The Wartime Memories of Chris Russell

Interview and Transcription by Zoe Booton on behalf of WarGen with Chris Russell about growing up in Stanley Internment Camp 1939-1945 and her life after the war. Saturday 17th November 2018.

Shall we start at the very beginning? How would you describe your childhood?

Well I was born in Hong Kong to…my father was a missionary, CMS missionary (Church Missionary Society), he’s Australian and he was very keen to go to China to do missionary work but after a while I think the Australian branch of the CMS pulled out of China when things were getting difficult so we transferred to the English CMS and therefore he was working for the English company…not a company but society.

We had an older brother and older sister who’d been left in England in boarding school in about 1937 I think and then my father and mother went back out to China and my sister…they took the baby which is my next sister and I was born out there in 1939 just a week after the outbreak of war in Europe but everything was still ok in China but I suppose I had a normal childhood for a year or so but the Japanese were gradually moving downwards and in the end my father was put in charge of a refugee centre for displaced Chinese who had been chased, rescued and so on but really jump from there to 1941 where Hong Kong fell to the Japanese to everybody’s shock and amazement and from then on there were some very difficult times.

 My father was taken by the Japanese and he was reported killed both in Hong Kong and his family in England while my mother was left with two little children aged 2 and 4 and the Japanese came and were sort of investigating the house wanting to take it over but the fact there were small children there they were probably less brutal to my mother. They apparently, well my mother says in a comment she said, ‘The children were very sweet with the soldiers’ and so they treated her reasonably well but eventually we too were taken. We were taken to a hotel that had been taken over by the Japanese, along with a lot of other British, were held in an upstairs corridor for I think it was two weeks with the windows blocked out and nothing but rice to eat and that was a pretty tough time I think especially for my mother.

By then my father had been rediscovered in this prison cell and he was brought to join us in the hotel which was like a prison camp temporary while they were preparing a civilian camp on Hong Kong Island. I think probably the first thing I remember is trip across when we were taken by boat across to Hong Kong Island. I was… I do remember going there even though I was only 2 and my mother has made some very good descriptions of the awful time it was. We were all crammed into one bedroom along with about ten other people for a few days or a few weeks. It was tough but from then on it was only just experience of Internment Camp.

How was it in the Internment Camp? How would you describe that experience?

It changed…I think English people were given the chance to go out to Australia to be evacuated to Australia but my mother didn’t want to leave my father so we decided to stay together so there weren’t that many children in the camp because quite a few of them had left at the very beginning but we were in a very cramped situation for the first while. I am not quite sure how long it was but then there was another time when there were some Americans were evacuated, taken away back to the states I suppose and we were then all moved and spread out a bit so from then on we all had a room to ourselves, father, mother and two children and that was home for the next four years I suppose. It was tough for the parents, the adults and I think one of the most telling comments my mother made was if they’d known how long it was going to go on for they probably wouldn’t have survived because they lived on hope they were always going to be…I mean it dragged on and on and on and things gradually got worse and worse and worse so food was very, very short.

What was your main diet?

Rice! And funnily enough I still love rice. I’ll have rice very happily and my parents as well as my mother used to use it in place of potatoes quite frequently so yeah rice and we used to keep some rice back and have it with wonton they used to call it and they would grate a bit of this wonton where they got it from to make it sweet so it was a bit like a dessert so but very little else some sort of gruel I don’t know what but so we all…we were all in a pretty poor shape by the end of the four years I was a very sickly child. My dad nearly lost his sight I think he was given special rations of banana or something because he was clearly suffering badly with his health but for a child…I mean it was the only childhood I knew so it was just a normal childhood.

I think one thing was bit by bit the adults became quite tetchy. It was so stressful for them and we kids we had to behave and not cause any trouble and I remember one horrible situation where I feel over and grazed my knee. Now that’s quite serious situation because things get infected and my sister was with me and she went back to sort of scout round to make sure my dad wasn’t in the room before I came for my mum to deal with it because he would have been so angry. He got very, very angry at times with the kids and I think all the adults were the same there was a lot of bitching and…but I think my mother’s comment was, ‘It was pretty awful but also it brought out the best in times in people’ as situations like that do and they learnt to make do with you know…another comment that we made…the toilets were very scarce sort of one between how many and so night time we had  a sort of tin can that you had to use if you wanted to have a wee in the night but this was valuable because it was taken outside and used as fertiliser when they were trying to grow crops with tomato seeds and lots of things they could get their hands on so there were gardens being kept by the residences as much as possible I remember that but it was I mean… thinking back I don’t have bad memories of it except being in trouble but the adults it must have been very hard having known a normal life to suddenly be deprived to that extent and such a lack of facilities and food and everything else but for a child it was my childhood that’s all I knew so we didn’t suffer in that way but yeah.

How were you treated by the guards?

