Tag Archives: Sharing Research

Survival in Extreme Conditions and Transition to Peacetime

By Edgar Jones, Professor in the History of Medicine & Psychiatry, King’s College London

Much has been written on the physical privations and diseases suffered by Far Eastern prisoners-of-war (FEPOWS) but less has been said of the psychological challenges and the post-traumatic illnesses that they experienced when in civilian life. The resourceful, fortunate and resilient group who survived provide an opportunity to study coping mechanisms and survival techniques in the most extreme circumstances.

Evidence gathered from survivor accounts suggests that there was no single method that worked for all. Prisoners devised coping strategies that fitted with their pre-capture skills and personality traits. Alistair Urquhart, for example, distracted himself through music and song, and a determination to survive:

‘I decided to stay apart from everyone else and focus totally on survival. I lived a day at a time in my own little world, a private cocoon, and adopted the position of self-sufficient loner… If someone spoke to me, I replied but there was no sense of community’.

By contrast others formed themselves into small groups so that if one fell sick or struggled to work, the others would provide cover or find extra food. Crucial for many was a skill or experiences that had prepared them for the challenges of captivity. Lt Arthur Scrimgeour of the Straits Settlements Volunteer Force had medical knowledge acquired in his job as manager of Glaxo’s Far East Company. When suffering from beriberi, he treated this by swallowing the husk polishings of uncooked rice as they contained vitamin B and used banana leaves as dressings for leg ulcers.  Religious faith has been shown in many studies to serve as a protective factor during captivity and torture. Eric Lomax, a member of the Episcopal Church, wrote that his ‘moral conviction of being saved, that I really had found God’ reinforced his determination both during captivity and afterwards. Ashley Prime who had grown up in multi-cultural India was able to identify the good in people from whatever race they came.

Although these coping mechanisms enabled prisoners to survive extended periods of privation and danger, they were not a guarantee of an easy transition to civilian life. Urquhart and Lomax both reported troubling thoughts and enduring symptoms even when settled in civilian life. Recurring dreams of war were often a reminder of the trauma they had suffered. Urquhart wrote, ‘even after I married, life could be hell. To this day I suffer pain, and the nightmares can be so bad that I fight sleep for fear of the dreams that come with it’. Yet Urquhart also demonstrated the skill of being able to take something positive from adversity, adding ‘my sufferings as a prisoner taught me to be resilient, to appreciate life and all, to appreciate life and all it has to offer’.

“Living with My Absent Father”

By Toby Norways, Senior Lecturer for Scriptwriting at the University of Bedfordshire and PhD Candidate in English (Creative Writing) at Newman University, Birmingham.

Toby Norways passed the viva for his PhD English (Creative Writing) in March 2020 and is currently finishing his thesis ‘corrections’ required before graduation. He has been researching his FEPOW father William ‘Bill’ Norways (1918-86) since 2015. His research took him to Singapore, Thailand, and to Japan where he met the family of one of his father’s camp guards. Toby’s thesis includes a 70,000-word creative manuscript Living with my absent father, a memoir of his father, and a corresponding 20,000-word critical commentary of the creative work.

Bill Norways was a commercial artist prior to World War II, before enlisting in the 2nd Cambridgeshire Regiment. He was taken prisoner in Singapore when the allied forces surrendered to the Japanese on 15th February 1942. In May 1943, he was transported to Thailand to be used as slave labour on the construction of the Thai-Burma Railway. Bill suffered great hardship but survived the war. He rarely talked of his experiences.

Close-up of an illustration drawn from memory while in captivity, by Cpl Norways (© courtesy the Norways family)

Toby’s research begins with a study of the artefacts his father assembled from the Far East (including the above illustration). The collection includes Bill’s original artwork and photographs from the prison camps in Singapore and Thailand. Amongst these items are a series of post-war letters. They reveal the unlikely friendship between Bill in Cornwall and one of his former prison guards in Japan, Kameo Yamanaka. He disapproved of Japanese hostility. During Bill’s captivity in Singapore, Yamanaka would share his food rations and supply Bill with pencils so he could continue to draw. The two men expressed a wish that their families would remain friends, but the correspondence ends with Bill’s death in 1986.

The memoir has three plot strands: Toby’s research journey to discover a father he scarcely knew; his father’s history as a prisoner of war; and a Bildungsroman, as Toby comes to terms with the absence, then the death of his father. Alongside these storylines, a correspondence between two opposing soldiers is gradually revealed as Toby travels to Japan to track down the family of the Japanese guard.

Toby Norways with the Yamanaka family, 2015. A poem written by Bill Norways is engraved on the Yamanaka family shrine (© courtesy the Norways family)

On completion of his PhD in 2021, Toby hopes to publish both the memoir of his father and an illustrated book containing the 200+ photos, paintings and sketches that his father Bill managed to bring home from the Far East.

Toby’s research and Bill’s artwork have been featured twice in the Guardian newspaper. Toby’s research journey is described here.

Bill’s artwork is featured in the Guardian gallery found here.

Into the jungle

By Louise Reynolds, Author

Good research requires several specialised skills but I never thought that the ability to decipher my father’s handwriting would be one of them.   When my mother died in 2011 we discovered files full of papers connected with my father’s time as a FEPOW in Changi and then up-country in Kanchanaburi.  My father, Eric Cordingly had brought home with him maps, artwork by fellow POWs, and even a complete typed diary of his first year in Changi, together with a Burial Records book, some  hand-written sermons and some scribbled notes on odd pieces of paper. It was an extraordinary and vivid collection from his three and a half years as a Padre and prisoner of war, during which he faithfully carried out his duties as a priest under the most desperate conditions.

