Sandakan POW Camp

N. Borneo


I would like to start by thanking all the members of the COFEPOW (Children & Families of Far Eastern Prisoners of War) Association who have written to me with information and help in my quest to discover what actually happened to my great uncle, Cyril Anderton.

This page is dedicated to the memory of

Cyril Anderton (1921-1945)

and to all the people who suffered in Far Eastern Prisoner of War Camps.

William Cyril Anderton
Gunner 1808928
242 Bty., 48 Lt. A.A. Rgt., Royal Artillery

William Cyril Anderton
William Cyril Anderton
(1921-1945) Royal Artillery

My grandmother’s younger brother, Cyril Anderton was 18 years old at the outbreak of the Second World War. As he was the youngest boy in a large family he seems to have been his brothers’ and sisters’ favourite and my father remembers playing games as a child with his young uncle.

Unlike the typical image we tend to have in England of the Second World War as a European War, basically England against Germany, it was of course a World War and this was brought home to our family by the fact that Cyril was posted to the Far East. The family were told that he was taken prisoner by the Japanese at the Fall of Singapore, and sent to a Prisoner of War Camp called Sandakan in North Borneo, from which he was not to return.

The family has never really known what happened to him other than that. And so, as part of my Family History Research, I decided to try to find out more. This article is a summary of how I went about it and what information I have obtained.

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission

I began my research by joining a mailing list at Rootsweb for people researching their family who took part in the Second World War. One of the things which troubled the family was that there was no grave or memorial to Cyril Anderton and that they did not know his final resting place. On the mailing list a number of people recommended the Commonweath War Graves Commission Website. I typed Cyril's name into the Search Facility and to my amazement, up came his number, battery, regiment and that he died on Wednesday, 16th May 1945, aged 23. The Commemorative Information on the Site explained that his name is inscribed on the Kranji War Cemetery Memorial at Singapore which has the names of 24,000 soldiers and airmen of the British Commonwealth and Empire who have no known grave.

British & Commonwealth Prisoners of War
Captured in Java 1942-1945

Next, I discovered Anthea Beckett's
Internet Index to British & Commonwealth POWs
Captured in Java during the Japanese Occupation
It is an index of some 3,800 names, among which I was able to find my great uncle Cyril's. If you write to Anthea with the name of the person you are interested in, she will pass on the details of the sources in which the name appears and a summary of the contents and background about places and events. This is a voluntary service that she very kindly offers free of charge.

The Sparrows

Anthea was able to tell me that Tony Paley, in his book ‘The Sparrows’, published by Self-Publishing Association Ltd 1992, states in the Roll of Honour (p.243) that Gunner W C Anderton came from Wigan, Lancashire and that he died at Sandakan, in Sabah, Borneo.

There are no more details about W C Anderton in Paley’s book, but there is more about the 48 Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment. Paley based his book on personal interviews and research of RA regimental records.

In 1942, 5 Royal Artillery Regiments destined for the Middle East were diverted to Java: 21 LAA Rgt; 35 LAA Rgt; 48 LAA Rgt; and two heavy artillery regiments, the 77 HAA Regiment and the 6 HAA Regiment. Each regiment had 3 or 4 batteries. Cyril was attached to 242 battery.

From this information it seems that Cyril Anderton first landed in the Netherlands East Indies (Indonesia) at Tanjong Priok, Batavia (Jakarta). This is where the entire 48 LAA disembarked on 4 February 1942, having called at Singapore on the way. The same day the regiment was dispersed throughout Java, to defend various airfields against the Japanese assault. 48 LAA Rgt 242 Bty, which Cyril Anderton was attatched to, went to Tjililitan military airfield, W. Java.

The men from 48 LAA Rgt were mostly based in West Java and were imprisoned in that part of the island in due course. Many were then moved down to camps in the vicinity of Batavia (Jakarta), before being shipped overseas by the Japanese.

Forced Labour

What we don't know is exactly how Cyril Anderton came to be in Sandakan, which is in the north-eastern corner of Borneo, in the state of Sabah, but we do know that POWs in Java were shipped to different parts of Asia by the Japanese to be used as forced labour. Some POWs from Java went to Japan, the Burma railway, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Saigon, Borneo, the Moluccas, New Britain ... wherever the Japanese wanted to build a road, a railway, an airfield, work a coal mine, etc. The labour was cheap, it was technically fairly sophisticated, and being prisoners, in the Japanese view there was little obligation to feed, house, clothe or care for the men. They worked literally until they dropped, and were then replaced with another batch of POWs.

So these men were doing very heavy labour in poor living conditions with minimal nutrition and medical care. On top of this came the Japanese mismanagement of the Indonesian economy - they drew oil from the country, removed railway lines and stock to Burma, but neglected the crops and trade to the extent that by the end of 1945 Java, one of the richest agricultural countries in the world, was devastated by a truly horrendous famine. It is estimated that in 1944-1945 over 2 million Javanese died of starvation.

