AS FAMILIES contemplate their Christmas arrangements in this most extraordinary of years, many will find it hard to accept that this cannot be like any normal year and that we may not be able to visit our loved ones.

But let us remember that this is the 75th anniversary of the repatriation of our Far East Prisoners of War (FEPOW) to Southampton and Liverpool around this time in 1945.

Perspective may be able to enlighten our thoughts at this time.

When tens of thousands of British and Allied troops, quite apart from the thousands of civilian women and children, were either captured or interned by the Japanese in the Second World War, they could hardly have imagined they would not see their loved ones for at least three or four years.

All the wives and families of the FEPOW at home were kept largely incommunicado about the whereabouts and wellbeing of their husbands, fathers and sons, or even whether they were still alive.

When stories of Japanese atrocities in their camps began to circulate one can only imagine relatives at Christmas time desperately wondering whether their loved one had become a victim of one. And they had no means of finding out, or of knowing how he might be spending his Christmas.

With a five-year-old son, 27-year-old Peggy Stiby’s husband Arthur, a major in the Royal Artillery, was captured following the fall of Singapore in February 1942. But apart from hearing that he was ‘missing’ – surely the most nerve-wracking of notices – she heard nothing more for six months, until she received word that he a prisoner of the Japanese in an unknown location.

Although she wrote to him every week, care of the Red Cross, she never got a reply and had no idea that he had already been transferred in June to Saigon to work as a dock labourer. Unbeknown to Peggy at the time, Arthur did in fact receive two batches of 12 letters while he was in Saigon.

Despite their strange surroundings, the Saigon PoW’s at least keep up some pretence it was Christmas in 1942 with an illustrated Christmas Day menu that included a consommé, a ragout, sardines, plenty of eggs and an abundance of fruit.

Their final meal of the day was washed down with Chateau Lubbock, Texas (N.V.) and followed by cigars; but despite the prisoners’ attempts at finesse, one can scarcely imagine what their recipes actually consisted of. No doubt rice was a key ingredient.

In June 1943, Arthur was transferred to Siam and in August was in Chungkai; about to spend the rest of his war on the notorious Death Railway. But still Peggy had no knowledge of that, until some months passed and out of the blue, she received a Japanese approved printed postcard from her husband, saying that he was well, but not where he was.

It was many more months before she heard from him again, although the rumours of atrocities were still rife.

It had not been a very Happy Christmas in 1941, when the colony of Hong Kong surrendered on December 25, after a whirlwind Japanese advance, and the garrison and civilian men, women and children suddenly found themselves either prisoners of war, or internees.

But by Christmas 1942, those Hong Kong prisoners, as well as those captured in Singapore in early 1942 and throughout the wider Nipponese Empire, would have been celebrating this Festival. Exactly how would depend on which camp they would have been in at the time.

In the larger camps, such as Changi in Singapore, Shamshuipo in Hong Kong, or Santo Tomas in Manila, where there was a large cross section of former performers, artists and musicians, Christmas was a time of great industry, preparing for quite sophisticated festive entertainment.

Concert parties and traditional pantomimes, written from scratch and with much larger companies and orchestras than one would find in a provincial theatre today.

The large Portuguese contingent in Shamshuipo entered into the spirit, designing sets and programmes as well as performing and providing stunning dancing ‘girls’ for the chorus lines.

On December 27, 28 and 29, 1943, they staged a rather splendid performance of Aladdin, with Private Robert ‘Honey’ Pereira starring as Princess Lotus Blossom, in her long blonde wig.

It can only be conjectured what the Japanese must have thought of these strange traditions of their prisoners.

Again, as in Saigon, they would have laid on a festive menu on December 25 with special food, saved from Red Cross parcels – if they were lucky enough to have received one – and whatever they could scrounge or buy on the black market with their meagre wages.

In the prison camp at Sime Road, Hong Kong, the talented artist Will Ryder spent his first Christmas Eve in 1942 making Christmas cards for the officers, for which he received $1 each, and illustrating programmes for the evening concert in the camp’s New Cathay Theatre.

