Red Palm in the Morning

August 23, 2014

Heriot cover

The use and effects of red palm oil moved one POW to verse.  Guy Heriot was an internee first at Changi and then at Sime Road.  He wrote about his captivity in Changi Interlude which also included the poems he wrote at the time.  Many of the poems took a gently humorous line on the food and other privations of internee life.  My father would have enjoyed them very much.


Red oil in the morning

Is waiting for you;

If you don’t want your portion,

You know what to do.


But lap it up nicely,

Though it may appall:

You’d get Brimstone and Treacle

At Dotheboys’ Hall.


Mild Laxative action,

So some will not stay;

But what you retain is

Your Vitamin A


It cleans up your Scabies,

Pellagra and Sprue:

Red Palm in the morning

Is waiting for you.












Red Palm Oil

May 4, 2013

Outside of the United States red palm oil is one of the most widely consumed oils in the world. Rich in vitamins and antioxidants it is a popular dietary supplement and cooking oil.  On the other hand, it is also used in the manufacture of cosmetics, lubricants and ink.

It certainly had its uses for the POW along with other miracle fare such as hibiscus leaves, rice polishings and Marmite.

At Kranji there were lectures on red palm oil.  My father was there and naturally took copious notes.   He listed the oil’s many uses (from soap making to dog food), devoted a whole page to the process by which it was made and quoted the lecturer (a Major A.C. Smith) as saying that it “until recently” it had not been considered edible.  Well, quite.

(In fact, red palm oil was being consumed especially in West Africa where, as a 1932 article in the Biochemistry Journal noted, it had much the same function in the diet as olive oil had in Europe.)

Clearly, red palm oil was a bit of an acquired taste.  In Wartime Kitchen, Wong Hong Suen notes that it had previously been used for lighting lamps.  It had “an unpleasant smell and an acerbic taste.”  Both could be mitigated somewhat by adding soda (used for washing clothes) to the boiling oil.  Still, in a time of acute shortage the civilian population found it both cheap and widely available.

The oil available at Changi and Kranji was apparently of a fairly crude variety.  I can only imagine what it tasted like though my father never said much about that.  Along with many of his fellow POW, no doubt, he was more concerned with its after effects.  Here is one typical note from Kranji.

Red Palm Oil

The noticeable augmentation of Red Palm Oil to our diet (particularly in the morning porridge) resulted in a considerable loosening of the bowels.

By eating this oil in excess of the usual quantities it is found to have a beneficial effect on the healing of skin abrasions.  When at one time such sores took days to heal (if they did not develop into tropical ulcers) they now seem to heal without any ill effects.

By September 1944 conditions at Kranji were clearly very poor.  As my father’s notes during the first three months following the move from Changi were not dated there is no way of telling from them whether the situation had been bad from the start or had deteriorated over the summer.  Either way, the first dated notes were from September.   They make grim reading.

By then, he wrote, the POW at Kranji were living “a day to day, hand to mouth existence.” No planning was possible.  Rations, never adequate, were at starvation levels.  “Now virtually living on rice, greenstuff & water.” Cherished embellishments such as fish oil, sugar, salt and pepper were “almost negligible” while “dogs, cats, toadstools & swill gleanings are devoured as ‘lagis’” (the POW term for second helpings of rations derived from the Malay word for ‘more’).  In short, it was now “not so much a matter of staying healthy as keeping alive.”

My father had written well over a thousand pages of notes by this time but at no point had he described such levels of deprivation and desperation despite the fact that he would have been no stranger to either.

I have often wondered about this.  When he was on Tekong Island in February 1942 he managed to write not one word about the invasion that narrowly bypassed him preferring instead to describe the bedbugs beneath his feet rather than the bombardment above his head.  On one level this may have been a simple reflection of the fact that the world of nature interested him more than the world of people.  Could this in turn have produced a sort of insouciance that inoculated him from the horror?  Perhaps he simply preferred not to dwell on such things.  To this extent his almost obsessive note taking may have had as much to do with emotional distraction as mental discipline, if such a distinction makes sense.

Or perhaps he had come to the conclusion that he no longer had anything more to lose.

Making do

September 29, 2012

In conditions of scarcity everything becomes useful.  As my father put it many years later, Changi was “the opposite of the throw-away society.”  Nothing of any conceivable use was discarded.  Scavenging and salvaging were essential activities and the need for improvisation put a premium on inventiveness and ingenuity.

This was one thing at Changi.  It was quite another at some of the smaller and more remote camps that had even less access to supplies and were under the direct command of the Japanese.

Kranji may have only been ten miles from Changi but it might as well have been a world away.  As usual, my father never wrote about this directly.  There are no ‘dear diary’ observations about his changed circumstances.  But the evidence is clear enough.  The obvious difference in paper quality has been mentioned in previous posts.  As can be seen from the illustration, he was soon reduced to writing on the backs of envelopes and cardboard packages.  But within a page or two he started to list some of the other ways in which the POW were now having to make do.  There was hardly a need to say more.


Cigarette papers:  made from toilet paper in the early days – now newspaper.

Sand or Ash:  these are excellent for scouring plates, wash basins etc.

Watering can: consisting of a tin with perforated bottom & attached to a stick

Garden rake: made from nails or a portion of concrete reinforcement wire

Rubber latex: used for patching rubber to rubber, cloth to cloth, paper to paper etc.

Evelyn Cheesman

September 1, 2012

While about a third of my father’s time as a POW in Singapore was spent at Kranji, the notes from that period are a very small fraction of the total.  A lack of paper would have helped to account for this but so would a general lack of reading material.  There was no shortage of books at Changi and as previous posts have indicated he read very widely, probably more so than at any other time in his life.  To say that his notes on these books were copious would be to understate what in some cases was essentially an exercise in transcription.

Another point that I have neglected to make much of so far, largely because I’m not quite sure what to make of it, is that he rarely wrote about his primary interest, that is, insects.  During the years leading up to the war he had been a lab assistant at the Imperial Institute of Entomology at Farnham House in Farnham Royal near Slough.  During this time he had worked with some of the leading entomologists of the day and had illustrated a number of scholarly articles.  He was not only fairly knowledgeable about insects; entomology had become something of a passion and remained so for the rest of his life.  It is curious then that he wrote so little about it either at Changi or Kranji.  There would have been no shortage of bugs after all.

