Company Sergeant Major Len Jelley, 2nd Battalion, the East Surrey Regiment, recalls the fall of Singapore, building the bridge over the River Kwai, and his release from Japanese captivity.
CSM L Jelley
Company Sergeant Major Len Jelley

You were at the surrender of Singapore when they captured Singapore, am I right, do you want to tell me about the surrender?
Well I don't know much of the surrender itself, I was in Alexandra Hospital. I had been blown into a tree and had my face bashed somewhat and while I was in there we heard firing all round and the next thing we knew the Japanese were in the hospital and it was chaos, believe me, I saw the results of it, I saw a friend of mine, Private Deacon being bayoneted on a stretcher outside the room where I was and several of the doctors lying in the passage way being shot, and nurses, and this is not made up, this is actual truth, I actually saw this. Anyway the Japs told us all to lie down, which we did on the floor, and then the next day the Japanese came in and a senior officer apologised if you will, and that night everything went quiet and we were told that the island of Singapore had surrendered. We couldn't believe it.
What happened to you?
We were rounded up several days later and marched all the way to Changi, Changi Village, a nice place in peacetime, beautiful, near the beach, and we were all put into different huts and barracks. There were several barracks in the area, all billeted down there, thousands of us all marched down there and were kept behind the barbed wire. They put barbed wire fences up and we were told to wait there, which we did until we were posted to different places on working parties.
What happened to you after that?
From Changi I was taken to a place called [?Allen] Park, a residential area near the golf course in Singapore, and we were put up in these big houses. Each day we went out to the golf course and we dug it up, it was terrible, and made roads all across it that led to a centre where the Japanese had built a big shrine to their war dead and we worked on that for six months. Then we were taken back to Changi and very soon after that a big party of us were marched down to the station in Singapore, put on a train, when I say train I'm talking about an engine with loads of metal goods wagons. We were packed in them forty to a wagon, for a three day journey to Thailand, and we were taken out of Thailand and put in a camp, which I know now as Tamarkan and the first work we had there was building the two bridges at the River Kwai and I was there for all of 6 months. Finally, I went to another place called Kin Sai Yok where we were building a railway cutting. As soon as you took the topsoil off there were big granite stones so they all had to be blasted out and there is nothing worse than walking over blasted granite after it has been blasted with dynamite with no shoes on your feet. We suffered there, believe me, very much so.
Tell me about Kwai, did you have any contact with the Japanese?
Yes, the first thing in the camp every morning was "tenko", which you probably know from films is roll call, and once the Japanese had decided amongst themselves how many there were there and whether we were all there, we split up into working parties, taken out, some were on pile driving, driving wooden piles into the bed of the river and gradually a wooden bridge took shape to get the railway line over. While they were finishing that off we started building the other one, the concrete and steel bridge and that was really hard work. When they put the bits of cement in the cement bells we used to have to go inside them, dig the stuff into buckets that were chained up and tipped out so the bell gradually sunk into the river bed and then once they got it far enough down it was all filled with stones and cement on top as a block. We gradually built all those piles across and then the bridge was brought to us, the steel spans I believe came from Sumatra, and they were put up right across the river, but now the middle two are different, they are flat ones, they are not arched, they were blown out by the air force in 1945 those centre ones.
Tell me about the living accommodation at Kwai.
Well all the camps after we had left Singapore were virtually the same. They build a frame of two side frames and an arch over the top which are the basics and they are dug into the ground for the length of the hut they want and then you run bamboo from each archway right along. When you have tied all the bamboo and laced them all together then you put attap, which is palm leaves bent over a piece of bamboo and laced on, and they are laid one on top of the other like tiles, and believe me they can be quite effective if they are laid on properly, keeping the rain out. Inside the hut was a bamboo platform built right along the length of the hut and you get bamboo and split it so it makes little flat pieces and that was the piece that you laid on, that was laid the whole length of the hut and you were given so many inches each to lay on, sometimes you got more room than others depending on what camp you were in.
Did you hear what was happening in the rest of the world?
Now and again we did get little bits of news here and there. The Japanese made a great thing of telling us when the Duke of Kent was killed in his aircraft accident during the war, they thought that was great, little did they know that we did have wirelesses.
How did that period finish in Kwai?
Well, as I say, from when the bridge was almost complete they were just finishing laying the rails. A different team laid the rails all the way up to what built the banks and the bridges. We were sent up into Kin Sai Yok which was way, way up, and we walked all the way up there, by the way, and we started building, as I say, this cutting through a hill which turned out to be all granite underneath and that was pretty hard but then one of our MOs decided I had rheumatic fever so he sent me back to Chung-Kai which was a hospital camp. Luckily from there I went back to my own group which was number one group, which I can say now without any fear or favour was the best looked after group in the whole of Thailand for the sole reason the Lieutenant Colonel we had in charge was a man named Phillip Toosey, a Territorial Officer with the Royal Artillery. I don't know if you have read his book "The Man behind the Bridge", I've got it at home now, and if you ever saw the film “The Bridge on the River Kwai” in which Alec Guinness took the leading role, a little bit right, a little big wrong, the Colonel never wanted us to build the bridge. He taught us all ways to slow it down. Colonel Toosey, a great man, I've never met a man like him and I mean that, a wonderful man.
Then what happened, how did you get back to England from that theatre of war?
When the war actually finished we were in a place called Ubon which is right over in the east of Thailand near the border with Laos and we went out one morning to go to work. We had started digging a runway for an aerodrome half way through it and they made us dig big trenches across it so we thought they are going to have some funny aeroplanes land on here. Anyway, we realised that something must be happening and one morning we were all lined up, normal Tenko, all counted, one or two got a box aside the ears because they weren't standing up straight and finally we stood there for about an hour and wondered what the hell was going on. We all got our mess tin full of cold rice for our lunch and were all told to sit down and that's unusual, you didn't get told to sit down very often, which quite pleased us. We looked at one another, we knew there was something going on by the way the Japs were acting and after two or three hours we were all told to go back to the huts, [?yasmee] day, [yasmee] is rest, and we all went back, glad of a day off. Next morning we paraded the same, the same thing happened, all men sit, all men go back to hut, lovely, another day off. That evening we were all called out on the parade ground, lined up, several hundred of us, and we had a chap who was our interpreter. His grandmother, I believe, was Japanese although he was in our Royal Army Ordnance Corps and he and [Major Cheater] the Japanese Commandant stood up on the little box, gave a speech in Japanese and then this chap interpreted. "War in South East Asia is over, you are all going back to your families", and I can honestly say not one peep, not one chair nothing, complete silence and after awhile it was just all men back to the huts, then you heard "Rule Britannia", God Save the King, you never heard such a sound, beautiful.
Then all the Dakotas started landing, we were put into Dakotas and flown to Rangoon and taken to a camp in Rangoon. There were lovely tents there, all nice and clean, all put up and we looked in there and there were beds in there with sheets on them, white sheets on beds, you couldn't believe it and from that day to this I shall never know why some of the chaps couldn't get on the bed, they slept down beside on the ground, couldn't get up on the bed, couldn't bring themselves to get on the bed, I tell you I did, I was in there quicker than that, but it was a wonderful sight it really was.