Tag Archives: ROnald Searle

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.

Working Parties Return

By Sears Eldredge

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

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

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

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

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

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

That situation didn’t last long.


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

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

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

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

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

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

Changi Garrison Cinema Discovered

By Sears Eldredge

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

Playbill for December ‘42.

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

When we’re free yes, when we’re free

Oh how happy we shall be.

 When we see the last of Changi tree[2]

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

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


[1] Not made available for this blog.

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


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

[ii] Horner, 61.

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

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

Two New Concert Parties

By Sears Eldredge

The 18th Div. Dramatic Society was given the N.A.A.F.I. building as requested and they set right to work making the necessary structural improvements.[i] They would christen this new space “The “New Windmill Theatre.”[1] 

Locating a suitable play from the scripts available in Changi’s libraries had proven more difficult, but A. A. Milne’s 1923 “absurd comedy,” The Dover Road, was finally selected.[ii]  After their first rehearsal in the N.A.A.F.I., Wilkinson thought the show would go off well. And then reality set it: “Webb and his 39 men went off this afternoon. I wonder if we shall ever see them again.”[iii] July 10 . . . 

. . . was a full dress rehearsal with an audience of about 50. It consisted of all the people who have done so much to get the theatre and the show ready, e.g., Sappers, Scenery Artists, Electricians and so on. It went well and we had all the props, food, etc. The “Kippers” have been most realistically made by the cook at “A Mess”, Div. H.Q.[iv]

During the month, another new Entertainment Unit appeared in the 18th Div. Area with a modern dress production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar performed in St. George’s Church, a converted mosque, situated next to the Officers’ Barracks. It was produced by Alan Dant with costumes and settings by Ronald Searle, one of the Royal Engineers in their midst. 

Searle, who would gain enormous fame after the war for his satirical cartoons of British life, became a costume and set designer for several concert parties in Changi.[2] His design concept for Julius Caesar was heavily influenced by Orson Welles’ sensational 1937 modern dress adaptation of the play in New York which interpreted the play as the rise of Fascism. Searle’s set designs for the first part of the play show a fixed set of arches and how they could be employed for either interior or exterior settings.

The Dover Road

11 July was the opening night of The Dover Road performed by “The New Windmill Players” at their new indoor theatre. The scratch orchestra quickly put together to play pre-show and interval music, became known as “The Nitwits.” It was led by Jack Greenwood, who had been a professional trumpet player in civvy street, and recently arrived from Java with a detachment of British POWs. With him came an American POW, the “angelical pianist,” Jack Cooper. Eric Bamber, a British O.R., joined these musicians as their drummer.[v]

In the audience for opening night was D. S. Cave, who was amazed at the renovations which had taken place in the old N.A.A.F.I building:

The Windmill . . . has been converted into a small theatre by the addition of tiered seats. Owing to a shortage of cut wood the rear and higher seats have no floor and patrons sit like pillar saints, high above the floor. The curtains bear a painting of a Malay girl in an abbreviated sarong and a smile, and a Chinese girl playing a lute without even a smile. Round the walls are some neat cartoons. One shows Mr. and Mrs. Blimp holding aloft shooting sticks flying the Union Jack, captioned ‘Remember you are British; sit still as the siren sounds’. Another depicts an army field urinal with an arrow pointing outside. This is matched by one showing a matron guarding a door marked ‘Ladies’ and an arrow pointing to the heavens.”[3][vi]

And contrary to expectations, they had lights! – the POWs had been able to build a small power station which provided the needed electricity.[vii] But there was no set per se for the show, only a backdrop, a window frame suspended in air, and some furniture that had been scrounged or made in the camp. To overcome for this difficulty, a character called “Prologue” verbally set the stage for the audience.[viii]      

The opening night had been planned as a gala event with an invited audience: “The G.O.C. (General Beckwith-Smith) was in attendance as it was a special programme for his birthday,” noted Wilkinson. “There was a large audience of invited guests, consisting of all Unit Commanders, Senior Officers of the Division and representatives of O.R.s . . . The G.O.C. made a speech at the end and the whole thing had a real first night atmosphere. The show went well.”[ix]

With the success of their first offering, “The New Windmill Players” immediately made plans for their second. The Dover Road was scheduled to run until 14 August by which time all the troops in the 18th Division would have seen the show as well as patrons from other Areas.

Casting Crisis

But on 20 July the Players had a casting crisis on their hands when the I.J.A. confirmed the rumor that had been circulating in the camp. With thousands of POWs on their hands in Changi and Singapore and relatively few I.J.A. or I.N.A. forces to guard them, the Japanese greatly feared that a breakout might be organized. To prevent such a possibility, all the Senior Officers above the rank of Lt. Colonel were ordered removed from Changi and sent overseas, supposedly to Japan. They were to leave on 21 July – the next day. It was, in Wilkinson’s words, “the greatest blow we have had since we surrendered.”[x] With Lt. Col. Dillon and Archie Beavan (members of the cast) scheduled to go with them, it would end the run of The Dover Road unless understudies could be quickly found. They were. Cpl. Oliver Thomas (formerly of “The Optimists”) and Capt. Tunbridge, were given four days to learn their lines before they had to go on stage.[xi] Capt. Wilkinson took over as producer-director of the fledgling company.

That evening, General Percival was in the audience as the guest of honor, and he came with all of his Malayan Command Staff along with General Beckwith-Smith[4] and the Australian G.O.C.[xii] This performance was supposed to be their farewell concert. But the 21st came and the officers’ departure did not happen. It was postponed until the end of the month.

On 30 July, the “St. George’s Players” opened their second Shakespearean production, Macbeth, produced again by Alan Dant with sets and costumes again by Ronald Searle. It would tour to four different venues within the 18th Division.


[1] The “Windmill” in the titles referred not only to the “flash” of the East Anglian 18th Territorial Division, but may also refer to the well-known London theatre of the same name.

[2] . In Searle’s IWM Art folders are costume and set designs for Julius Caesar. Unfortunately, these were not made available for this blog.

[3] It was Ronald Searle (and, most likely, Derek Cooper) who had painted the murals.

[4] 18th Division G.O.C.


[i] Wilkinson. Diary. 11 June ’42.

[ii] Wilkinson. Diary. 15 June ‘42

[iii] Wilkinson. Diary. 18 June ’42.

[iv] Wilkinson. Diary. 10 July ’42.

[v] Bamber, IWM Interview, Reel #5.

[vi] Cave, 9.

[vii] Cave, 9.

[viii] Bamber, IWM Interview, Reel #5.

[ix] Wilkinson. Diary. 11 July ‘42.

[x] Wilkinson. Diary. 17 July 42.

[xi] Thomas, Fax, 31 March 01.

[xii] Wilkinson. Diary. 17 July ’42.

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

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