Tag Archives: John Foster-Haigh

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.

Symphony Orchestra & Choir on Tour

By Sears Eldredge

Elsewhere in Changi, Reginald Renison’s 18th Division Symphony Orchestra was performing at different venues as it toured the Changi Areas in the first two weeks of March.

When it opened at the Palladium, the concert was dedicated to Padre Foster-Haigh, who was its producer.

Our Symphony concert which ran at the Palladium Theatre was a glorious success [Foster-Haigh wrote]. We had an orchestra of twenty-two players conducted by Reginald Renison, who is a very fine solo pianist; a former pupil of Myra Hess, & an able lecturer. His playing of the Schumann Pianoforte Concerto with orchestra was a delight & really a high spot in the concert. In addition to the orchestra, we had a Male Voice Choir of forty voices conducted by myself & another able musician named Kenneth Scovell, a music master in one of our English Schools & quite a good composer of anthems; while as Leader of the Orchestra we had Denis East, a very fine violinist & a member of the London Philharmonic Society. In Cyril Wycherley, a cinema organist from Ipswich I had a firsthand accompanist. During the series of concerts, I sang on five occasions. It was as much as I could do in addition to my other work. The remaining nights the soloist was Aubrey King, a most likeable fellow & a promising soloist.[i]

Mr. Terrai

After the Symphony performed in the A.I.F. Theatre, Foster-Haigh was approached by a Japanese interpreter called Mr. Terrai who had attended the concert. “He was so thrilled with the performance, that he came personally to thank me, & have a chat about music in general. . .. Mr. Terrai is a most charming conversationalist & knows a good deal about the great masters. He told me that he had a gramophone library of five hundred records, & enjoys opera & modern songs.” Foster-Haigh learned that Terrai was a Christian and before the war he taught English Literature at one of Japan’s universities. “What a strange world it is & how mixed is man!”, he writes after the meeting. “Virtually Terrai & myself are enemies because our countries are at war & yet we found a common meeting place. Music and literature made us friends.”[ii]


[i] Foster-Haigh, 7.

[ii] Foster-Haigh, 8.

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

First Anniversary of Surrender

By Sears Eldredge

The POWs in Changi were now approaching the first anniversary of their defeat and surrender. Not a time for celebration, surely. But less they forget what had happened, two groups of entertainers produced shows that would remind them.

Journey’s End

“The 18th Divisional Headquarters Players,” an all-Other Ranks’ Company, opened their presentation of R. C. Sherriff’s World War I drama, Journey’s End, at The Hippodrome on in early February. It was produced by Denis O’Brien and Stuart Ludman.

Program cover for Journey’s End. Desmond Bettany.
Courtesy of the Bettany Family.

Sherriff’s tragedy takes place in a dug-out on the Western Front in March 1918, in the days leading up to the final spring offensive by the Germans. A group of British officers and men, led by a young Captain, are ordered by High Command to go over the top in what will clearly be a suicidal mission as the massive German attack begins. These events couldn’t help but remind the POW audiences of General Wavell’s orders issued before he left Singapore: “There must be no thought or question of surrender. Every unit must fight it out to the end and in close contact with the enemy.”[i] 

From actor Donald Smith’s lengthy account of the POW production, it appears that the producers believed that Sherriff’s play promoted the idea that their lost cause created a special bond between the officers and men which ennobled them (which by implication so hadn’t the Battles for Malaya and Singapore). But Sherriff’s own attitude about the war in which he had fought, was much more ambiguous. The original 1928 production was also widely praised as an anti-war play that revealed not only the incompetence of the military leadership but the terrible wastage of human life.[ii] This ambiguity would affect audience response to this POW production as well.

After several highly successful performances before British officers and men, the performers faced their first audience of Australians. Rain started to fall during Act I, which did not help the mood of the audience forced to sit in the wet and watch. During Act II, catcalls and jeers from the audience began to be heard—the Australians were proving to be “not very tolerant,” wrote Smith. By Act III, when Smith was about to make his first appearance, the rain had stopped.

As I made my brief appearance as the German prisoner, there was a great roar of applause, and for a moment I stood, dumbfounded, wondering for whom this ovation was intended. Then I realized that it was intended for me! The sympathy of the audience had apparently gone over to the Boche.[1] I was listened to attentively, and without comment. As the sergeant-major searched me and relieved me of my precious letters, much against my will, the audience growled and booed. As I made my exit, I was given another round of applause.[iii] 

The context in which a performance takes place can greatly change how it is received and interpreted by its audience. The Australian POWs, identifying with the German POW, were having nothing to do with any attempts to mythologize the hell they had gone though in the battles for Malaya and Singapore into notions of “solidarity” or “nobility.” 

The Admirable Dyeton

A day later [9 February] in the Command Area, the all-officer “Command Players” opened their adaptation of James M. Barrie’s 1902 “withering satire on the social order,”[iv] The Admirable Crichton, renamed The Admirable Dyeton. Barrie’s original play was about a group of worthless British aristocrats who undertake a voyage on a yacht to the South Pacific and end up shipwrecked on a deserted island. For two years they survive by the ingenuity and leadership skills of their butler, Crichton. 

Program cover for The Admirable Dyeton. Desmond Bettany.
Courtesy of the Bettany Family.

The POW version written by Digby Gates, 9th Gurkhas, and produced by W. Hogg Ferguson, made sure that their audiences would not miss the connections between the play and their own past experience. Act I takes place at “Divisional HQ on Jingalore Island, Night of the Capitulation” during which Corps Commander Lieut. General Sir Endimion Cholmondcley Featherstonehaugh plans to lead an escape party of Staff Officers and Administrative Other Ranks.[2] Act II opens ten days later on a Desert Island where Featherstonehaugh and Company had landed by faulty navigation. And for the next two years, it is Sgt. Dyeton, an Administrative Clerk from Divisional HQ, who assumes command and saves the day (Act III). 

In Barrie’s original final Act (Act IV), the characters have been rescued and have just arrived home again. Now the old order reasserts its rank and privilege, and the butler, Crichton, without complaint, resumes his “proper” former position. In Digby Gates’ version, the Officers are rescued and return to “Divisional HQ. Somewhere in India.” And there Dyeton, too, resumes his “proper” position as Administrative Clerk. 

Padre John Foster-Haigh, for one, did not miss the connections to the past:

It . . . showed us in a most entertaining way how an orderly room sergeant was more fitted to command & had more strength of character than the commanding officer. It was great fun & a very clever play. It was really a play leveled against inefficiency & roused a good deal of comment among Senior officers.[v]

About this same time in Convalescent Depot’s outdoor theatre, McNeilly hosted the 18th Div. Celebrity Artists for a concert of “Light Music.” To get their stage ready, he took old sheets, dyed them, and then sprayed them with colored paint to hide the blood stains. “Not a bad effect,” he writes.[vi] This time there had been no intent to make a comment on the surrender anniversary, but in a way, it had—at least for us.


[1] Slang term for the Germans.

[2] This had to be a pointed allusion to the controversial escape of General Wavell and other Senior Officers to Australia before capitulation.


[i] Wavell’s Orders, AWM PR 85/145

[ii] Gassner, 693.

[iii] Smith, D. 62.

[iv] Gassner, 567.

[v] Foster-Haigh, Diary.

[vi] McNeilly, Notes, 3.

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