After their release from captivity all FEPoWs were supposedly issued with a War Office document entitled To All British Army Ex-Prisoners Of War.1 As the document is dated the 15 September 1945, shortly after VJ Day and several months after the release of prisoners from the European theatre of war it was obviously specifically intended for the use of returning FEPoWs. Confirmation of this appears in the last paragraph of item 2 of the document which states that if you were to remain in the army you ‘will not be returned to the Far East’. Only two FEPoWs I interviewed could recall its existence, but in fact one still possessed the document which set out what an ex-prisoner was entitled to, and also what he may and may not do on his repatriation to Britain. I decided to examine the War Office’s ‘formal rehabilitation’ programme to see if their arrangements were implemented and effective.
The evidence reveals that in reality the situation, in some instances, was quite different from the theory. This appears firstly to be because of the difficulties that arose from the practicalities of trying rapidly to process thousands of FEPoWs whose main priority was to leave for home as soon as possible. Secondly, once the FEPoWs were home, administrative difficulties arose because they were now out of direct governmental control. Item 4 in the War Office document concerns intelligence, casualty and confidential information. Only one interviewee had a recollection of being interrogated by an M.I.9 officer and he had documentary evidence to support this.2 Item 8 states that ‘there is a welfare centre at the reception camp ... staffed by welfare officers’, once again no ex-prisoner had any recollection of any offers of ‘counselling’. Item 7 of the document entitled ‘Medical Inspection’ states that ‘at the reception camp you will be medically inspected to ascertain that you are sufficiently fit to go on leave’. All the evidence that I collected either confirms Shephard’s view that the ‘medical’ consisted of literally being able ‘to walk across the room’3 or that there was no ‘medical’ procedure that was noticeable as such at the reception camp.
Item 7 goes on categorically to state ‘and your chest will be X-rayed by mass miniature radiography’. The evidence of ten of the eleven FEPoWs suggests that this did not take place. Item 19 states that ex-prisoners will during their 42-day repatriation leave appear before a medical board to determine if they were unfit for further service. When questioned only one FEPoW remembered having attended a medical board.4 Initially I assumed the FEPoWs had forgotten or disregarded the board until I discovered a document5 which confirmed that FEPoW attendance was not compulsory and their memories, in this instance, were probably correct. This is an indication that once home, the government was not inclined to ‘order’ FEPoWs about, which was both an acknowledgement of their years of suffering and possibly a convenient way to brush a problem aside.
Item 31 concerns Civil Resettlement Units, which should have been available to all soldiers released or discharged from the Army. Civil resettlement was a voluntary course which would have allowed FEPoWs the chance to settle down before returning to civilian life. Only one FEPoW had any knowledge or experience of civil resettlement. He spent approximately six weeks at Hatfield House in late 1947. This was to be the last step in his rehabilitation after spending the best part of three years suffering from a mental breakdown. However, as item 27 points out, officers (as opposed to other ranks) were offered an interview at Special Officer Reception Units. The two officers I interviewed had clear memories of being contacted and attending a weekend at the Special Officers Reception Unit.
There were of course items in the War Office document that were fulfilled. The questionnaire proved that arrival telegrams were, if the FEPoW wished, dispatched; and ration, identity and leave documents were issued. Initially the majority of FEPoWs said that they did not receive pay as item 10 said they would.. However, by adding a supplementary question (How did you pay for the transport from the railway station to your home?) I established that all ranks were paid at their reception camps.
Dr. Philip Newman, a repatriated prisoner of war of the Germans, described, in the British Medical Journal of January 1944, the various psychological stages through which the ‘kriegie’, passed: the shock and guilt of being taken prisoner, the slow readjustment to camp life, the years of boredom and inactivity building up to a high pitch of exaggerated optimism and false hope - frequently dashed by the mundane realities when he returned home. He also acknowledged the destructive effect of years of idleness, sexual deprivation, overcrowding and military impotence, and warned that many returning prisoners would show anti-social and self-destructive behaviour. The Army acknowledged its moral responsibility to see that these men were fit before they returned to civilian life and set about translating Newman’s concerns into action. Unfortunately for Far East veterans, Newman’s concerns were based on his experience of British PoWs held in Germany and not the extremely different conditions that FEPoWs had endured.
I decided to examine Doctor Newman’s assumptions, with regard to FEPoWs, which Shephard says were received with a sympathetic ear at the War Office. Newman said prisoners were shocked at being taken prisoner. Not all FEPoWs suffered this shock, many believed that the situation was ‘critical’ before landing at Singapore. The remainder were shocked because they were told that fortress Singapore was impregnable and the Japanese were inferior soldiers who did not take prisoners. When asked if they felt guilt at being taken prisoner all the FEPoWs said they did not, but they did have a sense of being let down by politicians and the Army high command. Newman talks of the ‘slow readjustment’ to camp life yet all the interviewees denied this. The vast majority of prisoners captured at Singapore were either hospitalised or within days sent to Changi jail where their officers organised them immediately into Regiments and deliberately reintroduced military discipline and work details. This, and the harsh realities of captivity, forced them to readjust quickly to their new status.
