Changi Chapel was originally a Roman Catholic Chapel that was located at Changi Prisoner of War Camp in Singapore during World War II. It was built in 1944 by allied prisoners who were held by Japanese military forces. When Changi Camp was liberated in 1945, the Chapel was salvaged, recorded and transported to Australia. It remained in storage until 1988, when it was reconstructed at the Royal Military College Duntroon as a National Memorial to over 35,000 Australian Prisoners of War.
Why is this place important?
Changi Chapel is important for its strong association with Australia's involvement during World War II in conflicts against the Japanese in Asia and the Pacific, and with Australia's defence of Singapore. Changi Chapel is also closely associated with the former prisoners of Changi Camp (a World War II Prisoner of War camp) and their experiences. The Chapel was constructed as a Roman Catholic Chapel in 1944 by allied prisoners.
The Chapel reflects the enduring faith of prisoners who were subject to adverse conditions, and the innovation and ingenuity of the prisoners who constructed the Chapel using scrounged building materials. It has a symbolic value for all former Australian Prisoners-of-War as a National Memorial to Prisoners of War, particularly those from World War II. The Chapel is also a rare surviving structure built by allied Prisoners-of-War overseas, which was salvaged in 1945 and reconstructed in Australia to its original plans in 1988 at Duntroon.
Looking at the Chapel
The reconstructed Chapel building is an open timber-framed structure with terracotta-tiled gable roof and partial walls on three sides. Changi Chapel is unique in its design, with echoes of Art Deco styling in its features and detailing. This includes the fine horizontal lines in the railings and altar details contrasting with the vertical altar panels, beams and gate posts.
The timber frame consists of four corner posts, each with five supporting arms branching out to support the roof beams and exposed timber rafters. The terracotta roof tiles are stamped, identifying them as Crown Brand tiles manufactured by the Malabar Tile Works at Feroke in India. Identical replacement tiles were said to have been sourced from Saint Mary's Church in Rose Hill, Sydney, and integrated with original tiles where necessary. A timber cross is positioned at the front on the gable of the roof.
The half-height side walls, beginning midway along each length of the structures, step up towards the rear wall where the stepping continues to create a backdrop for the altar. The walls are clad with fibre-cement sheeting painted white with green timber trim. The lower portions of the walls are clad in corrugated-iron sheeting painted green with timer detailing.
On the back wall, a galvanised-iron panel with a painted white cross and a timber mantel overlooking the timber altar stand on a low platform. The altar features delicate horizontal timber detailing and a metal cross intertwined with 'HIS' secured at the front of the stand. A glass panel, visible only at the rear of the structure, provides a light well for the back wall of the Chapel. The whole building is set on a base of concrete pavers tiles laid in a randomly coursed pattern (an interpretation of the 'crazy' paving pattern found at Changi).
Changi Chapel is located in the northern section of the Royal Military College Duntroon. It is sited on a grass clearing with large established eucalyptus trees. The site was chosen by the Australian Heritage Commission because it provided:
A good balance of spaces each side of the memorial which would ensure it being visually enhanced by the existing trees. It would be seen to advantage when approached from Harrison Rd. The relationship with the ANZAC Memorial Chapel will be most satisfactory.
Two rosemary bushes are planted on either side of the entry to the Chapel. Rosemary is associated with remembrance and commemoration.
Changi Chapel is open to the public. The Chapel is located within the Royal Military College Duntroon. Access may be subject to Defence's operational and security requirements.
Godden Mackay Logan, 2012. Changi Chapel, RMC Duntroon Heritage Management Plan (Draft Report). Prepared for the National Capital Authority.
- More about Australian involvement in World War II
- More about Changi Chapel and the Changi Prisoner of War Camp
- More about the Reconstruction of Changi Chapel at RMC Duntroon
- More about the Duntroon Estate and the Royal Military College
- More about the Aboriginal History of the area
Australian Involvement in World War II
Australia at War 1939-1945
During the 1930s, Germany was making great efforts to expand it European territories with plans for the invasion of Poland. Britain and France learned of Germany's plan, and threatened to declare war if Germany proceeded with the invasion.
Germany invaded Poland on 1 September 1939, and two days later on 3 September 1939, both Britain and France declared war on Germany. On the same day, the Australian Prime Minister, Robert Gordan Menzies, announced the beginning of Australia's involvement in World War II. After Japan attacked Pearl Harbour on and Singapore in December 1941, Prime Minister John Curtin declared war on Japan on 8 December 1941.
Over a million Australian men and women served during World War II against Germany and Italy in locations across Europe, the Mediterranean and Africa, and against Japan in Asia and the Pacific. The war in Europe ended with Germany's surrender in May 1945. Japan surrendered in August 1945.
