Tag Archives: Featured

Featured posts.

The Intrepid Theatre-Goer

By Sears Eldredge

Once he was back on his feet, Capt. Wilkinson lost no time catching as many shows currently playing as possible. First, he saw the pantomime, Dick Wittington, which he called “first class.” It was so good he went back a second time. Then he saw Roman Rackets, which he thought only “fairly good,” followed by Hay Fever: ‘“Hay Fever’ was undoubtedly outstanding, even comparing it with English Rep. standards!”, he pronounced.[i] Finally, Wilkinson went to see the revue Shooting High. “It was a sort of wild west show,” he wrote. “The outstanding item was an apache dance in which ‘Judy’ Garland was brilliant.”[ii] He heard that the St. George Players were going to do a revival of Shakespeare’s Macbeth in the near future, which he definitely planned to attend.”[iii]

Hay Fever

Of all the shows currently on view in Changi, it was Daltry’s production of Hay Fever that garnered the most praise. Nelson, who had received a special invitation to the premiere, thought: “It was simply marvellous, at least the equal of performances I have attended in London. Many of the artists are professionals.”[iv]

Program cover for Hay Fever. Desmond Bettany.
Courtesy of the Bettany Family.

David wrote that it was “beautifully produced and one of the best shows we’ve had. I intend to see it again.”[v] Huxtable, thought it “witty and amusing” and went on to say:

Major Daltry, overcoming all difficulties, produced a first-class show and the acting was very good. John Wood, the Australian, was Miss Bliss and Major Bradshaw her husband. We had a good laugh and all agreed that we had often paid ten bob to see shows of a far lower standard in peace time.[vi]

Caricature of John Wood as “Miss Bliss.”[1]  Desmond Bettany.
Courtesy of the Bettany Family.

Wilkinson elaborated further on his initial reactions to the production:

The outstanding show was “Hey Fever” . . .. The stage setting was wonderful and so were all the dresses etc. They had a first class cast. The female lead was taken by John Wood. He is an Australian who has had professional stage and film experience in England. Bradshaw was in it and Douglas Rye of the Croyden Ren. [?] Since we went up country a number of new “females” have cropped up and most of them are first class actors.[vii]

Caricature of Willis Toogood. Desmond Bettany.
Courtesy of the Bettany Family.

One of these “new ‘females’” was Willis Toogood, who played “Myra Arundel.” His first appearance as a female impersonator was in the Glade Theatre’s production of Old King Cole back in 1942. Oliver Thomas (originally in “The Optimists Concert Party”), played Simon Bliss. Thomas remembered, “We did 35 performances of this.”[viii]

We obviously had to make do with what furniture & props we could get together. Some things had to be made e.g. a ‘barometer’ which falls off the wall & breaks in ‘Hay Fever’ when one of the unhappy house-guests ‘taps’ it . . .  there is breakfast scene — edible things had to be made out of rice e.g. both the slices of ‘toast’ in the rack and the small yellow balls of ‘butter.’ We were so hungry that it was impossible not to be very excited eating this substitute food, and the audience knew it & didn’t let the fact you were actually eating go by unnoticed. Hunger was the perpetual condition of our being Japanese POW’s.[ix]


[1] The artist did not identify the person caricatured, but I assume this is John Wood as he always played a blond female.


[i] Wilkinson, Diary, 5 February ’44.

[ii] Wilkinson, Diary, 5 February ’44.

[iii] Wilkinson, Diary, 5 February.

[iv] Nelson, 127.

[v] David, 55.

[vi] Huxtable, 150.

[vii] Wilkinson, Diary, 5 Feb. ’44.

[viii] Thomas, Fax, 31 March 01, 2.

[ix] Thomas, Fax, 31 March 01, 5.

