Violent rages of my Far East POW dad

Stephen Rockcliffe as he is today.
Stephen Rockcliffe as he is today.
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In the second of a two-part series on family life in the immediate aftermath of World War Two, Star reporter Rachael Clegg speaks to the son of a prisoner of war about a childhood marred by the scars of his father’s wartime experiences.

SIXTY years have passed since Stephen Rockcliffe remembers the first time his father beat him.

Sidney Rockcliffe before he was sent off to the Second World War, only to return an emotional wreck.

Sidney Rockcliffe before he was sent off to the Second World War, only to return an emotional wreck.

His dad, Sidney, was physically abusive, volatile and unpredictable.

The slightest mishap could result in him lapsing into a violent rage, beating his sons until they were black and blue.

And then he’d cry, baffled and ashamed of his own brutal behaviour.

His son, Stephen Rockcliffe, became adept at making excuses for the umpteen bruises on his little limbs and even learnt not to invite other children to play at his house.

Changed forever: Stephen, far left, with his mum Mary just outside the post office in Fitzalan Square in 1957.

Changed forever: Stephen, far left, with his mum Mary just outside the post office in Fitzalan Square in 1957.

But this was post war Sheffield.

Sidney Rockcliffe had returned home to Gleadless after the war in 1945, only three years before Stephen - now 63 - was born.

And like many other men coming home after years of fighting, he was an emotional wreck.

But in the eyes of fellow Sheffielders, Sidney was not a war hero. He didn’t return with a battered kit bag and a collection of medals. Instead Sidney was an emaciated, malnourished mess.

Family ties: Stephen Rockcliffe with his brothers.

Family ties: Stephen Rockcliffe with his brothers.

He had spent the last years of the war as a Far Eastern prisoner of war or FEPOW, captured in Singapore in 1942, imprisoned in Thailand, and then force-marched more than 80 miles and ferried by barge to Kinsaiyok where, alongside 60,000 allied POWs, he worked on the Thai-Burma ‘Death’ Railway.

“My father was unbelievably violent,” says Stephen today.

“When I was a child I couldn’t understand why he was the way he was but now, looking back, I understand why.

“What he went through as a POW was horrendous and his violent behaviour was a part of that. My father was not the same person who my mother remembered as an 18-year-old setting off to war. His experience changed him forever.”

Post-traumatic stress disorder didn’t exist then - the term wasn’t even coined until the 1970s. Nor was there a National Health Service - there was no support for men like Sidney nor, by extension, for the emotional suffering of their families.

Instead Sidney’s outbursts were feared by the neighbours. “I remember families not wanting their children to play at our house because my dad was a POW and they thought he was a bit mad,” says Stephen.

They weren’t the only ones struggling to grasp Sidney’s volatile behaviour. “My father also found it difficult to work out himself why he had these sudden outbursts of uncontrollable rages,” Stephen remembers.

His mother Mary was the linchpin in the family, always trying her best to maintain harmony, in spite of her husband’s rages.

“My mother was a total angel. She was like two different people. When my father was at work on the buses - which was every day from dawn until dusk - she’d have her friends round and she was okay.

“But when dad was having a rage she’d leave the room - she was constantly treading on eggshells. Women like my mother, who had worked on the war effort in the factories of Sheffield, must have faced a formidable task in leaving their jobs to start a family with someone they had not seen for many years.”

Anything could set his dad off on a rage. “On a Sunday morning my brother and I could be playing and he’d come downstairs and burst into a violent rage. It was little things like that which would set him off. Sometimes you just had to say something and he’d hit you.”

Many things would spark furious, physical outbursts, but perhaps the strangest trigger was eggs.

“The Japanese never provided meat to the prisoners but they would trade with the locals to get duck eggs. Eggs were precious because of their protein and, after the war, when dad had come home, they were still rationed.

“Mum had little ration books and saved up enough tickets to buy some eggs from the local shop, but the shop owner claimed he didn’t have any because really he wanted to sell them on the black market where he’d get more money for them.

“Mum came home, told dad, and he marched to the shop and beat the shopkeeper to a pulp. He got his eggs though.”

Stephen thought his father’s behaviour was unique, but it was actually common of many FEPOWs, or so he has latterly discovered.

“Violent rages were common among FEPOWs and a lot of prisoners of war committed suicide when they got back home. Many of them felt like they had let the country down.

“Sometimes when I was a teenager, when my dad had a violent spell, my mum would say, ‘You don’t know what he’s been through - when he was your age he was being shot at and beaten half to death by the Japanese’.”

Now, decades on, Stephen has more of an idea of what his mother meant. He has been researching the history of his dad’s battalion, part of the 18th Division, which was captured in 1942 after being sent - on a whim and under Winston Churchill’s instruction - to defend Singapore, with little ammunition and virtually no training in jungle warfare.

“My dad was one of 115 men out of 600 to have survived in his battalion - as far as he could work out anyway,” says Stephen. “He was captured by the Japanese in Singapore and worked on the Thai-Burma Railway, the building of which cost 250,000 lives. Men worked until they dropped dead - they say there’s one death for every sleeper on that railway line.”

Sidney also witnessed POWs being executed - often beheaded - by the Japanese and had to bury many of his friends. “The effects on the soldier’s personality was profound and permanent,” says Stephen.

Three years as a FEPOW left more than just emotional scars.

“Many FEPOWs were impotent because they had such a poor diet with virtually no protein as they were fed only rice. That had a damaging effect on their psyche - many of them thought they wouldn’t be able to have children, which added to their sense of shame.”

Sidney’s medical problems included a range of tropical diseases, including beriberi, for which he underwent two months’ treatment in a San Francisco hospital before returning to England. The disease has life-inhibiting symptoms, such as fatigue, cardiovascular problems and lethargy.

He also suffered strongyloides, a parasitic disease where worms live in the intestine, ride the blood vessels to the lungs to lay their eggs and, in some cases, grow to 2.5mm long.

Sidney was treated for strongyloides at Liverpool’s tropical medicine unit until as late as the mid-1980s.

As if all that was not enough, at the end of the war Sidney was posted to a POW camp in Omuta, close to Nagasaki, which, on August 9, 1945, was the target of the second atomic bomb attack after Hiroshima.

But in that, at least, Sidney was lucky.

“The wind was blowing in the right direction - away from his camp,” says Stephen. “But he saw how the bomb destroyed everything.”