Further Shows at Sime Road

By Sears Eldredge

Next on The Barn’s Spring Season was Rag Bag Revue produced by Horner, Roberts, and W. Hogg-Fergusson. This is the first show in which the Dutch/Indonesian female impersonator, Henri Ecoma, appeared—dancing and singing “La Conga.” Beckerley, who liked to sing as well as act, became part of the “Barn Quartet.”

I liked singing. So did Joe Bernstein, a professional tenor, Ken Luke, headmaster of a Malayan public school, bass, George Sprod, Australian Smith’s Weekly artist and cartoonist alto, and me . . . somewhere between Joe and George; I quote Joe In short, the Barn Quartet. Under Bernstein we were really good. We sang in every show except plays.[i]

. . . .

Joe wrote music and made sure we learned the score. A hard master Joe! When he put his hands on his hips with that pained look and the shake of his head, we three knew we [were] for it . . . not infrequently. We were good because Joe was a professional.[ii]

Beckerley also appeared in a number of skits, and even Searle appeared in two offerings.

When not working on the sets I did quite a few of standing in as understudy for the young female roles: Man of Destiny and Bird in Hand were two at Sime Road. . .. Actors were often unable to rehearse being out on working parties. . .. I could invariably fiddle my stay in camp to fit with a rehearsal when needed. Searle did not favour my, I quote, ‘stage struck desire to appear in plays’. I reminded him of that when he and I were cast in “Hamlet goes Hollywood,”[1] I was Ophelia. . . Ron, Laertes cum American reporter. I come on stage with straw in my hair, nursing a bunch of flowers. As I cross the stage, I offer each flower to the audience: “There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance.  There’s pansies, that’s for thoughts. There’s fennel that’s for you.”  (NOW HOLDING OUT A CHINA JAR) And [there’s] sulpher, that’s for scabies!” Audience loved it. Ron was good as the American reporter. He too loved it. His American accent was almost a Southern drawl, quite in keeping with the comedy. Stage struck.[iii]

The next show of the Spring Season was an adaptation of Patrick Hamilton’s “Masterpiece of the Macabre,” Rope, produced by Jon Mackwood and W. Hogg Fergusson, which played between March 28 and April 1. The Dutch performer, Fritz Scholer, appears again in the cast. Then, on 4 April, Music Thru the Years, opened. The show was a cavalcade of music compiled by the pianist Bill Williams with songs, sketches, and dances. Beckerley took the part of a female character:

In “Music through the Years” Alan at five feet two. Alan is the black whiskered villain to my five feet nine damsel in distress. I sing, “No, no, a thousand times No, you cannot buy my caress. No, no a thousand times no, I’d rather die than say yes.” Alan, “Marry me or your father will die!” Me, “Oh, poor father!” Alan, “Into the water with him!”  Me, “Oh, but he can’t swim!” Alan, “Well, now’s his time to bloody learn.”[iv]

The Barn Quartet sang a number of times in the show: “One song, ‘Comrades in Arms’ was a sort of best seller; the audiences not allowing us to retire before a repeat of it. Stirring stuff! I liked it so no chore for me.”[v]

This show was followed on 11 April by Nuts and Wine: A Gourmet’s Revue, which contained “Bolero” and “Lady of Spain,” danced by Henri Ecoma.

Caricature of Henri Ecoma. Desmond Bettany.
Courtesy of the Bettany Family.
View more of Desmond Bettany’s artwork at: www.changipowart.com

P. G. Wodehouse’s comedy, Good Morning, Bill, was scheduled for 18 April, but for some reason it was replaced by John Drinkwater’s comedy, Bird in Hand. And the four original one act plays by Lt. W. H. Ferguson that were next on the schedule were also canceled. Scotch Broth, a hastily cobbled together Variety Show, went on instead, opening on 25 April. The Highland costumes are credited to Besser & Burn. And here again, was Henri Ecoma. This time he was playing the native seductress, “Tondeleyo” [sic] from the 1923 London hit play, White Cargo. Beckerley had distinct memories of Ecoma:

. . . Henri on stage was a girl, he didn’t have to convince anybody. Anybody can put on a wig, tart himself up etc., etc., but strip him and confront an audience in a dance designed to arouse sexual desires is something that made Henri unique . . . he moved like a girl anyway. He also had a disconcerting way of switching to Dutch when he got excited, which was not infrequently and expecting us to keep up, as it were.[vi]

In early May, The Barn Entertainment Committee announced their Summer Season, which would contain the usual variety shows, plays, etc.—even a Dutch show—a night of Shakespeare, and an A.I.F. Concert. But their plans for a Summer Season were scuttled when the Japanese announced that they were all moving to Changi Gaol to replace the European civilian men, women, and children who had been interned there since the fall of Singapore and were now to take up residence at Sime Road.

Rice and Shine will be taking a short break in the New Year, but will return to continue the Changi story, plus cover a few other locations, soon!


[1] A comic sketch in Rag Bag Revue.


[i] Beckerley, J. Letter. 26 July 04.

[ii] Beckerley, J. Ibid.

[iii] Beckerley, J. Ibid.

[iv] Beckerley. J. Ibid.

[v] Beckerley, J. Ibid.

[vi] Beckerley, J. Letter. 24 April 05.

Cinderella and the Magic Soya Bean

By Sears Eldredge

Cinderella and the Magic Soya Bean, opened The Barn Theatre on 22 February and ran for four performances with packed houses.[1] The “burlesque pantomime” was written by Alan Roberts, who took over as sole producer because Horner was suffering with septic sores on his legs and feet.[i] Searle designed the costumes and settings; the wigs were made by Dick Trouvat. Given the cast of characters, the panto seems to have been a mashup of characters from different traditional pantos with additional fictional and film personalities, as there are characters in it called Widow Twankey, Dick Whittington, The Genii, Groucho Marx, Prince Yesume,[2] Gestapo Chief, and Sherlock Holmes. The British and Australian cast numbered 15 with “Cinderella” played by Jon Mackwood and Jack Horner as the “King of Khanburi.”[3]

Costume designs for Cinderella and the Magic Soya Bean. Ronald Searle. ©1944 Reproduced by kind permission of The Ronald Searle Cultural Estate Ltd and The Sayle Literary Agency

Searle’s whimsical designs for the costumes (see above) contain detailed identifying the character, the actor playing the role, and on what fabrics or sources to use in their construction. Beckerley played “The Court Magician” second from left in the bottom row. The originals are in full color.

According to Reginald Burton, Searle even designed a coach for Cinderella’s trip to the ball: “They had a sort of mock-up of a coach which was really a cardboard cutout that they pulled across. And I think Cinderella walked behind it looking out of a window.”[ii] After the last performance, Horner crowed that ‘“Cinderella etc.’ has been a howling success.”[iii]


[1] The soya bean in the title is a reference to the soya beans the POWs were given with every issue of rice, which were not to everyone’s liking. Burton, R. 134.

[2] Yasume – Japanese word for “rest.”

[3] Kanburi. The Hospital Rehabilitation Camp at Kanchanaburi in Thailand. Their last camp in Thailand.


[i] Horner, R. 118.

[ii] Burton, R. “Interview.” 35-36.

[iii] Horner, R. 119.

Note that all the documents in this series of blogs reside in Sears A. Eldredge Archive in the De Witt Wallace Library at Macalester College, 1600 Grand Avenue, St. Paul, Minnesota, 55105

Sear’s book, Captive Audiences/Captive Performers: Music and Theatre as Strategies for Survival on the Thailand-Burma Railway 1942-1945, was published by Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota in 2014, as an open-access e-book and is available here: http://digitalcommons.macalester.edu/thdabooks/22

The Barn Theatre

By Sears Eldredge

Expecting Singapore would soon be subject to Allied long-range bombing attacks, the Japanese ordered a permanent “black-out,” so no shows could be given outdoors in the evening. In response, the concert party moved into “a large barn-like shed”[i] they would call “The Barn Theatre” [Hut #16]. And the concert party changed its name to “The Barnstormers.”[ii]

Ronald Searle designed the décor for the new theatre, including the logo of a cow jumping over the moon in the center of the proscenium arch with stars scattered on the front curtains. When Searle was finished, Horner wrote, “The Barn Theatre looks very good and is able to create a very intimate atmosphere.”[iii] Unfortunately, “intimate atmosphere” meant the size of the audience would be limited.

Searle’s “Sketchbook” has a list of “The Barnstormers” participants and their various responsibilities. The Entertainments Officer is now Capt. R. L. Homes and not Ronald Horner, who is listed as part of the Acting Company. Their Scenic Artist is Ronald Searle, and there are different Producers for different types of shows: Lt. J. Mackwood for Drama and Capt. Homes and Pte. B “Professor” Roberts for Variety. Bill Williams is listed as responsible for Musical Direction; Wardrobe Masters are Lt. Archer and Lt. Haynes; Electrician, Peter Pearce; Clerk, Jim Whitely; and Stage Manager, Jack Wood. There are now twenty-one actors in the company, including two Dutch POWs, Dick Trouvat and Henri Ecoma, a backstage staff of twelve, Scenic Artists, Script Writers, and five members of the Front of House staff.[iv] The concert party had big plans: they would be a repertory theatre and announce a “Spring Season” of productions.

John Beckerley recalled that one of the acting company, Capt. Robin Welbury, . . .

. . . wrote his own material and did a series in front tabs comedy sketches. They were very popular. One I remember very well. Browbeaten husband is told by bitch of a wife to put away the row of wine bottles before she gets home or else. She leaves. Robin details to the audience every action he takes putting the wine away. . . drinking it, from pulling the cork and filling his glass to staggering around the room drinking the cork, throwing the wine away, counting the same bottle lovingly over and over, now dead drunk etc. (Reading this it doesn’t sound funny at all: in fact, he had the audience in the palm of his hand and they loved it.)[v]

Searle designed most of the sets for the Barnstormers’ shows, and he selected Beckerley to become his assistant.

Ron Searle designed the sets, sometimes a large ‘backdrop’ with plain side flats. Guess who was detailed to paint those. Ron would draw outlines on his cartoon-like backdrop with precise directives re block colour with shading and fading in and out to produce ‘our now’ finished background. He understood my limitations, was always considerate and encouraged rather than criticized. I learned fast: it was in his interest that I did.[vi]

Royal Airforce O.R. John Beckerley.
Courtesy of John Beckerley.

As with other concert parties, one of their major concerns was how to obtain costumes. This dilemma was partially solved by the Japanese.

Costumes at Sime Road: load of clothes from Singapore (JAPS COULD NOT USE THEM SO ‘HELP YOUR SELF’) As with Music 78s, Books, Etc. We would have preferred medicines and food. Costumes cutting made by two professional tailors (POW SOLDIERS). Two gnome-like characters who actually sat cross-legged like Disney characters when working. Believe me, it’s true.  No conversations . . . never! Not even when fitting us.[vii]


[i] Beckerley, J. Letter. 26 July 2004.

[ii] Horner, 118; Searle, “Sketchbook,” n.p.

[iii] Horner, R. 119.

[iv] Searle, R. “Sketchbook,” p. 27.

[v] Beckerley, J. Letter. 26 July 04.

[vi] Beckerley, J. Letter. 26 July 04.

[vii] Beckerley, J. Letter. 24 April 05.

Note that all the documents in this series of blogs reside in Sears A. Eldredge Archive in the De Witt Wallace Library at Macalester College, 1600 Grand Avenue, St. Paul, Minnesota, 55105

Sear’s book, Captive Audiences/Captive Performers: Music and Theatre as Strategies for Survival on the Thailand-Burma Railway 1942-1945, was published by Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota in 2014, as an open-access e-book and is available here: http://digitalcommons.macalester.edu/thdabooks/22

The Artwork of James Harston Pennock

James Harston Pennock, Aircraftman 1st Class in the RAF Marine Services was captured at sea off the coast of Singapore in February 1942. He spent the rest of the war in a Japanese POW camp in Palembang, Sumatra.

Photo of James Harston Pennock, Aircraftman 1st Class.
Courtesy of Anita Toscani.

Whilst a prisoner he drew (alongside fellow captured artists Rex Spencer and Bill Bourke) as well as carved pipes. James and Rex would also carve the names of those that passed away in the camp onto crosses. In a letter long after the war, and in a reference to carving onto the crosses, Rex wrote the “we just couldn’t keep up with the number dying”.

Although he rarely talked about his experiences in the camp, in a brief note he wrote years later he stated that “drawing saved his sanity”. His daughter, Anita Toscani, has kindly shared some of these drawings that he created whilst a POW with us so that more people may be able to see his artwork.

Anita would love to find out more about her father’s story, if anyone has any resources that could help, or recognises anyone in the Jame’s drawings below, please let us know.

All drawings by James Harston Pennock and kindly used with the permission of Anita Toscani.

“The Cathay Players”

By Sears Eldredge

Anticipating the return of the remainder of “H” Force in late 1943, Ronald Horner was posted from Changi to Sime Road to encourage entertainments and to be their Officer in Charge. On 9 December, he wrote: “Am in charge of entertainments here, so far can’t get hold of a piano, but we have an open-air theatre that needs patching up, but has a natural auditorium of a grass bank that will hold 3 or 4,000.”[i]

Caricature of Ronald Horner. Desmond Bettany.
Courtesy of the Bettany Family.
View more of Desmond Bettany’s artwork at: www.changipowart.com

After what they had been through Up Country, the POWs at Sime Road were eager to purge their memories of that experience and release their energies in more positive activity, so Horner was able to quickly established a small concert party, “The Cathay Players,” and started to produce shows. Unfortunately, it was the rainy season, so shows were frequently rained out.[ii] But the weather cleared for Christmas and Horner noted that their holiday show “was a great success” with an audience of about 1,500 in attendance.[iii]  

Among the musicians and theatre performers at Sime Road was the artist, Ronald Searle, who recorded the playbill for a Variety Show that went up on January 9th. This document tells us who those first performers in the “Cathay Concert Party” were. The show opened with the “Attap Serenaders,” followed by the comedian Charlie ‘Arvey. Then came Bill Williams as a “personality vocalist” followed by the Dutch Illusionist, Trouvat. Next on the playbill came the blackface comic duo Long and Whelan, followed by the Australian cartoonist George Sprod singing, and closing with Australian “Professor” Alan Roberts.[iv]

Royal Air Force O.R. John Beckerley, who had been captured on Java, became good friends with Alan Roberts at Sime Road.

Alan Roberts: university lecturer and known by all as The Prof! Very small, you could tap him on the head when he got cross: most of the time. He was most intellectual and most scathing with those who were not: like most of us. I had a long face, [and] a disciplinarian—an Army Provost Marshal Major—also had a long face.  Known as Desperate Dan he also had a foot wide ginger moustache.  Alan Roberts wrote a funny sketch where I as a female fortuneteller complete with large glass ball telling his fortune: how he’s going to get his hands on the good goodies stored wherever. ‘Much fiddling’, I say to Alan’s delight. “Just what I want to hear,” says Alan. “How do I get my hands on it?” LIGHTS GO OUT. . . THEN ON. I’m standing before him complete with a foot wide ginger moustache. Alan, “Good God, Desperate Dan!” The major was not a friendly man . . . standing ovation for me.[v]

    “Desperate Dan”
Caricature of Alec Morris Dann.
Desmond Bettany.
Courtesy of the Bettany Family.
View more of Desmond Bettany’s artwork at: www.changipowart.com

The next week, the Variety Show showcased Trouvat with a 20-minute hypnotism act. Thereafter, the concert party began to produce weekly shows on Saturday nights.

Also at Sime Road was a Dutch/Indonesian café called “The Flying Dutchman” in Hut #4 where you could buy coffee and Indonesian finger foods. Here is where Ronald Searle displayed his posters for shows as well as his costume designs and set renderings.[vi]

By 17 January, the concert party had acquired a piano but they still needed a curtain. And they had grown in number to the point where multiple shows were in rehearsal simultaneously. Horner reports, “I’m producing ‘Cinderella and the Magic Soya Bean,’ we also have Shaw’s ‘Man of Destiny’ and Shakespeare’s ‘Othello’ in rehearsal as well as ideas for a ‘Ragbag Revue’ . . . Jap interpreter has asked for words and music of my ‘When we’re free’ song—as I haven’t yet sung it here, I wonder how he’s got to hear it.”[vii]

On the 24th, there was a piano recital by Bill Williams, which greatly impressed Australian POW James Boyle:

With us at Sime road was Bill Williams — a sergeant in the RAF and a man in a million. He too could keep the interest of his audience from his first number to the last, and seemed capable of catering for all tastes. Bill’s programs usually consisted of popular songs for which he played his own piano arrangements, interspersed with a dash of light classical.[viii]

On 27 January, Horner, pleased with what he had accomplished in way of entertainment, wrote, “The Sat. night variety shows are going with a great bang, we have about 2,000 [in attendance] each time. Sang ‘When we’re Free’ tonight and got the audience to join in.”[ix] Surprisingly enough, the Japanese interpreter who had been given the lyrics had not had the song banned.