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

Changi Concert Parties: January–May ‘44

By Sears Eldredge

Because of the huge resettlement of the POWs into a smaller perimeter that had taken place during the latter days of 1943, the number of performance venues in Changi were now limited to five: The A.I.F. Theatre, Command’s indoor and outdoor theatres, and the Con Depot’s outdoor theatre, as well as the YMCA music marquee—all in the Selarang Area. There is no mention of another performance in The Kokonut Grove Theatre in the records. But a new outdoor venue—The Phoenix Theatre— appeared in January in Hanky Park, which was, according to Huxtable, “over near the Malaya Command building half a mile away, over by No. 3 gate.”[i] These POWs were most likely from the Volunteer Forces who had been in the Southern Area and Up Country. The entertainers called themselves “The Red Rose Players.” Their orchestra was directed by Geoffrey C. Knight and their Stage Manager was S. J. Cole. The Phoenix became another of the Command Theatres.

Playbill for January/February ’44. Dick Wittington, at the A.I.F. Theatre, and Aladdin at Command’s indoor theatre, would finish their runs towards the end of the January. Meanwhile, the Variety show, Roman Rackets, written by Graham Sauvage and produced by S. J. Cole was on at the new Phoenix Theatre at Hanky Park. On 25 January, Noel Coward’s Hay Fever, produced by Osmond Daltry and directed by Chris Buckingham opened at Command’s indoor theatre.

In early February, Shooting High, a Western Farce written by Les Connell & McArthur and produced by Keith Stevens went up at the A.I.F. Theatre, followed by a Variety Show, Bits & Pieces. Huxtable, had this to say about the A.I.F. shows he saw:

The shows are always bright and amusing, if somewhat lowbrow – clever singing, dancing, female impersonations (John Woods) and conjuring tricks (Sid Piddington).[ii] 

The Phoenix Theatre’s show for February was P. G. Wodehouse’s, Good Morning, Bill, produced by John Burne.


[i] Huxtable, 153.

[ii] Huxtable, 153.

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, 1943

By Sears Eldredge

Program cover for Aladdin. Desmond Bettany. Courtesy of the Bettany Family.

The former Command Players in their new Little Theatre (formerly Smokey Joe’s) mounted Aladdin: A Christmas Pantomime written by Rich Goodman with a huge cast featuring Norman Backshall as Aladdin, John White as the Princess, and Hugh Elliot at Widow Twankey. It included a Chorus and a “Ballet” of eight harem dancers. Musical arrangements were by J. J. Porter, scenic design was by Derek Cooper, and costumes were by Fred Cooper. Chris Buckingham was the Stage Manager.

The A.I.F. Concert Party opened their pantomime, Dick Whittington and His Cat, on New Year’s Eve. It was produced by John Wood with a book by Leslie Greener. Settings were by Murray Griffin, costumes by Teddy Druitt, lighting by Clarrie Barker, and music/lyrics by Ray Tullipan and Slim De Grey with Bill Middleton directing the orchestra.

Performed by concert party regulars: Keith Stevens played Dick Whittington, his Cat was played by Bob Picken, Ron Caple played Widow Twankey[1]; and Doug Peart, the Sergeant Major.

Dick Wittington and His Cat. A.I.F. Pantomime. Xmas, 1943. Painting by Murray Griffin. AWM.

Both shows were huge successes—just what the M.O.s’ ordered for sick and recovering troops. And so ends 1943. In early 1944, the POWs in Changi would begin the third year of their captivity.


[1] Yes, Widow Twankey appears in more than one pantomime, so there can always be a clothes washing scene where suggestive remarks are made about the state of the underwear.  

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

Another Short Wave Broadcast and The Return of “F” Force

By Sears Eldredge

Another Short Wave Broadcast

The fifth in a series of recordings for short-wave broadcasts “from AIF hospital in Malaya” occurred on 16 December. The Australian announcer, Capt. Alan Bush, reminded his listeners that on the last broadcast they had heard the “very colorful number ‘The Race that Rules the Rhythm of the World.’”[i] (Whether this song is referring to the Japanese or the White race is ambiguous.[1]) Then he launched into the first sketch:

Announcer: All roads today led to Circular Quay [Sydney] to welcome home thousands of soldiers returning after years in Malaya. As we reach the Quayside, we behold the tall, lean, sun-tanned Anzac marching down the gang-way. . .. And there’s a pretty girl with a beautiful blue-eyed baby in her arms waving to them. This will be a touching wartime reunion and I’ll take the portable microphone over close and we’ll listen to their conversation.

