“I’m The Hit Of The Show” – Part 2

The Pre-war A.I.F. Malayan Concert Party

By Sears Eldredge

But as the months of waiting for the war to start dragged on, the value of a show like the A.I.F. Malayan Concert Party’s “Diggers’ Revue” for entertaining the bored Australian troops in their isolated camps in Malaya had not been lost on A.I.F. H.Q. in Johore Bahru. In September, Major Jacobs was asked to form an official A.I.F. Divisional Concert Party, but this time it “would function as a separate Unit and not be regarded as a temporary detached body.”[1][i] Jacobs again requested Lt. Val Mack as his second in command, but Mack’s CO refused to let him go, saying that he couldn’t be spared.[ii] This decision was overruled by someone higher up and Mack was transferred to the Divisional concert party. 

Auditions notices were sent out to all the units and one hundred and fifty men responded. Of these, four musicians and eleven entertainers were initially selected for the concert party,[2][iii] including John Wood, Eric Beattie, and Harry Smith, who had been in the previous show at Kuala Lumpur. Newcomers were Bob Picken, vocalist, from the 2/20th Brigade Concert Party; C. Wiggins, dancer and female impersonator; George Oliver, illusionist and fire-eater; Ted Skene, female impersonator (ingénue-type); Bernard McCaffrey, Irish baritone; Ken Wylde, actor; Tom Hussey, ventriloquist, with “Joey,” his dummy; Slim De Grey, yodeling and cowboy singer; and Les Bennet, actor.

Tom Hussey and Joey. AWM 116036

Besides Beattie on the violin, their quartet of musicians included Fred Stringer, piano and piano-accordion, Ray Tullipan, saxophone and cornet,[3] and Fred Brightfield, a former pit drummer for J. C. Williamson’s Tivoli vaudeville circuit in Australia.

Once chosen, the cast immediately gathered in Singapore to begin intense rehearsals at the Victoria Theatre.”[iv] Their official name would be “The A.I.F. Malayan Concert Party” but in advertisements, the word, “Malayan,” was frequently dropped.

In late October, a preview of their show, “Pot Pourri” under the banner, “By the troops, For the troops,” was staged in the 2/12 Company lines at Johore Bahru, and attended by Maj. General Bennett, the A.I.F. General in Command [G.O.C.]. 

Both halves of the show opened with community singing and were followed by a series of comic sketches interspersed with solo specialty acts. The sketches contained an old military concert party favorite—a farcical ballet—“The Breath of Spring,” with a solo dance by Wiggins; “Hotel Swift” where Picken was the Waiter who “dispenses drinks in double time”; “Remembrance,” in which a solider with a “sympathetic Nurse” (Skene) were prevented from renewing their liaison by two Guards; “Eastern Interlude,” where “2 Diggers” inadvertently find themselves in the “Sultan’s” harem with “Fatima,” (Wood), “Hasheesh” (Skene) and a “Slave” played by Smith; a political satire, “Mexican Presidente”; and a repeat of the old “The Hole in the Road” vaudeville sketch with Jacobs and Mack. (From his penchant for repeating this comic routine in every show, and because he was a field engineer, Jacobs would be given the nickname, “Hole-in-the Road.”)[v]  

The preview performance was a success and permission was granted to take the show on tour. “Just as everything was functioning to a nicety,” Stewart wrote, “pressure of army duties forced Major Jacobs to momentarily relinquish his active part, and Lieut. B. Mack (2/10 Fd Regt) immediately took up the cue.”[vi] (What Jacobs’ other Army duties were we’re not told.)   

With the absence of Jacobs, the show had to be recast and reworked. A comedian, Harry McGovern, was brought in to replace Jacobs, but all the “Pot Pourri” sketches and routines were kept intact. The revised show was given the new title, “The Hit of the Show.” 

Before they could take their show on the tour to remote sites in Malaya, a portable canvas tent stage with lighting and other necessary equipment had to be procured. It was designed by Mack based on the tent stages he had employed in his traveling shows in Australia in the 1930’s.[vii] As it was the tail end of the monsoon season the tent had to be waterproofed.

Waterproofing the tent theatre. Courtesy of Kerrin Frey.

By 8 November their tent stage was ready. Now each member of the cast had to learn his assigned duties in setting up and tearing down the tent stage, as well as the loading and unloading procedures so that the stage, settings, and lighting equipment could all fit into three large trucks for transportation.[viii] Since they would be doing this on tour, practice sessions of these procedures took place.

The A.I.F. Malayan Concert Party’s portable stage. Courtesy of Kerrin Frey.

This photograph of the A.I.F. Concert Party’s portable stage shows a large canvas tent-like structure held up by guy wires attached to a tall pole off to the Audience Right side of the proscenium opening. On stage, footlights sit before the front curtain which, like an old Music Hall olio drop, has advertisements painted on it.[4] It had been purchased from the income provided by the advertisers who also bought space in the program. Canvas wings flair out from either side of the stage to provide off-stage spaces for entrances, and an extension of the tent is visible behind the stage which allowed space for dressing and makeup rooms. Folding chairs are set up in front of the stage for officers attending the show.

The A.I.F. Malayan Concert Party in May 1941. Courtesy of Jack Boardman.

The A.I.F. Malayan Concert Party was now ready to roll; their first stop, Jemaluang, on the East Coast of Malaya. According to Boardman, the show opened with the full company singing a traditional concert party introductory song, “The Hit Of The Show”:

It started off (singing):

“I’m the hit of the show . . .

(Speaking.) Different ones would pop out on stage.

(Singing.) “I’m the hit of the show,

I’m the hit of the show.

McCaffrey’s good, but you ought to see Wood.

I’m the hit of the show . . . .”[ix]   

Unfortunately, because of the heavy rain, Mack’s elaborate tent stage lasted only two performances before it was abandoned for dryer indoor spaces that could be converted into a theatre.[x]

After touring the Australian camps in Malaya for two weeks, three performers, Bennet, Wiggins, and Wylde, left the show to return to their units and a new performer, Dick Bradfield, was brought into the company. A new show, “The Diggers Show,” was put together containing a mixture of old and new numbers. “The W.A.N.S.” sketch which had proven popular in Kuala Lumpur was put back into the show and the “Mexican Presidente” and “Eastern Interlude” sketches were removed so that Slim De Grey’s tap dance number and Harry Smith’s appearance in his “tit and bum” act could be introduced. The show would end with all the entertainers onstage performing an old Variety theatre farce, “Schoolroom,” which featured John Wood as the schoolmarm forced to expel one of the troublesome children in her class “after the teacher drops the chalk and reveals knees, thighs, etc., accidentally.”[xi]

It was in this show that Herschel Henbre’s patriotic song, “Aussieland,” was sung for the first time.  

Aussieland, Aussieland,

That’s the place for me,

Where the girls are beautiful girls,

And the boys are wonderful boys.

Aussieland, Aussieland,

That’s where I want to be.

It’s the homeland of the free,

And the place for you and me,

That’s where they shout coo-ee!

In Aussieland.[xii] 

            In early December, 1941, the A.I.F. Concert Party was touring in the Mersing District. On Monday, 8 December, Mack received a letter from Dan Hopkins written on stationary from the Raffles Hotel back in Singapore which read,

                                                                                                            Dec. 7th. 1941.

Lieut. Val Mack

A.I.F. Concert Party

Mersing.

Hello Val:

Last week a member of your concert party called on me and borrowed a violin belonging to my bass player. Said your fiddler’s instrument had come adrift and you had to get one while it was being repaired. Now the bass man’s instrument is used in the band here on occasions & tonight we want it for a broadcasting session. That of course is now out of the question but I wouldn’t have included the number in the program had it not been for the fact that your bloke promised to return it without fail before Friday last. As it is I can’t raise a god-damn fiddle for love nor money for tonight so would you please stick the aforesaid lamb-chop on any truck coming this way?

We need it in the band and your fiddler’s instrument ought to be fixed by now. O.K.?

                                                                                          All the best Val,

Bang-bang.[xiii]

Whether “Bang-bang” ever got his fiddle back is anyone’s guess as 8 December was the day the Japanese launched their all-out attack in the Far East,[5] including an invasion of Malaya at Kota Bharu on the northeast coast, and the first bombing of the Naval Base at Keppel Harbour in Singapore.

For the A.I.F. Malayan Concert Party, “the war made the abandoning of the party essential and each man was returned to his respective Unit to lend a hand against the invader.”[xiv]  

Elsewhere in Malaya on 8 December, George McNeilly’s 22nd Brigade Concert Party was performing in a 2/30th Battalion hall at Batu Pahat on the West Coast. As Jack Boardman remembers,

In the middle of a performance by Geoghegan and [Frank] Wood, the Sergeant-Major interrupted and ordered several troops to battle stations as news had arrived of the Jap invasion at Kota Bharu. We finished the show to half the audience and were driven home by George to our different units.[xv]


With the Japanese coordinated attack on Pearl Harbor, The Philippines, Hong Kong, and Malaya on 7/8 December, the long-expected War in the Pacific had begun.

To learn about the quick reorganization of the A.I.F. Malayan Concert Party in Changi POW Camp, read “In The Bag” (Chapter 1) in my free online book, Captive Audiences / Captive Performers http://digitalcommons.macalester.edu/captiveaudiences/.



[1]An official report of this organization and its activities, from which much of the information for this blog has been taken, was written by Cpl. Leonard Stewart sometime after June, 1945 in Changi Gaol. This report must have been dictated by Val Mack.

[2]Stewart writes that twenty-five men were selected for the Concert Party, but programs of these tour shows do not bear this out, so Stewart/Mack must have been thinking of a much later time in the concert party’s history.

[3]Stringer and Tullipan had both been in the 2/18th Battalion’s Concert Party [Frey, 20].

[4]An “olio drop” is one that can be rolled up and down on a batten as needed.

[5]It was the same day Pearl Harbor was attacked (December 7th) on the other side of the international dateline. 



[i] Stewart, Report, 1.

[ii] Mack, Letter to his wife, 2 Oct. 1941.

[iv] Stewart, Report, 1-2.

[v] Morris, Interview, 7.

[vi] Stewart, Report, 1.

[vii] Frey, 18.

[viii] Frey, 19.

[ix] J. Boardman, Interview, 21.

[x] Frey, 19.

[xi] J. Boardman, “Notes on Mack’s Production Logs.”

[xii] Lyrics and score provided by Jack Boardman.

[xiii] Dan Hoskins, Letter, courtesy of Kerrin Frey, Val Mack’s daughter.

[xiv] Stewart, Report, 2.

[xv] J. Boardman, Letter, 31 May 04.



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

Full Source List for ‘Rice and Shine’: British Pre-War Concert Parties posts, here.

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

Coming Soon: The Australian Malayan Concert Party in Changi POW Camp, Singapore, May 1942-May 1944.

You Must Endure: The Lancashire Loyals in Japanese Captivity, 1942-1945

By Chris Given-Wilson

Among the 80,000 British and Commonwealth prisoners who surrendered to the Japanese at the fall of Singapore in February 1942 were around 600 officers and men of the 2nd Battalion of the Loyal North Lancashire Regiment, most of whom would spend the great majority of the next three and a half years in Korea’s Number One Prisoner-of War Camp at Seoul (renamed Keijo following the 1910 Japanese annexation). One of them was my father, 2nd Lt. Paddy Given-Wilson, who, together with two other Loyals officers, Capt. John Turner and Lt Tom Henling Wade, decided shortly after their capture, in order to ‘occupy a few idle minds’, to write and circulate a camp magazine which they called Nor Iron Bars. Fourteen issues were produced over the next three and a half years, totalling 516 pages. Great care was taken to conceal them, and despite snooping guards and frequent searches the Japanese never discovered the magazine. Had they done so, severe punishment would certainly have followed. When the war ended, therefore, it was brought back to Preston, where it was bound and displayed in the Lancashire Infantry Museum at Fulwood Barracks, where it is still kept.

A humorous take on the discovery of the magazine by the guards, with forged censor’s stamp.
 


Nor Iron Bars is an extraordinary but barely-known illustration of life in one of Japan’s more obscure POW camps. Not just a story, but, literally, an illustration. Every issue contained between twenty and forty drawings, cartoons (often deeply subversive) and even paintings, many of them done by extremely talented artists such as Capt. Donald Teale, the magazine’s ‘resident’ artist. And if the artwork was subversive, so too are the poems, plays and topical, often very humorous articles about camp life which made up the majority of the contributions. All these have been woven together with diaries, letters, war crimes trial transcripts and other documents to re-create the story of life at Keijo in You Must Endure, which is published by Carnegie Press, Lancaster, in October 2021.

You must endure: the Lancashire Loyals in Japanese Captivity, 1942–1945 (ISBN 978-1-910837-35-1) by Chris Given-Wilson.

There is no doubt that, relatively speaking, Keijo was one of the better places to be a prisoner of the Japanese between 1942 and 1945. Yet even here brutality, medical neglect and gnawing hunger were everyday events. Beatings and incarceration in the guardroom for days at a time, regardless of the fearsome Korean winter or the almost unbearable summer heat, were routine. So inadequate was the food that most of the prisoners lost a quarter or more of their body weight. In such circumstances, a camp magazine which combined humour with news, story-telling and wistful memories of better days, did much to lift spirits at the time and now provides fascinating insights into the resilience and resourcefulness of brave men experiencing the grim reality of Japanese captivity.


You must endure: the Lancashire Loyals in Japanese Captivity, 1942–1945 by Chris Given-Wilson is £9.99 and is available NOW with a 10% discount direct from the publishers on 01524 840111, or by visiting http://www.carnegiepublishing.com, and in selected booksellers.

Information correct at time of posting

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My Father’s Experiences as a POW

By Paul Murray

I have recently published a book, “From the Gaeltacht to Galicia: a Son’s Tale”, which includes, as one of its main themes, my father’s experiences as a POW in Changi between February 1942 and May 1943, his transfer on the prison ship Wales Maru to mainland Japan, and his onward journey to the northern island of Hokkaido where he was imprisoned in six further camps until September 1945. My book follows on from the setting up of a website by my brother Carl in August 2020 called thebelfastdoctor.info where he published the secret diaries in the form of love letters from our Dad to the woman who was to become our Mum.

Paul’s parents on Newcastle Beach in N. Ireland with Slieve Donard in the background (Image courtesy of Paul Murray)

Using the diaries in which, apart from one month, there is an entry every day for 42 months, I travelled to Singapore in October 2017 and on to Japan to follow in his footsteps. This special pilgrimage proved to be an emotional roller coaster but I was so glad that I went as, with the help of a guide and an interpreter, I met numerous historians and museum curators who were able to piece together the story of some of the British, Dutch and American POWs in the ten camps on the island. I even met an elderly Japanese man who claimed to have met my father when he was imprisoned in what proved to be the worst of the camps, Muroran.

My father’s name was Major Francis J. Murray and he was the chief MO as well as the senior CO in two of the six camps on Hokkaido where he was in charge of 350 British prisoners. He was awarded the military MBE when he returned to N Ireland after the war to set up a practice as a GP in a working class area of north Belfast.

Major Francis J. Murray at Chitose Aerodrome near Sapporo, Hokkaido, on 13th September 1945. (Image courtesy of Paul Murray)

During my visit to Singapore, I met up with one of my sisters who flew in from her home in Canada and, together with the son of the country’s former first chief minister in 1955, David Marshall, we re-enacted our dads’ walk from the Padang beside St Andrew’s Anglican Cathedral along the route of the 14 mile march into captivity at Changi.

On Hokkaido, Dad was incarcerated for one week in Hakodate, four months in Yakumo, 19 months in Muroran, five weeks in Raijo (all the POW accounts I have read including my Dad’s know this camp as Nishi Ashibetsu), two weeks in Utashinai, and two months in Akabira. The only building still standing on its original site on the island is now a café in what was once the compound of the camp at Hakodate on the outskirts of the town. A television crew from Japan’s national station NHK together with a reporter from a local newspaper covered my visit to Hakodate and Yakumo. Later on my first day at Hakodate, I was taken to a temple which used to be the camp hospital and which has been reconstructed in another part of the town. There is a small plaque in the temple with the names of some of the British and Dutch POWs who died during captivity. Included on it are some of the thirteen men who died on my father’s watch and who are all buried at the Commonwealth War Cemetery at Yokohama. On my visit to Tokyo a few days earlier, I had laid poppy crosses at the graves of each of the men. Our guide at the camp at Hakodate and the Eizenji Temple was Masatoshi Asari, an elderly local historian, who was responsible for erecting the symbolic plaque of reconciliation and for bringing the story of the foreign prisoners to the attention of school children on the island.

My visits to Yakumo where the men constructed an air strip in the summer and autumn of 1943, and Muroran where they provided slave labour in the Wanishi Iron and Steel Works, proved to be equally fascinating though tinged with great emotion when I learnt more details about the tragic deaths of Signalman Stan Faunch at the former, and Private Raymond Suttle among the twelve at the latter.

An extract of Major Francis J. Murray’s secret diary. (Image courtesy of Paul Murray)

My book has a special focus on two Japanese officers whose treatment of the POWs was markedly different. Lieutenant Kaichi Hirate was camp commandant at Muroran and Raijo. Lieutenant Colonel Shigeo Emoto had overall responsibility for all the camps on Hokkaido between March 1944 and May 1945.

The stunning autumn colours of the interior were in stark contrast to the bleakness of the port at Muroran and it was so very special to gather in a clearing in the middle of the woods at Dad’s fourth camp, Raijo, to picture what he called his proudest moment when, on 5 September 1945, he was presented with a giant scroll of tribute by the British and American POWs.

I am indebted to two women from the POW Research Network Japan, Taeko Sasamoto and Yoshiko Tamura, who gave me so much assistance throughout my special pilgrimage to their country. They are among a number of volunteers who are continuing to bring the stories of the Allied POWs in all the camps in Japan to the attention of its people and, ultimately, to a far wider audience with the future publication of a book.

Cover of From the Gaeltacht to Galicia: a Son’s Tale by Paul Murray

As for my own book, it is available for purchase in paperback form at thegreatbritishbookshop.co.uk  Any money I make from it will go to the arthritis charity NASS.

“I’m The Hit Of The Show” – Part 1

The Pre-war A.I.F. Malayan Concert Party

By Sears Eldredge

The first units of the 8th Division Australian Imperial Force arrived in Singapore on 18 February, 1941. With the likelihood of war with Japan becoming more imminent, further units of the A.I.F. 8th Division would be sent to Malaya in August. Their Headquarters would be at Johore Bahru across from Singapore Island.

In late spring, Major J. W. Jacobs of the 8th Division Signals was asked to form a concert party as a charity fund raiser for the Malaya Patriotic Fund in Kuala Lumpur. Jacobs requested Warrant Officer Val Mack, a former professional vaudeville comedian who had toured Australia with his own troupe, “Mack’s Comedy Players,” as his assistant. Jacobs would take care of “arranging for the men to be released from other duties and generally being responsible for the administration” while Mack would develop and rehearse the shows.[1]

Major James William (Jim) Jacobs. VX40983.

Some A.I.F. Battalions and Brigades had already established concert parties, so Jacobs and Mack scouted out these groups to borrow the best entertainers for their important fund raiser. Besides Jacobs and Mack, the cast for the charity show would consist of Gunner Eric Beatty (a violinist well-known from Australian radio broadcasts), Signalman John Wood, “who was already well known as a young juvenile lead in both radio and the movies, having made some films at Elstree Studios in England,”[ii] and Pte. Harry Smith (an old circus performer and vaudevillian known professionally as “Toto”).

Harry Smith as the circus clown “Toto.” Courtesy of the Smith Family.

Two of Smith’s specialties included walking on “the highest stilts ever seen in the southern hemisphere” and playing tunes on his “aboriginal instrument”—a eucalyptus leaf!).

Harry Smith on his stilts in Kuala Lumpur. Courtesy of the Smith Family.

Also, among the performers would be Pte. Stan “Judy” Garland (tap dancer and female impersonator), Cpl. Val Ballantyne (singer-bass/baritone), the Englishman, Capt. Scott-Fox (baritone), and Signalman West (piano-accordion).

