Tom Douglas G3BA in 1969. (SK 1994). QSL for 1938 QSO with LRS member, George Millar GM3UM.
Tom Douglas G3BA, was originally from Edinburgh (QTH 10 Marchmont Street) before the Lothians Radio Society was founded in the late-1940s. He was a well-known VHF amateur in the 1960s, as RSGB VHF Manager and writing the monthly VHF page for RadCom magazine. Latterly he was Engineer-in-Charge (EiC) of the BBC TV transmitting station at Sutton Coldfield near Birmingham.
He was a keen VHF contester and used a site on a hilltop near Gatehouse of Fleet, on the south coast of Dumfries & Galloway with a clear take-off to the south and the Isle of Man visible on clear days. That site is now used for portable contests such as VHF NFD by the Lothians Radio Society, GM3HAM/P.
During WW2 Tom, as an Officer with the Royal Corps of Signals, was captured by the Japanese and spent several years in Siam working on the construction of the railway line made famous by the film Bridge on the River Kwai. In the PoW camps he worked clandestinely building and operating radio receivers known as "Dicky Birds" to receive radio news broadcasts for the benefit of the prisoners.
Recently some letters and a newspaper article have been found which describe Tom's work with the Dicky Birds. These have been transcribed and are presented here. Sections specific to Tom are highlighted in red.
Tom Douglas G3BA (on left) with a group believed to be former Prisoners-of-War in Siam in WW2.
The man making the presentation is Colonel Carey Owtram, who had been British commander of the POWs in Kanchanaburi, where the bridge was built.
1. Part of letter of Nov 1945 to a Mrs Webber, mother of two other PoWs involved with Dicky Birds.
Dear Mrs Webber,
I hope that now Max and Donald are safely home with you, and with their families, none the worse for the last 3-1/2 years.
I wanted to write to you, and in doing so I am voicing the feelings of hundreds of other prisoners of war, and tell you just how much the work of your two boys and Tom Douglas meant to us during those weary years.
You know by now, of course, that they between them worked an underground wireless set in the camps – no easy task, and no light risk at times: but they kept it going, quite unperturbed by danger and delightfully undismayed by difficulties, and gave us the news for two and a half years.
P.O.W. camps are a hotbed of rumour and a sink of depression, punctuated by explosions of frothing optimism, which is nearly as bad as the depression for the flatness it leaves behind: it is quite safe to say that no single factor contributed so much to keeping up the morale of thousands of prisoners in Siam, as the regular, authentic bulletins of …….
2. Parts of an undated letter (sic) describing the work with Dicky Birds.
… flying about. Certain wireless parts had been brought up to Chungkai and the first thing that happened was that an officer by the name of Beckett operated the set but the news was reserved for Senior and Regular officers. This, as you can imagine, got my back up and Max’s for that matter. Soon, however, a lad by the name of Douglas, a BBC engineer, started a set and issued news to everybody. A week later he was ordered upcountry. As it happened, he had another set which he decided to leave behind and Quin, who had been working with him asked me if I would run it. Quin was a would-be reporter and all he did was write up the news. Well, I snapped up this offer on the understanding that I was to be in sole charge of the set. On the 5th Feb. 1943 I moved into a lean-to built onto one of the huts and Quin and Max also lived there. Quin lasted for a few weeks only. …….
About this time T. Douglas came back to the camp and he redesigned the set and we spent a couple of days rebuilding it. Shortly after that we had our usual anual floods and some of the camp was washed out. I actually found the canary afloat but fortunately it was none the worse for wear.
After we had been in this area for some months, we decided that it was time to move so we established a sight in the cemetry. Within 48 hours the Japs cleared the bamboo from the old sight. The whole way through fortune was still with us and we were always a step ahead of the Japs. In the cemetery there was an atap shed used to keep tools in and this shed was was built into a gap in the bamboos so that you could’nt get round the back of it. .....
Group of British PoWs after being freed from camp in Siam.
3. Letter of 1967 to the Far East (Prisoners of War & Internees) Fund.
Dear Mr Denholm,
Since I am both a member of the Royal Signals Museum Committee and an ex-Burma/Siam Railway POW, Colonel Adams has passed on to me your letter of 26th April 1967 concerning the ‘small radio receiver etc’ mentioned in the newspaper cutting on the move of the Corps Museum.
I was in Siam from August 1942 until September 1945 and was at one time Second in Command of No 1 (Working) Battalion (Royal Signals and Beds & Herts).
During my time with the Battalion which lasted from August 1942 until after the completion of the Railway in 1943/4 we moved from Chungkai to successive areas up to about the 250 km mark.
The particular set referred to in the newspaper paragraph was made and mostly operated by a Royal Signals Subaltern in my Battalion – Tom Douglas, who is now engineer-in-charge of the BBC Television Transmission Station at Sutton Coldfield. I hear from him every now and then, often via a ‘Ham’ radio operator.
Tom was appointed a MBE for his clandestine radio activities and it is this set which I got Tom to present to the Royal Signals Museum about twelve years or more ago.
