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The Hard Way
Surviving Shamshuipo Pow Camp 1941-45
By Victor Stanley Ebbage, Andrew Robertshaw
The History PressCopyright © 2011 Major V.S. Ebbage
All rights reserved.
Murray Barracks on the island of Hong Kong was, on 29 December 1941 a hive of activity; I had arrived late on the previous day a weary man, my sole possessions the clothes I stood up in. But, I was amongst friends and they had made me welcome, and I had explained what had happened at the Ridge, and to me afterwards. They had rigged me out, as best they could, from the quartermasters' store of the Royal Scots with blankets, underclothing, towels and money, and now it was suggested I take as much food, cigarettes and anything else that I wanted, because, rumour had it that on the very next day we were being moved out of Murray Barracks to another more permanent camp. I certainly entered into the spirit of a 'free for all' and collected a whole mass of stuff, and this included kit bags, a pack and webbing straps, etc. I expected that, wherever we were to go we should be required to hump our own baggage; the Japanese did not disappoint me in this!
The evening was spent in going through the miscellaneous items I had collected, many were not really what I wanted, and some did not fit, but I was so late in arriving that I had perforce to take what others did not want. Still, I had acquired a hefty lot, far more than I could carry; perhaps the Japanese would provide some form of transport or allow us to pay for it, I could only hope so. Previously, I had asked my friends to try to get a message out that I was alive and well, and they had done their best to do so, but it was believed that all wireless transmitting sets had been destroyed. My sleeping quarters were in what had been part of the officers' mess of the Royal Scots; an imposing building overlooking a very noisy main road. It was here that I came across one or two items which certainly did not weigh very much, but might be useful in the future, so put them with my accumulation of kit! I had a very good night's sleep, the first for a very long time, aided by a full stomach of good food and a glass or two of whisky and beer; the last to pass my lips for very many months!
On 30 December 1941, sure enough we were herded together in batches, with our gear, and told we were permitted to take only what we could carry. This produced wholesale dumping of all manner of things and provided me with an opportunity to cast out some of my hoard and replace with other more suitable items. My pack was filled with food and underwear items, with, strapped onto it two brand new woolen blankets, while my haversack contained such essential items as a mess tin, knife, fork and spoon, cigarettes, small kit items, and other sundries. I believed I could carry it all, but how far? We made a slow and pitiful procession towards the Star Ferry, watched by many sorrowful looking Chinese and nationals of other countries who gave what practical help they could, or were allowed to give. The ferry journey provided a much needed rest; I was badly out of condition but determined to take what I had got, all the way, whatever that might be. All the items I had were essentials; I did not have boots, just the shoes I was wearing. From the ferry on the Kowloon side (mainland) we made our way slowly up Nathan Road, passed Whitfield Barracks (where many downcast Indians watched our progress) and escorted by hoards of Chinese and other nationals, many giving help freely to those unequal to the strain; meanwhile items were discarded to lighten the load, as walkers tired. The Japanese were doing everything in their power to humiliate us in every possible way, and, unlike the Chinese showed no sympathy, feeling or compassion for their captives. Even so we were still better off than others I had seen in North China, or those unfortunates made captive in so many Chinese cities and towns. I thought of Nanking and the happenings there!
So we plodded on, slowly and surely, not knowing where we were going, and many not caring. At each crossroads we speculated on our ultimate destination until, in the end, it seemed that Shamshuipo was a certainty. And so it was, and as we came close to the camp entrance I could see, in my mind's eye, the caption reputedly on many a gaol 'Abandon hope all ye who enter here'. Abandon hope! Never! The one thing never to be abandoned is hope; when there is no hope surely it is the end of life, and I did not intend to pass that way, not yet; and I thought of my wife and children in Australia, and of my mother, and the faith they had in me. I had a duty and a responsibility to them, and even more so to my King and Country 'In pursuance of the trust reposed in me'. Obviously I was feeling the effects of the short sharp campaign, the lack of food, and the forced march carrying my new found possessions over that frightful 3¼ miles (5 miles (8.4km) by circuitous route). The Japanese had done all they could to humble us, lower our self esteem and our physical condition, and abase us in every possible way; and there would be more to come! An infantry friend with a very dry wit summed it up when he said 'we have now reached a very low Ebbage' as we slowly made our way to the nearest unoccupied building and put down our 'Kit'.