I immediately decided to publish a book containing these unique papers and set about putting it all together.   The typed diary was a gift, it was just a matter of choosing sketches and paintings to illustrate the text.  And, fortunately, for his final year back in Changi,  he had written a report for the Assistant Chaplain General’s office in Rangoon.

But how could I cover the most critical time when, with F Force, he was based in Kanburi (as they called it) beside the River Kwai ?  I came across a thin and flimsy Thai child’s exercise book containing detailed pencilled notes and some airmail paper with more notes about the conditions in the hospitals where he was working and from where he buried over 600 young men who had been labouring on the Thai Burma Railway.  He instructed the doctors to let him know if anyone was close to the end and he would try to be at their bedside when they were dying.

The exercise book containing Eric Cordingly’s notes, image courtesy of Louise Reynolds

But his writing, never easy at the best of times, was scribbled in haste and sometimes words or sentences were crossed out and so I began to transcribe it with great care and a lot of anxiety. I gradually discovered that if I took a run at it, so to speak, it was much easier to read because often the clues were in the context. Turning these delicate pages which may not have been touched for 70 years was a tactile experience in itself, and reading his eye witness account of the horrors of daily life was breath-taking:

A page from the exercise book, , image courtesy of Louise Reynolds and partly transcribed below.

“It is too harrowing to picture vividly a ward of men whose sole kit consists of a tin and a spoon and a haversack and a piece of rag, lying on bare bamboo, or rice sacks with no covering until later,  blankets were issued.  The patients present a sorry picture, their exhaustion is so complete that no pain is suffered, they slip into a coma and the end is peaceful.  Each morning several bodies are lying still.”

The words I was transcribing told a sorry tale.  The strange thing was that after twenty minutes or so of this painstaking and absorbing work, I felt that I had plunged into the jungle with them, and, when I emerged, blinking, into daylight, I was astonished to find the normal world going on around me.  This happened to me several times. The cumulative experience of touching and transcribing the papers was very powerful.  I wonder if other RFHG researchers have encountered this phenomenon?


You can read more in Down to Bedrock  The Diary and Secret Notes of a Far East prisoner of war Chaplain 1942-45,   by Eric Cordingly    Published in 2013

Contact details:  louisereynolds99@aol.com

The search for the missing in Singapore

By Jon Cooper, Project founder of The Adam Park Project, Centre for Battlefield Archaeology at Glasgow University

One of the most startling facts to come out of the review of Singapore casualties is the high number of men listed as ‘missing’ and have never been found. This may well be understandable when we think of the nature of the combat in Malaya. Often allied troops were overwhelmed by the Japanese attacks and forced to abandon their positions and escape into the jungle. They then spent many weeks wandering the hills trying to get back to the allied lines. It is easy to imagine many men simply collapsing with fatigue and disease, being buried by their pals but destined never to be recovered after the war.

A well-tended soldier’s grave in Singapore

However, men going missing in Singapore is another matter. Not only was there time in many occasions to bury the dead and record the location of the graves during the fighting there was also opportunities in the first few months of captivity in Changi to return to the old battlesites and inter the unburied bodies. So how is it that so many men who were killed in Singapore appear on the war memorial in Kranji and have no known grave?

Post war newspapers are scattered with reports about the recovery of bodies. In June 1948, the Sunday Tribune in Singapore ran an article on the British army’s search for missing men. The Graves Registration unit, Far East Land Forces (FARELF) estimated that there were 1,500 corpses of allied troops buried in private gardens and waste land across the island. The article concludes with a statement from a spokesperson for FARELF who said

Several of the 1500 corpses scattered all over the island may be presumed as lost. Many of the corpses in the reported graves have not been discovered although the graves were located.[1]

A similar report in August 1947 tells of the circumstances under which FARELF Grave Recovery Teams worked in Singapore. The report suggests that unlike the Thai Burma Railway, where there were already established cemeteries, Singapore only had a handful specific locations associated with POW camps and hospitals, and hundreds of isolated graves of which there was little information.

It is true that there were many plans made by those who had conducted the burials in the tragic days of 1942, but most of these had been drawn under stress of battle or from memory when the person drawing the plan had been away from the scene for some years.[2] The results were often inaccurate and, in many cases, completely wrong.’ [3]

The reporter also points out that many of the soldiers were buried by local Malay and Chinese who kept no record of the interment and were, by 1947, unable to remember the location of graves. No comment is made as to how many of the 1,500 missing men were recovered The records maintained by the Bureau of Record and Enquiry in Changi often provide a description and six figure grid reference for the location of the grave or at least where the man was last seen, and it was this information that was being used by FARLEF. Today armed with such evidence could it be  possible to find these missing men with all the new technology available to the archaeologists? In theory yes. The work done at the likes of Adam Park, Bukit Brown and Mount Pleasant proves that old sites still exist in the landscape despite urban development and the latest geophysics can in theory detect grave sites. It is possible some missing men could still be found. However, after 80 years in the ground there would be few remains to recover, although grave goods and grave cuts may still be present.


[1] Sunday Tribune (Singapore), 27 June 1948, Page 3

[2] This is not necessarily the case, much of the burial information given to the BRE was recorded in the weeks and months after the surrender and compiled on organised and authorised burial parties.

[3] Morning Tribune, 18 August 1947, Page 6