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.


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 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Selarang_Barracks_Incident). 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.

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.

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.


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.


May 13, 2009

There was a prison at Changi as well as a military barracks.  Both were filled far beyond their capacity following the surrender.  But in those early days prisoners were allowed to roam pretty much anywhere they wanted over the entire promontory.  In fact, it was several weeks before the Japanese bothered to fence them in.  There wasn’t anywhere to escape to, after all.

My father drew this illustration of Changi camp for his article on Singapore birds for the Bulletin of the Raffles Museum in 1950.

Changi map Raffles

At the end of the war while still at Kranji he summed up the chaos that was Changi in February 1942 in a short paper called ‘Sanitation And All That.’

A war-scarred area, many of the blocks had received damage from both bombs & shell fire; as also had the roads in the immediate vicinity.  The water supply had been completely cut off  and the water carriage sewerage system was in consequence disrupted.  Monsoon drains had been torn up at many places & cookhouses had been singularly unlucky as regards hits & damage sustained.  To such a camp, with all of its essential services disorganized, the whole of the ‘white’ patients of the Malaya and Singapore garrisons, complete with their medical & associated personnel & multifarious supplies, converged.  It is hardly surprising therefore that for some days chaos reigned, with its accompaniment of hardships, pestilence & death.

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

Sanitation And All That

The notes

May 7, 2009

My father did not write a diary as a prisoner of war — there are very few dates, or comments on daily life, people or events.  What he did was make notes on matters of interest to him: tropical diseases, sanitary arrangements, books read,  lectures attended (yes, Changi had a ‘university’), the culture and cuisine of the principal populations he had come into contact with (Malays, Chinese and Indians), and the birds of Singapore.  For the most part, the notes are mainly descriptive but become more reflective and even aphoristic during his final year of captivity.

It was only in the last two or three years of his life that my father showed me his notes on Singapore birds.  He never mentioned that there was another box in the attic.  Among these papers were notes of a very different sort; eyewitness accounts of the massacre at Alexandra Hospital in February 1942.  I will come back to them in future posts.

There is a broad chronology to the notes and yet any one page might include a bewildering number of topics; a treatment for dysentery, an extract from a book he was reading,  a Malay phrase or two he was trying to memorize and a recipe for pineapple fritters.

The notes amount to over 1,500 pages in all.  Initially, my father was able to use high quality notebooks — one was completed prior to his capture — moving on to school exercise books which he somehow procured from local sources of one sort or another.  But as time went on – – and particularly after his transfer from Changi to Kranji — writing materials became very scare.  During the final year or so he was reduced to writing on anything he could find; loose scraps of paper, the backs of envelopes, pages torn from books and even the insides of cigarette packets.

It was an offense — a serious offense — to keep such notes.  So he buried them.  In his book Surviving the Sword, based on the diaries of Far East prisoners of war, Brian MacArthur recalls a haunting image of liberated prisoners circling about their camp with their eyes focused on the ground.  They were looking for the diaries and letters they had buried.

I once asked my father how on earth he had managed to bury all the material he had accumulated and keep it hidden from the guards.

“Oh burying it was simple enough,” he chuckled.  “The problem came in when they decided to move us to Kranji.  I hadn’t counted on that!”

He never did tell me how he managed it.


Jack Spittle

Jack Spittle

According to his birth certificate my father was born on March 30, 1914 in Ascot though he dismissed the location as an administrative fiction.  In fact, he maintained stoutly, he had been born just down the road in the village of Eton Wick.  Why the distinction was so important to him I never thought to ask but it may have to do with the fact that Ascot was in Berkshire and Eton Wick, in those days at least, was just across the county boundary in Buckinghamshire.  My father was a Buckinghamshire lad through and through.

As a teenager he developed a strong interest in natural history embarking on a project that was to occupy (not to say preoccupy) him until well into his eighties; a census of herons nesting at Oaken Grove, a small wood near the Thames between Henley and Marlow.  After leaving school he went to work  at the Farnham House Laboratory of the Imperial Institute of Entomology at Farnham Royal near Slough.  Though only a lab assistant he worked closely with some of the leading entomologists of the day and illustrated a number of the Institute’s publications.  He was probably at his happiest working (and learning) at Farnham House but the job did not pay well and in 1938 he qualified as a sanitary inspector and quickly got a position working for Slough Council.

He was called up in 1940 and initially joined the Oxford and Bucks Light Infantry.  This wasn’t what he had in mind at all, however, and he was eventually transferred to the RAMC.   Trained for anti-malarial work, he was sent to Singapore in November 1941 and after a chaotic first few weeks posted to Palau Tekong island in the Jahore Straits as sanitary assistant.  It was from here that he got a “grandstand view” of the invasion of Singapore.  He was a prisoner first at Changi (where he worked at Roberts Hospital) and then at Krangi, for the remainder of the war.

Returning to England he settled again in Slough marrying my mother, Jean, in 1947.  He had been reappointed as sanitary inspector but within three or four years became deputy river pollution prevention officer for the Severn River Authority, another position that allowed him to pursue his entomological interests.  In 1950 he published an article on the ‘Nesting Habits of Singapore Birds’ in the Bulletin of the Raffles Museum, based on his observations and hundreds of pages of notes while at Changi and Krangi. In 1961 he was appointed to a more senior position at the Devon River Authority where he remained for the rest of his career.

After retirement he got down to serious work.  This involved the completion of a thirty or so year study of insect life in Devon streams,  now housed at Plymouth Museum,  and the writing up of his Oaken Grove project which by this time had mushroomed from a heron census to a full-blown ecological study of the wood.  He was still making the three or four hour drive from Devon to Oaken Grove into his eighties; except for the war years he had visited the heronry at least annually since 1928.

While he rarely talked about his experience as a prisoner of war, he finally started to sketch out some notes about it a year or two before he died.  Clearly, he was planning to write up his memories and reflections in some way and had come up with a working title: Changi Years Recollections: An Education in Frugal Living. He died in 2004.