Half a dozen of us had chosen a small room, a single officer's quarter in better times. Alas, it had no door, or window, and had been stripped of electrical fittings and everything else that could be readily removed had been looted, but they had left the concrete floor, and the out of reach roof appeared to be intact! It was a night of 'hard lying' and cold as well, so we huddled together, as best we could, for added warmth. Shamshuipo Camp had been, prior to hostilities, the home of the Middlesex Regiment and an Indian Battalion. The Camp was very spacious and well laid out and comprised a number of permanent brick buildings, built on reclaimed ground with the sea on two sides, part open country on the third and a very densely populated area on the fourth. Deep Nullahs ran through the camp to drain off surplus surface water. There was an officers' mess and quarters, a sergeants' mess, barrack rooms, cookhouses, wash-houses, etc in each area, and a very large barrack square. Presumably about 1936 a large block of married quarters had been built on the far side of the parade ground, facing and right up to the sea wall, and known as Jubilee Buildings. Jubilee Buildings comprised four floors of flats, the first, second and third with pleasant verandahs, overlooking either the sea or parade ground, and into these flats most of the officers and many others, had taken up residence. They had the advantage of wooden floors which were a little easier on the anatomy than the billet we had chosen.
We were existing on the food we had brought with us, but by now were in need of a drink and a wash, so we explored the possibilities. Water was available at the nearest wash house but unfortunately there were no taps. Only a spout of water coming from a broken pipe, and a queue of people trying to fill mess tins and water bottles from the gushing cascade. Whatever one did there was a soaking in store, so when it came to my turn I quickly filled my mess tin and gave my face and hands a 'lick and a promise'; in any event I had no soap! The day's ablutions completed I made my first tour of the camp in the company of a couple of friends, one of them a major in the Royal Scots. The barracks were a sorry sight, every hut had been completely gutted and stripped of everything moveable; in many cases even the window and door frames had gone, as indeed had nearly all the sanitary facilities as well. We were in the position of 'going' where we could, and where others would let us! Apart from the two sides bordered by the sea there was no fence or other obstacle to keep us in, or other people out, so there was a continuous interchange of people who had homes on the 'Kowloon side' and thus had somewhere to go. Meanwhile, others were doing a reconnaissance of the surrounding hills hoping they might come across guerillas who would help them escape, or, perhaps, meet up with that mythical Chinese Army alleged to be coming to our assistance! Surprisingly, morale was quite good at this time in spite of so many trials and tribulations and our captivity had yet to 'bite', while we were carried away on the bright wings of optimism as rumour succeeded rumour.
In my room names were being written on the walls with dates for expected release marked alongside. The most optimistic was 'out in six weeks' with the most pessimistic giving it 'six months'. Reminded me of the days in August 1914 when my friends 'signed on for duration' and everyone was convinced it would be over by Christmas! An ample slice of optimism is a good thing, but an ounce of reality even more so. When invited to add my guess of a date for getting out I refused, asking in return who did they think would want to come and rescue us?
I, too, hoped to get out quickly, by one means or another, but our plans should be based on staying for the rest of our natural lives! I looked at that pencilled list often as the months and years passed by and when the same room was part of the camp store. Tomorrow would be New Year's Day so by then we could claim to have been 'inside' for a year, 1941–1942, and I wondered who would let New Year in? At this time the general was making valiant efforts to establish some form of discipline and get us all back on a unit basis with a proper command structure. Up to this stage it had been a case of everyone fending for themselves.
It was not an easy task to instill a capacity for co-operation and self respect into men who had lost, and who felt a grievance. Becoming a Japanese Prisoner of War is indeed a sorry business bringing no credit to captor or the captured. A man's future is in pawn, all rights are forfeit, including one's own life, and you are the slave of the captor to do with you, as he will!
The general was fully aware of what was needed to put matters right and proceeded to do so, but first there must be some sort of an agreement with the Japanese on such matters as I have described, on food, medical and sanitary arrangements, cooking utensils, clothing, bedsteads, toilet paper, etc all of which were practically non existent. I am sure there were many difficulties, particularly as the Japanese had made it quite clear they did not subscribe, in any way to the Geneva Convention (on the treatment of Prisoners of War) but progress was made.
The Japanese accepted that the general should have full powers over prisoners within the camp, and I am sure, promised to do all they could to help! As a result of all this the Royal Army Ordnance Corps came into being as a unit once more, and I moved from my concrete floor to one of wood in Jubilee Buildings, to join my brother officers there. My isolation was short lived. In Jubilee there were additional compensations in the shape of water closets (the buildings had not been ransacked quite as much as other parts of the barracks presumably because of its more isolated position), electricity, source of power for hidden wireless sets whose operators provided daily BBC News bulletins, and for innumerable immersion heaters which appeared as if by magic. One of my room mates who had a safety razor blade holder, had found a discarded blade in one of the wash houses and with this, after considerable honing we were all able to shave for the next few months. By chance, the holder and blade were in my possession when in April 1942 all the officers were paraded preparatory to being transferred to Argyle Street camp. I used that blade continuously for the next three years, and, at an exhibition in 1946 at Olympia in London, offered it at a stand of the makers of this world renowned blade; to my surprise they were not interested!
