Improvised Equipment: A Selection Of Many Items Manufactured By POW’s At Changi


Improvised equipment

An Example of Improvising By POW’s

These watercolours illustrate the ingenuity of the POWs in improvising everyday utensils from whatever materials were available, utilizing the many skills of the prisoners. They even established a rubber factory and an artificial limb factory, both of which are illustrated in this website beneath those headings.

1st Row: Made from Green Lockers: mugs, mess tins, spoons, frying pans, lamp shade and dishes (from hub caps)

2nd Row: food trays & containers, watering cans, diesel oil burners

3rd Row Brush Factory: tooth brush, brooms, (from wood and fibres), wooden shoes

4th Row: soap, paper, tooth powder, rubber sandals (latex), rubber sandal (motor tyre)

5th Row: photo frame, objects d’art, identity & badges of rank, coconut containers, coconut grater, pipe, nutmeg grater, rosary beads

6th Row: razor, electric lighter or hot plate (common and left on for ‘lighting up’ as matches rare), boot & clothing repairs

 The Razor:

Details provided by an ex art student in March 2014, now in mid 70’s, who clearly recalls Des showing a razor to his art students in 1949, (see bottom left of diagram).

‘I remember him as a man with sense of humour. We would often moan about not having enough equipment, he brought into the art school a razor that he had made whilst in the prison camp, this was intended to show what could be done. I remember him with great affection.

A little bit more about the razor, it was not a crude replica of a cut throat razor it was exact in every detail. He explained how he had made the box that contained the razor from an old packing case. The box was perfect in every way even the sort of thing that you would pick up and marvel at the beautiful patina. Opening the box revealed the razor lying on some sort of very soft material, probably a scrap discarded by the guards.

He described how he made the blade from the propeller of a crashed plane. The handle was made from the dash board of the plane, shiny and black. The picture of this wonderful razor is etched into my brain.

He explained to us how it helped him keep his dignity in circumstances that he had found himself in, he didn’t go into any detail about the suffering to himself or his fellow prisoners, there were no vivid descriptions of mans inhumanity to man.’

Source: Tom Phillips, studied art under Des, 1949, South Shields Art School

“By stripping the hard spine out of the leaf of the palm frond and binding bunches of these spines together, birch brooms were made. Shorter lengths were stuck, in harsh, evenly clipped tufts, into a wooden head – stuck with pitch torn off the roads – and hard brooms of first class manufactured appearance were the result. Likewise were nail brushes for the doctors and medical orderlies made: and, with the softer fibre from the outside of coconuts, soft brooms and toothbrushes.
Also, there was a workshop where the green filing cabinets were transformed into dixies and mugs and spoons.
Meanwhile, every floor of the gaol had been equipped with a small coil which, when one pressed a button, glowed red hot so that cigarettes (made out of papaya leaves wrapped in pages of the Bible) could be lit. The eternal search for ‘a light’ was thus solved.
Such was the background of our own domestic arrangements in Changi Gaol. But, as they stand, they presented a false picture. For they were only the second theme of our life. The main theme – dominating everything else – was The Aerodrome.”
Source: The Naked Island by Russell Braddon; 1955 edition Pan Books Ltd, Pg 246

‘Some idea of the inadequacy of the cooking utensils supplied by the Japanese can be gained from the fact that the gaol cookhouse, designed to cater for 200, had frequently to feed 6,000 men. This scale can be regarded as the normal one: it meant that hundreds of trays, pails and containers had to be made, all out of the inevitable steel cupboards; that ovens had to be constructed; and that cooking had to be done in never ending shifts. And yet, in spite of all this, the cookhouse managed on Christmas (by dint of months of saving and scraping and magnificent organisation) to produce for the day’s meals 52,000 doovers, 500 gallons of stew, 700 gallons of pap, 2,000 gallons of rice and 3,000 gallons of tea.

Source:  Unknown Author, ‘Food’, in Lachlan Grant (ed.), The Changi Book, Published by New South in association with the Australian War Memorial, 2015, pg., 265

‘On 31st December 1942, Captain Albert Symonds was sent back to Changi …. where he was appointed to be in charge of the camp workshops.

In a community the size of Changi, as a need arose, someone was found with the knowledge or ability to produce what was required … rubber sandals, rope, nails, the list was endless and it included making coffins.

He continued to run the workshops for the duration of his captivity, at the heart of an enterprise which saw prisoners employing remarkable ingenuity to fashion everyday but, nonetheless, vital objects from the most basic materials.

We acquired barrack room lockers … which we cut, shaped and welded into dixies, mugs, baking trays, buckets and pails. We produced toothbrushes and brooms using the same palm fronds that we used for attap. Clogs were mad from motor tyres and from soft rubber wood, and with the latex from the rubber trees we repaired boots and shoes.

When in 1944, the Japanese gave the order that all prisoners were to move to the confines of Changi jail, the workshops were quickly dismantled and relocated and continued to produce a steady stream of much needed equipment, those in the workshops providing much of the labour and ingenuity which went into making the jail more habitable.’

Source:  ‘A Cruel Captivity’ by Ellie Taylor, 2018, page 31& 32, Pen & Sword Books Ltd.