IT is not my purpose to attempt to recount all the untold hard-ships and sufferings endured by the troops who went into captivity after the fall of Singapore. The horrors of the Burma- Siam railway, of some of the camps in Borneo and elsewhere, and of the journeys between various places in the Far East can only be told by those who experienced them. All I can do is to attempt to give a general picture of the conditions in the camps as I saw them myself, to present some of the problems with which we were faced, and to show how we attempted to overcome them.
The first step of the Japanese was to impose a colour bar. All the Asiatic prisoners, officers and men, were segregated and taken off to separate camps. Of them I shall have nothing to say for, except on rare occasions, we never saw them again. The Indian troops especially were subjected to terrible ordeals in an endeavour to force them to join the Indian National Army, raised in Singapore under the leadership of Chandra Boase to assist the Japanese in the invasion of India. The maintenance of loyalty to the King- Emperor in those terrible conditions, cut off from their friends and with the full force of Japanese “persuasion” directed against them, demanded high moral courage and cost many of them dear. Yet a high proportion held out. The Gurkhas, I have been told, who were subjected to a similar ordeal, resisted to a man.
On 17 February the British and Australian troops were marched to Changi Camp at the eastern extremity of the island. It was obvious from the start that the area allotted was inadequate for our numbers and I protested to the Japanese staff but without success. At first the congestion was tremendous and no doubt increased the number of deaths which took place. Later, as working parties were sent away, things became rather easier and health improved.
The Changi Camp differed from most of the others in so far as administration was concerned for, subject to general directives from the Japanese, this was left largely in the hands of the British and Australian commanders. At first this was done no doubt because the Japanese had little or no organization ready to deal with prisoner-of-war camps, but at Changi it persisted in varying degree till the end of the war. We accepted the situation, for we felt that in this way we might be able to make things easier for the troops. The Japanese in fact went so far as to make senior officers personally responsible for everything which the men did, including attempts to escape. They announced that any men caught trying to escape would be executed. Their trump card, of course, was always food. From the first this was terribly short and there was always the possibility, or even the probability, that the sins of the transgressors would be visited upon the community as a whole by a reduction of the ration. In these circumstances, I thought it necessary to issue an instruction as to escapes. It was to the effect that, while it was the duty of every officer and man to attempt to escape if he could, he should only do so after making proper plans and provided his chances were reasonably good. To escape from Singapore was extremely difficult. On the one side there was the sea and on the other the jungles of Malaya where the chances for a white man of avoiding detection were not great. Some attempts at escape were made, but I have never heard of anybody getting clean away. I regret to say that the Japanese on more than one occasion carried out their threat of execution, though this was not always the case. When they did so they usually found the firing squad from Sikhs who had gone over to their side. These Sikhs, it should be said, were not all soldiers. Some were ex-policemen while others were just civilians who had enlisted in the Japanese Army to earn a living.
The doctors were the busiest people at Changi and a wonderful job they did. A hospital was improvised from ordinary barrack blocks and it was soon full to overflowing. The Deputy Director of Medical Services, Brigadier Stringer, was ordered by the Japanese to clear all sick and wounded immediately from the hospitals in Singapore, however ill they might be, and take them to Changi. Soon the various diseases common to such conditions became rampant—dysentery in its various forms, beri-beri, and so on. For weeks the number of patients in the hospital never fell below the 2,000 mark. At the time it was probably one of the largest hospitals in the world. And there was very little equipment and practically no drugs except what the doctors had been able to bring with them. It was pitiable. It Was not to be wondered at that the death-rate was heavy. Over five hundred had been buried in the British and Australian cemeteries before the autumn, but after that the numbers fell rapidly as the situation was got under control. It seems invidious to mention any names from that devoted band of doctors but some of the temporary repairs to limbs carried out by Colonel Julian Taylor, the London surgeon, with improvised materials, were almost beyond belief.
