Biscuits and Nightmares
The Diary of Peter Ross (Royal Signals)
Written by James McNeil (Grandson)
Why have I done this? Because I love my grandfather.
What did I want to achieve? I hope it brings people together, makes them talk to each other and puts life into perspective.
My grandfather Peter Ross was born on the 13th of June in Leith in 1919. He was conscripted on, or around the 30th of January 1940 and when I asked him about it, he said he wasn’t one of the ones who was buoyed by nationalist fervour, he thought about being a conscious objector but many people did. Not many, however, actually followed their thoughts through to the end. There weren’t many people who did, until the Luftwaffe started their bombing campaign of the UK in the summer of 1940. After he was conscripted he was put on a train and went to the Royal Signals Barracks at Catterick in North Yorkshire.
The first two weeks they were snowed in and could not use the barrack square for training until the snow subsided. This was where he first met Syd Horner and Jimmy Spencer. Two of the men who would help see him through the rest of his life. As I say in the foreword, the thing that stood out in the diary was humanity and the friendship that existed between these three men was formed in the most extreme circumstances and would never be broken. I have friends, people who I am still close friends with, even though I don’t see them very often, if at all, our friendships were made under circumstances that formed a bond between people that is never broken, a friendship born out of a shared experience that can’t really been put into words, but something that you both experience and share and which anyone who wasn’t there can’t really relate to. I might not see them for years but when we do see each other we pick up where we left off again.
My grandfather also went to Spennymoor, Marsham and Huddersfield for training. I remember he told me a story about the time just before they were deployed to Japan. I think he was in Catterick at the time. One night he was walking past an officers room and he heard the officers talking. They were saying that the next day the Regiment was going to be deployed to Africa and that they were going to fight Rommell in the desert. My grandfather went back to his room told his friends who promptly went to town stayed in the pub, got tremendously drunk and missed the rollcall in the morning and missed the boat for Africa.
I love that story and guffawed a proper belly laugh when he told me the first time. Chance took a hold of history and my granddad went to the jungle instead of the desert. Who knows what would’ve happened if he hadn’t overheard that conversation.
The journey to their destination was to take around 70 days and although granddad said it was dull and regular routines were formed quickly, it wasn’t completely without incident. They took the train from Catterick to Greenock; not knowing where they were being deployed to and sailed from Greenock in January 1941. The day they left, was dull and grey. If you’ve lived in the UK or visited then you’ll know the sky no doubt. Low slung heavy grey clouds that slow your mood down to suit themselves. The train from Durham stopped at Edinburgh and he said that was the worst part. “To think that in 15 minutes I could have been home!”
The boat at Greenock was crowded and they had hammocks to sleep in. The hammocks had to be cleared away to make space for tables and chairs at meal times. I asked about boredom and he said that they quickly settled into a routine and played a lot of cards and that it was too crowded for exercise. They played a lot of draughts and dominoes. No mobile phones, no ipads, no wireless, just conversation and solid hands on games. The weather was reasonable until they hit the African coast and then it started to get hot and sticky. I can imagine it. With no air conditioning the cabins must have been an ominous prospect, especially with lots of bodies at night when they were sleeping, it can’t have been a sweat free affair.
After a week and due to the route going well out into the Atlantic they knew that they were headed for South Africa and after that in all probability to the Far East. They had no idea where they were going when they boarded. being told they were going to Singapore when they hit Cape Town. I can’t imagine what the feeling must be of boarding a ship and being onboard for two weeks before finding out where you were going. Although they had a rough idea due to the course they were taking and the time they were on the boat.
The ship stopped in Freetown where they were machine gunned by the Vichy French planes when they docked and a few soldiers were injured. They again stopped in Cape Town, this time without incident and they were docked for 5 days. They then sailed onto Mombasa and stayed there for a day before sailing onto Bombay across the Indian Ocean and docked there for three to four days before sailing onto Singapore. In Singapore they were stationed a half mile from the Naval base, his first impressions of Singapore – he was surprised at it’s modernity.
