A Gentle Giant
Sapper Percy Denis Cornwell Royal Engineers
The Man Percy Denis Cornwell was born on 3rd April 1921, son of Percy Ernest Cornwell a Carpenter former Sergeant in the Cambridgeshire Regiment during World War 1, and Elizabeth (Lizzie) nee Reynolds. He was the youngest of three children. Glyn Alfred E born on 22nd January 1917 and Henry John born 2nd September 1919. During 1926 when Percy was only five, Lizzie, his mother was killed in a gas explosion in her kitchen and Percy and his brothers were sent to live with their aunt and uncle and their children for a couple of years. Percy senior re-married the next year during the third quarter of 1927 to Amy Cotterill, but the relationship between Amy and the three boys was sadly not a happy one. Percy lived with his family at 64 Sturton Street, St. Mathews in Cambridge and became an apprentice printer. On 14th October 1938, aged 17, Percy, who was described as a ‘Gentle Giant’ enlisted, with Henry into the Territorial Army Royal Engineers as a Sapper with service number 2062104, Henry’s being 2062103, and serving in the 250th Field Company. Upon enlistment Percy was described as 6’.1”tall, weighing 161 lbs with a girth of 38”. He had a fresh complexion, grey eyes, light brown hair and his religion was Church of England. He attended his eight annual training days during 1939 and qualified as an Engine Hand. Percy was mobilised and embodied on 2nd September 1939, the day before the start of World War II, and on 13th October transferred to the 287th Field Company. He served in the UK under training for the next two years and on the 28th October 1941 embarked for service overseas under draft serial 23867, setting sail on 29th October 1941 with the 287th for the long voyage to the Far East to fight against the Japanese. They were later joined by 5th and 6th Battalions of the Royal Norfolk Regiment, the 135th Regiment Royal Field Artillery, 198th Field Ambulance, Royal Army Medical Corps, 2nd Battalion Cambridgeshire Regiment and other Regiments and Corps to form the 53rd Infantry Brigade, part of the 18th Division. The brigade arrived in Malaya on 13 January 1942, and were attached to the 11th Indian Infantry Division and Westforce on the mainland, where they were involved in the retreat to Singapore, fighting the Battle of Muar around the Gemensah Bridge and River Muar area, the last major battle of the Malayan Campaign, in company with Indian units and a few weeks before the fall of the island. After the violent week-long Battle of Singapore, Lieutenant-General Arthur Ernest Percival, commander of the Singapore garrison, surrendered to the Imperial Japanese Army on 15 February 1942, and on this day Percy was officially reported as ‘Missing in Action’. The division's soldiers, including Percy went into Japanese POW camps where they suffered many hardships for the next three years.Percy was sent to work on the notorious Burma Railway at Moulmein, just north of Thanbyuzayat in Burma, where in September 1942 Australian prisoners were consolidated to begin work on the Burmese end of the Thai–Burma railway. They were joined in October 1942 by nearly six hundred more Australians from Java, including some survivors from the HMAS Perth which had been sunk in the Sunda Strait off the Netherlands East Indies on 28 February 1942. Finally in January 1943 a further 385 Australians arrived from Java with more Dutch, British and American prisoners. By this stage there were more than nine thousand prisoners (mostly Australian and Dutch) in camps south of Moulmein (today’s Mawlaminye) and in April were heavily reinforced with Burmese rōmusha from the so-called ‘Sweat Army’. The route of the railway line in Burma, though not as challenging in engineering terms as in Thailand, was remote and difficult to supply. It did not follow a river route and there was no good road. The work camps along the railway took their names from the kilometres that they were distant from Thanbyuzayat (for example, 55-Kilo camp). Work on the railway consisted of felling trees, clearing undergrowth, building embankments, excavating cuttings and constructing bridges across numerous streams and gullies. Workloads were reasonable at first when the railway route crossed fairly easy territory. Soon, however, the pace of construction increased and by mid-1943 some up-country units were working shifts of twenty-four hours on, twenty-four hours off. As elsewhere on the railway they were often the victims of gratuitous violence, particularly from the hated Korean guards. The Japanese administration was also less efficient in Burma than in Thailand. Hence, the further the railway advanced, the greater the supply difficulties, particularly when the monsoons came. Without adequate food and medical supplies many prisoners were falling ill by late 1942. Their condition worsened in 1943 as illnesses such as cholera, smallpox, dysentery and malaria broke out and the effects of malnutrition became endemic. To add to this the Japanese workforce was exposed to Allied air raids from relatively early in the war and despite requests from the Allied leaders the Japanese would not allow Thanbyuzayat to be marked as a hospital and POW camp. On 12 and 15 June 1943 twenty-three prisoners, including 18 Australians, were killed by Allied bombing and many more wounded. Percy finally succumbed to the hardships and died on 12th August 1943 aged just 22 and buried in Thanbyuzayat War Cemetery. When the Japanese finally agreed to evacuate Thanbyuzayat many of the already sick prisoners had to walk to camps further up the line. Some had the dubious pleasure of travelling on the railway line they had helped build. The railway was finally completed in October 1943. In next two to three months the prisoners began to move eastwards to Thailand. Some remaining in the jungle until March 1944, cutting fuel for the locomotives, before they too moved to Thailand. Percy was posthumously awarded the 1939-45 Star, Pacific Star and War Medal 1939-45 that were sent to Amy at 64 Sturton Street in August 1948.
The Story See Henry John Cornwell for the story.
Thanbyuzayat Commonwealth War Grave Cemetery, Myanmar. Friday 9th January 2015
Martin Harrison at Percy Cornwell's grave
Martin Harrison at Percy Cornwell's grave
- 1939-45 Star: Unnamed as issued.
- Pacific Star: Unnamed as issued.
- War Medal 1939-45 Star: Unnamed as issued.
This page last updated 5 Jun 15