Tag Archives: Changi

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.”

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

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 End of Captivity

by Jane Davies, Curator of the Lancashire Infantry Museum

Hostilities with Japan ended on the 15th August 1945.  However, for those men of the 2nd Battalion, The Loyal Regiment, who had been held in captivity since Singapore fell on the 15th February 1942, freedom did not come straight away. 

The Loyal Regiment had been imprisoned at first in Changi POW camp and then later the vast majority of men were imprisoned in Keijo Camp, Korea.

Keijo Camp by Harry Kingsley; Photo courtesy of the Lancashire Infantry Museum

Although Keijo was a Japanese ‘show camp’ the conditions for the men were still harsh. They lived under the constant fear of death.  For example, face smacking of POWs was commonplace, but this was preferable to other punishments. One Japanese Corporal earned the nickname ‘Scoops’ following an incident in which he hit a prisoner in the face with a ladle five times.

Weight loss and malnutrition were significant problems. Lieutenant Lever in his diary, which we hold in the museum, recorded that ‘men were now changed so much that they were unrecognisable as the same people they had been before the surrender.’ He later went on to say that ‘body and soul were often kept together by the rare red cross parcel which was deemed infinitely better than the eternal, infernal, rice and stew.’

The conditions in the camp were trying and morale was maintained by holding gang shows and producing a magazine called “Nor Iron Bars”. After three years in Keijo Camp, news began to filter through that the end of the war may be in sight. Brigadier Elrington, in his reminiscences about life as a POW, stated ‘It will be remembered that after VE Day there was no prospect of an immediate end to the war in the Far East. After the reaction of VE Day our morale ran so high that we chafed as each day went by. But, our captors not only chafed, they trembled. Their paramount fear was not of defeat, or death, but of war with Russia. They had no illusions about the Russians, and no power to stay their advance.’

As the Russians were approaching Keijo, in a last act of defiance and cruelty, the Japanese guards threatened to shoot all the Officers imprisoned there. As the Japanese were to die at their posts then the Allied Officers were to, too. The Officers were only saved by the dropping of the second atom bomb and the consequent surrender of Japan on the 15th August. 

Brigadier Elrington concludes his memoirs with this passage ‘After the unbelievable news of VJ Day (August 15) had turned to weeks of inpatient waiting for deliverance, the great moment for us arrived on the 9th September. Amid tremendous excitement and noise of tanks, trucks, bewildered Japs and frantic soldiery, a very large and confident American Company Commander sort [sic] out our CO, saluted smartly and shouted, “Say, Colonel, who d’ya want shot?”

Officers Garden, Brigadier Elrington on the right; Photo courtesy of the Lancashire Infantry Museum

The survivors left Korea and embarked for the Philippines. From there they went on HMS Implacable to Vancouver and eventually reached England in October 1945 where they were reunited with friends and family.

In 1948 a few of the Loyals gave evidence at the Yokohama Minor War Trials against Colonel Y. Nogouchi and 11 others. Nogouchi, former Commandant of all POWs in Korea received 22 years hard labour and Corporal Takuma Mastaro, alias Scoops, former Corporal, later Sergeant, of Keijo received 31 years hard labour. One guard was realeased, others were sentenced to hard labour and one Lieutenant Mizuchi Yasutosi, former Camp Commandant of Jinsen (where a few members of the Battalion were incarcerated) was sentenced to death by hanging.

Liberation of Sime Road Camp Singapore – Freddy’s Story

Excerpts from internees’ recollections of liberation from Changi/Sime Road camps, Singapore

Composed by Dr Bernice Archer

Freddy Bloom, young woman recently married to military doctor in Singapore before Allies surrendered. Freddy interned in Changi/ Sime Road while husband Philip was interned in Changi POW camp.

(source:  Freddy Bloom: Dear Philip – A Diary of Captivity Changi 1942-45, Epilogue to a diary). (The Bodley Head Ltd.) Used with kind permission of Ginny Kanka.

There never was an official notice that our war was over. Peace trickled in gradually. Some of our ‘hosts’ faded away. Those who stayed rarely appeared and one or two actually tried to ingratiate themselves with us. Red Cross stores were released. Letters that were held up were distributed. Then one beautiful day a small squad of super-men in red berets came to the camp. They were some of Mountbatten’s commandos. Each seemed ten feet tall, tanned, bursting with strength and unlike anything we had seen in years…….

We were told to stay where we were but this did not suit me. So one day in the last week of August Katherine (her friend) and I put on our best dresses that we had saved for just such an occasion. We crawled under the wire and out of the camp.

With studied ‘sang froid’ as if it was the most natural thing in the world we hailed a taxi and told him to drive us to Changi POW camp.

At Changi gates the man on duty, whose mouth had opened in disbelief when we appeared, controlled himself long enough to tell us the hospital was at the end of the avenue.

The long walk became memorable. Men in shorts were working or lounging everywhere. As we made our way, first one and then another would come up to us, look hard and then shake our hands saying ‘First white women in three and a half years’.

The first time it was touching. The second and third time just a little less so. After we had shaken hands for the umpteenth time it was hard to control our mirth. Each said exactly the same words in exactly the same way. We knew we must not let them down. Since we ‘were’ the first white women in three and a half years we had to behave appropriately but it was difficult to assess just what appropriate was. Not giggles for sure.

Now there I was standing at the end of Philip’s camp bed…. then he came in and put his arms round me. I buried my head in his chest and sobbed all over him……….

