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.


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.

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.


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.