Alexandra Military Hospital, Singapore, February 1942

Alexandra Military Hospital, Singapore was meant to be a sanctuary amidst the violence and turmoil of war. Within its walls the sick and wounded could escape the chaos of the battlefield to receive treatment, care and rest. Like all military hospitals it was to be protected by the Red Cross, the international symbol of medical sanctuary. But on 14 February 1942 this hospital was violated by “the largest and most awful massacre of World War II”.

The hospital was where my father in law Captain Bill Gaden of 2/20 Bn AIF and his good friend Captain ‘Roaring’ Reggie Newton of 2/19 Bn were hospitalised when they first arrived in Singapore after disembarking from troopship ‘QX’ or Queen Mary. Their days as patients here are recounted in my book “Pounding Along to Singapore, a history of the 2/20 Battalion”.[1]

In 2007 we took part in a “Changi to Hellfire Pass Tour” to visit the places so important in the history of the 8th Division. This is what I wrote in my travel diary:
14 February 2007
We moved onto the Alexandra Military Hospital. Bill Gaden and Reg Newton were patients here in March 1941 when both were evacuated from the Queen Mary into hospital with pneumonia.

Dr Ang, the current senior clinician, was our guide; he is the only staff member remaining from 1971 when the local Government took over the hospital from the military.

Alexandra hospital cost £265000 to build in the 1930s when it was the most modern and largest military hospital. Unfortunately fuel tanks, a very obvious military target, were located close behind. The fuel tanks were clearly visible in a 1942 photograph of the hospital then hanging in the conference room.

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In the battle for Singapore, a retreating Indian regiment went through the hospital grounds and fired at the Imperial Japanese Guard troops from the roof and verandahs, thus legitimising their return of fire. What was not legitimate was the Japanese response when they finally overran the hospital.

They invaded the wards and operating theatres and murdered 50 local staff on 12 February 1942. They returned over the next two days and massacred more victims. A total of 200 were buried under what is now the soccer field in the hospital grounds.

Dr Ang showed us the tunnels under the hospital building, to be used for patient care in the event of bombing raids. He also showed us the memorial fountain built by the British and we found a plaque hidden under a butterfly sign, screened from view by vegetation. We were disappointed that the plaque was hidden by the plants, but Dr. Ang suggested the local population don’t want a reminder of the horrors of war and in reality the significance of the date of our visit did not really sink in.

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The plaque reads
In memory of the many staff and patients who suffered and died at this place during the days prior to the Fall of Singapore 12th, 13th, 14th February 1942. The price that was paid we shall always remember

IMG_2099Here another poppy was left in memory of those who died. [2]

I bought a book from the reception desk which gives the history of the hospital.[3] It is by
Jeff Partridge and called “Alexandra Hospital, from British Military to Civilian Institution 1938-1998”.

Here is more of what happened in 1942:

 

Friday 13 February 1942
A number of nurses had volunteered to remain behind at Alexandra Hospital even in the event of occupation by the Japanese. However on this day after midday the nurses were told to get their cases “and be ready at the front entrance in a few minutes. We are to be evacuated”. Matron Jones advised the nurses that it was an order from the Commanding Officer – the explanation was a message cabled from Hong Kong giving details of the massacre of the sisters who had remained there in December 1941 when the Japanese had occupied the island. The nurses moved off at 2.20 pm feeling like traitors as the orderlies and patients left behind waved them goodbye.[4]

Saturday 14 February 1942
Black smoke was pouring from the fuel tanks located just behind the grounds of Alexandra Hospital. A Japanese reconnaissance balloon had been spotted and by 8.00 am the entire area was subject to severe shelling and bombing. By 10.00 am the hospital itself was being hit by shells. Nurse Edith Stevenson recalled “A large Red Cross was laid on the hospital lawn for bombing planes to see, but because we were near an ammunition depot the planes had an excuse to bomb the hospital.” The other red crosses on its roof and hanging out of the windows were also ignored.

There were 900 patients but just 550 beds; many were on camp-beds or on the floor. There was a lack of water…. 1 pint per person per day…. less than 500 ml which is less than two standard ‘cups’ of water. The sleep-deprived staff was under intense pressure. Dirty linen was piled high, supplies were almost non-existent.

When the Japanese troops approached Captain Bartlett of the RAMC went out to meet him with raised arms and pointing to the red cross on his armband, saying ‘Hospital’. He was fired at from point-blank range. Major Bull thought the Japanese still may not have realised it was a hospital so he went to the window holding up a red cross flag. He was shot at.