Perhaps part of an answer can be found in his note from one of the few books he was able to read at Kranji: Evelyn Cheesman’s Land of the Red Bird.  You don’t hear much about Cheesman now but in her day she had been a very visible figure in the world of natural history and a prolific author.  Many of her books were based on her remarkable expeditions to the south seas where she hacked her way through remote jungles, bantering with everyone she met and getting herself into the most extraordinary scrapes in the breezy and yet indomitable way only a certain sort of English lady of that period could do.  Her accounts were of serious entomological and botanical interest yet they often read as page-turning adventure stories, as indeed they were.  You get the idea from just three of the titles: Hunting Insects in the South Seas, Backwaters in the Savage South Seas and Camping Adventures in Cannibal Islands.

But my father just had Land of the Red Bird an account of her insect-collecting expedition to New Guinea.  I’ve read it and suspect that he enjoyed it very much.  He made a couple of pages of jottings on it but the ones below are representative.  He would no doubt have agreed with her on the topic of eating half-dried fish and found her advice on leeches to be most useful.  Her humorous perspective on stings and bites would have appealed to him greatly.  But her observation about the difficulty of doing entomology in the tropics must have been of special interest.  And of course he had no access to a microscope, test tubes or preserving fluid, the essential tools of the trade.  He would simply have to content himself with reading about entomology rather than doing it.  But at least it would have been a darned good read.

Kranji Notes, page 1.

Half-dried fish:  “Chinese and Malays eat it.  I noticed that they always mix it with quantities of pepper, chillies and other hot condiments, and can well believe that it is only by cauterizing the palate first that any human being could take such food.” (p.21)

Leeches:  “It is said that salt will make them leave their hold, but salt is dissolved almost as soon as it is exposed to the air and does not remain long enough to have any lasting effect.  Strong tobacco juice is supposed to discourage them.  (p.79)

Stings & bites: “ There is never any respite from things that bite and sting.  Some attack because it is going to rain, or because it is raining, or has rained, or won’t rain.  Some because it is dark, others because it is light.  So they succeed one another regularly in shifts and there are no interludes. (p.123)

Collecting insects in the Tropics. It is extremely important to send off specimens, particularly the insects, as soon as possible, to get them away from that climate.  When once the insects are dried and packed between layers of special wadding, in many layers in special boxes, with insecticides to keep out beetles and carbolic to keep out mould, it is better not even to open the boxes again to see whether they are alright (pp. 249-250) 

The Kranji notes

April 7, 2012

Kranji paper-1 by Brian Spittle

As my father dated very few of his notes, and as he characteristically omitted to mention the move to Kranji, it is hard to say with any precision where his Changi notes leave off and where the Kranji notes begin. In fact, he only mentions Kranji once and that is in a passing reference towards the end of his captivity.

The main clue comes from a marked change in the quality of writing paper. At Changi my father wrote entirely in notebooks which he was able to obtain easily enough from local Chinese and Malays. By May 1944 paper was apparently in shorter supply even at Changi. It was almost completely unobtainable at Kranji. He was therefore reduced to writing on any scrap he could find. As the illustration shows, this could mean the backs (or even fronts) of camp memos, the insides of book covers and odd pieces of cardboard packaging.

He did manage to find a hundred or so larger pieces of paper of varying quality and it is on these that he wrote the bulk of his notes during his final, bleak year as a POW.

Jahore from Kranji by Brian Spittle
Kranji War Cemetery looking towards the Straits and Johor Bahru

As with Changi, the name Kranji is thought to have been derived from a tree though there is not much evidence of either tree in Singapore any more. The same may be said of the POW camps, of course.

Kranji is now the site of a cemetery and war memorial operated by the Commonwealth War Grave Commission. Before the war it had been a military camp and the site of a large ammunition magazine. One of the main prongs of the Japanese invasion of Singapore had been on the coastline at Kranji just to the west of the Causeway.

Located on a slight rise a few hundred yards inland, the cemetery and site of the former camp overlook this coastline and the Johor mainland beyond. Looking across the Straits to the skyline of modern Johor Bahru now, it requires an act of some concentration to conjure up the scene as my father would have known it. But as at Changi Village and Block 151 I was deeply conscious of his presence here, all the more so perhaps because of the distances of time and space.

I had not come across many descriptions of the camp – apparently few exist in the public realm at least – and as I wandered about the cemetery I could only rely on his own brief description which characteristically focused more on the flora and fauna of the area than anything else. But this had its own uses for where there were now lines of gravestones there had once been lines of rubber trees. They had even been spaced in much the same way. Such were the little tricks I played in my imagination.

I’ve excerpted part of my father’s description of the camp below leaving out the details of many of the plants he identified. It looks as though he wrote this summary towards the end of his captivity or in the weeks between the end of hostilities and his return to England. It was clearly part of a first draft for a follow-up article on Singapore birds. He never filled in the locational indicators the way he did so meticulously for Changi but there is no question that the cemetery and memorial are on the site of the camp. I cannot be sure that the map he drew is the figure he refers to below, however. I am not even sure that it is a map of the POW camp at Kranji though my sense is that it is.

The camp, as outlined in the accompanying figure, is located at approximately ___degrees N by longitude __ degrees E. It is an irregular tract of land measuring roughly ___ yards in length and ___ yards at its broadest part. Moreover, it is situated on a gentle slope varying from ___ to ___ feet above sea level, on soil of laterite formation. The huts, which are almost entirely built on concrete piles & constructed of wood & attap numbered ___ and housed some 2,000 prisoners: an average of ___ structures& a human population of ___ to the acre.
The vegetation of the camp is essentially dominated by Para Rubber trees (Hevea Brasilienses) of some twenty five to thirty years standing & which, with the exception of clearings necessitated by the huts & roads, the padang & the vegetable gardens, were spaced at three yard intervals in rows set ten yards apart. The trees averaged some thirty feet in height but were of comparatively poor growth.
However, the bird life appeared to be influenced to a great extent by the conditions that obtained in the country surrounding rather than those of the camp itself. For instance, the margin of the Johore Straits, fringed in this vicinity with mangrove bushes, extended to as near as ___ yards from the western margin of the camp, the intervening ground being wasteland, and supported rank growth of lalang (Imperata cylindrica) & Singapore Rhododendrum (Melastoma Malabathricum) while to the east of the camp the ground rises through fairly extensive vegetable gardens to low beluker-clad hills. In addition, the Japanese quarters & small native kampongs abut upon the camp to the south & north respectively, the latter complete with a stream & a series of duck ponds & occasional orchard trees…. Finally, Woodlands Road, a continuation of the main Bukit Timah Road, runs along the western flank of the camp.