The famine was immediately felt by POWs as well, and the food ration was cut and cut again. Even in relatively normal conditions, the food ration for POWs and internees was meagre. A man fit for heavy labour was allowed three mugs of dried rice a day. For those with malaria etc who could only do light work, the ration was two mugs. For the sick in hospital the issue was one. During the famine, most were on the verge of total starvation.

It is notable that the death rate among POWs soared during 1945 and remained high even after the Japanese capitulation. Anthea's database lists many POWs who died only a few weeks before the Allies landed.

The death rate amongst POWs in Sandakan was particularly high. Anthea's database holds the names of 83 men from the 48 LAA Regiment alone, who died at Sandakan between March and July 1945.

Death Marches

It seems that the Japanese were terrified of an attack on the area by the Australians, and feared that the POWs would rise en masse in support. They therefore force-marched the Sandakan POWs into the interior, trying to make for Ranau, where more prisoners were held. The POWs were already in no condition to face such a march. Conditions were appalling, it was truly a death march, and POWs died by the score along the track.

In many cases their graves are unmarked and lost, and these men are now commemorated on the Singapore Memorial in Kranji War Cemetery, where the names are engraved of all men whose last resting places are unknown. The regiments and batteries did their best to keep records, however, and in most cases the date of death was noted, even if the resting place is unknown. Such an apparent anomaly arises frequently with Far Eastern POWS, many of whom died in the jungle or at sea and therefore have no known burial place.

This is clearly what happened to Cyril Anderton. Whether he died in camp at Sandakan and was buried in the jungle, or died on the forced march is not known. But he does not, it seems, lie in Labuan War Cemetery, where the other Borneo POWs are buried. Instead, his name is inscribed on the Kranji Park Memorial at Singapore.

Children & Families of Far Eastern Prisoners of War

After this I got in touch with "Children & Families of Far Eastern Prisoners of War" (COFEPOW). They passed my letter on to their members who wrote to me to share their own families' experiences and gave me information and suggestions about how to go about researching what happened at Sandakan Camp.

Steve contacted me to say that his father, LAC Leslie Mockridge RAF was the only British other rank to have spent time at the camp and survive WWII. He was captued in Java, then on to Changi Goal, Singapore then to Borneo, Jessleton, Sandakan and finally Kuchig.

He expalined that the Japaneses kept records of the dead (as did the POWs) but often the causes of death were falsified by the Japaneses. He said he believes that most records are in Australia at the Public Record offices.

Richard Goring in Essex wrote to me with more information. Sandakan became one of the most notorious Japanese POW camps. The British inhabitants were mostly Royal Artillery and RAF personnel from Singapore or Java. They were 'employed' in building an airfield (in direct contravention of the POW convention, although the Japanese, in fact had not signed it). There was also a large group of about 1,400 Australian Infantry Force men, with a further 500 added later. Due to malnutrition, beatings, the work, tropical diseases etc, there were regular deaths among the prisoners.

With the tide of war turning against them, and the probability that an allied invasion of Borneo island would take place around the north-east corner, most of the prisoners at Sandakan were marched through difficult jungle terrain to the western side. They went in a series of parties, the 'fittest' going first and the weakest last. They had been worked hard and poorly fed, so many were in poor condition. More than a few died on these infamous 'Death Marches'. Those who could not keep up were executed.

He told me about two excellent books which cover Sandakan. "Kill the Prisoners" and "A conspiracy of Silence".

Kill the Prisoners!

From Don Wall's book "Kill the Prisoners!" it looks possible that Cyril Anderton was buried in Brunei. Joan Chesters wrote to me to say that her brother, L.G. Batty appears on the same page in the book, and was in the same company as my great uncle.

'Kill the Prisoners', by Don Wall, self-published (98 Darley Street West, Mona Vale, NSW 2103, Australia, 1996, ISBN 0-646278-34-7) concentrates on the British forces and includes a diary which Lt Peter Lee RAF kept at the time and managed to conceal until August 1943 when he was transferred to Kuching with other RAF officers. The book has casualty rolls, including the 548 men who died when the prison ship 'Suez Maru' on which they were being transported was sunk by a US sub, 'the Bonefish' (the Japanese had not broadcast that the ship carried POWs - about half the prisoners survived the sinking but were shot in the water by the Japanese escort minesweeper).

When the British officers left Sandakan there were 1793 Australians and 641 British but by the end of the war, only 6 Australians had survived by escaping during the 165 mile "Death Marches" to Ranau.

At Sandakan the British were in a separate camp to the Australians with no communications allowed between them, so there is no account of the British prisoners after the officers left, however we can imagine that they suffered the same conditions as those described by the Australian prisoners.

