Monthly Archives: February 2012

Thomas and Captain Tanaka (1) An Unpopular Name In Hong Kong

The first family member to take an interest in Thomas’s wartime experiences was his younger brother. Soon after Thomas’s death in January 1985 he interviewed Evelina, contacted other ex-internees (including Dr. Geoffrey Herklots, who worked with Thomas on issues of food and nutrition before and during the war) and drew up a provisional chronology. His annotations to this chronology suggest that Thomas and Evelina had suffered a degree of isolation in Camp because they were not ‘early settlers’: they were sent to Stanley on May 7, 1943, when most internees had been there for about 15 months. Thomas had spent most of this time in the French Hospital, baking bread with two other bakers for the Hong Kong hospitals, Evelina joining him after their wedding.

His brother’s notes hint at another reason that the couple might have experienced some problems in Stanley. At the top of this page is their wedding photo, taken on June 29, 1943 at St. Joseph’s (Catholic) Cathedral.

The Japanese officer in the second row is Captain Tanaka.  There are passages in his brother’s chronology that give me reason to believe that Thomas’s closeness to a Japanese officer might have led to some suspicion on the part of his fellow internees. But there is also confusion, that I think must have originated in Stanley Camp, as to who Captain Tanaka was.

Some people seem to have thought that Thomas’s wedding guest was Major-General Tanaka Ryosaburu, whose 229 Regiment were responsible for massacres during the 1941 invasion. At his war crimes trial  in 1946 the court decided that, ‘The whole route of this man’s battalion was littered with the corpses of murdered men who had been bayoneted and shot’.[1] He was sentenced to death, later commuted to life, and eventually to 20 years.

There was another prominent man of that name in Hong Kong: Lieutenant Tanaka Hitoshi. According to military historian Oliver Lindsay, this man was a guard at Shamshuipo.[2] He rose to the rank of Chief of the Information Bureau of the POW Camps and Commanding Officer at Argyle Camp. This Tanaka was to get three years for his wartime activities.

And any early prejudice against Thomas might have been strengthened in late 1944 the internees might have become aware of another man of that name who was later to face charges of war crimes, Tanaka Hisakazu.

This Tanaka was a commander in Chinaa and also Governor-General of Hong Kong from December 1944, was a war criminal who was sentenced to death by hanging (Allies) and by shooting (Chinese). It was the Chinese who got to carry out the sentence.[4]

It’s probably no accident that soldier’s wife Jean Mather, looking around for the name of the Japanese commandant of Stanley having forgotten the real one, hit on ‘Colonlel Tanaka’[3]. When Thomas and Evelina entered the camp the internees’ would definitely have known of one Tanaka who was to be tried as a war criminal, might possibly have heard mention of a second, and, in 1944, would almost certainly have become aware of a third. No wonder if they looked on a British citizen who would invite a ‘Tanaka’ to his wedding with distrust!

At least three Japanese officers called Tanakas in Hong Kong, and all three war criminals!

But none of these was the man at the wedding.  In  my next post and I’ll bring together all I’ve been able to find out about this Tanaka.


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Final Massacre? (2): Tenko Gets It Right

Amazingly the third series of Tenko, one of the most popular shows on television in the early 1980s, was almost never made:

Between the second and third series, a year passed. The controller of BBC1 decided to axe Tenko at the height of its popularity at the end of the second series (it was the BBC’s then-highest rated drama programme). This was believed to be due to the fact that women were engines of the story with no aspect of men represented. Michael Grade then assumed the role of controller and immediately re-instated the programme which led to there being a third series.[1]

Some sources add that the fact that the women were developing facial sores and were always dirty and badly dressed compounded the ‘problem’!

Tenko was a programme that was just as popular with ex-internees as with the general public, and the first episode of that third series gave us one of the great sequences in British television: there’s a special ‘tenko’ (roll call) announced, and the women have reason to believe they are all going to be shot. They’ve expected such a situation, and preparations have been made: they rehearse their plan of action, arm themselves with stones (and in some cases crutches for fake leg injuries) and go out to meet what they refuse to accept as their ‘fate’. I’ve watched this scene a dozen times and more and I still feel the tension of  Commandant Yamauchi’s announcement – subtly ambiguous in its early stages, gradually building up to the revelation that the war is over.

Tenko was realistic in the sense that almost everything that happened in it was experienced by one group of internees or another – no single camp went through everything those women did, but it was of course necessary to hold the viewers’ attention by centralising, as it were, all the drama and pain of the experience of internment. Plans to resist, as far as was possible, a final massacre, are known to have been made in a number of POW Camps, and my guess is that they existed in some form or another in all of them, both POW and civilian internee.

In his classic memoir The Night of the New Moon, Laurens Van der Post describes the ordeal that he and his fellow POWs went through in their camp close to Bandoeng (Indonesia). As the end of the war drew near, the men realised that a final massacre was a definite possibility, so they hid sticks and stones wherever they could around the camp. They didn’t believe that a bunch of half-starved POWs with weapons like these could possibly defeat well-armed Japanese soldiers, but they did hope to create enough confusion for a few men to slip out of camp and evade capture. These men would be able to tell the story of their fellows – how they lived and how they died – to the rest of the world.

In Hong Kong’s main POW Camp, Shamshuipo, similar preparations were being made. In his diary Les Fisher noted that he had a chat with his RSM on July 5, 1944. Fisher did not record the contents of that conversation, but when he prepared it for publication in the mid-nineteen nineties, he revealed what had passed;

He (RSM Jones) did not beat about the bush. He said that he had reason to believe that should the colony be attacked the Japanese would take steps to have us all eliminated. I asked him how he knew this, but he would not say, but added that we should take this as a fact. He said he assumed we should be machine-gunned when at muster, and that our only chance would be to rush the guns. To do this he wanted 12 men to arm themselves with whatever weapons they could find, such as iron bed legs, knives, or whatever they could find. I said this was fine but what had it to do with me. He said ‘I want you to be the leader’.[2]

Fisher felt justly proud to have been chosen as leader out of a thousand Volunteers left in the camp. He had no illusions as to the likely success of the enterprise: when asked if he, a telephone engineer, could put the camp phones out of action when the time came, he replied that this would be a lot easier than taking out a machine gun with a bed leg!

But Fisher and his fellow soldiers were not going to go to their deaths without a fight. Because of who they were, they felt impelled to put up resistance however futile. And Van der Post’s hope that a few survivors would be able to tell the story of the men of Bandoeng Camp reminds us of the strange and unexpected duty of narration.


[2] Les Fisher, I Will Remember, 1996, 130.

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Final Massacre? (1) – Evelina and Thomas Resign Themselves To Death

Brian didn’t become really interested in Stanley until after a trip to Hong Kong in 1996 during which he made many visits to the Military Cemetery and was allowed by the School authorities to wander round the grounds of St. Stephen’s Preparatory School. He tried to get into the Prison, and a friendly guard at the barrier gave him a number he could ring to ask permission. He made the call from the nearby phone booth, and the understandably baffled staff of the Prisons Department passed him on from one person to another until his money ran out.

 When he returned to England, he was eager to find out as much as he could about Evelina’s experiences. By this time she was not a good ‘witness’: she couldn’t remember very much – she was in her mid eighties – but didn’t like to say so, preferring to answer inaccurately rather than admit ignorance. But one day Brian knew she was telling the truth. He’d been reading about the way some internees kept up their spirits by making plans for their life once they were freed from Stanley:

 What did you and dad plan to do after the war?

 Evelina’s answer was quiet, matter-of-fact but not without emotion:

 We never made any plans. Your dad was friendly with one of the Formosan guards. He told him that the Japanese were going to shoot all the internees the day the Allies landed on Japanese soil.

 So you never thought you’d leave Stanley?

 No. We expected to die.

 Evelina and Thomas always believed that their lives were saved by the Atomic bomb. Many of their fellow POWs and internees felt the same: the belief in a final massacre was widespread in all the Asian Camps. Some thought, like Evelina and Thomas, it would come the day that the Allies landed on the main Japanese islands. Not only would the Japanese want revenge for this violation, but they would almost certainly want to bring all their soldiers back to defend the homeland. Shooting their prisoners would make emotional and practical sense. Others felt that the danger would come when the Allies attacked the country or the area of their imprisonment. With every soldier needed to try to beat off the assault, why would the Japanese waste manpower guarding their enemies? Or food feeding them?

 No-one who had been their prisoner for four years had any doubts that they were capable of such a massacre.

 Perhaps the best thing to do was to be like Evelina and Thomas and resign yourself to death.