15th Feb ’42

February 16, 2012

They are not making much of it in Chicago, where I now live, but today is the 70th anniversary of the surrender of Singapore to the Japanese.  By the same token, and according to his notes at least, it is also the seventieth anniversary of my father’s first day as a POW at Changi.  Except, as I noted in a prior post (May 10, 2009) copied below, it wasn’t.  As he used to put it, he had a “grandstand view” of the invasion from his vantage point on Pulau Tekong.  It would be several days before he (and what I gather could only have been a handful of others) were picked up by boat and ferried back to Singapore.  He had been lucky up to that point and in one respect at least would continue to be.  By that I simply mean that he was spared the horrors of the railway.

A quiet anniversary then.  But no less heartfelt for that.


My father’s drawing of Singapore island prior to capture
showing Pulau Tekong and Pengerang (on the mainland)
where he had been posted to do anti-malarial work.


“Taken POW”

Allied forces in Singapore surrendered on February 15, 1942 with food and water supplies running out and amidst scenes of  destruction and  mayhem in the city.

My father was still on Pulau Tekong which had been completely bypassed by the invasion.  As he told the story to me, it was some days before the Japanese came to pick them up though he may have been dating that from the invasion of the island rather than the surrender.  In any case, the Japanese finally made contact with them.  “Should we come over to Singapore?”  the British inquired. “Good heavens, no!” the Japanese replied, or at least words to that effect.  “You stay put until we get you.  It’s a hell of a mess over here.”

And so it was.  About 50,000 allied personnel were told to move at once to the vicinity of Changi, the British military complex situated in the northeast corner of Singapore island.

My father said nothing of this in his notes at the time though he described the general chaos from a sanitary point of view in an unpublished paper he wrote after the war.  I’ll come back to that in a later post.

The images were certainly graphic.  A year or two before he died he recalled the shock of returning to Singapore after the surrender.

The mind was suddenly concentrated — focused starkly — at the horrendous sight of the island’s civilian administrator tied spreadeagled to a tree in full sun.  He was responsible for the distribution of food (rice) to the small community of people living permanently on the island.  But apparently supplies had been withheld to be released in the event of a siege.  This was resented by the people.

As can be seen, below, his entry for that day is simply: “Taken POW 15th Feb ’42”   I don’t suppose that he had much opportunity to elaborate.

Taken POW


February 5, 2012

Kranji memorial tree 1 by Brian Spittle

In May 1944, the Japanese moved the POW out of Selerang barracks to Changi gaol or to huts in its immediate vicinity. The hospital itself was divided with about a thousand patients being transferred to Kranji about ten miles away on the northern coast of Singapore island. My father was among the hospital staff who went with them. He was to remain there for the rest of the war.

My father never mentioned to me that he had been held anywhere other than Changi until a year or two before he died. Even then it only came up by chance. I had asked him how he had managed to keep his notes hidden for so long. “Oh that was easy enough,” he chuckled. “The awkward bit was when they told us to move and I had to dig them all up again!”


But then he had also only just shown me his Changi bird notes for the first time, or at least his article about them in the Bulletin of the Raffles Museum. I had known about the notes since childhood but they were never talked about. It had not even crossed my mind that they still existed. As for the Kranji notes, I would not discover them until after he died.

They do not make easy reading. In part this is because they are fragile and his writing both small and faint. Paper was very scarce and he wrote on every scrap he could find. The other reason is that for the first time he wrote about his own condition and state of mind. Both were pretty grim. Changi may not have been a holiday camp exactly, especially during the last year of the war, but it may have seemed as such from the perspective of Kranji. There were times when he wondered whether he would survive.

Not much is known about Kranji it seems. At least, not much has been published about it and I have yet to research primary sources. It is now the site of the Kranji War Memorial honouring those who died defending Singapore and Malaya during World War II.

In the following posts I will try to piece together what I can of the camp along with my father’s experience during his final year of captivity.

Dying and Living

October 29, 2011

Meals by Brian Spittle

The content and tone of my father’s notes changed somewhat during his last year of captivity. For the first time he started to reflect on his condition and references to food – or the lack of it – became very common. Until recently I had associated this shift with his move to Kranji. Conditions there were worse than at Changi and while the end of the war could now be contemplated what this would mean for him and his fellow POW was far from obvious.

Still, a more careful reading indicates that the shift began (or at least was first expressed) in March and April 1944 a few weeks before the move to Kranji.

Why this was so, I cannot say for sure. But this was a time of deteriorating conditions and morale at Changi. The Japanese were tightening their control over camp life and imposing new restrictions and regulations. And POW who had been more or less distributed across the Changi promontory were now required to move to the immediate vicinity of Changi gaol. On top of this, many thousands of prisoners were returning from upcountry and the collective nightmare of the Thailand-Burma railway. Many of them were in very poor condition.

Attap huts and tents were erected around the gaol and rations were restricted. Had it not been for the gardens cultivated by the POW, food would have been very scarce indeed.

Changi may have been a holiday camp compared to some others.  But by March 1944 it was starting to lose that reputation.

Dying and Living
It is said that you don’t need to worry so much about dying as you do about living.

Is it to reduce resistance or is there a definite shortage of food? Hip bones protruding make it difficult to lie on one’s side in bed (even with biscuits).

In bulk these do not satisfy. By long residence in the camp it has been possible to discipline oneself with regard to being able to exist on half rations. At one time rice was plentiful & the difficulty was in flavouring it (with tinned fish, tomato, egg, blachan, condensed milk, curry, coconut, pickled whitebait, raisins, soya bean sauce, salt, cinnamon). Now the reverse is true. Meat, vegetables, sugar etc. being relatively more plentiful and rice scarce.