The camp was organized into areas which were allotted to formations. For this we retained the same formations as we had had in the fighting on Singapore Island. At the outset morale was naturally pretty low. It took some time to recover from the shock of what we had gone through. But after a time things began to get better. I attribute this in no small measure to the excellent example of the area commanders. Among the first to recover were the Australians, now under the command of Maj.-Gen. C. A. Callaghan, whom I had promoted to that rank to take Gordon Bennett’s place. A more loyal and courageous man I never met. Later he was to win universal admiration by the way he bore uncomplainingly his own personal sufferings; but he never gave in and emerged at the end with flying colours. He set about his task by insisting on smart turn-out and punctilious saluting, and very soon the A.I.F. challenged comparison with any other formation in the camp. In his work he had the able assistance of a devoted staff, in which stood out Jim Thyer, the G.S.O.I., a fine soldier and most able staff officer whose views were always worth listening to. Another area commander who did great work was Beckwith Smith, the commander of the 18th British Division. He quickly set about organizing courses of instruction for his men and kept the esprit de corps of his division going in a wonderful way. Although he himself died before the end of that year, his work remained and the division, or what was left of it, emerged at the end of the war with its colours flying and its morale still high.
Another body of men who had a great opportunity were the padres, for it is a fact that in adversity men turn to religion for moral support. Very soon churches began to appear. In some cases the ruined remains of existing buildings were adapted for this purpose; in others new buildings were erected with such material as could be found. In the grossly overcrowded camps building material was scarce and many of the churches seemed, as it were, to grow out of nothing. Under the direction of the padres they were built by the willing hands of voluntary workers —and there was never any lack of volunteers. Services were held on Sundays and on other days too. Many a man who had never entered a church in his own homeland attended those services.
In our military textbooks certain instructions are given as a guide to the conduct of prisoners-of-war. One of our biggest problems was how to apply those instructions, for we found ourselves in a situation which had certainly not been contemplated when they were written. There are two Conventions which govern the treatment of prisoners-of-war, i.e. the Hague Convention of 1907 and the Geneva Convention of 1929. Japan was a signatory of the former but, though her representative had signed the latter, she had never ratified it. The Japanese therefore always professed to follow the provisions of the Hague Convention but would not admit any liability to follow the Geneva Convention, which is much more far-reaching, though they always said that they would adhere to its provisions as far as they could, i.e. as far as suited them. So we were dealing with a fanatical and temperamental people who, for all practical purposes, only played to the rules when it suited them to do so. We had to adjust our actions accordingly. There is nothing to be gained in such circumstances in being obstinate when matters of no real importance are at issue. For instance, everything possible was done at Changi to humiliate the officers. Badges of rank had to be removed; Japanese private soldiers had to be saluted; and so on. It was unpleasant, but didn’t really do anybody any harm. In point of fact, it probably annoyed our own other ranks more than anybody else. But when questions of principle or matters which may react adversely on our own conduct of the war are concerned it is a different matter. Then a firm stand must be taken and the situation must be faced whatever the consequences. As an example of this I will relate an experience which I myself had at Changi. The Japanese had instructed me to provide some technical experts to repair some anti-aircraft guns which we had ourselves destroyed. Of course we had the men available, but I pointed out, as politely as I could, that this was not a fair demand and asked for it to be reconsidered. For some time no more was heard of it and I thought the matter had been dropped, but one Monday evening, just as we were sitting down to supper, I was sent for to the camp office. I saw by the face of the Japanese officer that things were not going too well. He asked me if I would supply the men and I said “No.” He said, “Then you refuse to obey the orders of the Imperial Nipponese Army.” I replied, “Your orders are illegal but, if you persist in giving them, then I do.” With that he flew into a rage, tore up the papers, threw them on to the floor, and I quite expected him to draw his sword and finish the matter there and then. Luckily the crisis passed, but before long I found myself being taken in a car to the Changi jail (the place of internment of all the civilians) where I was pushed into a bare empty room and the door locked. That door was not opened again for two and a half days nor was any food passed through it. I had nothing but the clothes I stood up in, but fortunately there was a basin with running water in one corner of the room. By Wednesday night I was feeling a little “peckish”, so I told a sentry who occasionally looked through the bars of the door, that I wanted to see the officer. Before dawn the next morning there was a clanging of keys and the door opened. I speculated whether I was to be taken out and shot or released. Either was quite possible. The officer said, “You wish to see me,” to which I replied, “Yes, I have been here long enough.” He said, “Can you tell us where those anti-aircraft guns were last seen?” That was too easy, for I knew quite well that the Japanese must know their location as well as we did. So “face” was saved and out we went. A bottle of whisky was produced to consummate the deal. But it still wasn’t finished, for I spent the next fourteen days in solitary confinement, though with proper food and with reasonable comfort. That story, I think, illustrates so well the Japanese characteristics—uncontrollable temper which leads them to a dead end and then a face-saving operation to extricate themselves.
