the other chapters of Dowsetts War, click here.

While researching the Dowsett family military history I began to notice that sometimes, simple bits of information can suddenly increase in significance once they are put in context.  Particularly, dates and times can hold valuable clues when linked with other key facts.

For example, Douglas Dowsett enlisted in the AIF in New South Wales on the 22nd of July, 1940 – the early stages of the Second World War.  He served as a driver in the 1st Company, Australian Army Service Corps with the 27th Infantry Brigade, which was part of the Australian 8th Division, tasked with defending Singapore in February 1942.

Singapore, Malaya. 15 August 1941. Troops after they have disembarked at Singapore Harbour. Marching centre front is possibly NX51557 Private Aubrey Thomas Stiff, Headquarters, 8th Division.

Australian troop disembarkation at Singapore Harbour, Malaya, 15 August 1941.  AWM 009249/28

The 8th Division consisted of the 22nd and 27th Brigades posted to Malaya in 1941 to assist in the defense of Allied interests there after the rapid capitulation of Thailand as the Japanese advanced through south east Asia towards Singapore and then on to the oil-rich areas of Borneo and Java.  After the loss of the HMS Repulse and HMS Prince of Wales near Kuantan on December 10 1941, the Japanese faced little resistance in launching amphibious assaults on the coast of Malaya.

The Australian brigades went into action first at Gemas and Muar near Kuala Lumpur.  By the 31st of January the Allied forces had fought a rearguard action back through the Malayan peninsula, across the Johor-Singapore Causeway and back into Singapore.  To delay the Japanese advance, Allied engineers blew a 20 metre hole in the Causeway.

From the 8th to the 13th of February elements of the 22nd and 27th Brigades, many of whom had not seen action beforehand, fought a losing battle against the Japanese as they first assaulted Singapore Island via Kranji in the north and progressively pushed to within 5 miles of Singapore’s urban centre.  By the 15th Singapore had fallen, with the Allied forces under the command of Lieutenant-General Arthur Percival capitulating to the Japanese in the largest surrender of British forces in history.  At this point nearly 15,000 Australians soldiers became prisoners of war at Singapore, representing the majority of all Australian prisoners of the Japanese in World War II.  While only comprising even 13 percent of the Allied forces, the 8th Division suffered 73 percent of Allied deaths in the Malaya-Singapore campaign.  During the next three years until the end of the war, many would die in the bitterly inhuman conditions of the Japanese prisoner of war camps and over 2,400 Australian prisoners would die in the Sandakan Death Marches.

According to Doug Dowsett’s service records, he was listed as ‘missing’ in Malaya on 1st April 1942.  This indicates that he probably became separated from his unit around the time of the Singaporean surrender and capture and was then transferred to the notorious Japanese prison camp at Changi.  Doug’s record was subsequently stamped ‘PRISONER OF WAR’ and would not be updated until after the Japanese themselves surrendered.  He was recovered from the Japanese at Changi POW camp on the 8th September 1945 – almost three and a half years later.

Doug’s brother Roy, 8 years his senior, also enlisted to serve in the Second World War.  His enlistment is interesting for two reasons: one, he signed up at the age of 34 when most Australian soldiers were in their twenties; and two, he enlisted at Martin Place in Sydney on the 30th March 1942 – one day before his younger brother went missing over 6,000 kilometres away in Singapore.

Dowsett’s War, Part 3 – Gallipoli

For the other chapters of Dowsetts War, click here.

There is a photograph at the Australian War Memorial (H15117) of a Sergeant Dowsett in Gallipoli, Turkey, in 1915. He kneels, casually, beside an unexploded 8.25 inch Turkish shell which he was in the process of stripping.  I was on the hunt for information on my great grand-uncle Jack Dowsett, who served at Gallipoli – was this evidence of him?

Gallipoli, Turkey. 1915. An 8.25 inch shell which did not explode being stripped by Sergeant Major Dowsett of the AIF.

Gallipoli, Turkey. 1915. An 8.25 inch shell which did not explode being stripped by Sergeant Major Dowsett of the AIF.

The highest rank Jack had achieved, according to his war records, had been Lieutenant so this was unlikely. Who was this other Dowsett that appeared at Gallipoli?  With Australia still having been such a relatively small country at the time, I figured it a good chance that two Dowsetts at Gallipoli could be related – even if unknown to each other.

Once again, searching the National Archives turned up most of the information I needed.  I found the soldier I was looking for, and his digital war records at the Archives were extensive and of high quality.  Sergeant Major David Dowsett of the Royal Field Artillery had enlisted in the 4th Battalion, Field Artillery of the AIF on August 4th, 1914 – just two weeks after Australia entered the Great War along with other nations of the British Empire such as Canada and New Zealand. 

An extensive search through genealogical records also proved that he was a cousin of Jack’s, and my 6th cousin twice removed.  It was another thrilling discovery to make; another Dowsett serving in the First World War – making a total of four in both of the World Wars. All of a sudden, there was a Dowsett family military history stretching out before me.  For a long time I had wanted a story to write about and now I felt compelled and obligated to record these stories, as much as I could know.

Clearly, having ancestors who trod the hallowed battlegrounds of Gallipoli was an immense source of pride.  However, the fact that both men had survived and more to tell was fascinating.  Like most of the soldiers who were evacuated from Gallipoli, other theatres of the Great War awaited them. Jack, as a Lieutenant of the 7th Light Horse, went on to serve in Sinai and Palestine.  David was transferred to the 2nd Field Artillery Brigade and became a Lieutenant in the 21st Howitzer Brigade, seeing action in France and Belgium.

Jack Dowsett survived the Middle East and returned home.

David Dowsett was killed in action during the Battle of Passchendaele, Ypres in 1917.