In the early days novelty made the meal enjoyable. Now it is monotony.

Green Book 12, March-April 1944

Cigarette image

My father took up smoking in Changi along with many other POW. He said that as much as anything else it helped to relieve the boredom. After all, as Lady Bracknell put it in rather different circumstances in The Importance of Being Earnest: “A man should always have an occupation of some kind.”

But as can be seen from his note below and others to the same effect, it also helped to alleviate the almost constant hunger.

Of course cigarettes were in very short supply and fetched enormous value on the black market. They were also of very poor quality; “noxious” was one word my father used to describe them.

This wasn’t just a question of the tobacco. Such was the scarcity that all sorts of substitutions were employed. Dried hibiscus and other plant leaves were used to supplement what little tobacco was available and pages torn from books were substituted for cigarette paper with the thin pages from bibles being the most prized.

I never saw my father smoke a cigarette after the war. He did enjoy a pipe, though seemed to be addicted less to the tobacco than the pipe itself. While it was a semi-permanent fixture in his mouth he rarely bothered to light it.

However, in one of his occasional enthusiasms he did once try to grow tobacco. In fact, he grew about a quarter of an acre of it. Tobacco cultivation being something of a rarity in our part of Worcestershire it was a project that attracted a good deal of local attention.

Once the leaves were harvested they were carefully dried in the attic. This was done over my mother’s protests as the smell permeated our small house and was particularly virulent in the summer months. After a year or two the first of the leaves were retrieved and rolled quite expertly into a cigar. I well remember the moment when my father sat down in his armchair and with great ceremony raised this first homegrown cheroot to his lips, lit it and inhaled.

A moment or two passed and then he practically levitated in a fit of coughing and wheezing.

“Absolutely awful!” he spluttered.

Smoking as a substitute for food
Nicotine acts as a drug upon the senses & appears to ward off hunger. At any rate it satisfies after a poor meal. As a result many become heavy smokers.

Poor quality tobacco is improved greatly by soaking in a weak solution of water & sugar, rinsing out & allowing to dry in the sun.

Dampening tobacco
Papua, hibiscus and banana leaves are chiefly used.

Green Book, General Notes. March-April, 1944

Feeding the ducks

October 2, 2011

There is a scene in James Clavell’s King Rat where that arch-racketeer ‘the King’ offers Philip Marlowe an egg. Malowe looks on in amazement as the King casually unlocks a box stuffed with Changi contraband — coffee, oil, gula Malacca, bananas, tobacco and heaven knows what else – and retrieves a couple of eggs.

“How you like your egg? Fried?”

Marlowe hardly knows what to say. He stands there consumed by astonishment, hunger and resentment. (The film conveys this better than the book I think.)

“What’s the matter?” the King asked abruptly.
After a pause Marlowe said, “Nothing.” He looked at the egg. He wasn’t due an egg for six days. “If you’re sure I won’t be putting you out, I’d like it fried.”

My father kept chickens at Selerang; ducks too. I don’t know whether this was something he did alone or with one or two others, or whether he simply was one of a larger group helping to look after what must have been a sizable chicken run outside the barracks. He never describes the Selerang chicken run but it features several times in his bird notes.

“What you came to understand about the Japanese,” he once told me, “was that their sense of rules was quite different from ours. If they had a rule about something you broke it at your peril. All hell would let loose. Yet this was sometimes quite arbitrary. If they didn’t have a rule for something – even if it would have been in their interest to do so – they could be absolutely oblivious. You were pretty much free to do what you liked. It took us a while to understand this but once we did it opened up all kinds of possibilities!”

One of those possibilities was rearing chickens and ducks. “The guards didn’t seem to have much more food than we did and yet they turned a blind eye to this completely. They never interfered or tried to take the eggs.”

It provided another opportunity for note-taking. Yet once again, there is little or no attempt to describe the setting or circumstances. There is not even a wry comment about the similarity of the ducklings’ diet and that of his own. As always the focus is on methodical observation.

Ducklings 4 bought on 9.ix.43 (evening). Probably 1 day old.

(1) Night:-
Rice polishings & water (mash)
(2) Morning:-
Peanut sauce (peanuts boiled with ground rice, mashed) & boiled browned rice & tea (mash)
(3) Mid morning:-
Rice polishings & condensed milk (mash)
(4) Tiffin:-
Togay soup, boiled rice & tea (mash)
(5) Mid afternoon:-
Remainder of tiffin & stale bread crumbs
(6) Late afternoon:-
Sweet potato fried in palm oil
(7) Dinner:-
Boiled rice, rice polishings & milk (mash)
(8) Evening:-
Boiled rice, togay soup, fried pasty & tea (mash)

Hand feeding was necessary; the ducks pecking small portions held between the fingers. Drink is administered in a desert spoon, the liquid being pointed at & perhaps touched with the finger to show the bird in the first instance.
It is noticed that the ducks must eat & drink alternatively, only small portions being taken of either.
Hand feeding continued to the 14th. Then a saucer containing the sloppy mush is left in the box for the duration of the meal only, Drink is administered with a spoon as usual.

Box 12” x 18” x 9” high all wood arranged as follows:-
1st hot water bottle in jacket
2nd 2 woolen dusters
3rd straw

The box is covered with a heavy covering. Kept in barrack room throughout day & night. There are no air holes in box.

On 12th no water bottle inserted during day time. And on the 13th discontinued at night as well. Otherwise kept warm as usual.

Cleaned out every other day. It was noticed however that by the 14th the straw was getting far more grimy so that soon it will need changing every day.

The essentials are:-

(1) Keep dry, especially breast (when feeding) and legs (when walking in food). Do not allow on wet ground.
(2) Protect from draught & uneven temperatures
(3) Keep out of direct sun (kills in 10 mins.)

(4) Protect from brown tree ants (8 10-day old ducklings killed in the night)

Chicks: 12 bought on 13.ix.43 (evening) probably 1 day old –

Feeds consist of

(1) Rice polishings
(2) Rice flour

These are placed in heaps in 2 shallow tin lids. 2 lids are necessary to prevent overcrowding.
Water is placed in a tin with lid with a circular hole. This prevents contamination of the water & wetting of chicks.

