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Category: Battles/WW2

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Changi Prison: was it a "hell hole"?  

Changi Maximum Security Prison, 1994. Contrary to the myth this is NOT where most Australians spent the period of captivity in 1942/45.

They were actually mostly incarcerated in Selarang Barracks, a former British Army base set on about 400 acres of farm-land and rubber plantations.

Over 22,000 Australians became prisoners of war of the Japanese in south-east Asia . The wave of Japanese victories ending with the capture of the Netherlands East Indies in March 1942 left in its wake a mass of Allied prisoners of war, including many Australians. Most of the Australians (14,972) were captured in Singapore ; other principal Australian prisoner-of-war groups were captured in Java (2,736); Timor (1,137); Ambon (1,075); and New Britain (1,049).

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  • Over the years the story of the dreadful treatment by the Japanese guards of Allied Prisoners of War (POWs) has been told a thousand times. Unfortunately many myths have grown up, particularly here in Australia. I make an attempt here to provide the truth. It is awful enough without having anyone gild the lily.
  • First lets get a few things on record before the enraged mob comes for me with the rope.
    • I am NOT an apologist for the Japanese or their treatment of POWs.
    • I fully recognise the horror of that time (as well as one can without living through it) and the deep and lasting effect it had on the men and women concerned. I do not try to downplay that at all. Each one who lived through it and returned to lead a close to normal life is a hero in my eyes.
    • Those who died in captivity are just as much to be respected on ANZAC Day as any other sailor, soldier or airman who was killed in action.
  • My desire is to see the truth told so that when my grandson reads the "history" of WW2 and comes to the part about Changi he will be dealing with fact, not some urban myth that has grown up and gained a life and respectability from constant retelling.
"Changi became known as the most notorious camp in Asia, and in the minds of many people in England, Australia, and America, the Changi prisoner-of-war camp would invoke visions of atrocities, starvation, bad living conditions and emaciated men. It was the place where prisoners-of-war were reduced to a physical state more looking like living skeletons. As a prisoner-of-war, not only in the Changi Camp but in various camps in Singapore and Siam [Thailand], I cannot understand how Changi had earned such a reputation. My memories of Changi have never been unpleasant.

 Prisoners-of-war in Changi did suffer deprivation and loss of self-esteem, but conditions were not appalling. Although food was rationed, it was provided every day. The camp was also provided with amenities, such as electric lights and  piped water, which contributed to our cleanliness and good healthy conditions."   Lionel De Rosario

Changi is and was much more than a prison. 

It is both a village and a locality with an area of thousands and thousands of acres. 

What we, in Australia, might call a rural suburb or village.

When the island "fortress" of Singapore fell to the Japanese in 1942 all the "captives" were sent to the area of Changi, which became a huge POW Camp.

It was never just a prison in the normal European sense of a group of concrete buildings surrounded by a high concrete fence with guard towers.

Sheer numbers would have made that impossible even if it had been the desire of the Japanese. When Singapore fell there were 50,000 British, Dutch and Australian troops sent to Changi in the first week.

Three days later General Percival accepted the Japanese surrender terms, and within a matter of hours the enemy decreed that Changi should become a gigantic prison camp, in which all the British captives would be concentrated. The order for all troops to move to Changi was given on 16th February, and from then until 18th February a procession of over 50,000 prisoners trudged wearily along the long winding road leading eastwards from the city         Extract from Changi History by Sqn Ldr H A Probert

Most of the POWs were housed in former British Army barracks. The Australians were housed mostly in Selarang Barracks. It is made up of 8 major buildings, a dozen or more minor buildings and 400 acres of land. It had been home to the 2nd Battalion Gordon Highlanders. In the 1970's it was home to the Australian Battalions that formed part of ANZUK, 1 RAR  and later, 6 RAR.

The British and Dutch were housed at Roberts Barracks, Kitchener Barracks and the wooden barracks at India Lines. Part of Roberts Barracks was used as the hospital.


Over the years many myths have grown up, particularly in Australia, about the 'hell hole' of Changi Prison. This site seeks to present the facts.  THE FACTS ARE BAD ENOUGH. To embellish them is counter-productive, and silly.

What is worse we now have South East Asian tourist operators providing "re-creations" of what we expect to see even though it may not be true Details

Australian prisoners of war. Second World War. Prisoners of the Japanese

From the AWM Encyclopedia

Over 22,000 Australians became prisoners of war of the Japanese in south-east Asia . The wave of Japanese victories ending with the capture of the Netherlands East Indies in March 1942 left in its wake a mass of Allied prisoners of war, including many Australians. Most of the Australians (14,972) were captured in Singapore ; other principal Australian prisoner-of-war groups were captured in Java (2,736); Timor (1,137); Ambon (1,075); and New Britain (1,049).

At the end of the war Australian prisoners of war were widely distributed: 5,549 on Singapore Island and in Johore (Malaya); 4,830 in Burma and Thailand; 265 in French-Indo China; 385 on Java; 243 on Sumatra; 100 on Ambon; 2 on Macassar; 7 on Bali; 150 at Kuching (British North Borneo); 2,700 distributed between Japan, Korea, and Manchuria; and 200 on Hainan Island.