During its life on the railway the set appeared in many guises since at every move of the Camp it had to be stripped and the ‘bits and pieces’ distributed amongst the officers and re-assembled again as soon as opportunity offered.
Like many of the officers, the set finished up at Kakom Myok having been transported there, unbeknown I should be add, in the Japanese Commandant’s kit.
I am sure that Brigadier Toosey will remember Tom Douglas as ‘Lt Col Toosay’ and his battalion were mostly in our group. You will of course know that there were several clandestine radios operated over the railway area but I have no detailed know other than our own.
I wish I could be more helpful. Yours sincerely, G. H. R. Flynn
4. Undated Newspaper Story - V-Man Ran Radio Service for PoWs
Writes Mark F. Quin
For the past three years of their captivity, Allied prisoners in Thailand were in continuous organization, known to them as “V”, which supplied money, medicines, food clothing and news from the outside world.
This secret organization was operated and controlled by an Englishman know as Health, of British / American Tobacco Company, who, throughout the war with Japan had its headquarters in Bangkok.
Working in conjunction with a pro-Allied section of the Thai army and a secret society known as the Thai Freedom Society, this V-man organised anti-Japanese activities throughout Thailand.
Allied forces were kept fully-informed of Japanese movements of troops and supplies, the position of Japanese dumps, repair yards and rolling stock concentrations by secret radio transmitters.
Information concerning the whereabouts conditions of life and numbers of prisoners of war was frequently sent out o China and India.
Food and Money
First contact with Heath was made by British officers in Ban Fong, Thailand, in in December 1942. From this time on, many of the prisoners’ camps received supplies of medicines and clothing, invalid foods and money at the rate of 1,500 Thai dollars for each prisoners’ unit in Thailand.
Invariably, these supplies were accompanied by a letter, type-written in England and signed “V” asking for information of their activities and conditions, nominal rolls, lists of deaths and other details. These letters were addressed by name to the senior British officer in the camp.
All officers with troops in Thailand were given free access at all times to the supplies of the organization.
The V-man’s main agent on the “Death Railway” was a Siamese -Nai Boon Pong – who lived in the town of Kanburi. A. considerable land owner and business man, Boon Pong contrived to be appointed canteen contractor to the Japanese authorities running the PoW camps. Contracting camps in this guise he sent hundreds of Thai dollars, in money, and supplies into prisoner camps.
Throughout him camps with radio sets received their supplies of batteries and replacements of wireless components. Other camps without radio sets received weekly and monthly bulletins containing news from the outside world.
Shadowed by Japs
Many times in danger of discovery, and with a certain death penalty hanging over his head if caught, Boon Pong carried on his work undaunted, in spite of being constantly shadowed by Japanese Kempels. From the summer of 1943 a secret route from north of Chieng Mai into Yunnan, and thence to Chung-king, was used by members of these secret organizations.
Several days after Japan’s surrender, a British Brigadier and an American Lt.-Colonel, heading a special military mission to Thailand, came into the open in Bangkok, where they had been hiding for some weeks in the home of a Thai Army Colonel.
Prince Chaluk, Thai Minister of Youth, a rowing Blue who coxed the Oxford boat in 1932, also played a prominent part in aiding prisoners through these organisations.
“Dicky Birds” was the name by which PoWs referred to the secret radio receivers, which operated continuously in the jungle camps.
The small band of heroic officers and men who worked these sets defied every Japanese attempt to prevent them, at the risk of almost certain death on discovery.
Out of some 15 radio receivers constructed and operated in the Thailand-Burma PoW camps at different times, only three were discovered by the Japanese.
The discovery of one, in a camp at Kanburi, Thailand, in August 1943, resulted in one of the worst atrocity cases. Two innocent British officers were beaten to death.
During the dark days of slavery on the railway, when men were dying in scores daily from starvation, exposure and disease, the constant stream of accurate Allied news supplied by the “Dicky Birds” was the only shaft of light from the civilised world which has pierced our gloom.
The whispered bulletins of BBC news, received at dead of night, often but a few yards from a Japanese sentry, undoubtedly strengthened the wills of hundreds of men, , strained beyond all recognised standards of human physical and mental endurance, to fight on and through these terrible months.
Prime movers in operating and organising the “Dicky Birds” were Thomas Douglas, an officer with the Royal Corps of Signals, once a technical engineer on the staff of the BBC, and Max and Donald Webber, two brothers, officers in the Malay and Loyal Regiments, residents of Malaya.
Nearly all the sets were made from small standard radio components. Usually two or three valve circuits, they were camera size, about six inches by six inches by four inches.
Often they were made so as to fit into the bottom of a standard size army water bottle; the base of the bottle could then be removed and the set taken out when required for use.
Scottish VHF Convention 1969.
L-R: Mike Dormer G3DAH, Jack Wilson GM6XI, Syd Rowden GM6SR & Tom Douglas G3BA.
Tom became a Silent Key in September 1994.
Tom's G3BA callsign is now held by Bob Jones G3YIQ who worked for Tom at BBC Sutton Coldfield.