Staying abreast with Mrs Harris and Ginnie
IN an effort to boost morale among the captured soldiers and civilians held at the Batu Lintang Camp, a small group of British POWs came up with an ingenious and daring scheme to build a wireless set from scratch, right under the noses of their guards.
The Japanese strictly enforced a strict news blackout and those found with a diary or written materials faced the death penalty.
"Mrs Harris" or "The Old Lady" became the reference to the made-in-camp radio, and her companion, "Ginnie," the hand-driven camp-assembled generator. They were the brainchild of Lieutenant Colonel M.C. Russell of the East Surrey Regiment, the acknowledged head of POWs.
The genius who actually built a wireless from "primitive" materials was Royal Air Force Warrant Officer Corporal Leonard (Len) A.T. Beckett. Others involved were E.R. Pepler, J.P. Flemming, Lance Corporal Bill Lambert, and Corporal G.W. Pringle.
Pringle had the unenviable, high-risk task of crawling through the wire fences under cover of darkness to contact a Chinese family living a mile (1.6km) from the camp for assistance.
Ong Tiang Swee (1864-1950), Kapitan China of Sarawak and the patriarch of the prominent Ong family of Kuching covertly helped the POWs and internees.
Ong instructed his grandson, Kee Hui (1914-2000) to help Pringle obtain the needed parts. Over the months, invaluable medicine, foodstuff, components for the radio and generator, and cash were smuggled into the camp. Money was used to purchase additional food from the Japanese.
Raw materials also came from the prisoners. Those at work as "white coolies" at the Kuching docks stole from the warehouses whilst others filched from the Japanese stores at the aerodrome.
Gradually, bits of wire, mica, and valves, tin, corrugated iron and numerous items were made available for Beckett's radio.
A deaf inmate was persuaded to part with the amplifier from his hearing aid, on the grounds that "there was nothing worth listening to in the camp".
Around late October 1942, "Mrs Harris" came alive. It was initially powered by batteries and later by tapping the Japanese domestic power line. However, when electric lighting was banned within the camp, Beckett built "Ginnie" from wires, magnets and other materials procured through Ong or stolen from the Japanese.
"Mrs Harris" was safely concealed under the cookhouse fire. During one of numerous surprise searches, the Japanese were within two feet of discovering the radio. "Ginnie" could quickly be dismantled and hidden with little suspicion.
News gleaned mostly from the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) Overseas Service was discreetly disseminated to a selected few. Bit by bit, news of the war’s progress was passed on as rumours to other inmates.
The Padre also helped to spread the word, with ingenious touches such as couching the fall of Nazi Germany in verses from the Bible's Exodus 3: 8 that spoke of Moses and the deliverance from the Egyptians.
Upon liberation in early September 1945, Beckett proudly introduced "Mrs Harris" and "Ginnie" to the Australian commander, Major General Thomas Eastick.
When the contraptions were shown to the Japanese camp commandant, Lt Col Suga Tatsuji, his face contorted in fury at the thought of this act of extreme defiance succeeding despite his best efforts. - OKG
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