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1944 (6): The Darkest Winter

I suggested in an earlier post that any honest and realistic observer of the Hong Kong ex-pat community in late 1944 would have predicted its more or less total disappearance over the next year. Almost all of the men and many of the women and children were languishing in Stanley, Shamshuipo or in work camps scattered around Japan, and their prospects for surviving another twelve months were decidedly bleak. 

Thomas’s friend Charles Sloan had been sent to a work camp in Japan

 Only those women and children evacuated to Australia in the summer of 1940 were safe. Those left in Hong Kong faced either being shot down in a final massacre – something that had been on the internees’ minds from almost the first moment they arrived in Stanley[1]– or submitting to slow destruction by malnutrition and disease.

 The winter of 1944-45 was one of the toughest in living memory: the staff of the Observatory told some of their fellow Stanleyites that it was the ‘coldest and longest stretch of cold weather Hong Kong has had for 40 years’.[2] The electricity and water supply was intermittent, and the food situation was getting worse. At first the frequent American air raids were a bright spot: they were something of an inconvenience, as sometimes they meant Camp life had to be suspended until the planes had gone to another part of Hong Kong and the alarm was turned off but the internees were glad to put up with this, as seeing the US flyers destroying Japanese Hong Kong showed then they hadn’t been abandoned and gave them hope that somehow they might be liberated. But soon a tragic accident was to put many of them in fear of another death. And yet they still welcomed them; this is perhaps the sharpest version of the paradox that in 1944 and 1945 Allied action was the source of the internees’ main problems and their only realistic hope of salvation.

 Perhaps the most obvious effect of the American bombing was disruption of the water and electricity supplies in the Camp. Gerrard wrote on November 12, 1944:

 The water has now been cut off completely so that we have neither light or water.

 On November 19 he noted that the water supply was now back, but causing problems because it was off two days out of three. Electricity though was still not being provided at all.

 The internees responded to the water crisis by digging, and on 27 November water was struck at 16 feet.[3] Thereafter the intermittent external supply and the water obtained in Camp just about kept the internees going. Not without huge problems though. Gerrard wrote on February 28 that the water was only on every third day and that the fates seemed to decree that this day would always be wet, making washing of clothes very difficult. Not to mention of humans:

 …bathing is no pleasure and a cold shower is out of the question.

 On April 19 Jones had his ‘first shower of the year’ – presumably because the taps were on and it was also warm enough to brave the cold water (Gerrard reported an upturn in the weather during first week of March). Like everything else in camp in 1944 and 1945 water supply was liable to unpredictable ups and downs: on April 11 Gerrard noted that water was only supplied every fifth day, and then only in the evening. On July 8 it was now on for part of every day.

It wasn’t just water that was in short supply. On July 15 it took Jones half an hour to wash his overall with his few remaining fragments of soap. On Friday July 27 he wrote, ‘No soap, salt, sugar or toilet paper for days’ followed by a not fully decipherable phrase that might contain the unsurprising information that many people were dirty!

 In 1942 there had been enough electricity to light the Camp in the evenings (until the blackouts began in response to American bombing raids) and to provide power to those internees lucky enough to have electric hotplates on which to prepare their own food.[4] Most internees couldn’t get hot water, though, but at least they had something. As far as I can make out, the power didn’t come back on after the disappearance noted by Gerrard in November:

 In the long winter of 1944-45 we sat in total darkness from 5.30 p. m. onwards.[5]

 The electricity wasn’t to be restored until the war had ended.[6]

 I’ll write in a separate post about Christmas 1944 and the role Thomas played in preparing the food for what was, in spite of everything, a season of celebration. But once it was over, the basic trend of 1944 – towards a worsening in the rations sent by the Japanese – continued.

 The food situation was bad enough already. On January 9, 1945 Raymond Jones recorded, ‘No work, no rations, hungry’, and the next day he was ‘Hungry as hell & fed up’. But at the start of February even the small quantity of fish in the ration ceased:

 The food is still very poor and we have all been vegetarians for the past fortnight as it is exactly two weeks since the Japs sent us any fish not that it makes much difference as we get very little of that. [7]

 On February 21 Jones reports an 11% cut in the rice ration, and also notes a 50% cut in the cigarette rations issued to ‘workers’ (presumably that meant both the ‘light’ and ‘heavy’ categories). Many internees naturally craved nicotine to dull their suffering, and cigarettes were important even for non-smokers as they were an important currency because the monetary system had almost broken down.

 In his entry for February 24 Gerrard confirms that fish is still not being provided, but goes on to add that ‘The marvellous thing is that the people in the kitchen turn out as attractive chow as is possible under the circumstances’.

 In late February Gerrard was ousted from his post as QM because some people were unhappy about all the time he’d been spending in hospital, but the committee knew the value of his work and asked him to take the newly created post of ‘rations officer’, with duties remarkably similar to his old ones! ‘I don’t get any extra rations of course I wouldn’t have accepted that in any case,’ he wrote.

 One of his first jobs was to distribute the 1945 Red Cross parcel. Through no fault of that organisation this was something of a disappointment: it went out on March 5 but it was not the expected ‘American parcels and bulk supplies’ but the residue of the shipment of November 1942 which had been mouldering in a godown (warehouse) either in Japan or somewhere in Hong Kong.[8] Many items were in poor condition and each internee only got one parcel. How they must have longed for the three good parcels they received in September 1944![9] Jones’ only comment is that ‘many Canadian parcels had their contents stolen’ (March 14) and two days later he notes that cards from Shamshuipo indicate that there too they’ve received ‘only old parcels’ with ‘poor’ food like those sent into Stanley.

But even it wasn’t what the internees had hopes, the parcel was something. The downward trend in rations was soon resumed. On Tuesday March 20 Jones records 15% rice cut for the next 11 days, and on April 10 a 17% cut ‘for next period’.   On May 14 Jones writes:

 Camp grown veg to be included in Jap ration despite their promise to the contrary.

I’ve not seen this point discussed by anyone else. If the Japanese did put this into effect then for the last three months of the war the internees’ vegetable gardens were making a much smaller contribution to their diet than before.

 On June 3 a new scale of rations was issued, although Jones claims it was cancelled as ‘a flop’ on June 10.  However, this scale, although it involved certain cuts, did promise the internees a small amount of meat, and on June 10 Jones records:

 Had meat 1st time for 18 months.

 I don’t know why meat made this unexpected re-appearance in the Camp diet; not surprisingly, after such a long absence, it affected some people’s stomachs (Jones diary, June 24). But, welcome as this was, it couldn’t change the basic situation: the rations were way short of adequate, the canteen was expensive and almost bare of foodstuffs, so people were surviving by selling what few valuables they had and buying extra supplies on the black market. At some point in 1944 or 1945 Thomas and Evelina sold their engagement ring and watches.[10]

 As always in the complex history of life in the Stanley, there were good things about 1945 as well. The lack of firewood for cooking was a major problem, but it seems that the Camp received reasonably frequent deliveries: Jones, who seems to have kept a close eye on everything coming into the Camp, records that ‘much wood arrived’ on March 4, notes on March 17 that the ‘Japs have allowed 50% wood increase’, and ‘wood still coming’ on March 23.

 The lorry brought meat and vegetables on August 11 and the next day the internees enjoyed two meat meals. By then, of course, the rumours of imminent liberation that had often swept through the Camp were on the point of at last being true. But there was one more ordeal that had to be gone through, a fear that strangely enough didn’t end when the Japanese surrendered.

[2] Gerrard diary, Feb 14, 1945.

[3] George Wright-Nooth, Prisoner Of The Turnip Heads, 1994, 209.

[5] John Stericker, A Tear For The Dragon, 1958, 170.

[6] Even when the navy began to help with the supply, the enthusiastic use of hotplates by those who remained in Stanley in mid-September sometimes led to power outages.

[7] Gerrard diary, Feb. 14, 1945.

[8] Gerrard Diary, March 7, 1945.

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A Note on the Red Cross in Shamshuipo

In my last post I wrote about some of the excellent work done by the Red Cross in Stanley– work that Thomas and some of the other internees either weren’t fully aware of, or discounted. I think that one of the best ways of appreciating the value of this organisation is to look at the statistics for deaths in Shamshuipo (the POW Camp in Kowloonwhere both professional soldiers and members of the Hong Kong Volunteer Defence Force were interned).

 The three months April-June 1942 saw only 6 deaths in all, but in July the effects of malnutrition began to show, as weakened bodies were not able to resist disease and further deprivation: 21 men died in that month, 28 in August, 38 in September and 52 in October. In November the Camp received Red Cross supplies and the effect was immediate: only 26 men died in that month, falling to 19 in December, 7 in January 1943, and 1 each in February, March and April. There were no deaths in May and July with just one in June – which I would guess is a more or less normal peace time mortality rate.

