Rifleman Leslie Spoors
Unit : 1st Battalion The Cameronians (Scottish Rifles), 17th Infantry Division
Served : India, Burma (captured).
'I was captured on the 19th April, having been wounded in the arm with shrapnel the day before. I was one of a group of 12 prisoners, and the only Cameronian amongst them. We were all wounded - that's why we were taken so easily, and couldn't make a run for it. We were taken to a group of Burmese huts where our boots were removed and the laces used to tie our hands behind our backs. More and more men were brought in during the night until eventually we were cramped together on the floor. It was a Sunday when we were put into the huts and we were there for four days and nights. We had nothing at all to eat and nothing to drink, although we did make feeble attempts to drink our own urine. All our body wastes just collected beneath us in the huts. I thought we might never see the light of day again. But we did, for after four days we were freed from the indescribable stench.'
'Captain Bradford-Martin had been brought into the hut during the first night, along with his batman. On the third day, we heard rain on the roof - a Mango shower as we called it, and Bradford-Martin decided to try and break through the thatched straw. Whether he intended to escape or just get a drink I never knew, but his batman followed him. They had both got through the hole they had made when two shots were heard. The batman fell back through the hole - Bradford-Martin was never seen or heard of again. It wasn't long before the Japs dame in and if the Batman wasn't already dead, they soon made sure that he was.'
'We were tied together after four days and marched about five miles back down the road. Over 30 were killed on the way; mostly men who dropped through exhaustion or lack of food or drink. These were just dragged to the side of the road where their backs were broken with a rifle butt. A bayonet was used to finish the job. When we eventually arrived at the banks of the Irrawaddy we were allowed to sit and watch the water move irresistibly on towards the open sea and freedom. We were all very thirsty, it being our 5th day without a drink. I remember seeing a bottle lying a few feet away on the bank. It had an English label on it - Apple and Honey Chutney I think. I was determined to have it but with my hands tied behind my back it was going to be difficult. I thought that if I could get my mouth to the bottle I could tip it over and lick the chutney out - there was no top on the bottle. So I had a go. One of the guards saw me and came over and started talking and it was obvious that he was asking me if I wanted a drink. He indicated that I should open my mouth, which I did without thinking. He lifted the bottle towards my face and then flicked a lighted cigarette right down my throat - that's what I got instead of a drink.'
'I was out loose then and dragged to one side. A Japanese officer then started asking me questions in English, about the position and movement of British forces in Burma. Well I couldn't help him; I think he must have thought I was an officer myself. Anyway, he had a length of conduit in his hand and it wasn't long before I found out what he wanted it for. He hit me from behind across the side of my face, bursting my ear open. As I sat there dazed, the blood just flowed down the side of my neck until it caked.'
'They marched us down to the river, and we walked in until the dirty, oily water flowed into our mouths. Two of the lads who had somehow got their hands free made an attempt to swim across to the other bank. They were allowed to get to about half way, before the Japs shot them. We were taken from there to some Burmese houses - wooden huts with iron bars for windows. We were crowded in shoulder to shoulder on the floor, and the doors were locked. We were given some rice after about four days - our first food for nine days. Every morning when we woke up there were 1 or 2 dead amongst us. Every morning the Japs came in with hankies round their mouths because of the smell of excretia and urine, dried blood and sweat.'
'Then after about seven days we were taken by truck to a burnt out gaol at Magwe - Magwe Gaol - about 30 or 40 miles away. They supplied us with rice again - all we had to do was cook it. What a laugh! We had raw rice, burnt rice, soggy rice, crisp rice - at least we had some variety! We got water for cooking and drinking from the Irrawaddy, in big petrol drums that we just rolled up the river. It didn't taste very nice, but you drink anything when you are thirsty. We drank Irrawaddy water for all of the three weeks or thereabouts that we were in Magwe.'
'After a couple of days we had some meat. In fact they gave us a cow; an old bony cow that looked on its last legs anyway. It looked as if it would fall over if you touched it. The only problem was how to kill it! All we had were pieces of broken slate, but we were a bit reluctant to start attacking the poor old thing with them. So we managed to persuade one of the Jap guards to shoot it for us. Then we attacked it like savages, ripping at the flesh with the slate. We cooked the meat, as best we could over a fire, but it was still pretty raw when we ate it - and I never liked my steaks rare.'
