On August 30th 1942 all prisoners-of-war, including the men of the 2/4th MGB, in the Selarang Barracks were called out of the buildings and to parade in Barrack Square, an area about two acres and bordered on three sides by several two storey buildings (three storeyed if you count the roof area) which were the living quarters of the men at the time. Normally housing a battalion – about 1200 men.
Second in command of the British, Indian and Australian men Lieutenant-Colonel ‘Black Jack’ Galleghan addressed the parade and said that the Japanese required all soldiers to sign a pledge not to escape. ‘I the undersigned do hereby declare on my honour that I will not, under any circumstances, attempt to escape.’ He believed that they were being asked to sign against his better judgement and it would not be in their best interests to sign.
The prisoners refused to sign the form, as the declaration was in direct contravention of the Geneva Convention which states that ‘it is the duty of every prisoner of war to attempt to escape’.
Upon their refusal, under the terms of the Geneva Convention, all British, Indian and Australian prisoners in the Selarang area were congregated into the barracks square at Selarang Barracks until such time as they agreed to sign.
With over 15 000 troops squeezed into the area sanitary conditions were dangerously septic. Troops were packed everywhere like sardines on every floor, on the roof, in every nook and cranny, but it was hardly possible to lie down. The heat and the smell from sweating men and the latrines attracted flies. By the second day the medical officers reported an increase in the number of cases of dysentery and diptheria. They were kept there for three days without food, although water (from 2 taps) was allowed for drinking.
When there was no sign of the POW’s backing down, Japanese commander, General Fukuye, ordered Galleghan and Holmes to attend the execution of two Australians, Breavington and Gale, and two English soldiers, Waters and Fletcher, who had escaped but been captured.
With the very great risk of losing not hundreds but thousands to brutality and disease, the allied commanders instructed the men to sign, but as it was under duress, they were not bound to honour it.
The following set of 8 photographs, originally covertly taken by George Aspinall of the 2/30th Battalion, were printed from pirated photographic material on display at the Rabaul War Crimes Trials and then sold in Melbourne by a press photographer as part of a numbered set of POW photographs. A copy of this set was recently found in some of the papers of Pte Albert Norton WX8493 of the 2/4th MGB.
Fifteen thousand four hundred British, Indian and Australian troops were herded into an area which usually held 1200 men. Aspinall took eight shots from the AIF building – some from behind the parapet seen in the bottom right corner.
There were only two taps working. The queues never stopped. Troops had to dig latrines by boring holes through the asphalt. The Japs allowed them to build ‘thunderboxes’ over the holes. A row of them can be seen on the right.
Most of the men stood around discussing the circumstances.
The troops had to dig latrines in the square with devices called bore-hole augers. The officers were worried that dysentery would break out because of the millions of flies – which eventually happened.
In the hospital area wounded were lying under whatever makeshift cover could be set up. There were people with bullet wounds, recovering from amputations and some half-blinded battle casualties.
This photograph was lost by Aspinall but reappeared in this set of eight.
Selarang Square, Singapore of today 2019
BOWDEN, Tim; Changi Photographer, Times Editions PTE LTD, 1993
CODY, Les; Ghosts in Khaki: the history of the 2/4th Machine Gun Battalion, 8th Australian Division A.I.F (Carlisle, W. Aust: Hesperian Press, 1997)
EWEN, Murray, Colour Patch the men of the 2/4th Australian Machine Gun Battalion, 1940-1945(Victoria Park, W.A.: Hesperian Press, 2003)
SAGGERS Ian; Saggers, A E, To Hell-fire, Purgatory and Back : an account of the battle exploits and prisoner-of-war experiences of Major A. E. Saggers, commanding officer ‘A’ Company, 2/4th Machine Gun Battalion and Special Reserve Batallion, A.I.F. : based on his secret diaries (Dalkeith, W.A.: I. Saggers, 2000)
SUMMERS, Julie; The Colonel of Tamarkan Philip Toosey and the Bridge on the River Kwai, Simon & Schuster Australia Sydney 2005
THOMPSON, Peter;The Battle For Singapore, Portrait London 2006