 These figures are testament to a remarkably effective intervention, even when we bear in mind that conditions in Shamshuipo improved generally in 1943.

 Major Victor Ebbage, whose recently published typescript is the source of these figures, sums up justly:

 Indeed, we are all so deeply indebted to the Red Cross that no action of ours can ever repay. (191)

 Source: Major Victor Stanley Ebbage (edited by Andrew Robertshaw), The Hard Way: Surviving Shamshuipo POW Camp 1941-45, 2011

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1944 (5) Red Letter Day – George Gerrard and Rudolph Zindel

In a previous post I discussed a few of the many psychic mechanisms which enabled the internees to survive their experiences.[1] In this one I want to focus on something that had both ‘mental’ and ‘physical’ effects: the presence in the Camp of a number of people who were both fair and generous when it came to the great issue of food distribution. Everyone in Stanley knew one thing, however much they tried to deny to themselves that they knew it: there was no guarantee that they’d live long enough to be liberated because they were slowly starving to death and there was no way of knowing if the end of the war would come before their bodies gave out. This meant that any food given to another and any opportunity to get food for yourself that wasn’t taken, whatever the cost to your fellow internees, might be literally fatal. Whatever the exact date of liberation, there were always going to be people who would have lived if it had come a week or a month earlier; perhaps even those whose wasted frames gave up the struggle on the day itself, people who would have survived if they’d managed to get just a few hundred extra calories into their starving bodies…

 So it’s not surprising that there was plenty of selfishness in Stanley plenty of mean-spiritedness, and a substantial amount of outright theft – it was said you couldn’t leave anything edible lying around, not even communion wafers! One individual made himself so unpopular through his ceaseless concern for his own interests that at the end of the war Franklin Gimson had him put into custody for his own protection.[2] What is perhaps surprising is that most people seem to have pulled together, looking after their own interests and those of their family without harming others, and helping out their fellow internees where possible. And there were in Stanley a number of individuals who did more.

 Shipyard clerk (probably manager would give a better idea of his role) George Gerrard was a big man: before the war he weighed sixteen and a half stone. But when he was released, the years of internment had seen him shrink to a mere six and a half stone– 91 pounds. One might be forgiven for assuming that he was one of those unlucky people who didn’t have friends outside to send him parcels, or that he was a rather lazy individual who never got to the ration queue early enough to get a fair share of the scanty food being doled out. In fact, I’ve never come across an internee who got so many parcels – and when ex-Stanleyite Barbara Anslow read his diary, she was astonished at the number he received and found her mouth watering at the thought of all that precious food![3]

 Gerrard is one of those largely unknown heroes of Stanley who made an important contribution not only to the stomachs but  also to the spirits of everyone; it was partly due to people like him that most people did make it through to August 1945. Without men and women of such generosity and rectitude Stanley could have degenerated into a Hobbesian ‘war of all against all’ in which the strong survived and the weak went to the wall. Gerrard’s many parcels came from his Chinese former workmates (who risked imprisonment and torture to send them) but he scrupulously shared them with his fellows. Even when they sent him in money, he usually passed some of it on. Perhaps even more importantly, he was quartermaster for his block but he never used his position to get extra food: partly because of his huge weight loss he had to be repatriated on a hospital ship.[4]

When the internees first entered Stanley, cooking seems to have been done on an individual, family or small group basis, but eventually things became more organised. The Camp was divided into ‘west and ‘east’ regions with a Kitchen for each. The ‘west’ region consisted of St. Stephen’s School and the Bungalows, with a kitchen behind St. Stephen’s.[5]  Bungalow D actually ate with Gerrard’s block (9)[6] of St. Stephen’s so that might well have meant he was in charge of issuing rations to Thomas and Evelina.

 One of the responsibilities that Gerrard must have enjoyed the most – for his own sake and that of others – was organising the distribution of the Red Cross parcels of September 1944. Unlike the ones sent to individuals by uninterned friends, these were distributed equally to all adults in Camp.

 On Sunday 17, September 1944 Gerrard wrote:

 The big news for this period is that the Canadian Red Cross parcels have actually arrived and are now in our hands and some of the contents in our tummies and Boy Oh Boy are they good.

September 14 was the day that the parcels were given out (from 3 p.m. onwards).  I like to think that it was Gerrard who handed Thomas and Evelina their parcels. Whoever it was, this was a red letter day for them and their fellow internees. They were living mainly on rice and vegetables at this time – no meat since February, 1944 and only an ounce or two of fish. The typhoon of July 22 had further disrupted food supplies.[7]  Gerrard’s fellow diarist, the colony’s former hangman Raymond Jones, gives a grim picture of deteriorating conditions: on September 4 he tells us that the ‘daily average of vegetables is 9.5 oz. fish not enough to be worthy its reckoning’. He ate a good meal on September 8 (‘fried liver’ – one of the occasional returns of meat to the 1944 diet), but on the next day no rations arrived, so the cooks had to make do with what they had, resulting in ‘poor meals today…hungry as hell tonight’. When the rations did finally arrive, at 8 p. m., they were ‘veg only’. On September 11 fish was sent in but ‘so rotten most of it had to be buried immediately’. No wonder he writes on the same day, ‘Hurry up you US blokes’.

 Later in the September 17 entry Gerrard lists the contents of each parcel: powdered milk, butter, jam, tins of salmon, corn beef, sardines,  a packet of tea or coffee, chocolate, prunes, raisins, pepper and salt, some cheese, a cake of soap….And everyone got two parcels (with a third to come on Thursday, September 21). Even though the parcels had been in Hong Kong for over a year and the dried fruit and chocolate were mouldy, this was a wonderful gift.

 The happiness of most of the starving internees that day can be imagined. George Wright-Nooth wrote on September 15:

 Though really tired I did not sleep during the whole of yesterday. The arrival of the parcels made me restless and excited. Geoffrey and Lance could hardly sit still….The first thing I did, and so did the others, was to eat my chocolate, at least one slab of 5 oz. It was delicious and I found it more satisfying than two of our ordinary meals (doubles); it filled me right up. How Geoffrey and Lance managed two slabs I do not know.[8]

 Gerrard reported:

 The powdered milk does grand for congee in the morning, the biscuits with jam are top hole, the chocolate is just rapidly disappearing….

 According to Geoffrey Emerson, Gerrard’s claims were wrong in one respect: he stated that the parcels would help ‘for the time being at least’ fight beri beri and pellagra, two diseases caused by deficiency of B Vitamins: Emerson points out that the contents didn’t actually provide many foods rich in B1.[9] Luckily there were some bulk supplies in the 1944 delivery, including multivitamins and synthetic B vitamins. Gerrard records that the first multivitamins ones were given out on October 1 and they tasted like ‘burnt rubber’.  Eventually, though, the vitamins and thiamine ran out, leaving whatever yeast was available as the only possible treatment.

 I wrote that ‘most’ of the internees were happy for good reason. Gerrard comments on the Camp mood after the issue of the third parcel:

 This issue we easily made and all are more or less pleased, tho’ in a camp like this it is impossible to please everyone, some of course are perpetual and impossible grumblers. To give them the Kingdom of Heaven wouldn’t be more than some expect.

 Judging by his diary, Gerrard was a good-tempered man, so it’s easy to imagine how sorely he must have been tried in the course of his thankless task as block quartermaster. But, in spite of these grumblers, most people were pleased: ‘everyone much happier’ states Jones on ‘parcel day’ and on the day after he writes ‘What an immense difference a little extra and better food makes’.

Parcel sending wasn’t the only service the Red Cross provided for the Stanleyites and the POWs in Shamshuipo and the other camps. It also carried out the distribuion of the £10,000 a month sent by the British government to the internees. The money, amounting to about 20 yen per adult, began to arrive in February 1943.[10]  The Government had no way of knowing that massive inflation in Hong Kong was reducing the value of their gift hugely as the months went by – but on June 22, 1944 Gerrard recorded receipt of the ‘very welcome’ 20 yen and it was probable only sometime in 1945 when there was almost nothing in the canteen and what little there was had become unaffordable that the gift became almost valueless. And it was the Red Cross who were mainly responsible for getting cards and letters in and out of the Camps, and who provided occasional gifts to help equip the schools.

