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Doctor Behind the Wire

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Member Reviews

Published here for the first time, Jack’s diaries record the daily struggles against disease, injuries and malnutrition and also the support and camaraderie of friends. enjoyment of concerts, lectures, and sports, Ever observant, he records details of wildlife.

The inspiration for the ‘Changi Quilts’, the story of the Girl Guide quilt (now in the Imperial War Museum) is told in words by Elizabeth, written after the war.

Elizabeth’s former employer, Robert Heatlie Scott, distinguished Far East diplomat, was also POW in Changi, much of the time in solitary confinement or under interrogation by the Japanese.

The individual experiences of these three persons are dramatic enough – together they combine in an amazing story of courage, love and life-long friendship.
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Collated by his eldest daughter, this is the transcribed diaries of Jack Ennis who was a doctor working for the Indian Medical Service (IMS) - a military medical service in British India - who was stationed in Singapore when the Japanese invaded in 1942. Jack had married Elizabeth Petrie just four days before both became prisoners of war - Elizabeth was at the notorious Changi gaol, whist Jack was at a number of bases nearby.

Jack Ennis kept a diary during his period of incarceration, written in tiny spidery writing initially in notebooks then on whatever paper he could find, writing in at least 3 directions to conserve the very scarce commodity! 
As a medic, Jack was quite lucky in that he was able to move fairly freely within the camp. He was very diligent about monitoring his own health, recording his weight/blood pressure etc at regular intervals, and doing various test on patients, but as a pathologist he was also performing autopsies to determine why people died. His notes formed a significant contribution to future understanding of tropical diseases and the impact of diet/conditions on POWs

His diaries start with moaning about the food (rice again!) but quickly he becomes obsessed by lack of communication from Elizabeth, who is incarcerated very close by - however he didn't understand how scarce paper was at the Changi gaol, or how Elizabeth was handling her own situation. It is interesting that Jack records not only details of the patients & the medics he worked alongside, but also details of the wildlife from the snakes he popped in the bathtub to the bats that flew overhead. 

Later in the book we get some of Elizabeth's views, though she never committed her experience to paper. Elizabeth played a significant part in the life of the Changi gaol, particularly for the children as she formed a Girl Guide company and was the inspiration for the Girl Guide quilt (now in the Imperial War Museum)

Overall this was an interesting and personal insight into one man's experience of being a POW in Singapore. Others have written about life in Changi, but a first hand account in such detail is unusual

(Also published on Goodreads & my blog at
 #DoctorBehindtheWire #NetGalley
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Jackie Sutherland grew up hearing many of the stories and meeting many of the people referred to in this book Doctor Behind the Wire.   Although this is considered a biography, Jackie bounced it off Jackie's Dad's diaries entailing his experiences, well, behind the wire, as a POW in a Japanese internment camp in Singapore during WWII.

Her Dad, Captain Jack Ennis was a doctor of pathology and had headed up that department, until the Japanese take over.  He and many of the other medical officers (MO's) seemed to have a slightly better time of it as they could still work and thus keep their minds active.  However, many were often falling sick, including Dr. Ennis.

Dr. Ennis kept daily records of those days which amazingly, escaped the Nips (the term the Japanese captors were mostly referred to as) attention.  In his records he described learning how to survive hunger by slipping out and going fishing; by keeping chickens and ducks; by growing a vegetable garden; and even eating other creatures that they would trap, cook in the path Lab stove, and enjoy.   You'll have to read the book to find out what those 'others' were.  Despite all that, there were still "skeletons" walking around the POW camp. 

Besides the day to day living records, were the well documented medical records of the various ones treated and for what pathology and of those who died.  There were also times of medical lectures by one doctor or another; theater performances; roll call miseries and beatings; black market business; the longing to know what had happend to Elizabeth and/or get even a tidbit of news of or from her (they had only just recently married prior to British capitulation); and so on.  

As the book is laid out closely as to how the diaries had been, in bulletpoint-like style, it is slow going.  However, if a reader had ever been in similar circumstance; is an avid history buff especially about things medical, or knew any of those mentioned in the diaries, or just plain curious as to how things were, then he/she will find it somewhat intriquing.

The three appendices give bibliography, suggested further reading; medical records; lists of names mentioned through the diary and which point to corresponding pages where one can find the names and other references; post war compensation; and the icing on the cake, pictures of the main characters.  All tallied, page count is 328.

                                                              ~Eunice C. - Reviewer/Blogger~

Disclaimer:  This is my honest opinion based on the review copy I received from the publisher.

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Jack Ennis was a qualified doctor captured by the Japanese at the fall of Singapore in 1942, and he remained a prisoner of war until the defeat of Japan in 1945.  He had married Elizabeth Petrie shortly before capture, and she was interned nearby at the notorious Changi prison.

Ennis' period of incarceration appears to have been quite mild compared to the experiences of many Allied troops under the Japanese - he complains about the food, but did manage to keep his weight to a reasonable level, and he had quite a lot of freedom to go about doing various jobs and seeing numerous shows and plays put on by other POWs.  Like many doctors, he obsessed a little about his own health, but his main forte seemed to be research into why men died through completing post mortem and doing various tests on the living to check for rising epidemics.

It is interesting to read from his diaries how frustrated he became, both at the lack of letters from Elizabeth, and the dearth of information in letters from his family (on his return home his mother believed that they had suffered far more in the Blitz than he had during his imprisonment).  He was also very frustrated at what he considered to be the poor leadership in camp, and the slow progress of the war and the British attempts to liberate Singapore - he very much believed they were a forgotten army.

Over all a very interesting read of one man's personal view, providing a counterfoil to many of the other diaries and reminiscences of this period.

Thank you to NetGalley and Pen & Sword for allowing me access to the ARC in exchange for an honest review.
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