Tag Archives: Featured

Featured posts.

New Year’s Eve Celebrations

By Sears Eldredge

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

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

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

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

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

[TO BE CONTINUED AT CHANGI BLOG ‘43]


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


[i] Wilkinson. Diary. 31 Dec. ’42.

[ii] David, 45.

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

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

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

More Trouble in the Works

By Sears Eldredge

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

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

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


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


[i] Wilkinson. Diary. 30 Dec. ’42.

[ii] Wilkinson. Diary. 30 Dec. ’42.

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

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

Christmas Pantomimes

By Sears Eldredge

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

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

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

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

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


[i] Parkin, 19.

[ii] Boyle, 52.

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

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

New Book: Tigers in Captivity

By Ken Hewitt

Tigers in Captivity

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

by Ken Hewitt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We will remember them.

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

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

Christmas, 1942

By Sears Eldredge

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

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

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

Christmas Carolers.  George Sprod.
Courtesy of Michael Sprod

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


[i] Pounder, 54.

[ii] Wilkinson. Diary. 21 Dec. ’42.

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

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

[v] Wilkinson. Diary. 25 Dec. ’42.

[vi] Wilkinson. Diary. 25 Dec. ’42.

[vii] Wilkinson. Diary. 26 Dec. ’42.

[viii] Barwick, 31.

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

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

Gentlemen Only

By Sears Eldredge

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

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

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

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


[i] David, 43.

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

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

Working Parties Return

By Sears Eldredge

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

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

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

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

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

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

That situation didn’t last long.


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

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

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

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

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

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

NEW BOOK: POW ON THE SUMATRA RAILWAY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Changi Garrison Cinema Discovered

By Sears Eldredge

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

Playbill for December ‘42.

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

When we’re free yes, when we’re free

Oh how happy we shall be.

 When we see the last of Changi tree[2]

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

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


[1] Not made available for this blog.

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


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

[ii] Horner, 61.

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

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

Toneel

By Sears Eldredge

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


[i] Wilkinson. Diary. 23 Nov. ’42.

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

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