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.

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Kranji

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!”

Move?

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.

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.

 

 

 

Selarang

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.

Understatement

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.