Sketch by Jack Chalker

Secret Radios

Secret Radios

Radio Memories taken from letters to Alfred Nellis

 J.K Gale

BQMS

Straits Settlements Volunteer Force

 

At Changi, there were to my knowledge, at least three radio sets, one at Changi Village run by the RAOC, one at Changi Wharf run by a corporal of the R.E and one at Quadrant Road run by some of the Royal Artillery. The R.A.O.C. set was smashed up in March 1942 by their own officers on the grounds that it was too dangerous to run, much to the indignation of the Other ranks, who were running it.

At River Valley Road Camp there were numerous sets. the Camp Electrician personally knew of 15 and there could well have been many more. There was also a transmitting set, but I do not know if it was ever used. The receiving sets were mostly mains sets which were running off the camp lighting system. They were hidden inside bedsteads, underground, in cook-house boxes, inside rice sacks and other such places. As the Níp guards were free to roam the camp as and when they liked and periodical surprise searches were made, there was quite a bit of risk, but as far as I am aware, none of them were actually in any serious danger there. We had no set in our hut, but got our news from other sets. our system was that one man from the hut went across to a set each evening and listened in. His name was kept secret except for about six men to whom he passed on the news to the rest of the hut. Only the one man knew who was operating the radio set and where it was. This method seemed to be as safe as any that we could think of at the time.

One set that I saw was kept underground, permanently tuned to a particular station. A small piece of wood acted as the control switch. The electric power was by tapping into the main power supply for the Camp and following the main posts of the building down into the ground. The wire was very thin and pushed into a knife slit in the wood. Some dirt on top of the slit made it almost impossible to see. The leads to the earphones were also of very thin wire and carne up a similar slit in the post of the owners bed. They then went inside his pillow where the earphone was kept. When he wanted to listen in to the radio, al! he had to do was to put his ear to the pillow, push down on the piece of wood which acted as the control switch and enjoy what-ever was coming over the air.

Some of the Radio sets were brought into the camp at night over the wire, but some carne in concealed in sacks or disguised as rations. Some of them carne as parts and were assembled inside the camp. The Camp electrician made several from odd parts. Everyone in River Vally Road Camp, got the news, sometimes a couple of days late, but that did not matter. Each day an Officer and Warrant Officer of the Gordons carne across from Havelock Road Camp to our Camp on duty and I gave them the news that had come through on the previous night. They then passed this news on to the members of their huts. There were one or two sets in Havelock Road Camp, but they only worked spasmodically and their owners were chary of giving out news.

When most of River Valley Road Camp and Havelock Road Camps went to Thailand a lot of these radio sets went too. Unfortunately they were nearly all mains sets and as we had no electric lighting in any of the main Camps in Thailand, in the early days the news was sparse and unreliable.

"F" Battalion, which joined us at Wampo, had a B.Q.M.S. from whom I had been getting news at River Valley Road Camp and I felt certain that he had brought the radio set with him. When, after about a fortnight or so, I was certain that no radio set was functioning at Wampo, I tackled him about it. He told me that it had come all right, but it was a mains set and so couldn't be used. I had a look at it but felt that I had not sufficient knowledge of how to convert it into a battery set. It had travelled up in a case that had held Armour's Bully Beef. He took me along to see Capt. Watts, the owner of the set, and after a few minutes talk I had put him in touch with two members of my Battalion who would have sufficient knowledge to make the necessary changes from mains to battery power.

First they tried to get a part from a vibrator from Banpong, which would have enabled them to work it off batteries without making internal alterations. One of the experts was to go down with a Canteen purchasing party, but the party was cancelled. Then we tried to get the part through a Chinese, but that attempt failed also.

The only alternative was to re-model the set completely. This was tried but some officers who first had a go at it failed to get any results and so the set was handed over to Bdr. Squires of 'F’ Battalion, who had been an amateur radio enthusiast before he joined up, and Q.C.Q.M.S. Slater of 'D' Battalion who had been an R.A.A.F. wireless operator before he took up Tin Mining. After some trouble they managed to convert it into a two valve battery set with a triode detector and pentode amplifier. While we were at South Tonchan, we got ít going. Some of the batteries were obtained from the Chinese who were running barges up the river and some were pinched from the Nip stores!

