Gunner Alfred William Burgess

My late father, Gunner Alfred William Burgess No 1831431 serving with 144 Battery 35 Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment, RA, lost his life in the Far East on 5 March 1943 as a Japanese Prisoner of War.   I was 6 years old at the time.   My mother, sadly, died after a long illness when I was 11 and being an only child I was thus brought up by relatives on my mother's side of the family.

On the 50th anniversary of the end of the war in the Far East, with many articles being written in newspapers etc, I  began to wonder what really happened to my father. We had had a telegram from the War Office - ``Missing at Sea, presumed dead 5.3.43", but was there anyone who could remember being with my dad before he died?     With the help of my cousin, Beryl Canwell, I wrote to the Ministry of Defence and paid £20.00 to be told what I already knew - that he had been lost at sea.   However, I also wrote to the editor of ``The Gunner" and to the Far East Prisoners of War Graves Archives and was put in touch with a Peter Dunstan who kindly rang me and then sent a brief history of the Royal Artillery ``Ballale 600".  

After the fall of Singapore in February 1942 my father was taken prisoner and spent time in the camp at Changi.   In early October 1942 the Japanese decided that 600 men from the Royal Artillery units (made up of 126 officers and men from the 35th LAA regiment 144 Battery plus officers and men from the following RA Regiments: 7th Coast,  9th Coast,  11th Coast, 2nd HAA, 3rd HAA, 5th Searchlight and Hong Kong & Singapore Artillery plus a few men from the RAMC and RASC who had been attached to the RA's) should be moved from the camp in Changi to another camp in JAPAN.   The 600 were under the command of Lt. Col John Bassett.   The party was taken to Singapore Docks where they boarded a ship believed to be the ``Masta Maru" and endured horrendous conditions.  Many men were sick at this time and Battery Sgt Major Lambourne of the 11th Coast Regiment died from dysentery.  On the journey, it was noticed that the ship was definitely NOT heading for Japan but was heading south.  On 5 November the ship docked at Rabaul on the island of New Britain in the Solomon Islands Group where the men were unloaded and marched along dusty tracks ankle deep with volcanic ash despite many being without footwear.  During this period the men were made to work in the tropical sun with many beatings.   

At the end of November the prisoners were assembled and the fittest 517 were told that they were to be taken to build an airfield for the Japanese.   82 men did not to go with the party as they were not deemed fit enough - ONLY 18 OF THE ORIGINAL 600 SURVIVED TO RETURN TO THE UK  - THESE BEING AMONG THE GROUP THAT DID NOT GO ON TO BALLALE).    The 517 were taken by another hell ship on the two day journey to the small island of Ballale which is approximately 4 miles in diameter to build an air strip.   In time, probably on completion of the air strip and the news being received by the Japanese that the Allies were closing in, orders were given that ``PRISONERS OF WAR WERE TO BE DISPOSED OF BY WHATEVER MEANS WAS AVAILABLE".   Accordingly, on 5 March 1943, those who were still alive (some having died of illness and others as a result of Allied bombing as the Japanese had not allowed the prisoners to dig trenches to take cover) were massacred in cold blood and not one of those taken to Ballale survived. 

It was only through one of the few natives who lived on the island and who had witnessed the events that this story was able to be recorded by the Australian Forces who re-occupied the island some time later.  In 1946 the remains of these British servicemen were recovered and were finally interred in graves in the Commonwealth War Cemetery at Port Moresby where they are tended by the Australian War Graves Commission. 

The British Army Records had shown that the 600 Royal Artillery men died when an unknown ship was sunk somewhere in the Pacific - false information given to them by the Japanese!! This accounts for the telegram my mother received.

After learning of the above account I placed a notice on Teletext  ``Service Pals" (Channel 4 page 682) giving my father's service details and asking if anyone had known him before he went to the island of Ballale?    I was amazed at the number of people who subsequently contacted me and although no one had known my father, many had loved ones who were in the RA in the Far East and, being in a similar situation to myself, simply wanted to talk.     I also heard from Rev Baker who was with the 600 but was not well enough to go on that last fateful journey to the island of Ballale.   He has written a book called ``What Price Bushido" which although not in print now can be obtained from the local Library and tells the story of the ``600" from the time they were in Singapore until the party went off to build the air strip and relates what happened to the ones who stayed behind in Rabaul.  

A friend then gave us the address of the Office of Australian War Graves, 13 Keltie St., Woden, ACT 2606, Australia.   The people there have been so kind and understanding and when one of their members went to the Bomana War Cemetery in Port Moresby they kindly arranged for three beautiful photographs to be taken of the graves of the men killed on Ballale and sent them to me.  As the bodies when recovered could not be identified (the Japanese having removed identity tags), each one has an individual grave marked ``Known But to God" in a superb setting. 

I have also had a letter from Australia saying that when one of their staff visits the remote island of Ballale, they will try to take a photograph of the air strip which my father was working on in the last months of his life. The Australians told me there was NO CHARGE for sending the photographs and other information they had provided  - they were only too pleased to be of help - how ironic after we had had to pay £20.00 to the Ministry of Defence in our own country only to be told what we already knew!!!  (Were their records never updated?)

In one of their letters they kindly provided details of the web site for the Australian War Memorial Archives (if anyone is interested and has access to the Internet contains a great deal of information and many photographs and accounts of events in the Far East and has proved really interesting with photographs taken at the time Ballale was re-occupied by the Australian forces.

My father's name is also mentioned in Don Wall's Book ``Kill The Prisoners" as one of the victims of the Ballale Island Massacre.    His name is also recorded on the Kranji Memorial and I am indebted to Carol Cooper who very kindly took photographs of this memorial including a close-up of my father's name on her recent visit to Singapore.

I have felt much closer to my father as a result of all our efforts over the past three or four years and am so gratified to now know that he has a grave, albeit unmarked, in a beautiful cemetery.    Our research has proved very rewarding and I like to think that my father would have been proud to know that my cousin and I have taken the time and trouble to find out as much as possible of what happened to him after the fall of Singapore.    

Mrs June Woods (nee Burgess)




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