Tag Archives: H Force

“The Cathay Players”

By Sears Eldredge

Anticipating the return of the remainder of “H” Force in late 1943, Ronald Horner was posted from Changi to Sime Road to encourage entertainments and to be their Officer in Charge. On 9 December, he wrote: “Am in charge of entertainments here, so far can’t get hold of a piano, but we have an open-air theatre that needs patching up, but has a natural auditorium of a grass bank that will hold 3 or 4,000.”[i]

Caricature of Ronald Horner. Desmond Bettany.
Courtesy of the Bettany Family.
View more of Desmond Bettany’s artwork at: www.changipowart.com

After what they had been through Up Country, the POWs at Sime Road were eager to purge their memories of that experience and release their energies in more positive activity, so Horner was able to quickly established a small concert party, “The Cathay Players,” and started to produce shows. Unfortunately, it was the rainy season, so shows were frequently rained out.[ii] But the weather cleared for Christmas and Horner noted that their holiday show “was a great success” with an audience of about 1,500 in attendance.[iii]  

Among the musicians and theatre performers at Sime Road was the artist, Ronald Searle, who recorded the playbill for a Variety Show that went up on January 9th. This document tells us who those first performers in the “Cathay Concert Party” were. The show opened with the “Attap Serenaders,” followed by the comedian Charlie ‘Arvey. Then came Bill Williams as a “personality vocalist” followed by the Dutch Illusionist, Trouvat. Next on the playbill came the blackface comic duo Long and Whelan, followed by the Australian cartoonist George Sprod singing, and closing with Australian “Professor” Alan Roberts.[iv]

Royal Air Force O.R. John Beckerley, who had been captured on Java, became good friends with Alan Roberts at Sime Road.

Alan Roberts: university lecturer and known by all as The Prof! Very small, you could tap him on the head when he got cross: most of the time. He was most intellectual and most scathing with those who were not: like most of us. I had a long face, [and] a disciplinarian—an Army Provost Marshal Major—also had a long face.  Known as Desperate Dan he also had a foot wide ginger moustache.  Alan Roberts wrote a funny sketch where I as a female fortuneteller complete with large glass ball telling his fortune: how he’s going to get his hands on the good goodies stored wherever. ‘Much fiddling’, I say to Alan’s delight. “Just what I want to hear,” says Alan. “How do I get my hands on it?” LIGHTS GO OUT. . . THEN ON. I’m standing before him complete with a foot wide ginger moustache. Alan, “Good God, Desperate Dan!” The major was not a friendly man . . . standing ovation for me.[v]

    “Desperate Dan”
Caricature of Alec Morris Dann.
Desmond Bettany.
Courtesy of the Bettany Family.
View more of Desmond Bettany’s artwork at: www.changipowart.com

The next week, the Variety Show showcased Trouvat with a 20-minute hypnotism act. Thereafter, the concert party began to produce weekly shows on Saturday nights.

Also at Sime Road was a Dutch/Indonesian café called “The Flying Dutchman” in Hut #4 where you could buy coffee and Indonesian finger foods. Here is where Ronald Searle displayed his posters for shows as well as his costume designs and set renderings.[vi]

By 17 January, the concert party had acquired a piano but they still needed a curtain. And they had grown in number to the point where multiple shows were in rehearsal simultaneously. Horner reports, “I’m producing ‘Cinderella and the Magic Soya Bean,’ we also have Shaw’s ‘Man of Destiny’ and Shakespeare’s ‘Othello’ in rehearsal as well as ideas for a ‘Ragbag Revue’ . . . Jap interpreter has asked for words and music of my ‘When we’re free’ song—as I haven’t yet sung it here, I wonder how he’s got to hear it.”[vii]

On the 24th, there was a piano recital by Bill Williams, which greatly impressed Australian POW James Boyle:

With us at Sime road was Bill Williams — a sergeant in the RAF and a man in a million. He too could keep the interest of his audience from his first number to the last, and seemed capable of catering for all tastes. Bill’s programs usually consisted of popular songs for which he played his own piano arrangements, interspersed with a dash of light classical.[viii]

On 27 January, Horner, pleased with what he had accomplished in way of entertainment, wrote, “The Sat. night variety shows are going with a great bang, we have about 2,000 [in attendance] each time. Sang ‘When we’re Free’ tonight and got the audience to join in.”[ix] Surprisingly enough, the Japanese interpreter who had been given the lyrics had not had the song banned.


