A Postal History of the Prisoners Of War and Civilian Internees In Singapore & Malaya During The WW2

This display illustrates:

  • the correspondence that was not delivered
  • the communication between the prisoners and their families;
  • the regulations and postage rates that applied to such mail;
  • postal stationery provided to communicate with the prisoners;
  • how the mail was forwarded to the addressees;

  • the types of cards allowed to be sent home by the prisoners;
  • correspondence to those not interned; and

  • repatriation mail to and from the POWs and internees.

On 8th December 1941 – simultaneously with their assault on Pearl Harbour – the Japanese attacked Singapore, Malaya and other territories. Singapore fell on 15th February 1942.

52,000 British and Australian servicemen and 4,000 civilians found themselves prisoners of the Japanese.

The POWs were marched to Changi, a vast military cantonment. From April the POWs were spread all over Singapore, mostly in temporary camps, to work as labourers. They were also transported overseas for similar labouring tasks.

The civilians were housed in Changi Jail, the civilian prison.

Under Article 36 of the 1929 Geneva Convention,

"…prisoners of war are to be allowed to send cards home.
Within a period of not more than one week after his arrival at the
camp and likewise in the case of sickness, every prisoner shall be
enabled to write to his family a postal card informing it of his capture
and of the state of his health. The said postal cards shall be forwarded
as rapidly as possible and may not be delayed in any manner".

While the convention was not followed in strict detail the Japanese
did allow cards to be sent by the prisoners on a very limited basis
and mail to be received by the prisoners.

The Allies, through the auspices of the International Red Cross, reached an accord with the Japanese in June 1942 and from then mail was allowed to be sent to the prisoners. Simultaneously the Japanese allowed both the POWs and the civilians to send their first card to their families.

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1 Prelude to Captivity

War, when it came was not unexpected, or at least it shouldn’t have been. Tell tale signs had been evident and this evidence had been building as 1941 progressed. Negotiations in Washington were going nowhere. Japan had already attacked and established a stronghold in Manchuria and China. The build up of military might by the Japanese could hardly have escaped the notice of Allied intelligence and they had occupied Indo-China, which gave Japan naval bases and airfields conveniently placed for the planned invasion.

British defence of Singapore was based on the premise that 70 days would be sufficient to reinforce Singapore with a significant naval force sailing from Britain. It took no account of the fact that the luxury of 70 days was not going to be conceded by the Japanese, and with the war in Europe no significant naval force was available.

Britain did send two capital ships, HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse in October 1941. Malaya was also defended by several thousand troops of the 2nd Battalion Gordon Highlanders and the 1st Battalion Manchester Regiment, 12th Indian Brigade, including the 2nd Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, the 2nd Battalion East Surrey Regiment and the 1st Battalion Leicestershires, and two divisions of 3rd Indian Corps. The 137th Field Regiment RA, the 5th Field Regiment RA and two Australian brigades of the 8th Division were also sent to Malaya.

RAF squadrons were present but with only 252 out-of-date aircraft, which proved no match in performance or numerically against the Japanese fighters and bombers. Thousands of local inhabitants, Malays and Chinese as well as Europeans were drafted into the defence as volunteers. As belligerents they were treated as prisoners of war, when the end came.

When fighting commenced thousands more troops from Britain, India and Australia were poured in. They were ill-equipped , ill-trained and poorly led. The result was never in doubt. Within 70 days of the Japanese first landing in Thailand and northern Malaya, Fortress Singapore had fallen. As well as the servicemen, 4,000 civilians were also trapped. In their complacency few attempted to escape until early February 1942, by which time mainland Malaya had fallen. For most, it was already too late. In the words of Churchill “the worst disaster and largest capitulation in British history”

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2 The Prison Camps

The march to surrender. A Japanese propaganda card produced in early 1942.At the fall, the Japanese separated the Australian and British troops, all of whom they marched to Changi, and the Indian troops who they took to Farrer Park. Here they were “persuaded” to join the Indian National Army, with promises of freedom. Many did, but thousands resisted the temptation.

The British and Australians were housed in Changi Army Camp, a huge British army base previously the barracks of the Gordon Highlanders (in Selerang Barracks) and other troops. There they were left to organise their own affairs with little involvement from the Japanese.

The civilians were rounded up and after being temporarily held in houses and a police station, were transferred to Changi Jail, the civilian jail built by the British to house 600 civilian convicts. It now was home to 4,000 civilians, with women and children segregated from the men.

The POWs were sent out from Changi in work parties to clear up war damage, man the docks, rebuild facilities and bury the dead. Temporary camps were established to house the men while on their work detail. They included River Valley Road, Havelock Road, Sime Road, Kranji, Adam Park and many other smaller camps.