[i] Horner, 115.

[ii] Horner, Ibid.

[iii] Horner, Ibid.

[iv] Searle, R. “Notebook,” n.p.

[v] Beckerley, J. Letter. 26 July 04.

[vi] Nielsen, Mrs. Jane Booker. Email 6/18/2015.

[vii] Horner, R. 118.

[viii] Boyle, 146-147.

[ix] Horner, 118.

Note that all the documents in this series of blogs reside in Sears A. Eldredge Archive in the De Witt Wallace Library at Macalester College, 1600 Grand Avenue, St. Paul, Minnesota, 55105

Sear’s book, Captive Audiences/Captive Performers: Music and Theatre as Strategies for Survival on the Thailand-Burma Railway 1942-1945, was published by Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota in 2014, as an open-access e-book and is available here: http://digitalcommons.macalester.edu/thdabooks/22

Sime Road Camp

By Sears Eldredge

1943:

It was December, 1943, when the Australian, British and Dutch/Indonesian POWs in “H” Force returned to Singapore from Up Country. Because of a housing shortage in Changi, most of these POWs were shuttled to Sime Road Camp. A fellow officer told Lt.-Col. Reginald Burton not to worry about this location: “It was a camp in the open country part of Singapore Island, next to a golf course. It was hutted camp,[1] with showers, lights, proper roads. It sounded like a paradise to me.”[i]

Backstory: 1941-42

Before the war, Sime Road Camp, on the outskirts of Singapore, had been the Headquarters of the British Royal Air Force and then, in early December 1941, it became the Combined Army and Air Force Operations Headquarters Malaya Command—General Percival’s H.Q. –during the brief battles for Malaya and Singapore.

After surrender, Sime Road became an Australian and British POW camp with British officer, Lt.-Col. Philip Toosey, in charge. At some point, a concert party was formed and an outdoor theatre, dubbed the “New Cathay Theatre” was built. The opening performance was on Christmas, 1942.

Program cover for New Cathay Theatre. William Wilder.
Courtesy Anthony Wilder.

Very little is known about the performers or the shows, and the only observation on their content is from Lt. Stephan Alexander: “Our new electricity supply was used to light camp concerts, at which the Aussies proved particularly uninhibited. (“Do you really love me, dear, or is that your revolver I can feel?”)”[2][ii] In early October, 1942, the POWs at Sime Road were sent Up Country to build two bridges over the River Kwai at Tamarkan in Thailand.


[1] Meaning there were wooden buildings.

[2] A direct steal from the American stage and screen star, Mae West.


[i] Burton, 130.

[ii] Alexander, 91.

Note that all the documents in this series of blogs reside in Sears A. Eldredge Archive in the De Witt Wallace Library at Macalester College, 1600 Grand Avenue, St. Paul, Minnesota, 55105

Sear’s book, Captive Audiences/Captive Performers: Music and Theatre as Strategies for Survival on the Thailand-Burma Railway 1942-1945, was published by Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota in 2014, as an open-access e-book and is available here: http://digitalcommons.macalester.edu/thdabooks/22

Shocking Events

By Sears Eldredge

On 28 and 29 April, the remainder of “H” and “F” Forces who had been in hospital Up Country arrived back in Singapore “looking tired and dirty after their long train journey.”[i] Some were in such poor shape at the start of the rail journey that they did not make it and were buried beside the tracks enroute.[ii] 

On the 29th, the POWs in Changi got word that they would be moving soon—to the Gaol. The civilian men, women, and children who had been interned in the Gaol since the surrender of Singapore, were moving to Sime Road Camp outside the city. “Heavy sick” British and Australian cases in Roberts Hospital would be sent to a new hospital at Kranji in the northern part of the island, while “light sick” patients would go to a small hospital being established outside Changi Gaol. With all these changes, it appears the production of Macbeth was cancelled.

Playbill for May ’44. On 1 May, the murder-mystery, Suspect, opened at the Little Theatre, which Huxtable thought “a very good drama indeed.”[1][iii] On 6 May there was a concert with Denis East (violin), Cyril Wycherley (piano) and Doug Peart (tenor), followed by one on 13 May 1944 by the A.I.F. Orchestra. These concerts were meant to lower the POWs’ anxieties about their upcoming move. For Australian Stan Arneil, it was, “[a] glorious night of music . . . It is so easy, via music, to fly back home, that the jolt of returning to hard facts is softened by the memory of a good night’s music.[iv] That same night Leslie Buckley’s musical comedy, I’ll Take You: A Musical Review produced by John Wood, opened at the A.I.F. Theatre. In light of everyone moving elsewhere, the title was significant. No one would be left behind.

This would be the last show produced in Changi POW Camp.

I’ll Take You

Removal of the POWs to Changi Gaol and its immediate environs, and to Kranji, commenced in early May. By the 14th, Wilkinson observed, “Theatres and churches all knocked down in this area [Area 1] ready to be transferred [to Gaol]. More officers and men moved to Jail today. Weather exceptionally hot.”[v] Looking at all the commotion around him, Murray Griffin wrote, “Can you imagine the work involved in moving some ten thousand people with their furniture and belongings, their hospitals, workshops, churches, theatres — and all by manpower.”[vi]

On 31st May, 1944, Stan Arneil wrote in his diary:

Today we, so far, will be moving to the gaol. It is a simply glorious morning and the Straits of Singapore look all the more delightful for the fact that we are leaving them.[vii]


Author note:

It’s not possible to follow the POWs directly from Changi POW Camp to Changi Gaol without first checking out the entertainment activity in Sime Road Camp, as many of the prominent musical and theatrical producers and entertainers in the Gaol come from this camp.

RICE AND SHINE WILL CONTINUE IN OUR UPCOMING “SIME ROAD CAMP” BLOG SERIES.


[1] He went on to note that “A young Lieutenant, John White (British Army)—who had been the Princess in Aladdin—was one of the female impersonators: a few weeks later his sore lips and mouth extended suddenly to the throat and he died within a few days.” Huxtable, Diary, 154.


[i] Nelson, 135.

[ii] G’s Greyhounds, 334-335]

[iii] Huxtable, 153.

[iv] Arneil, 13 May ’44.

[v] Wilkinson, Diary. 14 May ’44.

[vi] Griffin, 71.

[vii] Arneil, 31 May 1944.

Note that all the documents in this series of blogs reside in Sears A. Eldredge Archive in the De Witt Wallace Library at Macalester College, 1600 Grand Avenue, St. Paul, Minnesota, 55105

Sear’s book, Captive Audiences/Captive Performers: Music and Theatre as Strategies for Survival on the Thailand-Burma Railway 1942-1945, was published by Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota in 2014, as an open-access e-book and is available here: http://digitalcommons.macalester.edu/thdabooks/22

Worsening Situation

By Sears Eldredge

In late March, Wilkinson got involved with theatre again in a production of John Galsworthy’s one-act play, Loyalties. By early April, he reports that the POWs in Changi began to experience further food deprivations and that malaria was rampant in the camp—a result of the worsening ration situation.

Rice rations have been reduced! I am permanently hungry! . . . Malaria is extremely troublesome here. In No. 1 Area, Officers and men go down with it time and time again. We are still rehearsing “Loyalties” but Malaria is hitting us hard and there is always at least two of the cast in hospital all the time. We have recast it three times owing to illness and it will be a miracle if it ever goes on as we have used up all our original understudies. Bill Auld is producing. . .. We’ll never be fit as so long as we are P.O.W. as this food is only just enough to keep us alive. One cannot really risk any sort of illness as there is no means of building up again. It’s still a case I’m afraid, of the survival of the fittest or the luckiest! It makes one quite anxious at times as things get gradually worse and here we are now beginning our third year![i]

Playbill for April ’44. All At Sea, at the A.I.F. Theatre, would play through April. On The Spot, a “Super, Do[o]per, Thriller” at the Phoenix Theatre was produced by Vere Bartrum, while the revue, Swingtime, produced by Forbes Finlayson, opened at the Little Theatre. Loyalties, it appears, never did go on.

Program cover for Swingtime. Desmond Bettany.
Courtesy of the Bettany Family.

Swingtime

Swingtime by Mick Walker and Freddy Binns, was billed as a “‘moosical extravaganza (with apologies to the Great American Public).” Directed by Hugh Elliot, with the orchestra conducted by the American, J. J. Porter. Its huge cast of 22 characters was played by 18 actors with some doubling. All four acts took place in the USA and moved from “Placidville, DG,” (Act One) to “Studio of the ‘Miracle Sooper-Kolossal Films, Inc.’ NYC. USA.” (Act Four). But why this sudden salute to the U.S.A., unless their “dickey-bird” (secret radio) was telling them that the tide of the war in the Pacific had turned and the Americans were now taking the upper hand, and this was the subtext their audiences were intended to understand?


[i] Wilkinson, Diary. 3 April ’44.

Note that all the documents in this series of blogs reside in Sears A. Eldredge Archive in the De Witt Wallace Library at Macalester College, 1600 Grand Avenue, St. Paul, Minnesota, 55105

Sear’s book, Captive Audiences/Captive Performers: Music and Theatre as Strategies for Survival on the Thailand-Burma Railway 1942-1945, was published by Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota in 2014, as an open-access e-book and is available here: http://digitalcommons.macalester.edu/thdabooks/22

New Book: Captive Fathers, Captive Children

“Captive Fathers, Captive Children: Legacies of the War in the Far East”

By Dr Terry Smyth

Defeated and disorientated in the heat and humidity of Java, my father, Edwin Smyth, was captured by the Imperial Japanese Army. It was the spring of 1942, and he was to spend the next three and a half years as a prisoner of war, including three years in Japan enslaved as a coal miner. Until his death in 1995 he remained greatly troubled by his memories, and his traumatic wartime experiences had a profound effect on me and on the wider family.

While a young child, I also often felt ‘defeated and disorientated’, by the atmosphere in the home. As the years rolled on, I continued to wonder why seven decades after the war so many of us remained fascinated by our fathers’ experiences of captivity and why we invested countless hours and days researching the facts and attending remembrance events. I was desperate to know how my childhood experiences compared with those of other sons and daughters of Far East POWs, and in what ways our memories of childhood had shaped our later lives. (Some questions don’t go away do they, even after decades and decades?)

After retiring from full-time employment in 2003, I began to read through my father’s papers. This reading, together with burgeoning online resources, were the triggers for my wife and I to travel to Japan in 2010 where we were able to visit the site of my father’s incarceration (Hiroshima 6b camp, near Mine City). At that point, I had to make a decision: either I would have to commit to taking this research further, or accept that I had gone as far as I could.

Faced with this fork in the road, curiosity won the day, and I decided to tackle the question head on. In October 2013, I started a full time PhD in the Department of Sociology at the University of Essex, graduating in the summer of 2017 just days after my 70th birthday.

During my research, I had contact with almost one hundred children of FEPOWs from all corners of the British Isles (and a few overseas), and undertook lengthy interviews with forty. As expected, these conversations were wide-ranging, challenging and emotionally demanding, made more so by the fact that they covered several decades of lived experience. Without exception, each interview offered new insights and fresh understandings, and I am exceedingly grateful to every participant for their trust and openness.

In June 2020, I signed a book contract with Bloomsbury Academic, one of the UK’s leading publishers. The book is part of their ‘New Directions in Social and Cultural History’ series, and sets out the results of my research into the life time consequences of having a FEPOW father. It aims to show how memory and trauma became ‘worked into’ the psychic, social and cultural lives of the children, how individual lives are touched by global events. Every family was affected in one way or another by the father’s FEPOW trauma, and I have not shied away from discussing and analysing the more troubling aspects of the children’s experiences, my own included. Taken together, these examples provide incontrovertible evidence of the incredible strength, resilience and courage of the participants in this research.

Cover: “Captive Fathers, Captive Children:
Legacies of the War in the Far East”

The seven chapters that comprise ‘Captive Fathers, Captive Children’ are as follows:

  1. Life in captivity
  2. Bringing war into the home
  3. Remembering and commemorating
  4. Finding meaning in memories
  5. Home as a site of remembrance
  6. The search for military family histories
  7. Place and pilgrimage

Sir Tim Hitchens, British Ambassador to Japan from 2012 to 2017, was kind enough to write the Foreword.

Although the book has been published by Bloomsbury Academic, wherever possible I have written it to appeal to a wider audience, most importantly the families of FEPOWs, as well as to those scholars and others interested in methodology, intergenerational trauma, and the legacies of war more generally.

To date, the book has been published in digital and hardback versions, and the paperback will appear in July 2023. You can find further details on the Bloomsbury website.


Dr Terry Smyth is a Community Fellow in the Department of History at the Univeristy of Essex. You can view his profile here.

Rations

By Sears Eldredge

It is about this time that there is an increase in the mention of hunger in POW diaries and memoirs.[i] Wilkinson compared their rice allotment to what they received Up Country: “We get less rice than we had up country consequently we get less bulk and are always hungry and ready for the next meal. It has become increasingly difficult to buy extras for augmenting our meals.”[1][ii] Obviously, the Japanese supply chain was being severely disrupted by American submarines.

Playbill for March ’44. On 1 March, All At Sea: A Nautical Farce written by Slim De Grey and produced by Keith Stevens, with music by Bill Middleton, and setting by Bert West, opened in the A.I.F. Theatre. The Little Theatre put on Stardust: A Musical Revue 1900-1944 devised and produced by Ken Morrison. March 4th saw the play, Love On The Dole, produced by G. Kenneth Dowbiggin and Martin R. English, open at the Phoenix Theatre in Hanky Park. At the end of the month, the A.I.F. Concert Party performed their Second Anniversary Show.[2]

All At Sea

When the Japanese authorities saw All At Sea, they promptly announced they were going to film it for viewing elsewhere (propaganda purposes), which they did on 6-8 March. As Stewart reports, “A compulsory parade was made to the A.I.F. Theatre, where scenes from the current “All At Sea” were [reenacted] by the cast, photographs taken.[3][iii]

Love On The Dole

Walter Greenwood and Ronald Gow’s gritty three-act drama[4] takes place in Hanky Park,[5] a slum neighborhood of Salford (in Greater Manchester) during the Great Depression and has a strong socialist message—an unusually serious play for POW audiences. Charles Dolman, playing the lead role of the daughter, Sally Hardcastle,[6] who becomes a prostitute in order to help her family survive, was given star billing as his name is above the title on the program cover. Familiar names among the largely unknown cast were Graham Sauvage and Desmond Bettany.

Program cover for Love On The Dole. Desmond Bettany.
Courtesy of the Bettany Family.

Australian O.R. Stan Arneil thought it “a rather sordid play magnificently acted by a group of English players.”[iv] But he was so taken with the show, he saw it a second time five days later. And then decided, “but I had best not see it any more. I dreamt about it all last night and woke up with a boomer cold (almost my first in the tropics).[v]


[1] This must have been while Wilkinson and others were recuperating in Kanburi Hospital Camp Up Country where the Japanese wanted to fatten them up before they were sent back to Singapore.

[2] This is the last entry in Val Mack’s list of their shows in his exercise log books.

[3] As far as is known, no propaganda film of this show has ever been found.

[4] Based on Greenwood’s documentary novel of the same name.

[5] That the play takes place in Hanky Park, England, and the POWs were in Hanky Park, Singapore, may have carried some significance.

[6] Besides its metaphoric significance, the family’s name, “Hardcastle,” must be a reference to the family in Oliver Goldsmith’s famous 18th cent. play, She Stoops to Conquer, in which the daughter, too, saves the family.  


[i] Thomas, Fax. 31 March 01, 9.

[ii] Wilkinson, Diary. 5 Feb. ’44.