I think as far as I remember they were good…they were no trouble to the children they were quite tolerant. There were different…there were some you knew to keep well clear of but they were very, very strict with the adult and there were some executions for people who like…somebody who tried to stow a radio and I think three of them were executed for that. The men were taken out on work shifts out into the fields under guard to do whatever they had to do. I am not sure what they did. I don’t remember any bad things from the Japanese soldiers and I think…I mean with all the residents that there were…there were teachers amongst them, doctors amongst them so everybody sort of pulled together and put what skills they had.

And we had a kind of school in one place they set up a…because my sister by…I mean she was 4 until 8 so she needed schooling and I remember going to the school it was probably a nice distraction for us and we learnt songs and were singing and all sorts and we had services held and I particularly remember an Easter service so we all learnt how to say that in German, ‘Jesus Christus ist heute auferstanden’ or something…Jesus Christ has risen today. Really for a child not so bad.

I had a little camp bed and my father I think slept on the floor on a sort of, well I don’t know what and I suppose my mother slept on the floor with him but obviously in the mornings it was all wrapped up so we had a bit of space to move around. My sister and I both had little camp beds so we were quite lucky. I can’t think what else.

Going back to the school then, what sort of things did you learn in school? Did you have a teacher, a qualified teacher?

Yes there must have been some teachers between the European captured people. We must have been alright because when we got back to school in England I think we weren’t massively behind or anything so there must have been…I’m sure a lot of people out there like expatriates from Britain or other places they were probably skilled people and they did well for us in the schools and the hospitals.

I remember…well we all got ill from time to time and we went to the little what they called a hospital I don’t know what sort of place that was but there were staff there, doctors there, nurses there who would look after us. I remember having a boil lanced under general aesthetic but I think for a child that age it was not a good start to life and yet here I am nearly 80 and my sister as well is going very well at 81 just about to be 82 I think so yeah it can’t have done us long term damage. The only thing from my point of view is that my doctor said, because I’m diabetic now, that but I’m fairly skinny and nobody can understand why but she wondered if it was something to do with the development of one’s organs or whatever and for the first three or four years I spent most of my time in the sanatorium because I was always sick and my sister used to write home, because we were in a boarding school, and she’d write home and she’d say, ‘Dear Mummy and Daddy, Christine’s in the san and I’m doing whatever’ was constant but obviously I got over it.

I came back aged 6 and that first winter I had very severe pneumonia and had to be taken home from school but we got through it.

So how did you get all of your supplies for schooling? Where did those all come from?

It’s hard for me to know. It’s a shame my mother’s not alive to tell you. She actually did write an account when she came back to England and it’s quite informative and that was from an adult perspective. She understates everything she would never dramatise it but she would I think there would be comment in that where she would get paper and pencils and so on from. I think whether there was a little shop that the Japanese held for us that we could go and purchase things if we had any money but I can’t say.

I suppose…well I remember one of my birthday presents or Christmas presents was just a little bit of coloured felt just something lovely to look at and too feel so yeah when you look at what kids get nowadays so I think it was a good thing in some ways looking ahead that we could survive on so little.

Clothing there was a comment that if a fathers shirt out grew they would pick out the bits that were still alright and sew them together and make shirt or shorts for the children I mean they had to be very inventive.

Yes definitely which I don’t think many people are nowadays we are very quick to get rid of things, if its broken you get rid of it and get a new one. I think we have lost those skills.

We don’t even darn anymore for socks because to be honest by the time you’ve darned it its probably gone through again but yes it had a lasting effect on my parents because they would always make do right the way through until they died ultimately and yes it taught us a way of life really to be frugal which is no bad thing.

Did you have any particular friends in the camp? You say there were not many children but did you have any particular friends?

I don’t remember any other European but there was a…I just seem to remember somebody called Conchita but we must have…. I do remember going to play on some rocky areas outside with one or two boys and a couple of girls so there were some and I have seen a book written by Sewell. I don’t know about again about the camp…not…didn’t sort of…I think I read it years and years ago but there were other children but say I would be in a group of about four or five clambering round the…we were quite free as children we were playing around outside and so on we weren’t kept in and there was no telly or entertainment so my dad used to draw things and then put them on the wall and we used to learn rhymes about them so it was an interesting sort of life thinking back.

Definitely. What did your parents do in the camp? Did they have any particular roles?

My dad was superintendant of our block I think. There is some…I mean I have got quite a lot of paperwork still that he passed on. He would have to chair meetings and there would be representatives all going  together to say what  problems they got because there were supposed to be allocated rations and we clearly weren’t getting the full amount of rations. I think the Japanese were talking it and this was recognised after the war maybe only ten, twenty years ago we had a payment from, I’ve still got the letter, all the people who survived the internment were given a £10,000 repayment which was absolutely amazing because I think it was supposed to be a compensation from the Japanese government for not supplying what the Red Cross had sent us but they purloined together as far as I gather and gave us the bare minimum so there was supposed to be a compensation but that was, as far as I understand it, wasn’t forthcoming from the Japanese so the British Government actually did do that which I thought was incredibly generous.

