Singapore

A bad day. Took 100 men on a party to unload cement into a godown. Nip in charge went mad—bashed an old Chinese woman in the face and threw her down a 20-foot bank into a stinking canal because she swept up a few ounces spilled on the road. … Truly the Eastern mind is hard to understand.

[Adrian Curlewis, 12 December 1942, quoted in Philippa Poole, Of Love and War: The letters and diaries of Captain Adrian Curlewis and his family 1939-1945, Sydney, Lansdowne Press, nd, 169.]

Singapore was one of the most important places at which Allied prisoners of the Japanese were interned during World War II.

When Singapore fell to the Japanese on 15 February 1942 there were some 50 000 British troops on the island, including nearly 15 000 Australians. These were soon forced to march to Changi, the major POW camp established in Selerang barracks at the eastern tip of the island.

Later in the war many other prisoners would pass through the hub of Singapore as they were moved around the Asia–Pacific region by the Japanese to sites in Borneo, Burma, Thailand, Japan and other destinations.

On Singapore Island itself prisoners were distributed from Changi across a number of work sites from as early as 22 February 1942. Their tasks included unloading ships on the wharves of Keppel Harbour, stacking food and merchandise in warehouses (or godowns), levelling bomb shelters, filling shell craters, clearing Allied mine fields in the Mersing Defence Scheme (across the strait in Malaya) and collecting items such as scrap iron for shipment to Japan.

Some 2800 prisoners were employed in erecting a monument to the Japanese and Allied 'fallen warriors' at Bukit Timah, the hill at the centre of the island where the Allied armies made their last defensive stand against the Japanese.

Later in the war the prisoners were also deployed on building an aerodrome and defensive systems, including tunnels, in anticipation of an Allied invasion.

The camps on Singapore—some of whose locations remain evident in place names today—included the Great World, Adam Park, Bukit Timah, Thomson Road, Lornie Road, Serangoon Road, Woodlands, Pasir Pajang, River Valley Road, Havelock Road, Sime Road and Blakang Mati.

Work in these camps was initially welcomed by prisoners. It gave them a freer environment than Changi and offered the chance to steal food, petrol and other commodities which could be traded on the black market. Australians prided themselves on their skill at 'scrounging'. In one incident a Japanese guard challenged the Australians by placing a tin of curried chicken on a table in front of him.

taking one of the Australian's hats and putting it over the tin, [he] said, 'This is what you do', and turned his back, and then turned round again and said, 'And you've stolen the chicken'. He lifted the hat up and to our astonishment and to his, the tin had disappeared.

[Keith Wilson, You'll Never Get off the Island, Sydney. Allen & Unwin, 1989, 55.]

Although the labour was heavy and uninteresting, generally conditions in Singapore camps were better than elsewhere in Asia. Some kind of accommodation, including a bastard lingua franca, was reached with the Japanese, though there was always an element of capricious cruelty. The hours and conditions of work were also not as punishing as at the height of the construction of the Burma-Thailand railway.

However, as the war turned against the Japanese, food and water supplies on Singapore became scarce. The prisoners began to suffer many of the same illnesses experienced in Thailand and Burma. These included beri beri, malaria, dengue fever, tropical ulcers and the tormenting condition of scrotal dermatitis nicknamed 'Changi balls'.

the entire scrotal are became reminiscent of mashed beetroot, accompanied by a quite unendurable itch. On many occasions the medicos were obliged to tie a sufferer's hands behind his back in order to prevent him doing serious damage to himself.

[Keith Wilson, You'll Never Get off the Island, Sydney. Allen & Unwin, 1989, 45.]

Singapore was also home to the notorious Outram Road gaol which the Japanese used to punish anyone—prisoners of war, internees and local people—who breached their regulations. Australians apprehended for having radios and organizing an underground movement at Sandakan, for example, were interned here. Outram Road was a place to be feared. Prisoners, often tortured and kept in claustrophobic solitary confinement, endured profound physical and mental distress. Many died.


Last updated: 17 January 2020

Cite this page

DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) (2020), Singapore, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 17 September 2021, https://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/wars-and-missions/burma-thailand-railway-and-hellfire-pass-1942-1943/locations/australian-prisoners-asia-pacific/singapore
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