Within a 30 minute time span the Japanese troops brutally attacked the hospital, 3 groups simultaneously went to the operating theatres, the medical wards and surgical wards. Men were gunned down as they ran for cover, Japanese soldiers indiscriminately bayoneted doctors, orderlies, patients and a Padre. Surgical teams were taken from the operating theatres in which they were working and set upon with bayonets…. so were their anaesthetised patients.[5]

Patients from the 2/20 Battalion AIF included Lieutenant Harry Woods and Sergeant Gordon MacDougal. Lieutenant Woods managed to survive the massacre. Sergeant MacDougal was cousin to Bill Gaden’s good friend and future brother-in-law David MacDougal who had been with the 2/20 but transferred to Mission 204. Sergeant MacDougal tried to disarm a Japanese soldier with his good arm, he was killed. (And this was the name, Lance-Sergeant MacDougal GH,  where I left the poppy at Kranji Cemetery the day after our tour group visited the hospital).
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One of the patients in the hospital at the time was Gunner ‘Wizardus’ Anckorn who had been caught in an air raid and had badly injured his right hand which was hanging off just by the skin. He was also hit through the back of the knee. An army surgeon operated on the 300 foot long counter of the Fullerton building, a casualty clearing station in the General Post Office. Anckorn was told his hand would have to be removed. An orderly recognised him and told the surgeon “You can’t take his hand off sir. This man is a conjuror.” He’d seen him perform at Liverpool.

When Anckorn woke up he was in Alexandra Hospital. Heavily under the influence of morphine he asked the man on a stretcher on the floor next to him if he still had a hand. The man picked it up and yes there was a stump and the end was bandaged up like a boxing glove. His neighbour put his hand inside the glove and counted finger by finger “This little piggy went to market” until the last little piggy had gone home. ‘Wizardus’ was delighted he had not made his last stage appearance after all. He drifted back to sleep.

Sometime later he woke to find there were Japanese soldiers in the ward. They took some patients out to the lawn and killed them. They returned and went from bed to bed with fixed bayonets. ‘Wizardus’ saw them coming, realised he was going to be dead within a minute, said out loud “Poor Mum” then hid his head under a pillow so he couldn’t see what was going to happen to him.

When he came up for air the Japanese had gone and ‘Wizardus’ was one of just four still alive. He thought that the Japanese saw no head on the pillow so thought the bed was empty or saw his hand on his chest with a big hole and blood pouring to the floor so thought he had already been bayoneted. So he survived the Alexandra Hospital massacre.[6]

A search of the Commonwealth War Graves site failed to find an Anckorn who served in the Second World War so perhaps he survived and eventually returned home.[7]

A group of 200 surrendered men made up of staff and walking wounded had their hands tied behind their back and were then tied in groups of eight. They were made to walk beyond the railway track (which ran round the ancillary buildings towards the hospital front and barracks block). Then they were herded into 3 small rooms and barricaded in. There were 50 to 70 men crammed into each small space of less than 2.5 metres by 3 metres. They took it in turns to sit down. There was no ventilation, doors and windows were boarded over. Men remained tied together, there was no water and many were dehydrated. Here they were left overnight. Several died.
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Sunday 15 February 1942.
The Japanese returned and told the men who were still alive that they would be taken to water. More than 100 men were led on the ‘water march’ but soon those left behind heard screams of anguish and, when they saw a Japanese soldier wiping blood from his bayonet, their worst fears were realised, a massacre was taking place. Suddenly shelling could be heard and one shell tore away the doors of the building so some men, pitifully few, managed to make their escape, most were gunned down. Some got clear of the building and into the bush surrounding a storm drain.[8] Those who died were initially buried under what is now the soccer field.
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At 8.00 pm on 15 February 1942 the Allies surrendered to the Japanese.

Some 10,000 sick and wounded had been evacuated to Singapore Island from the mainland and at the time of capitulation there were 9000 people in the care of the Singapore military medical units.

It is of little comfort that the massacre at Alexandra Hospital was ordered by a junior Japanese officer who was summarily executed when more senior Japanese officers arrived on the scene.
Lest we forget

[1] Caroline Gaden, Pounding Along to Singapore, Copyright, 2012.

[2] Caroline Gaden, Changi to Hellfire Pass – in the footsteps of the POWs, Tour diary, February 2007.

[3] Jeff Partridge, “Alexandra Hospital, from British Military to Civilian Institution 1938-1998“, Alexandra Hospital and Singapore Polytechnic Publication, 1998, ISBN 981-04-0430-1.

[4] Partridge, pages 71-73.

[5] Partridge, pages 56-58.

[6]Colin Smith, Singapore Burning, Penguin Books, 2005, pages 535-537.

[7] http://www.cwgc.org/find-war-dead.aspx?cpage=1

[8] Partridge, pages 56-58.

Photographs by Bob and Caroline Gaden.

Comments
  1. Stephen Richardson says:

    Thank you for this article.
    My grandfather Louis Alexander Richardson was amongst the British that survived the massacre by hiding in the hospitals infirmary for days. I had been told by him that the Japanese also threw grenades blindly into rooms also. Which doesn’t seem to be mentioned in the very few, but detailed accounts of the massacre I have read.

    Regards

  2. cagaden says:

    Hello Stephen
    The main reference I used for the hospital information was Jeff Partridge’s book “Alexandra Hospital, from British Military to Civilian Institution 1938-1998” published by the Hospital in 1998, and of course any references I noted from the memoirs of soldiers who may have mentioned the place. eg Colin Smith’s “Singapore Burning” Penguin 2005 and Don Wall’s “Singapore and Beyond”, 2/20 Bn Association 1985.
    All the best
    Caroline

  3. Gerald says:

    Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.

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