In July it was announced that all senior officers of the rank of full colonel and upwards were to be moved to Japan (or Nippon as it had to be called at that time), where a special camp was being prepared “with all proper amenities”. There was much speculation as to what sort of ship we should go in. Some, the super- optimists, held that the Japanese had now decided to treat senior officers properly and that we should travel in a luxury liner. Others said that we should go on a naval ship. I doubt if anybody got the right answer, which was the hold of a very small and dirty cargo ship. Into that hold were packed over four hundred souls including all senior officers, their orderlies, a party of engineers, the Governor, and four other senior civilians. Before embarking we were tested for dysentery and disinfected. The Japanese are great people for tests and inoculations. They talk a lot of hygiene but seem to miss its substance. They will insist on finger-nails being clean, but a fly-covered refuse dump adjoining a kitchen means nothing to them. They seem to have absorbed western ideas but not to have learnt how to apply them.
We left Singapore on 16 August 1942, or rather it would be more correct to say that we embarked on that day, for we lay alongside for the next two or three days and everybody who knows Singapore will know what that means. The conditions were appalling. We were all packed into one hold where there was barely room to lie down. Perspiration just poured from the naked bodies. At night the rats came out and swarmed over the recumbent forms. By day we were allowed on deck by parties for limited periods. Food, of a sort, was passed round twice a day. There was no proper lavatory accommodation—only just some wooden latrines built on the stern of the ship. We were on the ship altogether for a fortnight. Perhaps I was lucky, for after a few days I developed slight internal trouble and was allowed to travel in the first officer’s cabin. Although it was difficult to talk to the ship’s officers, as none of them talked English, they seemed to me to be a very much pleasanter type than the military officers. They were just simple, seafaring folk much the same as one meets the world over. They were very abstemious on the voyage, but my companion became very drunk as soon as we reached port, and I was not sorry to leave.
As always happened, our destination was kept a profound secret, and it was only during the voyage that I discovered from one of the ship’s officers that it was to be Karenko, a small seaside town on the east coast of Formosa (or Taiwan as it was then called). We landed at Takao, a fine natural harbour at the southern extremity of the island, and our first move was to a staging camp at Heito not far from there. That involved a march of two or three miles to the railway station, carrying our baggage, and then a short railway journey. At that time the Japanese were on the crest of the wave and our arrival was made the occasion to impress the local population. Large crowds were turned out for the show, but it was obvious, even then, that the sympathy of most of them were with us. For the Formosans are mostly of Chinese origin, and few of them had any affection for the Japanese. As one of the Formosan sentries once said to me, “Me Chiang- Kai-Shek man. When the Americans come, I throw away my rifle and go join them.”
Heito as a camp had no redeeming feature. It had been built for coolie workers at a neighbouring quarry. It was on a bare, desolate bit of land with a swamp adjoining where mosquitoes bred in their thousands. Our arrival was marked by an incident which is of interest because it was typical of what occurred in every camp. The Japanese Army Headquarters at Tokyo had decided that every prisoner must sign a declaration to the effect that he would obey all the rules and regulations of the camp and that he would not try to escape. Of course, such a declaration was quite irregular. I have always thought that the Japanese only wanted it so that they could justify themselves in executing men who were caught trying to escape. On arrival at Heito Camp we were presented with this and asked to sign it while we were still on parade. As senior officer I had to give the lead. I pointed out that they had no right to ask for such a declaration and refused to sign it. I soon found myself in a cell in the guard-room but later was let out. The discussions continued for some three hours. It began to get dark and rain came on. We had a number of very sick men as a result of the voyage who had been kept standing on parade all that time. Finally, I asked to be allowed to discuss the matter with other senior officers and civilians, and we decided that a signature given under compulsion in those conditions need not be considered as binding on the individual. I believe that was the view taken at most camps. At Changi the struggle went on for two or three days with the troops all cooped up in one barracks and was only terminated to save human lives.
