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.

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.

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 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.

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