SELARANG BARRACKS CHANGI
On 17th February 1942 the 14,972 men of the 8th Division that were able to walk were marched 17 miles to Selarang Barracks Changi. The Barracks was situated on the north-eastern tip of Singapore on Changi Peninsula, within Changi Cantonment. The Selerang Barracks were constructed between 1936-1938 by the British Army. This military establishment consisted of Roberts (Royal Artillery), Kitchener (Royal Engineers) as well as Birdwood, Selarang, Wavell and Teloh Paku Camps. In addition there were two barracks blocks (India Barracks) to accommodate the Punjabis of AA Regiment, and a number of wooden huts.
The Changi Cantonment was a small city with a hospital, gaol, cinemas, sporting facilities, married quarters, school and all amenities required by the officers and enlisted ranks and their families within Changi and its environs. The seven three storied concrete buildings of Selarang where the AIF would be billeted had been the former home of 2nd Battalion Gordon Highlanders. The AIF area was situated on 140 acres of rising ground that was grassed and dotted with palms and trees. The buildings were roughly quadrilateral without 800 yards between two sides and 1,100 yards between the other two.
Following the move to Selarang, the 2/10th and 2/13th Australian General Hospitals combined to form the Australian General Hospital (A.G.H.) which was established from early March 1942 in two of the buildings at Roberts Barracks. Like Selarang, the barracks consisted of a number of 3 storied concrete buildings that like most of other buildings.
Almost every building at Changi had suffered some degree of bomb damage.
Initially the Japanese were reasonably lax with their treatment of prisoners and preferred the Australians to be autonomous and operate under their own administration. Until about 12th March 1942 the individual areas of Changi were wired and patrolled, however the men were free to roam Changi Cantonment to trade on the black market. From about end of August 1942 the Japanese began organizing Changi as a POW camp. (This may explain why earlier groups such as ‘A’ and ‘B’ Forces that departed Singapore prior to end of
August were never allocated Singapore Prisoner of War numbers.)
In addition to the determent of barbed wire, there was the presence of the Sikhs.
Originally employed as British Admiralty Police, the Japanese had persuaded them to work as guards. The Sikhs quickly became unpopular with the Australians, mostly for swapping allegiance and for limiting their movements at night around Changi Cantonment.
In May 1944 the Selarang prisoners were moved to Changi Gaol Camp, which had its own hospital and medical staff. The reason for this move was because of the increasing numbers of Allied aircraft over Singapore. It was becoming clear to the Japanese Imperial Army Headquarters in Singapore that Japan was losing the war and there was decision to build an additional fighter aerodrome using POW labour (called leveling party) on the site of Birdwood Camp sports ground opposite Selarang Barracks.
The earth airstrip comprised a main runway, cross-runway and a dispersal road at its southern end. Construction took 22 months and was completed by 25th May 1945.
The prisoners who moved to Changi Gaol were those for reasons of health, age or essential trade skills had remained on Singapore. Also included were those POWs who had journeyed to Thailand in 1943 with ‘F’ or ‘H’ forces and who had returned to Singapore in December 1943. Whilst at both Selarang and Changi Gaol Camps men moved in and out on various work parties to Johore Bahru and around Singapore Island.
The 2/4th Story
Following the Battle of Singapore, the Japanese ordered the 2/4th Battalion to assemble at Raffles College Square. On the evening of Tuesday 17th February at 1830 hours the Battalion set off in column to march towards the Changi Cantonment and arrived at Roberts Artillery Barracks at 0300 hours. The men slept on the oval and in the morning moved to their new billets in three officer’s bungalows to the north of Selarang Barracks.
The bungalows were numbered S8, S7 and S6. It is assumed S means these huts were attached to Selarang. There were approximately 192 men from HQ’s Coy 2/4th in House No. 38 under the Command of Capt. Bob Phelps, 255 men from ‘A’ and ‘B’ Coy’s in House No. 35 under the command of Capt. Tom Bunning and 235 men from ‘C’ and ‘D’ Companies in house No. 34 under the command of newly promoted Major Colin Cameron.
The men quickly set to work building mess huts, sleeping huts, bunks and tables. The engineers soon had 5 wells sunk to provide water for showers and cooking. The officers slept in an Officer’s Dormitory, being one room in each of the three houses. There doesn’t appear to be many complaints at this early stage of captivity and as working parties such as Adam Park group moved out, more space became available. By the time ‘A’ Force moved out the remaining 2/4th men had been concentrated in house No. 35. This appears to have been the situation until the Selarang Barracks incident in September 1942.
On 30th August 1942 all Prisoners of War were urged by the Japanese to sign a pledge not to escape. Upon the refusal under the terms of the Geneva Convention, all British and Australian prisoners were congregated into the barracks square at Selarang Barracks until such time as they agreed to sign.
The ‘Selarang Square Incident’ coincided with the arrival of the new Japanese Commandment and the clamping down on security within Changi Cantonment.
Eventually on 5th September 1942 under orders, the men signed the pledge but did so under duress.
Following the ‘Selarang Incident’ it appears that what was left of the 2/4th billeted in bungalow No. 35 were moved into Selarang Barracks occupying half of the second Floor of building No. 2.
Life at Selarang could be described as fairly routine until December 1943 when what was left of the men of ‘F’ and ‘H’ Forces returned and then the move to Changi Gaol Camp in May 1944.
There are many myths with War.
To say Changi was the most terrible place for POWs is definitely a myth. It really was the safest of all POW Camps.
Those POWs who remained in Singapore including those with war injuries and illness, only rarely saw Japanese guards and were really left to themselves. There was nothing like the horrors and death rate of working on the Burma-Thai Railway, Sandakan and Ranau – Borneo or the Sumatran Railway. Many of the Japanese Camps were unbelievably terrible as were the journeys to Japan on ‘Hell’ Ships where conditions below deck were horrific. The ‘Hell’ ships were also subjected to US submarine attacks such as Rakuyo Maru where 38 2/4 men perished in South China Sea.