A Changi Christmas

December 23, 2009

My father was admitted to Roberts Hospital with pellagra on November 9, 1942 and not discharged until February 5, 1943.  He kept daily notes on his condition and treatment but the only time he permitted himself any observations of the world about him was on Christmas Day.  The following notes are reproduced more or less in full though a few unreadable words and passages have been omitted.  He crams a lot into them.  The one comment I’d add now is that they include the only reference I’ve been able to find to the Alexandra Hospital incident  in any of the notebooks other than the three eyewitness accounts that I suspect were written down near to the end of his captivity.

Xmas 1942

Roberts Hospital, a patient with Pellagra, the B1 vitamin deficiency disease – indulging in too much polished rice to the exclusion of cereals & other good things.  Complicated with Tinea Cruris & tertiary infection of Diphtheria & other odds & ends.

Passed a miserable night, having been tortured by the relays of bed bugs which have their homes in the crevices of the bed & mattress & which I am at present quite powerless to eradicate.  However, managed to get off to sleep during the early morning & slept soundly until about 8.30am when I was awakened by the sound of tea mugs being deposited on the tray. A lovely cup of hot milked & sweetened tea followed (the first “official” one for about 6 months)

Later had breakfast of cornflour porridge (sweetened) followed by Tomato (complete with skins & pips) & a thin slice of tongue (unheard of!).  Also 2 slices of rice bread (4” x 2”) the one with army butter (margarine?) the other with pineapple jam (v. good).  Somebody heard to say “You lucky patients”

At this time Ack Ack Williams Pte. popped in to wish a Merry (if possible) Xmas.  I reiterated that I would not add “many of em.”

Contemplating partaking of a noxious Kum Lan cigarette made of cherry leaves  & costing 15c in the Canteen (a rise of some 500%!) –  product of Godfrey Philips India Ltd. Victory V Cigarettes  (which incredibly depicts a V over the rising sun).

At 9.30 a service started over in the next ward accompanied by a rather unsteady accordion. Starts of with “Come Ye, Come Ye to Bethlehem” (rather impossible in the circumstances).  Preaches something about Peace on earth & goodwill towards men (somewhat ironical) & continues with Lord’s Prayer “Give us this day our daily bread”(!)

Toffees (very sticky but very acceptable) distributed to each man.   Another 2 followed out of the blue given by Red X officer who wished me Merry Xmas.   A second pkt of Victory V cigarettes & biscuits followed.  Scoffed many biscuits & sweets.

Bill Sayer came in later in morning & said what an awful breakfast he had.  Couldn’t eat it.  Mabela (?) was full of maggots, biscuits were made of rice & like leather.  Coco  had no sugar & little milk.  Lent me a novel “The Arches of the Years” by Ethel Boileau (Hutchinson & Co London) which incidentally originally belonged to one Carlyle Morier  a sanitary inspector not residing at the POW camp Changi.

Bill’s visit interrupted by Company Officer & RSM Painter who came to wish me a Merry Christmas, a quick recovery & gave a pkt of 3 Castle’s cigarettes & smoked one each.

“Get ready for the first course”– pea soup, clear (& good) followed by the 2nd & 3rd courses.  Tiffin consisted of a slice of pork (tender & thin & easily cut with the spoon) sweet potato & local pumpkin set in thick brown gravy.  Somebody protested that the latter had been made with burnt rice but the server indignantly replied that he could assure him it was not & added that if this f—–g sauce hasn’t got some rum in it I’ve picked a (unreadable).”  This sauce was poured over a goodly block of excellent Christmas pudding.

After some reading of Bill’s book Williams came in said tiffin was lousy.  Consisted of a cup of bully beef 1 ¼ inch square, 2 thin slices from a small beetroot, & split pea soup & no sweet.  His temper was cooled down however by a piece of Christmas pudding given him legally for his ward, a couple of Cheroots for his Wardmaster.  I fed him on toffees & a cigarette.  Left later to attend a concert in his ward.  Talked of field kitchens, roast duck, boiled rice biscuits et. al.

