‘He didn’t know anything about the news’

On Saturday, February 6, 1943, Stanley internee George Gerrard wrote in his diary:

The news is again very good from what we hear, it seems hardly possible that the Germans can last out much longer, the Russians seem to be just rolling them up….[1]

 In my previous post I discussed the work, some of it against Japanese regulations, of Selwyn Selwyn-Clarke and his colleagues and the way in which the bankers, who were also kept out of Stanley Camp, raised the funds that paid for the ‘unofficial’ parts the  of Medical Department’s work.

 The Japanese ‘strike back’ of 1943, which brought tragedy to Stanley and haunted Thomas for the rest of his life, was aimed against the smuggling of food, money and medical supplies into the Hong Kong camps, and against two other kinds of activity that had sprung up since the defeat of December 1941.

There are many things that those of us who have never been in a prison camp can’t hope to fully understand. One of them is the desperate need for news, for information about the world outside the narrow confines of the camp, and in particular of the progress of the war on which the ultimate fate of the prisoners depended.

 Ralph Goodwin, himself an escaper from the POW Camp at Shamshuipo, puts it simply:

 Lack of any authentic news of the outside world was felt almost as keenly as the lack of sufficient food.[2]

 In all the main POW camps men were willing to risk torture and death by maintaining radio sets tuned in to BBC broadcasts. They passed the news on to carefully selected comrades, who in turn started ‘rumours’ – the camps were full of these anyway, and the courageous radio operators just made sure that some of them were accurate. In Shamshuipo the officers produced a bulletin in which selected news items were included under disguise, attributed, for example, to reports from sources approved by the Japanese, which sometimes carried accurate information, especially about the war in Europe.

On the rare occasions when Thomas talked about his wartime experiences in later years there was always a note of fury in his voice, except when he described the kindnesses of Captain Tanaka. There was  a bitterness that he made no attempt to suppress when he said to his eldest son,

 They executed Duggie Waterton. They said he’d been listening to the news. He didn’t know anything about the news.

Thomas was wrong. In peacetime Douglas Waterton been an employee of the Hong Kong Telegraph Company, and hewas one of those men who risked everything to bring information about the course of the war into the Camp.

 In Stanley attempts were made to confine the news to the internees’ leaders, primarily John Fraser and Franklin Gimson, who then passed it on to reliable members of the Camp governing body.  Why was it thought  necessary to risk so much to keep these men accurately briefed as to the course of the war?  I’ve never actually seen this claim in print with regard to Stanley, but I assume that at least one of the reasons for this was grimly practical: in an introduction to extracts form his diary held at Rhodes House in Oxford, Gimson tells us that secret plans were made as to how to react to a Japanese attempt to massacre the internees in the event, for example, of an Allied assault on Hong Kong. Gimson and Fraser would have wanted to know when such an attack was imminent, or when the Allies were about to land on one of the main Japanese islands – that was the development which Thomas and Evelina had been told by a Formosan guard  would trigger the final massacre.

We know from former internee George Wright-Nooth, himself part of the ‘chain’ which passed on news, that some ordinary internees were given accurate information (154). This was a dangerous breach of security, and rumours of hidden radios were rife. Attempts were made to tighten things up, but to no avail. In late June and early July the Kempeitai, who had informers in camp, arrested many of those involved. The penalties were severe: long terms in prison, or death.

In October 1943, Douglas Waterton was sitting in a condemned cell in Stanley Prison, just outside the bounds of the internment camp.

Like others amongst those facing death, he was determined that at least a little of his story should be known to the world, and he scratched a moving final testament on the walls of his cell. The Japanese tried to destroy these records, but Waterton’s grim calendar survived their efforts:

© IWM (A 30558)
And naturally he thought about his wife while waiting for execution. He wrote a last message of love in the pages of his Bible and entrusted it to a friendly Indian warder. The warder passed it on – in silence and under the protection of total darkness, for he knew what risks he was running – to a New Zealand officer serving a sentence (again a radio was involved) in the prison. This officer, Lieutenant H. C. Dixon, was able to hold onto the diary through all that he was still to go through and to deliver it to Mrs. Waterton after the war.

 Two men at least lost their lives to bring the news to Stanley Camp – the other was another telephone company man, Stanley Rees. Part of the case against two others was that they had been involved in a secret ‘route’ involving the lorry that brought the rations into Stanley Camp: the Japanese believed this route had been used not only to smuggle medicines and messages but also spare parts for the radio. Police Sergeant Frank Roberts, who’d originally brought their radio into the camp, and William Anderson, the camp quartermaster, were each given 15 years in prison for their role.

 One reason for this severity was that to the Japanese, a radio meant not just the voice of the BBC but the possibility of contacting the British Army Aid Group, an organisation set up to promote smuggling, escapes, and any other action that would help win the war. The Hong Kong resistance, the third target of the Japanese counter-attack of February to December 1943, will be the subject of my next post.


[1]George Gerrard’s diary, transcribed by Alison Gerrard, can be read in the ‘Files’ section of the Stanley Yahoo Group, which can be accessed by members – go to http://groups.yahoo.com/group/stanley_camp/messages

[2] Ralph Goodwin, Passport to Eternity, 20.



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6 responses to “‘He didn’t know anything about the news’

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