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The Tiger has Many Lives

The story of Rod Wells POW Survivor

Pamela Wells

Harcourt, VIC: Sevenpens Publishing, 2022

Paperback ‎     pp304      RRP: $34.99


Reviewer: Neville Taylor, August 2023


Pamela Wells, after 29 years of marriage to Rod Wells that ended with his passing in 2003, has assembled a massive amount of material to produce a wonderful biography of a most amazing and fascinating Australian. The narrative is in the first person that has made it extremely personable.

Pamela, after his marriage ‘proposal’ – “We will be married one day,”, regarded his smile like that of a tiger, and Rod subsequently became known as ‘Tiger’. It was appropriate as it encapsulated the characteristics of this clever and tenacious man 21 years her senior.

Born on New Year’s Day 1920 and raised in country Victoria, Rod was an enthusiastic lad whose curiosity and energy knew no bounds. On friendly terms with the local pharmacist, he acquired the ingredients and successfully manufactured enough TNT to remove a very large quantity of earth from the wall of the nearby Waranga Basin – finally coming to appreciate the danger in which he had placed himself and his co-conspirator. [Just as well at that time Rod did not have access to today’s internet!]

In 1936 Rod began an apprenticeship at the Maribyrnong Government Ordnance Factory, before joining the Victoria Education Department as a student teacher. November 1939 saw his enlistment in the 2nd Australian Imperial Force, selected for officer training and commissioned a year later after undergoing signals training. He arrived in Singapore in August 1941 and was captured six months later when Singapore fell to the Japanese on 15th February 1942. Five months later he had been shipped to the POW camp at Sandakan, Borneo.

In an effort to remove the sense of total isolation felt by his fellow detainees, the first twelve months saw Rod ingenuously create both a clandestine radio receiver and transmitter by sheer improvisation. A ‘weak link’ in the process saw Rod and his associates arrested in July 1943 and handed over to the Japanese Military Police. They were moved to the civil prison at Kuching, Sarawak where their military trials were held in February 1944 – Rod received a 12-year prison sentence, while his colleague was immediately executed. If Rod had remained at Sandakan, he would most certainly have perished on one of the three Death Marches that saw only six prisoners of the approximately 2400 Australian and British held there surviving. Rod spent thirteen months in the notorious Kempeitai Gaol, Outram Road, Singapore before being transferred to Changi when his body weight was only 20 kilograms. Five months later he was liberated by the Allies and discharged from the Army in January 1946. He was inducted into the Army Lodge, Melbourne in 1946 and served for more than 50 years.

Four years of study saw Rod become Head of Science at Shepparton High School, but his hankering for work with radio and electronics saw him re-enlist in the Australian Army in the Headquarters Signal Regiment. Two years later, having completed a degree in electrical engineering, he was appointed a Fellow of the Institute of Radio and Electrical Engineers. This led to him attending the Royal Military Academy of Science, Shrivenham where he undertook post-graduate studies before a two-year secondment to the UK Ministry of Supply. Returning to Australia in 1955, he was attached to the HQ Department of Supply and attended the Maralinga atomic trials in 1956 as one of only two Australians on the scientific response team.

The following year Rod was promoted to major and attended the UK Atomic Weapons Research Establishment in Berkshire. Two years later he transferred to the Army Reserve Officers’ Retired List as a lieutenant colonel. Appointed a Scientific Officer in the Defence Department in 1960, he continued further training and work in and with the UK. In 1974, after a two-year wait, his proposal forecast came to fruition - his marriage to Pamela took place. Four years later he resigned from the Defence Department and set up his own private consultancy business. A long and meticulously-planned self-sufficient and sustainable dwelling and large workshop - years ahead of their time - were built by Rod at Waranga Basin Rushworth in 1984.

Rod retired in 1987 due to ill-health; on a visit to the UK in 1995 he recorded an interview at the Centre for the History of Defence Electronics in Bournemouth on the building of the clandestine radio. He was awarded Life Membership of the Royal Australian Signals Corps and the RSL. With the onset of dementia, Rod was moved into the Rushworth Nursing Home in June 1999 and remained there until he passed away on 12th October 2003.

This incredible resilient, no-nonsense and well-liked Australian was greatly respected by his peers and admired by many others. In September 2007 a new building at the Holsworthy Army Barracks, the home of 126 Signals Squadron, was named ‘The Rod Wells Wing’.

Pamela Wells has done Australia a great service in bringing all the aspects of her late husband’s life to our attention. Meticulously researched, it is illustrated with photographs and maps, contains a generous Bibliography, six Appendices and an Index. The reader can feel the love and devotion this special couple had for each other in their years together.



The RUSI – Vic Library thanks the author and publisher for making this work available for review.



This book can be purchased at The Shrine of Remembrance, Melbourne, or online from:

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