A.  My darling little wife, gee it’s great to be back.

B.  Sweetheart you are looking wonderful.

A.  Yeah! And so are you, honey, but tell me, whose baby is that?

B.  Why, that’s our little Benny.

A.  Our little Benny? But I’ve been away for four years. That kid can’t be more than 6 months old.

B. Don’t you know, Benny’s from Heaven?

Then came a takeoff on the song “Pennies from Heaven” closing with the lyrics,

Now every kid must have a Dad,

They’ve always taught us.

But little Benny had,

A flying fortress.

No use to ask the preacher,

St. Peter’s the one to see,

For Benny’s from heaven

And not from me.[ii]

The mention of “a flying fortress” as the father of the “blue-eyed baby” is a reference to the American airmen stationed in Australia as part of the war effort. Everyone seemed to know the saying, “The Yanks are overpaid, oversexed, and over here.” Fearing the worst about the G.I.’s behavior with their sweethearts and wives, this was a warning to the “girls” back home to toe the line.

The Return of “F” Force

That same day, 16 December, members of “F Force” began to arrive back in Changi. “Most were in very poor state of health and their morale at a low ebb,” observed Nelson.[iii] The Australian returnees would be accommodated in huts on the padang in Selarang Barracks.[iv] The British returnees would be relocated to the Garden & Woods Area.

Four days later Huxtable reported that “All the AIF of F Force are back except such as are still in hospital,[2] too sick for the four and a half days train journey.”[v]

One of the Aussies who came back at this time was Stan Arneil. His diary records the moment when they emerged from their transport boxcars.

The people from Changi stood back and uttered not a word. It was really quite strange. We lined up on the road as best we could and stood up as straight as we could. Those who couldn’t stand up straight were on sticks. And those who couldn’t stop shaking with malaria were held by their friends. We thought this was what we should do as soldiers to say that we were not beaten. The sergeant major dressed us off and we stood in a straight line as he went over and reported to Colonel Johnson. Johnson went over to [GCO] Black Jack Galleghan and he said, “Your 2/30th all present and correct, sir.” And Galleghan said, “Where are the rest?” The major, he was a major then, said, “They’re all here, sir.” And we were. Black Jack Galleghan, the iron man, broke down and cried.  It was an incredible scene. We wanted to show them we were soldiers.[vi] 

If the word from “H” Force about POW treatment Up Country wasn’t bad enough, the word from “F” Force would be worse—much worse.

Huxtable saw “young Wycherley, the pianist and accompanist, but all the rest of the celebrity concert party, who used to entertain us so delightfully both here and at Roberts Barracks have been wiped out by disease,[3] with the exception of the violinist Denis East. The latter, we hear, is still in hospital up north,[4] but recovering.”[vii] 

Huxtable was aware that for many of the returning POWs, it still wasn’t over. “Since the last date of entry,” he wrote in his diary, “I have taken part is some hard work at the hospital and seen much tragedy and death from sickness. The men are so emaciated from malaria and other disease that they die easily.”[viii] 

This horrific situation made it all the more important that the concert party Christmas shows not only had to be excellent in execution but wild with laughter.


[1] The ambiguity allowed any Japanese to understand it his way while the listening POW audience understood it a different way.

[2] Up Country in Kanburi Hospital Camp (see my online book, Chap. 4 “The Interval: Thailand and Burma).

[3] Not entirely accurate. Because he couldn’t keep up with the rest of the marching troops, Reginald Renison was beaten to death on the long march up to their work sites on the border with Burma. John Foster-Haigh died of starvation in a camp in Burma.

[4] Actually, East was in Kranji, a hospital for chronic cases that had been established in the northern part of Singapore Island. According to my interview with East, he insisted that he had never gone Up Country.


[i] Frey, Kerrin. Shortwave Radio Transcript, 1.

[ii] Frey, Kerrin. Shortwave Radio transcript, 1-2.

[iii] Nelson, 124-126.

[iv] Huxtable, 144.

[v] Huxtable, 144.

[vi] Arneil, in Nelson, Prisoners of War, 68.

