Burma Star Association
Burma Star Association

When the Lads Come Down

By George A Ratcliffe, 2nd Bn King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry


Extracts from the Diary of a Prisoner of War in Burma February 1942 - April 1945




Have been in this bloody place about four weeks now. None of us are sure of the date. We are now in what was once the hospital block inside the high walls of Moulmein Gaol. It is a single-storey building and we are on the upper floor in a room which is one of four along the length of the building. The beds have been taken out. Just bare wood floor. A piece of deck-chair material for bedding. There’s an old oil-drum at one end of the room which holds drinking water and at the opposite end another one of less size serves as a toilet. In between these two points there is a total of 59 men from the 2nd Battalions of the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry and the Duke of Wellington’s Regt. They are all beginning to look at bit worse for wear. Across the compound another block like this contains Indian troops. Over the inner wall to our left we can see the upper storey of a wooden building built like a cage. We can see other British troops in here but too far away to identify individuals.


Have pinched this paper from what was the hospital office in a small room at the end of this block on the ground floor. After two trips on tish-bin detail have acquired a bottle each of red and blue ink, a stub of pencil, and some unissued, new, St. John Ambulance certificates, together with an empty, round tin which once contained 50 Player’s Medium, a piece of thicker blue card and a pair of scissors. Two iodine brushes and a pen, then finally some old medical reports on typing paper, the blank side I wanted for my sketching and which was the purpose of my visit. There’s plenty of the stuff strewn all around and the office is unused.


Day two of Diary. Have been sketching the Moulmein Pagoda which I can see from my window space. The windows are without glass, and the space is fitted with iron bars about five inches apart vertically. From the sill at floor level they about nine feet high to the apex of the round arch at their top. There are six of these down each side of the room which makes nearly all the room available for observation from the verandah which circumvents the whole of the top floor of the block.


Have decided to make a calendar. Will guess the date and hope to check it as soon as opportunity arises. All days are alike. The sun rises and the room becomes a huge sundial as the patch of low, early morning sunlight on the floor gradually moves across the room until the whole floor is in the shade as the sun passes overhead, and then the afternoon really begins as the sunlight patch reappears and once again slowly covers the whole floor weakening and getting redder until it disappears into twilight and darkness.


Day four of Diary. Have finished the calendar. Had drawn a pencil sketch of Templenewsain, near Leeds, from memory so used that as an illustration by sticking its corners through slots cut in the thicker blue card. I then cut down the seam of the empty Players tin, using the scissors, also taking out the bottom which left me with (after flattening it out) a piece of sheet tin about ten inches by three and a quarter. Out of this I cut out three “windows” down its length. Fitst, a narrow one which was to show the “day”. Next, a wider one to show the date number, then another narrow one to show the month. The piece of tin was then folded and slotted through the blue card so that “boxes” were visible from the front, each with its window which would contain cards for the days, months and date number. The days and months were written in blue, the larger date numbers in red. The background is blue with the illustration on white paper. My mate, Len, said ,“It’s a smashing job, that! Red, white and blue! But tha knaws, tha’s a cruel b—r! Fancy making an everlasting calendar in a place like this! Tha’s not put t’year on!” - Perhaps it’s as welI.


Day six of Diary. I’ve written that and due to the events of the day and the excitement caused, I’ve omitted to put the correct date which I have come to know, and which is the 9th April, 1942.


Was sat with my back to the window-bars sketching this afternoon when I felt a tap on my shoulder. I noticed then that all the blokes were asleep so I’d had no warning that the sentry had come up onto the verandah.


“Oi,” I heard him say as I stood up with my scalp tingling to turn and face him. A quick appraisal of his face told me he was in an enquiring mood as he peered with his head on one side at the sketch in my hand asking, “Oi. sketchca?”


I linked his Japanese English easily to the situation. “Yes,” I answered him and showed him the pencil sketch of a Burmese bullock cart and its driver which I had nearly completed. His eyes lit up. “Oi, verra goodta,” he commented, still looking at the sketch. Then he looked up at me. “Oi.” (pointing at me) “Yaw, Englis. Yaw, sketchka presentoca?” (pointing to himself).


