THANKS to the untiring efforts of Earl Mountbatten and the 14th Army, the P&O steamship Corfu left Rangoon, in what was Burma, in September 1945 carrying over a thousand former Far East Prisoners of War.

On the wet and dreary morning of October 7, 1945, she docked in Southampton, the first of a small armada of 28 assorted passenger ships that brought more than 20,000 released captives back to Southampton from South-East Asia over the winter of 1945/46, whilst 24 ships docked in Liverpool between October 8 and mid-December.

Seventy-five years to the day from the arrival of SS Corfu, website is being launched.

It honours the memory of all those who did not return home from Far East captivity and pays tribute to the survivors, acknowledging the physical and mental suffering so many endured after their return which impacted so many families.

Although the men, and in many cases, civilian women and children, had suffered grievously at the hands of the Japanese for up to four years, the official welcome they received on the dockside could perhaps be described as muted.

Military bands played popular music and lifted spirits, but no families or girlfriends were allowed to meet the first ship back. Instead the men were greeted on board by General Sir Ronald Adam: the Adjutant General and by Lord Nathan, the Acting War Minister, who gave each Far East Prisoner of War a written message of welcome from King George VI and Queen Elizabeth.

What was described by one returning FEPOW that day as one “of endless anti-climax” was relieved by one moment of amusement.

In defiance of quarantine regulations one determined soldier had brought home a duck of formidable size and equal courage all the way from Rangoon.

Unsurprisingly this drew the attention of the official reception party, as well as the press and cameramen.

As if to emphasise its significance, or overcome by its feelings on the occasion, the duck laid an egg on the quayside and in doing so, it won all hearts.

It probably accompanied his guardian and the other FEPOW on their journey by bus and truck to the transit camp set up on the Common!

In some contrast to officialdom, Southampton people had put up the flags from the VJ and VE Day celebrations and lined the streets of the town in the rain, to do what they could to cheer the troops back.

Perhaps one reason for the low key official welcome was some embarrassment for the authorities. Certainly, many FEPOW felt themselves tainted by being part of the Fall of Singapore, and what Winston Churchill described as “the worst disaster and largest capitulation in British military history”.

Overall, around 140,000 Allied Forces – 50,000 of whom were British – were taken prisoner between 1941 and 1942.

For the next three and a half years thousands of FEPOW were forced to slave in brutal conditions on the Siam-Burma and Sumatra jungle railways, constructing airfields across the new Nippon Empire, or in the mines and heavy industry of Taiwan and Japan.

Over 12,500 British servicemen died as a result of their captivity. Of those who survived, many were demoralised and traumatised by what they had seen and experienced.

They were not encouraged to speak about it and many could not resume lives they had before they left the UK five years earlier.

Southampton has its own Repatriation Memorial, marking the arrival in port of thousands of former Far East captives during autumn 1945.

The engraved stone plaque was unveiled in Town Quay Park, which is situated between French Street and Lower High Street, in October 2013.

The FEPOW 75 website contains interviews with survivors, as well as individual case histories and images of rarely seen artwork and poetry created in the camps and links to useful sources of information and research.

Schoolchildren and students are invited to create poetry, based on what they have learned through visiting the website.

  • Article by Roger Townsend and the FEPOW 75 team.
  • Website will go live at 11.00am on October 7, 2020.