How to Research your 8th Division Soldier

So your father or grandfather or uncle or cousin fought with the ill fated 8th Division in Singapore and Malaya in the Second World War? Where can you find details of his war service?  The most important resource could well be within the family, so initially ask all those relatives to see if some treasured letters or diary remain hidden away.

The first place to visit online is the Nominal Roll at the Veterans Affair site < www.ww2roll.gov.au>. You can search by name or service number. A date of death or discharge will show whether death was during the fighting or as a prisoner, discharge indicates welcome survival. Unfortunately it is not searchable by unit, so if there are several ‘Robert Jones’ you may have to click on all until you find your man. Remember that the site shows which unit they were in at war’s end, so, if they had come home earlier than the POWs they may be under their ‘new’ unit. This included medical evacuations and those who transferred to Mission 204 then on to other units.

If you have a problem finding the right person, remember that ‘Uncle Jim’ may have J as his second initial, not his first. Double barrelled names may also cause a few hiccups but keep using a variety of combinations in the search facility. The other issue researchers have is when an incorrect name was used for enlistment…. to disguise being underage or to have another crack at a failed medical with (hopefully) a more lenient doctor …so don’t be surprised in ‘Robert James Jones’ is finally found as ‘James Robert Jones’. If the name changes completely the soldier becomes very hard to find (NX20508 Robert Smith was eventually found to be Oswald Charles Burne).

Once you have the Service Number it will help you hone in on the right person on this and subsequent sites, the prefix N is for those who enlisted in NSW, the letter V indicates Victoria, Q for Queensland and so on.

There is so much information on the Australian War Memorial site < http://www.awm.gov.au/ > with biographical databases, encyclopaedia links to research the battles, information sheets, battalion diaries so you can follow day by day activities of the troops. Their new “People Search” is excellent.

All units are listed at < http://www.awm.gov.au/units/ww2.asp > This should be your point of call to find the units including the Infantry…. but don’t forget there were also units of artillery, tanks and many non-combatant support units such as Transport and Medical within the Battalions, so check the well resourced AWM web site. As my research has been mainly with the 2/20 Battalion AIF, I have concentrated on these records for this paper.

2nd Australian Imperial Force    < http://www.awm.gov.au/units/unit_13201.asp >

The 22nd Brigade were made up of

2/20 Battalion < http://www.awm.gov.au/units/unit_11271.asp >

2/19 Battalion < http://www.awm.gov.au/units/unit_11270.asp >

2/18 Battalion < http://www.awm.gov.au/units/unit_11269.asp >

The other 8th Division unites were the 2/21 Battalion, 2/22 Battalion, 2/26 Battalion, 2/29 Battalion, 2/30 Battalion, 2/40 Battalion who are all listed <  http://www.awm.gov.au/units/ww2.asp >

The men were initially at Ingleburn camp < http://www.awm.gov.au/units/place_1039.asp >

The Roll of Honour at the AWM is found at < http://www.awm.gov.au/research/people/roll_of_honour/ >

The War Diary of the 2/20 Battalion is listed at

<http://www.awm.gov.au/collection/records/awm52/diary.asp?levelID=1046 > and is in eleven parts, 1940AWM52, 8/3/20/1 to AMW52, 8/3/20/11

The official War History for Malaya is

 < http://www.awm.gov.au/histories/second_world_war/volume.asp?levelID=67906 >

Australia in the W of 1939-1945. Series 1 – Army – Volume 4, Volume IV The Japanese thrust (1st edition 1957) Author: Lionel Wigmore

This volume of the army series of the Australian official war history relates mainly to the operations on Malaya in the first ten weeks of the war against Japan. It has, however, an introductory section describing, from an Australian point of view and largely from Australian documents, the steps which led to commencement of war by Japan, and the measures taken to meet the danger.