The next move was to Karenko where we found the American senior officers from the Philippines already in residence. Later we were joined there by British and Dutch senior officers and civilians from the Netherlands East Indies and by Sir Mark Young, the Governor of Hong Kong. Our numbers were about four hundred all told and we were housed in a Japanese barracks designed to accommodate one company or a little more. The congestion was considerable. Colonels and brigadiers were usually five in a tiny room. Governors and generals were not much better. We were divided into squads, each squad having its own leader nominated by the Japanese. I had the doubtful honour of being appointed squad leader at first but very soon got the sack, for I did not see eye to eye with the Japanese. Our treatment at this time sank to the lowest possible level. The Japanese announced that they regarded us as equal to coolies and they more or less fitted their treatment to those views. Any private soldier of the guard was allowed to slap any prisoner of whatever rank in the face on any pretext, real or imaginary. Protests were ignored. All officers were made to work in greater or less degree. Admittedly the work wasn’t hard—it usually consisted of gardening which on fine days was welcome as a change from barrack routine—but the compulsion was there all the same. The food ration sank to a very low level—so low in fact that it was pitiable to see big healthy men wasting away to mere skeletons. It consisted of three meals a day of small quantities of watery soup and rice. The camp commander seldom appeared, a remark which applies also to the commandant of the group of camps. In fact, the whole Japanese prisoner-of-war camps system seemed to be centralized in a group commandant who seldom visited his camps and who was quite unapproachable.
We had several visits from journalists while we were at Karenko. They were all very confident at that time that Japan would win the war even if she had to go on fighting for a hundred years. I always made a point of telling them that they were very ignorant of the resources of the British Commonwealth and of the United States and that in the end they were bound to be beaten. On one occasion a group of the most senior of us were collected and told that the mayor of Karenko had invited us to tea. We were taken to his house where we were hospitably received and tea was provided. But then the trick was exposed. Cameras were produced and photographs were taken of the Allied prisoners “enjoying tea and a smoke in their comfortable quarters”. That was typical of the Japanese methods.
Early in 1943 things took a turn for the better. It seemed that the Japanese had begun to realize that their treatment of us was far from being up to the accepted standard, or it may have been that even then they had begun to see the red light. The first sign was a cessation of the slapping, but even that was not obtained without a struggle. As a quid pro quo they tried to get us to write to our respective governments urging an improvement in the treatment of Japanese prisoners and internees in their hands. We told them that we were certain there was no room for improvement and that in any case it was no business of ours. That did not go down too well but before long the slapping practically stopped. The next thing was a thinning out, a hundred odd of the most senior of us being sent to another camp some way down the coast. Our short stay there was marked by two events of importance. The first was the arrival of the first consignment of Red Cross stores, and the second was a visit from the representative of the International Red Cross in Japan. The Red Cross stores, which came from South Africa, worked wonders. Hats, boots, and foodstuffs were included. It was the first good food we had had for over a year, and I definitely believe that it saved several lives, for the vitality of some had reached a very low ebb. The visit of the Red Cross representative, Dr. Paravicini, was as usual carefully staged. He was not allowed to talk to us indi¬vidually, but we were able to tell him at a conference what we chiefly needed. But the difficulty in getting Red Cross stores to us was chiefly one of transportation aggravated by the reluctance of the Japanese to distribute them. When the war finished large quantities of undistributed Red Cross parcels were found in Japan.