Of course when we reached Thailand, we had no headphones with the set, but we managed to get some from Tarsao, which was only four miles from South Tonchan camp. There were now quite a number of Radio sets being operated on the river or in the process of being built and there was a regular exchange of needed parts between the various Camps on the river. Our Ear phones arrived in an amusing way. We had told Tarsao that we needed some. One day a Nip Officer arrived at the Camp with a package of Tea for our Colonel. Inside the Tea was an earphone. Unfortunately they had only wound to a resistance of 40 ohms, and so we were quite useless without a transformer. We managed to make a transformer but it proved very unsatisfactory and so Squires rewound the headphones by hand to a resistance of 1500 ohms on each ear piece. This job was done in a camp of tents, through which the Nips wandered at all times of day and night.

Eventually the set worked and we got the news regularly, mostly from New Dehli. To begin with we listened in twice a day and then as the risk increased it was cut down to once a day at 1.00 pm Greenwich time.

The set was originally kept in a heavy wooden box under Major McKenzie's bed. In this form it had some close shaves. At South Tonchan on one occasion the dry cells [flash lamp batteries], were all out on the floor of the tent being resoldered, when a Nip walked in. He was told that they were for a lamp for the tent and appeared quite satisfied with the story! Later at the same Camp, the Nips pitched a tent of their own, right opposite the tent where the set was kept and operated. It would have been suicidal to use the set under these conditions and so Major Bennett, the Medical Officer, went across to the Nips and told them that they had placed their tent in a cholera infected area. Very rapidly the Nips built a close set bamboo fence to prevent any of our people coming near their tent! This had the desired effect of preventing them from seeing into our tent, or of walking straight across and taking us by surprise.

On the day we reached Kinsayok, the set had another close shave. Just as we were starting to pitch our tents, a general search of the Camp was sprung on us. The box containing the set and the batteries was lying in the open, asking to be opened. Some officers quickly grabbed the box and shoved it half inside a half erected tent. They told the men who were erecting it to collapse the tent at once. They did so and then a Lance Corporal who was in the know, was told to sit on the collapsed tent and hide the butt the box caused. He spent a very nervous hour, but none of the Nips came near the place. Three Lt. Cols, were hovering about all the time to create a diversion if the Nips had shown any signs of being inquisitive about the tent or it's possible contents.

Soon after the scare, the box went underground, sometimes in an officer's tent, sometimes in a tent used by 'F’ Battalion W.O's and part of the time in the Battalion office used by R.S.M. Manion and C.S.M. Collie. Whilst underground, in the wet season, the damp and the white ants did quite a lot of damage to the batteries. As batteries were very expensive and difficult to get, this was a serious matter. On one occasion at Kinsayok, a drain went wrong and flooded the whole set. To help prevent a recurrence of this happening again, I supplied a lot of waxed paper by carefully unwrapping the covers from the packets of biscuits which I had in the canteen and selling the biscuits loose. The connections of all the flash lamp batteries had to be resoldered in daylight, a nervy bit of work.

About September 1943, we got news that a radio set had been found at Kanburi, and the operators beaten to death. We therefore suspected careful searches in alt the Camps. Further there was a Nip Radio set only a mile away, and if it is picking up some of our oscillations they might get busy with a direction finder. One of the people killed at Kanburi was Gerry Hawley of the B.A.T., who had been a Sergeant in our Battery before he took a commission in the R.A.S.C. Another S.S.Volunteer force Major Smith was given a long sentence in Singapore Goal for his share in running that set.

As a result of this find, searches were in fact organised all over Thailand. Another set was found at one of the Base Camps, almost certainly as a result of information given by a P.O.W. to the Nips. In this case however, no one was punished. the Nip camp Commander, dared not admit to the Kempi, that he had allowed a radio set to be used in his Camp for some months! The difficulty of getting batteries and spare parts for the set was alleviated a little by the presence of Nip Engineers who were laying telephone wires along the railway. we managed to pinch quite a bit of equipment from them. I, myself, stole a few batteries from them. Up to the time that we left Kinsayok, the news was given out to the W.O.'s, about three days after it came through, and was then allowed gradually, to filter out to the Troops. The idea of this delay was so that if the Nips heard anyone talking about news, it would be stale and therefore would not suggest a radio set to their minds.

