Category Archives: Featured

“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

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

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:

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

“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.

Did Allied Strategy Prolong FEPOW Suffering?

By Mary Monro, author of Stranger In My Heart (Unbound, 2018)

We naturally focus on the long, terrible suffering of the FEPOWs. But what if there could have been an earlier end to the war? This is the question that struck me when I uncovered my father’s part in trying to liberate the PoWs in Hong Kong.

Major John Monro RA escaped, with two colleagues, from Sham Shui Po PoW camp in Hong Kong in February 1942, making their way 1500 miles across China to the wartime capital at Chongqing. In August 1942 he was made Assistant Military Attaché there, where his chief role was liaison with Col Lindsay Ride, founder of the British Army Aid Group (BAAG), a humanitarian and intelligence organisation supporting the Hong Kong PoWs.

My father also had close links with US Air Force Chief of Staff, Col Merian Cooper, who served General Chennault of Flying Tigers fame. Cooper had long been a pilot and he was also a film maker, creating and co-directing King Kong. He flies the plane that kills the beast in the final scene.

Images courtesy of Mary Monro

In autumn 1942 the Japanese seemed to be an unstoppable force and competing strategies were being considered by Allied Command. General Stilwell, Commander of Allied Forces in China, was an infantryman and land war proponent. Chennault was a forward thinking airman who believed that retaking control of China’s airspace and major ports would enable the Allies to attack Japanese shipping, disrupt their supply lines and ultimately attack the Japanese islands themselves.

Part of Chennault’s analysis was the intelligence supplied to him by BAAG, giving him confidence in his plan to retake Hong Kong. My father saw an opportunity to liberate the PoWs as part of this plan, knowing that they were now too weak and sick to escape. He put his idea to Cooper and Ride and they hammered out the details.

At the Casablanca Conference in January 1943 the air war strategy was approved and reported in the press – an interesting read for the Japanese! Chennault and Stilwell travelled to Washington for the Trident Conference in May 1943, where they put their detailed and opposing plans to President Roosevelt. He was in favour of the air plan, as was Churchill, who famously said ‘going into swampy jungles to fight the Japanese is like going into the water to fight a shark.’

The air plan won the vote and Roosevelt wrote a directive for the War Department. He showed it to Chennault to check that it included everything he needed, but omitted to sign it, ‘FDR’. The War Department was headed by land war and Stilwell supporters, who ensured the error was never corrected. Chenault never received the planes, pilots, ammunition and fuel that he needed. The land war in Burma went ahead, with huge suffering and loss of life. Had Chennault’s plan been properly resourced, perhaps the war in the Far East would have ended early. Allied resources would have redeployed to Europe, shortening the war there. As many as 9 million lives might have been saved.

Mary’s book, Stranger in my Heart, please click the image to go the book’s website.

Search for Relatives of BSM John Carley, 965 Defence Battery, Royal Artillery

by Brian Finch

A pre-war football medal awarded to John Carley has been found and the finder would like to return it to the family.

John Carley served as a Battery Sergeant Major with 965 Defence Battery, Royal Artillery, in the battle for Hong Kong in December 1941.  Philip Cracknell’s article about this battery can be read here

Following the surrender on Christmas Day 1941 all the defending forces were incarcerated in prisoner of war camps.  On 25 September 1942 1,816 prisoners of war were taken from Shamshuipo camp and put on an armed Japanese freighter, the Lisbon Maru

This ship set sail on 27 September, also carrying Japanese troops and not marked to show that it had pows on board.  It was torpedoed on 1 October by an American submarine, the USS Grouper.  During the 24 hours it took to sink, the pows on board were confined to the holds with the hatches battened down and with no access to food, water, fresh air or toilet facilities.  Since many of the men were suffering from dysentery the stale air soon became foul and suffocating, some men died during the night.  The condition in all three holds where the pows were confined were atrocious, but those in the third hold had the worst time.  This was where the gunners were held, and as their hold was filling with water they had the unenviable task of manning an inadequate hand pump to keep the ship afloat.  In the stifling atmosphere the men could hardly breathe and were only able to pump for a few minutes at a time.  As one man became exhausted another would take his place.  This went on all night until by the early hours of 2 October all the men collapsed out of sheer exhaustion.

Shortly after this the men in the second hold managed to break out and open all three hatches. Most managed to get out and jump into the sea to save their lives, but they were then shot at by the Japanese with rifles and machine-guns.  Tragically, in the third hold, where the gunners had worked so hard to save the ship from going down earlier, the only ladder broke, and most of the men then went down with the ship.  John Carley was almost certainly one of those brave men who kept the ship afloat for so long and then perished as they went down with the ship.  It is certainly known that he died in the sinking.  He was one of the 828 who tragically died in this terrible incident.

Bryher Bell has contacted Philip Cracknell to say that he has a 1936 football medal for John Carley when he was serving in Aldershot.  He would love to be able to trace the family so that he can return this medal to them.

If anyone knows of any relatives or descendants of John Carley, please can they contact Philip Cracknell at philip.g.cracknell@gmail.com to let him know.