 It’s possible that even the mills on which Thomas ground rice to make bread were provided by Mr. Zindel, the Hong Kong Red Cross representative.[11] Rudolph Zindel, a Swiss businessman, was nicknamed ‘Swindle’ by some internees, who believed he was making little effort to help. There is a vigorous defence of Zindel in the introduction to the book version of Geoffrey Emerson’s thesis, and I think Emerson makes his case conclusively: Zindell did everything he could, at some risk to himself. A couple who unofficially represented the Red Cross in Borneo were executed as spies, along with 24 others said to have helped them, and Zindel himself was under investigation.[12] It would have been easy for him to lose his head, very difficult indeed for him to do much more for the internees.

 Sadly Thomas took from his Stanley experiences a lifetime’s prejudice against the Red Cross. He must have learnt from family letters that his mother was sending him parcels though that organisation, parcels he never received. His rather scanty ‘collected correspondence’ from Camp shows that this upset him, as on a couple of occasions he asks his mother not to send anything.[13] Of course, the failure of those parcels to arrive in Stanley had nothing to do with the Red Cross, but were caused by Japanese theft and obstructionism, or perhaps simply by the disruptions caused by war. Without the work of Rudolph Zindel and those who funded and supported him from afar there would have been much more misery and death in Stanley and Shamshuipo (see next post).

George Gerrard ended the war with a wasted, suffering body (see 1944 (6): The Darkest Winter, forthcoming). But his spirit was undimmed. His diary ends on August 19, soon after liberation. On that day friends from Hong Kong were allowed to enter Camp, and a fellow dockyard worker and his two sons came, bringing gifts. The last words of George Gerrard’s diary are these:

He brought us bananas, sugar, tea, cooked meat and buns which I divided out to our lads here in the room.

In ordinary times such a distribution would mean little. But these weren’t ordinary times: this act of sharing was the work of a big man who’d shrunk to below 100 lbs in weight, and who, even amongst a malnourished and sick population, was about to be selected as ill enough to require repatriation on a hospital ship. In his response over almost four years to the harsh conditions of the Japanese occupation George Gerrard – an unassuming man whose diary was written for his wife, not for ‘posterity’ – revealed himself to be a man of exceptional quality. In the middle of what Quaker missionary William Sewell considered to be the general moral deterioration of the last years in Stanley he retained his unselfishness and generosity of character to the end.

[2] George Wright-Nooth: Prisoner of the Turnip Heads, 234, 240, 247.


[4] Information from Andrew Gerrard: available to members of Yahoo Stanley Group –

[5] Allana Corbin, Prisoners of the East, 2002, 164.

[6] Gerrard diary: May 8, 1943; July 29, 1945.

[8] Wright-Nooth, 134.

[9] Geoffrey Emerson, Hong Kong Internment, 1973, 151.

[10] Emerson, 1973, 160.

[11]Emerson, 1973, 161.

[12] Emerson, Kindle Edition, Location 719, 728.

[13] Cards dated 30/9/43 and 12/4/44.


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1944 (4): Two Deaths, a Move and a Release

1944 was not marked by ‘big’ events like 1943 (the Kempeitai ‘strike back’, leading to the arrests in Camp, the death of the HKSBC chief Sir Vandeleur Grayburn and the executions on Stanley Beach) or 1945, but there were some significant happenings. In this post I focus on two deaths and a release.

David Charles Edmondston was one of Grayburn’s senior assistants, the Hong Kong manager of the HKSBC. According to Emily Hahn, Edmondston at the start of the war was  ‘a funny man with a mustache, and a bit of a pot’.  Hahn’s book China For Me portrays him as a petty and spiteful moralist, who took against her because, in his eyes, she lured Major Charles Boxer away from his wife and then become the mother of his baby without even having the decency to marry him. But this representation of Edmondston has to be treated skeptically: Hahn didn’t go out of her way to be scrupulously fairly to those who annoyed her during the Hong Kong war.[1]  What’s certain is that Edmondston was in prison because he’d joined the other bankers, left outside Stanley mainly for Japanese purposes, in a courageous operation to raise money to help their beleaguered fellow citizens in the Camps.[2]

He was arrested on May 24 1943.[3]  The fact that the water torture was used in questioning him[4]   might mean that the Japanese suspected him of spying or at least listening to a secret radio and passing on the news, as they didn’t usually torture Allied nationals unless some such crime was involved (although an ordinary ‘interrogation’ was hard enough). He was tried on October 19, 1943 and sentenced to ten years in prison.[5]

According to Japanese medical officer Sato (or Saito) Shunkichi he first entered the Prison hospital in May 1943 suffering from indigestion. He was eventually discharged but frequently returned for treatment for colitis, beri beri and dysentery. He was finally admitted with a carbuncle that covered the whole of the back of his neck.[6]

Dr. Harry Talbot examined him and later stated that continual sepsis contributed to his death.[7] Sato, defending himself at his post-war trial, claimed that he’d administered various appropriate treatments, but Dr. Talbot stated that Edmondston had received no help from the medical officer, and this is supported by the banker’s own statement, two days before his death.


Just before Edmondston died his wife Kathleen and his seventeen year old daughter were called in from Stanley Camp to see him. He was so emaciated she didn’t recognize him and his state was such that no meaningful communication was possible. The Japanese refused to allow a doctor to enter the Prison to inspect him, but did allow drugs to be sent in. The injections came too late. He died –  of malnutrition, sepsis and medical neglect – on August 29. He was 54.

File:David Charles Edmondston Headstone.JPG

Image: Wikimedia, at

The other man whose death I want to write about could hardly have lived a life more different to that of a banker with the HKSBC, whose senior officials were expected to set an appropriate tone for pre-war Hong Kong..

There have been only three Englishmen who were made generals in the Chinese army: one was the Gordon who died at Khartoum– he had previously been known as ‘Chinese Gordon’. The other two were in Stanley Camp, although neither was there at liberation. One of them, Morris ‘Two Guns’ Cohen, an English adventurer, whose life is the subject of a proposed film,[8] was released as part of the second exchange of prisoners on September 22/23, 1943. The other died in Stanley.

 Frank ‘One Arm’ Sutton celebrated his sixtieth birthday on February 14, 1944. He wrote in his diary:

I am young no longer, ambition to take the world by storm has passed me and gone. I remember my many failures. I flee from life and do not pursue it, as formerly….Enthusiasm in starting each new job and brushing aside all obstacles is not wholehearted. What’s the good? comes too easily to my mind.[9]

He’d had an eventful life:  born to a Lincolnshire parson in 1884 and educated at Eton and London University, he’d been a South American railway builder before the war, and lost an arm to a hand-grenade at Gallipoli. He was lobbing  back time-lag hand-grenades  into the Turkish trenches but after successfully returning six he fell foul of one that had cunningly had its fuse shortened, and it blew his right arm off at the wrist. The thrower, a huge Turkish soldier, leapt into Sutton’s trench to finish the job with his bayonet. Sutton, with no weapon and only his left arm,  managed to deflect the bayonet into his thigh. There followed a desperate struggle rolling in the dust during the course of which Sutton was almost knocked out by a rock– it was thrown by a fellow British soldier but failed to find its target and hit Sutton on the head instead. The Turk managed  to get on top of the semi-comatose Englishman and was strangling the life out of him when Sutton groped around with his one remaining hand and managed to locate a Gurkha kukri, which he plunged into his assailant’s throat. As the struggle ended, Sutton noticed he’d bitten off the other man’s ear. (I am not making this up – someone else may be, probably Sutton himself, but not me![10]).

How could such a man not go gold mining in the frozen wastes of newly Bolshevik Siberia? And how could he have avoided being asked to re-organize one of the Red navies?  Next he decided to try his luck in war-torn Republican China, seeking to interest one of the rival war-lords in the products of his fertile military inventor’s imagination, and in his own martial skills. The Chinese general who was besieging Sutton and summoned him to negotiate terms of surrender should have known that the resourceful but not overly scrupulous Englishman would shoot him before making a James Bond like escape. Sutton eventually became a general for China’s famous ‘Old Marshall’ Chang Tso-Lin. He made and lost three fortunes in the course of all this.

Sutton was billeted in Block 4, Room 18, billeted with seven others. He was severely overweight by this time, and his mutilated arm made it impossible for him to sleep soundly in any position but flat on his back; the result was massive and re-echoing snoring. Sutton, to the immense gratitude of his roommates managed to get hold of a tennis ball and had it sewn into his pajama jacket so as to make it impossible for him to sleep on his back. Then he taught himself to get a decent night’s rest on his side.[11]

That story shows that at least some of the determination and courage that had marked Sutton’s life were still with him at the start in Stanley. Sadly these qualities were worn down. His decline after that despairing birthday entry was ‘shockingly rapid’ and Drage puts down his death to ‘slow starvation’ undermining ‘not so much his superb physique but his always vulnerable emotions’.[12]

He was put on a ‘Special Diet’ but to no avail, and he was eventually admitted to TweedBayHospitalwith ‘beriberi, avitaminosis and bacillary dysentery’ – Drage suggests a simpler diagnosis would have been ‘hunger and heartbreak’.[13] Mrs. Anslow, who was nursing in Tweed Bay Hospital at the time, agreed, saying he died from ‘malnutrition and despair’. The end came at 10 a.m. on October 22 of that terrible year 1944. He asked for his clothes to be divided amongst his fellow prisoners,[14] a much needed final act of charity.