I readily understood his request. “Yes,” I nodded, “tomorrow I finish.” He nodded his head in understanding.


“Tomorrow,” he repeated. “Nippon, — Asta. Nippon tomorrow Asta.” He half smiled, “OK, Daro?”


“OK,” I nodded, expecting him to go, but he showed me his wrist-watch, marking off four hours, and I understood he would be back on his round again at that time. Now, I thought, as I reached for the calendar, is the time to ask. He laughed when he saw our date, shaking his head and taking a pencil from his pocket drew the number nine on the wall. “Ninah,” he said. “Nippon-go — Coo.” I’d not only got the day and date but also the time. And to know that it was ten minutes past three after the timelessness of our immediate past was a replacement of a minute part of civilisation.


He came back again on his next round. I’d finished his bullock-cart for him and he was pleased. He’d brought me half-a-dozen plain Japanese postcards to illustrate. “All Birma,” he said, “all Birma sketcha. Ariato.”


I know he’s Japanese but I think I’ve made his day. Come to think of it he’s made mine! I’ve something to do which has real purpose to motivate it.


12th April, 1942. My friendly Japanese guard was on stag again today. He came up asking for me by calling “Sketcha.” From that moment he received the name “Sketcha” by all the lads. Gave him his postcards which he said he would be sending to his “wifo” in Nippon. When he had tucked them into the inside pocket of his uniform he opened his small pack and passed to me a square packet followed by a box of matches. He placed a forefinger across his lips saying, “No speaka! Nippon Number One — Capitan, — no speaka! OK Daro?”


That sunk in too. Gave him every assurance of my silence. I’d no doubt about his!


When he had gone I opened the packet and found it contained a cellophane pack of 100 Moonraker cigars! After the evening saucer of paddy I shared out the cigars and some of the paper for the lads to begin making their paper tubes and fill them with crushed cigar tobacco. It was worth the empty cigarette tin to have a pack of real cigars!


15th April, 1942. Have made two packs of cards. Shared out the cigars and the lads have made cigarettes from paper tubes filled with crushed cigar tobacco. They take turns with cards and gamble their cigarettes. The paper tubes are made by using a grain or two of rice from our food, squashing it along the edge of the paper and sticking it together.


24th June, 1942. Came back into the room with the rest of the men today. About ten days ago we were taken into the compound to dig a big hole about fifteen feet square by six feet deep. Most of the lads thought it was for a communal grave. Others, including myself, thought it was for a new tish-dump. The one in the other compound was brimful. I was taken ill, having acquired a raging temperature and being violently sick. The guard put me into a room on the ground floor where an English officer of the Baluch Regt. was lying on a single bed propped up by pillows. His head was bandaged around with cheeks drawn in at each side. He had received automatic fire through his face.


There is also one of my own unit in here. He is very young and has served as a band-boy. He is in a coma most of the time but when he is “awake” is calling constantly for his mother. He doesn’t get any treatment and when I was recovering I tried to keep him as clean as possible by using our drinking water. He is in an advanced stage of dysentery and I’m glad his mother cannot see him — but I wish the whole world could!


One night I could hear the lads upstairs singing hymns. They seemed to be the favourites, particularly “What a Friend I have in Jesus.”


Someone got over the wall during the time I was down there. They used the pile of earth from digging the hole which had been placed in a heap against the outside wall. The Japs told us to put it there! The great news is that we have been told tomorrow we are to travel to Rangoon.


The Japs brought in some shorts and other kit today which was recognised as belonging to the escapees. They told us they had shot them, and we believed them!