[vii] Huxtable, 144.

[viii] Huxtable, 145.

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

Documentary: Litir Ghrá ón Dara Cogadh Domhanda

A new documentary, produced by Strident Media, tells the story of Dr Frank Murray and his then fiancée Eileen O’Kane.

Frank, a Belfast doctor, made a promise to Eileen that he would return home from the Second World War. This is the story of that promise, revealed in love letters that are now brought to life to reveal their long-distance romance and how this promise was kept.

Dr Murray served as a medic in the Second World War and was deployed to Singapore where he was eventually taken prisoner of war. The documentary covers Frank’s perspective of the fall of Singapore and his time as a prisoner of war of the Japanese, including becoming the Commanding Officer in a camp in northern Japan.

The documentary has been filmed with contributions from Eileen and Frank’s children, historians, psychologists and military experts.

You can watch Litir Ghrá ón Dara Cogadh Domhanda on BBC Two Northern Ireland, or the BBC iPlayer, on Sunday 9th October at 10pm and TG4 on Wednesday 12th October at 9:30pm. The documentary is broadcast in the Irish Language with English subtitles available.

If you would like to read more about the documentary you can read this article on Northern Ireland Screen in both Irish and English.

If you would like to read more about Dr Frank Murray, you can read more about Gaeltacht to Galicia: a Son’s Tale, a book written by Paul Murray (Frank’s son), here.

1st Short Wave Radio Broadcast & The Return of “H” Force

By Sears Eldredge

1st Short Wave Radio Broadcast

The A.I.F. made their first recording for short wave broadcast to Australia on 18 October. But it was not one of their shows that was broadcast: it was an original script, which included as many names of POWs as possible and coded references to their health and situation. Huxtable was part of a group of officers and men who “played” the audience, applauding as directed.[i]

Playbill for November/December ’43. November 2nd saw the opening of “Keep Singing” An Oriental Adventure by Ray Tullipan and Slim De Grey at the A.I.F. Theatre. It ended with a “Jungle Dance” supposedly performed by the African-American tap dancer, “Bojangles of Harlem.”[1] On 11 November, Lord Babs, an adaptation of a book by P. G. Wodehouse, opened at The Command Little Theatre, produced by Jack Fitzgerald. Credits list S. J. Cole as the General Manager for “Command Theatres, Inc.”.[2] On 16 November, the A.I.F. Theatre staged a new Variety Show in which the opening number was entitled “Outward Bound”—surely a takeoff on the popular play at The Little Theatre with lyrics more hopeful about their own destination.

December 1st saw the opening of Emlyn Williams’ play, A Murder Has Been Arranged presented by “The Command Players” at the A.I.F. Theatre. Besides the excellent acting, it was notable for the fact that there were five female impersonators in the cast. On the 12th, the A.I.F. Concert Party mounted We Must Have Music, a Variety Show with a surprise appearance of “Santa Klaus” and “Jingle Bells” during the Finale.

The Return of “H” Force

In early December, the POWs in Changi were shocked when the survivors of “H” Force unexpectedly returned from Up Country. Capt. Wilkinson was relocated to the Old Garden & Woods Area; others to a new camp at Hanky Park. But many of the Brits (like Ronald Searle, who almost died Up Country) and Australians (like George Sprod) were sent to Sime Road Camp on the outskirts of Singapore, where R. M. Horner had been dispatched to start weekly entertainments to take their minds off the recent past. On 14 December, he wrote in his diary:

The remainder of ‘H’ Force have now come down from Thailand – the total death rate of our force of 3,320 is now 823. ‘F’ Force are also on their way down either to Bangkok or possibly another camp in Singapore. Their casualties are over 3.000 already and they are dying at a rate of 8-12 a day. They lost a lot from cholera and pure starvation. As 18 Div. had a large number on this force I fear I’ll have lost many friends.[ii]

Now the POWs in Changi would hear firsthand about the killer work details, the cruelty, starvation, disease, and death suffered by their mates Up Country. [See future blog on Sime Road Camp].