In June a small party of governors and lieutenant-generals of the three nationalities, with one or two major-generals to fill up, moved to a specially built camp at Moksak near Taihoku, the capital of Formosa. Here we spent the rest of our time on the island. The treatment was the best we had. Each officer had a small room to himself. There was a library of English and American books, which had been the property of an Englishman living in Formosa, table-tennis and a gramophone with a good supply of records which we were able to buy locally. For a time also the food was better. In October I received my first letter from home, just twenty months from the beginning of the captivity, but it was not until the end of January 1944 that I received the first letter from my wife. That was over two years since I had last heard from her, a very long and trying time. After that letters came more regularly for a time, but later they slowed down again. Of all the letters sent to me less than half ever arrived and, of those that did arrive, the average time taken was over seventeen months. That was probably better than most other people, for there were some who hardly ever got a letter at all. The main trouble again lay in the distribution at the Japanese end. I believe they insisted on every letter being translated and censored before delivery and, as they employed only very few translators, they of course never had a chance of keeping up with the job.
At Moksak we had another example of Japanese deceit. They were very anxious for some reason to get a “talkie” film showing the supposed conditions under which we were living and our general satisfaction with them. It was probably required for propaganda purposes. They started by saying that the Red Cross required the film, but soon it became obvious that it could be nothing whatever to do with the Red Cross, for they produced a list of subjects about which people were to talk. I refused to have anything to do with it, protesting that it was against my instructions. Great pressure was brought to bear as it was obvious that they were very anxious that I should appear in the film. Finally a message was brought from the camp commandant to the effect that, if I refused to take part in the film, I should not be sent home when the time came for repatriation. I replied that I would be quite happy to receive that decision as the Japanese would not be in control when that happy moment arrived. The movie men duly arrived and the film was taken. The next day there was an invitation from the camp commander to go to a neighbouring river to fish. It was the first time anybody had been outside the narrow confines of the camp for six months and some accepted the invitation. When they arrived, the movie men were lined up on the bank. But there was a danger that there might be no fish, or, if there were, that they would not be caught. To provide against that eventuality a live fish had been brought out in a can and was duly affixed to one of the rods before the photograph was taken!
News of the outside world was one of the most important items in our lives. At Changi we had got the BBC news daily through the medium of illicit wireless sets worked by some brave men at great personal risk, but after leaving there we neither had the sets nor the experts to work them. In Formosa, however, we had been allowed to have one and sometimes two daily papers, which were printed in Japan in English throughout the war. They were the Nippon Times and the Mainichi. When I say daily, I do not mean that we received them daily. Actually they arrived in batches anything from one to three months after date of publication. Naturally their news was very biased and a great deal was withheld, but still it was possible, with the aid of some good maps which we had, to get a pretty good idea of what was going on. In point of fact, the Japanese press was never quite as muzzled as was the German press. At times quite candid leading articles and statements by public men were published. I well remember one article—I think it was in the summer of 1943—in which the writer said, “If we don’t win the war this year we shall regret it for a hundred years.” It looks as if he was not very far wrong.
The delivery of these papers continued until the day before the Allied landing in Normandy, and then it ceased. From then till the end of the war we got no papers, but we got the news of the invasion of Europe in rather an interesting way. For some reason, I think probably for propaganda purposes, the Japanese had issued to us a wireless receiving set. It was a controlled set with which you could only get the Japanese broadcasts—in Japanese. Simultaneously with the issue of this set there was a strange disappearance of all dictionaries which became quite unprocurable. So for some time the set languished in the library unused. One day I thought I would listen to the news and found I could pick up a few names. I then quietly removed the set to my own room, and set to work, assisted by Mr. C. R. Smith, the Governor of British North Borneo. We neither of us knew any Japanese but after a time found that we could begin to make a little sense of the military communiques. We listened in four times a day and spent hours in sorting out what we had jotted down. In the end we were able to issue a daily communique and were right up to date until we left Moksak in October 1944. Then we had to leave the set behind. The Japanese obviously did not like our listening in, but I don’t think they ever had any idea how much we were able to get out of it.
In October 1944, when there was a danger of the Americans capturing Formosa, we were hurriedly moved by air to Japan and thence, to our complete surprise, by sea to Korea and train to Manchuria. The journey, as we did it, was quite comfortable.
