Tag Archives: Malaya

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

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.

The Shows Go On

By Sears Eldredge

In the midst all the commotion caused by these massive troop movements, the concert parties remaining in Changi continued to perform and audiences continued to attend them. One way to relieve anxiety about any upcoming deployments, it appears, was to attend a show. Seeing friends off and then going to a show would also help you forget your sadness. The only difficulty for directors was when sudden cast changes had to be made because one or more members were being sent away.

Playbill for March/April/May ’43. Among the productions playing during this time were the original musical Dancing Tears, written by Alan Bush, at the Palladium; G. B. Shaw’s play, Androcles and the Lion, at the Command Theatre; Two Masks—two one-acts (one of which was The Monkey’s Paw) at the Kokonut Grove Theatre[1]; and the variety show, Ship A’hoy, at the Hippodrome. S. J. Cole toured the principal theatres in Changi with Audition, hoping to find new players for his shows. In Selarang, the A.I.F. concert party memorialized their captivity with their 1st Anniversary Show and Val Mack proudly noted their accomplishments during the past year:

Early in April saw the completion of twelve months’ solid work by the A.I.F. concert party. It had staged, in the year, 134 sketches, 152 songs, 61 musical items, 74 specialty numbers and three complete plays — including a Christmas pantomime — before appreciative audiences totaling over 300,000.[i]

April performances saw S. J. Cole’s The Show Goes On at the Command Theatre, which had “Judy” Garland (borrowed from the A.I.F.) in the cast as well as a most unusual turn: “Belisha’s Soldiers . . . Original Changi Marionettes.”

Program cover for The Show Goes On. Desmond Bettany.
Courtesy of the Bettany Family.

Five Moods of the Theatre, performed by “The United Artistes Players,” directed by Jack Greenwood[2] opened at the Palladium, which was followed by a revival of I Killed the Count.

In May, “the wild and merry” Max Revels: A New Crazy Show went up at the Palladium, and the new Japanese Camp Commandant, Captain Takahachi, sat in the front row enjoying himself immensely.[ii] (Attendance by a Japanese officer at a show had never happened before in Changi.) The A.I.F. Concert Party toured with Nudovia, an original musical comedy,[3] and mounted the revue, Slab Happy, in their home theatre. And the Little Theatre mounted a stage adaptation of the radio play, He Came Back, by Fred Cheeseborough with settings by Ronald Searle that would run through July.

Program cover for He Came Back. Desmond Bettany.
Courtesy of the Bettany Family.

[1] This may have been a show by American POWs from Java as this show had been performed there earlier in Bicycle Camp in ’42 (see future blog on POW entertainment in camps on Java).

[2] Compered by Ken Morrison, Leofric Thorpe’s nemesis. Where had he been hiding?

[3] Which had characters named Silas Roosevelt, Jerry Bilt, Van De Bilt, and Winnie.


[i] Mack, Show Log.

[ii] Nelson, 95.

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.

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

Changi Concert Parties: Jan.—Dec. ‘43

By Sears Eldredge

Playbill for January/February ’43. At the beginning of the month, the panto, Jack and the Beanstalk, transferred to The Palladium Theatre for a short run, temporarily displacing Gentlemen Only which would be revived after the panto had completed its performances; Cinderella held forth at the A.I.F. Theatre; Horner’s New Windmill Road Show continued to tour; and in the Southern Area, the F.M.S.V.F.[1] mounted their own concert party, “The Vol-de-Rols,”[2] which put on a variety show in their Glade Theatre. 

Wilkinson, who was in rehearsal with R. C. Sherriff’s Badger’s Green, saw Gentlemen Only at this time and was amazed to find they “had 14 Instrumentalists in the orchestra. Two of them are outstanding and are professional American band players. One plays a trombone [J. J. Porter] and the other a saxophone [Musician First Class “Hap” Kelly]. They also have a double bass which has been made in the camp.”[i]

Renewed Troop Deployments

After the Christmas/New Year’s holidays were over, major troop movements into and out of Changi continued. Between 20 January and 5 February, all of the recently arrived “Java Rabble,” as well as many of the N.E.I.[3] forces already in Changi, were crammed into boxcars and sent Up Country to Thailand. Australian Medical Officer Weary Dunlop was placed in charge of a group of Australians and N.E.I. troops who would be known as “Dunlop Force.”

