The Reign of Terror (2): Fear in the French Hospital

The beleaguered Allied community in the French Hospital were waiting for the blow, knowing it would fall one day, and the only question was who would be the victims and exactly what shape the retribution would take.

 The Kempeitai were chronically suspicious of all those who’d been allowed to stay in Hong Kong; Dr. Selwyn-Clarke himself was under constant surveillance at his office and at the French Hospital, where he lived with his wife and daughter.[1] Thomas too was living in this hospital, in Hong Kong Island’s Causeway Bay area, a few miles east of the Island’s heartland, Victoria (now Central). Hahn is being ironic, but reflecting what was almost certainly the real view of the Gendarmes, when she refers to the place that was the only home Thomas had as ‘that hotbed of espionage’.[2]

Thomas had been baking bread for the hospitals and living with two other bakers,[3] Sgm. Hammond who’d helped him bake during the 18 days of fighting, and a man called Peacock.[4]  But, according to American repatriate Charles Winter,[5] Thomas and Evelina were planning to live together in the French Hospital after their wedding on June 29, 1942. There’s no reason to believe they didn’t carry out this plan, although whether or not they had a room to themselves nobody knows.

 Thomas must have shared the general fear.[6] He knew that everyone connected with Selwyn-Clarke was an object of mistrust: as Anne Ozorio – a distinguished researcher, who was herself in  Hong Kong during the war – tells us:

 Anyone associated with him in any way, came under suspicion.[7]

 Leslie Macey, who was a member of Selwyn-Clarke’s team, working on public health, remembered years later:

 This eighteen months (Note: from January 1942 to spring or summer 1943) was not very pleasant, we had difficulty in obtaining food and the Japs, who had a very strong spy complex, had us under suspicion the whole time, which was not very good for our nerves, as we were always expecting to be arrested by the local Gestapo at any moment.[8]

Selwyn-Clarke himself constantly told his wife Hilda to have nothing to do with him when the inevitable arrest came; she should look after Mary, their five-year old daughter.

 The Medical Director was not, as the Kempeitai suspected, the leading British spymaster in Hong Kong, but he was running a large humanitarian smuggling operation, largely funded by money raised by the bankers who it had also suited Japanese purposes to leave outside Stanley Camp.[9] Most of this money – which paid for food, medicines and medical equipment which found its way covertly into the camps – was raised by methods the Japanese would have regarded as illegal. Selwyn-Clarke had two influential Japanese ‘protectors’, so the Kempeitai couldn’t just arrest him and try to extort a confessionn from him. But if they could get someone to incriminate him…

 Many if not all of the small group in the French hospital – my guess is that the number was about 25 by January 1943 – would have been drawn into Selwyn-Clarke’s illegal work: John Stericker reports, for example, that radio parts, messages and illegal goods were smuggled into Stanley on one of the Medical Department’s ambulances,[10] and, in his autobiography, the Medical Director himself describes a hair’s-breadth escape when he and two ‘volunteers’ were on a mission to rescue a dentist chair, badly needed in Stanley, from a godown (warehouse) taken over by the Japanese army.[11]

 In that autobiography Selwyn-Clarke criticises the Swiss Red Cross delegate, Mr. Zindel, for being too inhibited by all he’d heard about Japanese brutality to be energetic on behalf of the internees.[12] Selwyn-Clarke himself knew that one day he’d be arrested, tortured and probably executed, but I doubt that he hesitated for one moment before doing what he thought of as his duty, and he obviously expected others to do theirs.

 In any case, the evidence places Thomas even closer to illegal activity than this. According to Gwen Dew, who was repatriated at the end of June 1942, the truck drivers had smuggled in small amounts of medicine when delivering rations.[13] This almost certainly includes the period – January-April 1942 – during which Thomas was baking bread for the camp, and one of these drivers was his best man, Owen Evans.

 Was Thomas’s fear merely of guilt by association, or was he worried about anything that he’d done himself? I don’t know, but it’s hard to believe that anybody in that small group would have been, in Japanese eyes, innocent. If he was asked to help smuggle in vital drugs or extra food for those suffering from malnutrition he would have found it hard to say no. The Thomas who stares out of some of the photos taken in Hong Kong was very different to the gentle, unaggessive man of the 1950s and 60s; he’s a tough man who’s far from left behind his working class origins.[14]

This is a post-war picture – the large man in the centre is E. F. Gingle, who’d been the American cook in Stanley Camp.

 One of Thomas’s few boasts – he was an exceptionally  modest man – was that in his youth he’d been one of the best amateur boxers in the Home Counties, fighting over a hundred times and losing only once. He gave up boxing relatively early, although Evelina used to say that he and two friends were nicknamed the ‘three terrors of Hong Kong’ for their -unspecified –  exploits while drunk!