Green Book G, pp. 19-20

Malay for colonials

September 24, 2011

malay grammar inside cover by Brian Spittle

A nice illustration of Changi POW humour on the inside cover of Maxwell’s Manual of the Malay Language, one of the Malay primers my father brought back from Singapore. Books were widely circulated in the camp and in this case it’s clear that at least three others had taken a crack at Maxwell — there’s another name on the facing page — before passing him on.

As I surmised in the previous post, the intended readership of these language primers would have been the British colonial elite. But I’ve only just pieced together how important this must have been in Maxwell’s case. As indicated on the title page, he had been both a barrister in London and Assistant Resident in Perak, northern Malaya. Reading this I couldn’t help forming the stereotypical image of a Victorian gentleman-scholar somehow transplanted as colonial administrator. And for all I know that may have been the case. But there’s a little more to it than that. Perak was a pretty volatile place in the early 1880s when Maxwell took up his post. The previous Resident had been assassinated only a few years previously, his local unpopularity magnified by a spectacular disinterest in learning Malay. Pointedly, the resident who replaced him was fluent in Malay, as was Maxwell clearly. Presumably he represented a new breed of administrator.  If so, his book was not simply the work of an amateur linguist but part of a concerted strategy to instill the administrative class with at least a basic knowledge of Malay.

All the same, expressions such as “Bring me my hat and riding whip” and “Are you deaf? Can’t you hear what I’m saying to you?” would seem to indicate that this more enlightened approach to colonial relations still had its limits.

I’m not sure when my father decided to learn Malay though my sense is that he didn’t get down to it in earnest until the move to Kranji in May 1944.  At any rate, most of his Malay language notes date from his last dismal year in captivity.

Not that he did date them, or many of his other notes for that matter.  But everything was carefully numbered which in itself became an index of his changing condition and state of mind.  Paper, along with just about everything else, was in very short supply at Kranji and he was reduced to writing on every scrap he could find.  Such was the new state of parsimony that each side of an envelope would now be counted as its own page.

Still, the Malay language primers he was using must have given him some puzzling moments.  They had obviously been written for the pre-War colonial elite and didn’t try to disguise it.  Expressions such as: “What an idiot you are!  I tell you to bring water and you bring oil!” and “Does Madam know that dinner is ready?” would have had limited applicability in a POW camp.

Or anywhere else for that matter.  When my wife and I visited Singapore a few months ago I took a look at these books to see if they might be helpful but had much the same problem.  Foreign language phrase books are almost completely useless in real life situations it seems to me but when was I ever going to tell someone that “People say that he is a great opium-smoker” or that “The cleverness of Europeans is very great indeed”?  Not often presumably.

My father was quite proud of his working knowledge of Malay.  As a child I remember him breaking into it from time to time and being greatly amused by our puzzlement.  No doubt he quite enjoyed asking us whether his dress shirts were finished.

A Changi education

July 3, 2011

Both the British and Australians established ‘universities’ at Changi but they represented only one aspect of the much larger educational enterprise in the camp.  Much it was informal with thousands of books in circulation and lectures on all manner of subjects from the most general to the most technical.

I don’t suppose my father ever read as much, or at least as widely, as he did at Changi.  He taught himself a working knowledge of Malay and attended numerous lectures on mathematics, literature and history as well as architecture, surveying and town planning.  Whether any of this was under the auspices of Changi ‘University’ I have no idea.  He never mentioned it in his notes nor in subsequent conversations.  But his book and lecture notes account for a substantial portion of the 1,500 or so pages that he brought home with him.

Most of the notes reflect his interests in biology, natural history and public health.  They ran the gamut of lecture series on bacteriology and horticulture to one-off talks such as Mr. Hutton’s  ‘Sheep Farming in Scotland’ and Mr. Gelliman’s ‘The Australian Wool Industry.’   Such was the thirst for knowledge and mental activity  that lectures on even the most arcane topics were often well-attended.  Still, I can’t help wondering how many showed up for Mr. Coleman’s four-part lecture series on ‘Manures.’  What I can say is that Mr. Coleman found at least one eager student in my father.  I have the notes to prove it.

Today of course we are accustomed to the commodification of knowledge and the notion that it must be packaged, priced and marketed but only to those who are deemed ‘qualified.’  There was no credential for a Changi education but perhaps we could learn a thing or two from it.


I first heard from Midge Gillies a couple of years ago.  She was writing a book on the day-to-day life of POW, particularly the various sorts of educational activities they were engaged in.  She had read my father’s article on Singapore birds in the Raffles Bulletin and had a few questions about his experience at Changi.  We have been in touch ever since.

Midge’s book is about to be published and I am very eager to read it.  This is not simply because it  includes references to my father’s work but also because it both illuminates and enlarges our understanding of the everyday life of many POW.  The perspective she brings is certainly consistent with what I have learned of my own father’s experience.

The dominant images and stereotypes of POW survival have to do with gritty determination and discipline on the one hand and matey comradeship on the other.   And so it must have been.  But even in the most adverse circumstances when mind and spirit were most constrained, men and women continued to discover, explore and learn.  This was one of the most effective survival strategies of all, of course, but precisely because it was often more than that.

Changi was perhaps a bit unusual with its ‘universities,’ libraries and theatres.  But this was partly a function of scale.  In any case, remarkable though they were, such more or less formal activities didn’t begin to account for the countless stories of individual POW who were not content with mere survival.

The Barbed-Wire University is full of such stories.





April 23, 2011

IMG_1307 by Brian Spittle

Model of the old Selarang Barracks now on display at the current barracks

My father never mentioned that he had spent several months at Selarang.  But his Liberated POW Questionnaire in the National Archives at Kew says that he arrived on August 27, 1943 and indeed I have found a single reference to the move on this date in one of his notebooks.  Our visit to Block 151 was therefore followed by a quick  trip to the contemporary barracks a mile or two away.

Presumably, my father followed the movement of the hospital to Selarang as he would in May 1944 when it moved again, this time to Kranji.  In fact, although his bird notes began during his last few months at Roberts and carried over to some extent at Kranji, the vast majority of them were made during his time at Selarang.  Why this was so I can only speculate.  Perhaps he had a little more freedom when he was there.  He doesn’t write about such things so it is impossible to say.

