ERIC CORDINGLY was a chaplain with a territorial
battalion of the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers during the Second
World War. In 1942, his battalion was part of the Allied forces in
Singapore when they surrendered to Japan.
Cordingly was held in the vast former military barracks
in Changi, in the north-east of Singapore, and kept the diary from
which these extracts are taken. In April 1943, he was sent, with
7000 prisoners, by the Japanese to what is now Thailand as part of
"F" Force, to work on the Burma railway. Cordingly survived; 45 per
cent of the labour force died.
He was later sent back to Changi, and his
three-and-a-half years in captivity ended when Allied paratroopers
entered the camp in September 1945, after the surrender of
February 1942 The whole area is quite free of
Jap guards; very occasionally a Jap patrol of 3 (known to us as
Freeman, Hardy, and Willis) will ride through on bicycles, or
officers will rush through in cars. We are quite free to roam about
our area as we wish. The first few days here were spent in settling
in, some in buildings, some in tents, others in all sorts of weird
and fantastic home-made huts and shelters.
In the area in which we live there are about 3500 of us.
Officers and men are together, which is most unusual in prison
camps. The situation is even more unique and odd, because we are
living, as it were, in a peace-time camp, with the officers looking
after the men.
We organise our own routine, and punishments, and fatigues, and
rules, and at present have provided our own guards. There are no
Jap guards, and we have now wired ourselves in, and have our own
military police at the various gates.
Of course, there are Japanese in evidence outside, and they have
warned us that anyone seen outside the wire will be shot; three
Gunners and six Australians have already been executed.
IT MUST be obvious that in our present circumstances as
prisoners of war the work of a padre can be tremendous: his scope
is as never before in his life, his opportunities are enormous.
Together, men have faced grim things and are ready to turn to God.
Men now have leisure forced upon them.
Gone temporarily is the rush and hurry and noise of a working,
fighting world, and away in a quiet corner of the world men are
inevitably taking stock of themselves. As a padre, one is so
grateful for the chance one has been given, and the response to his
efforts is repaid all the way along.
On the day after our imprisonment, I discovered next to our
billet a delightful building, almost hidden by flowering shrubs and
trees, purples and reds in profusion. It was a fairly large white
building, with wide verandahs on three sides. At one end were steps
leading to a minaret upon which was a dome, and this was surmounted
by the familiar Star and Crescent. It was a Mosque for the Indian
troops who once lived in this area and whose accommodation we are
The white-washed interior of the Mosque was most attractive, a
large central "nave" revealing the typical Moorish style of
architecture in the curiously shaped arches supporting the roof.
Between the arches of the nave there was a low wall topped with red
tiles, and at intervals set into the sides of these walls were some
moulded glazed tiles, turquoise in colour, they were pierced to
admit a pattern of light. Beyond the low walls were the verandahs
roofed with [palm leaves].
Two gates on wrought-iron hinges gave entry into the building.
Beyond the nave was a smaller "chancel', and the sun was streaming
through a vertical line of those turquoise tiles which were set
into both sides of this chancel. When first I entered the Mosque it
was bare of furniture, except that in the chancel stood what is, I
believe, called Allah's Chair, and a cupboard filled with Muslim
books. It was obvious immediately that this little Mosque was
admirably suitable for a Church.
Subsequently, as our various ideas and plans have been
fulfilled, I am convinced that in this tropical climate, it is a
most suitable and sound, as well as aesthetic design for a
Christian place of worship, it is both light and pleasantly cool,
being open on three sides.
It was not difficult to get permission to use the building; once
having this I soon had volunteers, both officers and men, who spent
their first Saturday in captivity in making a Church. The results
were almost miraculous. In one day, we had made a Church. . .
MY MAIN supply of Altar Wine had to be left with our abandoned
kit, I had only a small quantity in my field communion set, so for
the first Sunday at crowded services I told those present I should
use the ancient custom (as I believe it is) of intinction. I
consecrated a tiny quantity in the Chalice and then dipped the half
wafer into the Chalice and administered direct into the mouth, I
did this for two Sundays and had no grouses!
As we are ambitious here, we are now making our own wine. We
have collected several pounds of raisins. I have not questioned the
source of the supply, it is unwise to ask too much about anything
which is acquired unusually. But with the help of my Sacristan
(incidentally the Supply Officer and an important person), and our
Mess Cook (a Server, too), we have produced wine from raisins,
which after all is wine from grapes.
The recipe is as follows: a mug full of raisins and a pint of
water and two large tablespoonsful of our precious sugar. This
mixture cooked and strained and left to ferment produces a deep
amber wine full of flavour. I have made many bottles of this, and
it is excellent and perfectly suitable, we should now be able to
last for a long time.
Simple and rich
March 1942 The Church was packed for Evensong
last night, and half an hour before the service it was impossible
to get a seat. For many minutes before the service there is much
carrying of forms and seats. All the officers who come bring their
own chairs with them. It is an amusing sight to watch men
approaching from all directions carrying chairs of all sorts and
descriptions, camp chairs, wicker chairs, easy chairs, home-made
To hear the hymns and psalms and canticles sung by several
hundred men and led by a finely trained choir is most inspiring.