[iii] Stewart, Leonard. extracts from A.I.F. ROs, Changi ’44. AWM PR01013.

[iv] Arneil, 10 March, ’44.

[v] Arneil, 15 March, ’44.

The Intrepid Theatre-Goer

By Sears Eldredge

Once he was back on his feet, Capt. Wilkinson lost no time catching as many shows currently playing as possible. First, he saw the pantomime, Dick Wittington, which he called “first class.” It was so good he went back a second time. Then he saw Roman Rackets, which he thought only “fairly good,” followed by Hay Fever: ‘“Hay Fever’ was undoubtedly outstanding, even comparing it with English Rep. standards!”, he pronounced.[i] Finally, Wilkinson went to see the revue Shooting High. “It was a sort of wild west show,” he wrote. “The outstanding item was an apache dance in which ‘Judy’ Garland was brilliant.”[ii] He heard that the St. George Players were going to do a revival of Shakespeare’s Macbeth in the near future, which he definitely planned to attend.”[iii]

Hay Fever

Of all the shows currently on view in Changi, it was Daltry’s production of Hay Fever that garnered the most praise. Nelson, who had received a special invitation to the premiere, thought: “It was simply marvellous, at least the equal of performances I have attended in London. Many of the artists are professionals.”[iv]

Program cover for Hay Fever. Desmond Bettany.
Courtesy of the Bettany Family.

David wrote that it was “beautifully produced and one of the best shows we’ve had. I intend to see it again.”[v] Huxtable, thought it “witty and amusing” and went on to say:

Major Daltry, overcoming all difficulties, produced a first-class show and the acting was very good. John Wood, the Australian, was Miss Bliss and Major Bradshaw her husband. We had a good laugh and all agreed that we had often paid ten bob to see shows of a far lower standard in peace time.[vi]

Caricature of John Wood as “Miss Bliss.”[1]  Desmond Bettany.
Courtesy of the Bettany Family.

Wilkinson elaborated further on his initial reactions to the production:

The outstanding show was “Hey Fever” . . .. The stage setting was wonderful and so were all the dresses etc. They had a first class cast. The female lead was taken by John Wood. He is an Australian who has had professional stage and film experience in England. Bradshaw was in it and Douglas Rye of the Croyden Ren. [?] Since we went up country a number of new “females” have cropped up and most of them are first class actors.[vii]

Caricature of Willis Toogood. Desmond Bettany.
Courtesy of the Bettany Family.

One of these “new ‘females’” was Willis Toogood, who played “Myra Arundel.” His first appearance as a female impersonator was in the Glade Theatre’s production of Old King Cole back in 1942. Oliver Thomas (originally in “The Optimists Concert Party”), played Simon Bliss. Thomas remembered, “We did 35 performances of this.”[viii]

We obviously had to make do with what furniture & props we could get together. Some things had to be made e.g. a ‘barometer’ which falls off the wall & breaks in ‘Hay Fever’ when one of the unhappy house-guests ‘taps’ it . . .  there is breakfast scene — edible things had to be made out of rice e.g. both the slices of ‘toast’ in the rack and the small yellow balls of ‘butter.’ We were so hungry that it was impossible not to be very excited eating this substitute food, and the audience knew it & didn’t let the fact you were actually eating go by unnoticed. Hunger was the perpetual condition of our being Japanese POW’s.[ix]


[1] The artist did not identify the person caricatured, but I assume this is John Wood as he always played a blond female.


[i] Wilkinson, Diary, 5 February ’44.

[ii] Wilkinson, Diary, 5 February ’44.

[iii] Wilkinson, Diary, 5 February.

[iv] Nelson, 127.

[v] David, 55.

[vi] Huxtable, 150.

[vii] Wilkinson, Diary, 5 Feb. ’44.

[viii] Thomas, Fax, 31 March 01, 2.

[ix] Thomas, Fax, 31 March 01, 5.

Note that all the documents in this series of blogs reside in Sears A. Eldredge Archive in the De Witt Wallace Library at Macalester College, 1600 Grand Avenue, St. Paul, Minnesota, 55105

Sear’s book, Captive Audiences/Captive Performers: Music and Theatre as Strategies for Survival on the Thailand-Burma Railway 1942-1945, was published by Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota in 2014, as an open-access e-book and is available here: http://digitalcommons.macalester.edu/thdabooks/22

Changi Concert Parties: January–May ‘44

By Sears Eldredge

Because of the huge resettlement of the POWs into a smaller perimeter that had taken place during the latter days of 1943, the number of performance venues in Changi were now limited to five: The A.I.F. Theatre, Command’s indoor and outdoor theatres, and the Con Depot’s outdoor theatre, as well as the YMCA music marquee—all in the Selarang Area. There is no mention of another performance in The Kokonut Grove Theatre in the records. But a new outdoor venue—The Phoenix Theatre— appeared in January in Hanky Park, which was, according to Huxtable, “over near the Malaya Command building half a mile away, over by No. 3 gate.”[i] These POWs were most likely from the Volunteer Forces who had been in the Southern Area and Up Country. The entertainers called themselves “The Red Rose Players.” Their orchestra was directed by Geoffrey C. Knight and their Stage Manager was S. J. Cole. The Phoenix became another of the Command Theatres.

Playbill for January/February ’44. Dick Wittington, at the A.I.F. Theatre, and Aladdin at Command’s indoor theatre, would finish their runs towards the end of the January. Meanwhile, the Variety show, Roman Rackets, written by Graham Sauvage and produced by S. J. Cole was on at the new Phoenix Theatre at Hanky Park. On 25 January, Noel Coward’s Hay Fever, produced by Osmond Daltry and directed by Chris Buckingham opened at Command’s indoor theatre.

In early February, Shooting High, a Western Farce written by Les Connell & McArthur and produced by Keith Stevens went up at the A.I.F. Theatre, followed by a Variety Show, Bits & Pieces. Huxtable, had this to say about the A.I.F. shows he saw:

The shows are always bright and amusing, if somewhat lowbrow – clever singing, dancing, female impersonations (John Woods) and conjuring tricks (Sid Piddington).[ii] 

The Phoenix Theatre’s show for February was P. G. Wodehouse’s, Good Morning, Bill, produced by John Burne.


[i] Huxtable, 153.

[ii] Huxtable, 153.

Note that all the documents in this series of blogs reside in Sears A. Eldredge Archive in the De Witt Wallace Library at Macalester College, 1600 Grand Avenue, St. Paul, Minnesota, 55105

Sear’s book, Captive Audiences/Captive Performers: Music and Theatre as Strategies for Survival on the Thailand-Burma Railway 1942-1945, was published by Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota in 2014, as an open-access e-book and is available here: http://digitalcommons.macalester.edu/thdabooks/22

Christmas Pantomimes, 1943

By Sears Eldredge

Program cover for Aladdin. Desmond Bettany. Courtesy of the Bettany Family.

The former Command Players in their new Little Theatre (formerly Smokey Joe’s) mounted Aladdin: A Christmas Pantomime written by Rich Goodman with a huge cast featuring Norman Backshall as Aladdin, John White as the Princess, and Hugh Elliot at Widow Twankey. It included a Chorus and a “Ballet” of eight harem dancers. Musical arrangements were by J. J. Porter, scenic design was by Derek Cooper, and costumes were by Fred Cooper. Chris Buckingham was the Stage Manager.

The A.I.F. Concert Party opened their pantomime, Dick Whittington and His Cat, on New Year’s Eve. It was produced by John Wood with a book by Leslie Greener. Settings were by Murray Griffin, costumes by Teddy Druitt, lighting by Clarrie Barker, and music/lyrics by Ray Tullipan and Slim De Grey with Bill Middleton directing the orchestra.

Performed by concert party regulars: Keith Stevens played Dick Whittington, his Cat was played by Bob Picken, Ron Caple played Widow Twankey[1]; and Doug Peart, the Sergeant Major.

Dick Wittington and His Cat. A.I.F. Pantomime. Xmas, 1943. Painting by Murray Griffin. AWM.

Both shows were huge successes—just what the M.O.s’ ordered for sick and recovering troops. And so ends 1943. In early 1944, the POWs in Changi would begin the third year of their captivity.


[1] Yes, Widow Twankey appears in more than one pantomime, so there can always be a clothes washing scene where suggestive remarks are made about the state of the underwear.  

Note that all the documents in this series of blogs reside in Sears A. Eldredge Archive in the De Witt Wallace Library at Macalester College, 1600 Grand Avenue, St. Paul, Minnesota, 55105

Sear’s book, Captive Audiences/Captive Performers: Music and Theatre as Strategies for Survival on the Thailand-Burma Railway 1942-1945, was published by Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota in 2014, as an open-access e-book and is available here: http://digitalcommons.macalester.edu/thdabooks/22

Another Short Wave Broadcast and The Return of “F” Force

By Sears Eldredge

Another Short Wave Broadcast

The fifth in a series of recordings for short-wave broadcasts “from AIF hospital in Malaya” occurred on 16 December. The Australian announcer, Capt. Alan Bush, reminded his listeners that on the last broadcast they had heard the “very colorful number ‘The Race that Rules the Rhythm of the World.’”[i] (Whether this song is referring to the Japanese or the White race is ambiguous.[1]) Then he launched into the first sketch:

Announcer: All roads today led to Circular Quay [Sydney] to welcome home thousands of soldiers returning after years in Malaya. As we reach the Quayside, we behold the tall, lean, sun-tanned Anzac marching down the gang-way. . .. And there’s a pretty girl with a beautiful blue-eyed baby in her arms waving to them. This will be a touching wartime reunion and I’ll take the portable microphone over close and we’ll listen to their conversation.

A.  My darling little wife, gee it’s great to be back.

B.  Sweetheart you are looking wonderful.

A.  Yeah! And so are you, honey, but tell me, whose baby is that?

B.  Why, that’s our little Benny.

A.  Our little Benny? But I’ve been away for four years. That kid can’t be more than 6 months old.

B. Don’t you know, Benny’s from Heaven?

Then came a takeoff on the song “Pennies from Heaven” closing with the lyrics,

Now every kid must have a Dad,

They’ve always taught us.

But little Benny had,

A flying fortress.

No use to ask the preacher,

St. Peter’s the one to see,

For Benny’s from heaven

And not from me.[ii]

The mention of “a flying fortress” as the father of the “blue-eyed baby” is a reference to the American airmen stationed in Australia as part of the war effort. Everyone seemed to know the saying, “The Yanks are overpaid, oversexed, and over here.” Fearing the worst about the G.I.’s behavior with their sweethearts and wives, this was a warning to the “girls” back home to toe the line.

The Return of “F” Force

That same day, 16 December, members of “F Force” began to arrive back in Changi. “Most were in very poor state of health and their morale at a low ebb,” observed Nelson.[iii] The Australian returnees would be accommodated in huts on the padang in Selarang Barracks.[iv] The British returnees would be relocated to the Garden & Woods Area.

Four days later Huxtable reported that “All the AIF of F Force are back except such as are still in hospital,[2] too sick for the four and a half days train journey.”[v]

One of the Aussies who came back at this time was Stan Arneil. His diary records the moment when they emerged from their transport boxcars.

The people from Changi stood back and uttered not a word. It was really quite strange. We lined up on the road as best we could and stood up as straight as we could. Those who couldn’t stand up straight were on sticks. And those who couldn’t stop shaking with malaria were held by their friends. We thought this was what we should do as soldiers to say that we were not beaten. The sergeant major dressed us off and we stood in a straight line as he went over and reported to Colonel Johnson. Johnson went over to [GCO] Black Jack Galleghan and he said, “Your 2/30th all present and correct, sir.” And Galleghan said, “Where are the rest?” The major, he was a major then, said, “They’re all here, sir.” And we were. Black Jack Galleghan, the iron man, broke down and cried.  It was an incredible scene. We wanted to show them we were soldiers.[vi] 

If the word from “H” Force about POW treatment Up Country wasn’t bad enough, the word from “F” Force would be worse—much worse.

Huxtable saw “young Wycherley, the pianist and accompanist, but all the rest of the celebrity concert party, who used to entertain us so delightfully both here and at Roberts Barracks have been wiped out by disease,[3] with the exception of the violinist Denis East. The latter, we hear, is still in hospital up north,[4] but recovering.”[vii] 

Huxtable was aware that for many of the returning POWs, it still wasn’t over. “Since the last date of entry,” he wrote in his diary, “I have taken part is some hard work at the hospital and seen much tragedy and death from sickness. The men are so emaciated from malaria and other disease that they die easily.”[viii] 

This horrific situation made it all the more important that the concert party Christmas shows not only had to be excellent in execution but wild with laughter.


[1] The ambiguity allowed any Japanese to understand it his way while the listening POW audience understood it a different way.

[2] Up Country in Kanburi Hospital Camp (see my online book, Chap. 4 “The Interval: Thailand and Burma).

[3] Not entirely accurate. Because he couldn’t keep up with the rest of the marching troops, Reginald Renison was beaten to death on the long march up to their work sites on the border with Burma. John Foster-Haigh died of starvation in a camp in Burma.

[4] Actually, East was in Kranji, a hospital for chronic cases that had been established in the northern part of Singapore Island. According to my interview with East, he insisted that he had never gone Up Country.


[i] Frey, Kerrin. Shortwave Radio Transcript, 1.

[ii] Frey, Kerrin. Shortwave Radio transcript, 1-2.

[iii] Nelson, 124-126.

[iv] Huxtable, 144.

[v] Huxtable, 144.

[vi] Arneil, in Nelson, Prisoners of War, 68.

[vii] Huxtable, 144.

[viii] Huxtable, 145.

Note that all the documents in this series of blogs reside in Sears A. Eldredge Archive in the De Witt Wallace Library at Macalester College, 1600 Grand Avenue, St. Paul, Minnesota, 55105

Sear’s book, Captive Audiences/Captive Performers: Music and Theatre as Strategies for Survival on the Thailand-Burma Railway 1942-1945, was published by Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota in 2014, as an open-access e-book and is available here: http://digitalcommons.macalester.edu/thdabooks/22

Documentary: Litir Ghrá ón Dara Cogadh Domhanda

A new documentary, produced by Strident Media, tells the story of Dr Frank Murray and his then fiancée Eileen O’Kane.

Frank, a Belfast doctor, made a promise to Eileen that he would return home from the Second World War. This is the story of that promise, revealed in love letters that are now brought to life to reveal their long-distance romance and how this promise was kept.

Dr Murray served as a medic in the Second World War and was deployed to Singapore where he was eventually taken prisoner of war. The documentary covers Frank’s perspective of the fall of Singapore and his time as a prisoner of war of the Japanese, including becoming the Commanding Officer in a camp in northern Japan.

The documentary has been filmed with contributions from Eileen and Frank’s children, historians, psychologists and military experts.

You can watch Litir Ghrá ón Dara Cogadh Domhanda on BBC Two Northern Ireland, or the BBC iPlayer, on Sunday 9th October at 10pm and TG4 on Wednesday 12th October at 9:30pm. The documentary is broadcast in the Irish Language with English subtitles available.

If you would like to read more about the documentary you can read this article on Northern Ireland Screen in both Irish and English.

If you would like to read more about Dr Frank Murray, you can read more about Gaeltacht to Galicia: a Son’s Tale, a book written by Paul Murray (Frank’s son), here.

1st Short Wave Radio Broadcast & The Return of “H” Force

By Sears Eldredge

1st Short Wave Radio Broadcast

The A.I.F. made their first recording for short wave broadcast to Australia on 18 October. But it was not one of their shows that was broadcast: it was an original script, which included as many names of POWs as possible and coded references to their health and situation. Huxtable was part of a group of officers and men who “played” the audience, applauding as directed.[i]

Playbill for November/December ’43. November 2nd saw the opening of “Keep Singing” An Oriental Adventure by Ray Tullipan and Slim De Grey at the A.I.F. Theatre. It ended with a “Jungle Dance” supposedly performed by the African-American tap dancer, “Bojangles of Harlem.”[1] On 11 November, Lord Babs, an adaptation of a book by P. G. Wodehouse, opened at The Command Little Theatre, produced by Jack Fitzgerald. Credits list S. J. Cole as the General Manager for “Command Theatres, Inc.”.[2] On 16 November, the A.I.F. Theatre staged a new Variety Show in which the opening number was entitled “Outward Bound”—surely a takeoff on the popular play at The Little Theatre with lyrics more hopeful about their own destination.