In fact we received better treatment during that journey than at any other time during our captivity. At the airport where we landed in Kyushu Island we were even waited on by trim Japanese waitresses and the aerodrome commander came to ask if we had all we wanted. On arrival in Korea we had a good meal at a large modern hotel. Things were really looking up and we thought that at last we were going to receive the treatment due to our rank. But that hope was short-lived. In Manchuria we were soon back in the bad old ways again, though it is fair to say that the food, which now consisted of soya beans, bread and vegetables, was more filling and sustaining than the rice diet. Also we found quite a large consignment of Red Cross stores waiting for us which lasted us, more or less, until our release.
Of our stay in Manchuria there is not much to be said. We were completely without news so it was just very dull and boring. There weren’t many letters either, and our own outward letters were so heavily censored that they ceased to be of much value. We were allowed to write one a month, and I confined mine to the words, “I am well. Best love.” The weather was intensely cold in the winter with temperatures round about minus fifty degrees Fahrenheit, but generally fine and sunny. It would be quite a good climate in normal conditions. We were given good warm clothing, and the barracks in which we lived were centrally heated, so it was not too bad. We made continued efforts to communicate with the representative of Switzerland, our Protector Power, but, as far as I know, without result. In fact we had practically no contact with the outside world.
Every Christmas our comrades, the Americans and Dutch, received official messages of greetings from their countrymen at home. We British received none. We wondered whether we were entirely forgotten. It came as a great thrill to me therefore to receive a letter, shortly before the end of the captivity, from my friend Sir John Dill. It was three years old, but in it he said, “I constantly think of you. Do not think that you are forgotten.” A few days later I heard to my great sorrow of his death.
Here are some impressions of the Japanese. In giving them, let me make it clear that my contacts were almost exclusively with officers and men of the Japanese Army, and that my qualifications to express views on the Japanese race in general were limited. As soldiers the Japanese officers and men had many good qualities. They were determined and stubborn fighters but not highly skilled in the arts of modern war. They were extremely tough and their obedience to orders was invariably immediate and unquestioning. Their loyalty to their Emperor was profound. By our standards their army was financially very poor. The standard of its equipment was low and the emoluments of officers and men a mere pittance. But they are a practical people in a rough and ready way and able to make do with much less than we should. Secrecy seemed to be bred in them. It was almost im¬possible ever to get any Japanese soldier, officer or man, to give away information or even to discuss the war. But they carried secrecy to an extreme, and it made one wonder how they ever got their operations successfully carried out. When it comes to a question of human suffering the thin veneer of their recently acquired civilization is all too apparent and primitive instincts tend to predominate. They are almost all of them subject to fits of uncontrollable temper. But I would say that the most outstanding characteristics are ignorance of world affairs and narrow-mindedness. Perhaps this is not surprising when one remembers that it is little more than eighty years since Japan emerged from isolation. I believe there were few people in Japan who had any conception of the resources of the Western Powers. The populace in their ignorance were led by their leaders to believe that Japan was all- powerful. In the end it was their inability to keep pace with the industrial and scientific expansion of their opponents which brought about their undoing.
And here are some reflections on the life of a prisoner-of-war. The reactions of individuals are surprising. Very often those who have been looked upon as the weakest turn up trumps, while others tend to take the line of least resistance. The key to the conduct of each individual is his store of moral courage, for in no circumstances that I have ever encountered is moral courage of such paramount importance. In my view moral courage is a more priceless gift than physical courage, for it is one thing to lead your men gallantly in the heat of battle, but it is quite another to stand up for your principles in cold blood far from any help. Other qualities required are patience and tolerance. In the unnatural atmosphere of a prisoner-of-war camp when tempers are strained and nerves are on edge it is only too easy to quarrel with your neighbour. Those who have learnt the art of free discussion without loss of temper have acquired something worth having. But greater than all other qualities in those conditions is the possession of Faith—faith in the ultimate triumph of Right over Might and faith that, be it sooner or be it later, the day of deliverance will inevitably arrive.
Finally, let me pay tribute to the British soldier. Throughout those long years he bore his trials with courage and dignity. Though compelled to live almost like an animal, he never lost his self-respect or his sense of humour. At the end he emerged weakened in body but with his spirit unimpaired. It was an outstanding performance.