My guess is that an event towards the end of the year marks the date when Thomas began to feel that he would most probably escape the Kempeitai.[15] In the Camp ‘Log’ held at the Imperial War Museum[16], next to the names of Mrs. and Miss Selwyn-Clarke it is recorded that they were ‘removed 6.12.44’.

Hilda and Mary Selwyn-Clarke had been living, with their friend Margaret Watson, in the tiny room 6 of Bungalow D.  Thomas and Evelina were amongst the probably 8-10 people in room 1. They’d arrived with the Selwyn-Clarke’s on May 7, 1943, after Hilda’s husband had been arrested by the gendarmes early on May 2 under suspicion of being the head of British espionage in Hong Kong.  In fact, he didn’t get involved in military matters but had been operating a medical smuggling ring, and it’s most unlikely that Thomas had stayed completely clear of its work in the fifteen months they were all in the French Hospital  together.[17]

 Selwyn-Clarke heroically resisted 10 months of brutal torture. After that he was held in solitary confinement, at first under sentence of death, then with a ten year prison term. But, out of the blue, he was released, for reasons which have never been clarified.  Two days after the ‘removal’ of  Hilda and Mary he was visited in his cell by the advocate- general who had been at his trial and Colonel Tokunaga, the head of all the camps in Hong Kong, and told the rest of his sentence had been remitted, and he would be interned in a small civilian camp – 600 people, who would be under his medical care:

 The sense of relief was almost too much for me. I felt completely dazed[18]

 When he arrived at Ma Tau-wai Camp in Kowloon Hilda and Mary were there to meet him:

 The emotion of this reunion can be imagined, though I fear it must have been something of a shock for Hilda and Mary to be presented with a ragged, bent and emaciated figure, white-haired at fifty and with a long white beard, and this after only nineteenth months of separation.[19]

That day was joyful for the Selwyn-Clarke family and it also meant that Thomas need no longer fear actions from his time in the French Hospitalwould lead to his arrest. And six days later the parcels sent by the Canadian Red Cross were distributed!  (see next post). There seems little doubt that the week or two starting on September 8 was the best period for Thomas and Evelina in 1944, perhaps in the whole of their internment.

 Most people kept at least one item from these parcels to help make Christmas Day special. Then the hunger returned, and, as the harsh winter weather conducted the inhabitants of Stanley inexorably into the new year, it got worse.

Everyone realised this would be their last year as captives. There was no way the emaciated bodies that shuffled listlessly around Camp could take another twelve months  of such starvation. Either they’d be freed in 1945, or the hunger that had been with them since the Japanese attack in those long ago days of December 1941 would finally kill them. There was another possibility, though, and a dreadful one.

 As Thomas’s fears of the Kempeitai and their methods of interrogation began to recede, they were replaced by images of  a new horror. Would the history of Stanley Camp end with a final massacre?

[1] Emily Hahn, China For Me, 271-273, 392-393. For a rebuttal of Hahn’s portrait of Hilda Selwyn-Clarke, see James Bertram, The Shadow of a War, 1947, 81. Margaret Watson’s comments on Hahn in Susanna Hoe, The Private Life of Old Hong  Kong, 1991, 227 are revealing.

[3] China Mail, April 9, 1947, page 2.

[4] China Mail, January 9, 1947, page 2.

[5] George Wright-Nooth, Prisoner of the Turnip Heads, 1994, 180.

[6] China Mail, April 12, 1947, page 2.

[7] China Mail, Friday, April  3, 1947, page 2.


[9] Charles Drage, General of Fortune, 1973 ed., 259

[11] Drage, 257.

[12] Drage 259.

[13] Drage, 259.

[14] Drage, 260.

[16] IWM, Misc 932.

[18] Selwyn-Clarke, 93.

[19] Selwyn-Clarke, 93.




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1944 (3): Second Wedding Anniversary and Evelina’s Birthday: Hunger Gets Worse, Hopes Are Dashed, The Fear Remains


The two main sources for this post, the diaries of George Gerrard and Raymond Jones, can be read by members of the Yahoo Stanley Group. is publishing the Jones diary and the Anslow diary (with annotations) day by day:

For an overview of 1944 see:

On June 29, 1944, the day of Thomas and Evelina’s second wedding anniversary, diarist Raymond Jones recorded something that must have plunged Thomas back into at least some of the fear that he experienced around the time of his first anniversary when the much-feared Kempeitai were in Stanley[1]:

Japs made special search of lorry

This lorry was the Stanley Camp lifeline. It brought in rations and newspapers – and, towards the end of the war, some of the black market food that kept many of the internees alive. Thomas must have been involved with it in some way, as he baked bread from the flour (by June 1944, the rice) that it brought in, but it’s not known if he personally collected his raw materials. On June 28, 1943 six men had been arrested by the Kempeitai: the reason for one arrest – Inspector Whant’s –  is unknown to me, and he was later released without charge, three men were linked to the operation of secret radios, while two were canteen workers who had regular contact with the ration lorry. One of these men was Frederick Ivan Hall, who like Thomas had worked for the food section of the huge department store Lane, Crawford.[2] When Thomas heard this news he must have been terrified, and the days which followed (the next day was his first wedding anniversary) would have been just as bad for him as the time he spent a prisoner in the French Hospital as the gendarmes searched it for evidence of espionage in the wake of the arrest of Dr. Selwyn-Clarke.[3]

It didn’t take much thought to realise that if messages were going in and out of Stanley the ration lorry was likely to be involved. In fact, the Japanese knew or suspected as much long before June 28, 1943. Two entries Jones made in 1942 suggest the Japanese were aware of what was going on but were content for the time to try to stop it rather than to catch and punish those involved:

Monday December 26

Lorry coolies ordered to hold no conversation with Internees.

Tuesday December 15, 1942

Coolies no longer come in on the lorry.

All those operating this system were at huge risk, and it was stopped after the arrests of June 28 and July 7 (except for a desperate attempt, probably in October, to get news of the forthcoming executions of some of those prisoners to the British Ambassador at Chungking.[4])  But the search on Thomas’s second wedding anniversary reminds us that as 1944 wore on, presenting ever greater challenges to the internees’ ability to endure increasingly harsh conditions, they didn’t stop having reasons to be afraid too. Hard as life in Stanley was, everyone understood how much tougher life was in the Prison next door – even without the near certainty of the beatings and torture that usually accompanied arrest, and the possibility of execution at the end of it.

Most of these messages sent through the ration lorry concerned such non-military matters as the health of the internees;[5] at his trial on October 19 Alistair Sinton, one of those who like Thomas had remained in town, was accused of sending a chit about medicines into Stanley to be received by Bradley, who replied swiftly through the same route.[6] For such ‘crimes’ Bradley and Sinton were beheaded; no wonder Thomas feared the Kempeitai. To be fair, the Japanese suspected that messages about replacement parts for the Camp secret radios had gone in and out by this means, although I don’t recall ever having seen a definite statement that this actually happened. In fact, the only comment on the matter I can recall at the moment is John Stericker’s claim that, perhaps without Selwyn-Clarke’s knowledge, radio parts and other ‘illegal goods’ were smuggled into Stanley (early in the Camp’s history) in the ambulance taking in the Medical Director’s ‘legal’  medicines. The parts were hidden at the bottom of sealed kerosene tins of army biscuits.[7]

We get a further glimpse of conditions in 1944 in another part of Jones’s diary entry for June 29:

Black-out ordered again, also an order prohibiting the collection of salt-water by people who go to the beach…people have been collecting quantities of salt water in bottles etc. for cooking purposes & now the lousy rats stop even that.

 The blackouts were an example of a paradox I’ve previously drawn attention to: the American bombing raids – which gave the internees so much hope and joy – were also making their lives much worse, mainly by interfering with Hong Kong’s power and food supplies. These blackouts weren’t so threatening as such interference, which was to hit the internees hard later in the year, but they were a real nuisance. They were frequent in 1944 and they meant that any evening activities involving light became impossible[8]: reading, for example, which was popular, as the Camp had been given many books from the American library after the June 29/30 repatriation. As George Gerrard put it, long days became longer still.