December 1st saw the opening of Emlyn Williams’ play, A Murder Has Been Arranged presented by “The Command Players” at the A.I.F. Theatre. Besides the excellent acting, it was notable for the fact that there were five female impersonators in the cast. On the 12th, the A.I.F. Concert Party mounted We Must Have Music, a Variety Show with a surprise appearance of “Santa Klaus” and “Jingle Bells” during the Finale.

The Return of “H” Force

In early December, the POWs in Changi were shocked when the survivors of “H” Force unexpectedly returned from Up Country. Capt. Wilkinson was relocated to the Old Garden & Woods Area; others to a new camp at Hanky Park. But many of the Brits (like Ronald Searle, who almost died Up Country) and Australians (like George Sprod) were sent to Sime Road Camp on the outskirts of Singapore, where R. M. Horner had been dispatched to start weekly entertainments to take their minds off the recent past. On 14 December, he wrote in his diary:

The remainder of ‘H’ Force have now come down from Thailand – the total death rate of our force of 3,320 is now 823. ‘F’ Force are also on their way down either to Bangkok or possibly another camp in Singapore. Their casualties are over 3.000 already and they are dying at a rate of 8-12 a day. They lost a lot from cholera and pure starvation. As 18 Div. had a large number on this force I fear I’ll have lost many friends.[ii]

Now the POWs in Changi would hear firsthand about the killer work details, the cruelty, starvation, disease, and death suffered by their mates Up Country. [See future blog on Sime Road Camp].


[1] This was a highly unusual Finale, which raises all sorts of questions. Was this performed by an Aussie in blackface, or by one of the Dutch/Indonesian troops? Did it try to convey some sort of coded message about the war to the audience about their own “oriental adventure”?

[2] Note the use of the plural here. 


[i] Huxtable, 139.

[ii] Horner, 116.

Note that all the documents in this series of blogs reside in Sears A. Eldredge Archive in the De Witt Wallace Library at Macalester College, 1600 Grand Avenue, St. Paul, Minnesota, 55105

Sear’s book, Captive Audiences/Captive Performers: Music and Theatre as Strategies for Survival on the Thailand-Burma Railway 1942-1945, was published by Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota in 2014, as an open-access e-book and is available here: http://digitalcommons.macalester.edu/thdabooks/22

Registration open for the 2023 Researching FEPOW History Conference


Registration for the 2023 Researching FEPOW History Conference is now open!

We advise early booking as places are limited, please see the notes below (or those attached to the registration form) for further details.

We hope to see many of you in Liverpool 10-11 June 2023!

All the best,
RFHG

IMPORTANT NOTES


Planning to put on this next conference has had its challenges!

As seasoned delegates will know, RFHG run the conferences on a shoestring; we are all volunteers and rely on delegate fees to underpin all but the venue costs. We are indebted to the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine for its continuing support.

While we are all now learning to live with COVID-19, and with a further vaccine rollout this autumn, we still cannot be certain that something may arise to restrict plans once again. Therefore, in the event of another COVID-19 threat next year we must comply with the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine’s safeguarding guidelines within School during periods of rising or high infection rates (such as mask wearing and social distancing).

FIRST COME, FIRST SERVED

This means that initially we have limited guaranteed places to the first 55 people for whom we receive completed delegate forms, together with deposits. When guest speakers and the RFHG team are added, we reach the school’s maximum number of persons allowed in the lecture theatre under the 2-metre social distancing rules.

However, we sincerely hope that by Spring next year we will be able to invite another 30 or more from the waiting list to join the conference. We appreciate your understanding. We will inform all those who register if they have a confirmed place or are on the waiting list.

NB previous delegates had priority booking (from 1 September) so don’t delay booking to avoid disappointment! If we do not reach our break-even by 1 November, regrettably we will have to cancel the conference.

Queries? Get in touch via email: researchingfepowhistory@gmail.com, or to mike.parkes@talktalk.net, or by telephone – 0151 632 2017. We aim to respond to queries within five working days.

Out of Bounds

By Sears Eldredge

On 14 July, the POWs got word from Japanese H.Q. that the British and Australian units within Roberts Hospital would start moving to Selarang Barracks Square in a week. (This will eventually place The Palladium and Command Theatres out of bounds—but not their players and production staff. When they did move, they would take all their costumes, props, lighting, curtains, etc., with them to their new locations.) They would move to the Old Convalescent Depot in Selarang which had become Command and Southern Area Headquarters.

Concurrently, “30 medical officers and 200 Royal Army Medical Corps other ranks” (known as “K” Force) were sent to Thailand, which caused POW Command H.Q. in Changi to fear that some sort of epidemic had broken out Up Country.[i] How right they were. The troops Up Country were dealing with cholera.

Playbill for August/September/October ’43. In early August, the A.I.F. Concert Party shared their theatre with a N.E.I. concert party. What they staged was a musical comedy in Dutch seen by Huxtable:

. . . about two young bloods touring the world.[1] They were smart, well-groomed and clever, and the female impersonators were good. One of the latter, in fact, was quite ravishing in a long, blue evening gown, blonde, beautiful and languorous . . .. I was sitting with Smith-Ryan, and next to him sat a Dutch officer who helped a little with translation.[ii]

Over at the Kokonut Grove Theatre, which was about to go out of bounds, the N.E.I. POWs stationed there produced, Faust: An Operetta in Three Acts. The last show at the Palladium, which was also going out of bounds, was Alan Bush and J. J. Porter’s The Little Admiral. Meanwhile both the musical, Everybody Swing, produced by John Wood, and the revue, In The News, were performed at the A.I.F. Theatre.

Programme cover for Everybody Swing. Des Bettany.
Courtesy of The Bettany Family.

In September, the Aussie’s produced Let’s Have a Murder, a musical mystery play written by Slim De Grey. They were also given word that the Japanese planned to record their shows for short wave radio broadcast to Australia— “as an indication to the world of how happy we all are here at Selarang Barracks,” thought Huxtable.[iii]

October saw the opening of The Time of Your Life, produced by British POW, Ken Morrison, at the A.I.F. Theatre,[2][iv] followed on the 19th by The Fleet’s In, produced by Bennie McCaffrey, which featured a “Toe Dance” by Charles Wiggins to a trumpet duo playing music from the West End musical, Mayfair. At The Little Theatre, Osmond Daltry produced Sutton Vane’s thought-provoking mystery play, Outward Bound.

Program cover for Outward Bound. Desmond Bettany. [3]
Courtesy of the Bettany Family.

Outward Bound is a serious play about the passengers on a boat headed to an unknown destination. What an audience discovers is that the passengers have all died from various causes, and their unknown destination will be either to Heaven or Hell. Only the young couple, appearing on the boat as they prepare to commit suicide are saved from death by the barking of their dog. It was directed by C. J. Buckingham (prior to this he had only functioned as Stage Manager). Former actors from The Palladium Theatre were in the cast. Huxtable, who saw the play on 10 November, thought it “a difficult play to produce successfully before troops, but in spite of that it was most successful. [F. W.] Bradshaw and [Osmond] Daltry are both professional actors. Daltry lost an eye and a leg (thigh amputation) [in the Battle for Singapore] and has to get around on crutches. Bradshaw, young and handsome, has been in Hollywood, I believe.”[v]

On 17 October, David Nelson records that Command was opening a “new theatre.”[vi] According to Huxtable,

[this would be the] former building where Smokey Joe’s restaurant used to be. The walls of the big entertainment hall still carry the cartoons in black and white, painted by Private Rogan of the Convalescent Depot, depicting Walt Disney figures and similar characters. This hall, being in the original NAAFI building, had a proper stage and they have enhanced the effect by rooting up the floor in front of the stage and constructing a pit for the orchestra.[vii]

It, too, would be known as “the little theatre.”[4] Now the Command Players had both an indoor and an outdoor theatre.


[1] Interesting enough, this was the same plot of a show, Zijn Groote Reis (His Big Journey), produced by Dutch POWs in Chungkai POW Camp, Thailand, on 15-16 September 1944.

[2] In mid-August, Morrison, a compere and leading player in shows at the Palladium, received a letter from his mother that told him his wife had been killed in an air raid the previous December. [Capt. A. Smith-Ryan diary, PR00592]

[3] Bettany got the playwright wrong on his program cover.

[4] “Little” refers to the limited number of audience members that could be accommodated in the auditorium. Outdoor theatres could accommodate a lot more.


[i] Nelson, 100.

[ii] Huxtable, 132.

[iii] Huxtable, 137-138.

[iv] Mack, Show Log.

[v] Huxtable, 141.

[vi] Nelson, 116.

[vii] Huxtable, 144-146.

Note that all the documents in this series of blogs reside in Sears A. Eldredge Archive in the De Witt Wallace Library at Macalester College, 1600 Grand Avenue, St. Paul, Minnesota, 55105

Sear’s book, Captive Audiences/Captive Performers: Music and Theatre as Strategies for Survival on the Thailand-Burma Railway 1942-1945, was published by Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota in 2014, as an open-access e-book and is available here: http://digitalcommons.macalester.edu/thdabooks/22

Des Bettany – POW Artist

By Keith Bettany

Gunners – Unknown Mates (Des on far right).
Image courtesy of Keith Bettany.

My dad, Des Bettany, after seeing action in Europe in WW2 was evacuated from Dunkirk and posted to North Malaya. He was eventually imprisoned by the Japanese at various prisons camps on Singapore Island with some 100,000 other prisoners of war (POW’s) . You may well ask, how did he make it through all of this? Well, he painted to keep his sanity. 

Clumsy Gunner On A 25 Pounder.
Image courtesy of Keith Bettany.

From out of the misery, starvation, exploitation and brutality that resulted in so much loss of life and injury (physical and mental) a series of artworks that helped Des and his mates survive the ordeal has now come to light in a family collection. This artwork of his service life before and after the Capitulation of Singapore is a range of fascinating illustrations, done often with humour by Des himself.

Sketchbook Confiscated – Des Bettany’s confrontation with Major General Saito
Image courtesy of Keith Bettany.

However, while painting to keep his head, he nearly lost it, as he was also painting political cartoons of the Japanese and hiding these. They were found and after some quick talking and who knows what else occurred, Des was warned by Major Col Saito, if he ever painted like this again, he would get a short haircut (be beheaded). We are sure he was punished but he, like so many other ex POW’s chose not to share the horrors they went through with others. I guess in telling of the horrors, they just relive them again. 

‘Jap Guard’, Changi Gaol (March 1945).
Image courtesy of Keith Bettany.

This new website has been put together by us, Des’ family, as a tribute and to help raise awareness of what the POWs went through, as seen through the eyes of one man, Des Bettany. It also give a rare insight on how others kept ‘sane’ by looking forward to such things as: The Changi University; The Library; The Theatre and Musical Programs; Changi Industries; working to help mates by making rubber souls for boots or limbs for amputees; getting up to mischief: sabotaging their own work; or partaking in their Faith. 

Filling Moulds.
Image courtesy of Keith Bettany.

After 70 years in a cupboard, at last, this artwork is available to all who have access to the internet. Now that has been ‘liberated’ all the artwork can be viewed at www.changipowart.com

‘Say, Where’s The B…. Cookhouse?’ Towner Road POW Camp
Image courtesy of Keith Bettany.

A brief 4 minute video summarizing dad’s work can be viewed, go to www.changipowart.com/videos click on the ‘Channel 7 Today Tonight Program’.

Malayan Tragedy.
Image courtesy of Keith Bettany.

Please share this site so the message gets out to many of what these men went through and some of the strategies they employed to keep sane and to survive. We also honour & remember those who didn’t make the journey back home.

‘H’ Force Leaving Selerang Barracks Square (May 1943)
Image courtesy of Keith Bettany.

Des Bettany’s artwork, including some of his theatre programme covers are heavily featured as part of our Rice and Shine series.

Further Consolidation

By Sears Eldredge

At the beginning of May, the huge Southern and 18th Division Areas of Changi were shut down and the troops remaining in them moved elsewhere into a smaller, tighter perimeter.[i] These closings would include the loss of the theatres in those Areas (six in the 18th Division alone), unless they could be dismantled and re-erected elsewhere. With troops being crowded into other’s Areas, Unit distinction became more difficult to maintain. But more intermingling by the troops meant more possibilities for creative interaction. Not only had guest performers from one concert party already appeared in other Division’s shows, but new producers and new entertainment troupes with combined personnel were formed, such as seen above with “The United Artistes Players” at the Palladium. Interestingly enough, no instances of artistic jealousy or concert party rivalry has been found in the literature, but you can’t put that many musicians and theatre performers together without some sort of rivalry going on.   

Smokey Joe’s

The ultimate meeting place was Smokey Joe’s in the Selarang Area. Originally a Java Party snack bar operated by the Dutch in an attap-roofed hut.[ii] But with its huge success, it was taken over by Command H.Q. as a money-making venture for all the Divisions and moved to a more accommodating location.  

An old N.A.A.F.I. canteen was taken over, and painters, decorators and electricians performed wonders, under the circumstances. The decorative work, by A.I.F. artists, was fine, the walls being covered with the topical adventures of well-known comic strip personalities.[iii] 

The N.A.A.F.I. had a stage at one end and a bar at the other. Its official opening as an eating place/cabaret with twice weekly floorshows was on 31 May 1943. In Changi, it was the place to be!

But of all ranks, British, Aussies, Yanks, and Dutchmen (brown and white), representing all services, is not easy to describe. The evening hours were filled in contentedly, with a snack to enjoy, noise of the re-echoing band, the concentration on the cabaret turns which came on at various times.[iv] 

One night, John Wood appeared there in a floorshow “as an entrancing blonde in filmy silver and blue.”[v]

Playbill for June/July ’43. June saw The Five Moods of the Theatre ending its run at the Palladium; Midsummer Follies: Being A Riot Of Fun And Merriment, written and directed by Alan Bush,opening at the Command Theatre (with the Palladium Theatre Orchestra directed by J. J. Porter); and a Variety Show at the A.I.F. Theatre. July 6-9 saw a new producer, Jack Fitzgerald, present Love Laughs: A New–Gay–Romantic–Musical Comedy, at the Palladium, with six female impersonators in the cast, including Garland and Stevens from the A.I.F. Concert Party; and the musical comedy, The New World Inn, re-written by George Donnelly at the Command Theatre.


[i] David, 48.

[ii] Nelson, 85.

[iii] Penfold, Bayliss and Crispin. Galleghan’s Greyhounds, 323-324.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Ibid.

The Shows Go On

By Sears Eldredge

In the midst all the commotion caused by these massive troop movements, the concert parties remaining in Changi continued to perform and audiences continued to attend them. One way to relieve anxiety about any upcoming deployments, it appears, was to attend a show. Seeing friends off and then going to a show would also help you forget your sadness. The only difficulty for directors was when sudden cast changes had to be made because one or more members were being sent away.

Playbill for March/April/May ’43. Among the productions playing during this time were the original musical Dancing Tears, written by Alan Bush, at the Palladium; G. B. Shaw’s play, Androcles and the Lion, at the Command Theatre; Two Masks—two one-acts (one of which was The Monkey’s Paw) at the Kokonut Grove Theatre[1]; and the variety show, Ship A’hoy, at the Hippodrome. S. J. Cole toured the principal theatres in Changi with Audition, hoping to find new players for his shows. In Selarang, the A.I.F. concert party memorialized their captivity with their 1st Anniversary Show and Val Mack proudly noted their accomplishments during the past year:

Early in April saw the completion of twelve months’ solid work by the A.I.F. concert party. It had staged, in the year, 134 sketches, 152 songs, 61 musical items, 74 specialty numbers and three complete plays — including a Christmas pantomime — before appreciative audiences totaling over 300,000.[i]

April performances saw S. J. Cole’s The Show Goes On at the Command Theatre, which had “Judy” Garland (borrowed from the A.I.F.) in the cast as well as a most unusual turn: “Belisha’s Soldiers . . . Original Changi Marionettes.”

Program cover for The Show Goes On. Desmond Bettany.
Courtesy of the Bettany Family.

Five Moods of the Theatre, performed by “The United Artistes Players,” directed by Jack Greenwood[2] opened at the Palladium, which was followed by a revival of I Killed the Count.