'There was no toilet at the gaol except a water trough, which was never emptied. By the time we left Magwe it had been filled to overflowing - everyone of us had had constant diarrhoea.'
'From Magwe we were taken by truck to Rangoon, a distance of about 300 miles. Our home was to be Rangoon Gaol, a civilian prison that the Japs had commandeered for their own use. At our first roll call we were lined up standing to attention, which we did as best we could. However, this apparently was not good enough as the guards came round and rapped our knuckles with the sticks they were carrying. Eventually we realised that it was the way we held our hands that was the problem. The Japanese Army stood to attention with the fingers pointing down the leg, not clenched as in our drill. None of the guards appeared to know any English, or if they did they were not letting on, and we had to make out their instructions as well as we were able. We were given sweet potatoes and rice, which we had to cook for ourselves and we were thankful for it.'
'We were segregated into compounds. Three compounds of mostly British troops, including Australians; one of Indians and Gurkhas; and another of Chinese and others. Our compound contained about 300 lads. We were kept in cells designed to hold about 20 men although there were at least double that number in ours.'
'With the exception of the cooks, none of us were allowed out of the compound for nearly six months - which was when we started work. In that time the daily routine was fairly monotonous. Locked in the cells at night, let out in the morning. Breakfast followed by roll call - Tenko - for which we had to learn our number in Japanese. We were soon quite proficient at Japanese numbering, particularly 1 - 10.'
'The cooks were allowed to go out occasionally to pick up the rations - under guard of course. I became a cook eventually, cooking rice, marrows and pumpkins, and occasionally - about once a week - meat. When the meat was shared out, it worked out at a piece about the size of an Oxo cube for each chap.'
'It was not until we started work at the Docks - loading and unloading ships - that we were able to have our first smoke. That was because we started to get paid - although we never in fact saw the wages, the equivalent of twopence ha'penny a day - as our Officers pooled the money to buy in luxuries once a month. Hence we were able to buy either an egg, or one and a half cigars, which we could break up and make into cigarettes.'
'We used to get up at 6 o'clock in the morning, breakfast at half past 6, roll call at quarter to 7, then out to work until about 6 in the evening. When we got back we washed down without soap, we never had any soap. Then it was dinner time - well we used to call it dinner - rice with a little bit of soup made of marrows and pumpkins usually. Then at 7 o'clock the final roll call of the day. After that we were allowed to sit in the compound until 10 o'clock - bedtime. That was the routine every day, except one day a month, which was our rest day.'
'On our day off we were allowed to have a bit of a singsong. I remember one night during our first year in the gaol, they brought in a military band for us to hear, and we had to listen to it. After about half an hour of tunes that were as foreign to us as the bandsmen, we had to clap. The whole episode was filmed, no doubt to be used as propaganda back home to show how well we were being treated.'
'We only had one chair in the compound, and that was used for minor operations! Colonel McKenzie was our medical officer - pulling out teeth was his particular speciality. Of course there was no anaesthetic of any kind, he would simply put a piece of wood in the mouth to stop it closing during the pull. I sat in it once but not to get a tooth pulled. I had a big lump sticking out of the back of my head and I went to see Colonel McKenzie. He took a look at it and said "Spoors, I don't know what it is, a cyst, abscess or what, but I'll have to cut it out". So he cut it out with his lance - a razor blade stuck between two pieces of bamboo fastened together. After that I had to have it dressed every morning before I went to work. He'd fitted some kind of drainer in it to let out the accumulated pus every day.'
'I mentioned earlier that eventually I ended up in the cookhouse. As a matter of fact I became the best rice cook in the compound if not the gaol. Funnily enough I became a cook because of my bricklaying skills. I must have been the only bricklayer in the prison because I was suddenly told to go to the Japanese barracks to build some vats or 'set pots' for them, to cook rice and other foods. While I was there I noticed how they cooked their rice - the amount of water, cooking time and so on. So when first I cooked some rice, everybody complimented me on it and I became a bit of a celebrity. So naturally I hung on to my new found status.'