Today most of us are conscious of the dangers of too much salt in our diet, but in Stanleycamp the inhabitants had a problem much more typical of people over the ages: how to get enough and to avoid the symptoms (painful cramps, for example) of deficiency. Salt rations were issued from time to time, but these needed to be supplemented, and boiling rice and vegetables in water from the nearby sea was an ideal way of doing this. It’s not known why the Japanese prohibited it; the internees were still allowed, under guard, to swim at Tweed Bay beach, so no security concerns were involved. At least one former internee believed the Japanese used salt deprivation to keep their prisoners weak: early in internment, before the bathing beach was opened, some men risked their lives to go through the barbed wire to get salt water[9]. This is certainly a possible explanation for the later ban, although at the moment it’s only speculation.

George Gerrard, was happy on June 29. He got one of his frequent letters – ‘loving and glorious’ was his usual description – from his wife Nell, one of those women evacuated from Hong Kong in 1940. Letters came unpredictably and some individuals received dozens, others hardly any at all, and Gerrard was lucky to receive so many. The one he got on June 29, 1944 was dated 30 August, 1942 – it had taken almost two years to arrive, which was a little on the long side, but couldn’t be called unusual. It was a rare letter that was delivered within the year, although Red Cross cards tended to get to their destination more quickly, presumably because they were easier to censor. Gerrard’s response to this letter is to hope that soon he and his wife will be together as the news is good and he can’t see either the Japanese or the Germans holding out much longer[10] (he recorded this in one of his usual weekly ‘retrospectives’ on July 9).

Thomas’s experience was not so fortunate (if Evelina received any letters or cards, she didn’t keep them). The card he sent to his parents in late May 1943 told them:

Was very worried about you all as I had not heard from anybody for two years until your letter dated October just received.

 That could have been October 1941 or 1942

 The card of September 30, 1943 notes that he’s just received a letter from his brother Wilfred, ‘the first for two years’. The luck of the draw had meant that Thomas didn’t receive many of the letters his parents and five siblings undoubtedly sent him. He was always close to his family, and this must have been a huge additional pain.

 On March 18, 1944, he wrote, ‘Received Monica and Joyce’s card’s (sic) to-day’. But on August 6, 1944 he again records, ‘We have not heard from anyone lately’. That was the last card of his to make it home. It was increasingly difficult to get mail through the American submarine blockade, and some internees suspected the Japanese didn’t always try.

George Gerrard recorded nothing in his diary for Evelina’s thirty first birthday, July 10, but there’s a revealing entry made by Raymond Jones for that day:

Squally…No rations arrived today…weather cleared somewhat. Food situation getting rather tight. Japs issued 150lbs. beans in lieu of veg. etc. which works out at about 1 oz per head for 24 hrs. Black-out off.

On January 31, 1944, Stanley was handed from civilian to military control and officially renamed the Military Internment Camp. On January 28 the incoming military authorities stopped the flour ration of 4.22 ozs. and replaced it with the same amount of  rice: [11] this directly affected Thomas, as now he and the other bakers had to try to make as tasty a rice bread as possible:

After flour finished in the Camp we made a substitute bread from rice flour (ground in the Camp on Stone Mills).

They had some success in responding to gthe absence of flour, as Barbara Anslow testifies:

When the flour ration stopped, the kitchen staff ground dry rice into flour and made it into bread, we had one slice each a day and learned to love it as it had a slightly nutty flavour.[12]

On January 31 a parade was held to mark the transfer of Stanley Camp to military control. The army don’t seem to have taken actual control until August 1,[13] but there were still some hopes earlier in the year of an improvement in conditions as a result of the change. In his entry for February 13 Gerrard notes that that the quality of the vegetables has been slightly better and that fish is coming in every day, although the beef supply has ended, and he still feels that ‘the loss of the flour for bread is a serious business for us’. On 26 March he reported a new scale of rations, which was causing him some trouble as block quartermaster, as there were now 5 categories, with more food going to workers – ‘light’ like Gerrard himself in category 4 and ‘heavy’ in category 5.

One of the unexpected consequences of the new scales was a decline in interest in the Camp’s lively adult education system: more people now wanted to work and not study so they could draw the top categories of rations! Evelina didn’t work in Camp – except informally through a welfare group called Catholic Action, which I‘ll discuss in a future post, so she would probably have drawn category 3 rations (‘ordinary’) while Thomas would have qualified for category 4 or 5.

In spite of the continuing absence of meat, Gerrard feels things are getting better:

(T)he authorities are giving us good quantities of vegetables but small quantities of fish. Generally a lot of us have improved in weight and I have gained several pounds already

That’s what he wrote on March 26, but by July 9, the day before Evelina’s birthday, he’d become disillusioned:

 Food has not improved at all, what we are getting is sprats the cheapest from of fish…pumpkins, green marrow, water spinach and a little sweet potatoes, in other words ALL WATER.

Raymond Jones entry (cited above) for July 10 shows that the internees didn’t always get the emargre fare that they were theoretically entitled to, and Jones recorded some precise figures on the day after Evelina’s birthday:

Fish .96 oz. Veg (nil food value) 8.5 oz. per head daily. 

The only serious typhoon in the Camp’s history passed to the south of Stanley on July 22, 1944, leaving the internees’ vegetable gardens in a rather sorry state.[14] With this damage to their dwindling food supplies still being felt, the internees awaited the arrival of the military personnel to actually take charge of the Camp with some trepidation. People wondered if it would make things better or worse. The pessimists soon seemed vindicated: an order was issued to the effect that rice weighing would no longer take account of sacks. This meant an effective cut of about 5% in a daily ration that didn’t always reach its theoretical level of 12 ounces.[15] But two days later came support for the beleaguered troop of optimists: good quantities of sweet potatoes, yams and pumpkins were sent into Stanley.[16] At the same time, the new Camp boss, Hara, announced a reorganisation of the ‘gardening’ system and was soon planning an expansion of the poultry farm.[17] It does seem that the new administration was genuinely concerned to improve the food situation of the internees, but by the summer of 1944 the Japanese position in the war was such that this wasn’t really possible.

As early as August 6 George Gerrard, who, as a quartermaster was in a better position to judge than most, had come to a clear conclusion:

The new regime is a washout and we are kept hanging around for all hours waiting on the arrival of the van with rations, they often arrive so late as to be impossible to cook for that evening’s meal….

Jones’s entry for Sunday, August 20 is close to desperate:

Water only on 6-8 a.m. and 4-6 p.m. Fire wood reduced by 20%. We are reduced to a stage (sic – for ‘state’) of siege almost. The whole Camp cooking to be reorganized. We get Congee at 10 a.m. a meal at 5 p.m. & 4oz. dry rice….No papers…We are back to the early 1942 days again.

Congee was watery rice; the ‘early 1942 days’ were at the end of January when the Camp had not yet been properly organised.

In August the Camp’s electricity supply stopped, and there were general problems throughout Hong Kong. Eventually some power was provided, but anything like normal service was never resumed.

But when all seemed lost, the internees had one of their few pleasant surprises: the problems with the electricity supply meant that some frozen pheasants and partridges that would otherwise have gone rotten began to be sent in. Jones records the first consignment on August 21. Sometimes it was only one bird between 17 people,[18] but for the meat-starved Stanleyites manna – and on August 26 Jones records that they had half a partridge each, ‘lovely and succulent’.

This was a happy interlude in the story of gradually declining conditions. The decline was to continue in September, although there was to be more good cheer too, both for the Camp as a whole and the inhabitants of Bungalow D in particular.


[4] Jean Gittins, Stanley: Behind Barbed Wire, 1982, 143-144.

[5] Oliver Lindsay, At the Going Down of the Sun, 1982, 125.

[6] George Wright-Nooth, Prisoners of the Turnip Heads, 1994, 199 181.

[7] John Stericker, A Tear for the Dragon, 1958, 180.

[8] Or at least difficult. I’ll discuss one remarkable refusal to accept defeat in a future post.

[9] Laura Ziegler’s speech on returning to theUSA can be read by members of the Yahoo Stanley Group.

[10] See

[11] Jones diary; Thomas gave the date for this as January 29, but he was writing in 1946, so I prefer Jones’s contemporary dating – see  T. H. Edgar, Unpublished version of ‘We Baked Bread To Japanese Orders’, viewable at documents; for the substitution of rice, see the Gerrard diary, entry for January 30, 1944. .

[13] Wright-Nooth, 207.

[14] Jones diary; Geoffrey Emerson, Hong Kong Internment, 1973, 98.

[15] Wright-Nooth, 207.

[16] Wright-Nooth, 207.

[17] Wright-Nooth, 208.