In May, “the wild and merry” Max Revels: A New Crazy Show went up at the Palladium, and the new Japanese Camp Commandant, Captain Takahachi, sat in the front row enjoying himself immensely.[ii] (Attendance by a Japanese officer at a show had never happened before in Changi.) The A.I.F. Concert Party toured with Nudovia, an original musical comedy,[3] and mounted the revue, Slab Happy, in their home theatre. And the Little Theatre mounted a stage adaptation of the radio play, He Came Back, by Fred Cheeseborough with settings by Ronald Searle that would run through July.

Program cover for He Came Back. Desmond Bettany.
Courtesy of the Bettany Family.

[1] This may have been a show by American POWs from Java as this show had been performed there earlier in Bicycle Camp in ’42 (see future blog on POW entertainment in camps on Java).

[2] Compered by Ken Morrison, Leofric Thorpe’s nemesis. Where had he been hiding?

[3] Which had characters named Silas Roosevelt, Jerry Bilt, Van De Bilt, and Winnie.


[i] Mack, Show Log.

[ii] Nelson, 95.

Note that all the documents in this series of blogs reside in Sears A. Eldredge Archive in the De Witt Wallace Library at Macalester College, 1600 Grand Avenue, St. Paul, Minnesota, 55105

Sear’s book, Captive Audiences/Captive Performers: Music and Theatre as Strategies for Survival on the Thailand-Burma Railway 1942-1945, was published by Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota in 2014, as an open-access e-book and is available here: http://digitalcommons.macalester.edu/thdabooks/22

The “Speedo”

By Sears Eldredge

Meanwhile, over a thousand miles away in Thailand and Burma, the POWs building the railway were entering the “Speedo Period”—the desperate push by the Japanese engineers to get the railway completed to the new earlier deadline set by Tokyo. During this period, the POWs would work extended hours and seven days a week without adequate food or medical supplies. Corporal punishment was harsh and frequent. As a consequence, sickness and death increased at an alarming rate, so urgent calls went out to Singapore for more POW workers.

On 20 March, massive evacuations from Changi began. “D” Force, which contained 2,750 British and 2,250 Australians—”fit men for heavy manual labour in a malarial climate”—was the first to leave for Up Country destinations. “There were emotional scenes,” recalled Murray Griffin, “as the parties moved out with the concert party band playing ‘Now is the Hour’ and ‘Waltzing Matilda’.”[i]

A week later, “E” Force, consisting of troops from the Southern Area and the A.I.F., was sent to Kuching, Borneo. 500 Australians were then sent on to Sandakan on the other side of the island (see future blog on Borneo).  

Between 18-26 April, “F” Force made up of British and Australian troops, which included Padre Foster-Haig and members of his musical group (inc. the pianist/symphony orchestra conductor, Renison and the singers, Aubrey King and George Wall, etc.), were sent to northern Thailand (see Chapter 2, “Jungle Shows Thailand” in my online book for a more detailed account of the fate of this group).[ii]

On 25 April 1943, “G” Force (various groups) was sent to Japan where there was also a huge labor shortage.[iii]

Then, with still urgent calls for more workers for the railway, “H” Force, made up of British and Australian POWs “with as many officers as possible with bridge-building and road-making experience” was sent to Thailand between 5-17 May.[iv] Among these troops would be the artist Ronald Searle, the female impersonator Michael Curtis, the actor/director Capt. Wilkinson,[1] and cartoonist George Sprod—and, in a break with precedence, two performers from the A.I.F. Concert Party: the singer, Doug Mathers and the ventriloquist, Tom Hussey.

On 15 May, “J” Force went off. Speculation was that they were headed for Japan.[v]

When these deployments were complete, the number of POWs left in Changi had changed dramatically:

Changi Camp, in February 1942, had held approximately 52,000 prisoners of war. By the end of May 1943, however, most of them had departed and were working for the Japanese in Burma, Thailand, Borneo, and Japan, those remaining in Changi numbered only 5550 officers and men.[vi]

And many of those POWs were either in hospital or in convalescent wards so unable to fulfill camp duties.[vii]


[1] That Wilkinson is on “H” Force seems indisputable. In my online book, I mistakenly placed him on “F” Force.


[i] Griffin, 28.

[ii] Nelson, 87.

[iii] Nelson, 25.

[iv] Nelson, 5-17 May.

[v] Nelson, 94.

[vi] Penfold, Bayliss and Crispin. Galleghan’s Greyhounds, 320.

[vii] Ibid.

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Registration is now open for everyone. Please visit https://fepowhistory.com/conferences/2023-conference/ to find out more on how to register.

Symphony Orchestra & Choir on Tour

By Sears Eldredge

Elsewhere in Changi, Reginald Renison’s 18th Division Symphony Orchestra was performing at different venues as it toured the Changi Areas in the first two weeks of March.

When it opened at the Palladium, the concert was dedicated to Padre Foster-Haigh, who was its producer.

Our Symphony concert which ran at the Palladium Theatre was a glorious success [Foster-Haigh wrote]. We had an orchestra of twenty-two players conducted by Reginald Renison, who is a very fine solo pianist; a former pupil of Myra Hess, & an able lecturer. His playing of the Schumann Pianoforte Concerto with orchestra was a delight & really a high spot in the concert. In addition to the orchestra, we had a Male Voice Choir of forty voices conducted by myself & another able musician named Kenneth Scovell, a music master in one of our English Schools & quite a good composer of anthems; while as Leader of the Orchestra we had Denis East, a very fine violinist & a member of the London Philharmonic Society. In Cyril Wycherley, a cinema organist from Ipswich I had a firsthand accompanist. During the series of concerts, I sang on five occasions. It was as much as I could do in addition to my other work. The remaining nights the soloist was Aubrey King, a most likeable fellow & a promising soloist.[i]

Mr. Terrai

After the Symphony performed in the A.I.F. Theatre, Foster-Haigh was approached by a Japanese interpreter called Mr. Terrai who had attended the concert. “He was so thrilled with the performance, that he came personally to thank me, & have a chat about music in general. . .. Mr. Terrai is a most charming conversationalist & knows a good deal about the great masters. He told me that he had a gramophone library of five hundred records, & enjoys opera & modern songs.” Foster-Haigh learned that Terrai was a Christian and before the war he taught English Literature at one of Japan’s universities. “What a strange world it is & how mixed is man!”, he writes after the meeting. “Virtually Terrai & myself are enemies because our countries are at war & yet we found a common meeting place. Music and literature made us friends.”[ii]


[i] Foster-Haigh, 7.

[ii] Foster-Haigh, 8.

Note that all the documents in this series of blogs reside in Sears A. Eldredge Archive in the De Witt Wallace Library at Macalester College, 1600 Grand Avenue, St. Paul, Minnesota, 55105

Sear’s book, Captive Audiences/Captive Performers: Music and Theatre as Strategies for Survival on the Thailand-Burma Railway 1942-1945, was published by Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota in 2014, as an open-access e-book and is available here: http://digitalcommons.macalester.edu/thdabooks/22

First Anniversary of Surrender

By Sears Eldredge

The POWs in Changi were now approaching the first anniversary of their defeat and surrender. Not a time for celebration, surely. But less they forget what had happened, two groups of entertainers produced shows that would remind them.

Journey’s End

“The 18th Divisional Headquarters Players,” an all-Other Ranks’ Company, opened their presentation of R. C. Sherriff’s World War I drama, Journey’s End, at The Hippodrome on in early February. It was produced by Denis O’Brien and Stuart Ludman.

Program cover for Journey’s End. Desmond Bettany.
Courtesy of the Bettany Family.

Sherriff’s tragedy takes place in a dug-out on the Western Front in March 1918, in the days leading up to the final spring offensive by the Germans. A group of British officers and men, led by a young Captain, are ordered by High Command to go over the top in what will clearly be a suicidal mission as the massive German attack begins. These events couldn’t help but remind the POW audiences of General Wavell’s orders issued before he left Singapore: “There must be no thought or question of surrender. Every unit must fight it out to the end and in close contact with the enemy.”[i] 

From actor Donald Smith’s lengthy account of the POW production, it appears that the producers believed that Sherriff’s play promoted the idea that their lost cause created a special bond between the officers and men which ennobled them (which by implication so hadn’t the Battles for Malaya and Singapore). But Sherriff’s own attitude about the war in which he had fought, was much more ambiguous. The original 1928 production was also widely praised as an anti-war play that revealed not only the incompetence of the military leadership but the terrible wastage of human life.[ii] This ambiguity would affect audience response to this POW production as well.

After several highly successful performances before British officers and men, the performers faced their first audience of Australians. Rain started to fall during Act I, which did not help the mood of the audience forced to sit in the wet and watch. During Act II, catcalls and jeers from the audience began to be heard—the Australians were proving to be “not very tolerant,” wrote Smith. By Act III, when Smith was about to make his first appearance, the rain had stopped.

As I made my brief appearance as the German prisoner, there was a great roar of applause, and for a moment I stood, dumbfounded, wondering for whom this ovation was intended. Then I realized that it was intended for me! The sympathy of the audience had apparently gone over to the Boche.[1] I was listened to attentively, and without comment. As the sergeant-major searched me and relieved me of my precious letters, much against my will, the audience growled and booed. As I made my exit, I was given another round of applause.[iii] 

The context in which a performance takes place can greatly change how it is received and interpreted by its audience. The Australian POWs, identifying with the German POW, were having nothing to do with any attempts to mythologize the hell they had gone though in the battles for Malaya and Singapore into notions of “solidarity” or “nobility.” 

The Admirable Dyeton

A day later [9 February] in the Command Area, the all-officer “Command Players” opened their adaptation of James M. Barrie’s 1902 “withering satire on the social order,”[iv] The Admirable Crichton, renamed The Admirable Dyeton. Barrie’s original play was about a group of worthless British aristocrats who undertake a voyage on a yacht to the South Pacific and end up shipwrecked on a deserted island. For two years they survive by the ingenuity and leadership skills of their butler, Crichton. 

Program cover for The Admirable Dyeton. Desmond Bettany.
Courtesy of the Bettany Family.

The POW version written by Digby Gates, 9th Gurkhas, and produced by W. Hogg Ferguson, made sure that their audiences would not miss the connections between the play and their own past experience. Act I takes place at “Divisional HQ on Jingalore Island, Night of the Capitulation” during which Corps Commander Lieut. General Sir Endimion Cholmondcley Featherstonehaugh plans to lead an escape party of Staff Officers and Administrative Other Ranks.[2] Act II opens ten days later on a Desert Island where Featherstonehaugh and Company had landed by faulty navigation. And for the next two years, it is Sgt. Dyeton, an Administrative Clerk from Divisional HQ, who assumes command and saves the day (Act III). 

In Barrie’s original final Act (Act IV), the characters have been rescued and have just arrived home again. Now the old order reasserts its rank and privilege, and the butler, Crichton, without complaint, resumes his “proper” former position. In Digby Gates’ version, the Officers are rescued and return to “Divisional HQ. Somewhere in India.” And there Dyeton, too, resumes his “proper” position as Administrative Clerk. 

Padre John Foster-Haigh, for one, did not miss the connections to the past:

It . . . showed us in a most entertaining way how an orderly room sergeant was more fitted to command & had more strength of character than the commanding officer. It was great fun & a very clever play. It was really a play leveled against inefficiency & roused a good deal of comment among Senior officers.[v]

About this same time in Convalescent Depot’s outdoor theatre, McNeilly hosted the 18th Div. Celebrity Artists for a concert of “Light Music.” To get their stage ready, he took old sheets, dyed them, and then sprayed them with colored paint to hide the blood stains. “Not a bad effect,” he writes.[vi] This time there had been no intent to make a comment on the surrender anniversary, but in a way, it had—at least for us.


[1] Slang term for the Germans.

[2] This had to be a pointed allusion to the controversial escape of General Wavell and other Senior Officers to Australia before capitulation.


[i] Wavell’s Orders, AWM PR 85/145

[ii] Gassner, 693.

[iii] Smith, D. 62.

[iv] Gassner, 567.

[v] Foster-Haigh, Diary.

[vi] McNeilly, Notes, 3.

Note that all the documents in this series of blogs reside in Sears A. Eldredge Archive in the De Witt Wallace Library at Macalester College, 1600 Grand Avenue, St. Paul, Minnesota, 55105

Sear’s book, Captive Audiences/Captive Performers: Music and Theatre as Strategies for Survival on the Thailand-Burma Railway 1942-1945, was published by Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota in 2014, as an open-access e-book and is available here: http://digitalcommons.macalester.edu/thdabooks/22

Changi Concert Parties: Jan.—Dec. ‘43

By Sears Eldredge

Playbill for January/February ’43. At the beginning of the month, the panto, Jack and the Beanstalk, transferred to The Palladium Theatre for a short run, temporarily displacing Gentlemen Only which would be revived after the panto had completed its performances; Cinderella held forth at the A.I.F. Theatre; Horner’s New Windmill Road Show continued to tour; and in the Southern Area, the F.M.S.V.F.[1] mounted their own concert party, “The Vol-de-Rols,”[2] which put on a variety show in their Glade Theatre. 

Wilkinson, who was in rehearsal with R. C. Sherriff’s Badger’s Green, saw Gentlemen Only at this time and was amazed to find they “had 14 Instrumentalists in the orchestra. Two of them are outstanding and are professional American band players. One plays a trombone [J. J. Porter] and the other a saxophone [Musician First Class “Hap” Kelly]. They also have a double bass which has been made in the camp.”[i]

Renewed Troop Deployments

After the Christmas/New Year’s holidays were over, major troop movements into and out of Changi continued. Between 20 January and 5 February, all of the recently arrived “Java Rabble,” as well as many of the N.E.I.[3] forces already in Changi, were crammed into boxcars and sent Up Country to Thailand. Australian Medical Officer Weary Dunlop was placed in charge of a group of Australians and N.E.I. troops who would be known as “Dunlop Force.”

“A Riot of a Night”

On Saturday night, 30 January, a dance was held in the gymnasium of the Selarang Barracks. According to a writeup of the event found among Leonard Stewart’s papers, this was the second such dance.[4] It had been advertised as “A Riot of a Night” with “First Class Music” and “Plenty of Women.” “A bevy of talented girls were procured,” it reports, “their beauty being truly outstanding. They had the men folk gasping with desire. . ..” And it goes on to name twelve “women,” such as: “Misses. Pansy Anderson, Nudey Nolan, Ophelia Ralph,” etc.—obviously men in drag. The dance attracted a “large crowd from near and far.”

If this writeup is to be believed, it was “a riot of a night,” with an officer throwing a bottle of booze through a side window, etc. Another getting lacerated lips from trying to prevent all the contents of that bottle from draining away. And two soldiers “who had great difficulty in keeping their feet, attempted to disorganise the orchestra and were ejected after a violent struggle.” And before it was over, “[s]everal members of the A.I.F. Concert party put in an appearance . . .  and Doug Mathis, Fred Stringer and Harry Smith, favoured with items.”

The article contains lots of innuendo about what transpired between the “girls” and the men, i.e., “[Lieut. Tom Jones] affair with Flighty White however, completely left him in the air.” It closes with the claim: “After a night of unique diversions, the guests departed to the waiting taxi cabs and rickshaws. The end of another happy night.”[ii]

Given the non-existence of “taxi cabs and rickshaws” and other like details in Changi at the time, this writeup could be taken as wholly fanciful—just a fun read on a bulletin board—except for an entry in H. L. David’s diary for 22 February 1943, referring to a third dance a month later: “Went to a dance last night, jolly good show and plenty of fun about 20 chaps dressed as girls. I had to dance lady most of the evening.”[iii]

So, it seems these dances actually happened, but the author of the writeup embellished the events of the evening to give everybody a good laugh.

Badger’s Green

With their theatre still not ready, “The New Windmill Players” produced R. C. Sherriff’s comedy, Badger’s Green at The Palladium on 4 February. It would finish its run on the 18th when “over 7000 had seen the show.”[iv]

Secret photograph of Badger’s Green onstage at the Palladium.
H. D. T. Gawn. Courtesy of Judith Gawn.

 

At the end of the month, the Variety show, Zip, went up at the Kokonut Grove Theatre.


[1] Federated Malay States Volunteer Force.

[2] Believe this was also the name of a World War I concert party.

[3] Netherlands East Indies.