Variety Show concert parties were fairly easy to produce. According to Jack Boardman, Mack would determine the final running order of the show, but each artist would choose the content of his own solo moments so that the only rehearsals necessary were for any jointly performed pieces, such as the opening and closing choruses and comic sketches.  

So Val would get it all together: “What are you going to do next show, Harry?” And Harry’d say . . . well, on one occasion he said, “Uh, ‘scuse me for saying this, but I’m doing my tit and bum act.”  “Oh, ah.”  And then, “What are you going to sing for us?” And he’d tell him what songs he was going to sing.  And they’d cobble it all together and a dress rehearsal before the final thing.[iii]

In “A Soldier and an Entertainer,” Kerrin Frey’s unpublished monograph about her father, Val Mack, she wrote, 

He had rules he expected to be followed at all performances. One was that there should be no smut, blue jokes, and dirt on stage. He insisted that a show must be fit for one to share with one’s daughter, aunt, or mother, if they could have been there. Another of his decisions was that there should be no microphones on stage. Not that such were lying about ready for use, but offers were made to find one or more mikes which offers Val refused. He said if a singer or actor could not be heard without the aid of a mike he should not be on stage. And of course, electrical gadgets have a habit of going wrong in the middle of a performance.[iv]   

After several rehearsals, their show, “The Digger Revue,” opened at the Town Hall in Kuala Lumpur on Empire Day, 25 May 1941, with the Sultan and Sultana of Selangor,[1] Major Kidd, the British Resident, and Major General Gordon Bennett, Commanding Officer of the 8th A.I.F. Division, in attendance. As the curtains parted, the full company was seen onstage singing around a campfire. What followed were solo turns and comic sketches performed by various members of the company, the more unique items being Smith’s stilt dance and playing tunes on his rubber leaf, and Beatty playing his violin on his head accompanied on the piano by Jack Boardman, who was on loan from the 2/20th Battalion for the occasion. 

Their comic sketches included “The Quartermaster’s Store,” a satire on the military red tape written by Major Jacobs, as well as the old vaudeville routine, “The Hole in the Road.” John Wood proved his versatility by playing a variety of male characters in the earlier sketches, but then “gave the audience quite a shock” when he appeared as a female character in “Baby” (but definitely not a child) in “The Baby Photographer,” and later in the second half as “Miss Montmorency,” a Captain in the Women’s Australian National Service causing trouble for a befuddled Colonel and his men, in a sketch entitled, “The W.A.N.S.”  The show closed with the full company singing “Waltzing Matilda” and “There’ll Always Be An England,” followed, of course, by “God Save The King.”  

According to the reviews that appeared in the local newspapers the next day, the show had been an enormous success. “Never a dull moment was there in the two and a half hours of non-stop entertainment, the quality of which bespoke careful preparation,” wrote one reviewer.[v]  The other reviewer agreed, singling out Warrant Officer Mack as “one of the finest comedians Kuala Lumpur had ever seen, either professional or amateur, and a great deal of the success of the show was due to him.” At the same time, though, the reviewer had to admit that “the Australians did shock the staid Kuala Lumpur audience with their ‘rich’ humour which nevertheless was very much enjoyed.”[vi] Both reviewers hoped the “The Diggers” would return in the near future with another edition of their show.

In July, Val Mack was promoted to officer ranks as a Lieutenant in recognition of his service.

Val Mack. Courtesy of Kerrin Frey.

As mentioned previously, Battalion and Brigade level concert parties had already been performing for A.I.F. units in Malaya that were protecting the strategically valuable rubber plantations and tin mines. One of these was the 2/20th Battalion, where L/Cpl. Bob Mutton produced weekly shows which starred the stilt walker, Harry “Toto” Smith and pianist, Jack Boardman (both of whom Jacobs “borrowed” for the charity show), as well as vocalist, Bob Picken; and, whenever her duties permitted, Sister Ogilvie from “the house on the hill,” a term which refers either to the off-limits Nurses’ living quarters or to the hospital.[vii] Another performer in this company was the “prima donna” female impersonator, Claude Edmonds, who “sang a clever duet with herself.”[viii]

He was a masculine type [wrote Boardman], big and muscular with lots of black hair on his chest, back and shoulders. He could sing like a woman and used to appear in a gown that revealed his chest and shoulders and he was a natural comic. One of his songs was “The Ferryboat Serenade” (“To serenade your lady, just take a spot that’s shady”). The audience really enjoyed his act.[ix]

Jack (“Boardie”) Boardman. Courtesy of Jack Boardman.

But it was George McNeilly, the YMCA Representative attached to the 22nd Brigade HQ who, given honorary officer rank, pulled together Aussie soldier-performers from various Battalion groups, and created the 22nd Brigade Concert Party which toured entertainments to all the A.I.F. troops stationed in the area. Jack Boardman, who was seconded to this troupe, described its beginnings: 

George McNeilly . . . was an ordained clergyman. He had rather an effeminate voice but was well liked. When he came to Malaya from Australia he was attached to my Brigade while we were camped in Mersing. In no time he acquired a truck, piano, pierrot costumes, etc., and formed a small concert party comprising [Jack] Geoghegan and [Frank] Wood[2], a drummer from one of our battalions, myself and others—all seconded from our various units when required.[x]  

Like Boardman, Claude Edmonds had also been drafted from the 2/20th Battalion for this new Brigade Concert Party.

Their Pierrot costumes were the traditional ones: “white with red pom-poms on them where buttons are normally placed on shirts and blouses, with a pointed cap plus pom-poms.”[xi] 

During the following weeks, the 22nd Brigade Concert Party toured the A.I.F.’s Mersing and Batu Pahat District camps performing their shows.

Part 2 of this post will be available to read on this website on 27th October.



[1]One of the Federated Malay States, Selangor surrounds the capital of Kuala Lumpur. 

[2]Geoghegan and Wood were actually in the 27th Brigade the 22nd, so this is Frank Wood, a singer-actor, not John Wood who was the female impersonator.



[1] Jacobs, 16.

[ii] Jacobs, 16.

[iii] J. Boardman, Interview, 10.

[iv] Frey, 25.

[v] “The Malay Maul,” Kuala Lumpur, 26 May 1941.

[vi] Unidentified newspaper clipping, n.d.

[vii] Wilson, J., “Our Concert,” 2/20th Battalion Newspaper, 4 June 1941.

[viii] Pte. F “Joe” Wilson, Editor, “Siftings from Souvenir Seekers,” Weekly Bulletin of the 2/20th Bn., A.I.F.

[ix] J. Boardman, Letter, 25 June 04.

[x] J. Boardman, Letter, 31 May 04.

[xi] J. Boardman, Letter, 31 May 04.



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

Full Source List for ‘Rice and Shine’: British Pre-War Concert Parties posts, here.

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

Conclusion: British Pre-War Concert Parties

By Sears Eldredge

With the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, The Philippines, and Malaya on 7/8 December, the long-expected War in the Pacific had begun.    

The 88th and 137th Field Regiments, Royal Artillery of the 11th Indian Division had arrived in Singapore only nine days before the Japanese attack.  

A few days after the start of hostilities, Major Leofric Thorpe submitted his Official Report to the Singapore Services Entertainment Committee. In his conclusion, Thorpe argued why another concert party would be urgently needed in the near future—one which (given the not-so-subtle subtext of the report) he should be put in charge of.

With the war now being fought, there will be an even greater need now. When the situation stabilizes, and the number of troops perhaps increase, no better way of maintaining the morale of the men could be tried. . .. Another show should start as soon as circumstances permit.[i]

As Thorpe would quickly discover, circumstances for another Concert Party did not soon present themselves, and when they did, they would not be in the circumstances he had imagined. 

On 29 January 1942, nearly a month and a half after the start of the War in the Pacific, the convoy carrying the 18th Division arrived in Singapore. While trying to unload its cargo of men and equipment, it came under heavy attack by Japanese aircraft. By this point in the war Malaya had already been lost and all Commonwealth forces had been pulled back to defend Singapore Island. Once on land, the 18th Divisions’ troops were immediately thrown into the final battle for the island. For Fergus Anckorn, their preparedness for such a situation was absurd: “Three and a half months without setting foot on land. Talk about being ready for action. Our knees were jelly. And, you know, we had to go off that ship under fire, under bombing.”[ii]    

Seventeen days later all the surviving Commonwealth forces were prisoners of war.  


To learn about the reorganization of Concert Parties in Changi POW Camp, Singapore, read “In The Bag” (Chapter 1) in my book, Captive Audiences / Captive Performers.

RICE AND SHINE WILL CONTINUE, 6TH OCTOBER 2021, 10AM


[i] Thorpe, Report, 21.

[ii] Anckorn, Interview, 20.

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

Full Source List for ‘Rice and Shine’: British Pre-War Concert Parties posts, here.

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

Singapore/Malayan Concert Parties, “Stand Easy”: The Singapore Services Entertainment Committee Concert Party Part 3

By Sears Eldredge

27 November, was spent getting word through to Penang about the “Stand Easy” Concert Party’s arrival there on the 28th.  At Sungei Patani, as time for the evening show approached, the women were late for their call, claiming that their transport had broken down: “a coincidence,” Thorpe wryly observed, “which seemed to occur with monotonous regularity.”[i] But the two shows that evening played to packed houses: “Everything worked like clockwork, and we had a wonderful reception.”[ii]

The next day the company arrived at Penang, located on an island off the coast, having taken the ferry there from Butterworth. (The East Surrey Regimental Band did not accompany them to Penang but had returned to their base at Alor Star.) Their show the following night, 29 November, was to be performed in the theatre at the Gulgor Institute.  Here, again, there was confusion regarding their accommodations. In spite of arrangements having already been made, Lt. Morison telephoned the luxury Eastern & Oriental Hotel in Penang and booked rooms for himself, Thorpe, and the ladies. 

Publicity flyer for the “Stand Easy” Concert Party. Courtesy of Leofric Thorpe.

When they woke up the next morning, they discovered that all troops in Penang had suddenly been recalled to barracks. The international situation in the Far East had seriously worsened overnight but all that the public was told was that the recall was a “purely normal precaution taken in view of the present situation.”[iii] So instead of performing for the troops as intended, “Stand Easy” would be performed for the civilian populace in Penang.

That night Thorpe and Gwillim had everything ready for the show, but when “Beginners” was called (the Stage Manager’s call notifying actors that they should be on stage for the opening number) all the O.R.s were present, but not Morison and the two women: “Lt. Morison and the ladies had not arrived when there were only five minutes to go before the show. I was in a real panic, and knew nothing about them. I could not get through on the telephone, and I was worried that taxies had been impressed by the Government and had not been available.”[iv]  

In desperation Thorpe quickly started revising the program putting himself in as Compere. At the very last minute, the others arrived complaining that the taxi promised by Gwillim had not arrived as scheduled, even though everyone had been told earlier to arrange their own transportation. In spite of these difficulties, the show went quite well—with two exceptions. Just as the curtain closed after Pearson’s solo number, he collapsed from exhaustion. He later revived and was able to accompany Arthur Butler later in the show when the second problem occurred. 

The audience were enjoying the show very much, but were much more boisterous than usual. During Butler’s female impersonations, they gave a lot of laughter and cackling from one section of the audience. Later I found that it was the cook sergeant who was drunk. Butler eventually walked off the stage and refused to continue work that evening. We put the next turn on almost at once, and not much damage was done. Butler was the most temperamental as well as one of the best artists in the cast.[v]

The next day, 30 November, a review of “Stand Easy” appeared in the Penang Gazette which said, among other laudatory comments,

Nothing more appropriate, breezy and elevating could have been devised and presented for the amusement of the lads in the Service. Definitely, it is an antidote for the “bloody-mindedness” among troops who see nothing but rubber trees for weeks and months. . .. No words of praise are too high for these artists. They are devoting their talents and energy for the benefit of the troops, but they can derive gratification from the knowledge that it is a jolly and topping show.[vi]    

Since all the troops had been confined to barracks, the concert party would not have an audience that evening for their second set of performances. Instead Gwillim was asked if they might put on a show for non-commissioned officers that night in the Sergeant’s Mess. Unable to speak to Morison and the ladies because they had gone off for the day to visit a local tourist attraction, Thorpe spoke to the rest of the cast and they agreed to do this special show. He arranged the program and they had their first chance to rehearse an Opening Chorus since they had been on tour. The show in the Sergeant’s Mess that night was very successful and Butler in a forgiving mood went over to the Canteen and performed his act for the lower rank O.R.s.

The next day, 1 December, Nella Wingfiled, left the concert party claiming that she was worn out. Capt. Horsfield, their volunteer helper from Alor Star, was recalled to his unit. And instead of checking on their own status with their HQ back in Singapore, the remaining members of the “Stand Easy” company moved on, as scheduled, to their next stop, Ipoh. On 2 December, the scenery was unloaded and set up in the auditorium at the Chinese High School in Ipoh. But as the crisis in the Far East deepened, they decided they had better “check up on the future of the Show” with their Headquarters in Singapore. Thorpe: “Lt Morison spoke to Colonel Hill, who said that we had been called back some time ago. Where the message went, I do not know.”[vii] Cables were immediately sent notifying the other scheduled sites of the tour’s cancellation. Then, as it was too late to catch the afternoon train, it was decided that they would leave early the next morning, 3 December, at 0212. In the meantime, Gwillim saw to having the settings and equipment crated up and sent back to Singapore. That night the concert party gave their final show in the O.R.’s Mess to the Malay Volunteers who had also been called to active duty. After the show, all the members of the concert party left on the train for Kuala Lumpur, except for Morison and the sisters who traveled by car, arriving there at 0700 hrs. the next morning. At Kuala Lumpur, the “Stand Easy” Concert Party disbanded: some to their units near Kuala Lumpur; others to Singapore. But Morison and the two Tennen sisters stayed over night in Kuala Lumpur before returning to Singapore, claiming they were too tired to travel any further.[viii] Upon his return to Singapore, Thorpe immediately started to write his exhaustive Official Report of the concert party tour.

RICE AND SHINE, BRITISH PRE-WAR CONCERT PARTIES CONTINUES, 29TH SEPTEMBER 2021, 10AM


[i] Thorpe, Report, 16.

[ii] Thorpe, Report, 16.

[iii] Sunday Gazette, No. 48, Vol. 16, Sunday, November 30, 1941, 1.

[iv] Thorpe, Report, 17.

[v] Thorpe, Report, 18.

[vi] Penang Gazette, n.d.

[vii] Thorpe, Report, 19.

[viii] Thorpe, Report, 19-20.

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

Full Source List for ‘Rice and Shine’: British Pre-War Concert Parties posts, here.

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

Singapore/Malayan Concert Parties, “Stand Easy”: The Singapore Services Entertainment Committee Concert Party, Part 2

By Sears Eldredge

Lt. Morison himself would Compère the Singapore Services Entertainment Committee Concert Partyshow. Counting Morison, Thorpe, and Gwillim, the concert party numbered thirteen. All members of the concert party, except Gwillim, were expected to participate in the comic sketches as needed. Their troupe would be officially known as “The Singapore Services Entertainment Committee Concert Party.”

There was little time for rehearsal before they were due to leave Singapore and Morison had made no plans for the Opening Chorus and Finale—those parts of the show in which all the members of the company traditionally participated—so Thorpe suggested that that these be selected and rehearsed on the train to Kuala Lumpur.

I also suggested that we had a Coffee Stall[1] constructed, and had a Finale with the cast round it, in various attires. Buskers to come on, give short turns, and get sent off by a policeman. Finally, the policeman to be carried off by the cast, and return dancing the Lambeth Walk with the Proprietress of the Stall, and the whole Company—accompaniment from several accordions and a piano.[i]  

Morison agreed to these suggestions, and then blithely announced, “You can leave Singapore on Friday 21 Nov when you like, I am going by road with the ladies.”[ii] With Morison and “the ladies” traveling by automobile, any rehearsal of the full cast on the train to Kuala Lumpur was now out of the question.

Their show was called, “Stand Easy: A Military Cocktail.” (“Stand Easy” is the British Army command for “At ease.”) Leaving Singapore at 1900 hrs on 21 November, they arrived in Kuala Lumpur, the capital of the Malayan Federation, the next morning. That day was spent getting travel documents in order. Here L/Bdrs Pearson and Butler joined the group but Quinton and Rackstraw had not been notified about the departure, and their Commanding Officer proved quite intransigent about releasing them from their units. It finally took a personal call from Thorpe to their G.O.C., Major General Keith Simmons back in Singapore, to do the trick.  Simmons insisted that he “wanted all the necessary artists to accompany us, and that he would arrange for both.”[iii] That night they were off by train from Kuala Lumpur to Alor Star [Alor Setar], the northern most encampment in Malaya. During the journey, the performers entertained the occupants of the buffet car till close to midnight. Then Thorpe persuaded Morison that they should “work out a suitable running order for a show of this nature, and it was not until 0300 hrs that I had written the final draft ready to give it to Sgt. Gwillim next morning to have printed at Alor Star by the evening.”[iv]  

The schedule called for the “Stand Easy” Concert Party to begin its tour with performances at Alor Star on 1 & 2 December, 1941, and then work its way back down the west coast of the Malay Peninsula concluding with a show at Kuala Lumpur on 8 and 9 December. The company arrived at Pari Station—the nearest train station to Alor Star—at 0610 on 1 December, and then had to be transported by lorry to the town of Alor Star that was more than seventy miles away. When the lorries with their equipment arrived at the Alor Star Cinema where they were to perform that night, Thorpe immediately started to unpack and set up the stage. He was helped by Capt. Horsfield and his crew from the military base. At one point, Thorpe went off to talk with a Mr. Hanley, the Bandmaster of the East Surrey Regimental Band, who agreed to provide the Overture and Interval music for their show. 

Plans had been made for a rehearsal late that afternoon before the first show, but Morison and the “girls” showed up late, so this “rehearsal was really rather a farce, but those who were uncertain what parts they were taking were informed and as no one has to say more than a line or two in any black-out, they were able to memorize these.”[v]   

Having worked all day to get the stage ready for performance, Thorpe only had fifteen minutes to wash his face and put on makeup before the overture began. Because no Opening Chorus by the full company had been rehearsed, the show opened with “Two Hits And A Miss” with Nella, Frankie, and George. There followed a typical concert party playbill of solo turns and comic sketches, such as “The Letter” with Ken Morison as “The Soldier,” and Babs Tenner as “The Temptress”; “Seeing Stars” with “Gloria d’Earie” impersonating famous female performers; and “Accordeonly Yours,” with Nella Wingfield.  Babs did her Hula Dance after the Interval.  And for the Finale, the full company, without any prior rehearsal, performed the “Coffee Stall” number, “At The Dolly Varden.”  

Without the necessary rehearsals, their first show did not go well. Thankfully, the house was only half full, as the troops had just returned from a military exercise and none of the posters sent from Singapore had been put up. And, as this was the troupe’s first real runthrough of the show, the volunteer stage hands were totally in the dark about their duties backstage.

The show ended at 2115 hrs., and Thorpe, Gwillim, and their novice crew had forty-five minutes to strike the “Coffee Stall” set and reset the stage for the opening of their second show which would begin at 2200 hrs. By this time word of mouth about the show had spread and the house for the second show was full of entertainment-hungry troops. When the second show ended shortly after midnight, it had been deemed a “tremendous success.”

But this was not the end of the bungling for the day. Morison had again fouled up Thorpe’s accommodation arrangements for the company, so there was one final round of incompetence for Thorpe and Gwillim to endure and straighten out. 