[18] Emerson, 98.

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1944 (2): Thomas’s birthday – In Praise of Illusion

Note: the diaries of Raymond Jones and George Gerrard are available to members of the Yahoo Stanley Group:

The Jones diary and the diary of Barbara Anslow (with moden annotations), an extremely important historical source, are being published day-by-day at Gwulo:

Ever since Freud western culture has tended to regard unblinking honesty about one’s self and one’s prospects as a good thing. Baby Boomers like me have added to that an emphasis on ‘living in the present’ – something that came to us through a confluence of eastern religions, particularly Zen, and western psychotherapy, particularly Gestalt, whose leading figure Fritz Perls never tired of exhorting people to live in the ‘here and now’.


Image: Wikimedia

One of the values of historical study is that it enables us to enter into the circumstances and mental world of people in other times, and plunging into the dark world’s fire of Stanley Camp in 1944 makes me realise how valuable it can be to deceive yourself and to keep off your mind off the present. Early into her experience of occupied Hong Kong Emily Hahn had learnt that about some things ‘it was better not to try to realise what had happened’. For example, if you are living in a world from which law and order has disappeared, ‘Perhaps it’s just as well that one doesn’t realize it at the time.’[1] Self-deceit has great survival value when one’s circumstances might easily lead to despair and loss of the will to live.

If 1943 was about the fear created by Kempeitai operations all over occupied Hong Kong, 1944 was about the hard business of surviving deteriorating conditions[3] – paradoxically caused by the US submarine blockade and the bombing ofHong Kong that began in late October 1942 and proved a wonderful morale booster for the internees.

Most internees made an effort to celebrate their own and their friends’ anniversaries.[4]  It relived the monotony of days that otherwise seemed interminably like each other, and provided an earnest of the Stanleyites determination to maintain the decencies of civilised life in indecent and uncivilised conditions.  Thomas’s birthday was on May 5 – his real birthday. He had falsified his birth certificate to get the job with the Lane, Crawford[5] bakery, claiming to have been born on May 3, 1909. It’s easy to see why he should have wanted to seem three years older when he applied for such a senior position,[6] and no doubt he invented some suitable experience to fill those years: he did many different jobs in 1930s England and Scotland, but it’s not recorded that he ever managed a bakery! The change from the 5th to the 3rd is a mystery; it might have had something to do with the mechanics of the forgery.

The day of Thomas’s thirty-second birthday was a fine one. One of his pre-war acquaintances, the colony hangman R. E. Jones, recorded this in his diary and other details that help us understand the nature of the internees’ ordeal and how they survived it:

 Many rumours re repat.,{repatriation} parcels, Second front going around, all untrue it seems….sat on roof pm. Much thought of Frau, food & future as usual.

The Stanleyites were kept sane by their hopes for the future, their memories of the past and their illusions about their prospects. Raymond Jones did not keep his mind focused on the present but allowed it to play back good times in the past and anticipate their return in the future. How much wiser he was than the ‘be here now’ merchants whose superficial nostrums have so influenced ‘my generation’! He was forced to mobilise the full resources of his self for psychic survival and whatever he and his fellow internees did it worked: Franklin Gimson, the internees’ leader might have underplayed the extent of ‘mental illness’ in Camp, but he’s certainly right that what was notable was not its presence but its rarity.[7] This is not to idealise the internees, of course: there was plenty of mean-spiritedness, self-destructive behaviour, petty squabbling, and pointless sabotage of the mental well-being of others. That’s not where’d I’d put my emphasis though.

Let’s take a closer look at his illusions.

Repatriation as part of an exchange of prisoners had been one of Stanleyites’ dreams from almost the moment they arrived in Camp in the third week of January 1942. The fact that this actually happened to the Americans and Canadians (June 29/30, 1942 and September 22/23, 1943 respectively) only made the remaining nationals (mostly British) all the more convinced that their turn would come. It might have done, at least for some women, the children and the elderly, but negotiations always failed, for reasons that don’t concern us here. Sometimes the rumours had substance, and preparations were actually made to select those who would ‘sail away’ (as the Camp anthem had it); sometimes they were groundless, but at all times they helped keep the morale of the internees higher than it would otherwise have been. Such rumours persisted well into 1945, a time when I doubt that prisoner exchange was on the minds of either the British or the Japanese governments.

‘Parcels’ were Red Cross parcels – the internees only got one in each year of their confinement. Those parcels were good ones, though, packed full of the tasty and nutritious foods that most internees had little chance of acquiring for themselves, and they certainly saved some people from dying before liberation: after the parcel of 1942 the average internee put on weight for five months, a near mircale given the rations provided![8] The days after a parcel were good times for the internees; people grumbled, as they always did, but really almost everyone was happy. And even when there was no parcel on the horizon, rumours and dreams were at least better than facing the squalid realities of slow starvation. The rumours of May 5 were groundless: the next parcel wasn’t distributed until September 14, which was probably the best day of 1944 for Thomas and Evelina. I’ll write about it in my next post, and about the remarkable man who probably handed it to them.

A surprising percentage of R. E. Jones’s diary is given over to war news, some of it from Japanese sources, some from Chinese papers, some from rumours. In the early days there were radios operating in Camp, so probably some of it came from the BBC. Almost all of it is inaccurate, though, and nearly always because it exaggerates Allied successes.

Such illusory war news was another thing that kept the internees from sinking into despair. The second front was only a month away, and the Jones May 5 rumour was one of the more accurate ones by Camp standards. These rumours were another thing that had begun almost as the internees got off the boats that delivered them to Stanley Pier, many people genuinely believing that Churchill had promised Hong Kong would be retaken in three months (just as many of them had believed that Hong Kong would be saved from the Japanese by a Chinese army fighting its way down from Canton). In fact, it’s been claimed that some internees spent the entire war expecting that the end would come within three months!

As Camp Secretary John Stericker put it:

News was meat and drink to us. Whether true or false, as long as it was good, we lapped it up.[9]

In some periods at least ‘news’ and rumours’ were both pretty well synonymous with ‘inaccurate reports of Allied victories’! Early in his internment – April 15, 1942, when the Germans were renewing their assault and the Japanese advance through the south Pacific had not yet been checked – Jones decided that raising his hopes at the thought of imminent Allied victory was counterproductive:

Have resigned myself to a longer wait & refuse to let our so called news influence me.[10]

He’d recently recorded that the Russians were in Warsaw (which they didn’t capture until September 1944) and wondered if the Malayan battles were ‘progressing in our favour?’ (as far as I can make out there weren’t any as the Allies had long since capitulated). It’s easy to see why he became disillusioned. With heroic resolution, he records no news the next day. But on April 17 normal service is resumed:

…33% Jap Navy & 60% convoys lost

…a figure he seems to have believed emanated from President Roosevelt himself.

To a post-war reader – even one as obsessed with the minutiae of life in Stanley as me – it’s rather tedious working through the roughly one third of the diary devoted to inaccurate accounts of Allied progress. But then I remember why Raymond Jones (and other diarists) bothered to expend their dwindling energy and to brave the probably hideous consequences of discovery to write down accounts of imaginary victories.

Candace Pert’s book Molecules of Emotion (1999) made widely known her 1973 discovery that our bodies produce their own opiates – endorphins – in response to pain. Most people have come across this in relation to phenomena like ‘joggers high’, but it’s been established that it’s not just exercise that produces endorphins: ideas do too, and the well-known eighties pop group Tears For Fears produced a song called ‘Ideas as Opiates’ (1982), having picked up the concept from the Californian psychologist Arthur Janov. It’s never been proved but I’m willing to bet that writing down items of news that would affect one’s life significantly for the better in the unlikely event of their being true produces a decent-sized shot of mood-lifting endorphins. Raymond Jones knew what he was doing when, taking care to avoid the attention of the guards, he included details of the latest war rumours in the brief notes he made of each day’s events.

Novelist John Lanchester had two grandparents in Stanley: Jack, the Camp dentist, and his wife, usually known as Lannie. Lanchester’s speculations about the role of hope in such an imprisonment sound plausible:

And hope is a problem too {as well as happy memories} – perhaps even more of one. Prisoners need to think that they will one day be free; but if the hopes become too specific and too short term, they are easily crushed. That crushing can swiftly turn to fatal depression. So prisoners learn to be very, very careful with their hopes – they ration them, nurture them, fuss over them, deny their existence, even to themselves. Hope becomes a hypersensitive plant or private religion.[11]

In fact, although this was certainly true of some internees, it wasn’t, as far as my research goes, the case with the majority. There was nothing private about the religion of hope in Stanley,  little rationing (we’ve seen the failure of Jones’s attempt at self-denial), and the internees showed a splendid inability to draw the obvious conclusion from their frequent disappointments. And most of them had no trouble believing extremely specific and sometimes extremely short-term rumours:  on November 29, 1943, for example, Jones reported the news that parcels were in town and that everyone would, in any case, be repatriated before the end of the year, while George Gerrard begins to expect the surrender of Germany and re-union with his wife ‘very soon’ in the first week of February, 1943 (his diary doesn’t start until January 12, 1943!).