The Japanese in World War II and the fall of Singapore
Japan officially entered World War II in December 1941 with a series of campaigns resulting in the occupation of large areas of south-east Asia and the Pacific by the end of March 1942. Japan wanted to create a 'great empire' and broaden their access to raw materials to support their growing industries. Japan was not allied to Germany, but exploited the world's preoccupation with the European war as an opportunity to enhance its stronghold in this area.
Singapore was one of the key targets for Japan. Said to be an undefeatable fortress of the British forces, it was considered a strong symbol of the British power in south-east Asia.
Two weeks after the initial invasion, Singapore fell to Japanese forces on 15 February 1942. The surrender resulted in 130,000 allied military personnel and civilians, including 15,000 Australians, being taken prisoner by Japan. This was the largest number of Australians captured in the region during the war.
Changi Chapel and the Changi Prisoner of War Camp
Changi Gaol and the Construction of Changi Chapel
In order to accommodate the huge numbers of prisoners of war, Japan established the 'Changi Gaol' on 17 February 1942 as the Prisoner of War Headquarters. The site was a major British army barracks up until that point. Changi remained a Prisoner of War camp until the end of the war.
The Australians were originally housed in the Selerang Barracks area of the gaol, a separately wired off camp. The number of Australian housed there varied because the Japanese used the prisoners as a workforce for projects away from Singapore. Even with the fluctuation in numbers, Changi remained the largest Australian Prisoner of War camp in the region. In 1944, all prisoners were moved from the Selerang area to the Changi Gaol, which included a hospital located outside the main gaol walls.
Prisoners of war from the 8th Division AIF were interned in the Changi Gaol from 1943. Within weeks of their arrival, they decided to build a Roman Catholic Chapel dedicated to 'Our Lady of Christians'. A simple post and beam structure with a palm frond roof and single level floor was erected under the guidance of Lieutenant Hamish Cameron-Smith, an architect in civilian life who was serving in the Engineer Corps of the British Army. He was assisted by Lieutenant Hugh Simon-Thwaites (who became a priest after the war) and a band of volunteer labourers. A crude hut structure was initially built, before a more elaborate and detailed chapel developed over time with access to additional materials.
The construction of the Roman Catholic Chapel at Changi was recounted by Father Lionel Marsden, the Chaplian to the 8th Division AIF:
We had not been in the camp for a week when the Catholic soldiers were clamouring for a chapel where the Blessed Sacrament could be reserved. The main who came to our assistance was Lieutenant Hamish Cameron-Smith, a Scottish Catholic, and an architect in civilian life. He drew the plans for our little chapel, rounded up a band of voluntary labourers and with the help of his fine persuasive, Highland personality, we managed to secure all the materials we needed. He then built the chapel from the first nail to the last stroke of the paint brush. His assistance and general factotum was Lieutenant Hugh Simon-Thwaite. A beautiful garden was laid around the Chapel. In front of the chapel a memorial plaque was erected and on it was inscribed these words: 'This chapel is dedicated to our Lady Help of Christians and in memory of our deceased comrades in Malay, the Netherlands East Indies, Thailand and Burma, over whose remains there was no Christian symbol.
Although the chapel was built with the permission of the Japanese, materials for the Chapel were sourced locally, often by scavenging, and bring them back into the Gaol in secret.
Two other Chapels were also constructed by prisoners of war ñ a Church of England Chapel near the Roman Catholic Chapel, as well as a Chapel for other protestant denominations.
Repatriation of Changi Chapel to Australia
Changi was liberated on 5 September 1944 by troops from the 5th Indian Division. In October 1945, the War Graves Unit spent a few days by chance in the Changi Camp, en route to Sumatra. Corporal Max Lee made a request to the British to save the Catholic Chapel, which was one of the few structures that had not been destroyed by fire. Permission was granted and after extensive photographs were taken and dimensional drawings and sketches made by Lee, the Chapel was dismantled by a working party of surrendered Japanese personnel. In 1947, it was shipped to Australia in ammunition boxes lined with grass, with the intention that the Chapel be reconstructed as a fitting memorial for 'Prisoners of War who had little recognition for the extreme adversity under which many had lived and died'.
Reconstruction of Changi Chapel at RMC Duntroon
Following the liberation of 1945 and the transportation in 1947, the labelled ammunition crates containing the dismantled chapel was stored in the Australian War Memorial, where they remained for over 40 years.
As it was originally planned to reconstruct the Chapel at the Australian War Memorial, Corporal Max Lee was disappointed to find that this had not happened when he visited Canberra in 1966. Sometime later, a group of veterans contacted Corporal Lee to enquire about the Chapel, as his name had remained on the crates. Mr Lee still possessed the scale drawings of the Chapel, which were provided to the Australian War Memorial. In 1987, the Australian War Memorial had decided not to construct the Chapel within their grounds and it was offered to the Department of Defence, who decided to establish the Chapel at its Royal Military College Duntroon with the assistance of the Australian Heritage Commission.
