Today is the 80th anniversary of what came to be known as the Fall of Singapore. On 15 February 1942, 130,000 British-led forces surrendered the island to the Imperial Japanese Army. 15,000 8th Division Australian soldiers were taken prisoner; half of these were killed, starved, abandoned to disease, or worked to death by their captors.
Singapore in its possession, the Japanese Army continued its advance, and a few weeks later, on 9 March, my grandfather’s cousin John de Crespigny (1908-1995) became a prisoner of war with the surrender on 8 March of all Allied forces on Java.
John Chauncy Champion de Crespigny, then 31, had volunteered for military service on 29 February 1940. At the time of his enlistment he was employed as an advertising manager. He lived with his mother in Caulfield. de Crespigny had trained as a cadet and had had the rank of lieutenant in the officer reserve. He was first posted to Syria, where he served as a lieutenant. In May 1941 he was promoted to captain and in February 1942 to temporary major.
On 1 February 1942 John de Crespigny sailed from Suez on the SS Orcades with his unit, a Guard Battalion of the 7th Division, now re-deployed for the defence of Java. They disembarked at Batavia 18 February. A few weeks later the island fell to the Japanese and the battalion was ordered to capitulate. He became one of 2736 2nd AIF prisoners of the Japanese on Java.
He was first interned in the Dutch Army barracks at the No 12 Bandoeng camp, West Java. A fellow prisoner was Lieutenant Colonel Edward ‘Weary’ Dunlop of the Royal Australian Army Medical Corps, who later achieved a high reputation for his selfless dedication to the welfare of the suffering troops.
John de Crespigny was reported missing and there were reports he had been killed. In September he was reported to be a prisoner of war:
In November 1942, 1000 Australian prisoners, including Dunlop and de Crespigny, were moved to a camp at Makasura, Batavia where they shared quarters with British prisoners.
In the camp John de Crespigny worked with his fellow officers to keep morale up and the inmates busy. John taught art classes and lectured on various aspects of advertising. He helped produce hand-drawn posters advertising camp activities. The camp magazine, ‘Mark Time‘, was produced and illustrated under his guidance.
Early in 1943, many Australian prisoners, including Dunlop and de Crespigny, were moved to Singapore and from there to the Konyu-Hintok Area near the Burma-Siam border. Those below officer rank were forced to work on the construction of the infamous 260-mile railway linking Thailand and Burma.
Following the Japanese surrender in September 1945, John de Crespigny was ‘recovered from the Japanese at Siam.’ He sailed for Melbourne via Singapore on 17 October 1945 and was discharged as an Honorary Major in December. On his return, he provided a sworn statement to the inter-Allied team investigating Japanese war crimes.
In 1997, twenty-four POW camp posters from Bandoeng and Makasura, numerous copies of ‘Mark Time’, John de Crespigny’s wartime diaries, and many pieces that had been penned and drawn for the planned souvenir Memorial Book were donated to the New South Wales Anzac Memorial by one of his step-sons.
- Anzac memorial (NSW) The John Chauncy Champion de Crespigny Collection: an online ehibition https://www.anzacmemorial.nsw.gov.au/event/john-chauncy-champion-de-crespigny-collection
- Biography of John Chauncy Champion de Crespigny https://www.anzacmemorial.nsw.gov.au/major-john-chauncy-champion-de-crespigny-1908-1995
- Sepia Saturday 192 : John Chauncy Champion de Crespigny (1908 – 1995)
- Trove Tuesday: Mother’s Day 1943
- E is for Exile