“The war will be over by Christmas”
“We will be home for Christmas”
or ………… by Next Christmas”
For POWs the above words were spoken annually (and hopefully). POWs and 2/4th men they spent Christmas 1942, 1943 and 1944 in captivity.
Their families back home also spoke the same words.
Christmas was a time of measure.
Apparently it was the same during WW1 for soldiers and their families.
It has proved challenging to find stories about Christmas in POW Camps. If you know of any stories please share!
Christmas in Captivity for A Force Burma 1942
By early December the Burma camps were trying different types of entertainment to keep the men’s attention diverted from their daily lives and lift their morale.
How many had thought the war would be over by Christmas?
3,000 Australian POWs in various groups had sailed from Singapore 14 May 1942. They had worked at the airfields in west Burma prior to arriving at the Railway head.
Thetkaw 14 Km had developed choral group under the direction of Sergeant Norman Halliday. Tom Morris, who joined the choir, remembered one of their contributions to a camp concert was a selection of Negro slave spirituals.
A Brass Band Tour
To ensure that each camp had some sort of Christmas entertainment, Sergeant Norman Whittaker and his brass band at Thetkaw 14 Km were given permission to tour each of the work camps on Christmas Day “to give a short programme.”
The musicians had been allowed time to practice for the tour after their workday was over.
Tom Morris remembered the Christmas concert vividly: “Norm Whittaker was marvellous on the trumpet, absolutely. I can still hear the triple tonguing on his trumpet.
Traveling by lorry, they first went to Tanyin 35 Kilo performing on Christmas eve for Williams Force.
‘It was good to hear a band again.’ ‘About 50 Nipponese and 80 Burmese listened as well.’ After spending the night, they left early on Christmas Day, doubling back down the line to Kun Knit Kwa 26 Kilo.
A number played there was “Colonel Bogey” – a favourite marching tune which gave the POWs a good laugh because of the alternative lyrics mocking all military authority especially their captors.
Bollocks! Was all the band could play.
Bollocks! They played it night and day.
Bollocks! Ta-ra-ra Bollocks!
Ta-ra-ra bollocks! Bollocks!
Later that day they moved to Alepauk 18 Km. ‘they put on a splendid programme which made us forget for a short time that we were prisoners of war. At the conclusion some wag called out ‘Come again next year.’ This raised a good laugh, as most of us expected to be home before Christmas 1943.’
For the Band their home camp was Thetkaw. Tom Morris remembered the concert vividly:
“Norm Whittaker was marvellous on the trumpet, absolutely. I can still hear the triple tonguing on his trumpet.”
Their final concert took place at Thanbyuzayat, where Lieutenant Naito, the camp commandant arrrived late—and drunk—demanding a repeat of the concert leaving the POWs extremely unhappy.
SINGAPORE CAMPS 1942
This was their first Christmas as POWs. For many it was their first Christmas away from family and home.
They hadn’t had a lot to be happy about. Their future was unknown. It had taken time to adjust to their ‘new’ life which was no longer theirs. Aside from their loss of freedom there were others who had lost limbs and many remained in hospital wounded and ill.
The amputees, known as ‘the Nelsons’ (named after Lord Nelson) in the convalescent depot began making toys for children imprisoned in another camp on the island and decorations and flower decorations for all the hospital wards.
The cooks for the hospital wards made a great effort to cheer up patients with their rice menu!
The thousands of POWs looked forward to their first rest day since October and the camp cooks would have tried their hardest with their main ingredient – Rice!
The officers would have enjoyed a ‘plush meal’ – they had access to and could afford foods from the canteen their men could not.
Religious services were held out in the open on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.
The Concert Party would have performed for the POWs and there were Christmas carols.
A Sports meeting was held on Christmas Day 1942 – Aussie rules football, cricket, rugby, baseball and athletics were included. The men were noticeably thinner having had a limited diet for the previous 10 months however they were big in spirit!