The note about his move to Selarang is easy to miss as it had been subsequently crossed out along with one or two brief observations about conditions in the barracks.  These notes are very hard to read but I can just about make out that personnel were moved from the square after August 17, 1943 and housed in tents and atap huts nearby.  He also notes that there was a “concentration of troops” (sic) in and around Selarang in October and November which — ever mindful of the sanitation implications — necessitated additional toilet and cookhouse facilities.

The original Selarang Square buildings are long gone though the square is still there.*  We were quickly ushered past that, however, and on to the officer’s mess which now houses a small museum.  The exhibition focuses as much on the postwar period as the Japanese occupation.  There’s an old computer terminal and an even more ancient mimeograph machine.  While there is a large model of the original barracks (shown above) and a few artifacts from the wartime years, I did not get the impression that the museum would be of more than passing interest to those interested in the FEPOW experience.  But then it’s not exactly open to the public anyway.

I would have liked to have nosed about the famous square a bit but this is a functioning barracks, not a visitor center.  We were reminded of this every time our car had to pull over to make way for a passing tank.  In any case, my only points of reference beside the square were from my father’s bird notes.  Of the rubber plantation, padang and chicken run there was not a sign to be seen.

* I am fairly sure that my father played no part in the Seralang Barracks Incident of August and September, 1942 My understanding is that Roberts personnel and patients were not moved to the square at that time, though the threat was made.  I have not yet found any references to the incident among my father’s notes though of course he would have known all about it.

The contrasts could hardly have been greater.  My father arrived in Singapore on a troopship after several weeks of dodging German U-boats and bombers across the Atlantic and a meandering circuit that took in the West Indies, Capetown and the Indian Ocean.  I touched down three minutes ahead of schedule in a Qantas airbus.  His accommodation consisted of attap huts and stifling, overcrowded barracks buildings; mine included hotels that were (at least in my experience) practically the last word in friendliness, efficiency and comfort.  He lived on near starvation rations and worse; I was lucky enough to sample some of the delicacies that make Singapore one of the foodie capitals of the world.

I was very conscious of these things, particularly as my reasons for visiting Changi were as much meditative as investigative.  In part, I was hoping to get a little closer to my father’s experience.  Of course, you don’t do that just by standing in the same place seventy years later, particularly a place that has changed so much.  But some things do start to get a little clearer.

In his memoir Basil Street Blues the biographer Michael Holroyd writes of the space that was left after his parents died and of his need to fill it with a story.   Many of us have the same experience, he suspects, leading us “to ask questions when it is apparently too late for answers, and then to be forced to discover answers on our own.”

That’s what I was doing in Singapore.

First letter from C.A. Gibson-Hill, Raffles Museum

On returning home from Singapore my father focused his attention on finding a job, getting married and writing up his Changi bird notes, though not necessarily in that order.  I cannot say to what extent and on what level the notes continued to be a refuge for him but he certainly devoted a considerable time to them.  Within eighteen months he had completed a 112 page manuscript which included, as can be seen from the extract on the left, a detailed section on camp vegetation

He sent the manuscript to Frederick Chasen in June, 1947.  Chasen had written the definitive study of Singapore birds and had been curator of the Raffles Museum.  But in July he received a reply from C.A. Gibson-Hill, who was to be the last British director of the museum, with the news that Chasen had been killed just before the fall of Singapore.  A fairly lengthy correspondence then ensued with Gibson-Hill concerning the publication of the manuscript which eventually appeared in much shortened form in the Raffles Bulletin in January 1950. Both the delay and the aggressive editing were in part due to paper shortages brought about by the ‘Malaya Emergency’ (or the ‘Anti British National Liberation War’ depending on your point of view).

And that, for all my father knew, was that.  About a year or so ago, however, I noticed that his article — Nesting habits of  some Singapore birds– was still available as a pdf on the web site of the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research, now part of the National University of Singapore.  Given that I had the original carbon copies of the manuscript I thought it just possible that someone there might like to see one of them.  Still, I was not prepared for the enthusiastic reply.  Not only is the article still read; it apparently also remains one of the few in-depth studies of Singapore birds. There was therefore genuine interest in seeing the original manuscript, which was no longer in the museum’s records, as well as copies of the field notes (if you could call them such).

We spent a delightful day with the current ornithologist at the museum who somehow made time for us having only a few days between trips to the Sarawak interior and Christmas Island.  We visited the Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve (just down the road from the Kranji camp would have been), enjoyed a leisurely meal and talked about the bird notes, Gibson-Hill and Singapore.  I passed on the copy of the original manuscript that I had brought with me.

Clearly, the journey had just taken another turn.

Block 151

February 7, 2011

I never thought seriously that I would one day find myself standing inside the building where my father had once been a prisoner of war.  Singapore was a very long way away from the England of my childhood, both in imagination and geography.  Working on his notes over the past couple of years has brought it much closer in imagination at least.  But I now live in Chicago and in terms of miles that is about as far away as you can get.

My reasons for coming to Singapore were to finally get a sense of the place for myself.  The use of the word sense is deliberate; I wanted to see, hear, touch, smell and taste it.  Of course, the island has been transformed — many times in fact — since my father’s day.  But hints of its wartime past remain.  As it turned out they were sometimes rather more than hints.

I did not realize, even by the time of my arrival, whether any of the old Roberts buildings were still standing.  Had I known more about the Changi murals I would have learned quickly enough that Block 151 had been preserved as that is where they were housed.  But my interest in that building had more to do with the dysentery wing.  This is where my father had been (both as an RAMC orderly and patient) from the establishment of the hospital facility in March 1942 until he was moved to Selerang in the summer of 1943.  His early notes on camp sanitation,  deficiency diseases, drainage systems and ottway pits would have been written here.  He knew Block 151 very well.

It was Jeya, the director of the Changi Museum, who told us that the building did indeed still exist but that as it was on the air force base, a high security area, it was not accessible to the public.  Still, he encouraged us to contact the public affairs office at the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) as exceptions were sometimes made for families of former POW.  This we did though without any great confidence that there would be a reply let alone permission to visit.