December 3, 1942. Tenko (roll-call) passed off quietly this morning. No beatings. Breakfast  —        rice and spinach water. Was detailed on to a work party of 100 this morning. Went down to Rangoon docks. Three merchantmen in. Our party was set to unload one, the “Sato Maru” from Tokyo. Indian POWs unload the second one and docks coolies the third. Indian donkey engine drivers operating the derricks. Cargo consists of large wood-strutted crates stuffed with wood-wool packing. Some solid wood crates and some machinery of some kind with heavy wood protection fixed around it. Was first detailed to work on deck at hatch opening to steady loads direct on to trucks. Later, was detailed with others and sent on a truck to warehouse in Rangoon to receive loads from docks and store the goods on the various floors.


Four floors plus one below ground level. Lifts out of action due to damaged electrical installations when British evacuated Rangoon.


This job turned out to be a great laugh. Crates were pushed up and over to get them up the steps. Wide stone staircases, two flights between floors. One in two of the crates allowed to slip back down one flight, sometimes two.


Two Japs upstairs with us. Easy to keep them busy with problems devised and presented to them in areas away from whatever was going on. Two Japs on ground floor. They spent most of their time in small office. Crowbar was~ found on floor below ground level. This was first demonstrated to Japs as a useful instrument to lever crates up the steps and received full approval for use. Thereafter also used to thrust into any gaps or crevices in aforesaid crates.


Some lighter open wood strip crates arrived bearing labels printed in English and Japanese, “This Side Up”. On removing wood-wool packing was found to contain what appeared to be huge radio valves being about 27in. high and lO in, across at the widest part of the glass dome. This was repacked and with all other crates of the same description which arrived were given the “bounce by gravity” treatment down the steps. Two men detailed to concentrate on this who then passed the goods on to the Pukka handling party.


Later, some large open wood strip crates arrived and their contents recognised as fuselage parts, etc., for Zeros. This seemed to be confirmed by the arrival of completely smooth and wide rubber-tyred wheels about 27in. in diameter. These arrived without any packing. An RAF wallah was brought up from the lower floor for advice. He confirmed our opinions and returning below immediately. Appeared a short time later with a packet of new razor blades. He’d obtained these from a local Indian who had been supplying our lot down below with buckshee fruit through a low-level window. The wheels were stacked in a suitable place and one of our lads stood guard to give warning if needed while the RAF wallah drew a thin diagonal line across and around the circumference of many wheels with the razor blade. He said that one wheel in three would guarantee one faulty plane in three. I never saw him counting.


Propellor blades then arrived. Don’t know how many were done but I saw him padding the end of one blade and fitting it into a gap in the floorboards and giving the thing a gentle pull towards himself. I’ll bet that b has done more ultimate damage today than he ever did with his plane!


Len doesn’t seem to improve much though his spirit is buoyant.


December 9th, 1942. Got landed on a 50-party this morning going to St. Paul’s High School in Rangoon. It’s a bloody awful place to work. Nothing to fiddle. Brass hats in and out all day long and the Nips seem so scared of their officers and this makes them regimental with us all the time. Yasmei (rest) periods are less frequent and much shorter than the Japs usually allow. Blame brass hats again for this. This must be the depot or HQ for the Rangoon Defence Area. Digging air-raid shelters and sandbagging the entrances. Bored to bloody death!


Managed to whip a pair of Japanese knee-length trousers (I can’t see them being described as short!) but will hack them down to British length and put a patch on them to add wear and tear. Did this fiddle at the last minute before returning to gaol. Safest time of day for that lark, especially at that place.


There was a recce plane over today. Very high up, and unmolested.


Len is very ill and I think his diarrhoea is now dysentery. Have spent all evening with him in “hospital” room. His wooden plank bed is alive with bugs and his blood and mucus is dripping on to the stone floor through the joints between the planks of his bed. His only treatment is rice-water and charcoal which is made from the cookhouse fire. He’s lost a lot of weight but he’s not giving in and it is he that gives me hope for his recovery.


He asks me if there’s any news but I can only give him what details I can find that might be termed as highlights of the day’s events. I tell him he can have the shorts I’ve pinched and he’s tickled pink. He says he’s not going to wear them until he gets better. “I don’t want to spoil them,” he says. “In fact, I’ll save them and wear them when the lads come down.”


