It was December, 1943, when the Australian, British and Dutch/Indonesian POWs in “H” Force returned to Singapore from Up Country. Because of a housing shortage in Changi, most of these POWs were shuttled to Sime Road Camp. A fellow officer told Lt.-Col. Reginald Burton not to worry about this location: “It was a camp in the open country part of Singapore Island, next to a golf course. It was hutted camp, with showers, lights, proper roads. It sounded like a paradise to me.”[i]
Before the war, Sime Road Camp, on the outskirts of Singapore, had been the Headquarters of the British Royal Air Force and then, in early December 1941, it became the Combined Army and Air Force Operations Headquarters Malaya Command—General Percival’s H.Q. –during the brief battles for Malaya and Singapore.
After surrender, Sime Road became an Australian and British POW camp with British officer, Lt.-Col. Philip Toosey, in charge. At some point, a concert party was formed and an outdoor theatre, dubbed the “New Cathay Theatre” was built. The opening performance was on Christmas, 1942.
Very little is known about the performers or the shows, and the only observation on their content is from Lt. Stephan Alexander: “Our new electricity supply was used to light camp concerts, at which the Aussies proved particularly uninhibited. (“Do you really love me, dear, or is that your revolver I can feel?”)”[ii] In early October, 1942, the POWs at Sime Road were sent Up Country to build two bridges over the River Kwai at Tamarkan in Thailand.
Note that all the documents in this series of blogs reside in Sears A. Eldredge Archive in the De Witt Wallace Library at Macalester College, 1600 Grand Avenue, St. Paul, Minnesota, 55105
Sear’s book, Captive Audiences/Captive Performers: Music and Theatre as Strategies for Survival on the Thailand-Burma Railway 1942-1945, was published by Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota in 2014, as an open-access e-book and is available here: http://digitalcommons.macalester.edu/thdabooks/22
The Pacific War started for the Americans at Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941, but it was a few hours later and on the other side of the international dateline that Britain woke to war in the Far East and a threat to its Asian territories. The battle of Hong Kong, though key to events in China and ultimate victory, is a largely forgotten part of the Pacific War.
Churchill felt that it would be better for Hong Kong to fall into Japanese hands – to be recovered later – than to fall into Chinese hands, from which it might never be reclaimed. He certainly didn’t expect that Hong Kong could be held and refused to ‘waste’ extra resources on its defence. After receiving a request in January 1941 to strengthen the garrison, Churchill noted:
‘If Japan goes to war there is not the slightest chance of holding Hong Kong or relieving it. It is most unwise to increase the loss we shall suffer there…. I wish we had fewer troops there, but to move any would be noticeable and dangerous.’
Oliver Lindsay, military historian, commented:
‘For political and moral reasons Hong Kong had to be defended. Many Chinese would have been seriously discouraged from continuing their weary and interminable struggle against Japan, if Britain had lacked the courage and determination to resist and had abandoned the colony to the mercy of the Japanese before they had even declared war. Such a sordid act of appeasement would also have shaken the neutral Americans, who were then strengthening their forces in the Pacific while critically assessing Britain’s determination to fight on.’
The Allies in Hong Kong were woefully unprepared for a land-based attack and were poorly supported at every level. They were 15,000 men against over 50,000 Japanese, who were battle hardened from four years fighting in China. The garrison included Hong Kong Chinese, two Indian battalions, two newly formed Canadian battalions, British forces and the Hong Kong Volunteer Defence Corps. Initially the Japanese air force knocked out the Allies’ capability for air defence and reconnaissance, before ground troops began to push south from the Chinese border. The lack of air cover combined with few troops defending the mainland meant that the Japanese made rapid progress through the New Territories. The mainland was lost by 13 December, following a last stand at the Devil’s Peak peninsula.
After refusing a Japanese demand for surrender there followed three days of bombardment of the Allied positions on Hong Kong Island. General Sakai demanded surrender again on 17 December after this punishing shelling but, again, the British refused. Fierce fighting raged for the next few days as the Allies obstinately refused to admit defeat. The Governor of Hong Kong, Sir Mark Young, eventually surrendered the colony to the Japanese on Christmas afternoon, 1941. In his official despatch General Maltby, General Officer Commanding explained:
‘The deployment by the enemy of such superior forces and armament, the exhaustion after sixteen days of continuous battle with no reliefs for any individuals, our vulnerability to unlimited air attack, the impossibility of obtaining more ammunition for the few mobile guns I had remaining, the serious water famine immediately impending – these were the factors which led to the inevitable conclusion, namely, that further fighting meant the useless slaughter of the garrison, risked severe retaliation on the large civilian population and could not affect the final outcome.’
Subsequently known as ‘Black Christmas’, the surrender of Hong Kong cost the Allies around 11,000 captured as well as 2,287 killed/missing and 1,300 wounded during the battle. Japanese casualties in the fighting numbered 1,895 killed and around 6,000 wounded. For the captured, this was the start of a long struggle for survival. Thousands died, either in Hong Kong or when they were shipped to Japan, with over 800 PoW fatalities on the Lisbon Maru ‘hell ship’ alone. Almost a quarter of Far East PoWs died in captivity. Very few men escaped from Hong Kong, where Japanese troops patrolled the colony and it was thought that the local Chinese might hand you over to the enemy. Besides, disguise for Caucasians was impossible and China was an unknown territory, with poor transport links and the Japanese army advancing across it. Only 33 men ever escaped from Sham Shui Po camp, for example, thankfully including my father.