There was “no fighting to be scared of,” as the Japanese Navy had never been to the Indian Ocean and they were comforted by the fact that there was no action in Singapore. They arrived into the harbour in March 1941, and had a relatively peaceful nine months until the 8th of December 1941, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour and Malaya.
Many of the white British and other nationalities left Singapore after that attack fearing that it would spread. You can’t help but feel if the British army had the same knowledge then they might have been better prepared to defend themselves against the Japanese. They were taken by surprise when the Japanese attacked from Malaya in the north, as the British had prepared for a sea attack only, hence all the artillery and guns were stationed in positions facing South, towards the sea. Couldn’t have been easier for the Japanese when they rolled south through Malaya.
Forward by James McNeil
Pukka. British slang. In this instance meaning “good.”
Regiment Head Quarters.
Navy, Army and Air Force Institutes, or NAFI for short – pronounced naffy. This is an organisation that provides goods and recreational services needed by British Armed forces. It runs clubs, bars, shops, supermarkets, launderettes, cafes and other facilities on British military bases. It is traditionally for Non Commissioned officers and all those ranked below. All Commissioned officers are supposed to use their own messes.
Hajime Sugiyama, was Chief of the Army General Staff, and minister of war in the Imperial Japanese Army during World War II. He was, as Army Chief of Staff, a leading advocate of expansion into Southeast Asia.
Subhas Chandra Bose, was a leader of an Indian Independence movement that fought the British and the Allied forces before and during World War II.
Kota Bharu, is a city on the north east corner of Malaya on the border with Thailand. It was where the Japanese first landed on December 7th 1941 when they invaded South East Asia, starting the war in the Pacific. From Kota Bharu they swept south through Malaysia to Singapore.
Rumours circulated that all POW prisoners would have the Japanese national flag tattooed on their foreheads.
Possibly meaning mixed vegetables.
Bukit Timah Road.
Kranji Wireless Station was a Royal Navy military base and at the time of the Japanese invasion of Malaya was used to store munitions. After the fall of Singapore, the Japanese military used it as a POW camp. There is now a war memorial and cemetery at, or near, the original site.
I am fairly certain that this is in fact Bukit Batok Hill as that is the hill nearest to the old Ford works factory and there is currently a war memorial on top, which is said to have replaced two older memorials and Shinto shrines built by Australian and British POWs in 1942. The memorials and Shinto Shrines were built to commemorate those who died in the Battle of Bukit Timah, which was the scene of some the heaviest fighting on Singapore. The hill was deemed significant as it overlooked the Ford Motor Factory and this was where Lieutenant-General Arthur Ernest Percival, General Officer Commanding, HQ Malaya Command, had surrendered over 125,000 British and Commonwealth troops to Lieutenant-General Tomoyuki Yamashita on the evening of 15 February 1942.
An officer named Whitley, whose rank is not given, was buying food at a stall nearby and he was then selling it on to the lower ranking soldiers at inflated prices, making a profit from his own men.
This was written as a distinct entry and not included in the entry for the 10th-20th, so I’ve kept it separate, as it is in the original.
In the original diary entry the word Chinese was written as chinks, crossed out and replaced by Chinese.
I think this is a misspelling and actually refers to the Bukit Panjang area. There was a decisive battle in the area called the Battle of Pasir Panjang. So although it’s not mentioned elsewhere in the diaries, it appears that my grandfather moved from Kranji to at least one and possibly more camps in the area surrounding Bukit Batok Hill. They were likely to have been temporarily erected camps or existing buildings and facilities in the area were made use of. Bukit Panjang is much closer to Batok Hill and so transporting troops to work details from other, smaller camps nearby seems plausible. This is backed up by mention in the entry on May 20th – 31st of them moving to an old Chinese Laundry.
I think this is a reference to hearing of Coleburn’s death, which is first mentioned in the entry for February 15th 1942. Coleburn died in a motorbike accident possibly on the River Valley Road, which is now is in Singapore city. I’m unsure if it went all the way to Changi at that time.