Boiled white rice, beanshoots and bringols for supper or whatever you can call the third meal of the day.


January 3rd, 1943. Had a night raid on Mingladon last night. Heard some explosions going off long after raid had finished. Japs use searchlights and have one (at least) of their Zeros up at the same time. Their ack-ack ceases when the fighter is airborne. I hope our bomber crews have noticed this.


Len is in a very bad way. Colonel MacKenzie cannot do any more for him.


January 5th, 1943. Len died last night. Spent all last evening into early hours with him. Was in a coma all the time until the end. Got excused from work party today to be on funeral escort. Bodies are wrapped in rice sacking and put on bamboo stretcher. Then placed on hand­cart prior to exit through the big arch gateway in which the Gaol Guard sit and to whom we give “eyes right” as we pass. A four-foot-eleven little man, the “Moulmein Terror” is Guard Commander today. After we had given “eyes right” he yelled us to stop. Next thing I knew was our Union Jack floating down in front of me in the leading position of the right-hand file. The little bastard took a running kick at it and sent it hurtling through the air again, he shouting and yelling, “All Englis, Buggero! All Englis, Buggero!” He was still screaming when a loud, hoarse bellow echoed in the big vaulted archway. I allowed my eyeballs only to turn up to the left hand corner of the place where, at the top of the steps leading to the guard’s quarters, stood the six-foot figure of Yagisan, the Nippon Quarter-Master. I recognised the command “Kiotski” (attention) and saw the “Terror” stood mute and rigid. Yagisan was growling as he came down the steps. His pace was what I believe is termed as a “measured tread.” Arriving in front of the “Terror” he screamed at him, grabbed his rifle and belted him across both upper arms and, as the “Terror” fell to the ground, used both leather-booted feet in turn on the recumbent Corporal.


I was feeling a bit sick but not sorry for the horror when Yagisan turned to address Sergeant Smith, of the 1st Gloucesters, who was I/C of the funeral party.


“I am very sorry. Please accept my apologies for my soldier. I am very much ashamed of him. He has shamed my Regiment. He will be punished!” He then turned to the “Terror,” yelled “Kiotski!” and when the “Terror” staggered to his feet, made him replace the Union Jack in its original position over the sack-wrapped body of Len.


Yagisan brought all the Guard to attention as we moved out through the huge arch into the brilliant sunshine on Commissioner Road.


I was proud of Len. Through him, the “Terror” had got his deserts. I could well imagine — almost hear — Len’s comment: “It’s been worth dee-in’ to get that little bastard a taste of his awn medicine!”


And he would be as pleased as I was that Yagisan had assured Sergeant Smith that the “Terror” would be punished! I suppose that what we had witnessed had merely been a disciplinary correction!




November 4, 1944. Tomorrow I move across to Six Block with Col. MacKenzie. He has given himself a period of rest in the so-called “hospital” compound. I’ve no doubt he will still be consulting with Maj. McCloud and Capt. Ramsey who have the responsibility of medical care over in that block. The cholera epidemic which ended some six weeks ago has left “Mac” a bit worn out. I can’t imagine a more nightmarish situation. Confined to the compound with a disease that usually strikes during the night. Wasted bodies within hours. Excruciating pain, and no hope once you’ve got it, combined with the worst possible conditions in which to combat it! Perhaps even the worst part of it all to cope with is the period when it appears that the plague is receding~. We pray for a longer period of time, first of all between fresh cases, then less cases per day — will there be one over the desired figure today? Then comes the day when there is no new case, followed by the blight of a new case the next day. Then we start again to count the days without a new victim and it gets to FIVE. How many to go yet? Can we reach ten days? That’s the number “Mac” gave to me. How many to go yet? Five? Christ! that will seem like five years!


I will always remember the day when “Mac” said to me: “We’ve only today to get over and we’ve made it! I’ve every confidence!”


There will never be any other day longer than that one in my life!