[1] This was a highly unusual Finale, which raises all sorts of questions. Was this performed by an Aussie in blackface, or by one of the Dutch/Indonesian troops? Did it try to convey some sort of coded message about the war to the audience about their own “oriental adventure”?

[2] Note the use of the plural here. 


[i] Huxtable, 139.

[ii] Horner, 116.

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

Registration open for the 2023 Researching FEPOW History Conference


Registration for the 2023 Researching FEPOW History Conference is now open!

We advise early booking as places are limited, please see the notes below (or those attached to the registration form) for further details.

We hope to see many of you in Liverpool 10-11 June 2023!

All the best,
RFHG

IMPORTANT NOTES


Planning to put on this next conference has had its challenges!

As seasoned delegates will know, RFHG run the conferences on a shoestring; we are all volunteers and rely on delegate fees to underpin all but the venue costs. We are indebted to the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine for its continuing support.

While we are all now learning to live with COVID-19, and with a further vaccine rollout this autumn, we still cannot be certain that something may arise to restrict plans once again. Therefore, in the event of another COVID-19 threat next year we must comply with the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine’s safeguarding guidelines within School during periods of rising or high infection rates (such as mask wearing and social distancing).

FIRST COME, FIRST SERVED

This means that initially we have limited guaranteed places to the first 55 people for whom we receive completed delegate forms, together with deposits. When guest speakers and the RFHG team are added, we reach the school’s maximum number of persons allowed in the lecture theatre under the 2-metre social distancing rules.

However, we sincerely hope that by Spring next year we will be able to invite another 30 or more from the waiting list to join the conference. We appreciate your understanding. We will inform all those who register if they have a confirmed place or are on the waiting list.

NB previous delegates had priority booking (from 1 September) so don’t delay booking to avoid disappointment! If we do not reach our break-even by 1 November, regrettably we will have to cancel the conference.

Queries? Get in touch via email: researchingfepowhistory@gmail.com, or to mike.parkes@talktalk.net, or by telephone – 0151 632 2017. We aim to respond to queries within five working days.

Out of Bounds

By Sears Eldredge

On 14 July, the POWs got word from Japanese H.Q. that the British and Australian units within Roberts Hospital would start moving to Selarang Barracks Square in a week. (This will eventually place The Palladium and Command Theatres out of bounds—but not their players and production staff. When they did move, they would take all their costumes, props, lighting, curtains, etc., with them to their new locations.) They would move to the Old Convalescent Depot in Selarang which had become Command and Southern Area Headquarters.

Concurrently, “30 medical officers and 200 Royal Army Medical Corps other ranks” (known as “K” Force) were sent to Thailand, which caused POW Command H.Q. in Changi to fear that some sort of epidemic had broken out Up Country.[i] How right they were. The troops Up Country were dealing with cholera.

Playbill for August/September/October ’43. In early August, the A.I.F. Concert Party shared their theatre with a N.E.I. concert party. What they staged was a musical comedy in Dutch seen by Huxtable:

. . . about two young bloods touring the world.[1] They were smart, well-groomed and clever, and the female impersonators were good. One of the latter, in fact, was quite ravishing in a long, blue evening gown, blonde, beautiful and languorous . . .. I was sitting with Smith-Ryan, and next to him sat a Dutch officer who helped a little with translation.[ii]

Over at the Kokonut Grove Theatre, which was about to go out of bounds, the N.E.I. POWs stationed there produced, Faust: An Operetta in Three Acts. The last show at the Palladium, which was also going out of bounds, was Alan Bush and J. J. Porter’s The Little Admiral. Meanwhile both the musical, Everybody Swing, produced by John Wood, and the revue, In The News, were performed at the A.I.F. Theatre.

Programme cover for Everybody Swing. Des Bettany.
Courtesy of The Bettany Family.

In September, the Aussie’s produced Let’s Have a Murder, a musical mystery play written by Slim De Grey. They were also given word that the Japanese planned to record their shows for short wave radio broadcast to Australia— “as an indication to the world of how happy we all are here at Selarang Barracks,” thought Huxtable.[iii]

October saw the opening of The Time of Your Life, produced by British POW, Ken Morrison, at the A.I.F. Theatre,[2][iv] followed on the 19th by The Fleet’s In, produced by Bennie McCaffrey, which featured a “Toe Dance” by Charles Wiggins to a trumpet duo playing music from the West End musical, Mayfair. At The Little Theatre, Osmond Daltry produced Sutton Vane’s thought-provoking mystery play, Outward Bound.