Not that he ever talked about his experiences. It was though he, like so many veterans, kept a vow of silence after the war. The annual commemoration of the Great War (later known as the First World War) with two minutes’ silence is a ritualised version of the night vigil, when the dead were watched over by their surviving comrades. The purpose was to protect them against mutilation, looting or being eaten by scavengers; to guard their honour rather than as an act of remembrance. Perhaps survivors’ lifelong silence, particularly from the First and Second World Wars, served to guard the honour of their dead and their own scorched youth. But the families of veterans are left with a tantalising blindspot, a frustrating ignorance of what their loved ones did, achieved, suffered and felt.
On this 80th anniversary, what are we commemorating and how does the act of remembrance help us in our lives today? For those of us with personal connections to the Battle of Hong Kong, we can take this opportunity to collectively remember our loved ones, even if their specific role in the battle and its aftermath remain unknown to us. We are deeply indebted to Prof Kwong Chi Man of Hong Kong Baptist University for creating a commemorative, interactive map of the battle and its actors at https://digital.lib.hkbu.edu.hk/1941hkbattle/en/index.php. There you can see details of battle infrastructure, the chain of events, unit movements and biographies of individual combatants, pausing, zooming in and learning more as you go. It is an extraordinary achievement and a resource to be treasured.
More generally we can think about the values and behaviours that the Allied forces expressed. Britain, its empire and its allies had been at war for two years by this time and was facing an unknown, imperilled future. The opening of a new theatre in the Far East meant stretching scarce resources and, potentially, the loss of many more lives. It was widely accepted in Hong Kong that the fate of the colony was doomed and yet they fought to the bitter end.
These men were fighting with commitment, determination, camaraderie, fortitude, conviction, resilience and courage, in defence of freedom and in defiance of inevitable defeat. Like their colleagues in Europe they fought against tyranny, aggression and greed. They lost colleagues, friends and family and often suffered terribly themselves and yet they fought on. The Hong Kong civilian population suffered too but did not turn against the Allies, often supporting them at risk to their own lives. The battle was a joint effort, with Allied troops of every colour, culture and creed united against a common foe. Local defeat was the price of ultimate victory, with the China theatre keeping half the Japanese forces busy for the rest of the war.
We need this same spirit of teamwork, cooperation and willingness to make sacrifices in our approach to present day global issues such as the Covid pandemic and the climate crisis. This is a moment in history to stand together and to value our common characteristics above our differences in order to achieve a lasting security. Let us remember and honour that, with those brave people who fought for us lighting the way.
 Oliver Lindsay The Lasting Honour: The Fall of Hong Kong 1941 (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1978), 201
 General Christopher Maltby The London Gazette, 27 January 1948
February 1945. We arrive in Ubon north-east Thailand and ordered to build an airstrip for the Japanese. We’ve been prisoners for 3 long barbaric years.
June. Work on the airstrip is going well. Not too demanding. Local Thais tell us the war in Europe is over.
July. A plane flew over the camp and dropped leaflets with news the allies invaded Japan. Is that really true? The guards are on edge. Next day when we’re ordered to dig trenches across the airstrip. Is it to stop our planes from landing, or have we dug our graves? We’re anxious.
Early August. The Japanese tell us we don’t need to work but they’re as confused as us. Some are friendly, all of them less demanding. Something is in the air.
15 August. Today we saw the guards in a panic burning papers. Rumours that the war is over spread through the camp.
18 August. We’ve been uneasy for the last 2 days. RSM McTavish ordered everyone onto the parade ground. We were called to attention and Major Chida Sotomatsu, the camp commandant, made an announcement. It was translated:
‘The Greater East Asia war has ended. You must carry on as you have been for some time until your own people come and take you over. I, as camp commandant, wish to thank you all for the good work you have done for me in the group. Higher officials have given out certain orders and it is my wish that you all adhere to these orders in a soldierly manner. I am still responsible for you all until I can hand you over to your own people. Outside work will cease as from tomorrow. Inside work as far as the I.J.A. are concerned is also finished, but work will have to carry on as before for your own benefit. Do your work as exercise. Those of you who are fit must keep fit. Those who are sick must do their utmost to get fit as soon as possible.’
We are free!
24 August. We were stunned at first. We are free but stay in the camp. Local Thais generously bring us food and drink. They’re organising entertainment for us; cinema, dancing, sports, even horse racing. The Thai army spoke to RSM McTavish, but they couldn’t tell him when we will be leaving.
25 August. Colonel Toosey arrived this evening. We gave him a tremendous reception. He said he had been worried about us, but relaxed when he saw us in good shape.
27 August. British officer Major Smiley arrived early this morning. He tells us he’s been in Thailand since May training the Seri Thai resistance. When the Japanese surrendered, he came straight to Ubon. He stayed undercover in case of Japanese revenge attacks. His radio operator contacted HQ to requisition supplies. We need decent clothes. The Thais send in more food.
28 August. Colonel Toosey sent the 20 sick men back to Bangkok with the 4 Americans. No news of our departure. We are organising football with the local Ubon team. We now have a radio and listen to the BBC. We go into Ubon but back before curfew.
22 September. It’s been five frustrating weeks waiting to go home. But we are now on the move. The Australians and 250 of the British have gone. The rest of us go in 2 days. Feeling sorry for the hundreds of Dutch who can’t go home because of fighting in the Dutch East Indies.
(The Dutch are trained in firearms and tactics in anticipation of fighting the insurgents. They eventually leave Thailand in February 1946.)
Remembering captivity across Southeast Asia and the Far East during the Second World War