On the 23rd February 2020, we returned to the Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery at Kanchanaburi in Thailand to reunited Private Albert Rothwell with his service medals which we donated to the museum that stands adjacent to the cemetery where he is buried. This is his story:
Pte Albert Rothwell (4981465)
1/5th. Bn. Sherwood Foresters (Notts and Derby Regiment)
B: 23 April 1915,
D: 2 April 1943 (Aged 27)
Albert was born in Haslingden, Lancashire on the 23 April 1915, the son of David and Janie Rothwell (nee Wood). Albert had a younger brother Leslie, born in December 1916.
Albert had an association with the Trinity Baptist Church and Sunday School before attending Haslingden Central Council School. After completing his schooling, he joined his father’s furniture business.
According to the 1939 census, prior to the outbreak of World War II, Albert was single and living at 52 Deardengate, Haslingden, Lancashire. His occupation is listed as General Assistant (Cabinet Makers).
DUNKIRK TO SINGAPORE
Little is recorded of Alberts’ early war years other than he joined the 1/5th Battalion, the Sherwood Foresters (Notts and Derby Regiment), a 1st-Line Territorial Army. In December 1939, the Battalion saw service with the British Expeditionary Force in France and Belgium in 1940 before being evacuated at Dunkirk.
In late October 1941, Battalion sailed from Liverpool aboard a converted P&O liner, the troopship Orcades, originally destined for the Middle East. The 1/5th Foresters along with the 1st Battalion the Cambridgeshires and the 5th Battalion Beds and Herts, formed one of the three Brigades of the British 18th Division, 55 Brigade under Major-General Merton Beckwith-Smith.
After layovers in Cape Town and Bombay, the deteriorating situation in Malaya led to the Division being redirected to Singapore aboard the USS WestPoint. They were still equipped with desert camouflage for the Middle East.
The convoys commander, Capt. Oliver L. Gordon, R.N., commanding HMS Exeter, desired to arrive at Singapore with as many ships as possible by dawn on 29 January, and thus split the convoy up, sending the faster vessels—WestPoint, Wakefield, and Empress of Japan—ahead at increased speed under escort of cruisers HMS Exeter, Durban, Dragon, and destroyers Express and Electra.
The following day January 30th, Japanese bombers arrived over the harbour area and the USS Wakefield took a direct hit killing five men and injuring many more. Along with the USS West Point she had been embarking a large British contingent of civilians, dockyard and naval personnel and their families who were being evacuated from the doomed island.
By the 8th February, the Japanese army had crossed the Straits of Johore onto Singapore Island. The 1/5th. Battalion, Sherwood Foresters, were gradually forced back towards Singapore city by the overwhelming pressure of the Japanese advance.
On the 10th February, General Percival ordered the formation of TOMFORCE under Lt. Col L Thomas, comprising a force from the 18th Division including the Sherwood Foresters to relieve the Bukit Timah area. After intense hand to hand combat the British retreated and held their line at Reformatory Road (Clementi Road).
By early morning of the 11th, the Japanese had secured Bukit Timah Hill. At 6.45am on the 12th February heavy firing started and forced a retreat to two miles behind the Racecourse. During the retirement the 1/5th Sherwood Forester were caught by advancing Japanese tanks and forced southwards in disorder.
On the morning of the 15th February troops saw the surrender party carrying the white flag. When Singapore surrendered Albert was originally reported as missing but this was later amended and he spent time as a prisoner of war in Changi Gaol.
After surrender the POWs were organised in groups under their own command which were then subdivided into ‘Letter Parties’.
The first Mainland Party (known as the No.1 Group) of 3000 British left Singapore on June 18, 20, 22, 24/26th 1942, with the task of building the camp at Nong Pladuc to house future work parties en route for up country.
A further four groups (2,3,4 and 5) made up of 3200, 791, 2600 and 1300 troops left Singapore between 9th and 24th October 1942.
The largest movement of mainly British prisoners known as No 6 Group was made up of letter parties:
Letter Parties X, W, V, U, T, S, R. 4550 British (seven lots of 650) departed Singapore on the 25th, 26, 27, 28, 29, 30, and 31st October 1942. Letter Parties Q, P, O, N, M, A total number of 3900, departed Singapore 1st, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6th November 1942. The combined Letter parties made up six separate train lots of 650.
After being transferred from Singapore to Thailand, Albert was put to work on the Burma Railway.
During his time as a POW he spent time at both the Wan Yai and Wan Po camps. According to his medical records, Albert contracted dysentery on the 22nd February 1943.
Private Albert Rothwell, 1/5th Battalion, The Sherwood Foresters died of amoebic dysentery on the 2nd April 1943. He was 27 years old.
Albert lies in Plot 8, Row K, Grave 3 at Kanchanaburi War Cemetery. 450 men and officers of the 1/5th died in captivity – seventy-three are buried at Kanchanaburi War Cemetery.
Albert’s family continued to write to him until June 1943, unaware that he had already passed away.