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on 23 April 2013
Harold Atcherley records in his diary how he was walking through the camp at Changi one moonlit evening when he came across a body being carried to the morgue. He found himself wondering whether the man had a wife at home. If so, she would know nothing of how he died or what was on his mind. "It is just as well," he concluded for she would "never understand, as nobody will ever understand, who has not actually experienced life here." I am sure that is true yet the first-hand stories of POW can help us at least appreciate (if not fully understand) what happened particularly when they are told with Atcherley's powers of observation and reflection.

Harold Atcherley was on the way to a successful career with the oil giant, Royal Dutch Shell when war broke out. Commissioned as an intelligence officer at the HQ of the 18th British Infantry Division he arrived in Singapore at the end of January 1942. Two weeks later he was a Prisoner of War. He began writing the diary in May 1942 and continued it until he was repatriated from Singapore in September 1945. Besides the first few months of captivity, which he recreates from memory, the only gap is between April and December of 1943 when he was working on the Burma/Thailand Railway. After the war he returned to Royal Dutch Shell and a career in public service. He was knighted in 1977.

Atcherley's diary focuses on the day-to-day privations and tedium of camp life and on his state of mind throughout it all. But he writes with both perspective and perception. As an officer, perhaps, he was in a better position than many others to know what was going on in the camp even though what passed for knowledge was often little better than rumour. But as the years wore on he maintained a remarkable level of candour and insight about his feelings and emotions. Letters from home, for example, could be a very mixed blessing. The life they described seemed "so petty with all the stupid social conventions and traditions." To not receive a letter could be dissatisfying and yet to receive one could be even more so.

The diary was a form of self-discipline, of course. Reading was another. It might be Tawney's Religion and the Rise of Capitalism one day and Huxley's Essays of a Biologist the next; it was in fact. But even an intense and protracted reading regimen did not satisfy the need to keep his mind occupied. And so he took up Italian as well.

The early sections of the book dealing with Atcherley's enlistment, training and voyage to Singapore perhaps give the impression of a privileged, not to say charmed, life. He was an officer with a batman, after all, and the months before embarkation seemed to be a whirl of dances and dinner parties. My father's experience as a Royal Army Medical Corps orderly was rather different. But Atcherley was clearly troubled by the disparities in treatment between officers and ranks, for which he could see no justification. Indeed, his generous and fair-minded disposition extended to his assessment of the Japanese and his understanding of the challenges facing the world. By March 1943 (and perhaps much earlier) he had concluded that national sovereignty was an outmoded notion and that people needed to be taught that they had responsibilities to mankind, not just to the state in which they happened to have been born. "I have never wanted to fight Germans or Japanese," he writes. "How can anyone like or dislike a whole nation?"