Information about Prisoners of the Japanese can be found at  <http://www.awm.gov.au/encyclopedia/pow/ww2_japanese/ >

and there are links at the bottom of the page to

Japan

Search through the collection database, there are many recordings of interviews which you can order. Don Wall’s film and recordings are listed, these were done as he was compiling ‘Singapore and Beyond’ and there are interviews with other POWs such as Gordon Gaffney of 2/30, a POW with ‘F’ Force.

A collection search at < http://www.awm.gov.au/search/collections/?mode=advanced > using “Prisoners of War” and “Japanese” yields 6,823 items, so just keep digging through all those links… it will keep you occupied for quite a while! And a visit to Canberra to use their research facilities is well worth the trip… the staff  are very helpful.

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission site < www.cwgc.org > is good as it may give basic family information which is more extensive than the Nominal Roll. For example “Thomas Patrick Scollen” born Armidale was the son of Owen according to the Nominal Roll but the CWGC listed him as being the son of Owen Bernard and Mary Josephine Scollen of Banksia NSW. This site also lists the location of any memorial which indicates where your relative died. Labuan is in Borneo, the final resting place of many of those souls who went to Sandakan; Kanchanaburi is located in Thailand, Thanbyuzayat is in Burma. This will give you an idea where your lad was sent and therefore which POW ‘Force’ he may have been with.

The National Archives of Australia has recently added a huge amount of data to its online searches at

< www.naa.gov.au > Follow the links to The Collection then War Service Records then Second World War

< http://www.naa.gov.au/collection/explore/defence/service-records/army-wwii.aspx > .

Army records from WWII

The records created by the Army during World War II typically comprise a set of forms:

To view a service record online….Some online copies of World War II service records already exist.

  1. Go to NameSearch.
  2. Enter the family name of the service person – make sure it is the name used at enlistment.
  3. Select ‘World War II’ from the dropdown menu.
  4. Search.
  5. Display the results of your search. If there are too many, you can refine this search result, and then enter the person’s given names and/or service number.
  6. Use the link to ‘View digital copy’. You can also print a copy of the record.

A list of names will appear and a column indicates which have been digitised. If your person’s record has not been digitised follow the links to order a copy, when I ordered information a few years ago it cost $16.50 for an online version, $25 for a hard copy. It many take a few days but they will fast-track those specific records and add it to the database. I have 23 pages of information about Bill Gaden (for which I paid) and an equal amount about one of the nurses he met on the Queen Mary (which were free as someone before me had asked for her records to be fast tracked.)

More data can be found at another Government web site < www.australiansatwar.gov.au > and  then you can move to private sites such as < www.diggerhistory.info/ >

Overseas web sites can be very useful. The Singapore archives at < www.a2o.com.sg>  has an interesting link to ‘1942 Battlefield Singapore’.

The Thai-Burma Railway Centre is based in Kanchanaburi opposite the war cemetery there. Curator Rod Beattie is keen to gather information about POWs and to help researchers. He has collected about 400 books over the years and hundreds of wartime documents including many diaries in his research room. The web site is <www.tbrconline.com >

British troops made up a large proportion of those who took part in the Battles for Malaya and Singapore and who fell prisoner. The Imperial War Museum is a good starting point < www.iwm.org.uk > and another informative site is <www.britain-at-war.org.uk.>

In Australia we tend to think of POWs as automatically being prisoners of the Japanese. In Britain there were more prisoners of the Germans and Italians too, so the Japanese POWs are knows as Far Eastern POWs or FEPOWs. Their web site is <www.fepow-community.org.uk > and Children and Families of FEPOWs can be found at <www.cofepow.org.uk >.

Battalion information may be found online, for example information about the 2/20 is at www.second twentieth.org

Books are a very valuable tool in your research.

Battalion Histories include:-

“Singapore and Beyond” by Don Wall for the 2/20 Bn: Available from the 2/20 Bn Association

“Pounding Along to Singapore, a history of 2/20 Bn AIF” by Caroline Gaden for the 2/20 Bn, available from the author, contact via this web site

“The Grim Glory of the 2/19 Battalion” edited by Reg Newton

“Against All Odds” by James Burfitt

“A history of the 2/18th battalion AIF” by Di Elliott and Lynette Silver and look out for Lynette’s excellent work on the death march at Sandakan.