Program cover for Outward Bound. Desmond Bettany. [3]
Courtesy of the Bettany Family.

Outward Bound is a serious play about the passengers on a boat headed to an unknown destination. What an audience discovers is that the passengers have all died from various causes, and their unknown destination will be either to Heaven or Hell. Only the young couple, appearing on the boat as they prepare to commit suicide are saved from death by the barking of their dog. It was directed by C. J. Buckingham (prior to this he had only functioned as Stage Manager). Former actors from The Palladium Theatre were in the cast. Huxtable, who saw the play on 10 November, thought it “a difficult play to produce successfully before troops, but in spite of that it was most successful. [F. W.] Bradshaw and [Osmond] Daltry are both professional actors. Daltry lost an eye and a leg (thigh amputation) [in the Battle for Singapore] and has to get around on crutches. Bradshaw, young and handsome, has been in Hollywood, I believe.”[v]

On 17 October, David Nelson records that Command was opening a “new theatre.”[vi] According to Huxtable,

[this would be the] former building where Smokey Joe’s restaurant used to be. The walls of the big entertainment hall still carry the cartoons in black and white, painted by Private Rogan of the Convalescent Depot, depicting Walt Disney figures and similar characters. This hall, being in the original NAAFI building, had a proper stage and they have enhanced the effect by rooting up the floor in front of the stage and constructing a pit for the orchestra.[vii]

It, too, would be known as “the little theatre.”[4] Now the Command Players had both an indoor and an outdoor theatre.


[1] Interesting enough, this was the same plot of a show, Zijn Groote Reis (His Big Journey), produced by Dutch POWs in Chungkai POW Camp, Thailand, on 15-16 September 1944.

[2] In mid-August, Morrison, a compere and leading player in shows at the Palladium, received a letter from his mother that told him his wife had been killed in an air raid the previous December. [Capt. A. Smith-Ryan diary, PR00592]

[3] Bettany got the playwright wrong on his program cover.

[4] “Little” refers to the limited number of audience members that could be accommodated in the auditorium. Outdoor theatres could accommodate a lot more.


[i] Nelson, 100.

[ii] Huxtable, 132.

[iii] Huxtable, 137-138.

[iv] Mack, Show Log.

[v] Huxtable, 141.

[vi] Nelson, 116.

[vii] Huxtable, 144-146.

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

Des Bettany – POW Artist

By Keith Bettany

Gunners – Unknown Mates (Des on far right).
Image courtesy of Keith Bettany.

My dad, Des Bettany, after seeing action in Europe in WW2 was evacuated from Dunkirk and posted to North Malaya. He was eventually imprisoned by the Japanese at various prisons camps on Singapore Island with some 100,000 other prisoners of war (POW’s) . You may well ask, how did he make it through all of this? Well, he painted to keep his sanity. 

Clumsy Gunner On A 25 Pounder.
Image courtesy of Keith Bettany.

From out of the misery, starvation, exploitation and brutality that resulted in so much loss of life and injury (physical and mental) a series of artworks that helped Des and his mates survive the ordeal has now come to light in a family collection. This artwork of his service life before and after the Capitulation of Singapore is a range of fascinating illustrations, done often with humour by Des himself.

Sketchbook Confiscated – Des Bettany’s confrontation with Major General Saito
Image courtesy of Keith Bettany.

However, while painting to keep his head, he nearly lost it, as he was also painting political cartoons of the Japanese and hiding these. They were found and after some quick talking and who knows what else occurred, Des was warned by Major Col Saito, if he ever painted like this again, he would get a short haircut (be beheaded). We are sure he was punished but he, like so many other ex POW’s chose not to share the horrors they went through with others. I guess in telling of the horrors, they just relive them again. 

‘Jap Guard’, Changi Gaol (March 1945).
Image courtesy of Keith Bettany.

