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.