The Forestry Company conducted a wood-chopping and crosscut-saw competition in front of large audience. The British POWs were most interested by the skills of the wood choppers and open crosscut-saw event.
Below: Menu for Roberts Hospital, Singapore 1942. We wish to acknowledge University of Qld Medicine.
1942 CHRISTMAS POWs JAVA
There were 88 men from 2/4th taken POW here in Java plus a few who escaped. There was also the survivors of HMAS ‘Perth’ and American ship ‘Houston’.
Many Allied POWs had been moved to from Bandeong to MAKASURA POW camp on 6 November where they would spend Christmas 1942.
Desmond Jackson tells us that this camp at Makasura was located in a kapok plantation and describes the camp.
“A pleasant, heavily populated locality, abundant with tropical growth. High barbed-wire fences divided the camp into three small sections comprising a barracks area, a parade ground and an exercise yard. We spent most of our time in the barracks area where our living quarters were particularly crude bamboo huts”.
Weary Dunlop recorded in his diary
23 December 1942: N’s have supplied pestis vaccine: injections of ½ cc per person given (excepting some 80 men for whom there was insufficient). He with three other doctors Moon, Corlette and Godlee injected over 700 POWs in 2 hours. (The men were being prepared to depart Java for the Burma Thai Railway.)
24 December 1942: In spite of prevailing conditions there is a Xmas feeling in the place. The troops surprisingly happy in this camp since they have not had enough to quarrel about.
The troops know that they have no rights whatever as far as Ns are concerned and when all is said and done, man does not need very much excuse to do sweet nothing all day indulging in conversation with his fellows.
Two sources of ‘belly aching’ always remain: the distribution of food and ‘the officers’ (never the N officers).
Christmas Eve show was quite good slapstick ‘Xmas Krackers’ produced by Ian Wynne. John Morris produced two new songs of his own – ‘In every Song’ and ‘Happy New Year’. The chorus:
Happy New Year to you – good cheer to everyone
Out on your brightest smile and let’s have lots of fun
LEAVE ALL YOUR CARES behind for bright days are ahead
LIFT UP YOUR VOICE IN SONG – There’s a happy New Year for you.
Dunlop further wrote of a windfall – presents sent in from outside (presumably the generous Dutch women again). Cigarettes, cigars, sweets, peanuts, biscuits, clothing, few boots and shoes, some sporting material – something for everyone in camp.
‘Our company and some of the others are giving the whole of this to the men! It will be a wonderful thing for the lads to all have something to smoke for Xmas’
25 December 1942: A cheery Xmas spirit prevails in spite of everything.
Menu for the day
Breakfast: Rice as usual & a bun per man
Lunch: Rice with meat, Katjang idjoe (soya bean), 1 egg, Roly Poly Pudding, 1 banana per man, coffee.
Tea: Vegetable stew with sweet potatoes and 50 chicken added, Tea.
As officers also we achieved two superlative additions. Lunch: Fruit Salad, Tea: a chicken between John, Arthur and me. What Luxury!
0930 Some 1400 men attended an impressive combined (church) service in the recreation ground with a choir at the eastern end. All the old Xmas Carols and the choir sang accompanied by trumpet including a baritone singer.
Games were organised for the afternoon.
Evening: Singing around a piano and singing. (unsure whether this is just for officers or for camp).
26 December 1942: Tremendous sporting enthusiasm prevails. There are athletics. relays, basketball – including interstate – a very fast match between SA and WA and the finals between Vic and WA (draw of 21 all). There was also rugby, which Dunlop was a player.
The POWs would see Christmas in 1943 and 1944.
They would finally be Home for Christmas 1945.
The above by John de Crespigny.
In 1997, twenty-four POW camp posters from Bandoeng and Makasura was donated to NSW Anzac Memorial. To see this collection please go to
Major John Chauncy Champion de Crespigny VX253 of 2/1st Headquarters Guard Battalion Infantry.