Deluding themselves that repatriation was close, another parcel about to be issued, Gerany on the brink of collapse – these things kept the internees sane. The only other things that they could fantasize about were letters from home, or parcels from Chinese or neutral friends in town, and these came to individuals not the Camp as a whole, and it was hard to interest other people in your prospects of imminently receiving a letter from your spouse or a goody bag from an old friend. Not that private rituals of hope didn’t exist – Gerrard often expresses his longing for another letter from his wife – but, pace Lanchester, they weren’t nearly as useful psychically as public ones. Sharing rumours was a major and morale-boosting form of socialising, and, as we’ve seen, everybody left with a very literal infusion of opiates to the brain.

Barbara Anslow, a former internee who has added an immense amount to knowledge of Stanley, puts it like this:

News and rumours were the very essence of life.[12]

As Thomas celebrated – if that’s the right word – his birthday on the fifth day of May in that long, hard year 1944, I hope he spent some time deluding himself that with the Second Front now established, the Germans would be out of the war by Evelina’s anniversary (July 10) and the whole thing would be over by Christmas.

[1] Emily Hahn, China To Me, 1986 ed., 300, 301.

[4] See

[5] This was the correct pre-war form, although Lane Crawford and Lane Crawford’s are also found.

[8] Geoffrey Emerson, Hong Kong Internment, 2007, Kindle edition, Location 2464.

[9] John Stericker, A Tear for the Dragon, 1958, 177.

[10] April 15, 1942.

[11] John Lanchester, Family Romance, 2007, 191.


Filed under Hong Kong WW11, Stanley Camp

1944 (1): Towards Breakdown

How very long internment was, and how very hard.

 When Brian was young he asked his father how long he’d been held prisoner by the Japanese – three days?  a week? maybe even as much as ten days? That was as long as he could conceive something unpleasant going on. Ten days would be horrible. Thomas was angry; at some level he must have understood his son ‘s  problem grasping time periods, but, as usually happened when he spoke about the war a deep fury welled up as he gave the real figure of  three years and eight months.

 To be precise, Japanese rule meant Thomas spent a month in the Exchange Building, under the humane control of Captain Tanaka, fifteen months in the French Hospital, probably tolerable enough at first, especially after June 29, 1942 when Evelina came to join him, but then involving increasing levels of deprivation and fear, as the food situation in Hong Kong deteriorated and the Japanese gendarmes launched a ‘reign of terror’ to try to break the Allied resistance movement. This culminated in the terrifying ‘lock down’ of May 2 to May 7, 1943[1] after which Thomas and Evelina were sent into Stanley for over two years of hunger, cramped living and renewed anxiety.

 1944 was their first full year in Camp.

 The terrors of 1943 took some time to die down. According to a retrospective in the China Mail for December 25, 1945, Christmas 1943 was darkened by the Kempeitai reign of terror for both the POWs and the civilians inStanley. It was even worse, the paper reminded its readers, for those unfortunates who the ‘reign’ had put in Stanley Prison, although they might at least count themselves lucky not to have been amongst the party taken down to Stanley Beach to be executed on October 29.

 In January and February 1944 Andrew Leiper and two other bankers joined these prisoners.[2] This must have worried Thomas a great deal: Leiper was almost certainly living in the next Bungalow (E) and through his friendship with Mrs. Hyde[3] he would have been in touch with the banking community. Besides, news of any significant development spread round the Camp in minutes.[4] The bankers were arrested, brutally interrogated and imprisoned for actions taken during the 17 days of fighting and the period when they, like Thomas, had been living ‘in town’– if Camp gossip reported these facts correctly it would have served as a grim reminder to him that he could never consider himself safe.

 But the fears of 1943 did die down eventually. One indication of this is that the Masonic Lodges – Thomas was a member of Eastern Scotia- which had ceased to meet in June 1943 to avoid arousing suspicion started to gather again in January 1945.[5] Andrew Leiper put it succinctly: everyone in occupied Hong Kong, whatever nationality and wherever they were living, feared two things – arrest by the Kempeitai and slowly dying of starvation.[6] As the one anxiety receded, the other came to the fore.

 1944 was a year full of hunger crisis, and constantly disappointed hopes. As it came to an end, the hardest winter in recent Hong Konghistory set in and the fuel to power electricity ran out. The Camp’s very existence was threatened when the water supply was discontinued on November 11: Gimson even suggested to the Japanese that Stanley Camp be abandoned. George Wright-Nooth claimed that this cutting off of water could have been ‘perhaps the greatest crisis of our internment’. After some exploration, helped by divination, water was struck and a well sunk. [7]  The Japanese, who responded reasonably well to the crisis, sent in two pints of water a day henceforth, although there was much doubt as to whether this was properly bolied and chlorinated as claimed. (G. B.  Endacott, and Alan Birch, Hong Kong Eclipse, 1978, 202).

At the same time the rations sent in by the Japanese looked as if they might one day dwindle to nothing.

 Rations varied at different times in 1944, sometimes within the same week. At first some internees were optimistic about the improvements that seemed to follow the Camp’s transfer from civilian to army control in January, when it was renamed ‘the Military Internment Camp’. But as the year wore on the internees were living on about an ounce of fish a day (1944 was basically a meatless year), 11 ozs of vegetables (most of it watery and fibre-filled marrow), 12.5 ozs of low quality rice, 0.4 ozs of peanut oil, and monthly issues of beans, sugar, salt, tea and curry powder.[8] Complaints to the Commandant were met with charges of ingratitude, and the statement that he didn’t care of they starved, died or both. Soon even the fish disappeared, although the rice ration was raised to 16 ozs.[9] It was now that the black market, which had existed from almost the start of the Camp, came into its own. Thomas and Evelina sold their watches and even their engagement ring to buy food,[10] and even those internees who had held on to such precious items usually had to let them go as the battle for survival became desperate.

 Camp Secretary John Stericker sums up:

 In the long winter of 1944-45 we sat in the dark after 5.30 p. m. onwards. Water had to be carried from a distant well which often ran dry. In fact we now had no meat, fish, bread, flour, electricity or mains water.[11]

By January 1945 it must have seemed to any well-balanced and realistic observer, that more or less the entire British community of old Hong Kong was probably going to be wiped out, leaving only a small number of widows – the women who had been sent to Australia under the 1940 evacuation scheme.

Thomas and his fellow internees in Stanley were sick, emaciated and ragged ghosts of their former selves. Thomas’s old friend Charles (‘Chuckie’) Sloan had been sent to Japan to work on starvation rations at Nagoya Camp.[12] The Volunteers left behind in Shamshuipo were in roughly the same state as their civilian wives and friends in Stanley. Only Charles’ wife Jean was safe, at the price of a traumatic evacuation to Australia with only those possessions she could carry.

 So desperate did things become in Stanley that urbane businessman John Stericker, writing years later, contemplated with equanimity the fact that some internees had broken one of the ultimate western taboos:

 I am told since that the excellent tins of fat {sent into Stanley from friends outside} were often human fat. I recommend it. We were literally starving.[13]

 The internees were caught in a grim paradox: the better the war was going, the lower the volume of supplies that came into Hong Kong and the worse their conditions became. The greatest treat for the suffering denizens of Stanley Camp was to see and hear American planes pounding the town; the air raids were destroying the economic infrastructure on which their lives depended.

Given the terrible situation at the year’s end one might have expected to find the Camp sunk in a trough of depression. How moving it still is, so many years later, to read the entry that R. E. Jones – one of  Thomas’s pre-war acquaintances – made in his diary for the first day of 1945:

 Quite a few saw the New Year in, bells were rung & Auld Lang Syne sung. Everyone full of optimism!

[4] Allana Corbin, Prisoners of the East, 2002, 236.

[5] Geoffrey Emerson, Hong Kong Internment, Kindle Edition, Location 4444.

[6]  Leiper, 169-170

[7] George Wright-Nooth, Prisoner of the Turnip Heads, 1994, 208.

[8] John Stericker, A Tear for the Dragon, 1958, 169.

[9] Stericker, 1968, 170.

[11] Stericker, 1958, 170


Filed under Hong Kong WW11, Stanley Camp