War Story of William Dickenson

Corporal William Dickenson (Dick) 5831087 of the 4th Battalion, Suffolk Regiment, lives in New Close Road, Little Thetford.

He was conscripted on 15th March 1940, and was sent to Gibraltar Barracks, Bury St. Edmunds. He then spent six weeks on the Square in the Barracks, followed by three months training on a Bren gun on a Carrier Tank. The 4th Battalion then moved around to Lodden, Norfolk; Gorleston, Norfolk; St. Neots, Cambridgeshire; Hawick, Scotland; Bury, Greater Manchester; Hereford, then finally on to Liverpool.

Dick represented the 4th Battalion at running, cricket, and football.

Dick is 4th from the left in the back row

On 29th October 1941 the Battalion left Liverpool on RMS Andes. They crossed the Atlantic to Halifax, Nova Scotia, where the American Navy took them under their wing and together with other British Regiments they boarded the USS Wakefield. They became part of 18th Infantry Division, and departed on 12th December 1941 for Bombay (Mumbai) via Trinidad, and Cape Town. In India they had three weeks training where Dick played cricket against Ahmanger town.

Dick became ill in India with dysentery and stayed in hospital whilst the whole 18th Infantry Battalion moved to Singapore. On 29th January 1942 he sailed with Singapore Convoy BM12 on the HMS Empress of Asia to Singapore (Sultan Shoal Lighthouse). On the 5th February 1942 the ship was bombed and set on fire. Dick was in the front of the ship and he abandoned ship. He was in the water for four hours before being rescued by the Australian Corvette HMAS Yarra.

Dick was then able to rejoin the Battalion in Singapore, when the Japanese troops were advancing down the Malaya Peninsula. The Japanese invaded Singapore at night on the 8th February 1942. The 4th Battalion of Suffolk Regiment was sent into action. The Japanese had sunk the unsinkable HMS Prince of Wales and the HMS Repulse. The Suffolk’s had no tanks and no air cover. An advanced party of the Carrier platoon went to Bukit Timor and then to Swiss Hill overlooking the Golf Course. They went up the hill in the jungle only to find the Japanese at the top, who were waiting in ambush. The party lost 2‑3 men and had to retreat. Action took place on the Golf Course, Mac Richie Reservoir and Thompson Village. They took “one hell of a beating”. They ended up at Mount Pleasant where they were told to ceasefire at 4 pm 15th February 1942. (see for example Battle for Singapore)

As POWs they became slave labour. On the 15th February they were herded into tennis courts and searched. All valuables, watches, pens and rings were taken. On the 17th February 1942 they were marched to Changi Prison Camp, some 17 miles away. There were thousands of prisoners of war there. After three weeks the Japanese were looking for people with building experience. Dick had none but volunteered anyway. On 13th March 3-4000 marched out through crowds of locals waving Japanese flags and jeering. It rained all day. Going through River Valley they were up to their knees in mud. No food provided. They then worked on a ship yard at Kepple Harbour. They had to adapt to the Japanese way of life and orders. It was rather brutal. They then started repairing the nurses’ and doctors’ quarters at the Alexander Hospital. The Japanese had murdered the doctors and nurses at the hospital and there was blood all around.

In June 1942 Dick was put in the hold of a ship with hundreds of other. They all got sick so they were marched back to River Valley Camp. In December 1942 Dick contracted Dengue Fever and was sent back to Changi Prison Camp to the hospital hut. This saved his life as others from the camp were marched out to get on a ship. He never saw them again.

In River Valley Camp on 24th April 1943, 7,500 men were told to go to Thailand on cattle trucks. After 4-5 nights they arrived at Bam Phong where they had to march to Kanchanaburi for 2 nights. They then had to march up the river to Nikki some 210 miles north-west. 7,500 men started marching when they returned to Changi there were only 2,000 men left alive. They started working on the Burma Siam Railway.

Dick became ill and came down the river on a barge and then on a train back to Kanchanaburi in October 1943.

The Burma Siam Railway was finished in October 1943.

Dick worked in the hospital at Kanchanaburi Cemetery. Most dead soldiers were cremated. Dick helped with the cremation. He said the Japanese made a joke of how long it would take for all prisoners to go to the cemetery. There are 6,982 POWs buried there, mostly Australian, British and Dutch. At Kanchanaburi, Dick got beaten up badly by a Japanese soldier, whilst on a working party. He felt like hitting back, but knew that this would have resulted in his execution. He was beaten several times in the prison camps.

In the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery another soldier from Little Thetford is buried — Alfred Yarrow. Private 5835326, 5th Battalion, Suffolk Regiment, died in captivity Sunday 27th June 1943, aged 23. He was the son of Laura Yarrow, of Little Thetford, Cambridgeshire.

Eventually Dick was taken back to Singapore in December 1943. He arrived just before Christmas. Dick said going to Changi Prison felt like going home. An American POW said they looked terrible and asked where they had been.

In early 1944 Dick was taken to Kranji Sick Camp . This is saved him from going on the “Hell Ships” to Japan. In May 1945 the Japanese put all POWs into Changi in cells. Dick slept with three others. Conditions got tough and there was a lack of food and a lot of illness. Dick worked in the garden. The War ended in August 1945. The Japanese said they were going home in August 1945, but they stayed until September, when they surrendered at Sentosa in September 1945. Dick was ill in Alexander Hospital when the surrender came.

Dick left Singapore from Saleta Airport in a Sunderland Flying boat. The flight was very cold, and he covered himself with sacks. He went first to Madras, India. He then transferred to Bangalore Hospital where nurses fed him well and he increased in weight from 6 to 11 stone.

Dick is on the top right of photo in Bangalore hospital

Dick is on the top right of photo in Bangalore hospital

Dick left India in a hospital ship and arrived back in England in December 1945. He arrived back in Cambridgeshire on 20th December 1945.

Dick celebrating VE day in Little Thetford May 1995