Recognition that…I had an aunt that was also in the camp but she was in quite a different area so I didn’t see a lot of her but she obviously is my mother’s sister and she would have also got some compensation. Both my parents would have died by then so…I don’t know anybody else now who was in the camp with us.

Like you said there were lots of different nationalities there and they all went their separate ways. Was it quite a big camp? This was Stanley Camp wasn’t it?

Stanley Camp yes. My sister has been to Hong Kong since the one that survived. In fact they both did but she sent me a photograph of all that was remaining of the camp was simply a plaque saying this was the whatever it was…I’ve got a photograph of it somewhere.

What did you do for entertainment? You say you went out with the other children. What did the camp do for entertainment?

We used to have meetings on the stairs because we were in big blocks we weren’t under canvas we were in big blocks and they would meet on the stairs and have some candlelit light and they’d have speeches or some times they would put on a sort of concert thing. I don’t rememeber those personally but my mothers report. What else did they do? I think whatever you would do in a group of people that were all held yeah I think they did what they could.

I think our school was either morning or afternoon because we had to take turns. I am not such a good person to speak to because I was so young but my sister might know a little bit more.

I know you would be interested to read my mothers account. I think her comment just at the end she explained what they used to do for entertainment and lighting an that sort of thing and food. They used to have to queue for hours to, under a sort of canteen place, to get your rice or whatever so they were quite busy doing that. Another thing that kept them busy was my mother used to have to take out the bedding because of bed bugs and she used to have to put them out in the sun and inspect everything before you put it back because people didn’t realise that you get bed bugs and stuff so it was worth taking a lot of effort to keep it clean. I can’t think of any other comments really.

How aware were you of what was going on outside camp? Was it sort of a little bubble?

We were not very aware at all. My dad might have kept it…I don’t know whether they were able to keep in touch at all, possibly not. There might have been letters sensored that went from time to time but not very well except when there were raids. At one time the Allies were raiding the Japanese and the planes were coming over very low and we were very scared of that eventhough it was probably our people that were doing it. I think one time there was a bomb fell quite close to where we were.

Oh there was an interesting thing where somebody died that we knew quite well or my parents did so we went to this funeral that was held and they actually had a coffin and my sister who was that bit more aware of things, when they started to lower it she said, ‘Well that’s a terrible waste of a coffin to leave!’ and then she had it explained they don’t leave it they have a trapdoor and then they bring it back out again for the next person so there wasn’t the waste in that but for her to think, ‘Goodness me they are going to  waste all that wood’ beacasue we had our floorboards were ripped up to use for wood to cook I remember that very well it was a sort of tar canvas stuff on the floor and the floorboards had been ripped up so they could cook whatever they were cooking or heating or…it is just sort of random memories.

I can’t imagine having to cope with it but as you say that is all you had known that was your normal.

For me it wasn’t really for me a hardship…I suppose the long term effect was that I was so poorly when I came home and was struggling but as a child it was just my life and I knew no other. I do think it does have a deep effect on me that the adults must have suffered so trying to imagine how they would have felt for all this long time, it is a long time isn’t it.

Yes four years is a long time to be trapped.

I remember coming home and this wouldn’t be obviously there in the war it was ’45, we came home at the very end of 1945 and we were on a troop ship and I remember coming and stopping at Suez and of course we had our tropical clothing and little else and no spare clothes and the Red Cross fitted us out with some clothes that we could wear in England and it was amazing so we went off to school very shortly after that, January ’46 with out Red Cross clothing. So that was wonderful really.

Do you remember the day when it all ended?

Well I don’t really remember anything particualr but there must have been an amazing celebration but I think we had to all stay where we were. We were instructed don’t do anything til I think that was possibly when my father had some jobs to do to maintain order to some extent becasuse the Japanese guards were no longer in charge so I don’t know how things went at that stage sort of the organisation of it.

The person who was apparently the governor of Hong Kong at the time was someboday called Mr Jimpson and it just so happened that his birthday was on the same day as mine and he was obviously the man in charge I suppose of the evacuation at the end but I remember when we were first home on my first birthday I got a telegram from this important man saying happy birthday which was  big thing for my family but just by chance Mr Jimpson I’m not actually…general/colonal I don’t know exactly what his position was so I have still got that telegram.

So what has life from that camp instilled in you from then until now? You say you are all still quite thrifty.

I think I still am yes. I think my father…some people would have taken a while to sort of forgive the Japanese for the way they treated us but my father was a very forgiving man and we had one or two Japanese people come and stay with us not so long afterwards. People he had met I suppose through the Church prior to his interment so that was quite nice really. We had a lot of visitors from China aswell, my father did a lot of work they called deputation work where at weekends he was always going talking and preaching at a lot of different churches and my mother would entertain these foreign visitors and that was quite nice.

