Roy Stevens was born in Armidale Victoria on 3 March 1899. It is assumed that he studied Medicine at Melbourne University. He enlisted into the AIF on 18 November 1940 and was appointed to 2/12 Field Ambulance (Fd Amb) with the rank of Major. He was an Ear Nose and Throat specialist. It is not clear when he went to Darwin but it seems that on 10 January 1942 he arrived in Timor, joining Captain Les Poidevin and 12 Other Ranks of the 2/12 Fd Amb which had been on Timor since early December 1941 as an advance party. With the arrival of Major Stevens and his staff there was now a company of the 2/12 Fd Amb in Timor to support the elements of Sparrow Force numbering around 2,300 personnel. There were 3 other Australian Medical Officers being Captain Max Brown 2/40 Battalion, Captain Doug Gillies 2/1 Heavy Battery and Captain CR Dunkley 2/2 Independent Company. In the initial stages there was also a RAAF Medical Officer flight Lieutenant J.A Horan. (As he survived the war, it is assumed that he was withdrawn to the Mainland of Australia with the elements of the RAAF which were withdrawn from Timor). There was also one other Medical Officer on Timor who became a POW. He was Dutch Doctor Henri Hekking who was a resident doctor on Timor. Hekking had his wife and two children with him. When Henri Hekking became a POW his wife and children became Civilian Internees.
The Japanese assault on Timor commenced on 19 February and on 23 February the Allies capitulated. The 2/12 Field Ambulance company had established a Medical Facility (Advance Dressing Station) at a location known as Tjamplong. Casualties arrived over the next few days. There was no surgeon amongst the doctors and surgical cases were handled by Captain Poidevin (who was not a surgeon, but of necessity took on that role), with anaesthetics being administered by Major Roy Stevens. On 23 February, with much uncertainty the hospital facility, including patients and staff, was surrounded by the Japs and surrendered.
The writer had an interview with Dr Leslie Poidevin in 2003, who said that Major Stevens performed with distinction whilst he was associated with him on Timor. In July Major Stevens, along with other senior officers and a small number of other ranks (the bulk of them from Western Australia, but, that is another story), was moved to Java or Singapore.
In April 1943 Major Stevens was one of 10 Australian Medical Officers who moved from Singapore to Thailand as a part of “F” Force. This was a party of 7,000 POWs comprising 3,600 Australians and 3,400 British. Major Stevens was the Senior Medical Officer for the AIF component. This party was told that they were being sent to a location where the climate was better than Singapore, it was a hilly country with pleasant and healthy surroundings, there would be a 300 bed hospital, canteens would be established within 3 weeks of arriving, there would be no restrictions on what could be taken, there would be a band for every 1,000 men and gramophones would be provided on arrival, there would be no long marches, transport would be provided for cartage of equipment and those unfit to march etc. How strange that the Japs did not tell them they were to become slave labour building a railway.
“F” Force moved to Thailand by train. They moved on train loads of around 650 men. Around 30 men were crammed into rice trucks about 8 feet by 18 feet. There was a sliding door and they stood, sat or lay for the journey, which lasted four nights over 5 days. There were periodic stops for meagre meals. There were no toilet facilities on the train. On arrival in Thailand at a place called Banpong, they were then forced to march to an area just short of the Burma border. This march of around 270 km took about two and a half weeks. Marching was by night as the day temperatures were in the mid 40 degrees Celsius. The monsoon had started and conditions were intolerable. Boots rotted and wore out and quite a number of men died on the march. The story of the march is too much to cover here.
Captain Adrian Curlewis (Later Sir Adrian) in his account of “F” Force mentions “The Senior Medical Officer AIF” (Major Stevens) had taken seriously ill at Lower Nieki Camp, and therefore was unable to exercise medical control of the Force. The role of Senior Medical Officer was then assumed by Major Bruce Hunt and his exploits will be covered elsewhere in a separate article.
It is known that Major Stevens was in Shimo Songkurai and Kami Songkurai. More is noted of his work at Kami Songkurai than elsewhere. Initially this camp was staffed only by Captain Colin Juttner. Stevens arrived at Kami Songkurai with Colonel Kappe and his work in the camp is best covered in the diaries of Medical Orderly BGW Skewes, Captain George Allen (the original commander of the camp) and the book “Railroad to Burma” by James Boyle. Over the period 25 September to 22 October it is noted that two amputations took place. Stevens, although not a surgeon, did these amputations. In fact the only surgeon in the area was Captain Frank Cahill (a Victorian) who had been about 10 kilometres south in Shimo Songkurai but, now shifted into Burma with Major Bruce Hunt caring for about 1,800 dreadfully sick men (671 of the 1,800 died over a period of around 12 weeks). It was noted that Major Stevens attempted to negotiate with the Japs over a number of matters.
