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April 23, 2019

Hidden Treasures – Roy Lascelles

Born 20 April 1918, Roy Lascelles is one of our oldest residents, celebrating his 101st birthday this April. Roy’s life began during World War 1, when the Allies were fighting the Germans in the Spring Offensive in Flanders. On the Armistice of that war he was a bouncing six month old baby. In World War II he was a young man, an engineer in the 2/6th Field Company, serving in North Africa, the Middle East and the Pacific until he became a Prisoner Of War of the Japanese. He was put to work on the infamous Thai-Burma Railway until his release at the end of the war. This is his story…

By early 1939 the smell of yet another world war was in the air. Being 20, I could see where this would head for me, so I joined the Militia to give myself a bit of training. I joined the AIF the following year and, being a structural steel draftsman, was put into the engineers: the 2/6 Field Company, 7th Division Engineers.

We marched from Sydney to Bathurst to build up foot strength and to rally the nation, dawdling along between towns but donning full kit and marching through town centres at attention. Townsfolk came out in the hundreds and thousands, lining the streets and clapping along to the marching band. It was quite something. Along the way we were billeted out into homes and fed hot breakfasts. At Katoomba there was even a ball in the local hall! It was quite a spectacle.

Katoomba, August 1940

We sailed from Sydney to Bombay via Freemantle on the gracious Queen Mary, escorted by HMAS Perth, the first portent of danger ahead. The battleship’s presence was both comforting and ominous. HMAS Perth escorted us halfway across the Indian Ocean before passing into the hands of a British escort for the remainder of the journey. Its departure felt like the stripping away of the last piece of home. Up we went onto the deck, every single soldier. A huge battle ensign flew from the mast and the Perth’s whole crew, dressed in white, lined the rails of the destroyer. The brass band played on the foredeck and as they steamed past us they whipped their hats off and cheered. We cheered back! It was a beautiful, emotional farewell.

On we steamed to Bombay and then onto a smaller boat to take us up the Suez Canal (again with convoy) and into Egypt, where we disembarked at night. From there we were put into railway cattle trucks and sent up to Palestine were we trained in specific skills such as celestial navigation, and general drills as well. In Palestine we waited, not knowing where we would be sent. But we didn’t have to wait long. We were whipped out of Palestine and trucked through Egypt to join the 6th Division on their first push west. They succeeded and we made it into Tobruk the day after it fell with the job of putting out [oil] fires (which could only be done by blowing them up), getting the water desalination plant operating and repairing the roads. In the stores left by the Italians we found a large stash of mineral water which we proceeded to wash in, brush our teeth with, make our tea with and do our laundry in, bottle after bottle. The irony of the indulgence was not lost on us dusty desert engineers.

Getting around in Egypt

We pushed west through Derna to Benghazi, working on roads and bridges along the way. At Benghazi we tried to make the harbour work after it had been blown up. But we were also dealing with the reality that we were strung out as far as supplies were concerned. Rommel landed, vowing to get to Egypt, and the retreat was on, racing back to Tobruk, where the rats dug in to defend the port town, thence back to Palestine. From our base in Palestine we were to be sent to Greece, but it fell to the Germans before we could get there. So we invaded Syria, to stem Hitler’s hunger for the Persian Gulf. In Syria we built bridges, removed mines, re-roofed houses and eventually moved to a mountain village outside Beirut where we camped in a pine plantation.

Demolished bridge

By 1942 the Pacific War was in full swing with the Japanese and we were shipped back in haste. Our destination was Burma but by the time we reached Colombo it had fallen. From Colombo we sailed for Singapore but before we got across the Bay of Biscay, such was the speed of the Japanese front that it had fallen as well. We changed tack and headed for the southern end of Sumatra in the hope we would get there first. At Oosthaven, the Dutch met us on the wharf only to tell us it was futile – the Japanese were 40 miles away and it was not a good idea to land. We argued but eventually turned back to the ship. To Batavia we sailed, coming ashore so that the ship could be filled with fleeing civilians. In Batavia we manned an airfield, patrolling the rice paddies at night and dodging the overhead enemy bombs. We were sent to Java to bomb a bridge in order to thwart the Japanese advance. At this point, having raced from the other side of the world to fight the Japanese advance and having persistently attempted to stay ahead of the enemy, we were told the Dutch had capitulated and therefore, we were told to lay down our arms. We did not surrender, we were surrendered. Thus our war took an abrupt turn, leaving us feeling we’d been left out on a limb. Rumour had it there was a ship on the coast waiting to pick us up, so we headed into the jungle straight for the coast. But there was no such ship, and we were picked up in the jungle and ordered to put down our arms. We were put on a train and taken to a local jail, then into a military camp for a few weeks along with other POWs, among them seamen from the USS Housten. We heard their tale of being torpedoed and sunk in the Sunda Strait, of being only one of two allied ships remaining to attack the Japanese fleet. We learned with horror that the other ship, also torpedoed and sunk, was the HMAS Perth, the same ship and crew that had farewelled us in the Indian Ocean two years earlier.

So, with our new friends, we set about sabotaging the Japanese effort in any way we could. We were put to work on the aerodrome, stacking petrol drums. We managed to put a nail in the sole of our boot, kicking them along and putting a leak in them as we did it. When cleaning the store and stacking kerosene tins we found a steel beam with a sharp edge to it. One by one we’d slam the tins on the beam, denting them and rendering them useless. We had the support of the locals as well, who would relay BBC news reports to us, sending messages for us when they were in town and throwing cigarettes over the fence to us.