I am alwasy concious…I am kind of proud of the fact that my dad did that and I think I made a comment in one of my notes that my parents must have regretted keeping us there when my mother had the oppertunity to take us away at the very start because they never knew how long it was going to go on for.

My mother was a good person. Very old fashioned and never quite grasped how things we changing in this country so we suffered a little bit from that because with food…if a child nowadays hates something you wouldn’t give it to them whereas we had to eat the most appauling stuff because my mother would say, ‘It’s food, it’s food you don’t reject any food’. I mean its one thing we had an outdoor safe sort of thing instead of a fridge in the house we had this sort of meat safe thing just outside the back door and she had some bacon in there I think it was and there was a maggot on it so a fly had obviously got in and all she did was brush the maggots off and that sort of frugailty of my mothers…I never had a single thing of clothing bought for me from new until I was 16 because if she could get hold of it anywhere else and I didn’t feel it was a hardship really. Our family thing was my older sister…if anybody came in with anything, some garment they didn’t recognise they would say, she’d say, ‘Oh, who’s was it?’ Because we never had stuff and my mum found it very difficult to adapt to a normal life which I think was a bit tough on us kids but that’s life.

Was it quite a change then when you came back? Did you come straigh back to England?

We came straight back to England because my dad was Australian so he was in a foreign country we stayed with my Grandmother who had been looking after my older brother and sister so they were 14 and 12 when we came back and we were 6 and 8 and we hadn’t seen each other and they hadn’t seen their parents for the past seven years I think it was because you then had trips of four years and then another four years and so my older brother and sister were really brought up by my  Grandmother but we all went to the Church boarding school that my mother herself had been to the same boarding school so our life really was boarding school which was I always enjoyed it. I was lucky, I was very lucky.

Apprently, my older sister came to see me in my first four weeks in school because she would be in the senior school and I was in the junior school and she said, ‘Have you made any friends? Who’s your friends?’ and I said, ‘Oh everybody!’ so I was obviously a very happy child so I don’t think it did us any harm.

It only left a legacy with my mother particularly but she just couldn’t adpat to more normal life but it didn’t seem to do us any harm really. I think we felt a little deprived at times. For instance we had to take our toiletries and stuff like that that at the beginning of term to school and my mother had sent Frida, my older sister, with some Sturgeen that you would use for washing up and that was for her to wash her hair with and the staff at school, that’s not acceptable so they had to go out and buy some shampoo but things like that if it will do that’s what you’ll have there is no attempt to modernise.

I suppose she had gone through so much already that she was quite happy with if it works, it works.

I had this thing that I remember as a sort of legacy of camp when I left school when I was 16 but I was moved up so I had actually taken my A Levels by then and normally you would go back to what they call Founders Day after your first time after you’ve left and I hadn’t any suitable clothes to go in but I still had my school suit which had been passed onto me when I was at school and I said, ‘ I cannot go back to school in my school suit when I’ve left. You can’t do that’ and she wouldn’t accept that I needed something and my headmistress wrote afterwards saying, ‘I’m disgusted you didn’t make the effort to come to Founders Day.’ That hurt.

Where did you go to boarding school?

Limpsfield, Surrey. Lovely place right in the middle of Limpsfield common so we were lucky we used to go out for walks every Sunday around the surrounding areas and on Sunday in the summer term we used to go out to Chruch either Titsey or Limpsfield or another I can’t rememeber which and we’d walk out there and that was always enjoyable and cross country was just over the common and so it was a lovely place to be but we were very enclosed we didn’t go out to towns or whatever.  

I suppose coming back from the camp that wasn’t a shock that was quite a luxury?

It was lovely, I have always loved being outdoors. Yes it was totally. I am not suprised I was happy there it was not as if we had had this massive fondness of our parents because we were scared of them basically so going away to boarding school was no hardship at all and we used to go home and find it a bit boring at home and look forward to going back. Which is kind of sad if you think but still it was good.

What did your parents do after the war?

My father carried on…he didn’t come back with us he stayed in China to try and re establish the Church and he came back some time later but then he went back out abroad again and so on that’s why we were in this boarding school.

My mother I suppose just stayed and helped my Grandmother…it wasn’t our house, it wasn’t her house she was renting it and two years later, two years after we came back my father got a house from the CMS in North London so we grew up in Enfield really, I was aged 8 when we moved and we lived there in North London which wasn’t as nice as school but it was lovely it was a big house because my mother came with use so we were a family of seven so we had quite a big house. It wasn’t ours it was the CMS house and that was nice and we kept chickens well my mother kept chickens and stuff it was good but I did miss in the holidays my school friends, we knew nobody so I always felt I would have like to have gone to a local school so I could have local friends but it didn’t happen. I mean probably it did us good to keep on with the same school we were fortunate.