FEPOW Artwork

2 LOYALS’ COLLECTION: LANCASHIRE INFANTRY MUSEUM FULLWOOD BARRACKS, PRESTON

By Jane Davies, Curator of the Lancashire Infantry Museum

I have worked at the Lancashire Infantry Museum in Preston for 15 years.  The Museum houses a wonderful collection, full of interesting objects and archival material; from an account describing the Peninsular Wars and Waterloo to letters back home from the Front during WW1, we hold everything that you can think of.

My favourite collection, without a doubt, is that of the 2nd Battalion, The Loyal Regiment dating from WW2. The Battalion was present at Singapore on the 15th February 1942 when the island fell to the Japanese. Over three years of incarceration began, first of all at Changi prisoner of war camp and then later on (for the majority of the Battalion) in Keijo, Korea.

I first ‘discovered’ the collection when I came across a bound ‘book’ called “Nor Iron Bars”.  Looking inside, the ‘book’ was remarkable.  It was full of magazines compiled by the Battalion’s Officers whilst being held as POWs.  Written on any scrap of paper they could find, mainly old Naval message pads and paper from Red Cross parcels, a series of magazines were produced containing humorous drawings, poems, educational lectures and essays about the Officer’s situation.  Photographs were also attached including ones of the men erecting defenses on Singapore before the Japanese invaded and also photographs of activities within the camp in Keijo itself.  These included photographs of camp shows, the vegetable patch and the funeral of a POW attended by Japanese Officials.

I found these photographs quite extraordinary and at odds to what I knew about other Japanese POW camps. These photographs of men from the Battalion seeming to enjoy themselves were so different to what I had read about the men from 18th Recce (previously the 5th Battalion, The Loyal Regiment) and their experience as POWs on the Thai-Burma Railway.  Further digging about the camp at Keijo was required and, after seeing those photographs it was no surprise to find that the Japanese treated Keijo as a ‘show camp’.  A camp that would be held up as a beacon of good treatment.

The fact that Keijo was a ‘show camp’ should not distract from the harsh conditions that 2 Loyals lived under.  Second Lieutenant Pigott was caught exchanging an old shirt with a Korean for a small loaf of bread.  His punishment was to spend the remainder of his time as a POW in the civil prison, without heating and in winter, a nightly 40 degrees of frost. Near the end Lieutenant Piggot re-joined the camp, but only lasted a few days.  He died on the 29th August 1945.

The danger of being caught with the magazine was summed up by Brigadier Elrington ‘If they were caught with the magazine their punishment would have been terrible. Production of it was punishable by torture and death’ – ‘ these pages were surreptitiously produced, passed from hand to hand and eventually smuggled out of captivity, in spite of the grave risks involved; indeed this constant fear of secrecy added spice to our enjoyment and each successive edition of Nor Iron Bars gave a fresh fillip to our morale.’

For the duration of the war the copies of the magazines were kept in a safe place, hidden from the view of the camp guards.  In 1947 the magazines were bound together and presented as an album to the museum where it is on display now.

Changi Concert Party: AWM Talk

Free public talk

Australian War Memorial

Thursday 15 February, 12 pm
Research Centre Reading Room

https://www.awm.gov.au/visit/events/changi-concert-party

After the fall of Singapore in February 1942, many Australians were imprisoned in the Changi prisoner of war camp. Within a few days the Changi Concert Party was formed. During their imprisonment, the men of the concert party staged hundreds of performances, each with a detailed, vibrant program. Join a curator from the Research Centre to learn more about these programs, the concerts they advertised, and the men who made them.

Image: Concert Party, Changi Camp, 1942. Murray Griffin. Courtesy of AWM ART24467.

Changi digitisation project: Cambridge

Originally posted by the Southeast Asia Library Group: Changi digitisation project at Cambridge University Library

 Cambridge University Library has been awarded a Wellcome Trust Research Resources Award to conserve, digitise and make freely available online the archives of two WWII civilian internment camps on Singapore – Changi and Sime Road. These form part of the Royal Commonwealth Society’s British Association of Malaysia and Singapore archives. The two-year grant commences in September 2015 and it is planned to launch the records in Cambridge Digital Library in August 2017.

The archives will be of immense interest to the families of internees, academic researchers, students and the general public, since few survivors ever spoke of their traumatic ordeal. The first stage of the project involves the meticulous conservation of the archives.

The archives contain invaluable primary sources for the reconstruction of the lives of Singapore’s civilian internees. They include official records compiled by the camps’ internal administration, which document personal data like an internee’s name, date entered camp, marital status, occupation, age, nationality, and camp address. Other sources shed light upon accommodation, camp discipline, relations with the Japanese authorities, work parties, diet, health and hygiene, recreation and leisure, the delivery of mail, and the repatriation of internees at the end of the war. Newspapers circulated within the male camp, such as the ‘Changi Guardian’, reported upon events, disseminated news of sporting, musical and theatrical societies, and published fiction, poetry and humour. These official records are complemented by the correspondence, diaries and memoirs of individual internees.

More information on the historical background and provenance of the archives can be found on the Cambridge University Library Special Collections webpage.

An article by Peng Han Lim on “Identifying and collecting primary sources of information to reconstruct the daily lives of the civilian internees at Changi Prison and Sime Road Camp 1942-45” is included in the SEALG Newsletter 2013.