A National POW (Changi Chapel) Committee was established to oversee the reconstruction process, with members from the Australian War Memorial and the Returned Services League. The reconstruction began in 1988, carried out by the Royal Australian Engineer Corps. Much of the original fabric was in good condition and was able to be reused. Some fabric, such as timber posts and some roof tiles, were sourced and integrated with the original building.
The Chapel was dedicated as a National Memorial to over 35,000 Australian Prisoners of War from the Boer War, World War I, World War II and the Korean War on 15 August 1988, the anniversary of the end of World War II. The ceremony was attended by Corporal Max Lee and renowned World War II figures such as Sir Edward 'Weary' Dunlop AC, CMG, OBE (who unveiled the memorial) and Mrs Vivian Stratham MBE, ARRC,ED (also known as Nurse Bullwinkle (who read the lesson). Many Changi survivors and their family and friends also attended the opening.
The Canberra Times reported the event as being similar to 'the crush after a sporting final or a rock concert with dozens of people pressed close for an autograph from the stars of the day or just for a closer look'. The ceremony was described as emotionally charged, as survivors had not seen the Chapel since its repatriation to Australia some 44 years earlier.
Lieutenants Hugh Simon-Thwaites (who at the time was a Catholic priest in England) and Hamish Cameron-Smith (who was an architect in Zambia) were brought to Australia in 1989 to view the reconstructed Chapel. Father Simon-Thwaites celebrated mass in the Chapel.
The Duntroon Estate and the Royal Military College
The Campbell Family and the Duntroon Estate
In 1825, the wealthy Sydney merchant importer and warehouse owner, Robert Campbell, was awarded a land grant of 4,000 acres on the Limestone Plains (currently Canberra). In 1830, Campbell organised the construction of a homestead called 'Limestone Cottage', and later renamed as 'Duntroon'. It was built using local stone by convict and free labour, and completed in 1833.
Campbell had his shepherd and overseer, James Ainslie, manage the estate while he remained in Sydney. In 835, Charles Campbell, Robert's third son, became the manager of the estate. Robert Campbell eventually retired in Duntroon in 1843 and died there in 1846. The estate passed to his fourth son George, who came to live at Duntroon with his wife Marianne in 1854. It was George and Marianne who renamed the estate 'Duntroon'.
George and Marianne Campbell remained at the property until 1876, when they moved to England. George Campbell died in 1881 and Marianne returned to live at Duntroon until her death in 1903. The contents of the estate were sold, and the property was left vacant until it was acquired by the Australian government following the selection of Canberra as the national capital.
Establishment of the Royal Military College
The history of the Royal Military College (RMC) started with the Federation of the Australian colonies in January 1901, and the recommendation by the first commander of the Australian Military Forces in April 1902 that a military college be developed to serve the new country.
The Defence Act of 1903 provided the legislative basis for the new college. The Australian Government instructed Colonel William Throsby Bridges to investigate overseas examples and then establish the Australian college. On 30 May 1910, he was appointed the first Royal Military College Commandant with the rank of Brigadier General.
In July 1910, Duntroon was selected as the site of the college. It was officially opened on 27 June 1911. In 1912, additional lands were added to the original military acquisition.
Aboriginal History of the Area
Before European settlement, Aboriginal people occupied the hills and plains of the Molonglo Valley. One group was noted by early settlers as having particular affiliation with the area now occupied by the Royal Military College Duntroon. This group was referred to as the 'Pialligo Blacks'.
The Aboriginal people of the Canberra region lived a nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle, setting up shelter and camps as they travelled in response to seasonal availability of natural resources. The landscape and their relationship with it formed an integral part of their lifestyle and belief system. The hills and valleys of the Canberra area not only provided resources but also formed tracks and navigational markers.
Changi Chapel is located just off the foot slopes of Mt Pleasant and its northeasterly ridge. This hill and ridge were among the navigational points and tracks that connected the landscape to the north of what is now Canberra with Molonglo River and its valley. Mt Ainslie, located just to the north of Mt Pleasant, and Black Mountain were two primary navigational sites in this landscape. The hills were referred to be Aboriginal traditional owners as 'women's breasts', being symbols of the land representing 'mother earth'. These hills were also important landscape markers of trails, tracks and places associated with the sacred site on what is now Capital Hill and the location of the Molonglo Valley. Mt Pleasant forms the tail end of the Mt Ainslie and Mt Majura ridge. All of the landscape now occupied by the RMC Duntroon was of significance to the Aboriginal people who lived there prior to the arrival of Europeans.
The coming of European settlers to the region not only displaced Aboriginal people from their traditional lands, but also introduced diseases to which Aboriginal people had no immunity. This resulted in disastrously high mortality rates that extended beyond the immediate contact zone. There are a few records of Indigenous people in the RMC Duntroon area after it was settled by pastoralists.