The second day at Alor Star went much better: “During the morning, the dhobie [wash] was collected, and dresses were pressed ready for the evening show. The Sergt in the Band had arranged to borrow a piano from Chinese School, and the men went off to collect it.”  By the time the cast was due at the cinema, it had started to rain heavily but that didn’t dampen the attendance or the success of the two shows that night: “Two more excellent performances were given, and the audiences were hysterical in their appreciation. They were not only packing the hall and sitting tightly in the gangways, but also were standing outside in the rain eight deep, sheltered only by their groundsheets.”[vi] The Brigadier General in charge at Alor Star gave a speech of appreciation after the show and invited everyone in the cast to the Officers’ Mess. But only Morison, the ladies, Sgt. Gwillim, Rackstraw, Quinton, and Thorpe went so as not to offend the General as they needed his approval to take the Regimental Band with them to their next stop. Rackstraw and Quinton performed at the party which broke up about 0330 hrs.[vii]

The most gratifying thing the following morning was finding out how the show had been enjoyed. One could stand and listen in any direction, and everywhere our songs were being sung and whistled, and our jokes repeated.  It was obvious that the Concert Party had fulfilled the sponsors’ object.[viii]

Their next stop was Sungei Patani—again for two shows a night on two successive days, 26, 27 November. Here, again, there was a mix-up in their accommodations and the O.R.’s were assigned to huts, with no beds, mosquito nets, or lights. When Gwillim returned to the huts, he “found the men in a very disconsolate state, and saying that they would prefer to find what accommodation they could in the town, and return to Singapore the following day.” Gwillim informed Morison and Thorpe of the crisis and they went to talk to the men. L/Cpl Laurie Allison, an Australian who had joined the British Army before the war, came to the rescue. He was a member of Thorpe’s own Fortress Signals Company on detached service in Sungei Patani. He and Peter Gwillim were good friends.  

When the concert party arrived, they were scheduled to billet with the Leicesters but did not like the setup there and asked to billet at the Volunteer Drill Hall. Because I could speak Malay, the RSM asked me to arrange and supervise their bedding, etc., aided by the Malay soldiers. 

They seemed to be in a bit of a mess, so I arranged staggered meals so that they could all be fed in between their various tasks. I ran the Volunteer’s Officer’s mess and also had appointed times for officers and the rest of the concert party.[ix]

The next day Allison saw to it that their costumes were washed and pressed on time, though “Butler had spent the day ironing clothes, until the iron fused, and then he dashed into town to get it repaired.”[x] At 1630 the East Surry Regimental Band arrived from Alor Star as requested, but Gwillim had been so busy that “they were not well catered for” and the musicians grumbled about their treatment. Capt. Horsfield, who had provided skilled labor for the concert party at Alor Star, recognized that the group was seriously understaffed, so he obtained a leave and arrived to help out. Allison arranged a buffet for the crew in an attap shed back of the stage, as they had spent all day getting the stage put up in the drill hall, but this was mistakenly consumed by members of the audience during the Interval, who thought the refreshments had been arranged for them. The first show at Sungei Patani went well even though there had been a lighting emergency: “Early in the show the main fuse put in by the electric coy[2] blew, leaving the stage in darkness. Van der Creusen was working at the time, and continued with his vocal act in the dark, and as I was prepared for this emergency, the lights were on inside a minute.”[xi]

TO BE CONTINUED, 15TH SEPTEMBER 2021, 10AM


[1] The “Coffee Stall” Scene was a famous routine written for “The Co-Optimists” Concert Party’s first show in 1921. It probably had earlier roots in the Music Halls.

[2] Military term for “company.”


[i] Thorpe, Report, 5.

[ii] Thorpe, Report, 3.

[iii] Thorpe, Report, 10.

[iv] Thorpe, Report, 10.

[v] Thorpe, Report, 11.

[vi] Thorpe, Report, 13.

[vii] Thorpe, Report, 13.

[viii] Thorpe, Report, 13.

[ix] Allison, Email, 17 August 2004.

[x] Thorpe, Report, 15.

[xi] Thorpe, Report, 15.

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

Full Source List for ‘Rice and Shine’: British Pre-War Concert Parties posts, here.

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

Singapore/Malayan Concert Parties, “Stand Easy”: the Singapore Services Entertainment Committee Concert Party

By Sears Eldredge

In November, 1941, Major Leofric Thorpe of Singapore Fortress Signals became involved with a concert party which toured the forward British bases in the more remote areas of Malaya. Afterwards he wrote an extensive Official Report of his experiences on this tour from which the following is taken.[1] The report was written not only to detail what happened during the tour for its sponsors and the Entertainment Committee, but to educate the readers about the proper makeup of a military concert party and the need for someone to be designated as Officer in Charge/Producer of any future parties who could provide the proper organization and leadership—which had clearly been lacking on this first tour.

For anyone who has ever toured a show, Thorpe’s report is very familiar and extremely humorous, filled, as it is, with stories of incompetence, turf wars, unforeseen mishaps, mishandling of funds, and miscommunications. But given the context of the terrible events about to engulf East and Southeast Asia in a war with the Japanese, it reads like a commentary on the unreadiness of the British forces in Malaya just before hostilities broke out. At the same time, though, it reveals the ability of Thorpe and the concert party performers to triumph over administrative bungling and put on a series of successful shows for the entertainment-hungry troops.

Even though Thorpe’s report was an official one, it is not without bias. Thorpe takes every opportunity to point out to his readers (the sponsors and the Entertainment Committee) the incompetence of the man they had put in place as Producer—the position Thorpe thought he should have had.

Major Leofric Thorpe had been posted from India to Singapore in September 1939. Soon after his arrival, he became involved with a local amateur theatre group called “The Island Committee,” comprised of rubber brokers, tin miners, solicitors, and other British colonials—and also military personnel from the units stationed in and around Singapore, especially the huge military garrison at Changi. During the next two years, Thorpe became firmly entrenched at The Island Committee as Honorary Secretary & Treasurer as well as the Stage Manager for their productions. In early 1941, in addition to their regular season of comedies and revues, Thorpe instigated the development of a series of concert parties under the title, “Fun Fare: A Roundabout of Mirthful Entertainment,” to tour the local military installations. One item on the bill was Thorpe performing a solo piece called, “Saving the Petrol Ration”: “I did my after-dinner night act of riding a one-wheel cycle, and juggling either with three Indian clubs or with five billiard balls.”[i]

Leofric Thorpe (on the right) at an Island Committee cocktail party in Singapore before the war. Courtesy of Colonel Thorpe.

Towards the end of October, 1941, Thorpe heard about plans by a new group, the Singapore Services Entertainment Committee, to form a concert party to “entertain the troops in the rubber” – those troops guarding the isolated rubber plantations run by British colonials in Northern Malaya. It was to be funded by a local Singaporean brewery and the Singapore Cold Storage Company. Thorpe believed his two-year involvement with The Island Committee made him an ideal choice as Officer in Charge for such a touring company. But that was not to be:

“At the production of ‘Fun Fare’ at the Alexandra Hospital on 30 October, Lieut. Morison, who was working as compère in the show, announced that he had been selected by Command to be Officer i/c Concert Party, and was shortly to make a tour of the units to whom it was intended to give the show.”[ii]

The rationale given for denying Thorpe the leadership position was that his rank of Major was too high for an Entertainment Officer. He thought there might be other reasons as well.   

It was probably assumed that as Lieut. Morison had worked on the Stage in England as compère in a number of Concert Parties, that he was a suitable man for the position. Actually this was not necessarily the case, for only a few of the qualifications have anything to do with actual work as an actor.[iii]

Because of his work with The Island Committee, Thorpe was well-connected with the civilian authorities in Singapore, and it’s hard to believe that he didn’t complain vociferously to those he knew who were members of the Services Entertainment Committee. All he admits in his report is that he “accompanied the Touring Party as a result of a conversation with Inspector Blake, at the Victoria Theatre on 16 Nov.”[iv] (Inspector Blake was a member of the Singapore Straits Police and an important member of the Entertainment Committee.) As compensation, Thorpe was given the multiple roles of Stage Director, Stage Manager, and Accountant, and L/Cpl. Peter Gwillim, who had worked with Thorpe at The Island Committee, would be his indispensable clerical assistant. 

As a portent of troubles ahead, Thorpe and Gwillim learned that Morison, who had supposedly made a preliminary reconnaissance of the tour sites, had not filed any report on his return concerning vital technical information about the theatres and/or halls in which they would perform. He had, in fact, not visited all the prospective sites.

Absolute measurements of stages, prosceniums, etc were essential as the equipment to be taken from Singapore depended on these facts. Unfortunately, I had nothing to go on . . . Gwillim and I later had to arrange everything, even down to commodes and toilet paper, with very little time in which to do it. In the end I took the equipment of the Island Committee, which took up about 31 crates and boxes. Lt Morison could not even tell me where there were mains or the voltages. [v]

Nor, they would discover, had Morison made any arrangements with the local base commanders in Malaya regarding the concert party’s needs for housing, additional manpower to help setup and work backstage during the show, or additional equipment. 

And then there was the matter of the staff needed to produce a successful tour show. From his years of experience in the military and in amateur theatre, Thorpe had firm views on how a concert party should be conceived and operated if it was going to be successful: “Just as a Signal Unit is composed of a suitable number of Operators, Fitters, Linemen, Clerks, etc., so must a Concert Party have an Advance Business Manager, who goes round one stage ahead of the Company, a Stage Manager, a Producer, an Electrician, and a Carpenter.”[vi] Thorpe goes on to insist,

Here I should explain that the Mechanics of a Concert Party is equally important as the production of the show itself. It is only the method of presentation of a show which can raise it from the “entertaining the troops”, which is one of the horrors of modern war, to Theatre. It is absolutely necessary to create the atmosphere of the theatre. The audiences must feel that it is in a theatre, not in the dining room or some other place that it is very tired of seeing.[vii]  

But Morison had not allowed for any Stage Staff to be included in the composition of the concert party. When Thorpe learned of this omission, it was too late to do anything about it, so it would be up to him (along with members of the cast and any untrained troops detailed to crew work at each site) to get the staging set up. Though Thorpe knew that L/Cpl Gwillim would have enough to do with the administrative side of the tour, Thorpe was forced to ask him to take on the additional responsibilities of Property Master and Assistant Stage Manager.[viii]  

In order to have more authority in working with the other O.R’s [Other Ranks] and function at the sites in the Sergeant’s Mess,Gwillim requested that he be temporarily made a Sergeant. This was originally denied by the Committee on the grounds, “that it was not necessary to have anyone in disciplinary charge of the party, as it would be a ‘happy family’.” Thorpe knew otherwise.

This I knew to be a mistake because the ‘happy family’ was to be faced with some extremely long hours of very hard and monotonous work, and being in many cases temperamental, I realized that occasions would arise when a leader would be required, though his strongest weapon would be tack rather than the Army Act.[ix]   

With Thorpe’s persistent urgings, Gwillim eventually did receive his temporary promotion to Sergeant.

Thorpe also had strong convictions on the range of talents needed to cast a successful touring concert party: “The Cast must contain a Low Comedian, and a Comedienne, an Ingénue, a Compère, at least one Dancer, several singers and instrumentalists, suitable people to play light and heavy parts in Sketches. Two Pianists are needed.”[x] But to Thorpe dismay, Lt. Morison had already chosen the members of the cast before Major Thorpe had been assigned to the company—some by audition and others he simply appointed—with little regard to the need for balance and variety among the limited number of performers permitted on the tour. 

Morison had selected a group of seven Other Ranks along with three civilian women: “To my horror I found that two untrained girls were to accompany the party, Babs and Hilda Tennen, who had never worked on any Stage in their lives, and who were, as far as I could see, merely going to have a holiday at the expense of the sponsors.”[xi] Thorpe got Morison to promise that Babs, who had once done an “after dinner” Hula Dance, would take lessons at a local dance studio before they left on tour. The other woman in the cast was (Mrs.) Nella Wingfield, an actress and accordion player. 

Frankie Quinton (on the left) and friends in Singapore before the war. Courtesy of Mrs. Frankie Quinton.

Among the O. R.s were Frankie Quinton, an accomplished accordion player; Fred Rackstraw, who did tongue twisters and “character studies;” Van de Creusen, another accordion player; Harry Pearson, who did impersonations; the pianist, George Rushby; Johnnie Thomas, a singer; and the female impersonator, Arthur Butler, “who was already well-known on the concert states of Malaya as Miss Gloria d’Earie.”[xii]   

Pre-war photograph of Glorie d’Earie [Arthur Butler] standing outside his barracks in Singapore. Courtesy of R. T. Knight & Pamela Knight.

On 23 July 1941, had Butler appeared as an item with photograph in Vera Adrmore’s gossip column, “People & Places,” in the Malayan Morning Star. He was scheduled to perform “her impersonations act” at a birthday party for two women. Wray Gibson would also be present with his accordion.[xiii]   

According to Tom Wade, Bombardier Arthur Butler “was slim and gracious, with small features and ardent brown eyes. He was always known as Gloria and the jokes about him were almost as numerous as they once use to be about Mae West. It was said that when he gave an order to the gunmen in his battery, they would always reply, “Yes, darling’.”[2][xiv] Stories about his escapades as “Gloria d’Earie” in Singapore abound. One anonymous source wrote that Butler, “undertook, on one occasion, to spend, dressed as a woman, an afternoon and evening in the city visiting Raffles Hotel and meeting people without being recognised as a man. And he got away with it.”[xv] Another, by “Tiny” Knight, was that Butler, who was an amateur boxing champion, flattened some sailor who tried to pick him up on one of his “drag” forays into Singapore.[3]

TO BE CONTINUED, 1ST SEPTEMBER 2021, 10AM


[1] A copy of the report was given by Thorpe to this writer.

[2] This has got to be misremembered. The reply was surely, “Yes, dearie.”

[3]Told to this writer by “Tiny” Knight during a meeting at Tamarkan, Thailand, in 1998.


[i] Thorpe, Letter, 26 Sept. 2002.

[ii] Thorpe, “Stand Easy” Report, 1.

[iii] Thorpe, Report, 1.

[iv] Thorpe, Report, 3.

[v] Thorpe, Report, 2.

[vi] Thorpe, Report, 4.

[vii] Thorpe, Report, 2.

[viii] Thorpe, Report, 4.

[ix] Thorpe, Report, 3.

[x] Thorpe, Report, 4.

[xi] Thorpe, Report, 4.

[xii] Wade, Prisoner of the Japanese, 46.

[xiii] Malayan Morning Star, Tuesday, July 23, 1941, 4. Clipping courtesy of Stephanie Hess.

[xiv] Wade, Prisoner of the Japanese, 46.

[xv] Anonymous, 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

Full Source List for ‘Rice and Shine’: British Pre-War Concert Parties posts, here.

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

Remembering Len Gibson, BEM

Len Gibson, BEM
3 January 1920—31 July 2021

Image and obituary courtesy of Clinton Leeks.

Len was a proud Sunderland man through and through. Born in one of the world’s great industrial cities, he had a lifelong passion for the power of education to improve one’s circumstances. He also had a passion for music, which was to help save him and others in his time of greatest trial. And he was a born story-teller all his adult life, to his friends and comrades, to the generations of children he taught, and to the historians and researchers who increasingly beat a path to the door of his bungalow in the Wearside village of West Herrington which he loved and in which he ended his days.

Born to hardworking god-fearing parents, he had three sisters and attended West Park Central School. He already loved music and was a chorister at Bishopwearmouth Church, becoming the senior boy and soloist. Leaving school during the Great Depression, he found work alongside his father in a timber factory. But he above all wanted to be a teacher, and took evening classes studying Science, Maths, English and French.  When years later this writer asked him what other than music he mostly taught in his later career, he smiled and said “just about everything, really.” He also found the Empire Theatre had cheap tickets for operas. He attended “Madam Butterfly”, and cried. Whenever he heard it again in later life, it still brought him to tears.

With war looming, in early 1939 he joined a new Territorial Regiment of Artillery and trained as a signaller. On 1 September 1939 the Regiment was called to active service, and in 1940 reconstituted as an Anti Tank Regiment and moved to home defence duties in Norfolk. There followed over a year of moving around the UK, until finally on 28 October 1941 the regiment embarked at Avonmouth to cross to Halifax in Canada, and then again headed round the Cape of Good Hope to Bombay. En route Len entertained with his proudest possession, his banjo. And en route they also heard of the attack on Pearl Harbour on 7 December 1941.

On 4 February 1942 Len’s convoy was attacked eight miles from Singapore by Japanese aircraft and all were forced to abandon ship. Len, a non-swimmer, floated in his cork lifebelt towards a boat which hauled him and others aboard and took them into the chaos of the last days of the defence of Singapore. On 15 February Len and his unit learned of the garrison’s unconditional surrender, and Len entered 41 months of Japanese captivity.

The details of that harrowing time are recounted in Len’s memoir “A Wearside Lad in World War II.” He was moved first to Changi, then to the River Valley Camp to work clearing debris from the city. He had lost his precious banjo when his ship sank, but now built a new one from scrap materials, and later built a guitar which he taught himself to play. He also began to compose music.

Len playing the guitar on VJ Day 2020. Image courtesy of Clinton Leeks.

On 24 October 1942 began the long rail journey to a series of camps in western Thailand, where Len and his work battalion were to construct the Burma-Siam railway. Len would later recount the daily horrors in his typical understated way—stifling heat, forced labour with few tools, a poor and highly inadequate diet of rice, tea, and “gippo” (basically hot water with added scraps), sickness, voracious insects, vermin, and beatings by the guards. Len like his comrades contracted typhus. He also had his appendix removed, without anaesthetic, by the legendary surgeon “Weary” Dunlop. Len kept himself going, and his comrades entertained, with his guitar music. He was by nature a forgiving man, but he said later to this writer “I cannot put in my book everything that happened, because it’s meant for my family. And I cannot forgive the Japanese what I saw them do to my friends.”

In April 1945, when Japan was clearly losing the war, Len and those of his comrades who had not died on the railway were moved to Khiri Khan in the Gulf of Siam, and thence into the interior, to work on completing the cross-isthmus Mergui Road. He said he found conditions much worse there than on the railway—poorer food and much more sickness. But he survived. On 15 August Japan surrendered, the guards were seen busily burning records, and Len and other survivors were marched back to Khiri Khan. At the end of the month a British officer arrived at the camp and began the long process of getting Len and others home. He travelled via Rangoon (where the day his ship left local radio played “Monsoon”, a piece he had composed during imprisonment) and the long sea voyage back to Liverpool, and recuperated in Ryhope General Hospital in Sunderland. There he met a lovely nurse called Ruby Pounder, and married her.

After the war Len achieved his ambition of becoming a schoolmaster, and for 17 years was Headmaster of Hasting Hill School in Sunderland. He and Ruby, who was to pre-decease him, had a son David and a daughter Jennifer. He always retained his love of music. He loved family gatherings: Jennifer described to this writer a gathering of over 90 in the extended family, where Len appeared as a sort of Pied Piper, entertaining everyone. He also remained committed to Far East POW organisations like COFEPOW, visiting the sick and needy and appearing at regular veteran gatherings throughout the North-east.

As he grew older interest seemed to grow in the experiences of so many young men who had fought in the Far East War 1941-45. Len was tireless in addressing groups in his factual understated way, “telling it how it was”. He had an endless fund of tales from the time in the camps which brought the story home to listeners young and old; of course he was never without his guitar, and some music to play. He was awarded the British Empire Medal in 2009, and as a proud Sunderland man opted to be invested by the Lord Lieutenant at Sunderland City Hall.

Len at his 100th Birthday Party. Image courtesy of Clinton Leeks.

Finally he was amazed by the historians who came to see him to record his experiences. He gave his last interview, shortly before his final illness, just three months ago. The historian wrote afterwards that he was struck by Len’s power of recall, his sharpness, and his positive attitude, to which along with his love of music the historian attributed Len’s survival when so many others had perished in the camps. Len said to him:

“I’ve had a wonderful life. I wouldn’t change a moment of it.”

88th & 137th Field Regiment, Royal Artillery, 11th Indian Division

By Sears Eldredge

On 25/26 November, members of the 88th and 137th Field Regiment, Royal Artillery (Support Units for the 11th Indian Division) aboard the “Dominion Monarch” in an earlier convoy, produced an elaborate concert party as they sailed across the Indian Ocean towards Singapore. Its aim was not only to help the men pass the time, but bolster their patriotism. An Entertainments Committee had been formed chaired by Padre Hosklin with Major Cary Owtram, 2nd Lt. Morley Jenkins, and several other officers and men, along with a civilian, Mr. Raymond, and Sister McGuire, as representative of the Nursing Sisters on board.

