Mad Mac and Father Sexton: Irish Prisoners of War during the Second World WarWikimedia

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The story of the Irish who fought in the Second World War is not widely known. They fought in every major land campaign in Europe, in the jungles of Asia and the deserts of Africa. During the Second World War, the Irish Free State remained a neutral state. In Ireland, the war was known as the Emergency. Those who wanted to join the war left Ireland to fight with the armies of other nations. It is estimated about 130,000 Irish fought with the British forces. Of those 130,000 about 60,000 were from the Irish Free State and 64,000 were from Northern Ireland. These numbers are conservative estimates as exact numbers are not known. There were also a large number of Irish men and women who had emigrated from Ireland and now fought for their new adopted homeland. Irishmen not only served with the British forces, but with armies around the world. Their names can be found on war memorials in the United States, Australia and New Zealand.

This week Findmypast has released over one million new records as part of its Prisoners of War 1715-1945 collection. They are the records of military personnel and civilians, both men and women, who were held as prisoners in both Europe and the Far East during the Second World War. In the records you will find your ancestor’s service number, rank, regiment, prison camp, nationality and, in some cases, residence and parents’ names. The records also include letters from family members requesting information about their missing loved ones, lists of people recommended for awards for excellent service while in prisoner of war camps and records of escapes. Within the records we find the stories of many Irishmen who were taken prisoner during the Second World War.

Both Lance Bombardier Joseph Barrett from Dublin and Lance Corporal Terence Gleeson from Tipperary were taken prisoner after the fall of Singapore in the Far East. In 1940, Japan joined the Axis powers. On 8 December 1941, Japan had simultaneously attacked Pearl Harbor, Thailand, Guam, Malaya, the Philippines, Hong Kong and Singapore. They continued their aggressive expansion and on 8 February 1942 Singapore fell to the Japanese and 80,000 people were taken prisoner. Barrett of the 9th Coaster Regiment, Royal Artillery, was in charge of an anti-aircraft gun when the Japanese took Singapore. As the Imperial Army gained territory, Barrett was ordered to dismantle the gun to avoid it falling into enemy hands. Later, after being taken prisoner, his captors ordered him to reassemble the gun, but he refused. For this he was tortured and then sent to the notorious Changi prison.

In Prisoners of War 1715-1945, we can find Lance Bombardier Barrett’s Japanese Index Card. The collection includes 58,337 index cards for prisoners. The card shows Barrett’s residence as 27 St Andeon’s Terrace, High Street, Dublin. Prior to the war, Barrett was a Plate maker. He was born 13 July 1918.

 

After Changi, he was sent to Ballace Island, where the prisoners were tasked with building airfields. The work was difficult and prisoners were given minimum food and water. Most died in the process of building the airfields. After completion, the Japanese executed most of the prisoners. Only 18 survived. It is not known whether Barrett died during construction or executed afterwards. His name can be found on the Singapore Memorial.

During the fall of Singapore, Lance Corporal Terence Gleeson was stationed at RAF Kallang; once captured, he was sent to Changi prison. In the records, Lance Corporal Gleeson can be found on a list of prisoners from the 18th Infantry Division.

 

In 1943, Gleeson, along with 548 prisoners, was on route to a prison camp in Java on board the Suez Maru, one of Japan’s Hell Ships. They were called hell ships because of the extremely miserable conditions on board: overcrowding, lack of food and sanitation, and spread of disease. The Suez Maru was torpedoed by the USS Bonefish. The Japanese ship was not properly marked therefore the United States Navy had no way of knowing that there were prisoners of war on board. As the ship sunk, the Japanese minesweeper escorting the ship rescued the Japanese survivors and then was ordered to open fire on all prisoners in the water. Gleeson was 24 years old when he died during the sinking of the Suez Maru.

On the European front, we find the record of Pilot Officer Kenneth MacKenzie. MacKenzie was born in Belfast in 1916 and in 1932 he joined the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve. When war broke out with Germany in 1939, MacKenzie was called up. Within two years he was given the nickname ‘Super Mac’ for his feats in the sky and had been awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. However, in 1941 he was shot down over Germany while attacking an enemy airfield and captured. On his way to the prison camp Oflag VIB, he managed to escape his guard in a crowded Paris railway station, but was recaptured shortly after. In April 1942, he was nearly killed while attempting to escape a prison camp through a tunnel when the tunnel’s roof suddenly collapsed. He was finally transferred to the prison camp Stalag Luft III. In the records, we can find K W MacKenzie on a list of prisoners at Stalag Luft III (L3).

 

Stalag Luft III was the site of the escape of 76 officers made famous in the film, The Great Escape, staring Steve McQueen. The Prisoners of War 1715-1945 records include lists of the escapees, a description of their escape plan and the outcome of all the officers involved. MacKenzie’s daring escape attempts ended at Stalag Luft III when he devised a new strategy for getting out of prison, one which earned him the new nickname of Mad Mac. He successfully convinced the German guards that he was insane and they sent him back to Great Britain where he immediately became an instructor for the RAF. MacKenzie continued to live in his hometown of Belfast until he passed away in 2009.

Irish pilots and soldiers were not the only ones to be captured by the enemy. Father Cornelius Sexton was born in Galway in 1905. After being ordained in Dublin, he was sent to Australia and, in July 1940, he became an army chaplain with the Australian Imperial Force. Father Sexton was attached to the 2/20th Battalion in Malaya. During the Battle of Singapore, he assisted wounded soldiers and transported injured men to hospitals. In one instance, Father Sexton was transporting two wounded Chinese soldiers who were fighting alongside the Allies when a mortar hit their truck. Another soldier, Jack Bowman, was in the truck with him. In the book, Dark Times, Decent Men: Stories of Irishmen in World War II, Father Sexton recalled: ‘Jack said to me, “Are you alive, Father?” I said, “Yes, I am. Are you?” Irish humour, if ever there was one… Then we looked inside the truck and the two Chinese were dead. And we took them down to the hospital anyhow and unloaded them.’ Once the Allies surrendered in Singapore, he was interned at Changi.

 

Father Cornelius Sexton can be found on a POW camp registration in Singapore as Cornelius Gerald Sexton, Chaplain, AIF, Clergyman. The list includes other Australian non-combatants. With timber stolen from work sites, the prisoners at Changi built a makeshift chapel for Father Sexton. He remained imprisoned until liberation in August 1945. After the war, Father Sexton returned to Australia and discovered that his mother, living in County Mayo, had received a telegraph to say that he was missing and presumed dead in 1942. He wrote to his mother to say that he survived and was very much alive in Australia.

Discover the records of hundreds of more Irishmen in Findmypast’s Prisoners of War 1715-1945. For more stories about Irish soldiers read Neil Richardson’s Dark Times, Decent Men: Stories of Irishmen in World War II published in 2012.

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