From April transportation of men to other territories was started. Parties were sent to Indo-China, Borneo, Thailand, Burma, Japan, Korea, Taiwan and New Guinea.

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3 Undelivered Mail

Much mail was in transit when war broke out and with the belief that Singapore was impregnable, much mail continue to be sent up to the fall of the island.

Many different handstamps were applied, to redirect the mails that could not be delivered. Some were applied in transit, or in many cases bags of mail were returned and the handstamps applied in the country of origin.

Some Army and RAF mail may have been held at headquarters and not forwarded until the whereabouts and status of the serviceman was known. If he/she became a POW it was returned.

Mail posted in October 1941 did not reach its destination and was returned. One item sent airmail on 15th October was returned undeliverable.

4 Mail to the Prisoners of War

Relatives and friends were able to send mail to the POWs and internees from June 1942. Specific regulations applied as to how the mail should be addressed.

Many people did not know where their relatives were. It was many months before some found out that their relative was a POW or Malaya. The Japanese were slow to provide lists of POWs held in their custody adding to the confusion and uncertainty.

In Britain the mail was carried free of postage and mailed in the normal civilian mail service. The Post Office forwarded it to the censor for examination.
It was then returned to the Post Office and despatched by the most expeditious route to Teheran and then Moscow. From Moscow it was carried on the Trans Siberian railway to Chita, then on to the Trans Manchuria railway to Pusan, Korea, then by ship to Shimonoski and finally overland to Tokyo. From there it was forwarded by sea to Malaya. The journey normally took in excess of a year, although this did improve. In March 1944 an airmail service was introduced, but only as far as Teheran.

In Australia mail was forwarded to the Red Cross where official Red Cross covers were addressed and the mail forwarded to the censor as in Britain. This system ceased in September 1943, after which time mail was handled in the same way as in the UK. Many different types of postal stationery were printed for use to writing to the POWs and civilians from Australia.

In India a message service was operated by the Indian Red Cross who forwarded messages to the IRC in Geneva from where they were forwarded to the POW.

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5 The Bureau of Record and Enquiry

Cover dated 1943 to Mr Irvine Greer, from China.But how did mail reach the addressee when so many had been sent to work in
outlying camps and in many cases sent overseas? Mail arriving in Singapore was sorted by the POW-organised Bureau of Records and Enquiry (BRE). Initially unofficial and unknown to the Japanese, it gradually assumed full responsibility for keeping track of the movement of the POWs and civilians under the command of Captain David Nelson. He led a team that not only kept up-to-date nominal rolls of all prisoners but also tracked their movements. From these records they were able to forward the mail as appropriate. A series of abbreviations were employed to direct the mail to its intended addressee.

The BRE not only kept records of POWs taken in Malaya. With thousands of POWs transiting through Singapore from Java, they maintained records for these POWs also. By the end of the war BRE had records of 100,000 men and women and handled over 2.150,000 items of mail. They were constantly moved within Changi, had few facilities, a lack of stationery and inadequate
filing capability. But they succeeded in successfully tracing the vast majority of addressees.

Captain Nelson was even given the task of censoring incoming mail on behalf of the Japanese on occasions, although many different Japanese censors did carry out this work within Changi.

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6 The Cards from the Prisoners in Singapore

In June 1942, 4 months after their capture, the POWs were allowed to send their first card home. Special cards were printed but incorrectly, not including the characters Marai meaning Malaya. This was therefore handstamped on. Some of these cards were dated and some not. Some were obviously limited to 25 words, other POWs filled every available space on the card.

The POWs were allowed to write a total of five cards in their three and a half years of captivity in Singapore. The dates were as shown below but there were exceptions, some of which are explained and some of which are not explained. Appendix 2 shows the number of cards of each type viewed and will give some indication of scarcity.

Date range Type of Card Censor Exceptions/ notes

19th June – 5th July 1942

Marai handstamp usually violet

Kobayashi (one)

Many undated
Many exceed 20 words

21st – 23rd Feb 1943

Marai handstamp usually red


Some undated
All 25 words or less
One card dated 22nd July 1943

10th – 22nd Dec 1943

Printed Marai
Small handstamp
Marai variety

Shimogahara in censor box
Shimogahara with no censor box

All dated (except one)
All 25 words or less

9th – 12th August 1944

Printed Marai


All dated
All 25 words or less
One card dated 9th May 1944
One card dated 18th Sept 1944

4th – 29th March 1945

Printed Marai
Camp No inserted


All dated
All 25 words or less
Usually thick yellow card

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7 The Cards from the Prioners of War in Sumatra

The section covering cards from Sumatra does not strictly fit into the title of the display, but is included because Sumatra came under the Malayan Administration. Cards issued to the POWs in Sumatra were the same basic card as those issued in Singapore. However there are differences and in most cases Sumatra cards can be distinguished from Singapore cards.

