Japanese threaten British POWs in Singapore

On 30 August 1942, the Japanese ordered the 20,100 prisoners of war in Changi Jail, Singapore, to sign an undertaking not to escape. The POWs refused and they were crowded into Selerang Barracks (which had accommodation for 120) until they signed under duress on 4 September. The photograph shows the crowded Barrack Square during what became known as the ‘Selerang Incident’.

In Singapore the British and Australian Prisoners of War held by the Japanese had become adjusted to the hardships of life with little food and minimal facilities. They had become somewhat accustomed to the capricious nature of treatment handed out by their captors. Yet conditions now dramatically worsened for all of the POWs on Singapore.

Alastair Urquhart was one of the men who had been captured with the fall of Singapore:

A new regime headed by Major General Shimpei Fukuye wanted to transform Changi into a proper prison camp. A few weeks earlier four prisoners, two Australians and two British, had tried to escape from up-country in Malaya and Fukuye demanded that all the allied prisoners should sign an undertaking not to do this.

Escape attempts were futile and doomed in my view. But our officers refused to sign as a matter of principle. The first we knew about this row was on being told to report to the Selarang barracks. As we made our way there, thousands of men were doing the same, streaming in to the barracks from all directions.

The japanese had decreed that all prisoners must be inside the barracks by 6 p.m. – anybody outside after that time would be shot. It was the beginning of a terrifying stand-off that became known as the Selarang Incident.

Seventeen and a half thousand men crammed into the Gordon Highlanders’ barracks designed to accommodate fewer than a thousand men. It was appalling. We had no space and what little water we had was for cooking only. Latrines had to be dug in the middle of the barracks square but we could never get near them, the place was so heaving with men. Somebody worked out that the population density was one million men per square mile.

Outside of the crammed barracks in the parade ground there was very little cover for the men and we baked in the sun. Our officers warned us that we would face a court martial if we signed and that the japanese were breaching the Geneva Convention that allows prisoners the right to attempt to escape without facing punishment. The japanese could not have cared less about the Geneva Convention and had no intention of observing it.

To rack up the pressure they ordered the execution of the escapees and the British and Australian commanding officers were instructed to attend. It was a brutal, botched affair during which the Sikh firing party had to shoot the men several times. They shot some of the prisoners in the groin and the poor chaps had to plead to be finished off. Refusing blindfolds the condemned men displayed fantastic bravery and the British and Australians still refused to give in.

Conditions worsened over the course of four days and men who were already sick began to die of dysentery. The Japanese threatened to encampment with machine guns as the stand-off continued and a full scale massacre seemed a very possible outcome.

Still we stuck it out and then the Japanese played their trump card. They threatened to transfer in two and a half thousand sick and wounded men from the hospital in the nearby Roberts barracks. It would have been mass murder and reluctantly our officers agreed to sign but insisted that it be recorded we did so ‘under duress’. At last it was over.

We were ordered to sign a piece of paper that read, ‘I the undersigned, hereby solemnly swear on my honour that I will not, under any circumstances, attempt to escape.’

We all lined up to sign and it seemed to take ages. Some men signed as ‘Mickey Mouse’ or ‘Robin Hood’, while ‘Ned Kelly’ was a popular choice with the Australians. After standing in line for hours it finally came to my turn. I signed as ‘AK Urquhart’ but deliberately made it an illegible scrawl so I could deny it if need be.

Alastair Urquhart’s memoir The Forgotten Highlander: My Incredible Story of Survival During the War in the Far East was not published until 2010 but is one of the most readable accounts of being a prisoner of the Japanese, and quickly became a best seller.

An officer signs an undertaking not to escape during the ‘Selerang Incident’.

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