First Allied POW escape from Singapore in 1942

“3000 Miles to Freedom” by Brig. M. M Pillai M.C.

My father died in 1988 leaving a manuscript of his escape from Singapore and his return to India after the fall of Singapore in 1942. He would have been 99 on 11th August this year.

He was the first Allied prisoner of war to escape from Changi and return to India. He used to tell us that he had travelled a thousand miles on foot, a thousand miles by boat and a thousand miles by train to make his journey of 3000 miles to freedom. In 1968 he tried to get a copy of his official debriefing report from the War Office in London to cross-check his manuscript written from memory long after the event. But he found that the report had been classified to be held secret for 50 years.

In early 2000 I found that a copy of the official report was available in the Singapore War Archives. The report had been circulated to all the Allied Armies and the Australian copy had found its way into the Singapore Archives sometime after 1992 when the material was declassified. Apparently the 50 year classification was because the report contained not only the names of people who had helped him along the way but also the names of people he felt were Japanese collaborators.

Mark Pillai as a Captain circa 1950

He was accompanied by two others; one of whom ( a medical officer) decided to settle along the way. The second was a civilian friend S. Radhakrishnan. To avoid the unneccessary hassle of getting a civilian back through Allied lines they invented the story of the “Singapore Volunteers” and passed Radhakrishnan off as an officer in this fictitious regiment. The subterfuge served to get through the Allied check-posts and later Radhakrishnan was properly commissioned into the Indian Army.

For about 6 months after his return my father had a “minder” – a brother officer from a different regiment but who came from his part of the country in Southern India – to ensure that my father’s escape was not a ruse to establish a  “sleeping” collaborator. (link updated 25th August 2013 since the original link to the National Archives of Singapore was outdated).

Australian War Memorial, Series AWM 54 Item 779/10/4, “Escape narrative of Lieut M M Pillai, Royal Bombay Sappers and Miners, and Lieut V Radhakrishnan, Singapore Volunteers – Appendix: Treatment of Civilians and Atrocities”, p.33, CD No. D2006100078.

Eventually the manuscript was checked and a publisher ( Lancer Military Publications) interested enough in an old Second World War escape story was found.

Three Thousand Miles to Freedom

This is a an escape story. It is the story of escape from a Japanese Prisoner of War camp in Singapore to India across coastal waters and Malayan and Burmese jungles.

Capt Mark Pillai was a Bombay Sapper officer in Malaya when Singapore fell and the Allies surrendered. This is the story of his escape from the Changi POW camp in 1942. He was 31 years old at the time and he was accompanied by an Indian medical officer and an Indian civilian acquaintance.

It is an inspirational story of escape. Escape stories frequently tend to chronologically list events without adequately conveying the fears and apprehension or the anxiety and the hardships that soldiers endure, nor the will and inspiration they galvanise in doing so. This is a compelling story, simply told, which brings to life the meaning of escape from captivity in enemy territory in an age long gone.

It is a story of understated bravery and gallantry, where three Indians made a daily tryst with destiny over a protracted period of time, attempting as it were to do their duty as they saw it, in an effort to live to fight another day when both the big picture and the tactical situation seemed hopeless.

It is a story of hope which reveals the stubborn spirit of humanity and courage that epitomizes good soldiers anywhere when they turn adversity into opportunity and inspire others to do the same.

Mark Pillai was awarded the Military Cross by Field Marshal Archibald Wavell for his gallantry.

Changi Prison


( In 1936, the British built Changi Prison to hold 450 prisoners. In February 1942, the Japanese made 3,500 civilians, men, women and children walk to the prison to commence an internment from which many would not return. The men made the journey first, and when the women and children arrived, they were kept segregated. Only on rare occasions did the Japanese allow men, women and children to meet. In 1944 all the surviving internees were moved to Sime Road Camp to make room for POWs from Changi and Selarang. At Sime Road, the conditions were so bad that many more did not live to see liberation. On 5th September 1945, the relieving 5th Indian Division arrived outside the prison to find some 17,000 former POWs waiting for them.

The Bombay Engineering Group, or the Bombay Sappers as they are informally known, are a regiment of the Indian Army Corps of Engineers. The Bombay Sappers draw their origin from the erstwhile Bombay Presidency army of the British Raj. This regiment has its centre inKhadki, Pune in Maharashtra state.

Indian 5th Infantry Division was an infantry division in the Indian Army during World War IIwhich fought in several theatres of war and more than earned its nickname the “Ball of Fire”.

A soldier from the 5th Division stands guard over Japanese prisoners who surrendered during the liberation of Singapore. September 1945.

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9 Responses to “First Allied POW escape from Singapore in 1942”

  1. Abbreviations - Page 9 - World War 2 Talk Says:

    […] […]

  2. Hi - Page 2 - World War 2 Talk Says:

    […] (Lancer Military Publications) interested enough in an old Second World War escape story was found. 3000 Miles to Freedom by Brig M M Pillai MC I am now trying to clarify and connect parts of his narrative to events then and conditions today. […]

  3. Military Cross awarded to a civilian - World War 2 Talk Says:

    […] Cross awarded to a civilian After the fall of Singapore in 1942, my father Lt. Mark Pillai escaped and made his way back to India . He was accompanied by a medical officer and a civilian friend, V Radhakrishnan. The medical […]

  4. Peter S A Baker Says:

    What a wonderful story. My father died in 1988 and my Mother a few weeks ago. My father was a member of the Singapore Volenteers in 1942, his mother, Alberta Maud Baker, on record in the Changi Museum archives, and I “think” his father Wilfrid Ancell Baker, retired merchant seaman, were interned in Changi. My father was make to work on the Burma/Tailand road and railway.
    I am having great difficulty finding out any information on any of them, if there were other family members there also and when they were repatriated. Could you point out to a rather bumb person how I might find out more.
    With grateful thanks, Peter Baker

  5. Review of “3000 Miles to Freedom” « The k2p blog Says:

    […] I posted in August about my father’s manuscript describing his escape from Singapore after its fall in 1942. Mark Pillai as a Captain […]

  6. POW escapes from Singapore to India « Otterman speaks… Says:

    […] book, “3000 Miles to Freedom,” which he published, in a post entitled, “First Allied POW escape from Singapore in 1942“. Mark Pillai (RIP) was a Bombay sapper who escaped from Changi with two others and […]

  7. suresh kumar Says:

    This brings back memories of my late father who servered in the artillery as an NCO. though too young to understand what it was all about I still remember the tales of bravery of his compatriots and the hardships they went through while fighting with the 14th army ( if my memory is right) with the great Feild marshal Slim.

    How I wish that all his wartime records were preserved. These seem to irretrievably lost.

    • ktwop Says:

      You may wish to register at this forum:
      If you have your father’s service details (number, regiment details etc.) I found members of this forum very knowledgeable and able to access many records from the archives. There is a huge amount of material available.
      Good Luck.

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