Thursday, 16 February 2017

Major Douglas Dewe, Indian Medical Service, POW in Singapore and on the Burma Railway

This post is about a British Indian Army Medical Doctor serving with the Indian Medical Service in Singapore who was captured after the Fall of Singapore in February 1942. He was incarcerated at Changi and later on the Burma Railway.


Douglas Dewe was born 17 January 1908 in Somerset. He first married in 1933 at the age of twenty-five to Winnifred Warren. Tragically she died in February 1934 within a year of their wedding as a result of a ruptured appendix. In August 1934 Douglas married Rosanna ('Rona') Gorrie Heggie (1912-1972). They lived initially in India and later moved to Taiping and Singapore. They had two children Roderick (1935) and Michael (1940). I became interested to learn more about Major Dewe when I happened to run across an article in the Hong Kong Daily Press dated 19 August 1941. The article reported on the breakdown of  Douglas and Rona's marriage and cited infidelity on the part of Rona with a forty-year-old rubber planter by the name of Oswald  Cutler. 

Hong Kong Daily Press 19 Aug. 1941
Being interested in family history, the article caught my attention, and  I reflected on the fact that war was already imminent and that all three parties, Douglas, Rona, and Oswald would have ended up as POWs or civilian internees. I was curious to find out more. 

After the fall of Singapore on 15 February 1942, Major Dewe was incarcerated initially in the military POW camp at Changi. Rona and Oswald were interned in the civilian internment camp also located at Changi. Unlike Stanley Camp in Hong Kong, the civilian internees in Singapore were segregated and placed either in a men's camp or a separate women's camp. Rona registered in the name of  Rona Cutler although they were not married. I was able to make contact with Major Dewe's youngest son Mike who helped me with much of this information. Mike believes that by taking on the surname of Cutler, Rona may have been able to obtain visitation rights to Oswald. 

The court hearing in August had awarded Major Dewe with custody of his two sons. The marriage had broken down in 1937/1938, Major Dewe had by that time become engaged to Peggy Frampton, a divorcee whose name is mentioned on his POW record (below). In the Japanese POW record sheet, Major Dewe gave his specialisation as gynaecology and obstetrics, although he was, in fact, a general practitioner with good diagnostician skills and a strong understanding of tropical diseases. Mike thought this was done in order to avoid undesirable postings by his captors, but unfortunately, it was to no avail as he was transferred to the worst location of all - the Burma railway.


In April 1945, Major Dewe was transferred from the Burma railway, together with some 1,000 emaciated POWs to a new camp called Mergui Road in the south of Burma. The POWs were to be used as slave labourers to help build a road south into Thailand as an extrication route for the Japanese Army out of Burma. Major Dewe was both the senior officer in camp and the senior of the six medical officers assigned to this camp. The conditions here were said to be worse than on the Burma railway and over a third of the POWs died under the atrocious conditions. 

POW Record (National Archives)
Peggy Frampton returned to India with her daughter, Ray, and with Major Dewe's two sons, Roddy and Mike.  Mike at the time was only sixteen months old, and Roddy was five-years-old. They were able to get out of Singapore on one of the last evacuation ships to leave before the Japanese overran the colony. Peggy looked after both the boys in India, but she must have given up on Major  Dewe, perhaps assuming he was dead, or perhaps unwilling to wait and find out, because she remarried during the war years. The boys, despite their young age, were sent to the famous Bishop Cotton boarding school in Simla, India. After being liberated in 1945, Major Dewe returned to India and collected his sons, and took them with him to Afghanistan where he had been posted as Medical Officer to the British Legation in Kabul. 

Oswald Cutler and Rona's relationship did not last through internment. He married Margaret Bell in February 1946 and returned to Malaya where he resumed his pre-war occupation as a planter. Rona also remarried quite soon after being liberated. This marriage did not last, and later she remarried Colonel Christopher Harold Miskin and settled in Jersey. She passed away in 1972.

After Indian independence in 1947, Major Dewe retired from the Indian Medical Service and emigrated to Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) with his wife June Fox (nee Martin) who he married in 1947 and his two sons. The marriage to June did not last, he married again to  Paloma Hone but this marriage only lasted a year or two. In 1954 Douglas Dewe married Barbara Ward, the marriage lasted and they continued to live in Rhodesia until he retired to Pietermaritzburg, South Africa in 1975, where he passed away in 1978.

Major Douglas Dewe had lived on the edge of empire, at a time of change and in a very different world to that which we know today. He had served in India, Malaya, Singapore and Afghanistan when they were still part of what was the British Empire. He and his fellow medical officers saved countless lives of British and allied servicemen during the brutal incarceration in Singapore and Burma. The Medical Officers had to keep working, despite their own debilitating weakness from malnutrition and the heat of the tropics. They were constantly exposed to diseases like diphtheria and dysentery.  They had to carry out their work of saving lives with inadequate medicine and in the absence of medical facilities, improvising where they could with medicines and equipment. The medical doctors, like the other POWs, were weak, starved, and ill and constantly subject to the brutality of the guards. They were a cadre that received little recognition, much less than they deserved. The POWs, however, never forgot what the doctors and medical orderlies did to alleviate their suffering. 


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