Gunner Sidney Damms 872548 11 Battery 3 HAA R.A.
In October 1943 the Grantham Journal reported both good and bad news. The good news was that Gunner Sidney Damms, R.A., previously reported missing, was alive.The bad news was that he was a prisoner of the Japanese. He had been a prisoner since the fall of Singapore in in February 1942. That was the last news of him his family heard until September, 1945.
Sidney Damms was born just after the outbreak of WW1, fifth child and second son of John William Dammes and Ada Mary. John Damms worked at Hill Farm, Bottesford. After enlisting he was sent to France in September 1915. While her husband was away at the front Ada lived in Retford Cottages, Bottesford. Sidney attended Bottesford School. After the war Sidney joined his father, living and working at Jericho in Barkestone-le-Vale and later in Denton.
In 1937 Sidney enlisted in the Royal Artillery and trained as a gunner at Woolwich. Before war broke out he was posted to Singapore.
On 8 December 1941, Japanese troops had landed in Thailand. By 1942 Sidney was serving in Malaya with the 3rd Heavy Anti-Aircraft regiment under the command of Lt. Col. F.E. Hugonin. The Japanese quickly broke through British and Indian defensive positions, and then pushed down the west coast of Malaya. The British forces retreated to Singapore and after a week of fighting, on February 15, 1942, Singapore fell to the Japanese.
John Evans, Gunner 1779127, serving in the same unit as Sidney Damms,11 Battery 3H A.A. Regt., describing their last days and surrender.
We heard that 11 Battery had been hit with a direct hit on the height finder, an officer and six other ranks killed. We at last rejoined that battery which had been moved to Anson Road Stadium, a football pitch by Kepple Harbour, and apart from the bomb which hit the height finder, I noted … several others … probably ten bombs or close to that. It was Friday 13th when they were hit, and the Japs must have thought the batterry wiped out.
Eventually, we picked up a prime target…a formation of nine bombers heading for the Naval Base… had detoured and had come back for the battery, … it was take cover, which meant lying down in the gun pit which was far too large and likely to gather in bombs.
We took one bomb. I do not recall hearing it but later had a suspicion that my toes had been drumming on the ground. Cracks opened in the ground, and raised eyes saw the earth coming down.,and inspection of the crater suggested thirty feet across and fifteen feet deep, and no more than twenty yards away. There was nobody else bar 11 Battery to be heard that day apart from the brief early morning sound of the lone Bofor.
We left the site about 7pm, I sure that the following day would be my last … News of capitulation came as a reprieve.
I recall throwing away my tin hat and the pistol … Our kit had been sent to Changi where it had been bombed.
The following day the guns were depressed and set on a common bearing, we regretting that the terms of surrender did not allow for spiking …and off we went to Saigon on 4th April 1942.
COFEPOW A personal account by John Evans, Gunner 1779127, 11 Battery.
Around 9,000 British, Indian and Commonwealth soldiers were killed or wounded and 130,000 captured in Malaya and Singapore. After the fall of Singapore, Sidney Damms and the remaining men of 11 Battery 3 H A.A.Regt. were sent to Changi camp and from there to Keppel Harbour. On April 4th, over a thousand British troops under the command of Lt.Col Hugonin embarked on the Japanese transport ship Nissyo Maru for Saigon FIC camp.
They may have been the first prisoners to occupy this camp, established in May 1942, almost opposite the dock gates in the Rue Jean Eudel. Then it consisted of four huts, each 60 feet long x 15 feet wide constructed of bamboo or wood with sleeping platforms down each side.A later American report described the conditions. Enough rice was supplied to prevent starvation, though it was of poor quality. The cookhouse was close to the latrines, there was little fuel, soap was only occasionally provided, there were practically no medical supplies and the camp was infested with flies and mosquitoes. The prisoners work consisted of loading and unloading ships and construction, for 11 to 18 hours a day. Working conditions were harsh and discipline rigid.
After a year, on the 22nd June 1943, 700 men under Colonel Hugonin, were transferred from the docks and sent to work on the Thai/Burma railway. We have not been able to trace the exact journey Sid Damms made from this point, but the horrors of the Death Railway have been well recorded. Lt. Colonel Hugonin lists the next years as spent in ‘jungle camps’ in Thailand, including Kinsaiyok.