Dowsett’s War, Part 2

For the other chapters of Dowsetts War, click here.

Once I had the tip from my mother that my great-grandfather may have served in the Boer War, I went hunting for any records.  Sadly, I found no record of him in any of the records at either the National Archives or the War Memorial.  There were, however, other items at the Memorial that related to other Dowsetts, a handful from both of the World Wars.  It didn’t surprise me that there were others, but there were two Dowsetts that both saw active service at Gallipoli so I kept looking around.  There was an Arthur (Jack) Dowsett from a relative’s Ancestry tree that I had seen, and now I had come up with a citation for Jack Dowsett at the Memorial and war records for a J A Dowsett at the Archives.

After sifting through the records for his enlistment details and any family information, comparing data from a few public Ancestry trees to verify home address, parents, birth date and correct first name, it became clear.  Jack Arthur Dowsett, born December 15, 1895 in Paddington NSW, was my great-grand uncle – the brother of Frederick, whom my mother thought may have been a Boer veteran.  I was amazed – Jack had not only enlisted with the legendary Light Horse, he had been at that most infamous of Australian battlegrounds – Gallipoli.  A whole new vista of research into the Great War era had opened up, right at the time the nation was preparing to commemorate the centenary of the Gallipoli landings.

When it came to Gallipoli and World War I in general, I had to admit a naive kind of ignorance.  Sure, like many, I had read many books and seen many films about World War II – almost to the point of over-saturation.  It was an incredibly fast-paced, dynamic, complex and truly global conflict with no end of military and geopolitical angles to consider.  At the time, though, I simplistically viewed World War I as somewhat quaint – not in terms of human loss, of course – in terms of war and military hardware. I could not have been more wrong.

$_35Reading the accounts of the 7th Light Horse in Gallipoli and beyond into Sinai and Palestine also coincided with receiving Anzac Treasures – ‘The Gallipoli Collection of the Australian War Memorial as a Christmas gift from my beautiful wife.  An incredible tome, this book not only photographically displays the Memorial’s Gallipoli Collection but takes the reader on a narrative journey through the time the Australians spent dug-in on that far away peninsula.  As one would expect, the gripping and harrowing stories I was now getting into from this war completely changed my view of it.  No longer seeming quaint, it was now revealed as an epic grind of complex warring alliances giving rise to a modern, rapidly mechanizing type of battle pitching men, metal, gunpowder and chemicals at each other.

Dowsett’s War – Part 1

For the other chapters of Dowsetts War, click here.

A couple of years ago while watching the late news one evening I caught the TV spot for’s free trial membership. Having had more than just a passing interest in my genealogy and heredity since doing a high-school research project on my family tree, I decided to sign up and look into it.  Little did I know an amazing journey into my family history was awaiting me.Ancestry com

In my mid twenties I had spent considerable time reading about the history of my Scottish ancestry through my father’s side. I knew that my paternal grandfather Robert Hay along with his siblings had come from the Portobello area of Edinburgh and had migrated to Australia with their father in 1926. I also knew that my maternal grandfather Roy Dowsett and his brother Doug had served for Australia in World War II.  Beyond that, I knew nothing substantive about either side of my family.

Since being married and seeing the meticulous detail which my wife’s grandmother had applied to recording and collecting the histories of her own and her husband’s family, I had been inspired to make a similar effort in tracing my own ancestral roots and hopefully unearthing and saving something interesting for posterity.

As the information relating to my father’s side was so readily available, I began by entering as many names and dates as I could on my own.  On a subsequent visit to dad’s place one Sunday afternoon, I took along my tablet PC and we spent a couple of hours digging through his memory banks and photo albums.  Within a few weeks I had built a genealogical tree on Ancestry for his side of the family that went all the way back to 1750, uncovering interesting people and stories along the way.  As it turns out, the Hays of Portobello had been potters and had at one stage owned and operated the well-regarded Rosebank Pottery of Edinburgh in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

Part of my research about 10 years earlier had involved ordering physical copies of Roy and Doug Dowsett’s Australian Army service records.  These had already made fascinating reading, particularly on Doug’s part; he had been captured by the Japanese in New Guinea in 1941 and was held as a Prisoner of War until after their surrender in 1945 when he was returned to the Australian Imperial Forces (AIF).  The records were vague in that they did not specify exactly where he had been help prisoner, but family legend had it that it had been the notorious Changi concentration camp.

A few months aftslouch-hat-ww2er filling out dad’s side of the tree somewhat, I turned my attention to my maternal side – the Dowsetts.  On catching up with my mother at this time, I asked if she wouldn’t mind coming over with a few photos and do the same thing I’d done with dad.  I knew, of course, about Doug and Roy in the war.  Mum brought some photos of Roy, including a beautiful portrait in uniform from 1942 and some newspaper clippings from his marriage to Phyllis Anderson.  Just before she left, mum mentioned that she remembered hearing that perhaps Roy’s father had served in the Boer War.  The prospect of another generation of Dowsetts serving in the same force and uncovering the story had me intrigued immediately.

Meanwhile, as I began to collate and organise the wartime history of Roy and Doug Dowsett, I had become quite proficient at using the online resources at the Australian National Archives and the Australian War Memorial.  I realised that amongst Doug’s files was a printed index card, stamped and handwritten in Japanese.  After initially assuming it was merely an unimportant part of the documents relating to his handover to the AIF after the war ended, I decided to take another look.  Searching online for Japanese POW index cards gave me the next step.  The Japanese had been meticulous with their record keeping and had standardised a system across their POW facilities, with a list of codes denoting the locations.  I found the translated location code information and found where Doug had been.  It was Changi, at the notorious Shimo Sonkurai – Hellfire Pass.