To commemorate the 75th anniversary of Victory over Japan on the 15th of August 2020 we present a guest blog by Simon Burgess, Capt. Read’s great grandson.
During World War 2, Richard Read was a prisoner of war, captured by the Japanese at the fall of Singapore on the 15th February 1942. He, with nearly 150,000 mainly British, Australian and New Zealander (but also Indian and Dutch) troops became a prisoner of war. Winston Churchill called it the ‘worst disaster and largest capitulation in British history’. There followed over three and a half years of brutality and exploitation for Read and his fellow POWs. Those taking part in the Far East campaign were known as the Forgotten Army, as for those back home the more immediate threat to their lives was the war in Europe.
Richard George Read was a Captain in the Royal Artillery. He had already spent 25 years in the Royal Artillery before World War 2 began.
He joined the Army aged 14 in 1914. During the First World War he spent time in France with the British Expeditionary Force (BEF). After the war he was posted overseas, spending time in Palestine and Egypt. He spent nearly a decade in Egypt; it was there that he met Daisy Preston, a nanny, at the Abbassia Army Barracks School, Cairo. He and Daisy married in the British Consulate in Cairo in 1927 and within a year his eldest daughter, Eileen, was born. The family returned to Britain in 1930. Richard was with ‘F’ Battery Royal Horse Artillery at this time, before a posting to Mid Wales (Cardigan Battery) allowed him to settle with his family in Aberystwyth. The family home was in Llangawsai, Llanbadarn Fawr. By now a Battery Quartermaster Sergeant, he was awarded his Long Service Medal in January 1936, before leaving in 1938.
Richard re-enlisted just prior to the outbreak of the Second World War, as a Lieutenant (QM) in the Territorial Army in Aberystwyth and Cardigan, at first with the 102nd (which later became 146th Regiment) Royal Artillery, and was promoted to Captain during this period.
In 1941 he decided to relinquish his Captain’s rank to join the 118th Field Regiment Royal Artillery as Lieutenant again, perhaps because this Unit was due to be shipped to the Middle East and he wanted to ‘do his duty’ in action. Forming part of the 18th Division, the 118th Field Regiment, Royal Artillery departed the UK in late 1941, expecting to travel to the Middle East.
However, the war against Japan in the Far East was not going well and Churchill decided to deploy the 18th Division to Singapore. Initially spending two weeks in India for some rushed and last minute training, it arrived in Singapore at the end of January 1942 when the battle was already virtually lost.
The Division landed during air raids on Singapore harbour and many men disembarked without the right equipment and very little training for Far East warfare. Within two weeks on the 15th February 1942 Singapore had surrendered to the invading Japanese.
The Japanese had refused to sign up to the Geneva Convention and many of the camp guards were notorious for their acts of cruelty to their prisoners. The interpretation of the Japanese honour code Bushido which was used in the training of Japanese troops during WWII meant that men who surrendered were considered beneath contempt, and resulted in guards regarding their prisoners as unworthy of humane treatment.
Read kept a diary, and managed to write entries for most of his incarceration. His diaries make for some harrowing reading: prisoners were used as slave labour on the infamous ‘Death Railway’ built by the POWs between Burma and Thailand, in mines and in Japan or its invaded territories. Tales of hardship, starvation, beatings and death fill his diary. Richard entered weighing 12st 10lbs but by the time of his release was down to 7st 10lbs, a reduction of 40%.
Many prisoners died as a result of malnutrition, starvation or tropical diseases. The heavy workload also took its toll. During his 3 ½ years as a prisoner of war Captain Read was mainly held at Changi POW camp in Singapore, and there is a photograph in his collection showing the prisoners on a ‘work party’ accompanied by Japanese guards.
These work parties were used initially to clear up after the surrender. Photographs of this type were created as propaganda by the Japanese in order to illustrate to the outside world how well they were treating their prisoners.
Families back in Britain were unaware of the fate of their loved ones held by the Japanese, many assuming the worst after years of no contact.
The first letter Captains Read’s wife Daisy received from her husband was sent from Singapore and dated 31st January 1942 but did not arrive until 10th August 1944.
Discipline in the camps was harsh and attempts at escape were met with violence, some ending in firing squad or beheadings. One incident was known as the ‘Selerang Barracks Incident’ which started on 30 August 1942 as a result of the Japanese recapturing four POWs who had attempted an escape.
The Japanese required that the other 17,000 prisoners in the camp sign a pledge never to attempt to escape again. After they refused, the POWs were forced to crowd in the barrack square for nearly five days with little water and no sanitation. This failed to break the men; however, the prisoners’ commanding officer realised that the dire conditions would soon lead to more loss of life through disease, lack of water and starvation. He instructed the men to sign the pledge, which they all eventually did, though many did so using false names. The Japanese later took the four men who had attempted to escape to the nearby beach area and shot them by firing squad.
Incidents like this badly affected those who were fortunate enough to survive. Up to a third who returned home suffered what is now known as PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). At that time mental health problems were often hushed up or brushed under the carpet, meaning many prisoners were left to deal with these issues on their own, and families often had to deal with the aftermath.
Captain Read suffered from beri-beri and dyspepsia during his time in Changi, being bed-bound for the last few months. Beriberi is a disease caused by a vitamin B-1 deficiency, also known as thiamine deficiency. Dyspepsia (indigestion) can be an early sign of intestinal or stomach cancer, of which he eventually died in September 1946.
Gaps in his diary entries and subsequent notes show he was sometimes delirious or too poorly to write. The Japanese never gave the POWs any medical treatment; the prisoners themselves organised their own ‘hospitals’ with many men enduring medical procedures without anaesthetic or even the most basic of equipment. Prisoners suffered the effects of poor diet, malnutrition and tropical diseases including malaria and devastating epidemics of cholera. The efforts of their medical comrades undoubtedly saved thousands of lives.
It was only when Captain Read was shipped to India in autumn 1945 that he started to recover and gain weight.
Many of the sickest prisoners could not be shipped home immediately and so were taken initially to hospitals in India or Australia ; some even went home via the USA and Canada. On his return to Southampton R. G. Read travelled aboard the SS ‘Llandovery Castle’.
On his arrival home to Aberystwyth on 1st December of that year he was greeted off the train by the Mayor and town dignitaries. An article was published in the Cambrian News giving an account of his homecoming.
Later, he briefly joined the Amphibious Training Wing in Tywyn in 1946, but sadly never really recovered from his poor treatment as a POW and died at Chester Military Hospital in September 1946. He left behind his wife Daisy and two daughters, Eileen and Mary. He is commemorated on the Llanbadarn Fawr War Memorial.