What a difference from Hong Kong to North London that must have been a shock to the system.

Leighton Buzzard was nice because that was quite sort of realtively rural, London not quite so much but yeah I used to…my Grandmother had a quite old fashioned bike with a…but I learnt to ride on that and I used to ride around the streets and that on my own as my sister wasn’t into that sort of thing. She was more domesticated than me but she’s still alive and she still lives in Enfield, she’s moved but she’s back there now as you do. I’ve got some good memories as it’s quite an unusal sort of childhood.

But very interesting! Something that not many people can say they have lived through and experienced I can imagine. Such a broad…you must have been exposed to so many things that people these days don’t get to mix with so many different peoples and different cultures it is quite amazing.

I’ve always…my parents were fluent in Cantonese and we as little children like up to the age of 2 in camp we had what they called armours like a nanny that come and look after us and we were able to speak Cantonese aswell as that is what they spoke to us and when we first went into camp my parents tried to carry on speaking to us to retain this knowledge but as we always spoke English to our parents and Cantonese to the Chinese we just laughed at them when they tried to speak to us in Chinese so we lost it unfortunatley. I only know bits that I have been taught since.

Children are like sponges at that age. They can pick up so many languages and its harder when you get older.

Yes I mean you do you just absorb. I have got a Great-Grandson now of 2 1/2 and his vocabulary is amazing I mean he just comes out with things that you’d never expect a 2 year old to come out with things that he’s heard or repeated from his parents.  It’s quite nice seeing him as that is probably the age I went into camp so I am sort of thinking what memories will he pick up. He’s quite a bright little thing so I think I would be fairly aware.

And you can probably see it from an adults point of view verses a small child how stressful that must have been to try and keep them happy aswell as keeping them going.

One thing we were told when we first went into the camp because we were taken across the water from land China to Hong Kong Island there was a scramble to get the best accomodation and of course my parents had two little kids and any luggage they could carry and we were probably the last to get over and we ended up in this room probably the size of this with so many other and my mother describes it, one or two sleeping on the doormat and another sleeping…it was really very, very tough they must have been in absolute despair. Two children that size to look after it must have been horrific.

One great thing my mother did she took a sewing machine with her a hand Singer sewing machine which she used in camp to make things up and she managed to take it with her from Nathan Road it was in Hong Kong to Kowloon wrapped in a blanket because she was probably not allowed to take it but she had the forethought to desguise it and take it and it was just so useful and I mean a lot of people used it aswell.

I bet she was very popular when they found out she had that!

That was such good foresight. I mean she was carrying that with any clothing they had got plus two small children which was very hard.

She sounds like such an amazing lady I don’t know how she did that. To have that choice aswell of you can all be safe or wait for your husband must have been such a wrench for her. To finish on what would you say…if you had to give advice to people I suppose my age what would you say to them now? What advice would you give to somebody now with what you have been through?

Well I suppose just learn to make the most of what you have not constantly look for better but try and be happy and share because whatever your deprivations are as long as there is good human interaction people care for each other. Try and be content.

It’s the people that matter not the things.

Yes definately.

It has been lovely to speak to you! Thank you very much!

Letter from Mrs Wittenbach to her husband Rev Wittenbach on December 21st 1941.