The choir is really magnificent, and of course, sings
unaccompanied, but with simple and rich harmonies. They thrilled us
last night with an anthem, "Comrades".
I am wondering whether to abandon a vague idea I have of
attempting to build a small pipe organ. There seems no limit to the
ingenuity and "Swiss Family Robinson" activity. There has been
installed a pulpit light made from the dashboard light and battery
of a broken down car.
After a very disturbed couple of nights I have succumbed to the
prevalent "Tummy trouble", a mild sort of dysentery. One feels
awfully weak through it, and this is aggravated by a starvation
diet of liquids only, no rice is allowed. The "doc" has promised to
have me fit in a day or so, and I have insisted on this as Holy
Week and Easter are only a few days away. His dope of Bismuth and
chloroform or some similar concoction seems to be working
I have been overwhelmed during the day by the kindnesses and
practical comradeship of everyone here. First the gift of two
packets of cigarettes, a treat and a sacrifice be-cause they are
practically non existent. (Cigarettes can occasionally be smuggled
into the camp and cost ten dollars for fifty which is about
Officers and men have been drifting in and out all day. The
various members of the mess staff whom I have known so well for two
years, have brought me several mugs of real tea with a really
generous dose of tinned milk and sugar in it. How one does
appreciate these simple oddments, which are to us almost unheard of
April 1942 On a wet afternoon a little bearded
Indian arrived on the pillion of a motorcycle. He came straight to
me where I was busy giving a talk in Church. He introduced himself
as the Moslem priest whose mosque we were now using. He had come
for his prayer books, which fortunately I had saved and kept hidden
in my cupboard. He was overjoyed to receive them, and in "pidgin"
English we introduced each other as "padres" of religion.
He rather surprised me with his broadminded remark that he was
glad that I was using his building, and that it was being used for
the worship of God.
SITTING in my little room in the sweltering heat of an April
afternoon, and looking beyond the Church to the sea a mile away, I
wonder, as we all do, how long this captivity will last, will it be
months or years? How will it all end, and how shall we be released?
We get no news of the world and the war, except fantastic rumours,
too startling and optimistic even to contemplate.
The days pass quickly enough, for most of us have as much work
as we can tackle, yet it seems that we have been here a very long
time. I suppose this is due to our regular daily routine and the
familiarity of our surroundings, and the absence of news of the
most important things in our lives - our homes and our
No daily bread
FOOD is still one of the major considerations each day, and we
live from meal to meal. Never has food assumed such vital
proportions. Naturally it forms one of the main topics of talk and
provides ample scope for grouses and criticism.
Many new recipes for the treatment and camouflage of rice are
being tried, among them is a highly successful porridge made of
ground rice, and also an "ersatz" coffee made from roasted rice.
The latter is quite palatable and not unlike coffee.
Once a month we have bread from our own camp bakery. It is a
much looked-forward-to treat, and is made on the sour dough
principle. I believe it is the Biblical way of making bread by
using some of the previous day's dough, which has fermented, to
"leaven the lump" or new dough.
ONE of the saddest and most distressing parts of a padre's life
here concerns funerals. Often I have officiated at five and six in
a week. It is made more poignant because the deaths nowadays are
mainly from dysentery, a preventable and quite unnecessary
The funerals are always well carried out and are military in
character. A hundred or so men will be on parade, wreaths will have
been made, a bugler is there.
Standing at the entrance of the newly constructed military
cemetery, just outside our wired-in camp, it is an impressive sight
to see this column of men slow marching behind the wheeled
stretcher on which rests the body wrapped in a blanket and draped
in a Union Jack.
Six graves are always ready for use, and a funeral takes place
the same day as the death. It sometimes happens that a person you
have spoken to is buried by you a day or so later. There is real
meaning in those words from the Burial Service "in the midst of
life we are in death".
The Cemetery is carefully planned and in its simple dignity
looks quite beautiful, set out with the grassed banks, flower beds,
hedges and shrubs and gravelled paths. A few weeks ago this same
area had been a rough jungle undergrowth. In straight lines there
are standing 400 wooden crosses, as these increase week by week the
grim thought comes into one's mind that many of these crosses cover
the mortal remains of men reported safe after battle. Men who need
not have died but for the facts and conditions of our
In 1955, the Revd Eric Cordingly was appointed Rector of
Stevenage, then in 1960 Chaplain to the Queen. He became Archdeacon
of Norfolk in 1962, and, in 1963, was consecrated Bishop of
Thetford. He died in 1976, aged 65.
Down to Bedrock: The diary and secret notes of a Far East
prisoner of war chaplain 1942-45 by Eric Cordingly is published
by Art Angels Publishing at £7.99 (Church Times Bookshop
£7.20). This extract appears by kind permission.