Programme cover for I Remember. Courtesy of Eve Allum.

Their show was a revue with the evocative title, I Remember. It was a first-class production with scenery, costumes—even wigs—and a cast of more than twenty-five singers, musicians, and other entertainers, featuring “Ace” Connolly and his Band, the “Kings of Swing.” Besides soldiers (and the lone civilian, Mr. Raymond), the cast included four female nurses[1] in a series of songs and comic sketches, one of the latter involving two Sisters and two Lieutenants, in “Temptation.” (With thousands of soldiers and a small group of Nurses confined together on a ship for months at a time, this sketch probably had very pointed topical allusions.)  

One soldier, who took the stage name “Akki” (but was really Bombardier Ackhurst), did a series of imitations in “Faces I Remember.” Two Indian soldiers—perhaps brothers[2]–performed in a large-cast number entitled, “Capetown,” which had been their last port of call. Major Owtram, himself, sang “Rose of England.” And Lance Bombardier Bob Gale, a member of “The Kings of Swing” Band, wrote three original songs for the show, one of which, “Distance Makes No Difference,” underscored another “message” of the revue. Gale also appeared onstage with his trio, “The Rhythm Breakers.”[3]

The next to last number on the bill was a rousing patriotic number, “Dominion’s Parade,” which included representatives of the British Commonwealth on stage promoting the theme of the show—the preservation of the Empire. Following the Finale, the audience, as the custom was, stood and joined the entertainers in singing “The King.”

RICE AND SHINE, BRITISH PRE-WAR CONCERT PARTIES CONTINUES, 18TH AUGUST 2021, 10AM


[1] Sisters Ingham, Adams, Woodman, and Hill.

[2] Sergeants. J. & A. Bhumgara.

[3] Including Gunners Goodwin and Winchester. 

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, 5510

Full Source List for ‘Rice and Shine’: British Pre-War Concert Parties posts, here.

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

9th Battalion, Royal Northumberland Fusiliers

By Sears Eldredge

Walker, a member of the 9th Battalion, Royal Northumberland Fusiliers, was on the “Warwick Castle,” a luxury liner turned troopship in the 18th Div. convoy. He had been an entertainer in his unit’s concert parties during their training back in England. As they zigzagged across the Atlantic to thwart German submarines on the first leg of its journey to Halifax, Nova Scotia, Walker was asked by their Padre “to arrange a night of entertainment” to relieve the boredom. He approached his friend, Tommy Craggie, to play his “buxom daughter.” Though he had never been on stage before, Craggie jumped at the chance. From his love of the old time British Music Hall and Variety shows, Walker devised a two-part comedy sketch for performance in their main Mess Hall on 5 November. 

The scene, as he described it, took place in a poor household where the father is laboring over his “Football Pools Coupon.”[1] While he is trying to figure his odds, in bounces his “darling daughter, Genevieve (Tommy), who announces that she is going hiking with her boy-friend and will be sleeping at Youth Hostels.” The father, quite concerned that the boyfriend might take advantage of his innocent daughter, warns her not to let him kiss her or let him into her room “as your mother will be worrying.” The daughter promises not to let either of these things happen and she then leaves with her father’s blessing: “Off you go then and be a good girl!”

Time passes. The father is still enthralled with betting options when Genevieve returns with the news that she had had a wonderful time on her hike. When the father inquires whether she had let her boyfriend kiss her, Genevieve replies that she hadn’t. When he asks whether the boyfriend had tried to get into her room, she replied,

“Yes, he did Daddy but I knew my mother would be worrying, so I stopped him.”

“Good girl!”

“So I went to HIS room and let HIS mother do the worrying!”

After “that corny joke,” Walker wrote, “we descend into Victorian Melodrama.” 

In high dudgeon over the shame his daughter has brought on the family, he sends her out into the snow “never to darken my door again!” But before she goes, he asks her if she has any money.  

Daughter plucks a wad of paper money out of her stocking cap.

Dtr. I have L500 Daddy.

Pa: Genevieve! Wherever have you been?

Dtr. On the Barrack Road, Daddy.

Pa: On the Barrack Road! With those Northumberland Fusiliers!?[2]

Daughter, have you been a good girl?

Dtr: Daddy, to get L500 out of those Fusiliers — Yuh GOTTA be good!

This punch line was followed by a quick curtain. And then the scene changed to one year later. Pa is still trying to forecast football results but agonizes over his daughter out there in the cruel world. He goes to the door and opens it to find a raging snowstorm and delivers his important cue line, “Not a fit night for man nor beast!”

Silence!  And then louder: NOT A FIT NIGHT FOR MAN NOR BEAST!  Whereupon a mass of newspaper ‘snowflakes’ smack him in the puss! 

This was a take-off on an old melodrama scenic device of having a Property Man offstage throw shredded newspaper in the door to simulate “snowflakes.” At this point Walker drops out of character and speaks directly to his audience,

“You take these guys out of Skid Row, give them a career in Special Effects, and this is the thanks you get . . .  Ah, Newcastle playing Sunderland. A cert draw . . . but back to the drama. . . List, oh list to the wind howling around the housetops, like a dead body being dragged along the floor (I’ll get an Oscar for this lot) And to think that it is one-year ago this very night that I cast my darling daughter, Genevieve, out into that cruel world. Will she ever come back to me, ever forgive me?”

The father repeats his actions at the door, but this time he suddenly hears footsteps approaching through the snow. The Daughter appears “clutching a bundle to her breast.” 

“Daddy, I have come home and brought you a little grandson!”

Pa and daughter embrace in tearful scene.

“But daughter, where did this little baby come from?”

“His name is Benny, Daddy, and he came from Heaven.”

“From Heaven?”

“Yes Daddy, ‘Benny’s from Heaven’” (Sings last three words)

Pa (sings) “I’ve been to all the neighbours,

                       called all over town,

                      but none remember Benny,

                      coming down.”

Dtr (sings): “The only thing that I can say is, ‘Benny’s from Heaven”’. [3]

Pa: You’re lying. Give that poor little innocent child to me. Let me gaze upon the face of my grandson. (He holds the babe and uncovers its face. The face is black.)

“The Northumberland Fusiliers??? She’s been out with the King’s African Rifles!!!”

END.[i]

At Halifax, they were secretly transferred to transport ships of the U.S. Navy which would carry them as far as India. The original intention had been to send the 18th Division to the Middle East—they had been training in Britain for months for desert warfare. But when the Japanese attacked Malaya on 7/8 December 1941, the 18th Division was diverted to Singapore, which meant another long voyage across the Indian Ocean.

RICE AND SHINE, BRITISH PRE-WAR CONCERT PARTIES CONTINUES, 4TH AUGUST 2021, 10AM


[1] Walker commented on this betting practice: “A great British pastime giving millions of working men a hope of getting out of poverty . . . to forecast 8 draws was to win a fortune.”

[2] His own unit in the audience.

[3] Parody of lyrics from the 1936 popular song by Arthur Johnston and Johnny Burke, “Pennies from Heaven.”


[i] Walker, Script reconstructed from several Emails: 17 August, 27 August, 28 August, 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

Full Source List for ‘Rice and Shine’: British Pre-War Concert Parties posts, here.

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

Outbound Shipboard Concerts

Sears Eldredge introduces our next section on British Pre-War Concert Parties; Shipboard Concerts.

In order to alleviate the potential morale problems where thousands of men were packed together on-board transport ships with little to occupy their time or minds during their long months as sea, “boredom was combated by boat drill, bingo, and amateur theatricals,”[i] wrote Jimmy Walker.


[i] Walker, Of Rice, 4.

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

Full Source List for ‘Rice and Shine’: British Pre-War Concert Parties posts, here.

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 Optimists”: Territorial 18th Infantry Divisional Concert Party, part 2

By Sears Eldredge

For the next year and a half, “The Optimists” Concert Party would tour to the 18th Division’s training facilities in the British Isles.

We were a bit like a circus [wrote Fergus Anckorn] in that we all lived together, travelled together and each had a job to do in erecting the stage, proscenium etc. We were entirely self-sufficient, with props, scenes, stage, lighting and sound. We travelled all over the country with the 18th Division, performing somewhere every night. We would arrive at about 5 pm and the show would start at 7:30 p.m. and finish about 10 p.m. If we were lucky, as in Edinburgh, Scotland, we would perform in one of the big theatres or cinemas.[i]

Like scavengers, the concert party “lived off the land,” Anckorn explained, supplementing their minimal equipment and furnishing when opportunities presented themselves.

And sometimes we would be performing in theaters and we would “accidentally” take some of their lighting home with us when we went. So we built up quite a stock of decent lighting and stuff like that . . . 

And I remember in one place we went to an RAF establishment where they had their own theater. And they had electric curtains, you know, beautifully done that had been made by one of the fellows there. And the electric curtains were done with windscreen wiper motor from the car. So we borrowed that that night and went away with it.  And this was a great thing, you know, after we’d left you’d get people looking for us, “Do you know where the concert party went?”[ii]

Anckorn had an endless fund of stories about their adventures on tour. One was the story of their stay at the Abbotsford Hotel in Melrose, Scotland, during the winter of 1940-1941, where it was so cold, they took up all the floorboards and burned them for warmth. 

And one Old Dear saw us poor soldiers in the freezing cold—because you couldn’t turn the tap on and get water or anything, there was nothing, it was frozen solid—and she sent us a grand piano to amuse ourselves with. And that burned better than the normal floorboards. [Laughter] Disgusting, because it was a beautiful piano, and she gave it to us with no strings attached. We thought, good, let’s get warm tonight. All the keys, you know—ivory—it all burned beautifully. And that beautiful piano went the way of all the other things in that hotel.[iii]   

Because the concert party was excused from daily fatigues and training exercises due to their rehearsals and nightly performances, they were resented by some of the troops for receiving preferential treatment. In order not to exacerbate the situation, they were billeted out of the way of the regular troops and slept in the top floor garret of the hotel. As Anckorn tells the story, one day General Beckwith-Smith held an inspection of the hotel and when he got to the garret, the Sergeant Major tried to prevent him from entering by telling him there was nothing to see in there.

And so the General said, “Well, what do you do in there, what is the room for?”  “It’s the concert party.” “Oh, well, [let’s] see that.” So he opened it. And there we were, lying on the floor. And the Sergeant Major blew his top. [Anckorn mumbles words in an angry Sergeant Major’s voice, before returning to his own voice.]  And the General said, “No, no, don’t wake them up. You know, that’s my concert party.” (He loved us.) And he wouldn’t let us be disturbed. So once again, there’s a Sergeant Major we had to look out on after that, because he’d been told off because of us.[iv]

Gunner Fergus Anckorn. Courtesy of Fergus Anckorn.

“The Optimists”’ program for their show was the standard mixture of musical numbers, specialty acts, and comic sketches.

But our show would always start off with an Opening Chorus, with the band and everything, and us singing. Appleton was on the piano; Tonsley was on the drums, and . . . so we would start off with a rousing Chorus to introduce ourselves . . . 

Hello everybody, how do you do?

We are here to please you, and you, and you.[v]

And then would be some sort of an introductory speech given by Oliver Thomas . . . and he would say, “Introducing Dennis East,” who would give a rousing couple of bars on the fiddle. “And Gus Anckorn (they called me Gus).” And then I would get up and produce four aces from someone’s head, you know—on the stage—we were sort of seated round tables as if we were in a cafe.

So that was how each one of us was introduced, so they knew who they were gonna get then, and they would be looking forward to one or the other of us. 

And then the show proper would start.  Someone would come and do a specialty act . . . one of us, me, the violinist, or Oliver Thomas . . .  interspersed with blackout sketches . . . most of sketches were blackout sketches.

“Blackouts” were a type of comic sketch where the punch line was delivered as the last line of the sketch and was immediately followed by the lights being doused. The punch line anticipated a delayed response in the audience, so their laughter on “getting it” would take place in the blackout which only reinforced the humor.

Another sketch—this one devised by Anckorn—involved Anckorn being a PT Instructor in the Army. (Knowing that he would be inducted if war broke out, Anckorn had prepared himself for dealing with all the “beastly men” he was going encounter in the Army by learning jujitsu.) The setup for the sketch involved the audience being told that they were going to see a jujitsu demonstration that been captured on film, but since the projector had broken down, it could only be shown it in slow-motion. And then Anckorn and Rich Goodman performed all of the jujitsu moves, including the throws over the head, in slow-motion which required tremendous strength and balance.    

So these shows were a mishmash of specialty acts . . . singing . . . sketches, and plays. And I think most of us had two spots. I used to do a slight of hand spot and then a bigger thing, you know, bigger magic. Oliver Thomas would do a different lot of impression of people than he did the first act. Dennis would play some more tunes. So I think we all had an encore in the second half of the show.

Concert parties always tried to end with a rousing finish.

We’d get up in the front and sing our song, you know, “Goodbye to you, you, you, you, you, and you, and you”—that sort of thing. And then away we would go. 

And, as we had an officer with us, of course, he would always be invited to the Officer’s Mess, or wherever we were, for drinks in the evening. And he would say, “Well, what about my lads?”  And they’d say, “Well bring them in as well.”[vi]

About nine months into their tour, the civilian Producer left the show and was replaced by Lt. John J. Mackwood: “a sort of actor, very show-bizzy sort of little man, and he brought his wife into the show.” Mackwood had been granted special permission to bring his wife, Marianne, and another actress (“some sort of soubrette” whose name Anckorn couldn’t remember) into the concert party. These two brought the Optimists what it had been missing and had always been an essential component of military concert parties—the presence of female figures and “glamour.” In most military concert parties, the feminine presence was provided by female impersonators.[vii]

After a year of performing the same show night after night for a year, the concert party decided to develop a new totally production.  

So we did another one—got that ready. And there was a song called “Sad Sunday,” or some such song. . . . And people used to commit suicide with a copy of that in their hand–“ Gloomy Sunday” . . . if they were going to commit suicide for some reason or the other they’d be playing that record or a copy in their hand. 

And we put this in our show. And the officer [Mackwood] said, “Look, we don’t want this.” (Our officer was a very superstitious man.) “No, that’s a jinx, don’t—there’s a jinx in that. If we do that, the show will close down.” We said, “Ridiculous!” So that went in. And opening night was in the north of England . . . and it was the closing night. Word came through, “Everyone back to your Units.”  We had to go. And our officer said, “I told you.”[viii]

With the recall to their units, they soon found themselves in late October embarking with the rest of the 18th Division at Liverpool for their voyage to the Middle East. Before they sailed, Anckorn was summoned by a Colonel and told, “We want you to bring all your conjuring stuff, ‘cause you’re going to entertain us when we’re in the desert.” Anckorn explained that he hadn’t any with him and was given a considerable sum of money to acquire some before they sailed.  Placing an emergency call to the Magic Shop in London he had always dealt with, Anckorn told the clerk that he needed some magic tricks in a hurry and it was impossible for him to get to London. When the clerk learned that Anckorn was in Liverpool, he guessed why he was there and told Anckorn he would see what he could do. 

The next day there was a box of magic in Liverpool. There was no way you could . . . there were no trains. I don’t know how it got there, but there it was: “Gunner Anckorn.”  And it was all this beautiful stuff. 

And I thought, well, I’m not going to open it; we’re just going to get on that ship. It might get torpedoed, anything. . . . I know once we’re on that tub, you know, 3,000 of us, I’ll die. So I’m not opening this box, and I’ll open it up when we get to the desert and perhaps start doing shows. 

And then, off we went, through the north Atlantic with three little corvettes to take a whole convey with [German] submarines and dive bombers all over the place.[ix]  

NEXT POST IN SERIES: 21st JULY 2021, 10AM


[i] Anckorn, Letter, 2 May 00.

[ii] Anckorn, Interview, 18.

[iii] Anckorn, Interview, 7.

[iv] Anckorn, Interview, 7-8.

[v] Anckorn, Email, 19 Jan. 04.

[vi] Anckorn, Interview, 14-18 passim

[vii] Anckorn, Email, 8 August 06.

[viii] Anckorn, Interview, 19.

[ix] Anckorn, Interview, 20.

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

Full Source List for ‘Rice and Shine’: British Pre-War Concert Parties posts, here.

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 Optimists”: Territorial 18th Infantry Divisional Concert Party

By Sears Eldredge

In the fall of 1940, once the fear of a German invasion of Britain had lessened, Brigadier General Beckwith-Smith, the Commander of the Territorial 18th Army, ordered that an official Divisional concert party be established that would tour the Division’s installations in Britain to entertain his troops during their long and difficult training exercises for their next deployment. As a young officer in the Coldstream Guards during W.W.I in France, Beckwith-Smith had undoubtedly witnessed concert parties operating behind the lines during the conflict and been impressed with their effectiveness in keeping up the morale of the troops. Because of his superb leadership skills (demonstrated during the retreat at Dunkirk during May and June, 1940), he had been promoted and given command of the Territorial 18th (East Anglian) Infantry Division with the responsibility of preparing his troops for desert warfare in the Middle East. 

To underscore its purpose in raising and keeping morale high, this troupe would be known as “The Optimists.” The inspiration for its title may have come from a professional civilian concert party, “The Co-Optimists” which had been enormously successful in the London theatre since its debut in 1921, although the troupe had disbanded in 1935.  

To find performers for the new concert party, notices were sent to all the military units within the Division requesting that they send forward any known performers in their midst. Two men sent forward from the same Regiment were the recent inductees, Fergus Anckorn and Denis East.

Fergus Anckorn had been a professional magician whose stage name was “Wizardus.” He had been performing magic since he was fourteen and was the youngest person ever accepted into The Magic Circle, an association of professional magicians in England.

The Young Magician Fergus Anckorn. Courtesy of Fergus Anckorn

Denis East had been a professional violinist in the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in London. It was East who recalled the details of their auditions for the concert party:

And we were called into Norwich first of all to give a performance without knowing what it would lead to, on the stage of just a small theatre. And it was attended by a lot of people who weren’t in the Army at all but, in fact, they [were] part of the 18th Division Headquarters. And the General, he sat at the front. And we always knew whether he approved or not of what we were performing because [imitates loud laughter], and you’d hear this I think all over Norwich, you know. . . .

Anyway, we had this concert. And the outcome of it was that “Old Becky,” as we called him—General Beckwith-Smith—immediately demanded the release of [those selected for the concert party] straight away to come to Norwich and live in Norwich with him because he was forming the Divisional concert party. And so, we [he and Anckorn] were both sent in my lorry because we were actually drivers.[i]

At its start, the 18th Div. concert party was headed by a civilian producer from E.N.S.A.[1] named Holland, a professional theatre person chosen to train the ensemble, develop the show, and organize the tour. According to Anckorn, the cast consisted of ten men drawn from the ranks. 

Well, there was myself, a magician. There was Oliver Thomas, he was an imitator. And there was Dennis East, a violinist. Fred Coles was a wonderful piano accordionist. Then we had a pianist called [Jack] Appleton, a brilliant pianist. 

And, sometimes, as a sort of guest, when we were in the area where his regiment was—we had a little chap [Cyril Wycherly] who was a bit of a rake, he was always out with the women, and he could sometimes never be found; he’d be gone for a couple [of days] and was sleeping around. But he was the most superb accompanist that you’ve ever heard. Also, a [graduate] of one of the music academies. Well, he looked like a tramp, and acted like one . . . little hands – and if he was in the area, would accompany Dennis East on the violin.[2] But otherwise the accompanist for Dennis East was the accordionist Fred Coles, and he could do anything.   

And a fellow called Downey. John Downey had been a vocalist in a dance band somewhere, so he was our vocalist. And Richard Goodman was a spare character in there. He was one of the actors when we put on sketches. Normally when we put on sketches, we all threw our lot in. But he was there as that; that’s all he could do. And, he could play the piano. 

And then we had a chap called [Reginald]Tonsley (funny how these names are coming back to me). He was a comedian from show business, and he played the drums in the band.