“A Riot of a Night”

On Saturday night, 30 January, a dance was held in the gymnasium of the Selarang Barracks. According to a writeup of the event found among Leonard Stewart’s papers, this was the second such dance.[4] It had been advertised as “A Riot of a Night” with “First Class Music” and “Plenty of Women.” “A bevy of talented girls were procured,” it reports, “their beauty being truly outstanding. They had the men folk gasping with desire. . ..” And it goes on to name twelve “women,” such as: “Misses. Pansy Anderson, Nudey Nolan, Ophelia Ralph,” etc.—obviously men in drag. The dance attracted a “large crowd from near and far.”

If this writeup is to be believed, it was “a riot of a night,” with an officer throwing a bottle of booze through a side window, etc. Another getting lacerated lips from trying to prevent all the contents of that bottle from draining away. And two soldiers “who had great difficulty in keeping their feet, attempted to disorganise the orchestra and were ejected after a violent struggle.” And before it was over, “[s]everal members of the A.I.F. Concert party put in an appearance . . .  and Doug Mathis, Fred Stringer and Harry Smith, favoured with items.”

The article contains lots of innuendo about what transpired between the “girls” and the men, i.e., “[Lieut. Tom Jones] affair with Flighty White however, completely left him in the air.” It closes with the claim: “After a night of unique diversions, the guests departed to the waiting taxi cabs and rickshaws. The end of another happy night.”[ii]

Given the non-existence of “taxi cabs and rickshaws” and other like details in Changi at the time, this writeup could be taken as wholly fanciful—just a fun read on a bulletin board—except for an entry in H. L. David’s diary for 22 February 1943, referring to a third dance a month later: “Went to a dance last night, jolly good show and plenty of fun about 20 chaps dressed as girls. I had to dance lady most of the evening.”[iii]

So, it seems these dances actually happened, but the author of the writeup embellished the events of the evening to give everybody a good laugh.

Badger’s Green

With their theatre still not ready, “The New Windmill Players” produced R. C. Sherriff’s comedy, Badger’s Green at The Palladium on 4 February. It would finish its run on the 18th when “over 7000 had seen the show.”[iv]

Secret photograph of Badger’s Green onstage at the Palladium.
H. D. T. Gawn. Courtesy of Judith Gawn.

 

At the end of the month, the Variety show, Zip, went up at the Kokonut Grove Theatre.


[1] Federated Malay States Volunteer Force.

[2] Believe this was also the name of a World War I concert party.

[3] Netherlands East Indies.

[4] No record of a previous dance has been found.


[i] Wilkinson, Diary. 14 Jan. ’43.

[ii] Stewart, Leonard. Paper 5 of 14] Item(s) 19 and 28 and folder 12. AWM PR01013.

[iii] David, 46.

[iv] Wilkinson, Diary. 18 Feb. 1943.

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.

Transit Camp

By Sears Eldredge

In September, life in Changi was turned upside down with the arrival of a large number of British, Australian, Dutch, and American POWs from camps in The Netherlands East Indies [Indonesia]. By the end of the month there were joined by POWs who had been held in Malaya. Changi was being transformed into an enormous Transit Camp in readiness for massive troop evacuations elsewhere. 

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

“I’m The Hit Of The Show” – Part 2

The Pre-war A.I.F. Malayan Concert Party

By Sears Eldredge

But as the months of waiting for the war to start dragged on, the value of a show like the A.I.F. Malayan Concert Party’s “Diggers’ Revue” for entertaining the bored Australian troops in their isolated camps in Malaya had not been lost on A.I.F. H.Q. in Johore Bahru. In September, Major Jacobs was asked to form an official A.I.F. Divisional Concert Party, but this time it “would function as a separate Unit and not be regarded as a temporary detached body.”[1][i] Jacobs again requested Lt. Val Mack as his second in command, but Mack’s CO refused to let him go, saying that he couldn’t be spared.[ii] This decision was overruled by someone higher up and Mack was transferred to the Divisional concert party. 

Auditions notices were sent out to all the units and one hundred and fifty men responded. Of these, four musicians and eleven entertainers were initially selected for the concert party,[2][iii] including John Wood, Eric Beattie, and Harry Smith, who had been in the previous show at Kuala Lumpur. Newcomers were Bob Picken, vocalist, from the 2/20th Brigade Concert Party; C. Wiggins, dancer and female impersonator; George Oliver, illusionist and fire-eater; Ted Skene, female impersonator (ingénue-type); Bernard McCaffrey, Irish baritone; Ken Wylde, actor; Tom Hussey, ventriloquist, with “Joey,” his dummy; Slim De Grey, yodeling and cowboy singer; and Les Bennet, actor.

Tom Hussey and Joey. AWM 116036

Besides Beattie on the violin, their quartet of musicians included Fred Stringer, piano and piano-accordion, Ray Tullipan, saxophone and cornet,[3] and Fred Brightfield, a former pit drummer for J. C. Williamson’s Tivoli vaudeville circuit in Australia.