We were wrong.  The staff at MINDEF were more than helpful and bent over backwards to arrange a visit even at such short notice — we were due to return to Chicago a week later.  True, passport numbers and other information had to be provided for security purposes.  A car also had to be hired from a company acceptable to MINDEF as taxis were not allowed.  But these things were quickly sorted out as they tend to be in Singapore and permission was granted within a couple of days or so.

And so at the appointed hour we presented ourselves at the west security gate at Changi Air Force Base.  A military vehicle would escort us the rest of the way.

The building stood on a slight rise with open ground to one side of it and trees on the other.  I was certainly aware of the enormity of the moment as we approached and yet before I knew it we were inside.

What we had been given permission to see was the old chapel containing the Changi murals.  The story of the murals is both remarkable and inspiring (go to to learn more) but it was not what had drawn me to this place.  I listened as the history of the murals and their rediscovery was explained but what I wanted more than anything else at that moment was to explore the building and the grounds outside and to be alone with my thoughts.  For security reasons that would not be possible.

Still, half way round the world and nearly seventy years later I was standing in the very place I never thought I’d see, a place my father and so many others had been forced to know so well.  That was more than I could have hoped for even days beforehand and I am enormously grateful to Jeya at the Changi Museum and Simon Soh at MINDEF who did so much to make it happen.

Pulau Tekong

January 23, 2011

I had hoped to see Roberts Hospital, if any of it remained, as that is where my father had spent his first seventeen months as a POW before being moved to Selarang Barracks.  One place I knew I wouldn’t be able to visit was Pulau Tekong  in the Straits of Johore.  This is where he had been during the last few weeks before the surrender scuttling back and forth in a small motor boat between the island and Pengerang on his various anti-malarial errands.  Tekong is now a military training area and so off limits to the public.  Still, you can get a good view of it from Changi Village as it’s only a few hundred yards away. A visit to the adjacent island of Pulau Urbin probably provides as good a sense as any of how it used to look as there has been little development on it in recent decades.

The Japanese invasion of Singapore ignored Tekong but made a diversionary feint through Ubin.  Seeing how close these islands are to each other, to the mainland and to Singapore it is easy to imagine just what a “grandstand” view he had.  By the same token, he was probably lucky to be where he was.  Well, comparatively speaking, that is.

Looking Towards Pulau Tekong from Changi Village

On a bumboat to Pulau Ubin

Pulau Ubin

Changi Village then and now

January 22, 2011

Changi Village is quite a bustling little place these days.  There’s a hawker center, a hotel and a golf club.  You can also watch Premier League games in at least three or four restaurants along Changi Village Road though of course at any one time it’s going to be the same game.

It would have been a much sleepier place in 1942, just one of several kampongs or hamlets dotting the Changi coastline.  Still, though the pre-war photograph my father brought back doesn’t indicate it, changes must have been evident even then given the construction of the British military base.

What I had not expected is that quite a few of the old army buildings are still standing.  Take a stroll up Netheravon Road past the sailing club and you suddenly come across the old army hospital half hidden in the trees.  Turn left up Hendon Road and you’re in the heart of what I take to be Kitchener Barracks.  The buildings seem deserted now but look essentially as they must have done when they were part of the POW camp.   Which immediately raises the question:  how much, if any, of Roberts Barracks is left?  Inexplicably, I had neglected to find this out before the trip.  Now it becomes the burning question.

Changi Village pre-1942

Changi village today

Changi hospital

Visiting Changi

January 1, 2011


In my first post I envisaged this blog as something of a personal journey and one that was likely to veer off down all sorts of side roads and byways. In what I suppose is something more than a byway, it’s a journey that has finally taken me to Singapore.
I’m writing this in Changi Village, a place my father knew well as a POW. Much has changed since then of course and large parts of the camp have either disappeared through commercial development or are otherwise inaccessible as military installations.

A lot can still be seen, however, and much more mentally reconstructed. For instance, if you walk down Changi Village Road, go past the mosque at the corner of Loyang Road and turn right up a little side road that looks as though it leads nowhere you will find yourself at a rather fashionable little watering hole called Lava Edge. Here you can enjoy a cold beer while looking out over the local golf course. As it happens, you’re also looking in the general direction of  Changi Hill. And the other side of that is where Roberts Hospital was located and where my father spent the first part of his captivity.
Let’s just say that knowing this (while enjoying the cold beer) is enough to bring on a fairly complicated mix of thoughts and emotions.  After all, it’s been quite a journey to get to this place.

Moonlight at Changi

December 5, 2010


For the most part, the bird notes were a conventional tabulation of dates and species sighted along with details about locations, markings, calls and behavior. But focus for a moment on the locational aspect and another perspective emerges for the notes also offer glimpses of the Changi landscape and provide occasionally telling snippets of everyday life. The Indian mynah bird swooping over the chicken run near Square Selerang conjures up a broader image than the bird itself, in other words, as does the white-collared kingfisher spotted in the coconut trees near gate number 3. And so it is with scores of other entries.
Sometimes it’s simply a matter of the general landscape: Square Selerang, T Block, the football field, the sand dunes, the ‘Changi Tree’ or nearby padang and mosque. Quite often, too, there are detailed descriptions of the vegetation as with the yellow-vented bulbuls spotted among the alstonia angustiloba foliage near A Mess, 18th Division.
Occasionally, there are human touches as when Mr. Batty (surely not!) frets about the birds nipping off the shoots from his tomato plants or when sparrows are seen feeding on the polished rice that has been put out to dry by the company cookhouse.
There are poignant moments too as when a patient is seen feeding a fledgling mynah bird in a vitex tree.
And the observations didn’t stop at nightfall. Sometimes a half or full moon would allow just enough illumination for the purpose. But it was at night that the sounds of the birds were perhaps most vivid. My father writes about the time he lay awake listening to the “knocking” of a Malayan nightjar. No doubt the noise kept others from sleeping too and who knows what anxieties and fears preyed on them as they tossed and turned? But for him, it seems, the nightjar provided something of a distraction. It certainly afforded an opportunity for mental concentration as he tried to describe the sound. “The knocking,” he writes, “has been likened to a hollow hammer hitting a nail but to my ear it is not quite so metallic & more reminiscent of a hammer hitting a wooden peg or even a wooden mallet hitting a chisel.”

Such perhaps are the fine distinctions of a sleepless night at Changi.