And I can just give you the name of another man that’s come to mind, Larry Croisette. And he was a Western cowboy-type guitarist, and he was also, by trade, a carpenter. So, he was a very big member of the concert party because he used to build stages for us like that. And we used to carry with us our proscenium, our lighting, everything.[ii]

Oliver Thomas had excellent skills as a mimic:

All over London in the late 30’s there were News Theatres – programmes consisting of Movietone News and often including an American ‘comment’ programme called, “Time Marches On.” I imitated the voice of the commentator & introduced the ‘voices’ of King Edward VIII (from abdication speech), Neville Chamberlain, Winston Churchill, Hitler, & President Roosvelt [sic].[iii]

Their Stage Manager, and all-round problem-solver, was Chris Buckingham.

Versatility was a key factor in being chosen for the concert party. Besides their own specialty, and their parts in the comic sketches, Anckorn recalled that each member had an assigned role in setting up the stage before a performance and striking it afterwards.

[We’d] get there in the afternoon, put up the proscenium, lightings—there again, every one of us had a job when we arrived. This person would be threading the [curtains], someone else was joining the bits—all the timber we had was [held together by] butterfly screws so that you could slot it together and do it all up. And Larry Croisette, the carpenter—if anything didn’t fit anywhere—he would make something on the spot that would fit in. And we had an electrician with us who could see to any electric—you see, quite often, there wasn’t the electricity supply. And sometimes there was but you needed fifty yards of cable to get to it. And someone would see to that.[iv]   

The costumes for “The Optimists” performers were modeled on the traditional Pierrot Show costumes as used by “The Co-Optimists.” Anckorn: “Black pyjama-type top with yellow bobbles down the front—four, I think. Yellow silk wide trousers and yellow rough [ruff] round the necks. Our divisional flash[3] was a yellow [windmill] on a black background. It was a stylized windmill—I suppose, because being an East Anglian Division it represented all the windmills on the Norfolk Broads.”[v] Following the seaside Pierrot tradition, the performers would change into individual costumes for their solo turns in the second act. For sleight-of-hand magician, Anckorn, this meant white tie, top hat and tails.

Anckorn remembered one night when he had donned his Pierrot silks before he left his billet instead of in the cramped space at the performance hall to save time. So he walked through the dark night to the hall in his silks wearing his greatcoat that came down to his ankles over them. After the show, some local girls were in the dressing room being chatted up by the performers when one remarked that their costumes badly needed washing and pressing—and she volunteered to do it. So they handed over their costumes expecting their return the next day.

That left me in my underpants. And I didn’t mind because it was midnight now and by the time I walked back, no one will see me. 

And then, an air raid. Now it was the first air raid that place had ever heard. They weren’t bombing us, they were going to Glasgow or somewhere, but they came over, hundreds of them. And sirens went off. And so I thought, well, we’d better get back to the billet, because we were still soldiers. (In any action we’d have to do our stuff.) So I went back down the main street, with my greatcoat and underpants. And I could see the headlines in the paper: “Soldier killed in air raid with no clothes.” [Laughter] It didn’t happen; I got them back the next day.[vi]

TO BE CONTINUED, 7TH JULY 2021, 10AM.


[1] [1] E.N.S.A. stands for the Entertainments National Service Association, a civilian organization which sent performing troupes out to the troops. For the troops, the letters came to mean “Every Night Something Awful.”

[2] Anckorn would later write about Wycherly, “He was a brilliant accompanist. Although Appleton was a terrific pianist, Wycherly was there only to accompany Denis East. You could place any music in front of him and he would sight-read it at once. It always made me marvel, as he had tiny hands, and as I say was completely non-descript. He was hopeless as a soldier—always untidy, and several times in trouble, AWOL, etc. I think he must have been sent to us just to get rid of him. But put him in front of a keyboard and he was transformed. [Anckorn, Email, 8 August 2006] The singer, John Foster-Haigh, would later call Wycherly, “A gift from the Gods. [McNeilly, “Changi Celebrity Artists,” 2-3]

[3] A “flash” was the unit’s badge or insignia.


[i] East, Interview, 5.

[ii] Anckorn, Interview, 2-4; 6.

[iii] Thomas, Letter, 31 March 01.

[iv] Anckorn, Interview, 18.

[v] Anckorn, Email, 22 January 04.

[vi] Anckorn, Interview, 13.

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

Full Source List for ‘Rice and Shine’: British Pre-War Concert Parties posts, here.

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

Introduction to British Pre-War Concert Parties

Our first series of blog posts will focus on British Pre-War Concert Parties. Introduction by Sears Eldredge:

During 1940, and later in 1941, concert parties were established by British military commands as part of comprehensive welfare schemes for troops soon to be engaged in battle. They needed some sort of organized leisure time activity to relieve the boredom that set in after arduous training exercises, aboard transport ships taking them overseas, and in isolated postings.[1]



[1]We are concerned here only with Concert Parties that will end up as POWs in Singapore and Malaya.

‘Rice and Shine’: British Pre-War Concert Parties Posts

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

About Rice and Shine

Unpublished Treasures from the FEPOW Concert Party Archive

By Sears A. Eldredge, Emeritus Professor of Theater and Dance, Macalester College, St. Paul, Minnesota.

In 2000 I started out on a research journey into the musical and theatrical entertainment produced by POWs in their camps in the Far East during World War II. I had no idea how much material I would find so I collected everything. Actually, there proved to be such an abundance of material that I realized I had to narrow down the focus of my search if I wanted to produce a more in-depth study than a summarizing compendium.

Happy Harry Smith – walking on stilts in Kuala Lumpar 1941

Because most of the diaries and memoirs of former FEPOWs I read, as well as those I interviewed or corresponded with, had been involved in constructing the Thailand-Burma railway, that became my focus. The content of this material seemed to epitomize both the worst and the best of the FEPOW experience in captivity. The resultant 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: http://digitalcommons.macalester.edu/thdabooks/22 .  

Book Chapters

My plan is to post a series of blogs based on the unpublished material in my archive at the Macalester College library. The title for the series will be “Rice and Shine,” which is the name of the first show performed in captivity by the British 18th Divisional Concert Party. British pre-war concert parties will be the focus of the initial blog. Future blogs will include the full story of the A.I.F. (Australian Imperial Force) Malayan Concert Party, the final concert parties in Changi Gaol, concert parties in Borneo (including Kuching), Hong Kong, Korea, Japan, The Philippines, and The Netherlands East Indies (Indonesia). Some of these might be quite lengthy, others quite brief. There might even be a blog about what new material regarding entertainment on the Thailand-Burma railway has come to light since the publication of my book. What is important to me is that these FEPOW entertainers finally get recognized for what they did to maintain morale during those terrible times.

If readers have any materials pertaining to FEPOW theatricals in captivity during WWII, then please share what you have through the Sharing Research blog.


Posts on British Pre-War Concert Parties:

Posts on Australian Pre-War Concert Parties

End of Sharing Research Series 1

We have now come to the end of the first of our Sharing Research blog series and we hope you have enjoyed reading it as much as we have!

A massive thank you to all the authors that have contributed to the series for their work, and to everyone who has read, commented, liked and shared the posts. We hope that there will be a Series 2 and so if you have any ideas for a contribution please do get in touch with us, you don’t have to be a professional researcher, you just need an interesting story to tell. In the meantime, you can find all of the Series 1 posts here.

So what’s next for the blog?

We have some very exciting things coming up soon so make sure to keep an eye on the website and our social media to stay up to date. If you want to be notified in advance, and get early sneak peeks to what is coming up make sure that you are subscribed to our mailing list.

Doctor Behind the Wire

Jackie Sutherland, author of Doctor Behind the Wire: The Diaries if POW, Captain Jack Ennis, Singapore, 1942-1945, writes about how she uncovered the identity of who sketched her father as a POW in Singapore.

The answer was there all the time!

The search began in an attempt to find out more about the artist who sketched my late father, Captain Jack Ennis, while a POW in Singapore. No more was known other than the signature ‘F.J. White’.

Sketch of Captain Jack Ennis, image courtesy of Jackie Sutherland

Reading through lists of FEPOW gave several possible identities but then, quite by chance, as I leafed through papers on my desk, the sunlight caught a tiny reflection on the back of the sketch.  Graphite – pencil – on the dull brown paper, a page from a photograph album.

There, in my father’s small spidery writing, he had noted ‘Drawn by “Willie” White in January 1944 at Selerang after a hockey match’.

This was a name I had come across while transcribing my father’s diaries – but it had never occurred to me that ‘Willie’ might be a nickname. Sadly, my father had also recorded Willie’s death (from illness) in May later that same year.

Following the trail from the Commonwealth War Graves Commision website, I was able to find out more about this remarkable artist. F. John White (nickname ‘Willie’), a trained commercial artist, had enlisted with the Sherwood Foresters (Nottingham and Derbyshire Regiment) and with the 1/5th Battalion, was captured in Singapore. During his time as a POW he was very involved in theatre productions, designing posters and scenery as well as acting.

To quote from my father’s diary (on a production of Aladdin) ‘Young (John) Willie White of our Mess made up as a wonderful princess, very, very pretty girl. Steve Campbell sent up a bouquet of flowers after.’

‘Willie’ John White must have drawn many portraits. As  Capt G K Marshall wrote in his Changi Diaries.’

‘25th January 1944. Had a sunbathe on the roof and later sat for Willie while he did a portrait of me. He finished it by lunchtime and made a very good job of it, the best I have seen him do.’

Willie White’s portrait of my father was only recognized 75 years after VJ Day, which makes me think how many more portraits and sketches of our relatives are waiting to be discovered?


Doctor Behind the Wire, by Jackie Sutherland

Although other books have featured Jack and Elizabeth Ennis, this is the first complete account of their story – from meeting in up-country Malaya (the rain forest, the orchids) – to their marriage in Singapore just days before it fell to the Japanese, and then through the long separation of internment.

Published here for the first time, Jack’s diaries record the daily struggles against disease, injuries and malnutrition and also the support and camaraderie of friends. enjoyment of concerts, lectures, and sports, Ever observant, he records details of wildlife.

The inspiration for the ‘Changi Quilts’, the story of the Girl Guide quilt (now in the Imperial War Museum) is told in words by Elizabeth, written after the war.

Elizabeth’s former employer, Robert Heatlie Scott, distinguished Far East diplomat, was also POW in Changi, much of the time in solitary confinement or under interrogation by the Japanese.

The individual experiences of these three persons are dramatic enough – together they combine in an amazing story of courage, love and life-long friendship.

You can pre-order Jackie’s book through the Pen and Sword website here.

Australian and British National Memories of the Second World War in Changi, Singapore

By Emily Sharp, PGR at the University of Leeds

For my Masters by Research degree at the University of Leeds I examined, in part, how the national perceptions of Australia and Britain of both the prisoner of war and civilian internee camps at Changi differ. The project found that they are all individually and deliberatively selective in their portrayal of the Japanese occupation which works to reinforce the desired national image of each country.

Singapore, Straits Settlements. 1945-09-15. The Main Gates of Changi Gaol Looking North. AWM 117642

In Australia, news articles during 1942 and 1943 focused on reporting basic facts that relatives at home would need to know about the internment of Australians in Singapore, such as the number of people captured and where they were being held. The lack of detail in these reports was mostly due to the fact that little information was actually coming out of Singapore as the Japanese were censoring the news and those who had been interned were restricted from being able to send mail often.

Former Australian prisoners of war are rescued by the crew of USN submarine USS Pampanito (SS-383). These men survived the sinking of two Japanese troop transports, the Kachidoki Maru and the Rakuyo Maru by Pampanito and USS Sealion II (SS-315) on 12 September 1944 respectively. AWM.P03651.005

In 1944 a change in the reports on Changi can begin to be seen as some men had managed to escape during transportation to Japan and return to Australia. This escape allowed the Australian press to begin to report their first detailed stories of what their citizens were experiencing with the Imperial Japanese Army in control. The Australian press chose to focus on the atrocities carried out against the Chinese during the Sook Ching massacre and how the Australians had been made to dig mass graves for the victims. This allowed the Japanese to be portrayed as being a barbaric enemy whilst simultaneously letting the Australian public feel like there was no particular threat against their citizens that were still interned as the Chinese were bearing the brunt of the brutality.

Following the war, the press in Australia began to unveil the true conditions that those interned had been exposed to. This was utilised to instil a nationalistic sense of pride in the troops by portraying them as those whose spirit, patriotism and endurance had allowed them to emerge from their internment victorious and alive. It is this theme of being proud of the Australian spirit which got the POWs through their ordeal and which the Australian press still focuses on today. Unlike Britain, the Second World War in the Pacific was the major theatre for action for Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) and this is therefore the main point of focus for Second World War history within Australia. By centring the Second World War story around Changi and the other atrocities which have been connected to it as one single narrative for the history of the nation, the war can be presented in a proud and patriotic way. In general, the story follows this pattern: Singapore’s fall was mainly the fault of the British and, as a result, Australian forces were interned at Changi before being shipped to work on the Burma-Thai railway. Many died, but those men who survived did so because of their Australian spirit and returned home battered but victorious. This pattern allows the negative aspects of history, such as the defeat, to be glossed over by blaming another nation. This then stacks the odds against their own citizens who, through no fault of their own, now need to do anything to survive. The reason they survive is because they are Australian (they contain and use the spirit that all Australians as a nation perceive themselves to have). Therefore, the POW story can now be perceived as a period in which Australians survived and had the upper hand because they were Australian.

Britain reported near identical stories as Australia did in 1942 and 1943 and for much the same reasons (Japanese censorship and limited information flow). Britain did not however, have anyone escape and return during the occupation and so the lack of specific news also continued throughout 1944. The minor exceptions to this were the small pieces of information here and there in the local press when a loved one from the community had received a letter from a POW or civilian internees in Changi informing them that they were alright. This was used to reassure the public that their men and women were holding up in internment just fine and there was not much to be worried about. This also allowed the public to remain focused on the war in Europe which was of greater concern and scale and involved more manpower than that in the Pacific.

In 1945, with the war in the West now over, the British press too began to report about the dreadful conditions experienced by those who were now returning home after their internment. In a similar way to the idea of the Australian spirit, Britain used this to perpetuate its underdog style self-image. These prisoners who had everything going against them managed to survive and return home despite the odds and therefore emerge victorious. Again, it can be seen that this is being utilised to allow the public to feel a nationalistic pride for their men and to hold them up as heroes as the fact that Singapore originally capitulated is glossed over, almost forgotten, in favour of this portrayal.

Changi, Singapore, 1945-09-19. Members of 8 Division, Ex Prisoners of War of the Japanese, demonstrating conditions in their cell at Changi Jail. Four men occupied a two-man cell. Identified personnel are: PTE D.A. Meldrum (1); PTE L. Coulson (2); PTE W. Oakley (3); CPL L.W. Whisker (4). AWM 116463.

It is this post-war reporting that has carried over into the modern day and led to the British perception of Changi as a brutal place that was difficult to survive in, despite both prisoners of war and civilian internees returning home. Thus, the British underdogs win again. It allows the defeat of the British to be pushed back in favour of their stories of survival and small victories of misbehaviour against the Imperial Japanese Army during captivity. Again, this is then used to fuel a portrayal of heroism in the image of those who had been interned and to give the nation something to take pride in.

Overall, Australia and Britain present similar perceptions of Changi but place different amounts of significance on events that took place there due to their differing levels of involvement in the Second World War. It would seem that in summary, Australia and Britain’s perceptions are focused on pride of the past actions of their citizens.


Text adapted from: Sharp, E.J.M.S 2018. National memories of the Second World War in Changi, Singapore: Australian, British, and Singaporean perspectives. Master of Arts by Research thesis, University of Leeds

Urgent Appeal for the Thailand-Burma Railway Centre Museum

RFHG has been made aware that the pandemic has caused financial hardship for the Thailand-Burma Railway Centre (TBRC), and despite reopening six months ago the lack of international travel and few local visitors unfortunately means that the museum’s reserves funds are running out.

I am sure that all those involved with the FEPOW story, whether for personal, academic, or a combination of reasons, are aware of the incredible work that TBRC and all its staff achieve. Rod Beattie has spoken at all our conferences to date, and the knowledge that TBRC shares, and their work on preserving the railway and its story, is truly remarkable – a testament to all those who work there. We understand that such financial hardship could result in the Centre losing staff and possibly even closure.

RFHG supports the appeal from the Malayan Volunteers Group in partnership with COFEPOW, Java Club, and other FEPOW organisations, to support the TBRC. To make a donation please contact rosemaryfell11@gmail.com for details.

Any support will be much appreciated.


Cover image adapted from: Gasson nz, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Aunt Pat and the Hong Kong Civilian Internees

Account introduced by John Reynolds

This account was written by my Aunty Pat, army nursing sister E.G.M. Reynolds. Born in 1903, she trained as a Queen Alexandra’s nurse and first saw WWII duty in 1939 at No.5 Casualty Clearing Station in N.E. France. With France having fallen, her next posting was to India where she nursed for five years until ordered in late 1945 to leave for Hong Kong.


Nurse Reynolds (Aunt Pat), in the tropics, 1930s (© J.Reynolds)

At the close of the Japanese war I was matron of a very large hospital in India (2000 beds) and was given 24 hours warning to pack and hand over my hospital and proceed to Madras. There I collected 11 nursing sisters QAIMNSR [Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service (Reserve)] and TANS [Territorial Army Nursing Service] and embark on HMT Highland Monarch (Royal Mail Lines). We proceeded to Hong Kong via Rangoon and Singapore to collect as we thought service ex-PoWs [prisoners of war] and were told that they would be all men.


On arrival at Hong Kong we found that all the service men and members of QARANS [Queen Alexandra’s Royal Army Nursing Service] and QAIMNS had already left and that we were to bring home all the civilian internees, women and children and a few men.


The ship was bare and comfortless, a very small saloon, very few cabins but many large dormitories. The O/C troops was a very young and shy lieutenant colonel aged 23. The SMO [Senior Medical Officer], a Pole who spoke little English, and the captain and ship’s company – rather tough types who had very little to do with women in an official capacity – the captain was quite terrified at the thought of 1500 women and children on his ship. The four stewards on board said they just could not cope.


A conference was held on board at which the ADMS [Assistant Director of Medical Services] and some Air Force officers from Hong Kong attended. During this conference I was called to the captain’s cabin and told that, from that time on until we arrived in the United Kingdom, I was to take complete charge of the women and children and the O/C troops would be in charge of the men.


I then collected the 11 nursing sisters and told them my story and they started work at once making the dormitories as comfortable as possible – the Australian Red Cross were most helpful with extra food, clothes and blankets, and even provided toys for the children. The goods arrived by the ton and I had two holds to store them in – the ship was short of such things as milk, tinned fruit, sweets and chocolate, honey, lime juice and had no baby food at all. These were all provided by the Australian Red Cross and more baby food was waiting for us at Singapore and Colombo on our journey home.


Five nursing sisters did dormitory work and five hospital work and changed duties half-way home – I did all the catering and Red Cross, and the usual matron duties – I was also responsible for the women and children for life-boat drill.


The chief steward was a charming man and was most kind and cooperative. We worked out menus a week ahead and gradually got the passengers on to ordinary diet, from small four hourly meals to ordinary breakfast, lunch, tea and supper, and were very satisfied at the progress they made – there was little sickness among the passengers, except the poor souls who were ill when they came onboard as a result of starvation and hardships during captivity, and only one of these patients died. On arrival in the United Kingdom we were able to let all but 10 go to their homes. The 10 went into the local hospital and I learnt later they all recovered.


The passengers could not understand that we were nurses as we were wearing khaki and they had not seen women in khaki before they had been taken PoW, so most of them called me the Chief Stewardess and the sisters Stewardesses – but before the end of the voyage we were Matron and Sisters.


By the time we arrived in Colombo I had found out (identified) that those women and girls who were fit enough to help look after the young children, and we had the port side of a deck fitted and boarded as a nursery. Two women and two girls did one-hour in the morning and one hour in the afternoon or evening each in the nursery. The carpenter made a seesaw, a swing and a wonderful rocking horse. These were in great demand, and at night after the children had gone to bed many of the grownups used to have great fun in the nursery.