'There were four cooks in the compound, and working in pairs we cooked on alternate days. That meant getting up at 5 o'clock so as to get the rice ready for breakfast at 6.30. It was all go, cooking for the 300 men in our compound. We would sweat so hard; it was just like working in a Turkish bath. The officers got exactly the same food as the rest of us. Although we were cooking for about 300 originally, the numbers gradually reduced over the months - perhaps one a week would die, not through eating our rice I hasten to add.'
'We would see a new face occasionally, a new prisoner, perhaps an airman who had been shot down. They would be put in solitary confinement for 2 or 3 weeks and interrogated and then put in our compound. There was one day a truck came in with a group of airman from some Flying Fortresses that had been shot down and caught fire. They were all badly burnt but were still put into solitary confinement where three died the next day. Our medical officer Colonel McKenzie saw the Commandant, and got three transferred to our compound and three to another. Only one of them survived, a young lad of about 19 years whose face was burnt, and hands twisted with the burns - but he lived and stayed until the end of the internment. One of the chaps who died in our compound had no eyes at all. His face had been badly burned in the fire, and when he was put into solitary he'd lain unconscious on the earthen floor and his eyes became badly infested with maggots, which just ate his eyeballs away.'
'We had a hospital of sorts in our compound, a cell that had been 'converted' for the purpose. Very few of those who went in there came out alive. Beri-beri was the biggest killer, a disease that caused swelling that started in your feet and travelled up your legs to your stomach and eventually your heart. The swelling was due to water that just built up in you. Once the swelling reached your stomach you were put into the 'hospital'. You died when it touched your heart. I had beri-beri but it only got as far as the tops of my legs, and it stopped there for a few months. I was very lucky. It was strange walking around with fat legs and feet, and they felt so heavy - just like the feeling you get when you come out of the water after being swimming for some time. But after about six months it left me. For some reason I was one of the lucky ones.'
'Those unfit for heavy work were put in what was called the 'Candle Factory' inside the gaol. You used to sit there all day making candles. You had to fold this thick paper on a stick, turn it round, stick it down then put a little bit of sawdust in the bottom of the cylinder you had made, then fill it up with tallow. The money 'paid' to those who worked had to be split amongst the sick who couldn't do any work at all. But even the sick were supposed to be active - they had to catch flies. Two small bottles were left by the Japs every morning and the sick who were left behind in the cell, had to catch flies and fill the bottles. Most of them found it very difficult to do, so every night when we got back from work we would go round collecting flies to fill the bottles.'
'There were also those who became mentally ill during our stay. I clearly remember a chap called Gilroy from the Inniskillings who had lost one brother in the fighting and another had died of a jungle sore the size of a tea plate on his thigh. He cracked up eventually and every morning he would stand by the fence, stick two fingers in his mouth and whistle as loud as he could. He got on our nerves but it must have been worse for the Japs. Eventually they could take it no longer and he was put into solitary confinement where he stayed until our release nearly three years later. By that time he had the appearance of a real wild man - unkempt long hair and beard and staring eyes. When we eventually were released he was kept on board the hospital ship in a cage like a zoo animal.'
'Punishment - If you failed to bow to a Jap you got your ears boxed. I had mine boxed a few times. When I was working in the cookhouse I had to walk past a water tower that was patrolled by a Jap sentry. If I failed to see him and bow, he would come into the compound, stand me to attention and hit me round the ears a few times. Some of the other Japs would kick you for showing disrespect. There was one who would never actually hit you - he would stand you to attention and flick the end of your nose with his finger until it felt as if it were swelling up like Snozzle's. I've got a big nose to start with. Even the Brigadier had to bow to the sentry. Brigadier Hobson took the can for everything, for he was in charge of the compound. He was a very nervous man by the time he got out of the gaol. He was one of the 400 or so fit blokes marched away by the Japs when they began to desert the gaol towards the end of April 1945. Unfortunately they were caught up in an attack by some of our own planes and he was killed. 167 men were left behind - I was one of them - with a couple of Jap guards. A few days later, the guards left also. It was at night when the guards left. One of the lads had gone to the 'toilet' which was an old ammunition tin, where he found a piece of paper pushed through the railings - a very rare and precious material in that area - on which was a message written in English. He could see the message clearly in the moonlight, which was extremely bright in Burma. The message read in English: 'To the whole captured persons of Rangoon Jail. According to the Nippon Military Order, we hereby give you liberty to leave this place at your will. Regarding other materials kept in the compound, we give you permission to consume them as far as necessity is concerned. We hope that we shall have the opportunity to meet you again on the battlefield somewhere. We shall continue our war effort in order to get the emancipation of all Asiatic races.'