Dates when various prisoner-of-war forces left Changi Singapore , and their destinations
Force Date departure from Changi Destination

A Force

15 May 1942


B Force

8 July 1942


C Force

28 Nov 1942


D Force

14-18 March 1942


E Force

29 May 1943


F Force

April 1942


G Force

26 April 1943


H Force

May 1943


J Force

16 May 1943


K Force

June 1943


L Force

23 August 1943


Senior Officers’ Party

16 August 1942

Japan via Formosa and Korea

Senior Working Party

16 August 1942

Takeo (Formosa) and Seoul (Korea)

AIF units were split up between various forces and work parties. The prisoners of war reading list contains battalion unit histories which cover this topic.

from the AWM site.


The name “Changi” is synonymous with the suffering of Australian prisoners of the Japanese during the Second World War. This is ironic, since for most of the war in the Pacific Changi was in reality one of the most benign of the Japanese prisoner-of-war camps; its privations were relatively minor compared to those of others, particularly those on the Burma–Thailand railway.

For much of its existence Changi was not one camp, but rather a collection of up to seven prisoner-of-war (POW) and internee camps, occupying an area of approximately 25 square kilometres. Its name came from the peninsula on which it stood, at the east end of Singapore Island. Prior to the war, the Changi Peninsula had been the British Army’s principal base area in Singapore. As a result the site boasted an extensive and well-constructed military infrastructure, including three major barracks – Selarang, Roberts and Kitchener – as well as many other smaller camps. Singapore ’s civilian prison, Changi Gaol, was also on the peninsula.

Most of the Australians captured in Singapore were moved into Changi on 17 February 1942. They occupied Selarang Barracks, which remained the AIF Camp at Changi until June 1944. For many, Selarang was just a transit stop as before long working parties were being dispatched to other camps in Singapore and Malaya. Initially, prisoners at Changi were free to roam throughout the area, but in early March 1942 fences were constructed around the individual camps and movement between them was restricted. In August, all officers above the rank of colonel were moved to Formosa (present-day Taiwan), leaving the Australians in Changi under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Frederick “Black Jack” Galleghan.

Security was further tightened following the arrival of dedicated Japanese POW staff at the end of August 1942. The new Japanese commandant requested that all prisoners sign a statement declaring that they would not attempt escape. The prisoners refused en masse, and on 2 September all 15,400 Australian and British prisoners in the Changi area were confined in the Selarang Barracks area. After three days, a compromise was reached: the Japanese ordered the declaration be signed, thus making it clear that the prisoners were acting under duress, and the prisoners were returned to their original areas.

Throughout the war, the prisoners in Changi remained largely responsible for their own day-to-day administration. The main contact with the Japanese was at senior-officer level, or on work parties outside the camps. Extensive gardens were established, concert parties mounted regular productions, and a reasonably well-equipped camp hospital operated in Roberts Barracks. Damaged infrastructure was progressively restored and both running water and electric lighting were common throughout the Changi area by mid-1943. Camp rations and supplies were supplemented by the opportunities which work parties provided for both theft and trade. For a time a university was operated inside the AIF camp but, like most prisoner projects in Changi, it suffered after May 1942 when large work parties began to be sent out of Changi to work on projects including the Burma–Thailand railway. In February 1942 there were around 15,000 Australians in Changi; by mid-1943 less than 2,500 remained.

In May 1944, all the Allied prisoners in Changi, now including 5,000 Australians, were concentrated in the immediate environs of Changi Gaol, which up until this time had been used to detain civilian internees. In this area 11,700 prisoners were crammed into less than a quarter of a square kilometre, and this period underlies Changi’s place in popular memory. Rations were cut, camp life was increasingly restricted, and in July the authority of Allied senior officers over their troops was revoked. Changi was liberated by troops of the 5th Indian Division on 5 September, and within a week troops were being repatriated.

After the war, Changi Gaol once again became a civilian prison, while the Changi military area was repaired and redeveloped for use by the British garrison. Following the withdrawal of British troops in 1971, the area was taken over by the Singapore Armed Forces and still has one of the main concentrations of military facilities on the island. Roberts Barracks remains in use, but the original buildings at Selarang were demolished in the 1980s. 

Changi Gaol is scheduled for demolition in the second half of 2004, although the original entrance gate and a section of the outer wall will be preserved as a memorial. A museum and a replica of one of the chapels built by Allied prisoners in the Changi area have been opened on the road between Changi Gaol and Selarang Barracks. In 1988 one of the original prisoner-of-war chapels was transported to Australia, re-erected in the grounds of the Royal Military College, Duntroon, and dedicated as the national memorial to Australian prisoners of war.

Nothing can justify the brutality of the Imperial Japanese Army on the  Thailand-Burma railway. However it might be wise to remind ourselves that in the infamous Andersonville Prison operated by the Confederate States of America during the American Civil War 12,912 of the 45,613 Union prisoners died during its fourteen months of operation. The death rates in the concentration camps operated by the British Army in South Africa during the Boer War were just as horrendous and they were mostly women & children. Inhumanity and brutality are not restricted to WW2.

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