 It would have been hard indeed for such a man, scared as he was of what might happen to him, to refuse to help when so many others were running huge risks: academics like the ailing literary scholar, D. J. Sloss,[15] for example, who was the first inmate of Stanley camp to receive communications from the British Army Aid Group,[16] or women like Jean Gittins, who unhesitatingly agreed to translate into Chinese a message that was to be sent out of Stanley Camp by a route known to be compromised even though she was warned she’d be executed if the message were discovered.[17] In a previous post I’ve described the courage of the bankers – the other main group of Allied civilians left outside Stanley. These men were the elite of Hong Kong, living in expensive homes on the Peak or other exclusive areas, and if such men were willing to risk agony and death to help their fellows in Stanley Camp, then how could Thomas refuse?

 Something Thomas said years later sums up both his fear and his feeling that as a boxer he should have been tough enough to take whatever came:

Ralph Shrigley, he was a boxing champion, but even he couldn’t stand the torture, he jumped off the Supreme Court roof and killed himself.[18]

 In any case, he believed that guilt or innocence didn’t come into the Kempeitai’s calculations. He thought, for example, that Douglas Waterton knew nothing about the radio for whose operation he was tortured and executed.[19] Although Thomas was wrong as to this matter of fact, others agreed with him as to the principle. The telephone engineer James Anderson who, as we shall see in a future post, experienced the methods of the Kempeitai first hand, soon after the end of the war gave his opinion as to the gendarmes’ modus operandi to his fellow Telephone Company employee Les Fisher:

 According to Andy the Japanese method was simple. When they wished to discover anything which they do not allow, such as contacts with outside, radios, etc, they simply picked up a likely person and tortured him until he gave others away.[20]

 Major Charles Boxer knew the Japanese better than most, as he spoke the language fluently and had actually served with a Japanese regiment for two years before the war. His lover Emily Hahn is speaking:

 Well, if they question me, they question me. I haven’t broken any laws.’

Charles didn’t reply. We both knew that had nothing to do with the case.[21]

 Actually, although the Kempeitai sometimes did work in this way, I’m not aware of many cases where they arrested Allied nationals (Chinese were a different matter) without at least some grounds for suspicion, and they seem to have missed a number of people who they might well have thought to be ‘guilty’ – amazingly, for example, Hilda Selwyn-Clarke was never questioned.[22] But it was the perception that mattered; the belief that anyone could be picked up at any time added greatly to the terror of those caught in the dark world’s fire of occupied Hong Kong.


[1] Field, 88-89.

[2] Hahn, 405.

[4] British Army Aid Group List, communication from Tony Banham: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/stanley_camp/message/1196

[5] See letter at https://brianedgar.wordpress.com/2011/10/18/thomas-edgar-some-documentation/

 [6] The posts on ‘the Reign of Terror’ (Emily Hahn’s phrase) discuss events from Thomas’s perspective; I’ll write about Evelina’s experience separately.

[10] Stericker, 180. Some of Selwyn-Clarke’s supplies went into the Camps with Japanese approval, hence the availability of an ambulance ‘route’ for illicit purposes.

[11] Selwyn-Clarke, 75.

[12] Selwyn-Clarke, 71. A balanced assessment of Zindel is given in the new introduction to Geoffrey Emerson’s Hong Kong Internment 1942-1945, the standard work on Stanley Camp.

[13] Dew, 136. Dew says the ‘American’ drivers were involved, but there’s no reason to think she meant to exclude Owen Evans, the only non-American known to have been driving.

[15] As a teenager I became fascinated by the work of poet and painter William Blake; the standard edition of Blake’s ‘prophetic books’, probably the most difficult major writings in English before the twentieth century, was known as ‘Sloss and Wallis’ after its two editors.

[16]Wright-Nooth, 114.

[17] Gittins, 144.

[18 The details of Shamshuipo POW Ralph Shrigley’s death are not fully clear, but it seems that he was arrested and tortured by the Kempeitai in 1942 because it was believed he knew something about escapes from the camp; in 1944 he was arrested again because he had been responsible for burying the regimental colours and other items including  arms when the fall of Hong Kong was imminent. On this occasion, he jumped to his death to escape torture. His wife was an inmate of Stanley Camp.

[19] See https://brianedgar.wordpress.com/2011/11/26/he-didnt-know-anything-about-the-news/

[20] Les Fisher, I Will Remember, 240.

[21] Hahn, 330.

[22] Hahn, 407.

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6 Comments

Filed under Hong Kong WW11, Selwyn-Selwyn Clarke

6 responses to “The Reign of Terror (2): Fear in the French Hospital

  1. Pingback: Into Stanley | The Dark World's Fire: Tom and Lena Edgar in War

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  3. Pingback: Reign of Terror (7) the July Arrests | The Dark World's Fire: Tom and Lena Edgar in War

  4. Pingback: 1944 (4): Two Deaths, a Move and a Release | The Dark World's Fire: Tom and Lena Edgar in War

  5. Pingback: Thomas’s Work (6): Post-war Reconstruction | The Dark World's Fire: Tom and Lena Edgar in War

  6. Pingback: Lesley William Robert Macey | The Dark World's Fire: Tom and Lena Edgar in War

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