He joined the choir singing carols in different parts of the camp, describing the jolly time had by all and the Christmas spirit pervading the atmosphere. Will expressed the hope that he would be home by the next Christmas. It was not to be.

Shortly after Christmas he was moved to Changi where he stayed for three months, his morale no doubt boosted by receiving a batch of five letters from home ¬– all written 8 months earlier!

It brought back memories of his family that he had not seen for 17 months.

Two days after being given the letters, Will was transported ‘up-country’ in a cattle truck to work on the Burma Railway. Meanwhile the only information that his fiancée, Joan, had back in England was always 18 months out of date.

Although life for the prisoners in the large camps may have been depressing and boring, those in the jungle camps experienced a different level of inhumanity.

Inmates supplied slave labour for the Japanese war machine on the airfields and in the mines. Their conditions depended on the whim of the ever-changing commandants.

Despite the well documented hardships, death tolls and the Japanese not recognising the festival of Christmas, they did allow the prisoners to enjoy a day’s holiday on December 25, which they did what they could to make the most of.

In 1944, when the continual diet of rice was becoming acutely short and the Allied aircraft were bombing the strategic railways and airfields, inevitably some fell on Will Wilder’s Nong Pladuk camp, killing and wounding some prisoners.

Malaria and dysentery had broken out again and the inmates had to sleep in their homemade loin cloths and clogs in open trenches for better protection.

Despite all these privations, and daily deaths, Christmas was celebrated throughout the camp on fine and warm day.

Will reported some good laughs at the evening concert, entitled ‘Escapado Argentino’, for which he had produced the illustrated programme. The Japanese had provided better food for the day, although many prisoners paid for it later with upset stomachs.

In December 1942, in Camp No. 8 in Fukuoka District of Japan, Capt Atholl Duncan of the Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders reported a much better Christmas than he had dared hope for.

Here it was bitterly cold, and malaria had broken out again, but the Japanese had made every effort to create a happy atmosphere.

On Christmas Eve they produced a wind-up gramophone along with a collection of jazz and classical records, and some even stayed with their prisoners to enjoy what Capt Duncan described as a most affable evening.

Then on Christmas Day, Duncan described the food as ‘marvellous’. Barley porridge and sugar for breakfast, bully sandwiches and cocoa at 11am, followed by pork, boiled spuds, cabbage and spaghetti for lunch. Later came beef stew, roast potatoes, beans and cabbage followed by duff with sugar sauce, all washed down with wine.

The day ended with a singsong round a fire in the dining room and Duncan described it as the best day of his captivity so far. However, he too was to pay for this over-indulgence later, with an attack of diarrhea.

Nevertheless, he was up at 5am on December 28, for his seven-hour shift down the freezing cold coal mine. Life in captivity had returned to normal.

Capt Duncan had received no mail from home since his capture in Java in March 1942, until March 1944 when he was transferred to Zentsuji camp on Shikoku Island. His parents were officially informed by the British War Office, but with no date of transfer included.

Duncan regarded himself as fortunate to get his letter. So many of his fellow prisoners had not received a single letter, postcard or a cable throughout their whole captivity.

Further east, the 3,785 civilian internees in Santo Tomas, Manila were down to starvation rations by Christmas 1944.

By then there were no eggs, milk or meat and the daily allocation of cereal had dropped to only 187 grams per head, providing less than 900 calories. The average workman’s requirement was 3,500.

If this made for a gloomy Christmas Day, spirits were lifted greatly when the United States Air Force dropped thousands of leaflets over Manila, with a message of Christmas goodwill “from the C-in-C, officers and men of the American Forces of Liberation in the Pacific to their gallant allies, the People of the Philippines and wishing them the realisation of their most fervent hopes for the New Year”.

If those were to be freed of the Japanese yoke, they were realised on 3rd February 1945 when Santo Tomas and the other camps were liberated.

We all share the anguish of the families of those who have succumbed to Covid-19, but for those of us who continue to struggle on in this weird and confusing situation, let us spare a thought for those who were in even worse circumstances than we find ourselves.

Although we may be unable to be with our loved ones for another three or four months, our forebears did not have the benefit of modern medical science, email, Facetime or Zoom.

Roger Townsend is the honourable director of .