When FEPoWs were asked if they were bored they all replied, ‘’No’’. The reason was that their work quotas, and staying alive, was a twenty-four hour activity, particularly if you were unfortunate enough to be ‘up country’. When asked if there were periods when they felt optimistic, prisoners fell into two categories: those who stayed in Changi and those who left to work all over South East Asia. In Changi there were three secret radios and all the internees received daily news bulletins. One source of information for those who left Changi was messages passed on to prisoners by the local population. However, FEPoWs soon learnt to disregard these rumours as they were invariably erroneous and as Newman said led to false expectations. A second source was the sighting of allied aircraft during the last six months of the war. This lead to optimism because the prisoners believed that the war was now going their way.
Prisoners were without doubt optimistic at certain times particularly during the later stages of their captivity and when they learned of VE-Day. However, by this time the surviving FEPoWs were hard-bitten, pragmatic veterans of a brutal regime and they never, as Newman said, reached ‘a high pitch of exaggerated optimism’.7 The FEPoWs were well aware, if they could survive, that their repatriation was at the very least several months away. Neither did the interviews suggest that there was ‘exaggerated optimism’ on the prisoners’ release. For those in Changi, freedom was almost a gradual process because of the continuous information they received from the secret radios. For prisoners in camps as far afield as Japan and Indo-China, freedom was also, in a sense, a gradual process. All the interviewees, who were ‘up country’, reported a delay between actual learning of the cessation of hostilities, for example by leaflets dropped by parachute,8 and their physical release. In addition, any elation at the war’s end was also accompanied by the threat of mass extermination by their captors. This very real danger, coupled with the appalling conditions and experiences which the FEPoWs endured, meant that the majority of men were never at any time over-optimistic. When they were finally released, the FEPoWs felt only the relief of being alive. However, this was coupled with a sadness at the death of many thousands of their comrades. Therefore, elation played only a minor role because, worn-out and exhausted after three and a half years captivity, FEPoWs simply wanted to go home as quickly as possible.
Newman also notes, among other things, the destructive effect of years of idleness, sexual deprivation, overcrowding and military impotence. Idleness, as I pointed out was never an issue and food, and never women, was how the FEPoWs described the main topic of conversation during captivity. Overcrowding was not a major issue either. Confinement was not as restrictive in the Far East as it was in Germany, because in the jungles of Burma, for instance, there was no-where to which to escape. Military impotence did not enter the equation either. Without exception, the FEPoWs I interviewed felt they had been let down by government and then thrown into a hopeless military situation which was not of their making. Therefore, the feelings of military impotence that Newman detected in PoWs from Germany was not in evidence in FEPoWs. Newman went on in his paper to warn correctly that ‘many returning prisoners would show anti-social and self-destructive behaviour’.9 Surprisingly, only one interviewee confirmed that he felt self-destructive10 and two knew of fellow ex-prisoners who received psychiatric treatment on their return. The Army did recognise that Second World War prisoners would have psychological problems when they returned home. However, if, as Shephard says, Newman’s arguments received a compassionate hearing from the War Office then no special provision was made for prisoners of the Japanese when the readjustment scheme was established. Therefore, the readjustment scheme was based on prisoners held captive in Europe and not on the FEPoWs whom the War Office wrongly ‘assumed would be in better emotional shape than prisoners of the Germans’.11
The reason for this expectation appears to be that Dr. T. F. Roger, the psychiatrist on Mountbatten’s staff, reported in June 1945 that FEPoWs showed fewer psychiatric symptoms and a much more stable and satisfactory reaction to their captivity than PoWs from German hands. He considered this to be largely due to ‘the contempt which British soldiers were able to feel for the Japanese and the absence of any feeling that the enemy was a man of similar outlook and cultural background to themselves’.12 Finally Dr. Roger spoke, when visiting liberated camps, of ‘the fitness and happiness’13 of FEPoWs. He added that there was ‘no doubt that the group was proud of itself’.14 The Australian surgeon, Doctor Edward Dunlop, himself captured in Singapore, stressed that mental disorders were surprisingly infrequent among Anglo-Saxon prisoners. Of the Burma-Thailand Railway, Dunlop wrote, ‘Hunger, food deficiency, diseases, malaria, dysentery, ulcers and skin sepsis and extreme exhaustion were woven into a dull fabric rent here and there by sharp outbreaks of cholera’.15 It was these disorders that were discussed when the Army considered formal rehabilitation and resettlement, not the psychological consequences of the maltreatment of the Cambridgeshire FEPoWs.
1 see Appendix B, document number 4 pp.100-106
2 see Appendix B, documents number 5 and 6 pages 107 and 108
3 Ben Shephard, ‘A Clouded Homecoming?’ in History Today, Volume 46 (8) August 1996 p.10
4 see Appendix A, interview 6 pp.57-61 supplementary question 18
5 see Appendix B, document number 7 p.109
6 B. Shephard, ‘A Clouded Homecoming?’ p.11
7 Ibid., p.11
8 see Appendix B, document number 8 p.110 in J.S. Cosford, Line of Lost Lives (Royston, Gryphon Books) p.183
9 B. Shephard, ‘A Clouded Homecoming?’ p.11
10 see Appendix A, interview number 4 pp. 47-51 question 12 (b)
11 Ibid., p.10
12 Ibid., p.11
13 Ibid., p.12
14 Ibid., p.12
15 Ibid., pp.11-12