[4] No record of a previous dance has been found.


[i] Wilkinson, Diary. 14 Jan. ’43.

[ii] Stewart, Leonard. Paper 5 of 14] Item(s) 19 and 28 and folder 12. AWM PR01013.

[iii] David, 46.

[iv] Wilkinson, Diary. 18 Feb. 1943.

Note that all the documents in this series of blogs reside in Sears A. Eldredge Archive in the De Witt Wallace Library at Macalester College, 1600 Grand Avenue, St. Paul, Minnesota, 55105

Sear’s book, Captive Audiences/Captive Performers: Music and Theatre as Strategies for Survival on the Thailand-Burma Railway 1942-1945, was published by Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota in 2014, as an open-access e-book and is available here: http://digitalcommons.macalester.edu/thdabooks/22

New Year’s Eve Celebrations

By Sears Eldredge

As they approached the New Year and the first anniversary of their imprisonment, the men in Changi were determined not to lose hope. On New Year’s Eve, Wilkinson and the other officers in the India Lines “heard all the men in the camp singing and creating a terrific din. Then we saw that they were marching round the camp led by drummers. . .. Everyone was in excellent form! We chimed all the bells we could lay our hands on at midnight and cheering and singing could be heard all around into the early hours of the morning.”[i]

Elsewhere in Changi, Batman H. L. David was involved in celebrations that were a bit more raucous:

. . . the Japs gave us a tin of pineapple between 6 and 2 oz of their wine, a cross between brandy and Sherry. It seemed very strong stuff to me and some of the officers have got hold of a lot of it and were blind drunk, the majority sang and danced and kicked up ‘hell’s delight’. Three Aussies dressed as women, came up for a lark, one was manhandled and “her” knickers were taken down just to make sure it was a man. We (the batmen) made apple pie [1]beds for most of them while they were out of the way. Our officer’s bed was filled with rice but he was so drunk he slept on it all night. 

Quarter to one before we put the lights out and went to sleep.[ii]

“AND SO ENDS 1942!” wrote Wilkinson in capital letters in his diary. “I WONDER WHAT EVERYONE AT HOME IS DOING, AND WHETHER THEY HAVE EVER RECEIVED OUR CARDS, AND WHETHER THEY KNOW WHERE WE ARE AND WHAT HAS HAPPENED TO US.”[iii]

[TO BE CONTINUED AT CHANGI BLOG ‘43]


[1] A form of short-sheeting a bed, where one of the sheets is folded over itself so that a person cannot stretch their legs out once they have got into the bed.


[i] Wilkinson. Diary. 31 Dec. ’42.

[ii] David, 45.

[iii] Wilkinson, Diary. Dec. 31, 1942.

Note that all the documents in this series of blogs reside in Sears A. Eldredge Archive in the De Witt Wallace Library at Macalester College, 1600 Grand Avenue, St. Paul, Minnesota, 55105

Sear’s book, Captive Audiences/Captive Performers: Music and Theatre as Strategies for Survival on the Thailand-Burma Railway 1942-1945, was published by Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota in 2014, as an open-access e-book and is available here: http://digitalcommons.macalester.edu/thdabooks/22

More Trouble in the Works

By Sears Eldredge

On the 30th, Wilkinson attended an important “Director’s Meeting” at 18 Div. H.Q.  . . .

. . . to go into the whole question of entertainment, and the hospital and our Theatre arrangements. There was quite a lot to go into, as all the people who have come up from Singapore have got either complete shows or parts of them and we now have 5 small Theatres in the area producing unit shows.[1] The idea now is to finish building the 18th Div. Theatre so that Variety Road shows can be performed there, and select the best turns for more polished shows at the Palladium.[i]            

It was also disclosed at the meeting that the Japanese had confirmed that all the meat available in cold storage on the island had run out.[ii] This was not good news. The substitute would be fish.


[1] These are just in the 18th Division Area.


[i] Wilkinson. Diary. 30 Dec. ’42.

[ii] Wilkinson. Diary. 30 Dec. ’42.

Note that all the documents in this series of blogs reside in Sears A. Eldredge Archive in the De Witt Wallace Library at Macalester College, 1600 Grand Avenue, St. Paul, Minnesota, 55105

Sear’s book, Captive Audiences/Captive Performers: Music and Theatre as Strategies for Survival on the Thailand-Burma Railway 1942-1945, was published by Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota in 2014, as an open-access e-book and is available here: http://digitalcommons.macalester.edu/thdabooks/22

Christmas Pantomimes

By Sears Eldredge

In the 18th Div. HQ Area, another new open-air theatre, dubbed The Hippodrome, opened with the pantomime, Jack and the Beanstalk, produced by one of the returned Singapore Working Parties.

Program cover for Jack and the Beanstalk. Desmond Bettany.
Courtesy of the Bettany Family.

In the Selarang Area, the A.I.F. Concert Party opened their Christmas pantomime, Cinderella.

Many pantos, like Jack and the Beanstalk, are about a young hero on a quest; others, like Cinderella, had a young female who needed rescuing from her desperate plight (in the A.I.F.’s case, Cinderella was an ex-Navy Sick Berth Attendant).[i]

During the beginning of Cinderella’s run, someone had the brilliant idea of trying to tour the panto to Changi Gaol to entertain the European children incarcerated there. Permission from the Japanese was sought and granted. But while they were in the process of transporting their costumes, props, etc., to the Gaol, the Japanese changed their minds and permission was denied. The toys made by the POWs, however, were delivered to the children for Christmas as promised.[ii] 


[i] Parkin, 19.

[ii] Boyle, 52.

Note that all the documents in this series of blogs reside in Sears A. Eldredge Archive in the De Witt Wallace Library at Macalester College, 1600 Grand Avenue, St. Paul, Minnesota, 55105

Sear’s book, Captive Audiences/Captive Performers: Music and Theatre as Strategies for Survival on the Thailand-Burma Railway 1942-1945, was published by Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota in 2014, as an open-access e-book and is available here: http://digitalcommons.macalester.edu/thdabooks/22

New Book: Tigers in Captivity

By Ken Hewitt

Tigers in Captivity

The 1st Battalion Leicestershire Regiment in the Malaya Campaign and as Far East Prisoners of War 1941-1945.

by Ken Hewitt

Ken’s research into his father’s military career with the Leicestershire Regiment started in 2006 and quickly led to an interest in all 936 men of the 1st Battalion who fought in the Malaya Campaign, many of whom became Far East prisoners of war under the Japanese.

In 2015, to commemorate VJ70, he presented his research findings to an audience of 100 FEPOWs, descendants, Regimental veterans and other interested parties. Following the talk, he was strongly encouraged to document his findings more formally and now, seven years later after further research, writing and re-writing, sorting of photographs and creation of charts and maps, his book, Tigers in Captivity, is finally published.

The book starts with the Battalion’s move from India to Malaya in early 1941 and continues with the defensive actions and withdrawal, from Jitra in the north to Singapore in the south over a 55-day period following the Japanese invasion of Malaya in December 1941. It describes the early encounters with the enemy, the chaotic withdrawal from Jitra and the amalgamation with the 2nd Battalion East Surrey Regiment to form the British Battalion.  The subsequent defensive actions of the British Battalion at Kampar, Batang Berjuntai and Batu Pahat and on Singapore Island are all addressed. It continues with the eventual surrender of Singapore, the so called “Impregnable Fortress”. Those who are known to have escaped the island around this time are identified and, where known, their ultimate fate recorded.

Nearly 700 men of the battalion were now prisoners of war and Tigers in Captivity goes on to describe the movements of the captives around the Far East – the work parties in Singapore, the transfers of men to Japan and other Far East countries and the exodus to Thailand to build the infamous death railway. Even after the railway was completed the horrors continued with malnutrition, illness and disease, hard labour, brutality and ‘hellship’ transfers to Japan. Liberation finally arrived in August 1945 and the book addresses the repatriation of these now ex-POWs and the post war situation in which they found themselves.

Of the 354 men of the 1st Btn Leicestershire Regiment who were killed in action or who died as prisoners of war, 196 (more than half) have no known grave and are remembered on the Singapore Memorial, Kranji War Cemetery.

Every man who was killed in action, or who died as a prisoner of war, is remembered by name at the appropriate point in the text and specific information on the circumstances of his death and grave location is given.

Summary Charts present the statistics of the Malaya Campaign and the subsequent captivity. Movement Tables list the men in each of the POW movement parties and an A-Z listing of all 936 men summarises their fate and movements during this period. An extensive bibliography lists the sources of information and provides readers with a signpost to further relevant reading.

The main purpose of the book is to enable descendants of these men to develop a better understanding of the Malaya Campaign and the period of captivity which their relative experienced. Not only is Tigers in Captivity the definitive historical record of the 1st Battalion Leicestershire Regiment during this period, it provides a tangible ‘family’ memorial not only to the men who died at the time but also to those who survived and are no longer with us.

We will remember them.

Copies of the book are available at a cost of  £25 + postage and packaging directly from the author, Ken Hewitt at kenhewitt@ntlworld.com   or the publisher at www.troubador.co.uk/bookshop

For further information visit:   www.tigersincaptivity.co.uk.

Christmas, 1942

By Sears Eldredge

In his memoir, Death Camps of the River Kwai, Thomas Pounder writes of their first Christmas in Changi:

Our first Christmas as prisoners of war was very near and naturally out thoughts were of our families at home. How were things going with them? None of us had heard anything or had any letters from home for over twelve months. Was the bombing still as bad? How many of us would return after the war only to find a heap of rubble where once stood our homes? Worse still, to find members of our families had fallen victims to the Luftwaffe. As our thoughts went out to them, so we hoped and felt certain that they too would be thinking of us at this time.[i]

To relieve the anxiety and homesickness, POW cooks, as well as entertainers, tried to prepare something extra special for the holiday celebrations. A petition had been made to the Japanese to allow the POWs to make and deliver toys for the European children interned with the adults in Changi Gaol. The Japanese agreed and POWs in both the 18th Div. and in the A.I.F. set right to work.[ii]  

Christmas Carolers.  George Sprod.
Courtesy of Michael Sprod

On Christmas Eve on the padang in the 18th Div. Area, Padre Foster-Haigh’s Choir, even with the singers missing who had been sent Up Country, presented their Christmas concert, including excerpts from Handel’s Messiah.[iii] It’s probable that Ken Scovell’s newly composed “Gloria in Excelsis Deo” for Male Chorus was sung at this time as well (to listen to this piece, click on the button below). [1]

“Gloria in Excelsis Deo” for Male Chorus by K T Scovell

At the Con Depot in Selarang, the main hall, which had previously been used for performances (their Little Theatre), was now occupied with returned working parties as well as hospital patients, so McNeilly and Hanger dismantled the stage, took it outside, and rebuilt it as an open-air theatre.

Together with flood lights. I think it impossible to have a more magnificent setting amongst the trees and gardens of the Y M Rest gardens. We hung red and blue curtains at the back and heaped up bowls of flowers at the side. The lights shining on these gave the desired effect. Hundreds of men sitting on the lawn and seats in the gardens listening to the Xmas Carols and stories of Xmas.[iv]

There was another concert on Christmas night. “At 20.30 hrs. a large open air concert was held on the hockey ground [wrote Wilkinson]. Horner was compère and the dance band did stout work. It was again floodlight and there was a very large audience.”[v] But the celebration was almost ruined by two Javanese troops caught trying to steal the last of their precious chickens. They were given a good beating, sending one to hospital.[vi] On the evening of Boxing Day (26 December), Wilkinson went with friends to a show by POWs from Java in The Kokonut Grove, a new open-air theatre in the 18th Div. Area.[vii]

This was the show in which Medical Orderly Idris Barwick “attempted an effeminate part” as a member of the chorus line, “The Beri Beri Girls”: 

We winked and “cooed” at the officers showing them our very masculine knees with very suggestive eye rolling and jerking our heads. The men behind started cat calling, “How about looking our way,” etc., then just as we were dancing off (I was the last to leave) my brassiere worked loose and slid down to my waist and the stuffing fell out. The lads went crazy shouting all kinds of remarks and suggestions.[viii]


[1] This electronic realization of Scovell’s Gloria is by Chris Latham, artist-in-residence at the AWM. He has been commissioned to write a series of requiems to honor the soldiers who fought in the war. 


[i] Pounder, 54.

[ii] Wilkinson. Diary. 21 Dec. ’42.

[iii] Wilkinson. Diary. 24 Dec., ‘42; Inglefield, 32.

[iv] McNeilly, Misc. documents. n.p.

[v] Wilkinson. Diary. 25 Dec. ’42.

[vi] Wilkinson. Diary. 25 Dec. ’42.

[vii] Wilkinson. Diary. 26 Dec. ’42.

[viii] Barwick, 31.

Note that all the documents in this series of blogs reside in Sears A. Eldredge Archive in the De Witt Wallace Library at Macalester College, 1600 Grand Avenue, St. Paul, Minnesota, 55105

Sear’s book, Captive Audiences/Captive Performers: Music and Theatre as Strategies for Survival on the Thailand-Burma Railway 1942-1945, was published by Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota in 2014, as an open-access e-book and is available here: http://digitalcommons.macalester.edu/thdabooks/22

Gentlemen Only

By Sears Eldredge

The “New Windmill Theatre’s” revue, Gentlemen Only (the company now billed as “The 18th Divisional Concert Party”) opened The Palladium Theatre on 21 December.[i]

Program cover for Gentleman Only. Desmond Bettany.
Courtesy of the Bettany Family.

In a wry take on the show’s title, Desmond Bettany’s cover for the program shows one of the checkpoints many POWs would have to pass through to get to the Palladium Theatre in the Roberts Hospital Area. (This program was done for the revival of the show in January, ‘43.)

With the New Windmill Theatre now in the hands of the Japanese, and the 18th Division’s new theatre still under construction, Greenwood and his “Nitwits” Orchestra left the Windmill company and moved over to The Palladium. They weren’t the only ones to do so: the actors Derek Cooper, Hugh Eliot, Rich Goodman, and Jon Mackwood soon followed suit. And so did Chris Buckingham, Milburn Foster, and Aubrey King, who became respectively, The Palladium’s Stage Manager, Lighting Designer, and Costumer. (Besides performing as a female impersonator, Cooper would also design sets.) The American seaman 1st Mus, J. J. Porter (who had arrived with one of the new Java Parties), started work at The Palladium as Musical Arranger for Jack Greenwood, but would eventually take over as Band Leader.


[i] David, 43.

Note that all the documents in this series of blogs reside in Sears A. Eldredge Archive in the De Witt Wallace Library at Macalester College, 1600 Grand Avenue, St. Paul, Minnesota, 55105

Sear’s book, Captive Audiences/Captive Performers: Music and Theatre as Strategies for Survival on the Thailand-Burma Railway 1942-1945, was published by Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota in 2014, as an open-access e-book and is available here: http://digitalcommons.macalester.edu/thdabooks/22

Working Parties Return

By Sears Eldredge

In mid-December, the 10,000 POWs remaining at work sites in Singapore were ordered back to Changi, and they continued to pour into the camp right though the Christmas holidays, placing great stress on the housing accommodations and food rations there.[i] Those Working Party concert parties who were in the midst of rehearsals for their Christmas shows, brought back all their costumes, makeup, props, and other paraphernalia with them determined to produce their shows at their new locations in Changi.

Renovations at the old Garrison Cinema had proceeded speedily. By late December it had been rebuilt and refurbished with a new roof, an enlarged stage, split log benches for seats, electric lights, and witty murals painted by Ronald Searle, Derek Cooper, and Stanley Warren on the auditorium walls.[ii]

Since the Garrison Cinema was in the Roberts Hospital Area, which housed the bed-down sick from the British and Australian Divisions in Changi, a multi-national theatrical organization was formed to run the new theatre. The Entertainments Committee consisted of British Padre E. C. Weane as Chairman, Australian Capt. Alan Bush as General Manager, and [British?] Jack Wood as the Foyer and Box-Officer Manager. Renamed “The Palladium” (after another popular London theatre), it would become the most prestigious performance venue in Changi.[iii] The original idea had been to use The Palladium as a venue for touring shows, but it soon developed into a producing venue as well.

