The notes contain many observations about the culture and and cuisine of the Malay, Chinese and Indian populations in and around Singapore.  I don’t know whether the following note about poultry killing comes from my father’s observations on Pulau Teking or Pengerang — presumably he didn’t have time to write them all down — or from what he heard or saw at Changi.  At any rate, it was written during his first few weeks of captivity.

Method of killing chickens, ducks & geese (Chinese & Indian)

“Both these people kill their poultry by cutting their throats with a knife, sometimes plucking the area where the cut is to be made beforehand.  The incision is a straight cut across the throat just below the base of the beak.  The cervical joints are rarely severed. After the cut has been made, & blood has begun to spurt out, the fowl is thrown up into the air as far as possible.  The victim uses its wings to control the descent & tyhe exertion causes more blood to drain away.  After a minute or so the bird is dead.”

Book C, 93-94

Originally uploaded by Brian Spittle

In his note ‘Sanitation And All That’ written towards the end of his captivity, my father summed up the early camp arrangements — or lack of them — for personal hygiene. It was a critical concern, especially during the first weeks and months at Changi, and one that he would return to again and again in his notes from that period.

“Defecation veered from a stark, natural & individual affair to crude open communal pits, both with & without a horizontal bar support & in which the feces were all too infrequently covered over. It was only when things became more organized when labour, tools & materials were available, that the deep trench & bore-hole came into their own. These latter were fitted with either an European type or an Asiatic squatter superstructure, and the whole protected as far as possible from flies and screened from the sun, the rain & the public gaze. Urination, too, was promiscuously practised in those early days but later was regulated by the erection of proper troughs discharged into soakaways.”

Sanitation And All That, 1945

The deep bore-hole latrine became ubiquitous at Changi.  According to my father’s notes from around March or April of 1942, it was constructed as follows.(His use of the word “admirable” in the segment below would seem to indicate that his standards were already undergoing some reassessment.)

“These latrines are constructed by boring a vertical hole into the ground 18″ in diameter and about 20 ft. deep.  A special borer is used for this purpose.  A metal cylinder, such as a cut-down oil drum, is then placed over the top of the hole & dug into the ground so as to make it secure.  Certain framed wicker chair seats with the wicker work cut away make admirable seats.  A fly-proof lid, preferably of metal, must also be provided.”

Book C, 87.

Originally uploaded by Brian Spittle

Sometime during his final year of captivity — possibly very near the end of it — my father recalled the conditions during the early weeks at Changi.

“Particularly nauseating at that time was the all-pervading stench of decomposing organic matter – excreta, flesh & other residues of war.”

Establishing some sort of sanitation system was therefore an immediate necessity and often required a good deal of improvisation. Here are his instructions for a do-it-yourself incinerator which was critical for disposing hospital waste and other refuse.


All that is required are:

(1) 4 sheets of corrugated iron
(2) 4 concrete slabs 18″ square
(3) 4 lengths of wire
(4) Some form of support to hold up the fire.

Each of the four corrugated sheets are cut in exactly the same way; each with flue or vent cut away at the bottom, & a number of perforations 1/3 the distance up the sheets to draw the fire. The sides of the sheets are wired together.

The incinerator is set on the concrete slabs & is supported by lengths of wire extending from the top corners of the incinerator to the ground as shown in sketch.

Just above the flue a piece of perforated corrugated iron or iron fire bars are placed to support the fire.

Cut in the front corrugated sheet 1″ above the fire bars is the fire door.  This door is on hinges.

Book C, 86

Diet – March 1942

May 24, 2009

It was a week or two before the Japanese began to issue rations to the 50,000 or so prisoners at Changi.  Food was very short, the POWs having to rely on any supplies they had managed to bring with them.   The meagre and eclectic nature of the diet is evident from my father’s notes.

Diet P.O.W.

Tuesday 17th March

Breakfast 9am; 9:30am

2 slices of bread (no yeast; sour)

Desert spoonful pork lard

Mug of tea

Dinner (Tiffin)  1:30pm; 2:00pm

Boiled rice with salmon mixed

1 slice of bread

Tea (Supper) 6:00pm; 6:45pm

Boiled rice with corned beef & a little mango boiled up together.

1 slice beetroot

1 slice of bread

Mug of tea


May 24, 2009

What happened at Alexandra Hospital is well documented, though there have been debates over whether and to what extent the Japanese were provoked.  It’s hard to imagine what could possibly have provoked such actions and yet slight differences in perspective do emerge from the three eyewitness accounts that my father had in his possession.