A Conspiracy of Silence

John L Hyde and many others wrote to me to recommend a book that was written in 1998 by Lynette Ramsay Silver, "Sandakan: A Conspiracy of Silence" published by Sally Milner Publishing (1423 Burra Road, Burra Creek, NSW 2620), ISBN 1-86351-223-3.

Although this book deals primarily with the experiences of the Australian forces at Sandakan, the British are certainly not overlooked. Again there are nominal rolls - the entry for Cyril Anderton reads: W C Anderton, British Army, POW no. 2375, age 23, died 16th May 1945 at Sandakan no. 1 camp, supposedly of malaria, buried Sandakan no. 2 camp. His remains probably now lie in the Commonwealth War Cemetery at Victoria, Pulau Labuan, Federal Territory, Malaysia. This information is based on Japanese reports (not the most trustworthy) & Australian investigation.

The back cover of Lyn Silver's book contains this chilling note:- "It is August 1945 and World War 2 is over... Of the 2434 prisoners incarcerated by the Japanese at the Sandakan POW camp, only six, all escapees, have survived"

Stephen kindly wrote to me with the following information: "This Australian author has comprehensively researched the locations of graves for those who died at Sandakan and on the death marches". He told me, "From this information you can feel confident that although your great uncle's actual grave is unknown, hence his name on the Singapore Memorial, he has in fact a grave at Lauban and did received a Christian burial at least once, possibly twice, when his remains were moved to this cemetery after the war. His resting place will be one of the 93 graves marked ‘Known Only Unto God’

Stephen went on to say that "Regarding Singapore, you will probably be surprised to know that in fact your great uncle was captured in Java in March 1942 with his regiment. As a prisoner of war he was later transported in a work party to Singapore in September 1942 from where this party was despatched to Borneo a few weeks later."

Sandakan Memorial

John Bessant, who was instrumental in getting a dedication plaque erected in the Royal Artillery Garrison Church in Larkhill, Wiltshire, was kind enough to write me a long letter with all the information he could give me.

His father was in the RAF stationed in Singapore when it fell in February 1942. The family heard nothing from him until April 1943 when he was reported as a POW at Sandakan. When John retired in 1988 he started to research his family history and try to find out what had happened to his father in Sandakan and in the period he was unaccounted for.

John pointed out to me that there is some discrepancy between the two books "Kill the Prisoners!" and "Sandakan - A Conspiracy of Silence" as regards what happened to my great uncle Cyril Anderton.

While Don Wall's book states that he died when some of the prisoners were sent to Labuan and then returned to Brunei (no survivors), Lynette Ramsey Silvers book says that he died in Sandakan Camp I and was buried at Sandakan Camp II.

Both authors obtained their information from Australian War Records and we can assume that they obtained this from the Japanese Records which cannot be relied on as they are known to have given false dates and causes of death in order to cover up the murders they committed.

John told me about Lieut. Geoff Threadgold of 242 Bty 48 LAA Royal Artillery, who would have been one of my uncle Cyril's officers. Geoff was one of the officers at Sandakan who were tranferred to Kuching, he and Peter Lee (who wrote the diary) became great friends.

In Australia there are six Sandakan Memorials dedicated both to Australian and British victims. There was nothing, however in Britain, until John Bessant got together with Geoff Threadgold and Bryan Knitten (whose uncle was also with 242 Bty 48 LAA) who designed a Memorial Plaque which is now displayed at the Royal School of Artillery Garrison Church. A Memorial Service was also held at the Church on Sunday 18th April 1999.

Service Record

Beryl Canwell of Norwich wrote to tell me that I may be able to obtain my great uncle's service record from:

The Royal Artillery Association,
Artillery House,
Front Parade,
Royal Artillery Barracks,
London SE18 4BH.

Tel: 020 8781 3003 or 020 8317 3180.

Her uncle (who was in 144 Bty 35 LAA RA), sadly died when a party of 600 left Singapore to build an air strip in the Solomon Islands. Only 18 of these survived - the remainder died through illness, Allied bombing strikes or, the ones that were left when the air strip was finished, massacred by the Japanese. She said that they obtained very little from the British Ministry of Defence in London but the Australians were superb and the address to get further information was:-

Commonwealth Department of Veterans' Affairs,
Office of Australian War Graves,
13 Keltie Street,
ACT 2606,

She said that the Australians had helped them so much and they were very grateful to them.

I should very much like to thank the following people who have helped me to find information in order to write this article, if I have missed out any names I hope all those who wrote to me will consider themselves as thanked on behalf of myself and my family:

John Bessant
Carol Cooper
Richard Goring
Gillian & Ron Taylor
Anthea Beckett
Beryl Canwell
Joan Chesters
John L. Hyde

Read a very detailed account about:

The Sandakan POW Camp

On the Australian Department of Veterans' Affairs Website

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