So how is the postal historian to distinguish between cards from Singapore and Sumatra? There are a number of clues as follows:

  • 1 The type of Marai handstamp.

  • 2 The censor’s seal.

  • 3 The sender. If the card is from a Dutchman, a RAF, RAAF or RN officer or other rank, then it is likely to be from Sumatra.

  • 4 The destination. If addressed to Java or Holland, it is likely to be from Sumatra.

  • 5 The camp number. As in Singapore, the 1945 issue of cards bore a camp number. This was the case in Sumatra also, and Camps 1 and 2 were headquartered in Sumatra, in Pakanbaroe and Palembang respectively. Camps 3 and 4 are not thought to exist, but if examples are found it is probable they were from Sumatra. Camp No. 5 was Changi and any numbers above 5 are thought to be from Singapore or Johore.

  • 6 The words “Malayan POW Camps” on the cards. The POWs in Sumatra were told to write this. The POWs in Singapore were told to leave the origin unspecified.

  • 7 A POW number on the card. The POWs in Sumatra were told to write their registration number on the card. The POWs in Singapore were not given this instruction, and any number given is usually the service number.

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8 The Mail to the Civilian Internees in Singapore

There were over 4,000 civilians interned, first in Changi Jail, and from May 1944 in Sime Road Camp. They were from many nationalities with by far the largest contingent being British. The civilian volunteers were normally treated as POWs but a few managed to convince the authorities they should be treated as civilians and were consequently interned. A wise course if possible.

Merchant seamen were correctly treated as civilians in Singapore, although in other territories when captured were treated as POWs. The Japanese were not sure who they believed should be interned and who shouldn’t. Eurasians of mixed blood were sometimes interned, sometimes not. Families were often split in this way, some interned, some free. Jews and Arabs were treated as special cases and were only interned in 1944.

The men were segregated from the women and children and for the first two years no contact was allowed. Some communications were allowed from 1944. The prisoners, ever resourceful, often found a way to communicate by illicit means.

Much mail to the British internees came from Australia and South Africa, as their families had managed to escape from Singapore but could not reach home in England.

Mail destined for internees can be distinguished from mail to the POWs as the directional markings are different and the censor seals are usually applied by different censors. It is also possible to determine whether an item was received in Changi Jail, prior to April 1944 or in Sime Road after early May 1944. The huts in Sime Road were numbered whereas the cells and other locations in the Jail were normally prefixed with a letter.

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9 The Cards from the Civilian Internees in Singapore

The civilian internees, like the POWs, were allowed to write five cards during their captivity. Only a maximum of four arrived. Although the number was the same, with the exception of the first, they were different cards written at different times.

The fourth card issued in August 1944 was never received and a mere two months later, in October 1944, they were allowed to send another, their last as it happened. It seems to suggest that the Japanese authority in Singapore knew they had been lost and therefore allowed a replacement.

The first two and the last two cards were generally dated, but no example of the third card was dated. For the first three cards there was no word limit. Most of the fifth cards are short messages. All examples of the second card known have an IRC Geneva handstamp. Did they transit through Geneva en route to UK, Australia and elsewhere?

A comparison of the most common dates of the five cards between the POWs and the civilian internees is interesting.

  Civilian Internees Prisoners of War

First Card

20th June 1942

20th June 1942

Second Card

1st November 1942

21st – 23rd February 1943

Third card

26th May 1943

10th – 23rd December 1943

Fourth card

5th August 1944

9th – 12th August 1944

Fifth card

5th -15th October 1944

4th – 29th March 1945

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10 Mails to Those Who Were Not Interned

Civilians, even though British subjects, were often not interned. There was a large Indian, principally Tamil, and Singalese population in Malaya. They were coolies working in the rubber estates, but also many professional people and government employees. These people were not interned, except in a minority of cases, or if they were mixed race. There were also neutrals, for example Swiss who were uninterned. Mail to these groups was permitted but only through the same channels with the same rules as mail to the prisoners.

11 Mail During Repatriation

Sketch made while awaiting repatriation by an Australian POW on a Japanese field postcard.The Japanese agreed to surrender unconditionally on 15th August 1945. It was some days before this news was confirmed to most of the POWs and internees.

While time was taken to get liberating forces in to Singapore, the prisoners were kept in their camps. RAPWI, – Recovery of Prisoners of War and Internees – was the organisation responsible in South East Asia, for locating the camps, safeguarding the prisoners, making sure medical supplies and food reached the men and women urgently and that they were repatriated as soon as possible. RAPWI was also involved with the communication of the prisoners with their families. By 18th October 1945, all POWs and internees, with the exception of the displaced residents of DEI, had left Singapore.

David Tett
26 February 2004