Final Massacre (3): Fears in Stanley

In previous posts I’ve discussed the fear of a final massacre that existed in all of the Far Eastern POW and internee camps as the war drew to a close. In this post I want to discuss this fear as it existed in Stanley.

 In fact, the idea that the Japanese might one day spare themselves the burden of feeding and guarding the prisoners by killing them didn’t have to wait until 1944 or 1945 – it occurred to some people at least even before the fighting was over:

 One day we were ordered to march outside and congregate in the compound. We’d heard that mass executions had already taken place at other internment facilities, and no explanation had been given for this assembly. Were our lives about to be ended, too?[1]

In fact, they’d been summoned to witness the humiliation of a group of Canadian soldiers marching into captivity.

The same fear existed from the very start of the internees lives in Stanley. On Saturday, February 14, 1942, less than one month after arriving in Camp, Barbara Anslow recorded in her diary:

Morning off from work, but had to spend it all being searched at Stephen’s Prep. School grounds by the sea

 Years later she provided this explanation:

 Japs got us all lined up, near where we first landed in Stanley.  There were armed soldiers all round us. We wondered if we were to be massacred, or sent off somewhere.  In fact, Japs used our absence to search through all the accommodation, presumably looking for wireless sets, weapons etc….[2]

Barbara Anslow describes a general search; Edith Hamson from Bungalow A tells us about an ordeal that seems to have been limited to the Bungalow dwellers:

 (T)here armed guards stormed into our room. They were fearfully angry and ordered us outside…I wondered what was in store for us. I tried to make sense of the events developing around us, but my thoughts were becoming irrational from fear.[3]

 The inhabitants of Bungalow A and the other Bungalows are driven into a valley, where, surrounded by grim-faced guards, they’re told to stand and wait. Some women start shrieking ‘Lord, have mercy!’:

 I looked up, and appearing on the hills around us were more guards, armed with larger guns mounted on tripods. They were pointing straight at us. Some people became hysterical, others began to cry, almost everyone was praying…I felt we’d been condemned without committing any crime. Was this to be a senseless mass execution? Would we be buried in a mass grave? We braced ourselves, expecting the worst, expecting to be showered with bullets at any moment, but nothing happened. Every second was agonising. If this was to be our end, let it happen.[4]

 After hours standing in the hot sun, they returned to their bungalow to find it’d been thoroughly searched. On Thursday, November 4, 1943 diarist R. E. Jones wrote ‘Bungalows being searched?’ and perhaps that was the day on which the Hamsons’ terrifying experience took place.

 If the fear existed from the very start, some people were at least able to turn it to good purpose:

‘As we might have been machine-gunned down at any time,’ recalled one interviewee, ‘we had the nerve to do things we’d never attempt normally…The freedom from pressure to behave in a modest and responsible way, to be for  a brief moment whatever they wanted, was a memorable, liberating experience for many of these women.[5]

There’s no doubt that the anxiety intensified as the war drew to a close: some internees believed, as did Thomas and Evelina, that the massacre would take place when the Allies landed on one of the main Japanese islands,[6] others expected it when the occupiers needed all their forces to defend Hong Kong against attack. Many, no doubt, thought that it would be triggered by whichever of these events happened first.

We know that the internee ‘government’ made plans to feed and shelter themselves during an Allied attempt to retake the colony. Food was stored, air raid tunnels dug, trench latrines allocated for disposal of bodies, and so on.[7] I’ve never seen any mention of plans to resist a final massacre but I believe they must have existed. On the final page of a hand-written introduction to the typescript of his camp diary internee leader Franklin Gimson wrote:

Secret plans were formed to meet any contingency which was thought might arise when the Japanese were forced to evacuate Hong Kong….(I)f hostilities had again broken out in the island, the fate of the internees was one on which it would have been morbid to contemplate.[8]