Darling Harry,

At last I have a chance to try and send you a note. About 10:45 this morning, the bearer of this note, W Nicholas, wandered in, and asked if there were a church service. I was out in the garden with the children. We were, in fact, planning to have a service at 11 am, as we did last Sunday. Last Sunday there were 13 present, today 16, including the children and myself. We are living here as normally as possible. The Japanese have been in several times, 3 times into our house, but they have only asked questions and looked around. Friday 19th Dec. was the first time they came into our house. We conversed, awkwardly, at first in English, later more fluently in Cantonese, though one of them who spoke it very well. They wrote down on a piece of paper in English that all Englishmen in Rowloon were held up for several days. I asked what held up meant and they said locked up. So I suppose you are locked up. They said you might have been killed, to which I replied I didn’t think so; when they asked why, I said, if you submit to the Japanese they do not kill you – which made them smile a little. They asked why I hadn’t run away, I said, no one had told me to leave, and I didn’t want to leave, as this was my home. They seemed surprised to find us here, but they said we could continue to live here and they would protect us. The children were quite charming to them, and, I felt, helped to make things go well for us. The officer of that small group came again, with one other soldier in the late afternoon, but after strumming on the piano for a while, and sitting on the settee, they at last went away, the officer politely shaking hands! The group who came on Saturday, yesterday, about 2pm were led by an apparently higher officer who seemed to know English well. They looked into the downstairs rooms only, and into the hall of the church. The first group had also gone round all our bedrooms and onto the roof. So far we have enough to eat; thanks to the fact that our servants’ friends managed to secure some rice and some flour in the general looting, which they are kindly sharing with us. Our servants friends who lodged here for a couple of nights when the Japanese first came in, also gave us a few tins of fish and a tin of fruit and a tine of corn! secured in the same way! Now there is food to be brought in the streets at a very high price, from about 80 cents a lb, a tin of sardines for $1.20, and so on. We brought a catty of Paak t’soi through the kitchen window for 60 c. We have lettuces and carrots, just some, not a great many, in the garden. I haven’t been off the premises since we got back here just before mid-day on Thursday the 11th Dec. It seems that at some unpredictable time the soldiers stop people. It they don’t stop promptly enough when called to, they are liable to be shot. There has been considerable looting some of the flats in Hillwood Road were looted on Thursday the night of the 11th. According to a woman servant who used to work there, Phillip’s house has been taken over by the Japanese. The women guests have gone elsewhere to live and the men were taken into custody, as far as I could understand. One has to take all these stories with a grain of salt, but that one seems probable enough. Mr Nicholas is an officer from the boat Fukon. On which lies between H.K. and Macao. His boat moved away while he was on shore. The flat he used to occupy with a Mr Murphy of the Star Ferry has been looted and occupied by despuadoes with guns and he says he has just wandered about and slept on doorsteps lately. He had lunch with us today, but purposes to get himself interned along with any other British men he can find, in order to get something to eat. He paid 10 cents for a cup of tea without milk or sugar this morning, but had had no food for 2 days until he came here. He offered to try to find you, and take a note. Our servants are afraid, so far, to go out, so I can hardly ask them to try and take a letter to you. If I tried to come to you, I might be stopped and unable to return to our home or till the next day as has happened to other people. I can hardly set out to walk so far with the two children. I do not like to risk leaving them possibly for hours, or all night. Moreover, I do not know where you are. If you have been shut up at Kowloon Hospital or Central British School, I do not know whether I should be allowed to see you. Perhaps I shall be able to get a tung hang ching some time, but up till now the servants seem to think It would be better for me to stay in. The children are being very good and are not afraid of the noise, usually. Frida sleeps in your bed. We all go to bed at dusk, as we have no lamps or electric light. I have about two candles and the big torch, all of which I am saving. The scouts left about 2 dozen wick cases, without batteries, I find. Constance has been out and says she saw Mrs Robinsons’ mother, Mrs Ashwan, but no Europeans at all. The children are able to have milk here which I doubt if they would get it if we were shut up any of these locked up places. We have steamed puddings instead of bread, and boiled rice and tinned meat or fish. Ating has killed his ducklings, for want of food for them, and gave us two legs of the big one. We still have Christmas puddings or cake. There is still a little grapenuts and groats and macaroni and tinned goods and sugar. The Japanese in the first group said they wanted to borrow the hall and church, but they haven’t moved in yet. They would doubtless occupy this home if we were not here, – or else it might be looted. The servants would leave if we did. I telephoned to Mr Nielson after we got back and offered to have one of the Tao Fung Shon ladies and her children living here. Mrs Telle has been here and looked over the home and left a note while we were with you. Mr Neilson was very grateful but Mrs Telle didn’t come. There were air raid warnings and next thing we know the looters were around. A man named Woodruff, Emasion, I think from Hillwood Road has been in here a few times and offered to help in any way he can but I think there is nothing he can do. I don’t know whether you ANS are shut up with you or whether they were sent to H.K or just went home. We are comfortable but do not know what the future holds as we have not much food and not much money. I did not get to the bank so have only a small amount, about fifty odd, in the house. Whether anyone would let us have food on credit I do not know. Anyway I can hardly set out to come to you as I do not know where you are. God has a plan and we must trust his leading.

Lots of love from Gertrude.

Notes on internment by the Japanese, in Kowloon and in Stanley Camp, Hong Kong, written by Mrs H G Wittenbach soon after her return to England towards the end of 1945.

The Japanese attacked Hong Kong early in the morning of the 8th December 1941. There were Japanese planes overhead, and anti-aircraft guns were fired while we were having breakfast. My husband had received a warning by telephone a little earlier in the morning so he hurried along to the emergency hospital where he was to work, and on the way he suggested to some Chinese that they should take cover , but they said ‘It’s only practising.’ But people soon found that it was real enough, and almost at once there was no more bread to be bought. Hong Kong Island was better organised, but in Kowloon on the mainland, where we lived, it was very difficult to buy food.

