- Contributed by
- BBC Southern Counties Radio
- People in story:
- Heather Burch, nee Little
- Location of story:
- Shanghai, China
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 13 September 2005
This story was submitted to the People’s War site by Paul King from Marle Place and has been added to the website on behalf of Heather Burch with her permission and she fully understands the site’s terms and conditions.
At the outbreak of war I was 18 years old and had been in England since I was eleven attending school. In November 1939 I set off from Southampton to rejoin my family in Shanghai, China. My father had been in the import-export business and at this time was chairman of the Shanghai water works and other utilities companies. I sailed on the P and O liner SS Narkunda. It was a fast ship and quicker than the normal convoys so we travelled alone.
It was a terrible journey at first. There was a complete black-out at night, depth charges were fired from the stern to ward off German submarines and we had constant lifeboat drills. I had a very uncomfortable time sharing a cabin with two others right above the propeller which was noisy. We had to sleep with our bulky lifejackets on and evacuate through the Indian sailors quarters. It was a hair-raising time, but improved once we reached the Mediterranean. The lights came back on and it almost became a normal voyage, since Italy had not yet joined the war. We called at the usual ports: Port Said, Aden, Bombay, Colombo, Penang and made our way to Hong Kong.
My mother and elder sister met me in Hong Kong and after a brief stay we left for Shanghai. It was my first time back in a long while and it all felt very strange and I found it difficult to fit in. I felt rather gauche amongst the young set and their parties. Many of the young men were trying to join the armed forces and get to Britain or India, but some, including my future husband, were told to stay at their posts. At this time Japan was not considered a direct threat although rumours abounded and by the summer of 1941 it was obvious the situation was getting worse. People began leaving for Australia and Canada, but few for England. In late 1941 my father was told off-the-record by the British Consul that he should leave as quickly as possible. He booked passage for us, but the earliest available was in mid-December. The Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour on 7 December, declared war on Britain at the same time and invaded China. We found ourselves trapped.
Contrary to popular belief we were not interned straight away. We and other enemy nationals were forced to wear distinctive armbands, but were left to ourselves. The Swiss consulate supervised us and distributed a monthly allowance, since normal work was not an option. I remember cycling around looking for food. Once I came back to my street and saw a Japanese army truck. I wondered if they had finally come for us and rushed into our house to warn my father. But it was a false alarm.
By 1943 it was clear that we were to be interned and the British Residents’ Association began making lists of British civilians and categorising them by what sort of camp would suit their needs. They considered, for example, whether they were a family or if people were ill or infirm. In April 1943 my family and I were sent to Lunghwa camp about three or four miles outside the city. The complex was an unused university campus. We were assigned a family room on the ground floor of D block. This whole block was for families. Single women were kept in another block and were called loose women by the Japanese.
The Japanese Consul was in charge — a Mr Hyashi. He was considered quite civilised by us and had been to London before the war. I remember he was terribly surprised by the sort of people with British passports. We had White Russians and other foreigners who had all somehow managed to get them. The next commandant was not so pleasant. The guards at the camp were Koreans and reputed to be very nasty so we kept well away from them. The American women internees were later repatriated. Their government reached a deal with the Japanese.
We soon got into a regular routine. Every day a drinking water truck arrived. My father was one of the people responsible for doling water out. We called it the Dewdrop Inn. We had to boil it to make it safe. Another drinking water station was called Waterloo. We used water from a pond for washing clothes. It was often full of pond weed. The water from the taps was salty and very hard on your hands. I remember doing our washing in a trough.
We had a central kitchen and managed to get three meals a day. Huge cauldrons of stew and rice were towed in on carts by camp service and we all queued. Breakfast was congee a sloppy white rice mixture, sometimes cracked wheat and a cup of green tea. It was utterly tasteless. Lunch was usually stew in gravy with brown rice, which seemed horrible. Again we had green tea to drink. Supper was another serving of stew and brown rice. We had left money with some Portuguese and Norwegian friends in Shanghai and once a month we were allowed a food parcel, but they had trouble finding this in the city for themselves let alone us. We used a chatty to cook. It was a stove made from an old petrol can, filled with coke and with bars across the top to stand a pot on. The men in the camp became very thin from the lack of protein. I do remember that my fiancé once treated me to a supper of pork sausages which was wonderful.