The general outline of events is undisputed and yet one account records that most of the Japanese soldiers appeared to be “decent fellows.”  True, these were more disciplined soldiers who arrived sometime after the initial party who ran rampage through the hospital.  Still, it is clear that by no means all Japanese soldiers behaved in the same way.  Similarly, a senior Japanese medical officer who arrived on February 16 is described as a “very kind person” who was clearly shocked by what he saw.  Such observations tend to get lost in accounts of wartime atrocity.  Perhaps that is when we need them most.

Originally uploaded by Brian Spittle

The massacre of prisoners and patients at Alexandra Hospital on February 14 and 15, 1942 is one of the more notorious incidents of the war in Malaya and Singapore. Even as a young child I remember hearing stories about it though never from my father. In fact, he was busy making notes about bed bugs and latrines on Pulau Tekong at the time. As it turns out, however, what happened at Alexandra Hospital was of a good deal on interest to him.

After my father died I discovered three detailed eyewitness accounts of the incident among the notes he had hidden away in the attic. All were in his own hand writing.

One of these accounts was by someone he knew quite well as a fellow bird watcher at Kranji, J. Wharton. An extract from his account appears in the illustration. Another was from a Private Gurd, and has been quoted in other published accounts of the incident. The third, by a Lt. F.T. Moore, can be found in the following BBC site, WW2 People’s War:*

It is identical to the account in my father’s notes.

I have no reason to think that my father knew either Private Gurd or Lt. Moore.  Presumably their accounts were in general, if clandestine, circulation in the camp. Neither can I be sure when my father copied them. He used discarded Roberts Hospital memos from August 1942 on which to do so but could have equally well used his notebook,  My guess is that the accounts were copied down much later, possibly when he was at Kranji.

I later learned that my father had another connection to the incident. The sanitary assistant he relieved on Pulau Tekong was subsequently posted to Alexandra Hospital.  He was to be killed there.

* WW2 People’s War is an online archive of wartime memories contributed by members of the public and gathered by the BBC. The archive can be found at

First notes as a POW

May 17, 2009

After becoming a POW at Changi there was an interlude of twelve days before my father made the next entry in his notebook.  What he saw and experienced during this time one can only imagine, though he continued more or less where he left off.   The only obvious change is that he is no longer using a pen.

The first topic, rice eating, must have been very much top of mind.

Rice Eating

It is said that people who have been brought up from childhood on rice suffer from pot bellies.  This abnormal distention is not apparently injurious.

It’s a subject he would return to many times over the next three and a half years.  Indeed, the same might be said of the other topics on this page.

Liq Formaldihyde

This, when diluted down to about 10% solution, is a good anti-fly spray.  It is best used in place of ‘Flit’ in a ‘Flit’ gun.

Biniodide of Mercury, 1-100

This is an excellent disinfectant & when diluted down in water forms a good hand wash.

Tincture of Iodine

This can be used equally well for:-

Changi foot

Tropical ringworm

Dhobi itch

Book C, Page 48.

Singapore in 1942

May 16, 2009

Singapore has changed a fair bit since my father’s day.  Here is a postcard from sometime before 1942.  My father notes on the back that it is of the Singapore River from Anderson Bridge.

Singapore River

The picture below is of Changi Village as he would have remembered it.

Changi Village 42

Even now, our collective memory of the Japanese prisoner of war camps in World War II tends to be shaped by the images and stories of Changi.  It was the largest of the camps, after all.  And thanks to the likes of Ronald Searle, George Aspinall, James Clavell and many others, we have drawings, photographs, novels and movies to keep the memory vivid.

Was it the worst of the Japanese camps?  Almost certainly not.   In his book Reassessing the Japanese Prisoner of War Experience: the Changi POW Camp, Singapore, 1942-1945, R.P.W. Havers reminds us that the Japanese allowed an unusual degree of autonomy at Changi.  This in turn helped to build and sustain a remarkably vibrant POW community.  To point this out is not, of course, to diminish the hardship and horror of the Changi experience.  If anything, it should refocus our interest in what happened there.

My father emerged from Changi and Kranji in a pretty poor state. Although it’s hard to imagine it, there were many others who fared even worse.

Checking in

May 14, 2009

The Japanese completed  registration cards on allied prisoners listing basic information such as name, home address, date of birth, civilian occupation, rank and service number,  and place of capture.  Thousands of these cards are available for inspection at the National Archives at Kew.  IMG_2910

My thanks to Meg Parkes and Jonathan Moffatt for obtaining a copy of my father’s card at Changi.