November 5, 1944. Have moved the Colonel and myself into Six Block today. I am with the hospital orderlies in their room. Eight men plus myself in a room some 60ft. long and 20ft. wide, with a stone floor. A wooden plank bed which I debugged with hot water followed by laying the planks on to some hot corrugated iron sheeting in the sun. They come on to the top surface, then expand and burst in the hot sunshine.


The orderlies are all Welshmen from the Royal Welch Fusiliers. A refreshing change of dialect and accent, though I understand a lot more Japanese than I do their native tongue!


Not too happy about being over here. Can’t go out sketching. Nips say’ I have to look after the Colonel. When he goes back to Three Block, then I go out sketching. Trouble is, he doesn’t need much doing for him here. He misses my reports from outside and the scraps of news I sometimes collect. So do I! I’m not spoilt! It’s just that I hate boredom so I sketch inside the gaol.


January 7, 1945. Life seems to be on the turn again. Rangoon got a real bashing from the RAF and the American B29s. The heaviest yet, though this time we did not have any casualties, as on previous occasions. This time they were accompanied by fighter escorts and we watched one or two dog-fights up in the heavenly blue. We could count only three Zeros and they had no chance. The fighters came down low to make a sweep over the city and eventually chose the railway station to make a terrific din like an enormous carpet one mile long being ripped down the middle.


February 15, 1945. Another cheeky fighter sweep today. They seemed to enjoy their flight like mosquitoes in the first warm sunshine of summer! I know we enjoyed watching them! They had no opposition and now we have come to the conclusion that there are no Zeros based at Mingladon airfield.


March 10, 1945. A night raid near Mingladon again. Must be ammunition dumps of some kind. Loud explosions long after raid was over and into daylight. No work parties today!


April 21, 1945. Brigadier has received instructions that there will be no work parties tomorrow. All fit men have to prepare for a journey to a work party where we will have to camp. All our kit has to be taken with us. Fit officers to go too. The Japs have told the Brigadier that we are to go to a good place where food will be better. (Come to think of it, that shouldn’t be too difficult to do!)


April 25, 1945. Am writing this just before leaving Rangoon. A truck is to go ahead with the cook-house crew. Each room has been formed into a platoon. Each platoon has a hand-cart which will be pushed and/or pulled in turn by the men. A fresh guard of older Japanese troops have taken over the duties in the gaol to watch over the sick men and the less sick men who are to be left inside the gaol. The original gaol guard are to escort us. Speculation on where we are going is rife. I think of it only in direction terms, not where! And my guess is merely east. That’s the only route out of Burma for the Japs, and to do that they will have to go north for 90 miles to Pegu before they can turn eastward. The only possible alternative will be apparent if we turn south towards the docks on leaving the gaol! A ship bound for the Far East? God forbid!


April 28, 1945. This entry continues the one previous dated April 25 and will cover events to date. After leaving Rangoon gaol on march through the streets we noticed many civilian Japanese burning material and other stuff in the gardens of the bungalows. It was evident that they were leaving Rangoon. Whether this meant their troops had evacuated the city was another matter. We saw few uniformed Japs, but plenty of ripped-up trucks and coaches on the railways as we crossed over the bridge near the station. Rangoon seemed to be suspended in mid-air.


Went up Prome Road. Took a last look at the Shwe Dagon Pagoda. Dark when we reached the area past Mingladon and could hear the Air Force at work back towards Rangoon. Marched until most of the night had passed and rested for most of next day. Second day was attacked by own aircraft as we began to march in late afternoon. Lost my sketches on hand-cart. Was my turn to pull. Hand-cart burnt to a cinder.


Passed through Pegu in darkness at end of third day. Japs were mining the road over the railway and eastward. We are out of drinking water and have not been able to drink at the wayside water chatties which the Burmese maintain on the roadside near their villages, due to the men further up the column being thirsty too! There are some six or seven hundred in the column. Chinese, Indian, British, American, even a White Russian! We get a drink when we halt at food stop.


Col. MacKenzie having a hard time and two of the larger men are pushing him on one of the hand-carts in turn with others. He has told me to stay with the men of my own battalion but to go see him where it is possible. I have some items and a few private papers of his which he asked me to peep until he requests them from me.


