The British Empire Library

British Civilians and the Japanese War in Malaya and Singapore, 1941-45

by Joseph Kennedy

Courtesy of OSPA

Review by Lord Gridley
I had been privileged to read the proof of this book prior to its publication. It is a story at long last told which gives credit to the British overseas expatriates,, whether they served in the Civil Service, in Industry, or in Commerce, and by implication the author refutes the irresponsible political attacks in the post war era levelled and made at times against them.

It is a story about the British Race far away from home and of their bravery and fortitude, an example of the British Tradition and Honour upheld in the face of intolerable cruelty and hardship.

Joseph Kennedy is a Historian who has given a wide sweep to his pen and from the vivid accounts from the diaries kept during the period. He has carried out extensive research at the Rhodes House Library at Oxford as well as from those who survived and were able to make their own contribution and what he has produced is factually correct and deserves its place in British History.

In the author's chapter on the Fall of Singapore he writes with that sure touch "it was not unusual for the British in Malaya to describe themselves as Malayans. It was an implied desire to be identified with the country and its people, and in some cases the claim could be justified historically." I do not know of any expatriate who did not love Malaya with an abiding affection for its people which was returned in full measure.

In the chapters of this book on the "Fall of Singapore", "Heading South", "The Singapore Scene", "Departure, Sea Routes and Landfalls", "Staying Behind, Internment" , "Staying Behind, the Jungle" , "Separated Lives" and "The Human Price" , the stories unfolded by the writer are vivid in description and analysis of what occurred.

What is to be read is the display of courage and fortitude, the triumph of the human spirit over torture and unsurpassed suffering and it is a story that is not without Honour to the British expatriates.

Names are mentioned, but for those who do not appear and who might well have made a contribution to this book, I do not think it matters, for the author has in this story produced a theme which pays tribute to everybody who was involved and who lived, or who was to die, through the Japanese Occupation.

As I was one of those interned in Changi Goal, Singapore, from 1941-45, I have read the proof of this book with gratitude and emotion.

It is a book that should appear on the shelves of every public library throughout Great Britain quite apart from those who may well desire to buy a copy for themselves.

Finally, there is a great deal of interest to read about the Japanese hunger to subjugate the peoples of South East Asia and, for those interested in history, there is much historical analysis of the history of Singapore and Malaya and the Treaties between Great Britain and that country which made difficulties of decisions to position our fighting forces when they were called upon to thwart the Japanese advance on Singapore.

I hope this Book will be read by many.

W. P. Winston adds commentary on his own experiences of the war
Joseph Kennedy in his book "British Civilians and the Japanese War in Malaya and Singapore, 1941-45" gives an interesting and authoritative account of British expatriates in the war in Malaya and Singapore. On the other hand certain social issues are either not dealt with, or are not dealt with as fully as one would like. These issues may be of interest to the historian.

I participated in many of the events described in the book. I was a civil engineer in the Public Works Department. I had left the U.K. in early 1938, that is before the Second World War broke out. When the Japanese war broke out I was living in Johore Bahru. I was in the PWD party mentioned in the book as leaving Singapore on the SS Kuala. I returned in the British Military Administration. When civil government was restored I resumed my career in the PWD. The country became independent in 1957. Subsequently I became the State Engineer for the States of Kedah and Perlis. I left the PWD in 1960.

As the Japanese advanced we discussed what we should do if they reached Johore Bahru; leave or stay to meet them. This subject is mentioned in the book. Government departments provide very varied services. In the PWD we were undertaking a large development programme; road works, buildings etc. The Japanese would not be implementing any such programme. Hence we had nothing much to hand over. I did not wish to be involved in working for the Japanese possibly on their defence works. There was the point that a Japanese objective was to oust the Europeans, and presumably the Americans from their possessions. Not least in our minds was that if Singapore was held, as we expected, Johore Bahru would be on the front line. (It was in fact for just over a week.) After the war I found some Asians criticised us for not defending the country better. On the other hand our staffs respected us for not attempting to come to terms with the Japanese.