The Japanese occupied Kowloon on December 12 and went on attacking Hong Kong till the surrender on Christmas Day. Being in occupied territory, we were safer than if we had been in Hong Kong, but we were very short of food. The children were aged two and four respectively, and they behaved very well. A fairly big gun was set up somewhere near the Vicarage, and it was sickening to hear it being fired towards Hong Kong. We used to go indoors when we heard anti-aircraft fire, and later on we picked up a number of pieces of shrapnel, but we were not afraid of bombs. The few British aeroplanes had all been put out of action right at the beginning of the attack. My husband was interned with about fifty members of the hospital staff on the day Kowloon was taken, but I did not know anything about that for some weeks. A few days before Christmas a Japanese officer who spoke good English cam around making a list of all the enemy nationals he could find. He told me that my husband was in the Kowloon Hotel, and that we might have to go too. But we were left at the Vicarage for about two more weeks.

On Christmas day the cook managed to buy 4 or 5 pounds of rice, which was a great relief. If our servants hadn’t managed to get some looted rice and flour, which they shared with the children and me, I don’t know what we should have done. Then on about January 6th we were called for and taken to the Kowloon Hotel to join the gradually increasing number of British and Americans who were being shut up there. Our Family of four shared a room with an American couple. We were given plain boiled rice and boiling water twice a day. On two days we were given a small helping of vegetables. The windows overlooking the road had brown paper pasted onto them, which made the rooms rather gloomy. Actually we opened them occasionally, and it probably wasn’t noticed as we were on the fourth floor, but the Japanese don’t like being looked down on from a height. We were not allowed to go onto the flat roof, or down to the ground floor, but we could walk about in the passages. Our rice was served on the landings outside our rooms, and we never went near a dining room.

After 16 days of this rather dreary existence we were taken to Stanley, on the south side of Hong Kong island. It was pleasant to be out in the open air again – the first time for about six weeks for some of the people – but it was cold sitting on the deck of a small steamer by which we travelled. At Stanley we were housed in the prison officers’ living quarters and in St Stephen’s College, a CMS boys’ boarding school. The buildings were comparatively new, and had electric light and modern sanitation, but we were frightfully crowded. We were not allowed to certain rooms, but just had to pack in as best as we could in the buildings we were directed to. For the first three nights ten of us slept in a room measuring 12 feet by 15 feet. Certainly one was a small baby, who didn’t take up much room but cried a good deal, and three others were small children. The baby slept in a basket, one small girl in a cot and our two children on a door mat, an elderly Canadian couple on a larger door mat and the other four of us on the floor without mattresses. There was hardly room to step between the various ‘beds’ but as it was cold weather we didn’t mind huddling up. The electric sub-station had been damaged by a bomb, so we had no lights for about two weeks. It was lovely when they did come on! After the first three days one family left our room, so we were comparatively comfortable with only six, and that was how we stayed until the Americans were repatriated at the end of June 1942 and there was room for a little spreading out.

From that time on our family of four had a room measuring 12 ft by 15 ft to ourselves, and considered ourselves most fortunate. Many of the rooms were larger than ours and were occupied by several married couples, or by unattached people of the same sex. The tiny rooms intended for Chinese servants were greatly sought after and were mostly occupied by a mother with a small child or elderly couples. One of the sorest trials of our internment was having to live in such close quarters. Everyone was apt to be nervy when we became increasingly undernourished, so there was a good deal of bitter quarrelling. On the other hand, people used to help each other a great deal, taking it in turns to queue up for food or drinking water. When we first went to Stanley the food was much better than in the Kowloon Hotel, and if we had known that what we should be reduced to later on we should have thought ourselves fortunate.

The Japanese were at first quite generous in the amount of electric current they allowed us to use, and most little groups of people had electric hot-plates. Most of these were made in camp. The first one we had was made of a flower pot filled with a mixture of clay and cement in which a winding groove was formed to hold the element wire. Very good hot-plates were made by cutting grooves in sections of unglazed floor tiles ‘scrounged’ from the flat roofs. The first wire we bought cost 9 military yen, and it seemed terribly expensive, but as the years dragged on and the money depreciated in value, the price went up to 80 yen. We used to patch the wire with bits of tin when it burnt out, but by the time t had about 20 patches, it was liable to burn out several times in the course of cooking one batch of pan-cakes; then one would be driven to buy a new one, or else cook on fires made of sticks or grass, which was very messy by comparison. By degrees the amount of current we were allowed to use was cut down, until there was none at all, even for lighting. We had no paraffin for lamps, but we contrived to make very small lamps which burnt peanut oil. As peanut oil, or bean oil, was out only fat, we couldn’t afford to use much for lights. In fact, the Japanese forbade us to burn it. No doubt they were right, but it is very trying to be completely without lights, for there are no long light evenings in the tropics. We just chatted or went to bed, or else attended talks and lectures which were given on the staircases, because they provided a fair amount of seating accommodation. Usually the speaker had a small light to read notes by, for the rule about not burning oil was not very strictly enforced, as long as the black-out rule was effective.

