Civilians & evacuees stories

There are three parties to every conflict -  the victors – the vanquished and often neglected by governments and historians – the victims.

These are the widows and orphans, men and women whose homes, communities and livelihoods are wrecked beyond reconstruction.  War blasts through their lives and when like a destructive tidal wave it recedes  they are left sometimes literally picking up the pieces.

In 1942 some of the civilian population of Malaya believed that a Japanese invasion would liberate them from the yoke of  British colonial rule – they would then become part of the Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere'.  It was an idea that had been fostered by the Japanese even before the first troop ships appeared off the north east coast.  The reality would be very different.  The British may have been autocratic and arrogant but under the Japanese Malays would be regarded as second class beings.  Opposition was brutally crushed and with Japan locked in a long war with China ethnic Chinese in Malaya would be seen as potential enemies.



For the Europeans in Malaya the Japanese invasion was even more traumatic they were herded into “Civil Assembly Areas” - internment camps with rudimentary facilities.  The British and European civilians who had fled south through Malaya had made their way by boat and vehicle to the perceived safety of Singapore.  Following the week long battle the British and Australian garrison was forced to surrender.  British civilians and soldiers captured during the campaign in Malaya and Singapore were concentrated on Singapore Island. There were a number of camps at Changi, the military were initially detained in the old Royal Artillery Barracks at Changi Point. The civilians were detained in the prison constructed in 1936 ― a grim grey concrete walled and turreted gaol which was demolished in 2004. Contemporary evidence suggests that there was no contact between the Women's Camp and the Men's. The 'civilian' inmates were moved out of Changi Gaol in May 1944 to a camp at Sime Road, supplanting military prisoners and because Changi Goal was required for military prisoners who had survived building the Burma Railway. As Sime Road was larger more people were interned, these included the British Jewish community of Singapore. Some people of mixed nationality described as 'Eurasian' were released in the summer of 1942 by Japanese authorities. Despite these privations the human spirit survived and early in 1945, a small group of boys and girls secretly sat for the Cambridge School Certificate Examination at Sime Road Camp. This examination was organised by R. Cheeseman, former Deputy Director for Education in the Straits Settlements. Six students passed and obtained the School Certificate that year.



The island of Borneo had been administered by the Dutch and British before the war.  With the capture of Borneo Lintang camp (also known as Lintang Barracks and Kuching POW camp) in Kuching, Sarawak was selected as both a POW and internment camp by the Japanese. They expanded the camp to accommodate more POWs and internees. The camp population varied over time as the POWs were moved for various work assignments and because of mistreatment began to die. At its peak, the camp held about 3,000 prisoners. Conditions in the camp steadily deteriorated s the war progressed. There was inadequate food and the limited stock of medication soon ran out. The POWs and male internees were forced to do forced labour under the most brutal conditions. The internees only had the clothing they arrived with which had to do until they were liberated. About 2,000 British POWs were held in the camp. Only about one-third survived the brutal condition. The POWs managed to build a radio in secret (February 1943). They were thus able to follow the war news. It was a closely guarded secret as those involved would have been executed by the Japanese. While Japanese surrendered (August 15), the Allies did not get to the camp until (September 11). Men of the Australian 9th Division who liberated the camp found 2,024 starving prisoners,including 1,392 PoWs and 632 civilian internees (395 men and 237 women and children), mostly English. The Australian Intelligence Officers found death orders among the camp papers. The spelled out the method of execution of every and entailed the murder of every PoW and civilian internee in the camp,including the women and children. The first order scheduled the execution for August 17-18. It was not carried out, presumably because Japan surrendered. But then Japanese officials after the surrender repeated their order which was scheduled for September 15 with slightly changed murder methods. The Japanese were preparing to follow the orders when the Australians arrived just in time to save the POWs and internees.  An Australian war crimes investigation team worked in Kuching until January 1946. As a result of their work, more than 70 of the of 120 guards were found to have committed crimes, many of them multiple crimes. This of course was what the murder orders were designed to conceal.


Dayak Resistance
The Japanese did not intern the Indonesians and indigenous people. They did, however, treat them terribly. There were numerous massacres of the Malay and Dayak peoples ,especially the Dayaks of the Kapit Division in Sarawak. The Japanese were hated by the Dayak and other tribal groups. They were horrified by the murder of the missionaries who had converted many and to which they felt close, The Japanese also seized crops and animals without compensation and abused the younger women. As a result the tribes hid downed US aircrew from the Japanese even though it would have meant terrible retribution if the airmen were discovered. And when the British flew in a special forces team, thousand of Dayak from the Kapit Division trained to conduct guerilla warfare. They reportedly killed or captured some 1,500 Japanese soldiers. One recruiting tool was allowing them to keep and display the heads of Japanese they killed. The Dayak and other tribes were renowned for head hunting before it was outlawed by the British and Dutch. They also provided valuable intelligence to help the Australians retake the oil fields at the end of the War.


Heroism and survival

This war in the Far East is full of remarkable stories of self sacrifice and survival but among them the story of the nurses of 65 Australian Army Nursing Service (AANS) nurses is remarkable.  They had been ordered to sail from Singapore on board the Vyner Brooke  and left on 12 February 1942 . Two days later, and within half an hour of Sumatra, their ship was bombed and sunk. Twelve of the nurses were drowned or killed in the water and the rest struggled ashore on Banka Island - some having spent over 60 hours in the water. On Radji Beach, Japanese soldiers ordered 22 of the nurses and one civilian woman into the sea where they were machine-gunned.

Only one of the women, Sister Vivienne Bullwinkel, survived and she lay in the water until the troops had left. Unable to survive in the jungle, she later surrendered and was interned with her colleagues on Banka Island and later on Sumatra for the remainder of the war. They experienced shocking living conditions and eight of these army nurses died during captivity. 

After the Japanese surrender of 15 August 1945, Australian war correspondent Hayden Lennard began searching for the nurses. By following a number of leads from local villagers he eventually located them in their camp at Loebok Linggau.  Only 24 were found alive and rescued on 16 September 1945

On 23 October 1945, the hospital ship Manunda docked at Fremantle. On the wharf were hundreds of waving and cheering people including Matron-in-Chief Annie Sage of the Australian Army Nursing Service.

The surviving 24 AANS nurses had come home...



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