[i] Horner, 115.

[ii] Horner, Ibid.

[iii] Horner, Ibid.

[iv] Searle, R. “Notebook,” n.p.

[v] Beckerley, J. Letter. 26 July 04.

[vi] Nielsen, Mrs. Jane Booker. Email 6/18/2015.

[vii] Horner, R. 118.

[viii] Boyle, 146-147.

[ix] Horner, 118.

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

Sime Road Camp

By Sears Eldredge

1943:

It was December, 1943, when the Australian, British and Dutch/Indonesian POWs in “H” Force returned to Singapore from Up Country. Because of a housing shortage in Changi, most of these POWs were shuttled to Sime Road Camp. A fellow officer told Lt.-Col. Reginald Burton not to worry about this location: “It was a camp in the open country part of Singapore Island, next to a golf course. It was hutted camp,[1] with showers, lights, proper roads. It sounded like a paradise to me.”[i]

Backstory: 1941-42

Before the war, Sime Road Camp, on the outskirts of Singapore, had been the Headquarters of the British Royal Air Force and then, in early December 1941, it became the Combined Army and Air Force Operations Headquarters Malaya Command—General Percival’s H.Q. –during the brief battles for Malaya and Singapore.

After surrender, Sime Road became an Australian and British POW camp with British officer, Lt.-Col. Philip Toosey, in charge. At some point, a concert party was formed and an outdoor theatre, dubbed the “New Cathay Theatre” was built. The opening performance was on Christmas, 1942.

Program cover for New Cathay Theatre. William Wilder.
Courtesy Anthony Wilder.

Very little is known about the performers or the shows, and the only observation on their content is from Lt. Stephan Alexander: “Our new electricity supply was used to light camp concerts, at which the Aussies proved particularly uninhibited. (“Do you really love me, dear, or is that your revolver I can feel?”)”[2][ii] In early October, 1942, the POWs at Sime Road were sent Up Country to build two bridges over the River Kwai at Tamarkan in Thailand.


[1] Meaning there were wooden buildings.

[2] A direct steal from the American stage and screen star, Mae West.


[i] Burton, 130.

[ii] Alexander, 91.

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

Shocking Events

By Sears Eldredge

On 28 and 29 April, the remainder of “H” and “F” Forces who had been in hospital Up Country arrived back in Singapore “looking tired and dirty after their long train journey.”[i] Some were in such poor shape at the start of the rail journey that they did not make it and were buried beside the tracks enroute.[ii] 

On the 29th, the POWs in Changi got word that they would be moving soon—to the Gaol. The civilian men, women, and children who had been interned in the Gaol since the surrender of Singapore, were moving to Sime Road Camp outside the city. “Heavy sick” British and Australian cases in Roberts Hospital would be sent to a new hospital at Kranji in the northern part of the island, while “light sick” patients would go to a small hospital being established outside Changi Gaol. With all these changes, it appears the production of Macbeth was cancelled.

Playbill for May ’44. On 1 May, the murder-mystery, Suspect, opened at the Little Theatre, which Huxtable thought “a very good drama indeed.”[1][iii] On 6 May there was a concert with Denis East (violin), Cyril Wycherley (piano) and Doug Peart (tenor), followed by one on 13 May 1944 by the A.I.F. Orchestra. These concerts were meant to lower the POWs’ anxieties about their upcoming move. For Australian Stan Arneil, it was, “[a] glorious night of music . . . It is so easy, via music, to fly back home, that the jolt of returning to hard facts is softened by the memory of a good night’s music.[iv] That same night Leslie Buckley’s musical comedy, I’ll Take You: A Musical Review produced by John Wood, opened at the A.I.F. Theatre. In light of everyone moving elsewhere, the title was significant. No one would be left behind.

This would be the last show produced in Changi POW Camp.

