Arthur Varley, then a lieutenant colonel and commanding officer of 2/18th Battalion, waiting to embark for Malaya, 5 February 1941
|Born||13 October 1893|
|Died||13 September 1944 (aged 50)|
SS Rakuyo Maru, Luzon Strait, South China Sea
|Years of service||1915–1920|
|Commands held||A Force (1942–44)|
22nd Infantry Brigade (1942)
2/18th Battalion (1940–42)
35th Battalion (1939–40)
|Battles/wars||First World War|
|Awards||Military Cross & Bar|
Mentioned in Despatches (2)
Brigadier Arthur Leslie Varley, MC & Bar (13 October 1893 – 13 September 1944) was an Australian soldier who served in the First and the Second World Wars. He was commander of the 22nd Infantry Brigade during the final stages of the Battle of Singapore in the Second World War. Having surrendered to the Japanese, he was responsible for over 9,000 prisoners of war engaged in the construction of the Burma-Thailand Railway. He is presumed to have been killed in September 1944, shortly after the transport ship taking him and several hundred fellow prisoners to Japan was sunk.
First World War
At the age of 21, he enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) and was shipped to Egypt in October 1915. He was assigned to 45th Battalion, a unit formed largely from men from New South Wales as the AIF expanded following the Gallipoli Campaign. By August 1916, he had been promoted to lieutenant and was serving with the battalion on the Western Front.
In 1917, Varley was recommended for the Military Cross (MC) by his commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Edmund Herring, for his actions in June 1917, during the Battle of Messines. On 7 June, he had taken command of two companies in forward positions that had lost all its officers. The following day, he organised and executed a successful counterattack on trenches that had been lost to the Germans. The award of his MC was duly gazetted in August 1917, by which time Varley had been promoted to captain.
In August 1918, and now on the staff of 12th Brigade, Varley was recommended and awarded for a Bar to his MC for his actions in ensuring forward positions were kept supplied despite being exposed to artillery fire. In January 1919, he was mentioned in despatches. His service with the AIF ended later that year, and he was placed on the Reserve of Officers list on 1 January 1920.
In December 1919, Varley married Linda, with whom he would have three children. Linda died in 1925, and a year later, he became married to Ethel. He owned a grazing property, and also worked with Ethel's brother at a stock and station agency. He had an interest in the militia, the Citizens Force, and was commander of 35th Battalion from September 1939. By the end of the year he had been promoted to temporary lieutenant colonel.
Second World War
Varley was seconded to the Second Australian Imperial Force in 1940 and placed in command of 2/18th Battalion, part of 22nd Brigade and destined for Malaya. His son, Jack, was also present in Malaya as part of 2/19th Battalion. Once stationed in Mersing, the brigade engaged in training more suitable to the jungle environment than it had experienced to date.
Following the invasion of Malaya by the Japanese Empire, the brigade was forced into fighting a series of rear guard actions against the advancing Japanese. Varley's command did not engage the Japanese until 26 January 1942, when it implemented an ambush near Jemaluang. While successful, the ambush did result in nearly 100 men being killed or captured. The brigade later withdrew to Singapore Island, taking up positions on the north western coast of the island.
On the night of 8 February, the Japanese launched landings on the sector held by Varley's battalion, and it was forced into a fighting withdrawal. By 12 February, the Japanese were well established on Singapore Island and advancing on all fronts. The commander of 22nd Brigade, Brigadier Harold Burfield Taylor, was extremely fatigued and asked Varley to take over temporary command of the brigade. The following day, the divisional commander, Major General Gordon Bennett, promoted Varley to brigadier and made him the permanent commander of the brigade, a command would last only a few more days before the surrender of Singapore on 15 February.
Life as a prisoner of war
After the surrender, Varley, along with the majority of his fellow AIF captives were imprisoned at Selarang Barracks near Changi Prison. When the first major contingent of Australian prisoners, totalling around 3,000 men and designated A Force departed Changi, Varley was placed in command. A Force was shipped in cramped conditions to Burma where it was engaged in the construction of airfields. Initially, conditions were good and men were paid for their work (although the Japanese deducted expenses) which allowed them to buy rations. Consequently, the prisoner's general condition improved from what it was in Changi. To capitalise on this, Varley endeavoured to keep as many men as possible working. Eventually, the airfield work was completed, and in September 1942, A Force was shipped to Thanbyuzayat to start work on the Burma-Thailand Railway.
