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Building a prison-camp parish

08 November 2013

Eric Cordingly, an army chaplain, was imprisoned by the Japanese in 1942. In this extract from his newly published diary, illustrated by his fellow prisoners, he provides an account of life and death in captivity

The long wait: Eric Cordingly, by H. C. Gordon, 1942

The long wait: Eric Cordingly, by H. C. Gordon, 1942

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 Japan.



Early days

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.


New opportunities

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 now using.

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. . .


Home brew

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 chairs.

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.

 Dosed up

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 wonders.

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 twenty-five shillings.)

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 luxuries.


Pastoral visit

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.


How long?

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 families.


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.


Death march

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 disease.

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 captivity. 

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.

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