The Reign of Terror (4): The First British Arrests

At the end of February or the beginning of March an internee, himself a doctor, one Harry Talbot, was sent out from Stanleyfor treatment at the French Hospital. While he was there, he was asked by Sir Vandeleur Grayburn, the head of the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation in the Colony, to smuggle cash back into the Camp. Talbot agreed, and was caught.[1] This incident was the beginning of the end for the smuggling and money-raising operations, although it took some time before this was clear, and the exact course of the investigation will probably never be known unless the Kempeitai files unexpectedly turn up.

The next developments were amazing and shocked even some Japanese civilians in Hong Kong,[2] and probably not just civilians. Up until now the Kempeitai had confined their attentions in the hunt to incriminate Selwyn-Clarke to Chinese and Eurasians – for all the brave Japanese talk of ‘Asia for the Asians’ the gendarmes were thoroughly racist in their operations and treated ‘whites’ with some deference. This might seem hard to believe given the foul conditions and brutal treatment they meted out to those British people who did fall into their hands, but all sources agree that the Chinese and other Asians suffered far worse.[3] Any agony that the British went through. The Chinese went through a thousand times more intensely. But in March 1943 the Kempeitai began an assault on the British (and Allied) community outside Stanley, and they found themselves beginning at the very top.

Talbot obviously didn’t tell the gendarmes who it was who had given him the money, so they began to apply pressure on the Allied community outside Stanley, and there was a surprise raid on the French Hospital by a naval party.[4]

After a day or two, Sir Vandeleur Grayburn and his assistant Mr. E. P. Streatfield went to the Foreign Affairs Office and confessed. (For the bankers’ work in raising and smuggling money, see –

Grayburn, as head of the HKSBC, was very close to the top of the pre-war Hong Kong hierarchy – the eminent man of letters William Empson, visiting in 1938, called him ‘the Governor’s governor’.[5]

 The Kempeitai waited two weeks until Marc h 17  before arresting Grayburn and Streatfield, either in order to rack up the tension, or because, before taking action against ‘the most powerful financier in the Far East’,[6] they, needed high-level authorisation, perhaps from Tokyo. The two bankers were finally arrested on March 17 and taken to Happy Valley Gendarmerie, where they were seen by another prisoner, C. M. Faure, who told a later war crimes tribunal they were held in the same kind of filthy cage as he himself.[7] There were a number of sacks on the floor for bedding and each prisoner was given one bowl and one blanket. They were held 10 to a cell, and the stench was so bad that the warders had to hold handkerchiefs to their noses when they entered. There was not enough light to catch the lice that infested every individual, washing facilities were inadequate and at times there was no water at all. Food was so scanty that Faure lost about half a pound in weight every day.

 Grayburn was beaten up but he doesn’t seem to have revealed much more than he’d already admitted, as the next British arrests weren’t until early May. Grayburn received a light sentence by Japanese standards – one hundred days or three months according to your source – either because of his eminence or because he’d voluntarily confessed. On April, 13 Grayburn and Streatfield were seen by George Wright-Nooth being taken, chained to each other, into Stanley Prison, which was next to the Camp.[8] Over the next few weeks Wright-Nooth, who was already operating illegally inside Stanley, smuggled letters and food from Lady Grayburn, who was by now herself an internee, to Sir Vandeleur.

 On April 17 internee George Gerrard recorded in his diary:

 It is said here and strongly vouched for that Grayburn and Streetfield (sic) of the Hong Kong & Singapore (sic) Bank have been taken to the prison as prisoners for what reason of course we don’t know.[9]

Even through the carefully chosen words of the diarist, you can hear the incredulity. Can this really be true? If the Japanese are willing to do this, what wouldn’t they do?

 This was the start of a dramatic period in the camp’s history, and the more astute internees might well have realised that terrible events were in the making. At about this time Thomas and Evelina were finally sent into Stanley.

[1] Accounts of the exact circumstances vary  – see e.g. Wright-Nooth, 157; Gittins, 141; Hahn, 389; Lindsay, 124-5 has a detailed but unsourced account. In his evidence to a war Crimes Tribunal – China Mail, April 3, 1947 –  Talbot stated he was arrested on April 27, but this was a re-arrest – Wright-Nooth, 157; the original arrest seems to have been on about March 1. For March 17 see e.g. Streatfield’s war crimes evidence, China Mail, April 2, 1947.

[2] Hahn, 389-390.

[3] See e.g. Philip Snow, The Fall of Hong Kong, 187.

[4] Hahn, 389.

[5] John Haffenden, William Empson Volume 1: Among the Mandarins, 483.

[6] Hahn, 394

[7] All details from the report in the China Mail, January 3, 1947. Faure is a fascinating character and a man of great courage and integrity, but his arrest and subsequent consignment to Stanley Camp are not part of the story I’m telling in this post.

[8] Wright-Nooth, 157-158

[9] The diary can be read by members of the Yahoo Stanley Camp Discussion Group –


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