At Thanbyuzayat, other groups of prisoners would gradually be brought into the camp, and these would come under Varley's jurisdiction such that he was eventually responsible for 9,000 men in total. To manage A Force, he had a small headquarters, with departments responsible for food, medical care and so forth. During his time in Burma, Varley constantly agitated to improve conditions as much as possible for the men under his command. He also tried to keep as many men as possible working. This meant that a possibly more cordial relationship existed with the Japanese at Thanbyuzayat than elsewhere, to the benefit of the welfare of the men under his charge. The Japanese commander also seemed to be more lenient than other commandants in charge of prison camps in the region.
In June 1943, the camp at Thanbyuzayat, adjacent a railway yard, was bombed by Allied planes during which Varley was slightly wounded. The camp was evacuated the next day and the prisoners moved to a more remote site. Despite his best efforts, the quality of food began to decline and this impacted on the health of the men, and the death rate. By early 1944, and the railway now completed, most prisoners had been moved to Thailand. At this stage, the death rate of A Force was a little over 13%, a much lower rate than in other prisoner of war parties. Much of this is attributed to Varley's efforts on behalf of his men.
It had been intended that the surviving prisoners of A Force be transported to Japan. However, the Japanese were experiencing difficulty in getting shipping to Japan and so it was decided to initially return the prisoners, including Varley, to Singapore. In September, after a few months in Singapore, Varley was placed in command of a party of 2,300 prisoners to be transported to Japan from Singapore. However, on 12 September his transport, the Rakuyo Maru, carrying around 1,250 prisoners, was amongst those torpedoed off Hainan by the United States submarine USS Sealion. The prisoners all successfully abandoned ship but the escorting destroyers only recovered the Japanese crew of the sunken ship. The prisoners were left to their own devices although were able to board eleven abandoned life boats. The life boats split into two groups, one sailing to the west and the other to east. The easterly party, Varley amongst them, were not seen again. When the westerly party were picked up by passing Japanese shipping, they reported hearing gunfire coming from the east. It was assumed that Japanese navy vessels destroyed the lifeboats of the easterly party, killing all on board.
Arthur Varley was survived by his second wife and his children from his first marriage, a daughter and two sons. His elder son, Jack, was awarded a Military Cross for his exploits during the Malayan Campaign and survived the war. Robert, the younger son, also joined the AIF but was killed in action in New Guinea in April 1945.
Prior to the fall of Singapore, Varley began a secret diary which he maintained for much of his captivity. The diary detailed the daily life of the prisoners, construction of the railroad and also provided accounts of various war crimes committed by his captors. Before he was transferred to Singapore with the rest of A Force, he buried the diary which by now amounted to several volumes. The diaries were retrieved after the war and used as evidence in war crime trials of several Japanese officers.
- Uhr, Janet (2002). "Varley, Arthur Leslie (1893–1944)". Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16. Melbourne, Australia: Melbourne University Press. Retrieved 22 April 2012.
- "Recommendation for MC – Arthur Leslie Varley" (PDF). Australian War Memorial. Retrieved 2 May 2012.
- "MC – Arthur Leslie Varley". Australian War Memorial. Retrieved 2 May 2012.
- "Recommendation for bar to MC – Arthur Leslie Varley" (PDF). Australian War Memorial. Retrieved 2 May 2012.
- "Mention – Arthur Leslie Varley" (PDF). Australian War Memorial. Retrieved 2 May 2012.
- Wigmore, 1957, p. 250
- Wigmore, 1957, pp. 67–68
- Wigmore, 1957, p. 268
- Wigmore, 1957, p. 310
- Wigmore, 1957, pp. 361–362
- Wigmore, 1957, p. 519
- Wigmore, 1957, pp. 541–545
- Wigmore, 1957, p. 551
- Wigmore, 1957, p. 554
- Wigmore, 1957, p. 557
- Wigmore, 1957, p. 561
- Wigmore, 1957, pp. 614–615
- Ramsay, 2011, p. 518
- Ramsay, Alan (2011). The Way They Were: The View From the Hill of the 25 Years That Remade Australia. Sydney, Australia: University of New South Wales. ISBN 978-1-74223-271-3.
- Wigmore, Lionel (1957). Australia in the War of 1939–1945. Series 1, Vol. 4: The Japanese Thrust. Canberra, Australia: Australian War Memorial.