Once chosen, the cast immediately gathered in Singapore to begin intense rehearsals at the Victoria Theatre.”[iv] Their official name would be “The A.I.F. Malayan Concert Party” but in advertisements, the word, “Malayan,” was frequently dropped.

In late October, a preview of their show, “Pot Pourri” under the banner, “By the troops, For the troops,” was staged in the 2/12 Company lines at Johore Bahru, and attended by Maj. General Bennett, the A.I.F. General in Command [G.O.C.]. 

Both halves of the show opened with community singing and were followed by a series of comic sketches interspersed with solo specialty acts. The sketches contained an old military concert party favorite—a farcical ballet—“The Breath of Spring,” with a solo dance by Wiggins; “Hotel Swift” where Picken was the Waiter who “dispenses drinks in double time”; “Remembrance,” in which a solider with a “sympathetic Nurse” (Skene) were prevented from renewing their liaison by two Guards; “Eastern Interlude,” where “2 Diggers” inadvertently find themselves in the “Sultan’s” harem with “Fatima,” (Wood), “Hasheesh” (Skene) and a “Slave” played by Smith; a political satire, “Mexican Presidente”; and a repeat of the old “The Hole in the Road” vaudeville sketch with Jacobs and Mack. (From his penchant for repeating this comic routine in every show, and because he was a field engineer, Jacobs would be given the nickname, “Hole-in-the Road.”)[v]  

The preview performance was a success and permission was granted to take the show on tour. “Just as everything was functioning to a nicety,” Stewart wrote, “pressure of army duties forced Major Jacobs to momentarily relinquish his active part, and Lieut. B. Mack (2/10 Fd Regt) immediately took up the cue.”[vi] (What Jacobs’ other Army duties were we’re not told.)   

With the absence of Jacobs, the show had to be recast and reworked. A comedian, Harry McGovern, was brought in to replace Jacobs, but all the “Pot Pourri” sketches and routines were kept intact. The revised show was given the new title, “The Hit of the Show.” 

Before they could take their show on the tour to remote sites in Malaya, a portable canvas tent stage with lighting and other necessary equipment had to be procured. It was designed by Mack based on the tent stages he had employed in his traveling shows in Australia in the 1930’s.[vii] As it was the tail end of the monsoon season the tent had to be waterproofed.

Waterproofing the tent theatre. Courtesy of Kerrin Frey.

By 8 November their tent stage was ready. Now each member of the cast had to learn his assigned duties in setting up and tearing down the tent stage, as well as the loading and unloading procedures so that the stage, settings, and lighting equipment could all fit into three large trucks for transportation.[viii] Since they would be doing this on tour, practice sessions of these procedures took place.

The A.I.F. Malayan Concert Party’s portable stage. Courtesy of Kerrin Frey.

This photograph of the A.I.F. Concert Party’s portable stage shows a large canvas tent-like structure held up by guy wires attached to a tall pole off to the Audience Right side of the proscenium opening. On stage, footlights sit before the front curtain which, like an old Music Hall olio drop, has advertisements painted on it.[4] It had been purchased from the income provided by the advertisers who also bought space in the program. Canvas wings flair out from either side of the stage to provide off-stage spaces for entrances, and an extension of the tent is visible behind the stage which allowed space for dressing and makeup rooms. Folding chairs are set up in front of the stage for officers attending the show.

The A.I.F. Malayan Concert Party in May 1941. Courtesy of Jack Boardman.

The A.I.F. Malayan Concert Party was now ready to roll; their first stop, Jemaluang, on the East Coast of Malaya. According to Boardman, the show opened with the full company singing a traditional concert party introductory song, “The Hit Of The Show”:

It started off (singing):

“I’m the hit of the show . . .

(Speaking.) Different ones would pop out on stage.

(Singing.) “I’m the hit of the show,

I’m the hit of the show.

McCaffrey’s good, but you ought to see Wood.

I’m the hit of the show . . . .”[ix]   

Unfortunately, because of the heavy rain, Mack’s elaborate tent stage lasted only two performances before it was abandoned for dryer indoor spaces that could be converted into a theatre.[x]

After touring the Australian camps in Malaya for two weeks, three performers, Bennet, Wiggins, and Wylde, left the show to return to their units and a new performer, Dick Bradfield, was brought into the company. A new show, “The Diggers Show,” was put together containing a mixture of old and new numbers. “The W.A.N.S.” sketch which had proven popular in Kuala Lumpur was put back into the show and the “Mexican Presidente” and “Eastern Interlude” sketches were removed so that Slim De Grey’s tap dance number and Harry Smith’s appearance in his “tit and bum” act could be introduced. The show would end with all the entertainers onstage performing an old Variety theatre farce, “Schoolroom,” which featured John Wood as the schoolmarm forced to expel one of the troublesome children in her class “after the teacher drops the chalk and reveals knees, thighs, etc., accidentally.”[xi]

It was in this show that Herschel Henbre’s patriotic song, “Aussieland,” was sung for the first time.  