Each month everyone was allowed to write a 25 word letter on a Red Cross form to send to Britain. Not many got through, but in the few that did I learnt that my sister had given birth to a son in 1942 and a daughter in 1944. We had no news from my brothers who were serving in England and India. Eventually we discovered that my younger brother had contracted polio and died in Poona, India.
We had a camp council which we voted in and a labour exchange to distribute jobs, which everyone had to have. People were allowed to choose and we worked normal working hours. I liked helping a friend in the hospital kitchen. It was a small hospital, mainly filled with malaria cases. They had better food and I did enjoy the better meal there. Malaria was a big problem and we all took quinine. It was also supposed to act as a contraceptive, so the married women used it for this as well. They wanted to avoid getting pregnant, because you then had to go to a hospital in Shanghai and then to a different camp for mothers and babies. This was near a dairy to ensure a milk supply, but was still a difficult place to be.
We organised quite a few leisure activities. We played tennis on a hard mud court. Some played football and the girls played softball. We had various entertainments and lectures. There was a piano, music recitals and dancing on concrete. Two or three quite good variety shows were put on.
We also had a quite good school with professional teachers. The headmistress of the British school in Shanghai ran it. Many of the children passed their common entrance exams after leaving the camp, so at least their education did not seem to suffer.
We found it very difficult to get news and this was one of the worse things — simply not knowing what was going on in the outside world and the war. There was a secret radio in the camp, but I never found out who had it or where. It was kept very secret. Through this we did learn of some events, but one never knew what was accurate with so many rumours circulating. It was a small community and everyone knew everyone else and what was going on, including erring husbands and wives.
There were two escapes in summer 1944. Five men in one breakout and then another three made their way to Free China. We never found out how they did it, but I suspect they bribed the guards. The first we heard of it was at roll call when they failed to turn up. As a result we were confined to barracks during the summer and sometimes had to have roll call in the middle of night whilst the Japanese searched for tools. We had to stand to attention and the floor rep from each floor would call the roster. I remember that the Belgian consul’s wife had her face slapped by a Japanese guard for smiling out of turn or objecting in some way. We were also limited to only two meals per day, were not allowed a canteen or chatties nor letters or entertainments. All our books, magazines and records had to be handed in along with tools and the library was closed. Various men were sent for interrogation and a young Russian, Sherevera, was slapped by a Japanese guard when being questioned in his billet. He reacted by punching back upon which the guards started to beat him with bamboo sticks. Other internees, mainly women, managed to intervene and drag him away and probably averted a riot.
Time flew in many respects. We wondered what was happening in Europe. And what would happen to us. The winters were cold and we bought fleece-lined, ugly brown tops and bottoms brought in to the camp. We called them Dire Needs. Spring was short and summer long and very hot. The worse thing, particularly for families, was the uncertainty — the not knowing.
Towards the end of the war Allied bombers dropped food parcels and they reached us. We had never seen nylon before and even used bits as cushion covers after the war. One day the Korean guards disappeared and we knew that was it, but not what to do. We had no transport and I cannot remember exactly, but we somehow obtained bikes and made our way back to Shanghai. I remember my first hot bath at a friend’s house after the war. Later we heard that documents had been found indicating that the Japanese were planning to eliminate all internees as the burden of maintaining them was becoming too expensive. In a way, the A-bomb saved our lives.
I met my future husband in the camp. He was in E block, which was comprised of rooms of twelve men or six married couples. He worked for the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank and had been due to take leave when war broke out. We became engaged in the camp and my father wrote the engagement notice and pinned it to the official notice board. We had a number of clergy and lots of missionaries in camp from various denominations and there were several marriages performed, but the Dean of the Anglican cathedral would not agree to marry anyone, because it was not hallowed ground and there was great uncertainty as to whether it was legal and whether the appropriate record would reach Somerset House in London. We were married in the cathedral after the war therefore, in October 1945. I had one bridesmaid and not much fabric for a dress. A White Russian dressmaker friend of my mother’s made the dress. The veil was made of finest quality mosquito netting!
My husband and I were amongst the first to leave China. We left aboard the City of Eastbourne in January 1946. It had just arrived from the USA and there were only six passengers. It was wonderful. They had great food and malt whiskey. We had to take on cargo as we went and it was very slow. We did not arrive in England until April 1946. But we did not mind. We stayed with colleagues of my husband in the ports in which we stopped. I remember we spent a long, leisurely time in Singapore staying with friends. After the war and home leave we moved to Bangkok.
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