 In spite of what this passage might seem to suggest, I’m certain that Gimson, a man of huge courage and an unswerving sense of his obligations as the senior British official left in Hong Kong, was not put off from doing his clear duty by the fear of falling into a morbid train of thought! The massacres that occurred at the end of the Hong Kong fighting – one of the worst was in the territory of what was to become Stanley Camp – hung over the internees and made them realise what might happen to them if the fighting was renewed,[9] but they also showed how difficult it is to kill large numbers of people outdoors without leaving at least a few survivors. It was Gimson’s duty to ask someone with a military or police background to draw up plans to maximise the number of escapees – if only, as in the case of Bandoeng POW Camp[10] so that the story of what had happened to the men and women of Stanley Camp could go out to the world carried in as many hearts and minds as possible. Any plans for resistance would, of course, have been highly secret, as success, even of the modest kind envisaged here, depended on the Japanese being taken by surprise. I think we get a few glimpses of such preparations.

 The Camp was full of live ammunition left over from the bitter fighting that had taken place on the Stanley Peninsula in December 1941, and there were more subsantial items than bullets lying around too; on November 11, prison officer R. E. Jones risked his life by slipping through the barbed wire to retrieve a gun.[11] This was probably the special mission given him the day before by the Commissioner of Prisons,  J. L. Wilcocks. This gun might have been to help in future escapes, although none actually took place, but it seems likely that such weapons – and there was at least one other gun in Camp[12] – featured in the plans for a desperate resistance to any attempt to massacre the internees, especially as it seems that the Stanley ‘armourers’ were also collecting hand grenades and machine gun bullets, which were unlikely to feature in escape plans.[13]

 In any case, some internees felt that evasion was the best option in the event of impending mass doom and looked for places where they could hide in the event of an attempt to round-up the internees:

 There was also in the back of the minds of most of us what would happen in the event of a land attack on the Colony. We were sure that the Japanese would without hesitation, qualms or remorse try to exterminate all of us in the various camps. We in the mess did look around for possible places to hide. The choice was not great.[14]

 In the early spring of 1945 there came a development that ratcheted up the fear:

 We observed the activities of Japanese working parties on the nearby hillsides where they were building what appeared to be gun emplacements. From their position, the camp experts declared, they could only take guns which faced our location. Although others scoffed at this, there was the uneasy thought that our captors just might intend to wipe us all out if an attack came.[15]

 We know from George Gerrard’s diary that such work was going on in late March 1945:

 The Japs are preparing funk[16] holes or machine gun nests all along the coast covering the beaches in the event of an attack or a landing….Blasting into the rocks goes on all night and day[17]

The sound of these preparations, also recorded by R. E. Jones, made a sinister backdrop as March came to an end. The starving, ragged internees, half-demoralised by three and a half years of confinement in overcrowded conditions, faced an intensified terror.

 Thomas and Evelina, like so many of the prisoners of the Japanese, believed that their lives were saved only by the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima andNagasaki. Ten days after the dropping of the first bomb, news of the surrender was confirmed in Stanley, and there was naturally a huge sense of relief:

There had been rumours that we would not be handed over alive by the Japanese but would be taken into caves and machine-gunned. So when we heard that Japan had capitulated there was a great sense of relief, as well as a feeling of some incredulity.[18]

But the fear didn’t come to a complete end with the sudden Japanese surrender in mid-August.

Barbara Anslow writes:

{There was an} agonising 2 week gap in Stanley from the day we were told the war was over until the arrival of the British Fleet.   Those 2 weeks seemed to go on forever, and we couldn’t help wondering if the war really was over, and what would happen to us if the ‘surrender’ was suddenly revoked…[19]

Hong Kong policeman Norman Gunning had heard rumours that the Japanese were going to kill all the internees when the Allies ‘set foot on Japanese soil’, and he also refers to the ‘extremely tense and anxious days’ between surrender and the arrival of  Rear Admiral Harcourt’s fleet on August 30.[20]  Harcourt’s first official act was to drive down to Stanley and visit the internees. Prison Officer Bill Hudson began a long and deeply moving letter to his wife and family while waiting for Harcourt to arrive:

