PRIESTLEY Dennis

Dennis PRIESTLEY 1921 – 1944

1032538 Aircraftsman 1st Class Dennis Priestley, RAFVR died 9 October 1944 aged 22. He is commemorated on the Singapore Memorial and the Butterknowle War Memorial.[1]

Family Details

Dennis Priestley was born 29 December 1921,[2] the son of Sidney and Mary May Priestley at Butterknowle.[3]  In 1911, Sidney lived at Diamond Hill, Butterknowle with his mother and 6 siblings where he worked as a coal miner [driver].[4]  In 1939, Sidney and Mary Priestley lived at Lunedale Road, Darlington with possibly 3 children “whose records are officially closed”.  Dennis was not recorded as living there.[5]

Service Details

The service details of Aircraftsman Dennis Priestley have not been researched.  The following account summarises the areas from which RAF station & ground staff and air crews were captured in the Far East.[6]

  • 7 & 8 December 1941: simultaneously with Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbour, Hawaii, its forces landed at Kota Bharu, Malaya and crossed the border into mainland Hong Kong.
  • 25 December 1941: Hong Kong fell. Less than 100 RAF men were captured.  As the Japanese advanced down Malaya, one by one, the 22 airfields were evacuated and by 16 January 1942, all Air Force Squadrons, units and station staff had been driven back to Singapore.  At the same time, 232 and 258 Squadrons arrived from the UK.  The evacuation of RAF ground staff from Java took place.
  • 10 February 1942: All but 1 of the 4 airfields on Singapore island had been captured.  Remaining aircraft were withdrawn to Palembang, Sumatra.
  • 14 February 1942: 2 fighter squadrons [605 & 242] and 2 bomber squadrons [84 & 211] and the newly arrived at Palembang were withdrawn to Java after a 2-day battle.
  • 15 February 1942: Singapore fell and less than 100 RAF men were captured.  Many ships evacuating civilians and servicemen from Singapore were sunk and approx. 125 shipwrecked RAF men survived to be captured and taken to Bangka Island.
  • 5 March 1942: Those RAF men [approx..4.600 in number] who had assembled at Bandung in Java were captured when the Dutch government proclaimed that all resistance should cease. A few RAF personnel managed to get to Australia.
  • 17 March 1942: Another 150 RAF men were captured when Padang fell.

About 100 RAF aircrew and from the various Commonwealth Air Forces were also captured after being shot down in Burma.

Of those captured in Singapore more than half were transported to Thailand for railway construction and approx. 15% were transported overseas, half to Borneo for airfield construction.  Those POWs remaining at Changi were sent to work on projects on Singapore island for example the Paya Lebar airfield.  Work was hard and laborious in the searing heat, food was limited, starvation was the norm, disease was rife.[7]

Further research is required to determine when and where Dennis Priestley was captured.  Since he is commemorated on the Singapore Memorial perhaps he remained captive at Changi POW Camp.  His date of death is recorded as 9 October 1944 and fighting ceased after March 1942 [other than in Burma], it seems highly likely that he was captured at Singapore and possibly held there for 2½ years.[8]

The treatment in the POW Camps and work places was brutal, for 3½ years, they faced unrelentingly lethal conditions and much has been written:[9]

  • Over a quarter died in captivity, the rest returned home sick and damaged.
  • The average prisoner received less than a cup of filthy rice a day. The amount was so meagre that gross malnutrition led to loss of vision or unrelenting nerve pain.
  • Diseases were rife. Malaria and dysentery were almost universal. Dysentery, an infective disease of the large bowel, reduced men to living skeletons. Tropical ulcers were particularly gruesome.

1714 RAF men captured in the Far East are recorded as, “killed or died in captivity”.  The majority died of disease and malnutrition.  Of the 619 who died at sea, some 362 died as a result of ships being sunk by Allied action.

15 August 1945, when Japan accepted unconditional surrender, there were about 17,000 POWs at Changi.[10]  About 75% of them survived but the medical scars both physical and mental would stay with many for a lifetime.

Commemoration [11]

1032538 Aircraftsman 1st Class Dennis Priestley, RAFVR is commemorated at column 440, the Singapore Memorial. The cemetery is 22 km north of the city of Singapore.  There was a cemetery located at Changi POW camp but the graves were moved to Kranji in 1946.  There are 4,458 Commonwealth Second World War burials at Kranji War Cemetery.  Within the cemetery stands the Singapore Memorial bearing the names of over 25,000 casualties of the Commonwealth land and air forces who have no known grave.

REFERENCES

[1] Commonwealth War Graves Commission

[2] Capture Card Fold 3 & England & Wales Birth Index 1916-2007 Vol.10a p.564 1922 Q1 Auckland

[3] Capture Card Fold 3

[4] 1911 census

[5] 1939 England & Wales Register

[6] “Unsung Heroes of the RAF” Les & Pam Stubbs and https://www.cofepow.org.uk/armed-forces-stories-list/raf-in-se-asia

[7] https://www.cofepow.org.uk/armed-forces-stories-list/the-story-of-changi

[8] Capture Card – Place of Capture is written in Japanese script and there is little to be recognised with other capture card details

[9] https://www.forces-war-records.co.uk/prisoners-of-war-of-the-japanese-1939-1945

[10] https://www.cofepow.org.uk/armed-forces-stories-list/the-story-of-changi

[11] CWGC