Changi Birders

November 28, 2010

The bird observations were by no means a solitary activity.  Two or three other POW were regularly involved while a further half dozen or so contributed on an occasional basis.  The social element must have been rewarding in and of itself but the mental aspect had to have been equally important.  At the very least this was an information gathering activity that had a system and discipline to it.  But it was clearly more than that.  Given the other drafts of papers he was working on at the time, I am quite sure that my father intended to pull these notes together for possible publication at a later date.   Which assumes of course that there would be a later date.




October 31, 2010

The original manuscript of my father’s piece on Changi Birds in the Bulletin of the Raffles Museum was considerably longer than the eventual article. One of the segments that never made it to publication was a description of the camp along with a detailed account of its vegetation.

As I have mentioned several times, my father rarely wrote directly about conditions or activities at Changi. At times – many times, in fact – you would never know that he was describing a POW camp. Perhaps he was simply being careful though it’s equally possible that this was simply the way he saw things.

Either way, his summary of the project must surely be one of the more prosaic descriptions of life at Changi.

“A project of this kind, undertaken under adverse circumstances was, however, not unnaturally beset with difficulties rarely experienced in normal times. In this respect, the continually changing conditions that prevailed in the Camp are referred to in the text: these included the large and fluctuating human population, the repeated reductions made in the size of the area, and the exploitation that was necessary to make it as self-supporting as possible. But in addition, mention may be made of the small amount of leisure-time and the rigid regulations that were imposed on the movements of personnel, the impossibility of being able adequately to compare the local bird life with that which occurred outside of the camp boundary, and the ever present uncertainty as to how long the study could be continued.”

Well, that would be one way of putting it, I suppose.

The Changi bird notes

October 2, 2010

Book D, pp 25-26

My father had been making detailed notes on birds since he was a teenager and in the decade before the war had filled several notebooks with his observations and drawings of herons at Oaken Grove near Henley. So he was no newcomer to this activity.

The Changi bird notes, which run to at least a couple of hundred pages, cover a period from November 1942 to around May 1944, with the most intense observations being in 1943.

They begin and end with similar abruptness. Why this is so I cannot say for sure though it is possible that my father was inspired to begin the project while reading The Birds of Singapore Island, by Bucknill, Bach, and Chasen which he was doing in late 1942 around the time he entered hospital. And May 1944 coincides with his move to Kranji. From all I can tell his bird notes end at this point.

The notes are organized by bird and then by date of observation. As can be seen from the illustration these observations typically included the location of the sighting, a brief description of the bird and the kind of activity it was engaged in along with any sounds it may have made.

Singapore Birds

September 18, 2010

My father started making notes on the birds at Changi in November 1942 shortly after entering Roberts Hospital for pellagra and tinea cruris.  This became the focus of his note taking activity for the next eighteen months until about May, 1944 and indeed turned into a research project that would not be completed until 1950 when his article ‘Nesting Habits of Some Singapore Birds’ was published in the Bulletin of the Raffles Museum.

My mother was convinced, no doubt rightly, that  it was these “bird notes” above all else that kept my father going through the long years of captivity.   But they were more than a simple exercise of mental discipline, it seems to me.  And there was a collective aspect for he was aided by a small cadre of fellow birdwatchers.  The most notable of these was E.K Allin, a former planter in Perak, who would also publish some of his observations in the Raffles Bulletin.

These “bird notes” will be the focus of my next few posts.

Changi ‘greens’

September 5, 2010

The vegetables were grown to provide much needed vitamins though were not particularly appetizing to the POW.  In the end they essentially boiled down to a sort of spinach.

On the other hand, the growing season was year-round and plants grew rapidly; so rapidly, my father once said, that you could almost see them grow.  While everything was used, the leaves could be harvested most rapidly and regularly.

Here’s a note, I believe from early 1943, listing some of the more common vegetables that were cultivated.  As the plants were unfamiliar he draws on English comparisons to describe them.

Sweet potato

This is grown by inserting the ‘runner’ shoot into the ground – not the ‘seed’ as in the case of the English potato.  From such a shoot it takes about 6 months to produce a fairly large tuber.  The plant is of a rambling nature.  Its leaves are large and resemble that of an ivy in shape.  The tubers are produced  under the ground level in the same way as our English potato.  In addition to the tubers, the young growing shoots are snipped off at occasional intervals. They may be boiled as “greens.”


This plant has thin V-shaped leaves.  The fruits are either purple or green in colour; they resemble short cucumbers.


This plant has large heart-shaped leaves.  The stem, which is the part eaten, resembles celery.

Tapioco (sic)

This plant takes 1 year to produce a decent sized root or tuber.  The tuber may be boiled & has the appearance of, and tastes like, a floury English potato.  he young tender shoots are occasionally boiled as “greens.”

Edible spinach

This plant grows to about 2’6″.  The leaves are greenish purple in colour.  Flowers are produced, raised above the leaves in a dense bright purple spike.  The leaves of this plant are eaten.

Green Book 2, 6-7

Changi gardens

July 18, 2010

The Japanese provided relatively little to the Changi POW in terms of food and the designated rations were fairly theoretical.  On the other hand, they did allow the prisoners to cultivate gardens and keep poultry to supplement their diet with much needed vitamins and protein.

Presumably my father drew the above map to indicate some of the cultivation.  The area detailed is around the Changi Tree — the legendary landmark of pre-war Singapore.  (Not that there would have been much left of it in 1943 as it had been cut down by the British during the invasion to deprive the Japanese gunners of a useful range marker.)  The vegetable gardens are clearly marked in green with other cultivated areas such as coconut plantations and ornamental gardens also indicated.

The map was undated but in another notebook he refers to it in an entry from about April 1943.  Here he describes some of the changes in vegetation that had taken place in the first year of captivity.

(1) The gradual encroachment of the jungle toward the camp, particularly lalang*.

(2) Intensive agricultural activities in certain areas (marked on map) particularly in the G & W area.

(3) The cutting of timber (principally rubber trees) outside the area.

(4) The breeding of poultry, chiefly ducks & to a lesser extent chickens.

Green Book 1, inside front cover.

* Lalang was a long grass cultivated for soup.  It was rich in vitamins.