Aussieland, Aussieland,

That’s the place for me,

Where the girls are beautiful girls,

And the boys are wonderful boys.

Aussieland, Aussieland,

That’s where I want to be.

It’s the homeland of the free,

And the place for you and me,

That’s where they shout coo-ee!

In Aussieland.[xii] 

            In early December, 1941, the A.I.F. Concert Party was touring in the Mersing District. On Monday, 8 December, Mack received a letter from Dan Hopkins written on stationary from the Raffles Hotel back in Singapore which read,

                                                                                                            Dec. 7th. 1941.

Lieut. Val Mack

A.I.F. Concert Party

Mersing.

Hello Val:

Last week a member of your concert party called on me and borrowed a violin belonging to my bass player. Said your fiddler’s instrument had come adrift and you had to get one while it was being repaired. Now the bass man’s instrument is used in the band here on occasions & tonight we want it for a broadcasting session. That of course is now out of the question but I wouldn’t have included the number in the program had it not been for the fact that your bloke promised to return it without fail before Friday last. As it is I can’t raise a god-damn fiddle for love nor money for tonight so would you please stick the aforesaid lamb-chop on any truck coming this way?

We need it in the band and your fiddler’s instrument ought to be fixed by now. O.K.?

                                                                                          All the best Val,

Bang-bang.[xiii]

Whether “Bang-bang” ever got his fiddle back is anyone’s guess as 8 December was the day the Japanese launched their all-out attack in the Far East,[5] including an invasion of Malaya at Kota Bharu on the northeast coast, and the first bombing of the Naval Base at Keppel Harbour in Singapore.

For the A.I.F. Malayan Concert Party, “the war made the abandoning of the party essential and each man was returned to his respective Unit to lend a hand against the invader.”[xiv]  

Elsewhere in Malaya on 8 December, George McNeilly’s 22nd Brigade Concert Party was performing in a 2/30th Battalion hall at Batu Pahat on the West Coast. As Jack Boardman remembers,

In the middle of a performance by Geoghegan and [Frank] Wood, the Sergeant-Major interrupted and ordered several troops to battle stations as news had arrived of the Jap invasion at Kota Bharu. We finished the show to half the audience and were driven home by George to our different units.[xv]


With the Japanese coordinated attack on Pearl Harbor, The Philippines, Hong Kong, and Malaya on 7/8 December, the long-expected War in the Pacific had begun.

To learn about the quick reorganization of the A.I.F. Malayan Concert Party in Changi POW Camp, read “In The Bag” (Chapter 1) in my free online book, Captive Audiences / Captive Performers http://digitalcommons.macalester.edu/captiveaudiences/.



[1]An official report of this organization and its activities, from which much of the information for this blog has been taken, was written by Cpl. Leonard Stewart sometime after June, 1945 in Changi Gaol. This report must have been dictated by Val Mack.

[2]Stewart writes that twenty-five men were selected for the Concert Party, but programs of these tour shows do not bear this out, so Stewart/Mack must have been thinking of a much later time in the concert party’s history.

[3]Stringer and Tullipan had both been in the 2/18th Battalion’s Concert Party [Frey, 20].

[4]An “olio drop” is one that can be rolled up and down on a batten as needed.

[5]It was the same day Pearl Harbor was attacked (December 7th) on the other side of the international dateline. 



[i] Stewart, Report, 1.

[ii] Mack, Letter to his wife, 2 Oct. 1941.

[iv] Stewart, Report, 1-2.

[v] Morris, Interview, 7.

[vi] Stewart, Report, 1.

[vii] Frey, 18.

[viii] Frey, 19.

[ix] J. Boardman, Interview, 21.

[x] Frey, 19.

[xi] J. Boardman, “Notes on Mack’s Production Logs.”

[xii] Lyrics and score provided by Jack Boardman.

[xiii] Dan Hoskins, Letter, courtesy of Kerrin Frey, Val Mack’s daughter.

[xiv] Stewart, Report, 2.

[xv] J. Boardman, Letter, 31 May 04.



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

Coming Soon: The Australian Malayan Concert Party in Changi POW Camp, Singapore, May 1942-May 1944.