When the Japanese war broke out I, like many other expatriates, although a civilian, was a trained soldier. I was a sapper in the Johore Volunteer Engineers, an engineer field company. Before the Japanese war we had been mobilised for training and then stood down. Shortly before the outbreak of the war the company was mobilised. I did not mobilise with it because of my civilian work. When I had to leave Johore Bahru, and went to Singapore, I was commissioned lieutenant in the Straits Settlements (Singapore) armed forces as were most, if not all, of my PWD colleagues.

The book recounts how the PWD party I was in, about forty strong, reached Ceylon. Ceylon was then threatened by the Japanese navy and so we were moved on as soon as possible. We travelled on an armed merchant cruiser in convoy to Bombay. Once there it was time to start getting back into the war. We reverted to being civilians and reported our presence to the Colonial Office. (It may be noted here that all the British territories occupied by the Japanese had had their own administrations. Only one, Burma, set up a government in exile.)

Some including myself, especially the younger ones, were released for military service. About five of us were given direct commissions as 2nd lieutenants in the Royal Indian Engineers, Indian Army, and assigned to railway transportation as we were experienced construction engineers. By the summer of 1942 I was on field service in 151 Indian Railway Construction Company, Royal Indian Engineers, in Assam (north east India). Throughout my service in the Indian Army I was in this company and, ultimately, was its commanding officer.

When the Japanese entered the war the north east frontier region of India was railway and not road served. Their capture of Burma severed the supply route to China. Consequently to put the 14th Army into the field to drive out the Japanese from Burma, and to enable the Americans to supply China by air from upper Assam, the capacity of the railway system had to be vastly increased. The work of developing the railway system was undertaken almost entirely by the Indian Army and units such as the one I served in.

As the years went by my colleagues and I from the Malayan PWD were told informally that when the time came we would be transferred to the military administration for Malaya. Before this happened it was 1945 and the war in Europe had ended. The army now introduced a scheme for short leaves in the UK for those of us who had been long abroad (operation Python). I qualified. The intention was that I should join the British Military Administration on return from leave. My leave was delayed because of the command I was holding. I was not put out. I was by now a captain but my command carried the rank of major. I was hoping, after three years field service, my promotion to major would come through any day; but it did not. Eventually my leave came through and I flew from Calcutta to England in converted Liberator bombers.

On arrival in England I calculated I had been abroad for 7 years and 7 months; for the whole of the war in the West. I was single and I set off to see my parents. They knew I would be coming on leave but I had not been able to tell them when. So when I rang the bell at 'home' a neighbour popped up and told me my parents were on holiday but would be returning next day, and kindly put me up for the night.

My parents had moved to Bristol since I had left home and so I hardly knew any of the local people. Then the war in the West had been so cataclysmic I found there was little interest in the war with the Japanese or, indeed, knowledge of it. This attitude was epitomised by my bank where I had a small account. When I called and asked for a statement the manager ushered me into his office saying one had been sent to me and had been returned by the Post Office. He produced the envelope which was addressed to me in Johore Bahru which was occupied even then by the Japanese!

Indeed the war had changed so much in Britain it made me feel a stranger in my own country.

I returned to Malaya as a captain in the British Military Administration on a troopship from Madras. Early one morning we docked in Singapore. The docks looked much the same as they had done on my first arrival in the country in 1938. But now, although the war with Japan was over, the docks were far less busy. On the troopship for practical purposes we were all service personnel and most of us were travelling light but at least one lady in uniform had several large crates of her belongings on the quay.

On arrival we were told we were booked on a night train to Kuala Lumpur. So, in the course of the day we were able to see something of Singapore. I had last seen it about 3 and a 1/2 years earlier. Then the trolley bus wires had been down and there had been a pall of smoke over the city probably from burning oil tanks. Now the city had been tidied up and the trolley bus wires were not down. In 1942 there had not been bomb damage on the scale of, say, London. Some was to be seen. Otherwise the city appeared to have stood still, to be unchanged. During the war no new building had gone on, of course.