In the book “Railroad to Burma” by James Boyle he makes specific mention of an incident concerning Major Stevens. This is quoted directly from the book. It gives some idea of an incident involving a Cholera patient and also something about the latter stages of the march from Banpong to the border area:-
“Cholera was at that stage of our imprisonment as yet an unknown quantity, but I made my first contact with one of its victims on the morning of our third day at Nicki. I had gone to the hospital hut to see the medical officer as once again I had been up for three hours during the night, vomiting my insides out. It transpired that my condition was due only to extreme debility, but I was terrified and feared the worst until I was reassured by the medical officer at Nicki, and was given some medicine to help me keep my meagre ration where it belonged.
As I was about to walk back through the attap hut one of the English medical orderlies came in carrying a patient in his arms. No sooner had they entered the hut than the tell-tale rice water began to flow from the victim, leaving a trail of whitish-looking fluid in his path.
Major Stevens, the camp’s senior Australian medical officer, soon left little doubt in my mind as to the serious nature of his patient’s condition. Major Stevens had apparently issued instructions to the medical orderlies that the man was to be left outside the hut until a proper examination could be conducted. He was furious at having had his orders disobeyed, but the damage had already been done.
The patient was laid out on the dirt floor of the hut and a receptacle of some sort placed where he needed it most. The medical orderly who was the subject of Major Steven’s wrath immediately proceeded to cover up the trail of the disease, as the green-backed flies would soon have discovered the mess in which to dabble their feet. Our party left Nicki early next morning, so I do not know whether or not the man survived.
We moved out on May 19 and after a march of 10 km reached Shimo Sonkurai, which was to be our camp for the next three months. We had covered 304 km in exactly three weeks since leaving Ban Pong. It was a feat of which everyone who completed the journey – in any condition, half-dead or otherwise – could feel justly proud.”
The diary of Private G.B.W.Skewes VX61290 Medical Orderly 2/13 Australian General Hospital records a number of references to Major Stevens. A selection follows:-
“Saturday 28 August 1943. Major Stevens told the Japanese Colonel that, if he would supply a few bags of beans or vegetables and 1 bag of sugar every few days, he (Major S) would be able to clear up all the patients suffering from beri-beri in a short time. Instead of replying to the Major he turned and said “More stumps will have to be grubbed out here to allow trucks in”.
“Tuesday 6 September 1943. ….Major Stevens was crook today, so I missed seeing him this morning”.
“Sunday 26 September 1943. Leg amputated by Major Stevens, with Captains Taylor and Juttner assisting”.
As mentioned previously, Major Stevens was not a surgeon and of necessity had to do the amputation, as the only Surgeon was Captain Frank Cahill, who was at the “F” Force Hospital Camp which had been opened in Burma at a place called Tanbaya.
When the Railway was completed on 17 October 1943, “F” Force was moved south to the area of Kanburi and subsequently back to Singapore. Statistics reveal that 61% of the British and 29 % of the Australians died in Thailand. Lt Col Glyn White who did wonderful work in Singapore and remained there for the duration, has said that on greeting the returning remnants of “F” Force at 3 AM one morning Roy Stevens was so emaciated that initially he did not recognise him and was able to pick him up and carry him into the Barracks.
With the end of the war Roy Stevens was evacuated to Australia by air. At that time he weighed about 5 stone. Prior to the war he had a General Practice in Kew and had left it in the hands of a Locum. He returned to the practice for a time and then moved to Collins Street where he practiced as an Ear Nose and Throat Specialist.
Roy Stevens retired around 1970 and passed away in 1976.
Article put together by Lt Col Peter Winstanley following an interview with the late Dr Les Poidevin and accessing the following material:- Heroes of F Force by Don Wall, Diary of Captain GL Allan Diary of GBW Skewes Story of F Force by Capt Adrian Curlewis (not the book) Railroad to Burma by James Boyle Medical Middle East and Far East by AS Walker Use of photograph approved by Les Poidevin.