GALLERY: Remembrance Day recollections by veteran Bert Major, now 91 but who in 1939 left Ely, aged 25, to fight in the war
At the tender age of 25, he had travelled virtually round the world in troop ships, been wounded in a Japanese attack in Malaya and spent four years as a prisoner of war.
At the age of 91, key dates such as his capture on January 27, 1942, and the Fall of Singapore on February 15, 1942, remain etched on his mind as though they were yesterday.
By the time he was liberated by British commandos in August 1945, his youthful frame was down to 6st and he was suffering the ravages of malaria and beriberi – a debilitating condition caused by thiamine deficiency.
Bert, who met Peggy – his wife of 66 years – at a dance in Ely for returning war veterans, recalled that it had been a slow start to the war with months of arduous training, first in the eastern region and then in Scotland and the north of England.
It was not until October 1941 that they boarded a Polish vessel in Scotland and set off for Halifax, Canada, where they transferred to an American transport ship.
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He then recalls the journey south, stopping off at Trinidad and Cape Town and passing into the Indian Ocean for a further stop-off in Mombasa, Kenya.
He said: “We arrived in Singapore on January 13, 1942, and spent a couple of days re-equipping ourselves before moving on to Johor in Malaya.
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“The Japs were coming down the Malayan peninsula and we were green young troops compared to them. We got cut off and had to destroy all our transport.”
The marooned soldiers – more than 5,000 men – had no choice but to try to march back to Singapore through swamp and jungle and under enemy fire.
He said: “I was hit in the arm and lost a lot of blood. I could not walk and was among those wounded who were left behind on the march to Singapore.”
After being captured, he was taken to the “putrid” conditions of Pudu jail in Kuala Lumpur.
He said: “There were 400 there to start with but in a matter of months the figure was up to 1,400.”
There was limited food – just a little rice –and his only medical treatment was administered by comrades who were medics.
He said: “We were not dead but were dying as far as our captors were concerned.”
After a few months, the fitter prisoners were sent north to work on building the railway from Thailand to Burma.
He said: “I was among those sent instead by cattle truck – not a comfortable experience – to Singapore.
“I had malaria quite a few times and dengue fever on top of that. I was not fit to do much at all and if they had sent me on the other party I would not be here today.”
Bert recalls that more than one quarter of his captured comrades perished before liberation.
The Japanese had maintained “their very brutal attitude” right up to the end.
Returning to the brewery in Ely for a time, he later joined the civil service and settled in Gorleston where he lives today in his retirement bungalow in Brett Avenue.
After returning home he had to have his arm broken and reset and there are still reminders of his injury.
“One or two lumps of shrapnel came up and had to be removed; there is still a piece in my arm today,” he said.
He has maintained contact with fellow Fepows – “a close-knit company” – down the years and relishes events such as the annual Remembrance service on Great Yarmouth seafront.
He said: “We are gradually dying out but it is so important to keep Remembrance alive for future generations.
“The world is full of wars and we have a heck of a lot to learn.”