 My Darlings,

 I don’t know how to start this letter, I have so much to say – and I want to say it all at once.  Well my Sweethearts – thank the Lord we have pulled through successfully.  I never for one moment thought we would lose the War, but I had a horrid feeling they would do something to us.[21] 

Even now he can’t bear to spell out the terrible outcome he feared. Perhaps Mr. Hudson’s mind would have been even more uneasy if he’d known that Harcourt was about to make an initial landing with only 550 men![22]

 On arrival at Stanley, Harcourt presided over a ceremony in which the flag of every nation represented in camp was raised. The war really was over, although for the time being most of the internees were told to stay in camp for their own safety. Eeventually, they would stagger back into the world of freedom and responsibility outside Stanley, carrying with them a vivid and ineradicable memory of everything they’d experienced during their internment. Perhaps ‘memory’ is the wrong word: it implies a relegation of its content to a past that’s over and done with, and it puts the focus on things that actually happened. But few  situations in the unfolding of post-war life could ever have been as real and as encompassing as those fears of something that actually never took place, a final massacre of everyone in Stanley Camp.

[1] Allana Corbin, Prisoners of the East, 2002, 111.

[4] Corbin, 191-192.

[5] Bernice Archer, The Internment of Western Civilians Under The Japanese 1941-1945: A Patchwork of Internment,  2004,  136-137.

[7] George Gerrard’s diary is a good source for these preparations. It’s available to members of the Yahoo Stanley Group:

[8] Franklin C. Gimson, ‘Re-occupation’, Internment in Hong-kong (sic) March 1942 to August 1945, Rhodes House, Ms. Ind Ocn. S222.

[9]For the effect of the massacre of Australian nurses on Banka Island on the psyches of those who knew about it – there was one survivor – on their own fate, see


[11] Jones diary, November 11, 1942. Gwulo is publishing the diary day by day:

[14] George Wright-Nooth, Prisoner of the Turnip Heads, 1994, 191.

[15] Mabel Redwood, It Was Like This…, 2001, 179.

[16] The transcription reads ‘junk’ but R. E. Jones calls them ‘funk holes’, which was probably the name used by the internees generally. Jean Gittins describes them as ‘shelters and fox holes’ – Stanley: Behind Barbed Wire, 1982, 148.

[17] Gerrard Diary, entry for March 28, 1945.

[18] Mutal Fielder, in Derek Round, Barbed Wire Between Us, 2002, 173.

[20] Norman Gunning, A Passage to Hong Kong, 2009, 155, 158.

[22] China Mail, September 15, 1945, page 4.


Filed under Hong Kong WW11, Stanley Camp

4 responses to “Final Massacre (3): Fears in Stanley

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

  2. richard wilcox

    I have just finished reading Alanna Corbins “Prisoners of the East”. I have lived virtually all my life in Melbourne, Australia. I am 68 years of age, married with 4 children and 7 grandchildren. My father was in the Australian Navy in WW 2, serving in the Pacific. I have had no military experience whatsoever. I am a retired lawyer. I had my first birthday on the day the US Air Force dropped the bomb on Hiroshima on 6 August 1945 !! I found the book “Prisoners of the East” an absolutely fascinating human story. It has made me think a lot. Life is a mixture of luck, faith in God, family, persistence and courage. “There but for the grace of God” comes to mind.

    • Thanks for the comment, Richard.
      Yes, Allana Corbin’s book is excellent. The multi-generational perspectives really work, and, as far as my knowledge goes, it’s the first work to put emotion right at the centre of the experience of war and internment.

  3. Pingback: Ghosts of Stanley, Part 4: Notes from Visits to the Camp Cemetery on January 18 and 21, 2009 | The Dark World's Fire: Tom and Lena Edgar in War

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