A few of the men have decamped on route either to lie in wait for our troops or to make their own way north. I think it is best, at this stage, to travel with the advantage of the Jap guards as a protection until a more appropriate moment. There must be thousands of Japs between us and the direction we want to take.


April 29, 1945. This morning everybody is agog with the fact that the Japs have left us. They left a note with Brigadier Hobson saying that we were now free. They also thanked us for the work we had done in Rangoon and hoped to meet us again on the field of battle and explained that the accompanying note in Japanese ensured our safety on meeting any other Japanese troops.


There have been rumbling; noises in the distance all night and it was assumed that it would be Japanese transport withdrawing eastward on the road to Sittan and Moulmein. A Burmese has told our officers that British Forces are only three miles away. A British officer of a Gurkha battalion with two British escorts have gone with this Burmese to try and contact our own troops.


A small light aircraft came circling around. Suppose it was an Army reconnaissance plane. We all dashed out waving anything we could grab hold of. Didn’t appear to make any impression on the pilot or anybody else out for the ride.


Now we hear that the officers have suggested that three columns be organised, each to take a different route to the north.


Late afternoon. Since writing the above in the village of Wau, events have forced us to move to another village south of the Pegu-Moulmein railway. The whole column is now scattered in villages all around this area.


After the Army recce plane had passed over at Wau, nine other aircraft appeared in arrow forma­tion. They circled that village and when they came round for a second run I saw they were in “line ahead!” I chose the mango tree in front of me for cover as I could see in which direction they were approaching. They made three runs in total. Cannon-fire and three bombs. After the din, and sound of their engines died away, the leaves were still floating gently to the ground, bits of twig complet­ing their delayed fall the dust settling in its own lazy time after the disturbance. I took a glance behind me and saw little heaps of kit and not a soul in sight! They’d all scooted across the other side of the railway into the open paddy-fields. There’s been only one casualty — Brig. Hobson! Killed at the moment of our release and I’m grieved. Nothing’s fair in this world! No one has worked harder for this day.


All has now been sorted out and we are to wait in these villages until morning when our troops are to collect us. It seems that the party got through to our advance troops. Have lost trace of Col. MacKenzie. No one in my locality, or officers, know where he is.


We have received instructions to stay put in the huts, and if there’s any fighting, to leave it to those concerned, else we might muck the pitch up for our lads.


April 30,1945. Woken up this morning by a tap on the shoulder from our Burmese host. Two of us went out with him to the back of the hut to peer over the thorn hedge. Japs passing across our front from left to right in open order and going away from us on an incline. They were travelling in an easterly direction and probably making for the Sittang River.


About an hour later whilst having a cup of char with the rest of the family we heard firing break out. Rifles and automatic weapons. Could distinguish some Jap rifle fire. Lasted nearly 15 minutes. Our host went outside. Came back in again in a short while to motion us to go have another peep over the hedge. Green and khaki-clad figures advancing towards us in open order. Only their bush hats were familiar to us. Then we yelled and shouted to them in typical Army language which helped them to recognise us. The first man I met came from a place two miles away from my own home. “It’s a good job we were told what to look for,” he said. “Otherwise we’d have taken you for Japanese!”


They took us back across the paddy field and the railway line where Japanese dead were strewn about the place to join the rest of their comrades at their Company HQ. They had made this special patrol whilst resting from their normal duties of guarding the area where a new air-strip was being constructed ready to receive a division arriving by air from Tounguoo “on their way down” as Len would have joyfully announced.


This phrase bad not been merely a catch-phrase in the gaol. It had become a point of time in the future — “When the Lads Come Down.” “The Lads” were now only hours from Rangoon and I experienced an inner contentment that I had dressed Len as he had said he wanted to be on this particular day.

When you go home

tell them of us and say,

For your tomorrow,

we gave our today

Lt Gen Slim at Fort Dufferin, Mandalay, in March 1945 Lt Gen Slim at Fort Dufferin, Mandalay, in March 1945
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