During a search, one Lt. Col. was found in possession of an Atlas, in which he had typed radio news reports, illustrated by carefully drawn maps! It seemed incredible folly that such things should have been committed to writing, but it was actually done. These reports were found after the set had been discovered at Kanburi, and so they blamed it onto that set instead of ours, from which the reports had, in fact, come. The Col. got off very lightly with only a few days detention.

Whilst it was being operated at Kinsayok the set was kept in a large box, inside a still larger box, underground. The layer of earth on top was taken off when it was to be used. It was obviously too dangerous to take it to Tamuang like that since everything was now searched whenever anyone left and also when ever anyone arrived at a Camp. The set was therefore taken completely to pieces. Three large waterbottles were opened up, the pieces packed inside and the waterbottles made water tight again. The bottles were then filled up with pig fat and so, soaked in oil, the set travelled safely to Tamaung, where it was reassembled. More than half a dozen spare valves as well as various spare coils and condensers travelled to Tamuang like this. A Radio Transmitter was being assembled at one time up river, for we passed spare parts for it, but I can't say whether it was ever used. I don't think it was. Another radio set concealed in a water-bottle passed through us when we were at Wampo, about April 1943, when another Battalion was marching North. Tarao had it's radio set and so did Nong Pladok. Two more Volunteers, the Webber brothers where running a set at Chungkai. Getting batteries was always the most difficult part of the job and here Pearson of the F.M.S. Armoured Cars, did a fine, though dangerous job. He had lived and worked in Bangkok and had contacts there. He also spoke Thai very well. He managed to keep us in batteries most of the time.

At Tamuang, the radio set was at first kept in the Officer's quarters, then in the hut of the Sanitation Squad and finally in the Stores of the Hospital Quarter Master. Volunteers were in it again for Lt. Barron was the caretaker of the Sanitation Hut and Sgt. Crmaty of the Hospital Q.M. Stores. The people who looked after and Operated the set were very brave people: they were risking being beaten to death in a slow way.

The set had one particularly near shave at Tamuang, whilst in the Sanitation Hut. One morning, 'The Silver Bullet', suddenly arrived with a working party to pull the hut down and erect a new cookhouse there. The pulling down didn't matter so much, but the building did for it would involve digging. When the hut came down, the Silver Bullet indicated the places where the new uprights were to go. One of them was to go right on the place that the set was buried. the people in charge of the set did a snappy piece of work. One of them enticed The Bullet to the far end of the job, while another got the Aussie working party to crowd round to cover things up. Some hectic digging took place and the tins which contained the set and the batteries were rapidly dumped in a near by swill pit. The Aussies were told that the tins contained arms and for a few days later one of them was telling me what a lot of arms there were in the Camp. The tins were rescued from the swill pits, but the moisture had ruined the batteries and done $500 of damage. As our wages were so low, it was obvious that all along only the Officer's could afford to finance the set. As prices of batteries got higher and higher, the Officers were called upon for more and more money. Partly for this reason, but mainly for the security of the people who were operating the radio set, they gave their word, after we had been at Tamuang for some time, that they would pass the news on to no one else. This word was well observed and the Other Ranks, were almost entirely without news. The only news I ever got from any Officer's was that of the landings on Leyte. The Other Ranks, smuggled a few newspapers into the Camp now and then and that was their only source of news except from when our working parties met those from Chungkai and were able to get fragments of news from them.

When the Officer's left Tamuang, they did not dare to take the radio set with them, owing to the increased severity of the searches and the knowledge that the Kempi were starting a blitz against the news services. The set was therefore buried near our Cook-house. We Other Ranks, who were left just could not afford to run it.

When the people from Chunkai came into Tamuang to take our place, we told them where it was and we were subsequently told that on the 16th August 1945, it was dug up and gave satisfactory service.

Supplied by Michael Nellis, compiled from letters to his father Alfred Nellis from JK Gale.

Alfred Edward Nellis (Freeing the Demons) was at Wampo with JK Gale and shared the same tent, exchanging information in letters after the war.

 

 

 

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