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15 October 2014
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Timeline - 1939-1945

Fact File : Burma-Thailand Railway

July 1942 to October 1943

Theatre: South East Asia
Area: Burma (now also known as Myanmar) and Thailand (then known as Siam).
Players: Allies: Around 60,000 British, Australian, Dutch and American prisoners of war; civilian labourers from Burma, Singapore, Malaya, Java and Thailand. Japanese: 5th and 9th Regiments.
Outcome: The Japanese Army used forced labour to build a 420km railway through mountainous jungle, leading to the deaths of around 13,000 PoWs and 70,000 civilian workers (some reputable sources suggest 12,000 PoWs and 90,000 civilians).

'The conditions in camp were appalling as the rainy season had arrived and we slept on boards within inches of black slimy mud. Dysentery was rife...' - Rod Allanson, former PoW, in The Lost Legion

The decision to build the Burma-Thailand railway was made following the Japanese defeat at the Battle of Midway in June 1942, after which the Japanese navy could no longer guarantee the safe passage of supplies to its armies in Burma and New Guinea.

The railway, which would cross 420km of mountainous jungle, connected Nong Pladuk in Thailand to Thanbyuzayat in Burma. It was expected to enable the Japanese to move 3,000 tons of supplies each day from Singapore and Bangkok to the Indian border.

In early 1942, prisoners of war (PoWs) began clearing undergrowth, felling trees and making embankments and cuttings, using little more than picks, shovels and hoes. In June, the Japanese started moving Australian, British and Dutch PoWs to Burma and Thailand for the start of construction.

Living conditions were initially bearable, but the start of the monsoon in late May 1943 changed everything. The rain brought cholera and cut off supplies for some PoWs, who starved while being worked to death.

Perhaps the costliest section was the cutting at Konyu. Over 500m long and 24m high, it was known as Hell Fire Pass. Around 1,000 PoWs started work on it in April 1943; by its completion in August, only 100 had survived.

The railway joined the existing Moulmein-Ye line on 16 October 1943. It was used by the Japanese until November 1944, when parts of the line and the famous bridge over the River Kwai were destroyed by Allied air raids.

The fact files in this timeline were commissioned by the BBC in June 2003 and September 2005. Find out more about the authors who wrote them.

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