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.


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.

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.

Pulau Tekong

January 23, 2011

I had hoped to see Roberts Hospital, if any of it remained, as that is where my father had spent his first seventeen months as a POW before being moved to Selarang Barracks.  One place I knew I wouldn’t be able to visit was Pulau Tekong  in the Straits of Johore.  This is where he had been during the last few weeks before the surrender scuttling back and forth in a small motor boat between the island and Pengerang on his various anti-malarial errands.  Tekong is now a military training area and so off limits to the public.  Still, you can get a good view of it from Changi Village as it’s only a few hundred yards away. A visit to the adjacent island of Pulau Urbin probably provides as good a sense as any of how it used to look as there has been little development on it in recent decades.

The Japanese invasion of Singapore ignored Tekong but made a diversionary feint through Ubin.  Seeing how close these islands are to each other, to the mainland and to Singapore it is easy to imagine just what a “grandstand” view he had.  By the same token, he was probably lucky to be where he was.  Well, comparatively speaking, that is.

Looking Towards Pulau Tekong from Changi Village

On a bumboat to Pulau Ubin

Pulau Ubin

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

Visiting Changi

January 1, 2011


In my first post I envisaged this blog as something of a personal journey and one that was likely to veer off down all sorts of side roads and byways. In what I suppose is something more than a byway, it’s a journey that has finally taken me to Singapore.
I’m writing this in Changi Village, a place my father knew well as a POW. Much has changed since then of course and large parts of the camp have either disappeared through commercial development or are otherwise inaccessible as military installations.

A lot can still be seen, however, and much more mentally reconstructed. For instance, if you walk down Changi Village Road, go past the mosque at the corner of Loyang Road and turn right up a little side road that looks as though it leads nowhere you will find yourself at a rather fashionable little watering hole called Lava Edge. Here you can enjoy a cold beer while looking out over the local golf course. As it happens, you’re also looking in the general direction of  Changi Hill. And the other side of that is where Roberts Hospital was located and where my father spent the first part of his captivity.
Let’s just say that knowing this (while enjoying the cold beer) is enough to bring on a fairly complicated mix of thoughts and emotions.  After all, it’s been quite a journey to get to this place.

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.

Roberts Hospital patient

August 10, 2010

My father worked in Roberts Hospital but was also a patient there on at least two occassions.  On November 9, 1942 he was admitted with fairly acute forms of pellagra, a vitamin deficiency disease, and tinea cruris, a skin fungal disease otherwise known in Singapore as ‘Dhobi Itch.’   He would remain in hospital for almost three months before being discharged on February 5, 1943.  During this time he kept an almost daily record of his condition, diet and medications.  Many of the entries are too personal to be quoted here but I have selected a few from the weeks leading up to and following his discharge.  A more extensive account of his Christmas Day, 1942 appears in an earlier post.

10th January

Acriflavine painted on – not on gauze.  There is no sign of Tinea or Diphtheria. Pulse remains around 64.

19th January

Marmite replaced by 1/2 pint rice polishings.  Can now walk several hundred yards with no effect on heart.

February 5

Released from hospital.  Still rather weak on legs but otherwise quite OK.  Head swims after standing for half an hour or so.

13th February

1 week’s special diet.  Weight 9st. 8lbs. without boots. Feeling well except for rheumatic or sprained feeling in ankle joints & in neck.  The ankle feels as though it would give way when bearing weight of body. Cannot walk without stooping.

6th March

1 week’s light duty.  Off special diets. Weight 10 st. 0lbs.

Book D, pp. 13-14

Health and Food

May 2, 2010

This note is from November 1942 or thereabouts, though whether it was written before or after the onset of pellagra and tinea cruris is not clear.  Either way,the diseases were very much on his mind as he refers to them several times on adjacent pages.

I’m intrigued by the use of the past tense.  It is consistent with the detached way in which he often wrote about things; from an early age he had been well trained in the language of the scientific report.  On the other hand, I can’t help wondering whether it also reflected a different kind of detachment; one that perhaps helped to protect him from the deprivations and horrors of daily life.

Health & Food

That these two factors are closely related was abundantly shown in the POW camp where both men & dogs were living on impoverished rations,  The dogs ate mainly rice.  Their meat diet consisted only of bones which had been boiled to such an extent as to devoid them of all nutrients. The dogs, although remaining apparently healthy, developed mange.  This was demonstrated even more so by a bitch which developed mange very soon after littering.However, they did not appear to suffer from any of the deficiency diseases.

Men were also existing on a rice diet augmented with vegetables, meat, fish & fruit.  But the scarcity of the B group of vitamins was largely responsible for many deficiency diseases such as the various manifestations of beri beri & pellagra.  Skin diseases also increased & wounds took much longer than usual to heal.

Book B, 99


May 1, 2010

I wouldn’t say that I’m particularly fond of Marmite, though I can’t help thinking that it’s a poor sort of pantry without it.  I quite enjoy it on toast even if I do wince a little every now and then.

My father swore by the stuff. True, I never saw him actually eat any but his brand loyalty was deep and unwavering. As indeed it should have been for it was a central part of his treatment for pellagra (he was also suffering from tinea cruris) at Roberts Hospital between November 1942 and February 1943.

Pellagra is a deficiency disease and as a yeast extract Marmite is very rich in B vitamins. Dissolved in half a pint of warm water it was part of his daily regimen.  Well, that and half an ounce of rice polishings.

“We wouldn’t have survived without this,” he used to say brandishing the familiar little jar. “Beautiful.”