Later on some of the women volunteered to help with the dormitories and by the time we had arrived in Aden we had morning school for the very young and morning and afternoon school for the bigger children. An Anglican nun gave religious instruction to some of the children every day and the RC Padre also gave daily instruction.


We used to find small portions of food hidden in all sorts of strange places, especially under the mattresses and under chairs etc. These poor folks could just not realise that there was food for them at the next meal and these small packets were a habit of the internment camp – they still happened until the end of the voyage.


On arrival at Port Tewfik (Egypt) we had to disembark our flock in batches of 50 at a time to an enormous centre where they were given good warm winter clothes which were all new and fashionable. The women and children were delighted with their first new clothes for many years. The many young children at first did not take kindly to their strong shoes but when they did it was hard to get then to remove them for bathing and bed.


After eight weeks we arrived in Southampton and had a wonderful reception, bands playing, relatives reuniting and so on. And then the Customs – I asked a customs official to get me through quickly and he thought I was an ex-internee, said I looked well after my long period out of England, marked all my boxes and wished me a happy journey and a good holiday with my loved ones. As I had been overseas for five years, I did not disillusion him about not being an internee but was very grateful he asked no questions about my luggage.


The 11 nursing sisters and me had a most charming letter from the directors of the Royal Mail Line for all the help we had given them with the women and children on the voyage.


I must say I enjoyed every moment of the voyage and still hear from many of the ex- internees.

Hong Kong at Dawn. Painted by artist unknown and given to Matron Reynolds by Winifred Griffin C.M.S.(Church Missionary Society), one of the internees. The note which accompanied the painting has be reproduced below.

To the Principal Matron

Red Cross Hospital on SS Highland Monarch

Dear Miss Reynolds

You have been so very kind to us all on the ship caring for so many of our needs and indefatigable in your manifold services. I have no way of thanking you save by way of this little sketch of H.K. from which you came all the way to fetch us.

Thank you and all your staff for you care of our sick folk and especially of Sir Atholl.

Wishing you a joyful home coming.

Yours sincerely

Winifred Griffin      C.M.S.  (Church Missionary Society)

Colonel Reynolds (Aunt Pat), 1950s (© J. Reynolds)

Postscript

My aunts cousin, Miss E.B.M.Dyson ,also a QA nurse was stationed in HK at Bowen Road BMH at the outbreak of the Japanese War. She was a POW until late 1945 and remained a QA until the late 1950s when retiring as Colonel E.B.M.Dyson  OBE RRC

Researching my Uncle John Purcell

By Hilary Purcell
John William Purcell (known to family as Jack). Image courtesy of Hilary Purcell.

My paternal uncle John William Purcell (known to family as Jack) served in the Royal Signals (service number 2589375) as a dispatch rider. He became a Japanese prisoner of war and sadly didn’t return home. I started to research my family history about 15 years ago.  All I had was a box of photos and letters.

One letter, dated 10/2/41, was from a family in Cape Town, South Africa, who entertained Jack and his pals en route to Singapore. They wrote ‘Jack is a fine fellow, very fit and enjoying the journey’.

John William Purcell seen front row, right. Image courtesy of Hilary Purcell.

In 2008 I had a holiday in Thailand meeting up with my daughter living in Australia. Having done only a minimal amount of research I realised we should take the opportunity to fly up to Bangkok for a few days and go up to the cemetery in Kanchanaburi. With information from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission giving his grave location, we made a visit. I was very moved at the peacefulness, tranquillity and how beautiful it was kept. 

Image courtesy of Hilary Purcell.

Since then, working at Neston High School I was pleased to be involved in Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine’s Far East prisoner of war (FEPOW) project. Several departments including English, Art and Design and Technology contributed to Secret Art of Survival project, creating a wall hanging, artworks and a replica bamboo dentist chair, respectively. It was also a privilege to attend a thought-provoking yet beautiful service to commemorate FEPOW, on 17th November 2019 at Liverpool Parish Church of Our lady and St Nicholas.

During the FEPOW project I met Professor Gill and Meg Parkes. Meg was keen to see my treasured photos and letters including Uncle Jack’s original POW index card. Through Meg I was put in touch with FEPOW researcher Keith Andrews who was able to give me further information and another contact, Terry Manttan, the manager of the Thailand-Burma Railway Centre (TBRC) in Kanchanaburi, Thailand. Terry was able to translate the index card for me:

‘The front of the card shows us that he was captured in Singapore and would have been held initially in Changi POW Camp. In the Number box we see the characters for Malai POW Camp Roll 3, which I believe would have been River Valley Road. The Malai characters have been crossed through and replaced by the one for Thailand POW Camp 1. This means he was transferred to Work Group 1 (Allied terminology), or Camp 1 (Japanese terminology) on the Thai-Burma Railway’.

Uncle Jack’s original POW index card. Image courtesy of Hilary Purcell.

Not long after, I was delighted to receive an email from Terry, via Keith.

‘One of those strange and unexplainable things that keep happening… today I was reading a man’s memoirs while researching another fellow and came across a reference to Johnny Purcell. Of course this rang a bell, and on checking it turned out to be the man I just sent you the info about’.

THAILAND SLEEPER AND RAIL LAYERS

Extract from…………BURROWS, NORMAN WILLIAM, L/CPL 2589933

‘Then came the cholera. Johnny Purcell, another DR, was the cleanest man you could imagine, always kept himself smart, and his mess tin was always sparkling.  We went to bed that night and we were now …………under canvas. Twelve of us in the tent, and by the morning Johnny Purcell was dead, and three others were in agony with the cholera. You can imagine how we felt – the Japs were in a real panic’.

You can imagine what I felt when I read this little snippet of information.

Terry told me both men, Norman and John, were Signalmen:

‘It follows that John (Jack) Purcell would have most likely been with them from Singapore on the same train which left on 9th November 1942. This was one of the trains that got stopped in transit by the flooded railway in southern Thailand before going on to Ban Pong. As they got to repair the international train line on the way they ended up becoming the specialist group of “sleeper and rail layers’.

These men arrived at Kinsaiyok in July 1943. Cholera hit the camp and Jack was taken ill on 6th August 1943, died on 7th August and was cremated in Kinsaiyok camp. I believe his remains were reburied 6th April 1946 at Kanchanaburi CWGC cemetery in plot 8 H 48.

A very moving letter of condolence sent 3rd January 1946 from his sergeant, Thomas Woodhouse, was received by his mother Barbara Purcell.

‘It may ease you mind considerably if I told you that I knew your son practically from the capitulation until the time of his death and during that time he was in excellent health and spirits, fed well owing to his efforts in bartering with natives ‘.

I wonder how much of this is true.

My research has been an emotional journey, the more you learn the more you want to find out. I consider myself very lucky to have been to Kanchanaburi to pay my respects and I hope to return sometime to have a personalised pilgrimage led by TBRC returning to his known locations.

Nine lives and two tins

By Mike Appleton

To have almost no possessions except for the rags one stood up in, must have been a truly harrowing experience. This I believe explains the two tins shown below, which were with my father, Johnnie – Sgt J. G. Appleton 27 Sqdn RAF (pre-capture briefly attached to RAF HQ Communications Team) – throughout his time as a POW in Sumatra, as he moved from one jungle camp to the next. The fact that he brought them home and kept them all his life speaks volumes about their significance.

The discoloured tin held tobacco and matches. There were still shreds of tobacco in it when I was young. It also held a wad of occupation money. The Gold Flake tin held a Japanese toothbrush, with its bristles stained bright red from using tree bark as toothpaste (this has gone missing), some letters and his Japanese ID badge. On the right is his RAF insignia and on the left another badge which I don’t recognise, can anyone tell me what this is?

My father John Griffith Appleton (1917 – 2009) served in the RAF for 32 years (1935 -1967). During WW2 he was first stationed in India before flying down to Malaya. As the Japanese invaded from the north, he fled from one bombed-out airfield to the next and then, in a hazardous rush, to Singapore. During the invasion of the Island he was a key member of a team that, up to the last moment, kept open the communications links to India and Java.

On the night of 13 Feb 1941 Johnnie was ordered to leave with his team. They boarded the S.S Tien Kwang bound for they knew not where, and being exhausted, fell asleep on the deck. The next morning, they woke to the sound of low flying aircraft starting their bombing run and within moments the ship was holed, listing and there were many casualties. Another ship nearby the SS Kuala suffered a similar fate. Following the order to abandon ship, Johnnie managed to swim towards Pulau Pompong Island and being unhurt assisted in helping the wounded and disposing of the dead.

After several days and a hair-raising journey in a junk, he landed in the mouth of the Indragiri River on the East coast of Sumatra. There was then an arduous traverse of Sumatra to the West coast and Padang where it was hoped they would be taken off by a Naval ship. No ship arrived and instead they simply waited in limbo and trepidation for the arrival of the Imperial Japanese Army.

For the next three and a half years Johnnie was in a total of 10 camps in Sumatra, with progressively harsher regimes and ever-increasing levels of privation as the war progressed. The culmination of the experience was a year building the railway linking Sumatra’s east and west coast ports. This line was forged through virgin jungle with basic hand tools, in adverse climatic and disease-ridden conditions. The irony was that the track was completed shortly before the Japanese capitulated and was never really used thereafter. It is now in ruins and reclaimed by the jungle.

In 1999/2000 Johnnie compiled a detailed memoir describing his and fellow prisoners’ hardship and ill treatment. What is remarkable on reading his account, is not just that he survived, but that he did so with no lasting physical impairment and outwardly no mental issues. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he did relate stories and describe events, in particular about living in the jungle and the various wild animals encountered – and eaten! His explanation for survival seemed to involve using the hard work and squalid conditions as a challenge. He had the determination that however bad he felt he must rise and work hard all day.

At one point a Japanese camp commander called him out from a daily parade and, instead of beheading him for some minor misdemeanour, which was my father’s expectation, awarded him a tin of sugar, a reward for having worked 100 days without a break. Other contributory factors he offered were, the responsibility undertaken for looking after the RAF contingent, prior experience of living in Asia, an extensive inoculation programme when he was being trained pre-war and, being a boy scout!

Towards the end of the war it is clear from his account that survival was very much in the balance as the effort to overcome extreme beriberi and starvation became overwhelming. The descriptions of the excitement experienced as SOE operatives literally dropped out of the trees and liberated the camp, is thrilling to read. It does also appear that the RAF, within the knowledge parameters of the day, re- PTSD etc., did do much to ease him back into fully operational service as a ‘regular’, and promoted him several ranks to make up for lost time and in recognition of the responsibility he had taken on in the camps organising his RAF colleagues.

For many years post-war Johnnie played a role in his local FEPOW branch and acted as treasurer.

Johnnie Appleton, carrying a FEPOW Federation wreath, Manchester Cathedral, late 1990s (©courtesy M. Appleton)

My Grandfather’s List

By Andrew Easterbrook, a documentary researcher in Vancouver, Canada

Among the possessions my grandfather, Joe Harper, saved until the end of his life was a photograph taken at Clacton on 8 Nov 1941, days before his deployment overseas. The image shows his 251 Battery of the 85th Anti-Tank Regiment, RA, who were fated to sail to Singapore and become prisoners of the Japanese.

251 Battery of the 85th Anti-Tank Regiment, RA, 8 Nov 1941 (Image courtesy of A. Easterbrook)

The photo came into my possession when my grandmother died in 2009. Since then, I have often wondered what happened to the 140 smiling young men in the picture. What were their fates? Without their names, an examination of the usual official sources wasn’t much help. The breakthrough came when I discovered a list of surnames written in pencil on the back of an envelope Joe received from my grandmother, while he was a POW on the Burma-Thailand railway in the summer of 1944. Knowing that Joe was a meticulous man, I counted the names: exactly 140 in all. They were even arranged in six rows. It was a clue to the identities of the names of the men in the photo! With an initial list of names, the hard work could begin.

The initial list of names written on the back of an envelope (image courtesy A. Easterbrook)

For this I teamed up with Mick Luxford, Editor of the Queen’s Own Oxfordshire Hussars (QOOH) Association’s newsletter, and a fount of knowledge concerning Oxfordshire Regiments – from which 251 Battery originally came. The nominal roll of the 85th at the National Archives in Kew filled in some of the blanks, but some names on my list were duplicates, and others were unreadable. Clearly some detective work would be needed. A trawl of primary and secondary published and unpublished material, along with a deep dive into Regimental publications and memories, slowly began to produce results. After much hard work, we believe that we have identified 122 of the men in the Battery photograph, with nine ‘probables’, and another nine currently unknown.

The 140 men from all over Britain assembled on that autumn day met fates that were as varied as those of the British Army in Singapore as a whole. Some were killed in action in Singapore shortly after their arrival. Many went to Thailand to work on the Burma-Thailand Railway; many of those died while doing so. Some went further, to Taiwan and Japan; some of those men died in hellships on the way. But many returned to Britain, lived long lives, and had families just like mine.

We have begun to reach out to some of families of men we have identified, many of whom are unaware of the photograph, and are delighted to see a new image of their relative. Work continues to identify the remaining men and find their families. Our small group of researchers next hopes to unearth the missing pre-departure photos of the other three Batteries of the wartime 85th (45, 270 and 281), and begin work to identify those men. If your relative was in the 85th (especially 251 Battery), or you know of those pictures, please do get in touch. 

Contact details: 85th.antitank@gmail.com

Artifacts of a Far East Prisoner of War

By Kurt Hughes

Whilst searching for an enamel mug on eBay, I happened across a group of items that appeared to belong to a FEPOW veteran. I searched the name and confirmed they did indeed belong to a FEPOW. Although not something I would normally be looking to buy, I purchased the items in order to keep them together as I feared the group being split up as, sadly, this does happen from time to time with military groups. I contacted the seller who was not related to the original owner but had purchased the items from a general auction.

I have a good knowledge of WW2 and, in particular military artefacts, but my wife is more knowledgeable than myself on the Far East campaign and POW’s experiences having had two great uncles that served in the Far East. One served in the Royal Marines 44 Commando, the other was Raymond John Marks (Royal Engineers), who sadly died whilst in captivity after the fall of Singapore. I have some experience researching the service of other family members and soldiers from different periods in history, so I helped research the history of my wife’s great uncle’s service.

These items belonged to Lt. John Fredrick Wright, the son of a Royal Navy Surgeon Captain; he was born in August 1919, and with the outbreak of War in 1939, he was a student living with his parents in Bournemouth. His POW report card has his occupation as an automobile engineering trainee. In 1940 he was commissioned and joined the Royal Army Service Corps attached to 196 Field Ambulance Royal Army Medical Corps; the RASC provided drivers for their ambulances. Lt. Wright travelled to Singapore with 196 FA part of 18th Division and was there during the fall of Singapore. I have managed to download several documents pertaining to his service; these include his captivity report, his record card and a number of camp rosters where he is listed. I have recently begun looking into the camps listed on his captivity report. Other than those, I currently have no further knowledge of his time in captivity or his life after WW2. I am still researching him, so I would be interested to hear from anyone who can provide any further information about him. It would be particularly special to be able to add a photo of him to the collection.

The group of items, pictured below, consists of:

  • His British Army issue 08 large kit bag with his name and number written in many places and numerous field repairs.
  • Mess tins, one with his name inscribed, and on the other his name, rank, number on one side and “18 DIV RASC SINGAPORE 15th Feb 1942”, and his unit and division insignia on the opposite side.
  • His 1939 dated fork with his initials.
  • His army issue WW2 water bottle, the stopper has been replaced with a bamboo one. His name is on the cloth cover, and the harness has a field repair plus the addition of a leather bottom. His initials are written on the harness’s underside and are not sun-faded like the rest of the water bottle.
  • His army issue white enamel mug which still has his fibre dog tag attached with string.

There are two clothing items: his “Jap Happy” loincloth and non-issue handmade shorts, possibly camp made.

Image courtesy of Kurt Hughes.

The following few items may indicate a medical link, firstly a set of unidentified kidney-shaped tins use unknown. The smaller section is able to sit on the edge of the main tin. Nearly all British army items are usually marked; however, these are not.

Next, there is an ivory tongue depressor, and finally, a piece of bamboo of unknown purpose that has been hollowed out at one end, creating a vessel for maybe a medicine or ointment. It has a staple in the bottom, perhaps to enable it to be hung up. Any suggestions as to its use would be appreciated. Given that these items are included, I think that Lt. Wright served in some sort of medical capacity. Although he was not RAMC, he was attached to them, and with his father being a Surgeon Captain RN, he may have had some basic knowledge or just willing to serve as an orderly.

Image courtesy of Kurt Hughes.

These items no doubt meant a lot to Lt. Wright as they were his worldly possessions for a number of years. Understandably many would be only too happy to part with any reminders of their time in captivity. For some, it might not have been easy to part with items that were so important to them after many years in captivity. He kept that simple, inconspicuous piece of bamboo, and the mug is still stained from use as is the clothing, one mess tin retains the burn marks of use, and the web material of packs holds dust from the Far East. Untouched, they tell the story of their use. They have not been cleaned, washed, or polished bright in later years; they look to have been brought home and just put away. Perhaps a reminder that he did not want to part with, but equally just wanted to put away.

Handling these historic items is a tangible link not just to Lt. J.F. Wright, but also Raymond John Marks and every other Far East Prisoner of War. I plan to donate the items to somewhere they can be preserved for the future and commemorate Lt Wright’s service.

Thank you to Meg Parkes for suggesting this post and identifying the loincloth, also thanks to Emily Sharp for help with this post and translating the report card.

Our tribute to warfare historian, Dr Clare Makepeace PhD, Honorary Research Fellow Birkbeck College, who died on 3rd April 2019, aged 40

By Dr Bernice Archer PhD & Meg Parkes MPhil
Clare Makepeace

In 2007 Clare Makepeace was working towards a Masters’ degree at Birkbeck University London, studying “Cultural History of War”, a course run by Professor Joanna Bourke. Having completed her MA, Clare went on to do a PhD, her thesis focused on the cultural history of British prisoners of war (POWs) in Europe during World War II. She later refined the thesis which then became her ground-breaking book “Captives of War British Prisoners of War in Europe in the Second World War”, published by Cambridge University Press (CUP) in November 2017. You can watch an interview with Clare here:

Cambridge University Press – Academic. (2017). He rarely spoke of what he went through.’ What was life really like for British POWs in WW2?. [Online Video]. 6 December 2017. Available from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5bSO2y-ROhA

In an article published in October 2017 on the Cambridge University Press history blog, “fifteeneightyfour”, Clare explained the reason for writing her book:  

“It was something my grandfather said, back in 2008, that inspired me to write “Captives of War. British Prisoners of War in Europe in the Second World War”. Towards the end of his life he opened up a little more about his time as a POW, and I started to encourage him to write his memoir. One day he said ‘Why would I record my story? It would just be one long tale of humiliation.’

At that moment, I realised the way he saw his experience and how I saw it differed vastly. I admired my grandfather for what he had endured and survived. He, meanwhile, was ashamed. I wanted to understand his point of view: how it felt to be a POW and how these men made sense of the experience”.

SOURCE: fifteeneightyfour (Academic Perspectives from CUP). 26 October 2017. ‘He rarely spoke of what he went through.’ Author Clare Makepeace reveals how her grandfather inspired her new book, ‘Captives of War’. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.cambridgeblog.org/2017/10/he-rarely-spoke-of-what-he-went-through-author-clare-makepeace-reveals-how-her-grandfather-inspired-her-new-book-captives-of-war/

Realising there was a much wider story, Clare began researching a more global view of wartime captivity, including those POWs captured in the Far East during the Second World War. Sadly, she did not live long enough to complete that important work.