This new website has been put together by us, Des’ family, as a tribute and to help raise awareness of what the POWs went through, as seen through the eyes of one man, Des Bettany. It also give a rare insight on how others kept ‘sane’ by looking forward to such things as: The Changi University; The Library; The Theatre and Musical Programs; Changi Industries; working to help mates by making rubber souls for boots or limbs for amputees; getting up to mischief: sabotaging their own work; or partaking in their Faith. 

Filling Moulds.
Image courtesy of Keith Bettany.

After 70 years in a cupboard, at last, this artwork is available to all who have access to the internet. Now that has been ‘liberated’ all the artwork can be viewed at www.changipowart.com

‘Say, Where’s The B…. Cookhouse?’ Towner Road POW Camp
Image courtesy of Keith Bettany.

A brief 4 minute video summarizing dad’s work can be viewed, go to www.changipowart.com/videos click on the ‘Channel 7 Today Tonight Program’.

Malayan Tragedy.
Image courtesy of Keith Bettany.

Please share this site so the message gets out to many of what these men went through and some of the strategies they employed to keep sane and to survive. We also honour & remember those who didn’t make the journey back home.

‘H’ Force Leaving Selerang Barracks Square (May 1943)
Image courtesy of Keith Bettany.

Des Bettany’s artwork, including some of his theatre programme covers are heavily featured as part of our Rice and Shine series.

Further Consolidation

By Sears Eldredge

At the beginning of May, the huge Southern and 18th Division Areas of Changi were shut down and the troops remaining in them moved elsewhere into a smaller, tighter perimeter.[i] These closings would include the loss of the theatres in those Areas (six in the 18th Division alone), unless they could be dismantled and re-erected elsewhere. With troops being crowded into other’s Areas, Unit distinction became more difficult to maintain. But more intermingling by the troops meant more possibilities for creative interaction. Not only had guest performers from one concert party already appeared in other Division’s shows, but new producers and new entertainment troupes with combined personnel were formed, such as seen above with “The United Artistes Players” at the Palladium. Interestingly enough, no instances of artistic jealousy or concert party rivalry has been found in the literature, but you can’t put that many musicians and theatre performers together without some sort of rivalry going on.   

Smokey Joe’s

The ultimate meeting place was Smokey Joe’s in the Selarang Area. Originally a Java Party snack bar operated by the Dutch in an attap-roofed hut.[ii] But with its huge success, it was taken over by Command H.Q. as a money-making venture for all the Divisions and moved to a more accommodating location.  

An old N.A.A.F.I. canteen was taken over, and painters, decorators and electricians performed wonders, under the circumstances. The decorative work, by A.I.F. artists, was fine, the walls being covered with the topical adventures of well-known comic strip personalities.[iii] 

The N.A.A.F.I. had a stage at one end and a bar at the other. Its official opening as an eating place/cabaret with twice weekly floorshows was on 31 May 1943. In Changi, it was the place to be!

But of all ranks, British, Aussies, Yanks, and Dutchmen (brown and white), representing all services, is not easy to describe. The evening hours were filled in contentedly, with a snack to enjoy, noise of the re-echoing band, the concentration on the cabaret turns which came on at various times.[iv] 

One night, John Wood appeared there in a floorshow “as an entrancing blonde in filmy silver and blue.”[v]

Playbill for June/July ’43. June saw The Five Moods of the Theatre ending its run at the Palladium; Midsummer Follies: Being A Riot Of Fun And Merriment, written and directed by Alan Bush,opening at the Command Theatre (with the Palladium Theatre Orchestra directed by J. J. Porter); and a Variety Show at the A.I.F. Theatre. July 6-9 saw a new producer, Jack Fitzgerald, present Love Laughs: A New–Gay–Romantic–Musical Comedy, at the Palladium, with six female impersonators in the cast, including Garland and Stevens from the A.I.F. Concert Party; and the musical comedy, The New World Inn, re-written by George Donnelly at the Command Theatre.


[i] David, 48.

[ii] Nelson, 85.

[iii] Penfold, Bayliss and Crispin. Galleghan’s Greyhounds, 323-324.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Ibid.