Eric Bamber, who had had little prior experience with military concert parties, was amazed at what had been accomplished in the renovation:

Well, by this time we’d assembled a theatre staff. We’d got carpenters, we even had an electrician . . .. He tapped into the main source of power going from the Singapore power station down to the mainland . . .. Because he tapped it with a makeshift electrical connections of telephone wire. I mean the damn things were lethal. If you, if you touched something, you know, [sound effect-phew], they’d flare if they got wet, anything like that. But we had electrical power . . . and the bulbs were stolen, and sockets were stolen, and eventually we lit the theatre up. 

Well, the thing right now [was], we had a theatre, which had seats, and a stage, and a roof, and a staff, but we had no show.[iv]

That situation didn’t last long.


[i] Wilkinson. Diary. 19 December ’42.

[ii] Bamber, IWM Interview, Reel #6.

[iii] Bamber, Interview, Reel #6, transcription pages 10-13.

[iv] Bamber, IWM Interview, Reel #6.

Note that all the documents in this series of blogs reside in Sears A. Eldredge Archive in the De Witt Wallace Library at Macalester College, 1600 Grand Avenue, St. Paul, Minnesota, 55105

Sear’s book, Captive Audiences/Captive Performers: Music and Theatre as Strategies for Survival on the Thailand-Burma Railway 1942-1945, was published by Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota in 2014, as an open-access e-book and is available here: http://digitalcommons.macalester.edu/thdabooks/22

NEW BOOK: POW ON THE SUMATRA RAILWAY

My name is Christine Bridges and John Geoffrey Lee, (Geoff) is my dad and I promised him, before he died on 22nd of June 2002, that I would get his book published. Finally, from the 30th of June 2022 his amazing story can now be told. 

Geoff joined the RAF on his 20th birthday on 26th June 1941 and trained as ground crew. In November 1941 with his unit, he boarded the Empress of Asia in Liverpool, but no one knew where they were headed. Travelling south, Christmas was spent in Durban and then they were transferred to another ship and onto Egypt. They were then chasing the Blenheim planes which were being flown to the Far East. Eventually Geoff and his compatriots found themselves in Java after being chased from Sumatra by the invading Japanese. In March 1942 the men capitulated to the Japanese, after they over ran Java. Geoff was posted as a deserter to his family back in Nottingham. 

For the next two years Geoff was transported around prison camps, somehow surviving four hell ship journeys from Java to Ambon, Ambon back to Java, Java to Changi. From Changi he was transported on a river steamer which blew up. Already suffering from malnutrition, malaria and many other diseases, Geoff and a few survivors were washed ashore twenty-four hours later and recaptured on the island of Sumatra. They were then sent to the Sumatra Railway. Here they were treated as slaves to build a railway across the equator, in appalling jungle conditions with the loss of many lives. Forced to carry heavy rails, man handle train engines, work in searing heat and a flooded river, only scant amounts of food, no medical equipment, bouts of malaria, and extreme cruelty and brutality from the guards – how anyone survived is a miracle. The railway was finished on the 18th of August 1945, and it was common knowledge that all the prisoners were to be executed, although the prisoners didn’t know what the date was. On the 19th all the guards had fled. Geoff was liberated on 20th September 1945 weighing only 6 stone and with a badly infected foot from a bayonet stabbing inflicted by a guard. 

Geoff arrived home on the 16th of December 1945 and was sent to hospital at RAF Cosford. Almost straight away, when asked where he’d been in the war, no one believed him. They said there was no such place as the Sumatra Railway and he must have been on the Burma Railway, but this was completed before the Sumatra Railway had started and it was 2000 miles away from Sumatra. They were also told not to talk about their experiences, so he didn’t. He also had to make notes about all that he remembered while at Cosford.

He eventually recovered, although he suffered from Malaria all his life, and just got on with life. Eventually in the 1970’s he started to talk and tried to find out about the Sumatra Railway. He had his paybook (below) which said he’d been in Sumatra, but still no one had heard of it despite contacting the Imperial War Museum, Commonwealth War Graves Commission, and the MOD. The letters and many photos are shown in his book.      

Way before computers, he managed to contact three other people who had been on the railway. One in Australia, one in New Zealand and one in Holland. They also were not being believed. As no one believed him, he decided to do something about it and in 1980 he went out to Singapore by Concorde and onto Sumatra, and with the help of the Caltex Oil Company, he found engines in the jungle villages. With the evidence he obtained, he submitted it to the IWM, CWGC and MOD but it was in the mid 1980’s before they acknowledged that he was in fact correct. He received many apologies especially from the FEPOW community as many did not believe him and this also meant a lot more men came forward who had been on the Sumatra Railway. Geoff decided to write a book, using his notes written at Cosford. This took him five years to write on a typewriter with two fingers. When he began to send out articles to newspapers and publishers, they were returned as ‘Just another Burma Railway story’. His book is so much about bravery, grit and determination, not only to survive but to prove that he was right all along, and he has shown the world what has been woefully under reported. 

Geoff died in 2002 just before his 81st birthday and I can finally say to my dad, I’ve fulfilled my promise to you.


POW on the Sumatra Railway by Geoffrey Lee and edited by Christine and Eddie Bridges is available now.

Changi Garrison Cinema Discovered

By Sears Eldredge

It was during this time that the old Changi Garrison Cinema was rediscovered by Alan Bush and Eric Bamber just off the path leading from the 18th Div. Area to Roberts Hospital. It sat in a clearing down a flight of steps at the bottom of an incline. Shelling during the battle for Singapore had caved in its roof, and its orchestra pit was filled with water, but the structure that remained was sound and had distinct possibilities. Renovation work started immediately.[i] A sketch by Ronald Searle shows what those renovations should be.[1]

Playbill for December ‘42.

In the early part of December, Horner’s New Windmill Road Show was still touring. On the 14th, he introduced a song he had composed, entitled, “When We Are Free,” an excerpt of which is given here.

When we’re free yes, when we’re free

Oh how happy we shall be.

 When we see the last of Changi tree[2]

Oh what a wonderful day for you and me.[ii]

In the Southern Area, a new group of performers from the Straits Settlement Volunteer Forces [S.S.V.F.] tried to duplicate the activities of “The Mumming Bees” Concert Party, which had been deployed to Thailand. 


[1] Not made available for this blog.

[2] The “Changi tree” was an exceptionally tall tree in the heart of the Garrison that was ordered blown up by the British during the battle for Singapore Island so that it couldn’t be used by the Japanese as a reference point for their artillery.


[i] Bamber, IWM Interview, Reel #6.

[ii] Horner, 61.

Note that all the documents in this series of blogs reside in Sears A. Eldredge Archive in the De Witt Wallace Library at Macalester College, 1600 Grand Avenue, St. Paul, Minnesota, 55105

Sear’s book, Captive Audiences/Captive Performers: Music and Theatre as Strategies for Survival on the Thailand-Burma Railway 1942-1945, was published by Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota in 2014, as an open-access e-book and is available here: http://digitalcommons.macalester.edu/thdabooks/22

Toneel

By Sears Eldredge

The N.E.I. POWs from Java had many talented musicians and theatre personnel among them. Most of the officers spoke English but their troops did not, so they needed some sort of entertainment in their own language to keep up morale. “Some Dutch Officers from the A.I.F. Area came to see me to borrow some plays,” wrote Wilkinson, “so that they could translate them into Dutch and produce them in the A.I.F. Theatre.”[i] 


[i] Wilkinson. Diary. 23 Nov. ’42.

Note that all the documents in this series of blogs reside in Sears A. Eldredge Archive in the De Witt Wallace Library at Macalester College, 1600 Grand Avenue, St. Paul, Minnesota, 55105

Sear’s book, Captive Audiences/Captive Performers: Music and Theatre as Strategies for Survival on the Thailand-Burma Railway 1942-1945, was published by Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota in 2014, as an open-access e-book and is available here: http://digitalcommons.macalester.edu/thdabooks/22

Miscellaneous News Items:

By Sears Eldredge

Reorganization and Consolidation

As the last drafts of British, Dutch, and Volunteer Force POWs departed for Thailand, those remaining in Changi were informed that due to the huge decrease in the number of POWs in the camp, “all units would be closed up in smaller areas.”[i] Thus began a reorganization and consolidation of Changi into a smaller, more manageable perimeter.        

Then, on 9 November, due to another alarming spike in diphtheria cases, The New Windmill Theatre was ordered closed again. Horner decided that if the men couldn’t come to them, their theatre would go to them, and he proceeded to produce The New Windmill Road Show which played to the British and Dutch troops in the 18th Div. Area on alternate nights.[ii] 

When the threat of the diphtheria epidemic had passed, the New Windmill Theatre was not returned to “The New Windmill Players” as had been expected. Instead, the Japanese commandeered the NAAFI building for their new HQ in Changi, throwing out and burning all the sets, costumes, and props.[iii] As no other indoor space was available, the Windmill producers decided to build a new open-air theatre.

Death of Major-General Beckwith-Smith

On 20 November, the men in the 18th Division received word that their beloved G.O.C., Major-General Beckwith-Smith, had died of diphtheria on Taiwan. “We wonder whether to cancel this evening’s show,” Horner wrote, “but as it will disappoint so many and ‘Becky’ would be the last man to want any cancellation, we’ve decided to carry on.”[iv]


[i] Wilkinson. Diary. 26 December’42.

[ii] Horner, 64.

[iii] Bamber, IWM Interview, Reel #6.

[iv] Horner, 64-65.

Note that all the documents in this series of blogs reside in Sears A. Eldredge Archive in the De Witt Wallace Library at Macalester College, 1600 Grand Avenue, St. Paul, Minnesota, 55105

Sear’s book, Captive Audiences/Captive Performers: Music and Theatre as Strategies for Survival on the Thailand-Burma Railway 1942-1945, was published by Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota in 2014, as an open-access e-book and is available here: http://digitalcommons.macalester.edu/thdabooks/22

First Massive Troop Departures

By Sears Eldredge

In the last week of October, all of the British POWs from Fortress Signals in the Southern Area, as well as many from the 18th Division, started to be sent to Thailand to work on the railway. Huxtable . . .

. . . was glad to hear from [Denis] East that the theatrical and concert group to which he belongs are not to be moved with the rest of the 18th Division. By some means or other, exemption for them had been obtained from the Japanese, so the Windmill Theatre will be able to carry on although it expects to be moved inside our wire.[i]

But this wasn’t exactly true. Foster-Haig lost half of his choir and Fergus Anckorn and other entertainers from “The Optimists” were included on these drafts. Who wasn’t included was East’s own group, “The Changi Celebrity Artists.” By the first week in November, all the 18th Division drafts and all of the Singapore Fortress troops, including their concert party, “The Mumming Bees,” had been sent Up Country (see Chapter 1 of my online book for more details).

Playbill for November ‘42.

On November 3rd, the “A.I.F. Concert Party” mounted their first original revue with a book: a piece called, Hotel Swindellem. The plot follows two characters through various misadventures at the Hotel (which lived up to its name).

Although the Australians had been spared from sending any troops in these recent drafts, their concert party’s’ Variety Show two weeks later contained another Slim De Grey original song, “They’ve Taken My Old Pal Away,” which verbalized what many of the POWs in Changi felt about being separated from mates they had served with for a long time (only the first and final verses are given here):

They’ve taken my old pal away,

Somewhere over the sea.

Now [sic. Then?] we were so happy and gay,

But now life seems empty to me.

Now everything seems to have changed.

Like sunshine that turns into rain.

We were together in trouble,

In fun a good double,

But they’ve taken my old pal away.[ii]


[i] Huxtable, 89-90.

[ii] De Grey, “Changi Souvenir Song Album,” n.p.

Note that all the documents in this series of blogs reside in Sears A. Eldredge Archive in the De Witt Wallace Library at Macalester College, 1600 Grand Avenue, St. Paul, Minnesota, 55105

Sear’s book, Captive Audiences/Captive Performers: Music and Theatre as Strategies for Survival on the Thailand-Burma Railway 1942-1945, was published by Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota in 2014, as an open-access e-book and is available here: http://digitalcommons.macalester.edu/thdabooks/22

FEPOW Projects in the Works

By Charlie Inglefield

I am currently working on two FEPOW projects which may be of interest to this community.

The first is a documentary concept to mark the 80th anniversary of the completion of the Thai-Burma Railway in October 2023. We had the honour of interviewing a UK FEPOW in February and we hope to have more news on that in the coming weeks and months.

The second project is a book to also mark the 80th anniversary next year and would be primarily based on a final voices theme. If approved, this book would be based on the voices of FEPOWs that have not been previously heard (i.e. not been published outside of family and friends). I have had the privilege of interviewing families of POWs around the world over these last 18 months and reading extracts and accounts about this remarkable generation. 

My grandfather was a FEPOW, Captain Gilbert Inglefield, who I did not know that well and subsequently as I got older I wanted to learn more about – so there is a personal attachment to this. It is an obvious point to be made but one which I feel is important to the point of this book and that is there are so few FEPOWs still with us and that number is sadly diminishing week in, week out. Whilst all but a few are still with us, they remain the last human link to these extraordinary set of events that took place in Asia-Pacific between 1941-45. 

I am looking to speak with families/descendants of FEPOWs who may have written summaries and accounts from their fathers/grandfathers – which have not been previously published outside of family and friends. The point of this is to potentially allow families who through their fathers/grandfathers can perhaps teach future generations about this specific piece of WWII history.

I am based in Boston but can happily chat to suit UK hours, if there is anyone who may be interested. 


To contact Charlie please email researchingfepowhistory@gmail.com with details, and include permission for your email and contact details to be forwarded on to him.

Lights Up!

By Sears Eldredge

By 10 October, the A.I.F. concert party was ready to open their new garage theatre with a long Variety Show. When they first moved into the theatre, electricity had not yet been restored, so the resourceful Australians found alternative methods of lighting their stage using pressure lamps filled with petrol that had been siphoned off from parked Japanese vehicles when I.J.A. officials came for meetings with the POW Administration. “Risky work,” conceded Jack Boardman, “and some day we would not know until the afternoon whether there would be lighting for the show that evening.”[i] 

But it wasn’t long before their theatre had electricity. Boardman again: “Needless to say, each week saw better lighting in the theatre. Progressively footlights, overheads, a switchboard with dimmer and a spotlight were introduced.”[ii] Taking advantage of this new lighting, “Happy” Harry Smith inserted a new routine into his “tit and bum” act. Strolling onstage dressed as a “lady getting on in years” with “an enormous bust,” Smith start singing in a contralto voice while “ogling officers sitting in front seats by using a mirror to reflect a spotlight [on them] while he sang, ‘The Sunshine of Your Smile’. At the end, during the applause, he would lift up his skirt and remove the socks forming his bosom with the words, ‘There’s gold in them thar hills!’”[iii]

“203.” Fred Brightfield. AWM. Courtesy of Jack Boardman.

The drummer, Fred Brightfield, drew a colored pencil sketch of the stage in their new theatre. A row of footlights can be seen along the front of the stage. The black box intruding into the middle top left of the sketch is a floodlight suspended from a pipe batten. Another light, this time a clip-on flood, is attached to center of the orchestra railing.

On stage, the comedy sketch “203” is in progress.[1] The title refers to the number of the harem girl who has found favor with the Maharajah. John Wood is the blonde dancing girl performing the “Dance of the Seven Veils,” “Happy” Harry, the punkawallah, and Jacky Smith, the Maharajah.[2][iv]

On the audience right proscenium wall is a large placard printed with the words to the Australian National Anthem, “Advance Australia Fair.” On Audience Left, under a clock, was another placard which read, “SILENCE during the overture PLEASE.”[v] 

Once established in their new indoor theatre, the concert party made two important changes in their programming: instead of producing a different show every week, which had become difficult to sustain, they would now present a new show once a fortnight; and, except for their weekly tour to Roberts Hospital, their audiences would come to them. 

On 20 October, their variety show contained a new song by Slim De Grey: “Waiting for Something to Happen” which gave voice to the POWs’ boredom (only the opening and closing verses are given below).  

Waiting for something to happen,

Turns all our laughter to tears.

There’s no use a-worrying,

No use a-hurrying,

We may be waiting for years.

Waiting for something to happen,

Might even drive you insane.

So we’d all be happier,

Feel a lot snappier,

If something would happen again.[vi]

They didn’t have long to wait.                                                          


[1] This is a revised version of their pre-war concert party sketch.