The camp was situated in a beautiful spot, and we had a plenty of room out of doors, though very little indoors. Gradually the open spaces were dug up for vegetable cultivation. In the poor soil of Hong Kong fertilisers are absolutely necessary in order to produce reasonable crops. For the communal gardens the sludge from the septic tanks was used, and for private gardens people used whatever they could get. Kitchen refuse was greatly in demand, but towards the end even that was supposed to be all saved for the communal gardens.

Right from the start we had regular Sunday services in Camp. The Roman Catholics had separate services, but all the Protestants combined, with very happy results. The Japanese never interfered with religious services, but a list had to be submitted to them beforehand of all the gatherings that were proposed to be held. On one occasion permission was asked for a midnight Communion service – at Christmas, or New Year. They wanted to know all about it, and when it was explained that at a Communion service bread and wine were used, they thought they had got the idea at last, and said ‘Very sorry, cocktail parties not permitted.’ We had Communion services at normal hours without any trouble or special permission, though water had to do instead of wine once or twice. We very seldom had collections of money at the services, but we had collections of dry rice to provide ingredients for the bread two or three times in the latter months when food was scarce.

School for the children was started soon after we went to camp, though the space available was hardly sufficient , and most of the children only had two hours a day. Paper was scarce, and we were asked to save the labels from tins, when we had Red Cross parcels, so that the backs could be used for writing on. (Actually we had only about six Red Cross parcels each during more than three and a half years.) All the same, a number of pupils took the Hong Kong University Matriculation exam. As many of the University staff were in camp, it was quite easy to sit and correct papers. One post card from Arthur Gaunt, in the prisoner-of-war camp over in Kowloon, said he was busy on the same job as in a certain previous year, which meant correcting examination papers.

Besides school for the children and several series of lectures on various subjects for the general public, we had a great many entertainments , most of which were very well got up and a great help towards keeping up the camp morale. The assembly hall at St Stephen’s College, which had a gallery and a platform, served very well both for Church and for entertainments. It was also used for school, as all the rooms normally used as class rooms were occupied as living quarters. There were about 2,400 people in Camp, and there was plenty of talent amongst us! We had plenty of doctors, and quite a number of nurses, but people hadn’t the strength to work for as many hours a day as in normal times. Many auxiliary nurses and VADs used to go down to the hospital to work for two hours a day. When the electric supply was greatly reduced, owing to shortage of fuel in the colony, and they couldn’t spare much current to work the pumping engines at the waterworks, we only had water through the pipes once in 3 days, and for a short period, only once in 5 days. During that time water had to be carried by hand from a stream to supply the various camp kitchens. The sawing and chopping of wood for cooking was heavy work, and when the wood ration was not sufficient, parties of men used to go out under escort and cut grass for fuel.

We were all very free and easy as regards clothes. Soap was scarce, so it was necessary to soil as few garments as possible. The majority of the men went around in khaki shorts, without shirts, and many without shoes either in the hot weather. Most of the children and some of the women also went bare-footed, though people were quite ingenious about making shoes out of all sorts of things. Many people never had sheets, though nearly everyone got a bed of shorts by degrees. Mostly these were canvas camp beds, though some were boards supported on ARP concrete blocks. Naturally there had to be a constant fight against bed-bugs. We had no insecticides and, except in the hospital, no disinfectants. Boiling water was about all one could use on camp beds, though it was not really hard to keep them down with constant watchfulness. The tendency to think, ‘It can’t happen here’ had to be guarded against. It was hard work to carry camp beds down into the open air, and examine them in the bright light of day, when we were definitely weak from malnutrition, and it was a great temptation to hope for the best. Even packing up one’s bedding and folding away a camp bed every day to make space did not disturb the bed-bugs sufficiently to keep them off. I think we learnt to be more sympathetic towards poor and overcrowded and underfed people – for after all, there are plenty of people in the world who are worse off all their lives then we were for those three and a half years.

After VJ Day when the British Navy came to Hong Kong, and brought us food that seemed like heaven, they also bought DDT. It reduced the flies in the kitchens like magic, and we were told that a bed, well sprayed with it, would remain free from vermin for at least 300 days (or some remarkable length of time), but fortunately we were not there long enough to prove that.

With regard to being interned, one might say, as one of the Commandos did on the way home after the Burma campaign, ‘It’s all right when it’s over.’

Author: shane

1 thought on “The Wartime Memories of Chris Russell

  1. A very interesting interview which compares with the experiences of Jim Stewart and Judy Harding who were interned with their parents in a camp in the Philippines at about the same time and for the same period – see .
    I wonder if the hotel they stayed in at the start was the Repulse Bay Hotel? This was certainly used at that time and was also the centre of some fighting.
    A small point is the Chinese servant (and often nanny) is an ‘amah’ rather than amour. – Just a small point.
    Very interesting interview, though, as I said.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.