In Kuala Lumpur I reported to the Director of Public Works or, rather, to his military equivalent for duty. The PWD senior staff were all in uniform as officers in the military administration but many had spent the war years outside Malaya as civilians. The PWD was in fact run as a civilian organization. Thus in no time at all I found that the command of a company I had held counted for nothing and that there was now no prospect of promotion to major. Although we were still in the army what I experienced was the attitude of civilians to the armed services when they are demobilised. One's achievements in military service are discounted.

I was posted to Kuala Lipis, then the capital of the State of Pahang, as the PWD district engineer and given a jeep and a civilian driver, a south Indian Tamil, to get there. We talked in Malay. The picture as we drove over to Kuala Lipis and of the town was of an economic decline approaching collapse. There was hardly any traffic on the road. In places grass was growing out of the bitumen road surface. There were severe shortages, for instance, of cloth. The railway track through Kuala Lipis had been removed by the Japanese for use on the Burma-Siam railway. The railway bridges had been blown up during the retreat in 1942 and had not been rebuilt to a standard to carry trains. But the telephone service was working as were the town electricity system and the water supply; but the treatment plant had worn itself out. But there were signs of enthusiastic activity and the economy was recovering rapidly.

We lived or, rather, camped in houses for there was a shortage of furniture and, for instance, my dressing table must have been used by a Japanese sitting on a mat it was so low. But furniture could be made locally in time. Some personal belongings did survive and at one party we were astounded to hear a lady, a guest, claim the carpet! It was a dull grey affair. This would hardly call for comment but for the fact she was the lady I had seen on the quay at Singapore with whole crates of belongings. I asked her what had happened to the crates she had had in Singapore. She had lost the lot. In those immediate post war days it was advisable to keep an eye on your property if you did want to lose it and I fear she had not done so.

The political scene was attracting attention. Some BM A officers were saying "We are only here to put the country on its feet and then we shall be off". Those who had been in the country before the war counselled discretion. We knew changes were desirable and inevitable and welcomed them but there was uncertainty over their exact form. One example was that before the war the British had looked on Singapore as the effective capital. But now Kuala Lumpur was the capital.

The BMA PWD presence in Kuala Lipis consisted of two officers, the State Engineer and myself, and a signals detachment. We worked with the civilian PWD staff. There was a shortage of labour and I had a detachment of Japanese POWs working a quarry. The priority task was rehabilitation, that is putting things back in order, before we could resume development work brought to a halt by the war. The principal project delayed by the war in Pahang was the road, since built, between Temerloh and Maran, which was to improve road communication between the east coast and the rest of the country.

When the Japanese occupied Malaya and Singapore in 1942 the effect was to remove almost all the senior staff from the PWD. What then happened? Firstly it should be remembered there was in general no scorched earth policy associated with the British retreat. For instance when I left Johore Bahru the town water supply was left in full working order. I suggest the consensus of opinion is that the junior staff left behind did extremely well. Spares for engines could not be ordered of course and in time skill and ingenuity had to be used to keep things going. On the other hand the senior staff were also handling considerable development work. Responsibility for such work did not devolve on the junior staff as such work naturally was halted by the Japanese occupation.

Since Malaya was a country which had been fought over my memory is that one always had to be careful about discussing the war. Undoubtedly there had been hardship. For instance one man would tell you how he had managed to keep a cow so that his children might have milk. Or again in 1945 the Rest House keeper in Temerloh told me there was such a shortage of rice they were forced to eat tapioca.

The military administration in Malaya ended on 31st March, 1946. Civil government with all its administrative procedures and audits came into being on 1st April. We simply exchanged our military shirts for civilian shirts or, perhaps, just removed the military insignia, for there was still a shortage of cloth, and carried on with our work.

That is how the war ended. When I recall the Japanese war I remember my PWD colleague, Ted Fallows, who left us on Pom Pong island. I doubt if others remember him. Presumably he still lies there forgotten in an unmarked grave. That was the fate of so many, Asians and Europeans.

British Empire Book
Joseph Kennedy
Macmillan Press


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