Selwyn-Clarke’s Arrest Revisited

May 2, 1943 was probably the darkest day in Thomas and Evelina’s life. Early on that Sunday morning the dreaded Kempeitai – ‘the Japanese Gestapo’ – came knocking on the door of the French Hospital. They took away Selwyn Selwyn-Clarke, two other British doctors and a number of Chinese ones;[1] they were convinced – wrongly – that Selwyn-Clarke’s medical organisation was a front for a military spy ring. It’s also probable that Alexander Christie Sinton, another of the small group of men who’d stayed outside Stanley to perform important public health tasks, was arrested on that occasion – Sinton had been sending secret messages and probably drugs into Stanley, and it was this kind of activity, illegal in Japanese eyes but of no military significance, that Selwyn-Clarke and those working with him had really been engaged in.

 Sinton was to be executed on October 29, 1943, and Selwyn-Clarke was taken away to face prolonged torture during which he steadfastly refused to give his tormentors a single name of all those who’d helped him in his humanitarian smuggling.

 Public Health worker Leslie Macey was one of those in the French Hospital that morning:

 (O)ne Sunday morning early in May 1943, the Gendarmes swooped down on us, arrested several and the remainder were sent to the internment camp at Stanley where the other H.K. civilians had been interned since the occupation.[2]

Showing great consideration for his family, Mr. Macey doesn’t tell the full story. For five days or so after the arrests, he, Thomas, Evelina and about 15 other men and women were locked in the French Hospitalwhile the Japanese searched for evidence of spying. It’s hard to imagine a more terrifying situation. Everyone knew what being arrested by the Kempeitai meant, and at any moment something suspicious might be found, Selwyn-Clarke or one of the others might crack, or the Gendarmes  might just decide to torture all the foreigners until they told the truth (they really did believe the French Hospital harboured a British spy ring).

 May 2, 1943 was one of the most important days not just in the lives of Thomas and Evelina but in the story of civilian Hong Kong during the war. Sadly there’s not much information about it in those sources that are readily available in print and on the internet (and I doubt that there’s much in the archives that will add significantly to our knowledge, althoug h I will be exploring these in due course). Even the answer to the most basic question remains uncertain: what brought the Kempeitai to the  French Hospital on that day in particular?

 In a previous post[3] I argued for a version of the theory implied by Emily Hahn’s account:[4] there was no specific reason for the timing beyond the fact that Colonel Eguchi, the Japanese Medical Officer and Selwyn-Clarke’s protector, had left Hong Kong less than a week before. Hahn isn’t always completely reliable about timings, but she seems to have been the subject of a rough attempt at seduction (or even abduction) by Eguchi, who got very drunk at his farewell party, so, even though she was avoiding him, she probably did know exactly when he left Hong Kong.[5] So I accepted the position that the Kempeitai came knocking because they’d long suspected Selwyn-Clarke was the leading British spy in Hong Kong and now there was no reason not to act on those suspicions. Certainly none of the theories stated or implied by other writers – that it was something to do with the plot to free Indian prisoners that led to Charles Hyde’s downfall, or that it somehow followed on from the arrest of Dr. Talbot for smuggling money into Stanley – seemed to me to have much credibility. But I’ve now come across a much better theory as to the reason behind the arrest; it’s both plausible in itself and seems to come ultimately from Selwyn-Clarke himself. It’s in the book Captive Surgeon in Hong Kong by Donald Bowie

 (C)onditions became very hard in 1942 for his {Selwyn-Clarke’s} subordinates who were still working to improve the health conditions generally. When some of these had been reduced to burning their own furniture for fuel and had been forbidden to draw funds from their banks a number sought permission to leave the Colony and seek a life in Chinese mainland villages. Selwyn-Clarke had power to sign recommendations for permission to leave in the case of those who had served directly under him before and during hostilities. He suspected that one man severely wounded during the fighting, in whose case he had very slightly stretched the facts in his certificate because of his deep sympathy with his plight, was detected and stopped by the Japanese on his way to China. He was intensively questioned and eventually broke down and gave the answers his questioners wanted, answers relating to Selwyn- Clarke’s alleged spying activities which were quite untrue. Selwyn-Clarke was an upright man who would never break his word even to the Japanese occupiers and he told me subsequently that in the case of the certificate he gave to the man he suspects was immediately responsible for his arrest, this was the only occasion in his life that he had ever compromised on a matter of principle.[6]

 Selwyn-Clarke obviously told Major Bowie this after the war, which he unexpectedly survived after having lived many months under sentence of death. Although the account was only what he ‘suspected’ it does seem credible in that the ‘trail’ involves things he was actually doing – he would never have taken part in a plot with military implications like the one to free Captain Ansari, and he had no role of any kind in the Talbot money smuggling case.

 But even this account, which in any case only reflects what Selwyn-Clarke ‘suspected’, leaves two big questions unanswered.

 Frederick Bunje, a well-established Hong Kong doctor, Murdo Nicholson and a number of their Chinese colleagues were also arrested that day. Surely they can’t all have been incriminated by the same man or in the same week? The Kempeitai did not arrest a number of other doctors: one of them, Dr. Court, was, in fact, in touch with the BAAG, the British resistance movement inHong Kong. (The other two were Dr. Graham-Cumming, who’s documented in Stanley, and Dr. Griffith, who I’ve not so far found on a camp roll or any other document.) This means they must have had specific evidence against Bunje and Nicholson (Bunje was eventually given a prison sentence while Nicholson at some point was sent into Stanley).

 Secondly, was it just co-incidence that the Kempeitai had the opportunity of extracting a ‘confession’ almost the moment Colonel Eguchi left Hong Kong? They had, after all, been trying since February 1943 (at the latest) without any result.[7]

 Putting all this together my current position, which is not at all satisfactory because not supported by positive documentary evidence but which at least suggests answers to these two questions, is this: the Kempeitai had been gathering evidence – both genuine ‘leads’ and extracted confessions – for some time before Eguchi’s departure. This evidence related to a number of those in the French Hospital they suspected of spying. They held onto to it until the Colonel was safely out of Hong Kong and then swooped on all those who they believed guilty at the same time. The testimony of the former employee Selwyn-Clarke had helped by bending the truth a little was not the only piece of evidence against those arrested nor was it necessarily gathered in the few days between Eguchi leaving and May 2.

 In any case, Thomas, Evelina, their colleagues in the French Hospital, and many other people scattered around Hong Kong, owed an incalculable debt to the unimaginable fortitude of this one man.


[1] British Army Aid Group report, cited in Tony Banham, We Shall Suffer There, entry for June 7, 1943.

[2] Letter to his mother of September 3, 1945, kindly sent to me by Ruth Sale (Leslie Macey’s daughter).

[4] China To Me, 1986 ed., 404.

[5] China To Me, 1986 ed., 402-404.

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2 responses to “Selwyn-Clarke’s Arrest Revisited

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

  2. Pingback: The French Hospital Arrests: A Synthesis Of Sources | The Dark World's Fire: Tom and Lena Edgar in War

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