A surprising question, perhaps, given Atcherley's POW experience, but that is precisely why he can ask it with such authority. It is an authority that is further enhanced throughout the published diary by Ronald Searle's drawings. Atcherley and Searle knew each other at Changi and were together through much of their captivity. Searle captured the face of barbarity as few other artists have managed to do. Prisoner of Japan is a fitting testament to two men - and countless others on both sides - who rose above it.
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on 25 May 2014
I read this book immediately after reading "the Forgotten Highlander" and I found much to contrast between the two books and the two authors. Whilst not at all belittling any of those who were P.O.W.s in the far East I became strangely irritated by "Prisoner of Japan" or more particularly its author. By comparison whilst both authors suffered long periods of enormous deprivation it seemed to me that Harold Atcherley had a very privileged position as an officer compared with Alistair Urquhart. Although he did spend nine months on the railway which must have been hell (but less time than Urquhart spent there) he spent most of his time in camps in or near to Singapore. There it seems he was not often required to work, had much better accommodation than the "other ranks" ( though no doubt still unpleasant and over crowded) was able to listen regularly to gramophone records, buy and cook food and read books at a prodigious rate - perhaps at least one a day. Yet he comes across as a constant complainer, regarding himself as much superior to the other officers incarcerated with him. By contrast Urquhart had a much harder time of it but was far more stoic in his approach to his suffering.
I'm glad I read both books and have enormous sympathy for what the authors and thousands of others suffered on my behalf ( born 1945) but in the end I empathised far more with Urquhart than with Atcherley
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on 11 January 2013
What I found most impressive about this diary, which covers the three years the author spent in Japanese camps, is the maturity and independence of thought shown by a man in his mid-twenties. Free of the nationalism he condemns in his fellow officers, he describes the psychological and military catastrophe of the Fall of Singapore in the most uncompromising detail, and we witness the courage with which men survived the harsh conditions of wartime camps using all possible means at their disposal.
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on 3 December 2012
Most of us have heard of the infamous Changi camp and the hell that British prisoners suffered from the Japanese in that Singapore island prison camp, but I had not really understood what life was really like in those three or more years, until I read Harold Atcherley's book 'Prisoner of Japan:a personal war diary, Singapore, Siam & Burma 1941-1945.'
Together with 7000 others from F Force Harold was a prisoner of war, and somehow survived for 43 months. He kept a diary of those days, except while working on the Burma-Thailand railway, and these make up the narrative of this book. They describe the incessant cruelty, the starvation, the heat, the bizarre food they ate to survive, and the discussions they held on the meaning of life and how to reconcile their present lives with the great dreams that they had held before the war.
Most of can never even imagine such existence, or how men could survive it, but some did. Among them were Harold and a young artist called Ronald Searle. His sketches of life in the camp and in the jungle are spread through the book. If anyone can only think of Searle as a drawer of impudent schoolgirls, take a look at his drawing of a prisoner dying of cholera.
Yet the book is not about despair, but triumph. In spite of all the Japanese obscenities Harold and those around him seem able to have kept up their spirits and kept their minds open, even if their bodies were restricted to existing in closed surroundings.
'A prisoner in Japan' is an inspiring memoir. Sir Harold - as he became in '77 - is still alive in his nineties,and still a powerful speaker. Please read this book; it is a unique story of a unique English gentleman.
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on 19 December 2012
A true, moving and at times harrowing account of what it was really like to be a POW under the Japanese. How does a person endure such horrors.
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on 8 January 2013
What makes this book stand out for me is the DETAIL. You feel you really are suffering the same unforgettable experiences as the author (still alive and kicking!) I cannot recommend it highly enough. Buy it. Please.
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on 2 January 2013
This is a very moving but admirably rational personal account of horrors that we can only imagine nowadays. The brutality of mankind is brought to life but his will and spirit survive without bitterness and Harold Atcherley is able to move onto a full and successful life. One is left amazed at the ability of individuals to overcome such tyranny.
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on 27 June 2014
Excellent! This book demands to be read! Human nature's triumph over adversity and atrocity in all it's gory glory! That this man overcame the atrocities heaped upon him and his fellow prisoners and survived to tell the tale is nothing short of a miracle. It is because of men like these we wear poppies and live the life we do.
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on 26 August 2015
A true story of extreme suffering, perseverance, hope, survival and loss during world war II. Let's not forget the sacrifices made, and the suffering of those involved. I think books like this should also be made part of the curriculum in history at school so that children learn the human side of war and not just the strategy and politics.
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on 5 February 2014

Perhaps a human figure on the cover would be helpful. 3/5


Good flow and content so far in what we have read. We read on ...

Finished 9 2 14

An interesting and educating book of privations and survival in extreme circumstances after an apparent shambles in the loss of Singapore.

A recipe for survival ... reading, music, hope of an ending, a streak of bloody mindedness and having a cholera jab.

A chapter at the end would have been a useful addition about return to life after 1945 - physical recovery and long term mental outcomes and a small point of interest - some explanation of exact system where the officers received pay and paid for food would have been helpful. I re-read the introduction but this did not go far enough.

Book a little on the long side but this did convey the length of captivity cut off from home and the rest of the world apart from radio news and a few long delayed letters.

A memorable read and this and other reading on the same subject should ensure this war is not a forgotten war any longer on my bookshelf. When I think back to where I have come across this part of WW2 before in my life in meeting friends and relations this 'forgotten war' has almost been self enforcing because people have been unwilling to talk about what happened maybe because events were so awful and so far way.

Alexander of Allrighters and Ywnwab.
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