[2] Seated in the orchestra are Ray Tullipan (bass), Erv Banks (banjo), Jack Geoghegan (guitar), Roy Arnel (alto sax and clarinet), Dave Goodwin (tenor Sax), Eric Beattie (violin), Jack Boardman (sitting center with his back to us at the upright piano), Jack Garrett (squeezebox & guitar), Fred Stringer, Les Jacques, Tom Hoffman & Erv Warne (brass), and Fred Brightfield (drums). Bill Middleton, their Conductor, does not seem to be present.


[i] Boardman, J. 21 August 03.

[ii] Boardman, J. 21 August 03.

[iii] Boardman, J. “Notes”; Sprod, Bamboo, 63.

[iv] Boardman, J. Handwritten Notes on Brightfield’s sketch.

[v] Boardman, J. “Notes.”

[vi] De Grey, “Changi Souvenir Song Album,” n.p.

Note that all the documents in this series of blogs reside in Sears A. Eldredge Archive in the De Witt Wallace Library at Macalester College, 1600 Grand Avenue, St. Paul, Minnesota, 55105

Sear’s book, Captive Audiences/Captive Performers: Music and Theatre as Strategies for Survival on the Thailand-Burma Railway 1942-1945, was published by Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota in 2014, as an open-access e-book and is available here: http://digitalcommons.macalester.edu/thdabooks/22

New Book: “Captured at Singapore”

“Captured at Singapore” by Jill Robertson and Janice Slimming, is a formal record of their father’s experience in one of the UK’s longest periods of war in the last 200 years. The small diary account recorded by a Royal Army Service Corps Driver, while residing under the hospitality of the Japanese in WWII, is another opportunity for future generations to understand and learn from history about the horrific atrocities of the Far Eastern years of POW captivity, from 1942 – 1945.

Book Cover of Captured at Singapore


Many war stories have been written for posterity. Captured at Singapore is structured through our father’s experiences of plight and fear in terrible, adverse conditions while being incarcerated by another culture. The diarised words may only be a small account and not a particularly heroic one, but it is our family’s account of a time that should never be repeated, if we are to be living and believing in a peaceful World. — Jill Robertson & Jan Slimming.



Stanley Albert William Moore a young man from Tooting, South London is gratefully, the only family who had to endure such wartime hardship. He is their unsung hero.

Sisters, Jill and Janice, through their research, have found it humbling to now understand this increasingly forgotten period of history, which may slowly fade away as those who experienced this episode reach old age and memories dwindle. Stan was part of the secret convoy from Liverpool, to Canada, then onward destined for desert warfare, fighting for King and Country, or so they thought. Instead, this book reveals the delights and insights into their experience at sea and ultimately the terrible plight during three and half years of captivity, by aggressors in WWII. It was so different to what could have happened: a toss of a dice and change in world affairs, meant their lives were spun in an entirely different direction. Stan’s direction was altered on 7 December 1942. Or was the die cast before?


While the European fascist dictatorship tried starving the British People into submission in 1940-1943, in another part of the World, thousands were already being starved to death, let alone submission, in the Far East. [This refers to the Hitler regime, and the Chinese/Hong Kong/ Vichy France atrocities. These last two invasions already carried out by the Japanese in their endeavours to claim parts of the Far East as their own Empire, dominate the entire coastal area of the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean.] From the miniscule diary that Stanley kept, he
re-wrote – in simplistic form, notes to ‘show and tell’ for his grand-childrens’ primary school history lessons. Eventually, his own spoken, extremely understated account was recorded on a Philips cassette tape recorder for posterity, in the early ‘90s. Delving into old photo albums, discovering delicate newspaper cuttings, documents, reference books, etc., compiling this book has been rewarding, cathartic and informative. Through the sisters’ research they overturned a few stones that have answered many of the questions, since his passing in October 2001, there are still some pieces to fit into the puzzle, as with most Prisoners of War, they did not want to, or they were ordered not to, reveal their own specific experience. Many horrific episodes were discovered. Could these have happened to Stan? Perhaps the family will never know. The story unfolds entwined with other small connecting episodes by a handful of other PoWs, where their paths meet and experiences are corroborated.


The authors’ aim is to provide an important reference work for future generations so they too can understand the ordeals their 1940s predecessors went through. It will be another source of referral in the hope the family names mentioned in the diary-cum-address book which Stanley had also written on the reverse, will come forward, or perhaps their ancestors will to reconcile these soldiers’ memories and discover more about their own family hero, before this part of history becomes just another fading sentence about being Captured at Singapore.


Captured at Singapore is due to be published 30th June 2022. For more details please visit the Pen and Sword website.

The New A.I.F. Indoor Theatre

By Sears Eldredge

Neither the sudden reversal regarding their gymnasium playing space, or the “Selarang Incident,” stopped the Aussie concert party from performing the show that had been in its final rehearsals. On Sept. 30th, Keep Singing—their first original revue written by Slim De Grey and Ray Tullipan—opened at a hastily arranged venue somewhere in the Selarang Area. This was also the first appearance of the troupe under their new leadership and name, “The A.I.F. Concert Party.”

It wasn’t long before they found another location in Selarang for their permanent theatre: a bomb-damaged garage. Frazer Harvey and his construction crew went to work and quickly got the new space transformed into a theatre that would seat close to a thousand audience members. 

 The A.I.F. Theatre in Changi. Wash drawing by Murray Griffin.
AWM #38598.

In Murray Griffin’s drawing you see the new A.I.F. Theatre built into the garage. It was completely open on one side but curtains could be pulled across this opening to shut out any daylight or rain when necessary. Audience seating was in two sections: on the level main floor and in the stalls at the back. All seats were made from split palm logs, but the stalls were supported by large posts made from rubber trees. At the far end is a proscenium with a raised stage built on a foundation of solid oak rifle racks; an orchestra pit in front. Scenery would be improvised from old tenting and anything else they could scrounge or steal. Compared to their old gymnasium theatre, the acoustics in this new theatre proved to be excellent even without a microphone.[i]

Playbill for October ‘42.

The month of October found Prom Concerts still being presented every weekday evening at the Pavilion Theatre in the Southern Area; the “P.O.W. WOWS” continuing with their latest show in the 11th Div. Area and on tour; The Dream still playing at the Command Theatre, and I Killed The Count running at the New Windmill Theatre until another diphtheria outbreak temporarily closed the theatre.


[i] Boardman, J. “Notes,” n.p.

Note that all the documents in this series of blogs reside in Sears A. Eldredge Archive in the De Witt Wallace Library at Macalester College, 1600 Grand Avenue, St. Paul, Minnesota, 55105

Sear’s book, Captive Audiences/Captive Performers: Music and Theatre as Strategies for Survival on the Thailand-Burma Railway 1942-1945, was published by Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota in 2014, as an open-access e-book and is available here: http://digitalcommons.macalester.edu/thdabooks/22

Save The Date!

10 – 11 June 2023

for the long-awaited Researching FEPOW History Conference (postponed 2020)

and hosted by the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine (LSTM)

Once again, this is an in-person event and places will be limited.

Registration opens

1 October and closes 30 November 2022.

Further details to follow in September – visit https://fepowhistory.com/ , or join our mailing list, for updates.

To assist planning, please email mike.parkes@talktalk.net now if you are intending to register (non-binding). Please help to spread the word.

Two Master Musicians:

By Sears Eldredge

Denis East

On Tuesday, 29 September at Roberts Hospital, Huxtable was able to see a performance by the “Changi Celebrity Artists” in the Officers’ Ward:

Dennis East and Coles played violin and accordion.[1] George Wall and Aubrey King sang. Fowler and one other masqueraded in women’s clothes, a delightful skit.

Afterwards, East told me about a concert tonight over at Selarang, so at 7 p.m. I met the Windmill Theatre troupe at our gate and marched with them to Selarang. Padre Haig led us and there were about 50 present, including the choir and a few hangers-on. The concert was held in the very pleasant hall, with platform, at the Convalescent Depot. . ..  Dennis East played a Mendelsohn concerto that lasted about 25 minutes. When I asked him on the way home how they had the music for the piano accompaniment he told me that they had written the whole arrangement from gramophone records which they had managed to obtain during their imprisonment![i]

Reginald Renison

In the 18th Div. Area., the brilliant O.R. pianist, Reginald Renison, had started to organize a Symphony Orchestra composed mainly of officers.

“I remember going with him to a rehearsal,” [wrote his friend Fergus Anckorn]. “When he walked into the room, nothing much happened. He tapped the music stand with his bamboo baton and got silence. He then addressed the officers saying, “Gentlemen, I am sure you must be aware that the protocol is that when the conductor enters, the orchestra rises to its feet”. He then walked out, and re-entered, when they rose to their feet as one.”[ii]


[1] A sketch by Ronald Searle of East playing the violin was not made available for this blog. East had lost his original violin in the Battle for Singapore. But he and a friend constructed a new one out of various pieces of wood found in Changi.


[i] Huxtable, 81.

[ii] Anckorn, F. Letter, 17 July 2000.

Note that all the documents in this series of blogs reside in Sears A. Eldredge Archive in the De Witt Wallace Library at Macalester College, 1600 Grand Avenue, St. Paul, Minnesota, 55105

Sear’s book, Captive Audiences/Captive Performers: Music and Theatre as Strategies for Survival on the Thailand-Burma Railway 1942-1945, was published by Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota in 2014, as an open-access e-book and is available here: http://digitalcommons.macalester.edu/thdabooks/22

Transit Camp

By Sears Eldredge

In September, life in Changi was turned upside down with the arrival of a large number of British, Australian, Dutch, and American POWs from camps in The Netherlands East Indies [Indonesia]. By the end of the month there were joined by POWs who had been held in Malaya. Changi was being transformed into an enormous Transit Camp in readiness for massive troop evacuations elsewhere. 

Note that all the documents in this series of blogs reside in Sears A. Eldredge Archive in the De Witt Wallace Library at Macalester College, 1600 Grand Avenue, St. Paul, Minnesota, 55105

Sear’s book, Captive Audiences/Captive Performers: Music and Theatre as Strategies for Survival on the Thailand-Burma Railway 1942-1945, was published by Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota in 2014, as an open-access e-book and is available here: http://digitalcommons.macalester.edu/thdabooks/22

DR KAMALUDDIN (“KAMAL”) KHAN BSc, MB, BS, PhD, FRCPsych, DPM.

The “FEPOW Psychiatrist”

We sadly report the recent death of Dr Kamal Khan, who as a Consultant Psychiatrist befriended, treated and supported many hundreds of ex-Far East POWs who suffered mental health problems as a result of their experiences in captivity.

Dr Kamaluddin Khan in 2017 at the International FEPOW Conference in Liverpool

Dr Kamaluddin Khan – widely known as “Kamal” – was born in India in 1937, and  qualified in science (BSc at Agra University) and medicine (MB,BS at  Lucknow University). He later moved to the UK and trained in psychiatry, including as a Senior Registrar at Sefton General Hospital in Liverpool. It was here, in the mid-1970s, that Kamal was approached by Dr Dion Bell from the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine (LSTM). Dion was the tropical diseases consultant in charge of the School’s inpatient beds at Sefton. These were at the time mostly occupied by ex-Far East POWs (often known as “FEPOWs”) undergoing tropical diseases investigation.  Dion was concerned that many had significant psychiatric disturbances related to their imprisonment, and asked if Kamal could see some of these patients. Kamal agreed, and after assessing a small number, was  so concerned by their mental health status that he offered to see all the ex-POWs referred to the tropical unit.

The men had varying degrees of depression and anxiety, often associated with nightmares and flashbacks of their captivity experiences.  Retrospectively, this represented a form of post traumatic stress disorder  (PTSD), but this diagnostic label had not at the time been clearly defined. 

In 1977 Kamal was appointed to a Consultant Psychiatrist position on the Wirral  (close to Liverpool) and continued to regularly assess and treat ex-Far East POWs, establishing a weekly  “FEPOW Clinic” . He also began a major research investigation into the mental health of a randomised  group of ex-Far East POWs, comparing them  with a similar group of non-imprisoned members of the 2nd World War Burma Campaign. He found that 40% of the POW group had significant psychiatric consequences of their captivity, and the work was successfully written up for a PhD degree. All of this clinical and research activity was carried out in addition to his routine busy NHS caseload.

When he retired in 1995, many of his POW patients were devastated at losing such a caring doctor and good friend. In an oral history interview to the Liverpool Tropical School, one ex-POW said,

he was a wonderful man… I was able to tell him things that I couldn’t tell anyone. I went on a regular appointment, there were lots of FEPOWs there ….. and each time he was wonderful”

Kamal’s contribution to the Far East POW community was immense, and his unique research was of major academic value to our understanding of the Far East POW experience and its outcomes.

Geoff Gill & Meg Parkes

Liverpool  School of Tropical Medicine

80th Anniversary of the Fall of Singapore: Online Commemoration Ceremony

The Commemoration Committee for the 80th Anniversary of the Fall of Singapore have organised a ceremony at Kranji War Memorial to honour those who sacrificed their lives for the defense of Malaya and Singapore.

In person attendance is by invitation only, but the ceremony is being live streamed online and this is open to all. The ceremony takes place 15th February 2022 at 07:30am Singapore time. It can be accessed via this link: https://fb.me/e/4O8FPD5w7

ANNOUNCEMENT: Deferred RFHG 2020 Liverpool conference

It is with regret that due to the comparatively high infection rates and the resulting uncertainties, we have reached the decision that we are unable to stage the conference, originally planned for 2020, in 2022.

We have explored the potential for running an online conference, but have concluded that whilst technically this may be possible, we would lose many of the benefits of hosting the conference. We know from the feedback that we have had from our delegates over the past 15 years that we have been organising conferences, that the strength in what we do is to bring like-minded people together to meet others with similar (or not) research interests. Delegates are used to open access to the range of experts who agree to share their knowledge at the conferences, all within a convivial social setting. We simply cannot replicate this aspect of the conference virtually for our community.

The good news is that the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine (LSTM) have agreed to us deferring the conference until June 2023. This means that it would fall within the school’s 125th anniversary year. This would inevitably help us to reach a wider audience than previously. We will let you know in due course how to register your interest for this event.

We may need to make some alterations to the original proposed conference programme to reflect any changes to speakers and any travel restrictions that we may need to consider. We also hope to be able to accept contributions from remote speakers via online platforms. We would like to hear from anyone who has any ideas for potential topics, either new or revisited, for the programme. We have also previously had some interest in the possibility of us holding a smaller online event during the coming year. If there is sufficient interest, we would like to hear from those of you who would like to join an event like this remotely later in 2021. Please click here to share your thoughts on this. 

We thank you for your continued interest and also your patience during these challenging times.

Best wishes,

Martin Percival,
Chair of the Researching FEPOW History Group

Header image credit: Rodhullandemu via  Wikimedia Commons, the author of this image is in no way affiliated with RFHG.

80th Anniversary Bangka Island Zoom Memorial Service

On 16th February 1942 a group of Australian Army nurses were marched into the sea on Radji beach, Bangka Island and massacred in what is now known as the Bangka Island Massacre.

The Banka Strait also saw the deaths of thousands of British soldiers and civilian men, women and children when their boats were sunk by the Japanese forces.

This year marks the 80th anniversary of these tragic events and as such a memorial service is taking place in Muntok to commemorate those who died. The service is also being streamed on Zoom and the details of how to join the call are below.

If you would like further information regarding the Bangka Island Massacre we would recommend the article Bangka Island: The WW2 massacre and a ‘truth too awful to speak’ by Gary Nunn on the BBC.


Zoom Service Details

The Service will commence at 8am Jakarta Time, 12 Midday Australian Eastern Time. Please check the appropriate time in your own location. Those attending are asked not to join early to allow time for the speakers to set up.

To join the Zoom Meeting:
Link: https://us06web.zoom.us/j/84344109953?pwd=K3VlQVIrazAvZlFsNWUxRk9PckM5Zz09
Meeting ID: 843 4410 9953
Passcode: 101960
Dial in by location: https://us06web.zoom.us/u/kbUEVJGkiR

Thank you to Rosemary of the Malayan Volunteers Group for sharing this information with us.

Please note that this Zoom Service is in no way affiliated with RFHG and as such we are unfortunately unable to provide members of our community wishing to access the call any technical support for this event.

Remembering captivity across Southeast Asia and the Far East during the Second World War