Frank Tantum from Beeston (11th Indian division Signals) wrote an account of what he saw:
It was June 1943 and railway building was in full swing...Everywhere was mud, the huts were falling to pieces, full of bugs, and all the prisoners looked so dreadful. They were working from early morning to late evening, tottering down the muddy track, their skeleton-like forms fading into the jun gle, dirty uniforms hanging in tatters..
FEPOW Life on the Death Railway 1943
After the surrender of the Japanese Far Eastern prisoners of war completed questionnaires recording the camps they had been sent to. These questionnaires were badly designed, leaving far too little space for former prisoners of the Japanese to list all the details. A much larger space was provided for escape attempts, although escape was almost impossible.
Some forms were completed by interviewers, but it looks as though Sidney filled in the form himself. He filled in all the space provided, entering Nil for escape attempts. The last camp or hospital he recorded was ‘Tarso 13/11/43, under the command of Col. Dunlop. He had simply run out of space to write more.
Tarsau was used by the Japanese as both a staging camp for POWs and as a base hospital during the period November 1942 to April 1944. The hospital was sited close to River Kwae Noi and consiste of 84 decaying huts. Towards the end of September 1943, when the railway construction finished, thousands of sick POWs were evacuated by barge, rail and road to crowded camps. Sidney Damms may have been there as a patient or as part of a labour gang.
‘At Tarsau, British, Australian, Dutch and other allied prisoners of war were starved, punished and forced to work in the most deplorable and inhuman conditions. Out of the 61,000 enlisted men assigned to the project, 19,000 died from starvation, cholera, beatings or torture. Out of an additional 250,000 Asian workers who worked alongside, 90,000 perished.’
The Death Railway Siddhartha Mukherjee
The camp leader, Col. E. E. Dunlop, was an Australian surgeon whose dedication and heroism became a legend, “a lighthouse of sanity in a universe of madness and suffering”.
After the railway was completed, in October 1943, the POWs still had almost two years to survive before liberation. The Japanese were running short of manpower and some prisoners were shipped to Japan to supplement the Japanese work force. Sidney Damms may have been one of these. His name appears on the list of Prisoners of War, Far East: Allied POWs in Japan, Camp 10.
In Japan POW quarters usually consisted of rows of two or three storied bunk beds. Heat came from fire pots or stoves made from shipping drums. The basic menu was a bowl of rice, a cup of miso-soup, and some pickles. Starvation and malnutrition were serious problems. The POWs used such clothes as they had with them upon their arrival in Japan. Many POWs suffered illness as the result of severe winter cold. Towards the end of the war POWs were dressed in rags.
Their work consisted mostly of simple physical labour, such as carrying raw materials or goods, loading, unloading, construction work, and mining. Medical supplies were scarce. When the POWs were unable to work because of illness their food ration was cut. Due to poor sanitation the prisoners were plagued by lice and fleas, which spread disease.
The guards were often violent, commonly inflicting a Binta (strong slap on the face) or various kinds of beatings which could result from simply offending the guard in some way. Punishments were severe even for slight infractions of the rules.
After the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on 6 and 9 August 1945 Japan announced it would surrender on 15 August. Roofs of the POW camps were marked with the letters ‘PW’ and relief supplies were dropped by parachute. Allied troops began occupying Japan from 28 August. Although there were strong rumours that the war was over most POWs were not officially told until a few days, or even weeks, later. Sadly, even after their liberation, men continued to die of their illnesses and never made it home.
War Office records give Sidney’s date of liberation as September 2nd, 1945. On October 26th, 1945, the Grantham Journal reported his return to Denton Lodge after seven years away, more than three of them in the hands of the Japanese, ‘Although a prisoner so long, he looks well.’
Sidney was in the Army Reserve until 1949. After the war he worked in a variety of jobs: for the electricity board, at Corby steel works and finally for W.J. Roberts.
He lived for 50 years in the Lock Cottage, Stenwith. It had no road access, no electricity and no mains water. Cooking was done over an open fire. No doubt these were minor inconveniences after the hardships he had known. It was a life he liked. Following a stroke in 2007 Sidney moved to Oakdene care home. He died, aged 94, in 2010.
(Thanks to Brian and Janet Damms and Margaret Langton for information and photographs. )