Her interest in Far East captivity had first been kindled at a conference at Cambridge University in 2009 when she met Bernice Archer and Meg Parkes. In August 2015, during the lead up to VJ70 commemorations, Clare and Meg co-authored an article entitled, “VJ Day: Surviving the horrors of Japan’s WW2 camps”. This featured in the BBC online magazine on VJ Day. Writing about her love of history Clare said:

“The thing I love most about writing history is that it is unique. By that I mean each historian has their own interpretation of the past, which no one else can replicate. The history they write is a product of academic rigour as well as their own character. That second component doesn’t make history fictitious. It makes it relevant. Through being written by historians living in the present, history speaks to today’s concerns. Historians shine light on possible future paths we might take from here, by illuminating those we took in the past.”

SOURCE: BBC News. 2015. VJ Day: Surviving the horrors of Japan’s WW2 camps. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-33931660.

By re-visiting Captives of War, we reflect on the importance and relevance of Clare’s work, which not only gives an insight into her love of writing history, but also her extensive and rigorous historical research. Her character and humanity is evident, as she sought to bring a unique interpretation and understanding of how the POWs made sense of their captivity.

While acknowledging and celebrating her contribution to the understanding of the effects of captivity in warfare, here we consider Clare’s much broader view of history and the important role of historians in shining a light on the “possible future paths we might take from here”.  “History” she said, “speaks to today’s concerns”. It is that final sentence that resonates with today’s challenges and which Clare’s husband, Richard Stokoe (lecturer at the University of South Wales on Planning for disasters and civil contingencies and on strategic leadership) and author Professor Bourke, addressed last year in an article entitled, “We can learn a lot in Coronovirus Lockdown from Prisoners of War “.

Published on-line in “Huffington Post” (18April 2020) during the first UK Lockdown, they reference Clare’s work in highlighting the parallels between C-19 Lockdown and POW captivity. While not comparing “what we are going through to what wartime PoWs suffered. That would belittle their years of deprivation…” they nevertheless stressed that, “the government must start planning now for the coming wave of mental health issues, otherwise we risk opening up a new front in the battle to reduce coronavirus suffering in the long term”.  

The mental stresses of POW captivity were indeed a concern for Clare, but she also expressed her anger and annoyance with:

“a society that seemed uninterested in the experiences of POWs and much more interested in those who had ‘heroically’ escaped”.

These comments raise a number of questions about how Clare may have viewed society’s interest in the lived experience of C-19. Would she, for example, have wanted to highlight the experiences of all members of society affected by the pandemic, not just the “heroes”?

Would her focus have been on those stuck at home and unable to ‘heroically escape’; those who want to get back to their jobs (like the soldiers who wanted to get back to their fighting roles), and who look forward to being able to resume normal life? Would their stories be considered part of the ‘bleaker story’, of which she wrote:

“…one of guilt, isolation, wasted time, failure to unite in adversity and of mental strains from which no prisoner could escape?”

Reflecting on Chapter 3 of Captives of War, Clare writes about the ‘less admirable’ ways prisoners coped:

“British POWs did not collectively unite around two of the most significant hardships of imprisonment; length of time in captivity and shortage of food”.

Would she have drawn parallels between the “soldiers who were ready to steal, be involved in rackets,” and the selfish stockpiling by some of the general public during the first lockdown? How might Clare have considered,

“the stress and the shallow and perfunctory nature of social (military) comraderie”.

in the context of today’s pandemic world, with the impact on masculinity and the rise of domestic violence?

Sadly, we will never know what Clare’s view would have been on these C-19 issues. But we do know from her writing that her cultural history lens would have focused on the important, the relevant, and the particular, and would have pointed a way forward.

As mentioned earlier, through her analysis of the ways in which POWs experienced and made sense of their captivity, Clare encourages present and future historians of wartime captivity to “shine a light on possible future paths we might take from here”.  Of her conclusions she writes:

“Some of these [conclusions] might give historians pause to consider the experience of captivity in other wars or spheres of incarceration in slightly different terms from how it has so far been conceived.

“…one area ripe for research is how POW experience has been remembered by post-war society, why it has been remembered in such a way and what effect that remembrance had on society, families and, most importantly, the veterans themselves”.

She ends with:

”…We still know so little about the long-term effects of captivity on former POWs and how society helped or hindered them. In the contemporary era, when warfare is being commemorated to an unprecedented degree, it seems particularly important research, if we are to fully support both those who served in the past and who do so in the present”.

Clare’s message to present and future historians is to look beyond the “heroic” and to consider how captivity/lockdown is experienced in real terms by the “ordinary”, the “non-heroes”.  She urges them to consider how and why the “non heroes” are remembered by society in a particular way, and what effect that has had on them and their families. How can Clare’s research be applied to today’s incarceration of society in a pandemic lockdown?

In challenging times society is fed “heroic” stories by the media, in newspapers, books, news bulletins, TV programmes and films: from 100-year-old Sir Tom Moore stepping out to help the NHS to 11-year-old Max Woosey camping out for a year in aid of a local hospice; exercise gurus on TV, 8pm clapping for front line workers, praise for doctors, nurses and the scientists. ALL of course worthy of praise, and as Clare would have said, ‘soldier hero ideal’ (those POWs who escaped were heroic, those that didn’t were not worthy of interest’). But what about those ‘ordinary’ people stuck at home unable to ‘escape’?

Applying and continuing her approach to understanding the immediate and the long-term effects of incarceration, would be a fitting and lasting tribute to Clare and those whose stories she has told.


Clare was a contributor to our blog, you can read her work through the links below:

The Use of Armoured Cars in Malaya

By Jon Cooper, Project founder of The Adam Park Project, Centre for Battlefield Archaeology at Glasgow University

It is often cited by historians that the British had no tanks in Malaya.

This is not to say that the Allies had no armoured vehicles, however. Notably the Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders were provided with 6 Lanchester armoured cars, each to be named after Scottish castles. These vehicles had been brought over from the Middle East and were notoriously temperamental.

Captain Wilson of the A&SH describes them as:

‘By anyone’s standards the Lanchesters were well past their sell-by date. They were designed for the Middle East and from their log books all had served there; they were well old, cumbersome and crotchety, but they packed considerable firepower (a .5 and .303 medium machine guns in the turret and another .303 machine gun in the hull) and they had a tolerably thick coating of armour for their day.’[1]

Vehicles loaned out to other units were returned as their new operators were unable to get them started. The Scots made good use of the five Lanchesters they took into Malaya however only one, the ‘Stirling Castle’ made it back to guard the causeway as the last of the allied troops crossed into Singapore. The last of the Scottish Lanchesters were knocked long the Bukit Timah Road during the fight for the Dairy Farm

The A&SH and the SSVC were also given Marmon Herrington armoured cars. But these lacked armoured protection, firepower and were open topped allowing the enemy to lob grenades and Molotov cocktails into the crew positions with devastating effect.

Marmon Herrington Armoured Cars being prepared for combat at the Alexandra Depot. (IWM)

In July 1942 Lieut. R L Rendle of the FMSFV Intelligence branch wrote a ‘secret’ report on the action of the F.M.S.V.F armoured cars units in Malaya from the 6 – 15th February 1942. He states that the armoured cars were prone to ambush, a skill quickly developed by the Japanese. He does note however that early in the campaign the armoured cars were effective against what he considered ‘irregular’ Japanese troops who were untrained and unequipped to attack armoured vehicles and suffered heavy casualties for their efforts. Notably he reports that second-hand accounts were telling of Japanese troops attacking with magnetised mines and bottle bombs of Nitric Acid in almost suicidal assaults on the armoured cars.

There was one additional problem though in the Herrington steering position. The small view port used by the driver to see behind the vehicle when they were reversing was set too high up to be any use. The driver depended on another crew member to say what was behind them. When reversing out of an ambush all the crew were too busy to keep a look out and many Herringtons ended up driving into the drainage ditch by the side of the road forcing the crew to abandon the vehicle. Simple design faults that ultimately cost lives.


[1] Wilson 2001 p56

Sharing Research REALLY helps! Collaboration on the ‘Flying Kampong’

By Meg Parkes, in collaboration with Michiel Schwartzenberg and Keith Andrews

Fourteen years’ ago, I began recording interviews with Far East prisoner of war (FEPOW) veterans for the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine (LSTM). Sixty-seven interviews later, during lockdown centenarian FEPOW Bert Warne accepted an invitation to be interviewed.

I spoke to Bert, who lives in Southampton, via Zoom In early November 2020. Interviewing anyone of such a great age is a privilege. However, when relying on technology, it’s not without its challenges. Bert’s voice is strong, and he speaks quickly with a broad Hampshire accent, which when coupled with a fractional time delay initially led to some confusion. Regrettably, worried that he could not hear me, I ended up shouting at him!

Like thirty-seven of the previous interviewees, Bert was captured in Singapore and later sent to Thailand. Every interviewee has a unique story to tell, Bert mentioned something about the railway that I’d not heard before:

Well then what happened was, when we went from that camp [Konkoita] we didn’t go back on the barge and what we done we used to travel, when we built that railway you could only go so far on what you call a steam locomotive. The thing is they’re heavy see, they’re a terrific the weight you see. So if you’d have gone up country and put a steam train on, it’d have fell through you see, ‘cos it was green see [referring to the wood used to build it]. So, what the Japs did do, which I thought was quite a good idea, their diesel trucks, their lorries, what they done they converted the wheels from the trucks to go on the railway, you see. So, what we used when we were on the railway, when you talk about people being transported on the railway, they weren’t transported with steam locomotives, they were transported by lorries.

Puzzled, I emailed members of the Researching FEPOW History Group (RFHG) to see if anyone had heard about these truck trains. Without delay our Dutch research colleague Michiel Schwartzenberg, emailed:

“He is talking about the ‘Flying Kampong’ a diesel lorry adapted for railroad usage.

The diesel-powered lorries were very practical, and to the Westerners a novelty. The Japanese had to devise something that could move heavy goods along the railway, as there was no road or a dependable river…. There was another advantage as a lorry can move short distances. A steam train has to develop pressure, power and then can move long distances. Obviously, a train can move much heavier loads, but on the railway this was restricted to 10 boxcars”.

Michiel sent these photographs:

Archive photograph of a Flying Kampong at work in Thailand during captivity – Australia War Memorial Reference P000761.043
Archive photograph of a Flying Kampong at work in Thailand during captivity – Australia War Memorial Reference P000406.016

Keith Andrews also responded:

“They were certainly used in some sections of the Railway. Capable of pulling four of the specially built wagons they were excellent for transporting maintenance parties or Japanese troops. They had been used by track laying groups and were in use until the end of the war. I will see what else I can dig up”.

(NB Bert had mentioned that the trucks could only go about 40 miles before they needed diesel).

And he contacted Terry Manttan the manager of the Thailand Burma Railway Centre in Kanchanaburi, who added:

“The converted lorries (truck-trains or “flying kampongs”) were mostly used for short to medium distance movements of working groups of PoWs as they were much more versatile and more readily available for such a function”.

If anyone has any further information about the Flying Kampongs do please share.

Medical hero: Lieutenant Colonel Malhotra in Singapore, 1942-1945

By Kevin Noles, DPhil Student, New College, University of Oxford

Two years ago I wrote a blog post outlining my research project on Indian PoWs. Since then, I was lucky enough to complete my research in India and elsewhere before the Covid-19 pandemic closed the archives, and I have now begun writing my thesis. One of the reports I found in India detailed the work of Lieutenant Colonel Malhotra of the Indian Medical Service (IMS), who played a pivotal role in providing medical services to Indian PoWs in Singapore and the surrounding region.

Among the 67,000 Indian troops captured by the Japanese were thousands of IMS personnel, including 180 officers. Singapore became a major hub for medical provision to Indian PoWs, with the whole operation being commanded by Malhotra. At one point in 1944 he had direct command of a hospital in Singapore with 4500 patients and staff, although there was also a second hospital with another 2500. While most Indian patients only remained in hospital for a limited period, there was a core of around 500 permanent invalids, most of whom were battle casualties from the Malayan campaign.

Malhotra and his men faced three broad challenges: dealing with the Japanese; obtaining sufficient medical supplies; and providing food for the patients. In terms of the Japanese, a constant feature was the poor treatment of his staff, with Malhotra stating that they ‘suffered both mental and physical torture’. In addition, decisions made by the Japanese, for example to amalgamate three Indian hospitals into two in 1944, often caused unnecessary hardship.

Unsurprisingly, obtaining medical supplies was a major challenge, particularly given the large numbers of patients being cared for. There were however two significant deliveries of supplies: one in January 1943 consisting of fifteen lorry loads of medicines and dressings, and another smaller one in May 1945. Even so, there were acute shortages of medicine at times (for example in 1944), despite attempts to find substitute drugs locally.

Obtaining enough food for the patients was another major concern. Although the Japanese provided subsistence rations for patients, they were inadequate to assist with recovery. Malhotra oversaw the establishment of duck farms to provide eggs for the patients, although the farms were closed due to Japanese policy in late 1943, an outcome he viewed as a major setback. Rations deteriorated to the point where there was an outbreak of Beriberi among patients in 1944, although improvements in rations overcame this by the end of the year.

While the challenges were many, it is clear that Lieutenant Colonel Malhotra and his staff saved the lives of many Indian prisoners during the years of captivity. In recognition of his service he was awarded the Order of the British Empire after the war, but despite this, the story of the IMS in Singapore has been largely forgotten.

Please get in contact if you have any information of Indian PoWs of the Japanese.

Thailand In The Second World War

By Ray Withnall, Author

My research may be summarised as a discourse that examines Thailand’s transition from the 1932 coup d’état through subsequent turbulent years leading up to the Japanese accessing its territory at the start of the south-east Asia War. It follows Thailand’s role during the war and culminates with the outcome of end-of-war peace treaties. It is divided into five parts.

The first part briefly considers the years before the 1932 coup to show how the aspirations of successive monarchs established relationships with the West, particularly Great Britain and France. This takes into account the conclusions of gifted and talented Thai students who were studying in Europe and wanted to change Thailand’s monarchy from ruling with absolute power to one in which the monarch was governed by a constitution. The events prior to the coup d’état are studied.

The second part examines the period from the coup up to December 1941 when Japanese military forces entered Thailand. Difficulties between the civilian and military factions of government arose as army officer Pibul Songkhram became prime minister at the end of 1938. Nationalistic policies dominated his domestic agenda, and the international landscape evolved as diplomatic relations with Great Britain and the United States were tested against a background of increasing influence from the Japanese. The atmosphere intensified following a brief military conflict with France over a border dispute between Thailand and French Indochina.

The third part looks at the events leading to the Thai government permitting Japanese military access into its territory as it advanced towards Malaya and Burma at the start of the south-east Asia war. This was a crucial period during which Thailand abandoned its policy of neutrality and became a Japanese ally. The military and diplomatic response from the Western allies to Japan’s advance is closely examined with emphasis on Great Britain’s response to Thailand’s predicament and its corresponding attempt to defend Malaya.

Image of a Thai World War 2 propaganda poster from the Royal Thai Air force museum in Bangkok, the Thai wording on the poster translates as follows:

“We are at war with the English. England is not a friend of Asia. Together with the Japanese army we are fighting against the English. England has put pressure on Thailand for a long time. Japan wants Thailand to prosper more and more and more.”

Image & translation courtesy of Ray Withnall.

The fourth part studies Thailand’s role throughout the War. Attention is given to the broadening rift between the military and civilian factions of the government as Japan’s idealistic promises caused frustration and economic chaos. Thailand declared war on Great Britain and the United States. The Seri Thai resistance movement was organised by Pridi Banomyong. He made contact with Great Britain and the United States and convinced them that the Seri Thai could become a credible fighting force in the defeating Japan in Thailand. Prime minister Pibul lost domestic popularity through eccentric attempts to westernise Thai society. He realised Japan was losing the war and disassociated himself from them but lost his position to a new government that supported the allies. During this period thousands of Japanese Prisoners of War and civilian Romusha were sent to Thailand to construct the Thai-Bura railway. The response from the Thai government and the attitude of its people to the treatment and cruelty dispensed by the Japanese towards these men is examined.

The final section considers Thailand’s post-war agreements with the British, American and French and concludes with a summary of Thailand’s achievements as it looks towards its future.

The research draws on published books by respected historians, documented personal accounts and theses that are available in the public domain and records from the National Archives Kew.

Stitched Up… A Little Piece of History

Marking the 79th anniversary of the Fall of the Netherlands East Indies, Meg Parkes shares what her father called “his little piece of history”
Fig.1 first of five typed pages setting out the Dutch capitulation ©M.Parkes
All five pages of the original Dutch notice of surrender are reproduced in Meg’s book, “Notify Alec Rattray…”, the first part of her father’s diaries.

In the early 1990s while I was transcribing his diaries, my dad told me the story behind this  document and its important place in Second World War history. It is the first of five pages of the official order to surrender the Dutch East Indies. The order was issued on 8 March 1942 by General Ter Poorten Commander-in-Chief of Dutch Forces. It is believed to be the only copy in existence, thanks to the squirreling tendencies of my father Captain Andrew Atholl Duncan A&SH.

Dad served briefly as senior cipher officer in British Headquarters in Java. On 15 January 1942 General Wavell moved GHQ from Singapore (where Dad had been one of four cipher officers) to the village of Lembang just north of the regional city of Bandoeng in the Central Highlands, to bolster Dutch defences against the imminent Japanese invasion.

On 25 February, Wavell was recalled to India taking with him two of HQ’s senior cipher officers. Left behind to serve the newly appointed commander, Major General H. D. W. Sitwell, were Lieutenants Duncan and Campion[i]. Dad was then promoted to captain by Sitwell

On Sunday 1 March the Japanese assault on Java began. At 4a.m. on 7 March the British secretly abandoned HQ, omitting to inform the Dutch Liaison Officer Capt. Barron Mackay. He turned up for duty next morning to find British HQ in disarray and no sign of where the staff had gone[ii]. The British trekked into the mountains to the south eventually assembling at the Santosa tea plantation. Dad briefly acted as A.D.C to Sitwell at talks with Ter Poorten’s HQ regarding Sitwell’s plan to wage guerrilla warfare against the Japanese. However, the Dutch would not countenance the plan.

During the early hours of the next day, Dad was on duty when the order to surrender came from General Ter Poorten. A long message set out the terms of surrender the Dutch had accepted from the Japanese. What must it have felt like for him to write the words, “Raise white flag as sign of surrender”? Once decoded, the handwritten copy was passed to the stenographer for typing, Dad instructing him to “shove in a carbon”. The typescript filled five RAF message forms which were taken to the general who was sleeping. Sitwell, having read the message, responded with, “No reply, Duncan”.

Amid the chaos and confusion that followed the surrender Dad had the forethought to keep the carbon copies of the surrender document and at some point prior to captivity they were neatly folded and stitched into the lining of Dad’s glengarry. There they stayed undetected during the next eight months in Java and for the subsequent years in Japan.

Capt Duncan’s glengarry

Keeping hold of this important historic record had mattered greatly to Dad and I came to believe it was talismanic. Dad and these records were intrinsically linked; each helped the other to survive and much later to tell their Far Eastern Second World War stories.


[i] Diary of Lt Desmond Campion, private collection

[ii] Report by Dutch Liaison Officer Capt R.A. Baron Mackay KNIL, IWM Documents https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/1030008098

Remembering our friend, FEPOW Bob Hucklesby

Bob Hucklesby
3rd January 1921 – 26th February 2021

The Researching FEPOW History Group (RFHG) first met FEPOW Bob Hucklesby in October 2011 when, as President of the National FEPOW Fellowship Welfare Remembrance Association (NFFWRA), he led the group’s visit to Liverpool. There they joined over 600 people gathered for the unveiling of RFHG’s first Repatriation Memorial on Liverpool’s Pier Head.

Unveiling of Liverpool’s Repatriation Memorial on the Pier Head, 15 October 2011

From then on Bob became a keen advocate for, and supporter of, RFHG’s efforts to establish the second Repatriation Memorial at Town Quay Park in French Street, facing the waterfront in Southampton. What drove Bob’s need to help was a vow he had made nearly 70 years earlier never to forget the friends he left buried in a foreign land, their young lives needlessly cut short. He wanted to ensure that we and future generations never forgot them either.

