Friday 13 February-Thursday 5 March 194263
Colin Inglis is selected to attempt an escape from Singapore to Java on a small passenger boat the SS Kuala
Colin Inglis was a British engineer employed by the Department of Public Works (PWD) in Singapore. For the last six months he had been occupied mostly on Fleet Air Arm projects. Selected as “essential personnel” for evacuation to Java in early February, he was forced to pack his office bags alongside local Asiatic staff who were to remain. He then reported to a heavily bombed quayside at Telok Ayer basin to board the SS Kuala.
The Kuala was built to carry about twenty five passengers, but about 600 odd people were eventually put aboard—all very matey. We sailed at dusk, leaving Singapore blazing in a hundred different spots, but nevertheless the City proper looked comparatively unharmed!...
Returning to the poop deck, I squeezed into my place between Roger Steed and Burke-Gaffney. Supper began. Corned beef, tinned fruit and assorted cream biscuits, washed down with whisky and water. Shortly we settled down for the night, as there was nothing else to do—even smoking being forbidden owing to black out regulations. Using my tin hat as a pillow, I lay down as far as possible on the hard deck. Being unable to stretch fully outright, it was some time before I managed to get off to sleep, but not for long. The hardness of the deck and the little bumps of oakum which came through the planks, added to a wind which was distinctly cold, woke me shivering….
On return to the poop deck, Hutton, always resourceful and thinking of others, went off to see what he could do about a bucket of tea, and shortly returned with it—milkless, sugarless, steaming hot, and very welcome. We were just dipping our cups into it when the cry went up that bombers were approaching. We all trooped down to the main deck, which had the steel promenade deck over it, and hoped that it would be sufficient protection. The planes, however, flew over us, paying no attention and directed their attack on to the abandoned Kwang Wu further out. This they sank with one salvo, and went on towards the horizon. A wild relief went through us, that perhaps they hadn’d spotted us, and I said as much to Hutton. He looked graver than I’ve ever seen him look before and shook his head. We watched the other ship sink by the bow, milling about before the small deck portholes, when somebody yelled from the promenade deck that the planes had turned and were coming back. The whole crowd of us sank to the deck like a corps de ballet and waited for what seemed like a year before we heard the planes. Their roaring was soon drowned by the whistle as the bombs began to fall, and we all snuggled closer trying to burrow under the next door person. With a series of roars the bombs exploded and the ship heaved and shuddered (so did we!). Immediately a loud hissing broke out and clouds of steam came pouring from the engine room, the first bomb having broken the main steam pipe. All, then remembering the old saying about rats and traps, we surged up into the air again to find the bridge and upper deck well ablaze.
A start was made putting women and children into the ship’s boat which we had left alongside when we came back from Pompong, while the rest of us dashed about throwing overboard lifebelts, seats, chairs, drawers, anything in fact which would float. I then took my shoes off to be ready in case we had to jump for it, and wandered around looking for a safe place in which to put them, not realising it didn’t matter where they dropped. Alex Niven and I saw a Chinese woman with two children hovering on the brink before jumping into the boat; we went to her and took the children and told her to jump and we’d pass the children down. She jumped and missed. So I passed my child to Alec and went after her. When I came up to the surface she was being dragged into the boat, so Alec passed the children to me and came in, too. Between us we got the kids into the boat and looked around to see what we could do next. It was then that I realised the difference between paddling about in a swimming pool in trunks and splashing in the ocean fully dressed, but lighted on a piece of wood about 2 ft long, 9 ins wide and 2 ins thick. This I tucked under me and then heard the planes returning. This time they were aiming at the Tien Kwang , and I saw one bomb coming down quite close. Most of the missiles exploded in the water, which gave those swimming a feeling as though their tummies were being pummelled by quickly wielded sledge hammers. Several bombs, however, fell on the rocky shore of the island, flinging great boulders and splinters in all directions, and causing a number of casualties amongst those who had already landed. The explosion of one bomb near me in the water swamped me in its filthy black wash smelling utterly putrid. And I surfaced again alternately praying and cursing with fervour and fury. The two probably cancelled themselves out!
Never have I felt so completely helpless as floundering in the water whilst these bleeding Japs dropped their eggs—helpless and at times petrified.
When things had quietened again I paddled around on my little bit of board collecting odds and ends of boards, sticks, etc and passed these around to those who looked as though they needed them. Feeling rather like Father Christmas, I found a kapok mattress floating, so grabbed it and towed it off to two women keeping up on an oar.
These ruddy Japs paid a third visit, and once more our insides were subjected to rough treatment. More bombs dropped on the island again, causing many casualties…..
I thought I’d make for the island almost due west of Pompong, about two miles away, and started off again. And then it was I suspected that a fairly strong current was running away from Pompong, and this was confirmed soon by coming on a dead woman, who, despite my efforts, would not be shaken off, but kept up with my by now somewhat hysterical swimming with the greatest of ease.
Eventually I outstripped her and, swimming on, discovered that no matter what I wanted to do, I would pass the island I’d chosen well to the south. I then began to look around for somewhere else to land—somewhere to which the current would bring me without much effort on my part. It was now 1.30pm. and I’d already been in the water two hours and was beginning to feel tired, and, strangely enough, bored. My watch, which had been so cheap, was proving its worth, if never before, by ticking valiantly….
Deciding that it was now no time to be finicky, that I must get out of the water before nightfall, I set off in the opposite direction for one of the swampy islands—4.30, 5.30, 6.00. This was awful! If I was getting nearer it was so slow as to be imperceptible to the naked eye. And with the open sea beyond and nothing else in sight, I began to wonder what life was all about. Had I escaped all injury in Malaya in the two months of raids, escaped hurt when the docks were bombed yesterday evening, the Kuala this morning, just to float to an unidentified grave somewhere in the Pacific? It didn’t make sense, although it looked as if nonsense was going to win. It was beginning to grow dusk and I was feeling distinctly rattled. I pulled myself up on my board to rest my arms, and ye gods! There was a fishing boat with two Malays in it about 200 yards away!
That fishing boat picked up no fewer than ten survivors from the Kuala. Dozens of other survivors were dotted around on neighbouring islands. Colin Inglis eventually continued his journey to Padang in Sumatra and was soon in danger again from the advancing Japanese. On 3 March he would be evacuated to Colombo in Ceylon by the Australian ship HMAS Hobart; less than two weeks later, Padang fell.
63 Reproduced from “The Faraway War” by Richard J Aldrich who extracted this diary entry from “Singapore to Colombo: The Diary of CWA Inglis, Indian Engineers” (1945 privately published).