Japan's early successes in East Asia during the Second World War resulted in over 190,000 British and Commonwealth troops being taken prisoner.

Japanese military philosophy held that anyone surrendering was beneath contempt. As a result, their treatment of captives was harsh. Conditions varied, but in the worst camps - such as those along the Thailand-Burma ‘Death Railway’ - prisoners suffered terribly.


Prisoners of War Working on Thai-Burma Railway at Kanu Camp, Thailand 1943

Prisoners of War Working on Thai-Burma Railway at Kanu Camp, Thailand 1943, by John Mennie. Between 1942 and 1945, over 60,000 British, Commonwealth and Dutch prisoners worked on the railway - 16,000 perished. The death toll amongst the 270,000 civilians from Thailand, Malaya, Burma and the Netherlands East Indies (now Indonesia) was even higher - over 100,000 died. © The artist's estate.

Forced to carry out slave labour on a starvation diet and in a hostile environment, many died of malnutrition or disease. Sadistic punishments were handed out for the most minor breach of camp rules.

Most prisoners of war (POWs) existed on a very poor diet of rice and vegetables, which led to severe malnutrition. Red Cross parcels were deliberately withheld and prisoners tried to supplement their rations with whatever they could barter or grow themselves.

Souvenirs and ephemera

Identity Tag, Far-East POW

Bill Carden was taken prisoner in Hong Kong. He was initially in Shamshuipo camp, Hong Kong until February 1943 when he was transferred to Japan. Carden was held at Nagasaki and Omine camps, where he worked in the mines. He kept a diary during his captivity, which he hid in a hole in the ground used by prisoners as a toilet. Punishment for keeping diaries or drawings could be very harsh.

Powerful bonds formed among prisoners. Some shared their meagre rations with desperately ill comrades or risked their lives to barter outside the camps. Ingenious prisoner doctors improvised medical equipment and drugs denied to them by the Japanese. But despite such efforts, British and Commonwealth prisoners in East Asia were seven times more likely to die than those captured in Europe.

Escape was almost impossible. Most camps were hundreds of miles from Allied-held territory. Prisoners were too under-nourished to be capable of surviving for long and Europeans in Asia could not easily pass unnoticed.

In August 1945, atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki forced the Japanese to surrender. However, with camps scattered throughout East Asia, it was impossible for Allied recovery teams to reach them all immediately.

For many, liberation came too late. Almost a quarter of all Allied prisoners in Japanese hands died during captivity.

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