Two years after the Liverpool unveiling, on Sunday 27 October 2013, Bob was among the FEPOW veterans at the Service of Dedication at St Michael’s Church in Southampton. Following the service, the congregation walked down to Town Quay Park overlooking Southampton Water where the Repatriation Memorial was unveiled. Back at St Michael’s the veterans chatted to the RAF and Army cadets who served as the Honour Guard for the day.

Bob forged links with St John’s Church of England Primary School, situated next to Town Quay Park. Each November since 2013, on or around 18th, Bob joined civic dignitaries, children and teachers from the school and volunteers from Friends of Town Quay Park at the memorial for a brief Remembrance Service. It was on 18November 1945 that Bob landed back in Southampton on board an Italian hospital ship, Principessa Giovanna.

In November 2014 at NFFWRA’s Llandudno reunion weekend, Meg interviewed Bob for the FEPOW oral history project. At the end Bob said:

I’m grateful to be alive. I’m grateful that I’ve had an opportunity to serve others and I’m grateful it gave me the experience to know that everyone should be respected… I’m very keen that those we left behind in the Far East, in a totally foreign culture, and having served to the best of their ability, that they’re never forgotten”.

Robert “Bob” Frank Hucklesby was born and brought up in Lowestoft in Suffolk. He served as a sapper in the Royal Engineers, was taken prisoner of war at Singapore and survived captivity in Thailand.

Post-war and once his health had recovered, Bob trained as an engineer working near Manchester, before settling back in Suffolk where in 1950 he served briefly as Secretary of the Ipswich FEPOW Club. In 1951 he moved the family to Poole in Dorset to take up a job in Town Planning and soon after joined the Bournemouth, Poole and District FEPOW club, serving in various roles on the committee including Welfare. Caring for people mattered to Bob. In 1996 he was appointed Trustee of the FEPOW Central Welfare Fund and the Far East POW and Internee Fund, helping to ensure that FEPOW would always be able to look after their own.

We have lost a good friend. Bob may be gone but he will not be forgotten.

Bob, at the Cenotaph in Whitehall, during the FEPOW Parade, 15 August 2015 (©M.Parkes)

Bob wrote a brief history of the National Federation of FEPOW Clubs and Associations (NFFCA), including the annual FEPOW Federation conference, together with a summary of his various roles with NFFCA over the years. You can view this by clicking the link below.

Stories to Tell

By Louise Reynolds, Author

RFHG is very much about sharing research and information, and sharing was the main aim of my book Echoes of Captivity, published last March.  Sharing the unique experience of belonging to the family of a FEPOW.  Most of the FEPOWs didn’t talk about their experiences, indeed they were instructed not to talk, but we, their children, have always been aware of something unspoken and disturbing. Did it affect us? I believed so.  My aim was to gather interviews with the families, the ‘children,’ now in their 60s, 70s, and 80s, and to share their stories.  I knew that, sadly, I could only manage a tiny and non-scientifically selected sample, but I felt I was on the right track when one of the contributors said to me “It’s nice to know there are still people in the country wandering around in the same state of mind as me.”

I approached the project with some trepidation.  Would people want to talk?  Was I being intrusive?  I put the word out on some FEPOW websites and I was surprised by the number of people who readily agreed.  Some interviews were conducted over Skype, but the majority were in person which I preferred

I’m a trained counsellor/psychotherapist, but this was something I never revealed because I am too close to the subject to keep a therapeutic distance.  I think people may have trusted me because they knew my own father was a FEPOW.  In fact they were astonishingly honest and the words simply poured out of them. Their testimony was often very poignant and I remember particularly, speaking on Facetime to a contributor in Australia.  It was a struggle  to feel connected because I couldn’t see her face clearly but then I saw tears trickling down her chin and I knew we’d made a connection.

And what did I discover from my small sample?  That many people feel they have been profoundly affected by their fathers’ trauma both positively as well as negatively.  One or two have had breakdowns, many feel haunted by the unspoken horrors and some of them are carrying ‘live’ and unprocessed trauma they have inherited from their fathers.    Recently there’s been a lively response on a FEPOW Facebook site to a BBC World article which was posted there entitled ‘Can the legacy of trauma be passed down the generations.’  It included a reference to the controversial subject of ‘epigenetics’ which is the, as yet unproven (in humans) theory,  that in response to trauma actual chemical changes are made to the surface of the genes which are then passed on in the DNA to the next generation.   Several people remarked on odd characteristics both physical and mental which they felt might have been passed down to them.  All I can say for sure is that there are many more stories waiting to be told, more research to be done, and I’m aware that there is a whole new generation of grandchildren who are interested in research.  My own contribution is just the tip of the iceberg.


email:   louisereynolds99@aol.com

Echoes of Captivity edited by Louise Cordingly,  published March 2020

The Writings on the Wall – POW Pay Days

By Jon Cooper, Project founder of The Adam Park Project, Centre for Battlefield Archaeology at Glasgow University

In 2015, the tenant at No.5 Adam Park made a remarkable discovery as she was preparing a wall in the outbuildings for decoration. Beneath the layer of paintwork was a calendar drawn onto the plaster in pencil. It was dated 1942 and covered the months from September to December. Each day up until the 31st October had been carefully crossed out. Notably the date 25th October had been annotated with the statement ‘two years’.

Image courtesy of Jon Cooper
Image courtesy of Jon Cooper

The graffiti had been drawn by an Australian POW, most likely of the 8 Division Signals, who had been billeted in the house while working on the Shinto Shrine at the MacRitchie Reservoir. However, what was notable was the regular addition of the phrase ‘Pay’ every few weeks throughout the period.

It is a little-known fact that the POWs were reimbursed for the work they did for the Japanese. Soldiers were paid between 10 and 15 cents a day. Apparently, according to the calendar, this was then toted up and paid in a lump sum every 4 weeks. Assuming a man worked on average 24 days this would give him a couple of dollars to spend each month. The POW was not short of places to go to spend their money. The Adam Park Camp had its own canteen run by Chinese tradesman and hawking a selection of fruits, vegetables cakes, soaps, cigarettes, and a few household luxuries, all at a reasonable price. With a banana at 10cents each and butter at $1.50 a pound the POW could in theory purchase enough foodstuffs to liven up the dullest of rice dishes. The money could also be used to fund black market transactions.

In stark contrast, the officers were paid at the same rate as their Japanese counterpart anything between $30 to $50 a month. The officers put some money towards their accommodation and a Mess Fund that bought food and drugs for the hospital and supplement the camp rations.

As for the ‘two years’ annotation on the calendar, well this meaning remains unclear. It is thought it could have been the date this particular ‘Cove’ left Australia. This graffiti as well as the Chapel Mural at No.11 Adam Park are currently under the careful custodianship of the National Heritage Board.

Survival in Extreme Conditions and Transition to Peacetime

By Edgar Jones, Professor in the History of Medicine & Psychiatry, King’s College London

Much has been written on the physical privations and diseases suffered by Far Eastern prisoners-of-war (FEPOWS) but less has been said of the psychological challenges and the post-traumatic illnesses that they experienced when in civilian life. The resourceful, fortunate and resilient group who survived provide an opportunity to study coping mechanisms and survival techniques in the most extreme circumstances.

Evidence gathered from survivor accounts suggests that there was no single method that worked for all. Prisoners devised coping strategies that fitted with their pre-capture skills and personality traits. Alistair Urquhart, for example, distracted himself through music and song, and a determination to survive:

‘I decided to stay apart from everyone else and focus totally on survival. I lived a day at a time in my own little world, a private cocoon, and adopted the position of self-sufficient loner… If someone spoke to me, I replied but there was no sense of community’.

By contrast others formed themselves into small groups so that if one fell sick or struggled to work, the others would provide cover or find extra food. Crucial for many was a skill or experiences that had prepared them for the challenges of captivity. Lt Arthur Scrimgeour of the Straits Settlements Volunteer Force had medical knowledge acquired in his job as manager of Glaxo’s Far East Company. When suffering from beriberi, he treated this by swallowing the husk polishings of uncooked rice as they contained vitamin B and used banana leaves as dressings for leg ulcers.  Religious faith has been shown in many studies to serve as a protective factor during captivity and torture. Eric Lomax, a member of the Episcopal Church, wrote that his ‘moral conviction of being saved, that I really had found God’ reinforced his determination both during captivity and afterwards. Ashley Prime who had grown up in multi-cultural India was able to identify the good in people from whatever race they came.

Although these coping mechanisms enabled prisoners to survive extended periods of privation and danger, they were not a guarantee of an easy transition to civilian life. Urquhart and Lomax both reported troubling thoughts and enduring symptoms even when settled in civilian life. Recurring dreams of war were often a reminder of the trauma they had suffered. Urquhart wrote, ‘even after I married, life could be hell. To this day I suffer pain, and the nightmares can be so bad that I fight sleep for fear of the dreams that come with it’. Yet Urquhart also demonstrated the skill of being able to take something positive from adversity, adding ‘my sufferings as a prisoner taught me to be resilient, to appreciate life and all, to appreciate life and all it has to offer’.

“I Was There”: Frank Percival on The Fall of Singapore, 15th February 1942

Introduction by Martin Percival

May 1976 – what was about to become the longest, hottest and driest summer in memory for many people in the UK.

My father, Frank Percival, turned 58 years old that month. He had retired 2 years previously and his time was now spent raising two young sons, watching his beloved Queen’s Park Rangers have what was to be their most successful season in his 50th year as a fan and getting back in contact with some friends and relations in London and the south of England who he hadn’t seen for a long time, having lived in the north for many years. He re-joined the London Far East Prisoner of War Association for the first time in nearly 20 years and was to subsequently write a couple of articles for their bi-monthly “FEPOW Forum” magazine.

That month the “The Observer” Sunday newspaper magazine started a series entitled “I was there”. It consisted of eye witness accounts to various events that had gone down in history. My Dad was inspired to write up his memories from 34 years previously of the fall of Singapore – the greatest mass surrender in the history of the British Army.

Within a few weeks the 4 page typed manuscript was returned with a “thanks but no thanks” type note from the newspaper. My father filed it away. After all, he had been in the Royal Army Service Corps, so presumably that’s what he had been trained to do!

Whenever my brother or I asked Dad about his experiences in World War 2 he would tell us whatever we wanted to know. I later discovered that this was rare for men who had been Prisoners of War in Japanese hands in the Far East. Most just tried to bury the memories.

In December 1982 my Dad died, aged 64. Within 18 months my brother and I sold the family house and went our separate ways. Fortunately I had enough presence of mind to not just throw away my Dad’s papers, books and other mementoes from his time in the British Army from 1939 to 1946. Instead they headed up to the loft of my newly purchased house. 20 years later it was time to move house again and in 2004 I then re-discovered all of the items that I had packed away carefully in 1984. I sat and read a few of the articles my Dad had written. A lot of memories came back to me. I was thus inspired to start to research more of my father’s story. Within a year I had met other FEPOW descendants like Meg Parkes and Julie Summers and these meetings helped me to develop an even keener interest in the story of WW2 Far East Prisoners of War.

79 years after the fall of Singapore I hope the following pdf that contains my father’s previously unpublished memories of February 1942 are of interest to others. Maybe they will even inspire people to find out more about their own family history.

“Living with My Absent Father”

By Toby Norways, Senior Lecturer for Scriptwriting at the University of Bedfordshire and PhD Candidate in English (Creative Writing) at Newman University, Birmingham.

Toby Norways passed the viva for his PhD English (Creative Writing) in March 2020 and is currently finishing his thesis ‘corrections’ required before graduation. He has been researching his FEPOW father William ‘Bill’ Norways (1918-86) since 2015. His research took him to Singapore, Thailand, and to Japan where he met the family of one of his father’s camp guards. Toby’s thesis includes a 70,000-word creative manuscript Living with my absent father, a memoir of his father, and a corresponding 20,000-word critical commentary of the creative work.

Bill Norways was a commercial artist prior to World War II, before enlisting in the 2nd Cambridgeshire Regiment. He was taken prisoner in Singapore when the allied forces surrendered to the Japanese on 15th February 1942. In May 1943, he was transported to Thailand to be used as slave labour on the construction of the Thai-Burma Railway. Bill suffered great hardship but survived the war. He rarely talked of his experiences.

Close-up of an illustration drawn from memory while in captivity, by Cpl Norways (© courtesy the Norways family)

Toby’s research begins with a study of the artefacts his father assembled from the Far East (including the above illustration). The collection includes Bill’s original artwork and photographs from the prison camps in Singapore and Thailand. Amongst these items are a series of post-war letters. They reveal the unlikely friendship between Bill in Cornwall and one of his former prison guards in Japan, Kameo Yamanaka. He disapproved of Japanese hostility. During Bill’s captivity in Singapore, Yamanaka would share his food rations and supply Bill with pencils so he could continue to draw. The two men expressed a wish that their families would remain friends, but the correspondence ends with Bill’s death in 1986.

The memoir has three plot strands: Toby’s research journey to discover a father he scarcely knew; his father’s history as a prisoner of war; and a Bildungsroman, as Toby comes to terms with the absence, then the death of his father. Alongside these storylines, a correspondence between two opposing soldiers is gradually revealed as Toby travels to Japan to track down the family of the Japanese guard.

Toby Norways with the Yamanaka family, 2015. A poem written by Bill Norways is engraved on the Yamanaka family shrine (© courtesy the Norways family)

On completion of his PhD in 2021, Toby hopes to publish both the memoir of his father and an illustrated book containing the 200+ photos, paintings and sketches that his father Bill managed to bring home from the Far East.

Toby’s research and Bill’s artwork have been featured twice in the Guardian newspaper. Toby’s research journey is described here.

Bill’s artwork is featured in the Guardian gallery found here.

Into the jungle

By Louise Reynolds, Author

Good research requires several specialised skills but I never thought that the ability to decipher my father’s handwriting would be one of them.   When my mother died in 2011 we discovered files full of papers connected with my father’s time as a FEPOW in Changi and then up-country in Kanchanaburi.  My father, Eric Cordingly had brought home with him maps, artwork by fellow POWs, and even a complete typed diary of his first year in Changi, together with a Burial Records book, some  hand-written sermons and some scribbled notes on odd pieces of paper. It was an extraordinary and vivid collection from his three and a half years as a Padre and prisoner of war, during which he faithfully carried out his duties as a priest under the most desperate conditions.

I immediately decided to publish a book containing these unique papers and set about putting it all together.   The typed diary was a gift, it was just a matter of choosing sketches and paintings to illustrate the text.  And, fortunately, for his final year back in Changi,  he had written a report for the Assistant Chaplain General’s office in Rangoon.

But how could I cover the most critical time when, with F Force, he was based in Kanburi (as they called it) beside the River Kwai ?  I came across a thin and flimsy Thai child’s exercise book containing detailed pencilled notes and some airmail paper with more notes about the conditions in the hospitals where he was working and from where he buried over 600 young men who had been labouring on the Thai Burma Railway.  He instructed the doctors to let him know if anyone was close to the end and he would try to be at their bedside when they were dying.

The exercise book containing Eric Cordingly’s notes, image courtesy of Louise Reynolds

But his writing, never easy at the best of times, was scribbled in haste and sometimes words or sentences were crossed out and so I began to transcribe it with great care and a lot of anxiety. I gradually discovered that if I took a run at it, so to speak, it was much easier to read because often the clues were in the context. Turning these delicate pages which may not have been touched for 70 years was a tactile experience in itself, and reading his eye witness account of the horrors of daily life was breath-taking:

A page from the exercise book, , image courtesy of Louise Reynolds and partly transcribed below.

“It is too harrowing to picture vividly a ward of men whose sole kit consists of a tin and a spoon and a haversack and a piece of rag, lying on bare bamboo, or rice sacks with no covering until later,  blankets were issued.  The patients present a sorry picture, their exhaustion is so complete that no pain is suffered, they slip into a coma and the end is peaceful.  Each morning several bodies are lying still.”

The words I was transcribing told a sorry tale.  The strange thing was that after twenty minutes or so of this painstaking and absorbing work, I felt that I had plunged into the jungle with them, and, when I emerged, blinking, into daylight, I was astonished to find the normal world going on around me.  This happened to me several times. The cumulative experience of touching and transcribing the papers was very powerful.  I wonder if other RFHG researchers have encountered this phenomenon?


You can read more in Down to Bedrock  The Diary and Secret Notes of a Far East prisoner of war Chaplain 1942-45,   by Eric Cordingly    Published in 2013

Contact details:  louisereynolds99@aol.com

The search for the missing in Singapore

By Jon Cooper, Project founder of The Adam Park Project, Centre for Battlefield Archaeology at Glasgow University

One of the most startling facts to come out of the review of Singapore casualties is the high number of men listed as ‘missing’ and have never been found. This may well be understandable when we think of the nature of the combat in Malaya. Often allied troops were overwhelmed by the Japanese attacks and forced to abandon their positions and escape into the jungle. They then spent many weeks wandering the hills trying to get back to the allied lines. It is easy to imagine many men simply collapsing with fatigue and disease, being buried by their pals but destined never to be recovered after the war.

A well-tended soldier’s grave in Singapore

However, men going missing in Singapore is another matter. Not only was there time in many occasions to bury the dead and record the location of the graves during the fighting there was also opportunities in the first few months of captivity in Changi to return to the old battlesites and inter the unburied bodies. So how is it that so many men who were killed in Singapore appear on the war memorial in Kranji and have no known grave?

Post war newspapers are scattered with reports about the recovery of bodies. In June 1948, the Sunday Tribune in Singapore ran an article on the British army’s search for missing men. The Graves Registration unit, Far East Land Forces (FARELF) estimated that there were 1,500 corpses of allied troops buried in private gardens and waste land across the island. The article concludes with a statement from a spokesperson for FARELF who said

Several of the 1500 corpses scattered all over the island may be presumed as lost. Many of the corpses in the reported graves have not been discovered although the graves were located.[1]

A similar report in August 1947 tells of the circumstances under which FARELF Grave Recovery Teams worked in Singapore. The report suggests that unlike the Thai Burma Railway, where there were already established cemeteries, Singapore only had a handful specific locations associated with POW camps and hospitals, and hundreds of isolated graves of which there was little information.

It is true that there were many plans made by those who had conducted the burials in the tragic days of 1942, but most of these had been drawn under stress of battle or from memory when the person drawing the plan had been away from the scene for some years.[2] The results were often inaccurate and, in many cases, completely wrong.’ [3]

The reporter also points out that many of the soldiers were buried by local Malay and Chinese who kept no record of the interment and were, by 1947, unable to remember the location of graves. No comment is made as to how many of the 1,500 missing men were recovered The records maintained by the Bureau of Record and Enquiry in Changi often provide a description and six figure grid reference for the location of the grave or at least where the man was last seen, and it was this information that was being used by FARLEF. Today armed with such evidence could it be  possible to find these missing men with all the new technology available to the archaeologists? In theory yes. The work done at the likes of Adam Park, Bukit Brown and Mount Pleasant proves that old sites still exist in the landscape despite urban development and the latest geophysics can in theory detect grave sites. It is possible some missing men could still be found. However, after 80 years in the ground there would be few remains to recover, although grave goods and grave cuts may still be present.


[1] Sunday Tribune (Singapore), 27 June 1948, Page 3

[2] This is not necessarily the case, much of the burial information given to the BRE was recorded in the weeks and months after the surrender and compiled on organised and authorised burial parties.

[3] Morning Tribune, 18 August 1947, Page 6

SOURCE LIST FOR ‘RICE AND SHINE’: AUSTRALIAN PRE-WAR CONCERT PARTIES

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

Boardman, Jack. Correspondence (Letters, e-mails, etc.).

Boardman, Jack. Interview. Narara, NSW, Australia. 14 May 2002.

Frey, Kerrin. “A Soldier and an Entertainer.” Unpublished biography of Val Mack. 1989.

Jacobs, James William. The Burma Railway: One Man’s Story. VS40983. 1947.

Morris, J. G. “Tom.” Interview. Downer, ACT, Australia. 23 May 2002.

Stewart, Leonard A. D. “History of A.I.F. Concert Party,” AWM PR01013 (Folder 11, 12) Item 5, 9. 11, 12.

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