One day we were taken to the port, loaded into the hold of some ships and sent to Singapore. Conditions were terrible, particularly as many of us, myself included, were suffering from dysentery. We were sent via Changi Barracks to Bangoon, Burma. We were now workers on the railway, the lowest of the low. The Japanese demanded we sign a document promising not to escape which, of course, we refused to sign. From here we were trucked to our first camp and put to work. We worked on the line for 18 months, chopping trees, digging with pick and shovel, bridging gaps with teak posts. At times we had elephants to help us which was invaluable as most of us had tropical diseases and cholera. The food got less, the rice got less. On the rare occasion we had meat it was crawling with maggots, which we just washed off and ate. Vegetables were a thing of the past. Our bodies shrivelled and cracked due to lack of vitamins: split mouths, split tongues, the corners of our eyes cracked and bled. Our skin dried and scaled. The dysentery was endemic. By the time we got to the last camp I’d gone from 12 stone 6 to 6 stone 12 and I had developed night blindness. To visit the latrine at night was necessary, horrific and required assistance. I was not terribly happy.

A bridge they built on the Burma Railway

When the line was finished they emptied most of the camp into Thailand. I went to a camp next to the Bridge over the River Kwai and from there to a hospital camp from April to December 1944. With careful eating I managed to put a bit of weight back on and was sent back to Tamokan, where I was able to meet up with my mates. We laboured on the bridge with Japanese engineers and guards. They didn’t mix well. The guards were often Korean and the engineers were usually Japanese, some were even educated at Oxford. If you could communicate with them you could sometimes get on their wavelength but if they didn’t speak English there was no hope of getting along. At Tamokan we built a timber bridge because the steel one had been bombed by the Allies. We built that bridge five times because every time we finished, it was bombed. Not only that, we had to work at night time.

Finally, we were moved south to Pett Burry where we walked into camp and were told to build an airstrip. By this time I had suffered more than 30 attacks of malaria and my health was in tatters. It was a better camp, more organised, with a well for water, a little bit more food and even one delivery of Red Cross parcels. We received butter (12 people to a pound) and a small tin of fish paste to every 12 men. Here we stayed until the end of the war, building and completing the airstrip which was tested out by a Japanese zero fighter plane. The pilot came in, landing successfully, and walked into camp. He spoke English. I took the opportunity of asking him where he had flown. He said he was a night time reconnaissance pilot over Sydney before they sent the submarines into the Harbour. I said “what did Sydney look like to you when you saw it?” and he said “It was beautiful, all glittering lights.” That was an interesting observation considering the city was meant to be under blackout conditions.

Receiving Jungle Greens

Work continued. One day the Japanese were playing up. I was in charge of a working party and the Japanese were being unusually aggressive and causing a lot of damage to our men. I spoke to their boss to see what he could do and was stunned when he said “you won’t have to put up with it much longer, a couple of days at most”. News spread like fire. We didn’t know it but the Japanese had just heard about the atomic bomb and were taking it out on our men. The very next day no one turned up to make us work. The same happened the following day. And that is how the war ended for us, two or three days after the official cessation of hostilities. The first thing we did was get the keys to the storeroom. Inside, filled to the brim, were Red Cross parcels, rice supplies and food. The camp went wild! It was so emotional, I can’t explain it. I got very teary, everyone was shaking hands, slapping backs, hugging each other. I caught the most incredible cold of all things, which I put down to the sheer emotion of finding out we had survived, we had made it to the end. Parcels, food and clothing were dropped to us and, for the first time we were kitted out in jungle greens. We had parades to let the Japanese know they had not beaten us; they had not broken us; we had survived. Then we waited. The Salvation Army arrived with coffee and gramophone records. I heard Vera Lynn for the first time and it seemed otherworldly. We received mail! Sadly, I learned that my father had passed away 18 months prior. There was so much to take in.

In Singapore we were fed, checked, taken to concerts and had paperwork galore to fill in. Finally, we sailed for home. On the 24th October, five years and four days after leaving her harbour, we steamed back into Sydney. I’ll never forget the moment I saw my family again. They knew we were coming in. We docked and were taken off the ship into sheds on the south side. All of a sudden a bus came around the corner, stopped and people got out and walked along. I said “There’s mum! There’s my sister!” but they couldn’t see me. They were searching for me in the vast crowd of soldiers. Suddenly I remembered a song and dance my mother used to do with her sister. She’d sing ‘hurtle hurtle hurtle hurtle” and do a funny jig, so I did the same, at the top of my voice with my arms flying around in the air. One of them reckoned on me and they all stopped, they’d seen me. And then they let the families in. It was wonderful. From there we were put on buses and sent down south. My family jumped in their car to follow, every now and then catching up with us to wave madly before dropping back behind. We waved like madmen back.

When I was dismissed from the Army, mum had the idea to treat me like a completely new person. I’m sure that helped me to readjust. In time I was able to re-enter the engineering workforce, living in Fairlight until I moved here. I have many friends here who help me live as independent as possible. Who would have thought I would still be here at 100!

Roy Lascelles, April 2019

As told to Helen Johnston with assistance from the Institute of Engineers History Program recordings (1996), Lindsay Dufty, Marg Ellis and Lindsay Warton.

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