Continued to read ‘The Arches of the Years” with breaks for toffees, biscuits & cigarettes throughout the afternoon.

Tea consisted of milk sweetened tea but with no bread.  Then there was also no Marmite or indeed treatment of any kind (the MO looked in about dinner time).

Dinner consisted of only one dixie, Cornish pastie (m & v in rice pastie) rice, a few long beans & a slice of Yorkshire pudding.  Also a mug of milk sweetened tea.  Took the rice to keep me in trim.

Read Bill’s book till Bill Batty came in.  Brought 2 tangerines (I asked for a couple of mangos for Christmas the last time he visited with no hope of seeing them.  Even now it is doubtful of their origin).  Also a promised book “Days of Our Years” by Pierre Van Paassen (?) (Angus & Robertson Ltd, London, 1940) also some peanuts to eat while we chatted.  Chatted of old times in Malaya, the war & the Alexandra Hospital tragedy & the loss of Arthur Collins & his pal Sidall who I relieved at Tekong.  Later conversation interrupted by Farrant coming in for his daily evening chat.  Conversation soon changed to watches, one Batty gave to F with hand missing.  Belonged to Bill Brandt who capped the lot by also appearing on the scene.  Soon left on pretext of Batty to go to the boreholes.  Farrant remained to eat part of tangerine, peanuts & a cigarette.  Talked of news – advance in Burma, 100 mile road with 50 bridges cutting off water. Later turned to architecture & chances of getting out of here.

After cup of coco made bed!  Later Ack Ack Williams came along & started to tell some jokes but was soon interrupted by McNeil (orderly) who came along with the red hot news that the Russians were moving south along the Polish frontier.  Lights out went soon after.

Book D, 17-18

Roberts Hospital

November 7, 2009

But back to Changi.

It was only in 1941 that the British military installation on the promontory was completed.  In fifteen years, as H.A. Probert describes it in his History of Changi, “a piece of virgin jungle had been transformed into one of the most modern and best equipped military bases in the world.”  Given the lack of air defense in Singapore, he continues, it was also essentially obsolete.

Roberts Barracks became the hospital for the prison camp.  Formerly housing the Royal Artillery it had to absorb sick and wounded prisoners from across the island, including those from Alexandra Hospital which the Japanese had commandeered.  Given the bombardment it had taken during the invasion it was in no condition to do so.  Water supplies, sewerage systems, buildings and roads had been severely damaged.  This is how my father put it in a note written towards the end of the war.  “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.”

The Australian artist Murray Griffin completed a painting of Roberts Hospital while he was a prisoner at Changi.  Visit the Australian Memorial web site to view the image: http://www.awm.gov.au/exhibitions/sharedexperience/AWMART24491.asp.

My father was posted to Roberts precisely two weeks after the fall of Singapore.  if he had not found the rest of the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC) before the invasion, presumably he did now.  I have no idea what his duties were at Roberts; he never talked about them, nor do his notes make any reference to them.  Yet he writes a good deal about the kinds of diseases that always threatened to overwhelm the hospital — well, did overwhelm it — particularly, dysentery, malaria, beri beri, dhobi itch and pallegra.  When he himself became a patient at Roberts on at least two extended occasions, he wrote about that too.


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 bbc.co.uk/ww2peopleswar

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.


In late January or early February 1942 my father was “asked” to take up the position of sanitary assistant on the island of Pulau Tekong in the Jahore Straits. This is how he put it in a subsequent letter.

“Then I was asked (not ordered) to relieve a man who for some months had been stranded on an island in the Straits.  Again confusion prevailed.  The Japs were already massing along the Jahore coastline less than a mile away.  So the boat had to unload & load up and get away fast.  There was no time for briefings.  In the event, however, there was little need.  This time I got attached to the Argyll & Southern Highlanders and a few days later we were treated to a grandstand view of the invasion of Singapore.  Fortunately for us the main thrust was further west.  Our little island was probably not deemed worth the taking.”

I will come back to the man he relieved in a subsequent post.  He was posted to Alexandra Hospital.

Here is the job description, though in the circumstances it must have seemed pretty theoretical.