'He took the message to Colonel Powell and from him it passed around the rest of us. We were so excited that we stayed up all night. We went down to the guard house - it was deserted. In the morning we found a couple of pigs that the Japs had left behind. We slaughtered them and had a good feed.'
'However, we still had problems. In fact we were in more danger now than we had been for some time, as the Allied planes were dropping bombs all around. We thought they might not know there were still British prisoners in Rangoon. So we decided to get up on the roof and paint a message to show our presence. The first message 'Japs Gone, British Here', seemed to have no effect whatsoever. Perhaps the R.A.F. thought it was a ruse on the part of the Japanese to protect themselves. One of our R.A.F. lads suggested using 'Extract Digit' which was an air force expression for 'get your finger out and get things moving' . This did the trick and a couple of officers, Wing-Commander Saunders and Flight-Lieutenant Stevens, landed at Mingladon in a Mosquito on 29th April. Unfortunately they crippled the plane on landing, hitting one of the many bomb craters in the runway. When they arrived at the gaol we told them that the Japs had gone, and how we had lived for three years. They took photographs which I have tried to find unsuccessfully. They told us that they would have to leave so that they could tell the navy not to shell Rangoon - this had been planned for the next day. So off they went to the docks from where they took a boat to the mouth of the river. The next day instead of bombs, a plane came over and dropped Red Cross parcels and K rations, which consisted of cigarettes, chocolate, biscuits and chewing gum. They dropped them right into the compound, one even went through the cookhouse roof. What a day we had - it was a very happy time for all of us. Fresh bandages for our sores instead of old bits of rag and paper to keep the flies off. Sweets to eat, cigarettes to smoke.'
'When the relief force arrived more photographs were taken. I have been unable to trace those with me on. However, the other photographs show some of my mates, and scenes from the prison. We were taken down to the docks and put on to minesweepers that took us right to the mouth of the river. There we boarded a hospital boat - The Karapara. On board we took of our old rags and threw them over the side - old shorts and raggy vests. After a nice hot bath, our first for all those years, we put on fresh clean underwear, shirts and shorts. It was marvellous. We embarked for India, and landed at Calcutta. There we went into hospital for a couple of weeks and then to a rest camp for rehabilitation. It was a wonderful feeling to be free.'
'We were asked how we wanted to go home, by air or sea. I said immediately - "The quickest way''. It took 36 hours with about six stops on the way, before we landed at Merryfield, which is somewhere in the South of England. We gave our names to the Officer in Charge, with details of our regiment, last address and so on. We were allowed to go out that night for a drink. Next morning we had to report back to the Officer in Charge. We went in one at a time to find out family news and where we were to go. His very words were "Father dead. Sister Evelyn, 16 Stanley Terrace". That 's all! Marched out, and given railway warrants and a small amount of money.'
'When I arrived at Newcastle Central, all the family was there. I never found out how they knew which train I was getting. We went home by taxi, and at Shiney the whole of Quarry Head had turned out, and it was nearly an hour before I got in the house because everyone was kissing and cuddling me. They had written on the outside wall 'Welcome Home Leslie' in great big writing. It was a good feeling and I was very proud. I was very sad because my Dad wasn't there to meet me, as he had died in 1942, from the shock of hearing that I was missing, presumed dead. I was very upset. They had a good meal on for me, and I really felt as if I was back home. I don't think I stopped talking and it was the early hours of the morning before I got to bed, and then I couldn't sleep for the excitement.'
'I only had two 'souvenirs' of my time in prison: a silver spoon that my Dad had given me when I joined the army. I kept it with me through everything. I was so worried that it might get stolen in the prison, that I warmed it over the rice stove, and twisted the shaft so I would know it anywhere. The second was the tin badge with our name and number on - in Japanese - that we had to hang on a string around our necks at all times.'
Thanks to Gerry Spoors for this account.
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