I’ll Take You

Removal of the POWs to Changi Gaol and its immediate environs, and to Kranji, commenced in early May. By the 14th, Wilkinson observed, “Theatres and churches all knocked down in this area [Area 1] ready to be transferred [to Gaol]. More officers and men moved to Jail today. Weather exceptionally hot.”[v] Looking at all the commotion around him, Murray Griffin wrote, “Can you imagine the work involved in moving some ten thousand people with their furniture and belongings, their hospitals, workshops, churches, theatres — and all by manpower.”[vi]

On 31st May, 1944, Stan Arneil wrote in his diary:

Today we, so far, will be moving to the gaol. It is a simply glorious morning and the Straits of Singapore look all the more delightful for the fact that we are leaving them.[vii]


Author note:

It’s not possible to follow the POWs directly from Changi POW Camp to Changi Gaol without first checking out the entertainment activity in Sime Road Camp, as many of the prominent musical and theatrical producers and entertainers in the Gaol come from this camp.

RICE AND SHINE WILL CONTINUE IN OUR UPCOMING “SIME ROAD CAMP” BLOG SERIES.


[1] He went on to note that “A young Lieutenant, John White (British Army)—who had been the Princess in Aladdin—was one of the female impersonators: a few weeks later his sore lips and mouth extended suddenly to the throat and he died within a few days.” Huxtable, Diary, 154.


[i] Nelson, 135.

[ii] G’s Greyhounds, 334-335]

[iii] Huxtable, 153.

[iv] Arneil, 13 May ’44.

[v] Wilkinson, Diary. 14 May ’44.

[vi] Griffin, 71.

[vii] Arneil, 31 May 1944.

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

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

The “Speedo”

By Sears Eldredge

Meanwhile, over a thousand miles away in Thailand and Burma, the POWs building the railway were entering the “Speedo Period”—the desperate push by the Japanese engineers to get the railway completed to the new earlier deadline set by Tokyo. During this period, the POWs would work extended hours and seven days a week without adequate food or medical supplies. Corporal punishment was harsh and frequent. As a consequence, sickness and death increased at an alarming rate, so urgent calls went out to Singapore for more POW workers.

On 20 March, massive evacuations from Changi began. “D” Force, which contained 2,750 British and 2,250 Australians—”fit men for heavy manual labour in a malarial climate”—was the first to leave for Up Country destinations. “There were emotional scenes,” recalled Murray Griffin, “as the parties moved out with the concert party band playing ‘Now is the Hour’ and ‘Waltzing Matilda’.”[i]

A week later, “E” Force, consisting of troops from the Southern Area and the A.I.F., was sent to Kuching, Borneo. 500 Australians were then sent on to Sandakan on the other side of the island (see future blog on Borneo).  

Between 18-26 April, “F” Force made up of British and Australian troops, which included Padre Foster-Haig and members of his musical group (inc. the pianist/symphony orchestra conductor, Renison and the singers, Aubrey King and George Wall, etc.), were sent to northern Thailand (see Chapter 2, “Jungle Shows Thailand” in my online book for a more detailed account of the fate of this group).[ii]

On 25 April 1943, “G” Force (various groups) was sent to Japan where there was also a huge labor shortage.[iii]

Then, with still urgent calls for more workers for the railway, “H” Force, made up of British and Australian POWs “with as many officers as possible with bridge-building and road-making experience” was sent to Thailand between 5-17 May.[iv] Among these troops would be the artist Ronald Searle, the female impersonator Michael Curtis, the actor/director Capt. Wilkinson,[1] and cartoonist George Sprod—and, in a break with precedence, two performers from the A.I.F. Concert Party: the singer, Doug Mathers and the ventriloquist, Tom Hussey.

On 15 May, “J” Force went off. Speculation was that they were headed for Japan.[v]

When these deployments were complete, the number of POWs left in Changi had changed dramatically:

Changi Camp, in February 1942, had held approximately 52,000 prisoners of war. By the end of May 1943, however, most of them had departed and were working for the Japanese in Burma, Thailand, Borneo, and Japan, those remaining in Changi numbered only 5550 officers and men.[vi]

And many of those POWs were either in hospital or in convalescent wards so unable to fulfill camp duties.[vii]


[1] That Wilkinson is on “H” Force seems indisputable. In my online book, I mistakenly placed him on “F” Force.


[i] Griffin, 28.

[ii] Nelson, 87.

[iii] Nelson, 25.

[iv] Nelson, 5-17 May.

[v] Nelson, 94.

[vi] Penfold, Bayliss and Crispin. Galleghan’s Greyhounds, 320.

[vii] Ibid.