So far the Japanese had provided only rice and a few very shallow containers in which to cook it, and some large twisted and knotted tree trunks that defied all means of reducing them to fuel wood, simply because we had no tools with which to chop them up! As the cookhouses had been stripped by looters of practically all fixed equipment and utensils, it was a lucky man who got a portion of his rice in the form known as 'cooked' and even so the wood to cook it came from timber of a dismantled hut! Most men were still living on the food they had brought with them, plus what could be obtained from 'across the fence' either as gifts from friends or relatives, or purchased from itinerant tradesmen. Of the people who daily stood at the camp boundary, many were young Chinese girls from nearby flats, bringing gifts for their boy friends, and known familiarly as 'Dahn Omers';or the wives, children, mothers, brothers, sisters, etc of many members of the Hong Kong Volunteer Defence Corps, who came, almost daily to bring what comfort and sustenance they could muster, to their captive relatives. One cannot speak too highly of the loyalty of these people, in particular of the Chinese girl friends who suffered much abuse and beatings from the Japanese guards, but came back constantly for more!
The next day I was sent for by my chief who had decided that all War Diaries would be written up to date and handed in to him. There were practically no facilities at all, but he had contrived to find some suitable paper and ink and got his chief clerk to sit down and make three copies of the Official Account of Ordnance Services in Hong Kong between September 1939 to the end of hostilities in December 1941, in his small and very neat handwriting.
It was realised there might be difficulties in successfully secreting the documents (which comprised three separate accounts covering the activities, during the war, of stores, ammunition and workshops aspects of hostilities; in fact a blow by blow account, plus an overall assessment by the 'Chief' and, if they were found, the penalties of being caught with them. They were enclosed in three homemade envelopes by the chief clerk and distributed by the chief to, as he put it, the three people most likely to survive captivity. I was surprised to find that I was one of them, while the chief would take another and the third would be carried by an armament staff sergeant of the workshops branch. Some three months later the chief was transferred with most of the officers from Shamshuipo to a new camp at Argyle Street, some 2 miles away, and his account which was, I believe, hidden in the false bottom of his kit bag, escaped detection. However, he was not so fortunate when, nearly a year later he was admitted to Bowen Road Hospital. Although he was a very sick man at the time he was most severely beaten up by the Japanese there, I believe on more than one occasion, when they read the contents. As a result of this treatment he sent a verbal message by a medical officer who was moving from Bowen Road Hospital to Shamshuipo instructing me to recover the copy from armament staff sergeant and destroy it at once, together with my own.
It was not possible to comply with this instruction because the staff sergeant had left for Japan in January 1943, with, I think, his copy safely sewn into the lining of his greatcoat.
During the time the staff sergeant was in Shamshuipo there were innumerable searches, including a special one when he was leaving for Japan, but the account was never discovered, and this was obviously the position in Japan as well. My own copy had already survived a number of searches, but it was securely hidden and there seemed no point in destroying it as one copy, that of the chief, was already lost, and so the position remained until after the Japanese surrender when it was taken to England and handed over. The copy safely carried by the armament staff sergeant was also taken back to England four years later, and duly handed over.CHAPTER 2
Some Order out of Chaos
Affairs in camp were looking up, there was a bit more discipline and not so much vandalism; we now had formed units and officers responsible for specific aspects of camp life; one noble Lord volunteered as the head sanitary man so the excreta was now all in one place, one hoped in the trench or tins provided. A so-called hospital had been established and a few iron beds obtained, but there were of course no drugs or any other medical supplies other than those the doctors had brought in with them. Someone had managed to fix up a shower from an old tin can, and as the weather was good, cool and sunny by day and very cool at night, it was tempting to wash off the grime of war and change into clean clothes (if you had any).
The shower was doing good business, but mostly no one had any soap and very few had towels, so, after getting well and truly wet it was a case of running shivering up and down the concrete tennis court to dry with most of the dirt still on. I well remember the commanding officer of the Middlesex Regiment seeing this for the first time commenting 'Zulus my dear fellow, Zulus!!' and I well recall my own words when asked if I was going to join the party and my reply that they would all get pneumonia, and for my part I would sooner be dirty than dead!
Excerpted from The Hard Way by Victor Stanley Ebbage, Andrew Robertshaw. Copyright © 2011 Major V.S. Ebbage. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents
Major Victor Stanley Ebbage MBE, BEM: A Brief Military Biography,
Foreword by Major General G.L.F. Payne,
Maps and Plan of Shamshuipo,
2. Some Order out of Chaos,
4. Exodus to Argyle Street,
6. Letters Home,
7. The Steam Oven,
8. The Party System,
9. Parsons & Books,
10. SS Lisbon Maru,
11. Working Parties,
12. Red Cross Supplies,
13. Pig & Poultry Farm,
14. Propaganda Draft,
15. Term Report or Salt Pans,
16. 'Albert' or Intelligence Tests,
17. Christmas 1943,
18. Ladder Bombing,
19. Return of Friends,
20. Money Matters,
21. Japanese Surrender,
Appendix 1: Report by Captain Ebbage, RAOC,
Appendix 2: Report on RAOC by Prisoners of War of Japanese in Shamshuipo,