Another excellent book is “Singapore Burning” by Colin Smith [published 2005]. This concentrates on the history and lead up to the Japanese invasion and the fighting up to the fall of Singapore. This should be classed as “essential reading” if you want to follow the battle. Another book [also 2005] is “Hellfire” by Cameron Forbes. It is less detailed about the battles and half of the book is devoted to their time as POWs.

Several Doctor’s Diaries have appeared in recent years, written by E.E. ‘Weary’ Dunlop, Roy Mills and Rowley Richards. They are harrowing reading about the troop’s time as prisoners. “Goodnight Bobbie” by Marilyn Dodkin details his life as a doctor through letters home.

And look out for Tony Wege’s work on the Motor Transport and Salvage units.

There are tales from ordinary soldiers too. One of the first books published was Russell Braddon’s “The Naked Island”. An excellent book is “One Man’s War” by Stan Arneil, it details his life in the 2/30 Bn and his days as a POW. “One fourteenth of an elephant” by Ian Denys Peek is also worth reading. The story of the nurses is recounted in “White Coolies” by Betty Jeffrey, they survived the bombing and massacres only to become POWs, “The Missing Years” by Stu Lloyd recounts an English POW’s time. “Pounding Along to Singapore” by Caroline Gaden also gives  insights into life as a soldier and POW through letters to family and the battalion’s war diary.

A number of these books were published some time ago. If you wish to purchase them have a look on the AbeBooks web site. They are worldwide so you can search thousands of booksellers selling 140 million books both new and second-hand and you can select an Australian book seller if you wish.

< http://www.abebooks.com/ >

And finally don’t forget to make contact with the Battalion Associations… we have seen the ‘originals’ bravely marching on ANZAC Day, we can support them by remembering their story.

Lest we forget.

Caroline Gaden ©

 

Comments
  1. Tony Wege says:

    It is frustrating for a researcher like me over the last 8 years to find next to nothing about the 8th Division units that are NOT combat battalions. As listed above, there is an assumption that if not a combat unit, the service of AASC or AAOC units of the 8 Div is not important and can be discounted. I have published a book about the history of the 8 Div’s 2/4th Reserve Motor Transport Company (2014). I am about to publish a history of the 8 Div’s Salvage Unit. Both are 8 Div units and as such should be valued like the combat units. Afterall both these units lost over a third of their members in combat and as PoWs.

    • cagaden says:

      Hello Tony
      I agree it would be great to include everyone’s story and I hope you are able to find information in repositories like the AWM…. they certainly have a huge amount of information but not all is digitised…. getting the DVA Nominal Roll has been a great achievement and I understand they are working through all collections to get as much online as they can… but of course it all takes time and $$$$. Sometimes it is the Army which hold the records and I don’t know how accessible they are. The best thing is to try for personal access so you are able to go through the precious records yourself and the AWM is grateful for all the original records they are given but so much stuff was lost in the fighting on Singapore because of the battle or possibly deliberate destruction of records so much could well have been lost…. do you think that could be the situation with the records you are after?
      All the best
      Caroline

  2. Sue Larson Kelly says:

    Hi – I am trying to find info about a relative Leslie Joseph Kelly, NX51011 in the 2/20th. In the Nat’l Archives they have records, but not released yet. He appears to have two court martials (April and Oct 1941) and was discharged two weeks before the Fall of Singapore. Do you know anywhere else I could find info about court martials? Thanks so much. Sue

  3. cagaden says:

    Try the Battalion’s war diary, copies in Australian War Memorial and look for the specific time frame…. was he sent home prior to the Fall or did he become a PoW?

  4. Sue Larson Kelly says:

    Thanks for that -a Canberra visit is overdue. His day of discharge was 20 Jan 1942 and for some reason I feel I have seen some record of a ship – but can’t find – but seem to think that was in January. He was not a POW.

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