There were two camps on River Valley Road that were right beside each other. One called Havelock Road Camp, the other River Valley Road camp. Apparently they were only separated by a small river or canal with a bridge across it. These camps had up to 5,000 POW’s and were dispatch centres for work parties sent mainly into Singapore city. There is a very good account that’s worth reading, of conditions at that camp by another POW at the following web address. http://www.bbc.co.uk/ww2peopleswar/stories/56/a2128556.shtml
Beri Beri disease.
Rice and Noodles.
The good old day – Friday the 13th. My Grandfather’s lucky day and his birthday.
Browned off meaning angry or upset.
Black rice is typically sold as an unmilled rice, meaning the fibre-rich black husks of the rice are not removed. The unusual colour makes black rice very popular for exotic desserts, and the high nutritional value is an added benefit. Many stores sell black rice, sometimes under the label of “Indonesian Black Rice” or “Forbidden Rice.”
Nippon is the Japanese word for Japan, but here it is used to describe the Japanese doctor who visited camp.
313 should be on the entry for August 3rd but was missed and included in this entry instead.
310 should be on the entry for August 7th but was missed and included in this entry instead.
Commonly known as a loincloth or Fondushi is Japanese, it was nicknamed a Jap Happy by the POW’s. It was a rectangular piece of cloth, which was tied around the waist, passed between the legs and tucked under the cord. When clothes became torn and destroyed by the heat they were thrown away and many prisoners only item of clothing was a Jap Happy.
P.W. here means Prisoners of War.
Just a wee note for our American cousins, here fags is a reference to cigarettes, not gentlemen who prefer the company of other fine gentlemen.
Old Gold is a brand of cigarettes.
This Q could possible stand for Quartermaster. It would make sense as a Quartermaster is in charge of distributing supplies and provisions to troops.
These are the initials of a soldier, however his name has been forgotten.
Nip in this instance refers to the Japanese language.
Nippon is the Japanese word for Japan.
Beri Beri disease.
This could stand for British Naval Officer.
There is a good Wikipedia page for more information on the USS Sanctuary. On that page it says that the boat landed just offshore of Wakayama Prefecture. From there the ship went to Okinawa and stopped at Naha briefly before heading onto Hawaii. I lived near Wakayama Prefecture and spent some time there when I was in Japan and also visited Naha. It’s still strange thinking that my Grandfather was there over 65 years before me under very different circumstances.
The diary entry mentions a place called Wakamura. I could not find anywhere called Wakamura that has a train station. But, after further searching I think I have worked out a possible location. My Grandfather was taken to Manila in the Philippines onboard the USS Sanctuary. According to online sources, the USS Sanctuary sailed into Wakayama City Bay on the 11th of September and anchored offshore while the bay was cleared of mines. There is no place called Wakamura near Wakayama. But there is a place called Wakaura Bay, which is just south of Wakayama City and is viewable on Google maps and Google Earth. I think that they were taken to an Island in the bay as my Grandfather mentions a 10 minute sea journey by barge. There is an Island in Wakaura Bay with a hotel and I think it’s a good possibility that this is the Island and hotel that is referred to. The Island now has international marinas, theme parks, fishing parks, a fishing wharf and spa. There are various websites about the Island and it’s location can be viewed on Google maps. Do an Internet search for Wakayama Marina City Royal Pines Hotel and there are several websites to view. To see it’s location clearly, go to Google maps and type Wakayama Marina Royal Pines Hotel and it’s option A.
The USS Sanctuary sailed from Wakayama in Japan to Naha on Okinawa and as I understand it, my Grandfather then sailed onto Manila in the Philippines on a different ship. In Manila, he then boarded another ship, which took him to San Francisco by way of Hawaii.
I think this is possibly on the USS Marine Hawk which was changed to USS Haven:-
I think what happened here is that British POW’s would not leave or get out of a hatch quickly enough and so the U.S. sailors turned a hose on them. The next sentence also refers to a fight between a Scottish soldier and a U.S. sailor. So, there seems to be some tension between the sailors on the ship and the POW’s. This does raise some interesting questions of differing cultural responses to discipline and control.
This stands for Post Exchange. The Army base Post Office.
Battle Dress. Formal Uniform.
United States Dollars.
Sailed from New York to Southampton on the Queen Mary. Arrived in Southampton on the 18th of November 1945:-