Sydney Tavender tells of his experience as a Japanese prisoner of war during WWII

8 October 2013 14:15

Sydney worked on the Burma Railway until 1944 and later helped construct Changi airport for the Japanese.

Born on the 17 August 1918 Sydney Tavender joined the East Yorkshire Regiment (TA) before going to India where his father was a diplomat in 1936 to train as a policeman. When the war broke out he joined the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders in India and fought in the Far East where he was taken prisoner at Slim River, Malaya by the Japanese.

He worked on the Burma Railway until 1944 and later helped construct Changi airport for the Japanese. He was liberated in Oct 1945 and at this time 90,332 Britons had been killed, taken prisoner, wounded or were classified 'missing, presumed dead'. Here Sydney tells his account of World War II in Asia.

Sydney now age 95, from Cheltenham, still has nightmares about his experience as a Japanese prisoner of war during World War II. He was captured in 1942 while fighting with the Gurkha regiment at the Battle of Slim River in what was then known as Malaya.

Sydney says he was initially sent to the Pudu Prison in Kuala Lumpur before becoming one of the estimated 61,000 Allied PoWs and 270,000 Asian labourers forced by the Japanese to build the notorious 'Death Railway' linking Thailand to Burma.

Sydney said: "It was horrific, there were around 6,000 of us in the camps at one point and by the time we were released, the number fell to 127. People would get cholera, typhoid and dysentery but there was no medical treatment. Often they had to amputate, but it was no use.

"Some of the other prisoners tried to escape but they were caught. Their heads were chopped off in front of us so we would not think about doing the same thing."

Sydney said that some of the prisoners had made a secret radio and when they could, one would sneak out and listen to transmissions before sharing with the others. It was only when the Japanese and Korean guards disappeared did the Survivors realise the situation in the wider world had changed and the Allied forces were celebrating their victory.

Sydney went on to say: "The Allied forces parachuted in to come and get us I think about three or four days after the final surrender. We were in such bad condition. I could hardly walk and had sores all over my body I had contracted chronic dysentery and malaria. By that point, I weighed 5st 9lb and every bone in my body was visible."

It took months before Sydney was able to return to his family in the UK, who had at one point been informed that he was presumed dead.

Sydney said: "I was flown back in the dead of the night but all I could focus on was forgetting everything. I just wanted to get home and get cleaned up. I was granted leave straight away and given a ration book so I could get basic supplies. I'll never forget what happened to me. I still have nightmares now. We were the forgotten army right from the word go. Prime Minister Winston Churchill gave up on us as nobody was able to get through those jungles."

On his return to England he worked for a short while at his family's paper mill in Scotland. Quickly bored with that he went to Palestine with the police as a Colonial Officer, moving on to Burma and then Kuala Lumpur, still as a policeman. He was there for 30 years before returning to England. Sydney now lectures about his life as a Japanese POW to various audiences.

Eleven years ago, Sydney began to suffer with sight problems and was diagnosed with age related macular degeneration. He joined national charity Blind Veterans UK and has benefited from physical and emotional support to help him regain his independence despite being registered blind.

Sydney says it is important for him to remember those who had died but whenever he met those who had shared similar experiences to him, they did not dwell on the past but focused on the lives they had now.

If you know a veteran of the Armed Forces who is suffering with severe sight problems, or age-related sight loss, Blind Veterans UK can help. It doesn't matter when they served or for how long, nor how they have lost their sight - Please refer them to us by calling 0800 389 7979 or visit the No One Alone campaign website.