Gladys Le Mare's account of her journey from Singapore to Glasgow February-April 1942
It was Sunday. 1st February 1942, when we sailed out of Singapore harbour, whether for ever, or for a few days or weeks we did not know. The party consisted of Mr Taylor, "Fanny" a Chinese girl, and Deryck and myself. The boat was the Kurau, the smaller of the two Fisheries Dept. boats, which Deryck had designed himself. Mr Taylor was Deputy Food Controller, Singapore, and he wanted to go to the Dutch Islands, and if possible to see the Resident of Rhio about charcoal supplies for Singapore. All that could be done about storing food had been done, but the lack of charcoal was becoming acute. Deryck had instructions to find out what could be done in the islands about collecting stores of dried fish and running the blockade of Singapore if necessary.
At this stage, the causeway was blown up (31st January) and it was expected that Singapore would be besieged for some time. "Fanny" had been amah to Taylor's small son, and during the evacuation of Penang had looked after the child, bringing him to Singapore and seeing him on to a boat for Australia. She was one of the favoured 500 Chinese granted entrance permits into the N.E.I. She had her passport and the much-envied visa, but so far had failed to get a passage and Taylor thought that if he could put her on to Dutch territory she would have more chance of reaching Java.
We went out by sampan to the Kurau. We each (except Fanny) had a suitcase of clothes and few treasures in case we did not get back, and we took a supply of tinned food. Fanny had the inevitable Chinese bundle, from which she would produce a needle and thread, an orange, a scented towel or whatever was needed at the exact moment it was needed.
Our departure was delayed because the hold of the Kurau was full of lamps confiscated from fishing stakes whose owners were not obeying the blackout regulations. We went alongside the Kembong and off-loaded the lamps. Then our first difficulty arose. Not one of the crew would come with us. They were afraid "Ada takut, Tuan" - afraid of leaving the harbour, afraid of not being able to get back to their families. Persuasion was useless. Deryck thought he would be able to manage alone. The Kurau was a diesel-engined boat, and Deryck had designed it so that it could be managed by one person.
At 8.20 a.m. (1st February) we left the harbour, threading our way between the minefields. We passed Peak Island and could just see the little "house" (a platform, two walls and a tarpaulin roof taken from a captured fishing boat) from which Deryck and I had sometimes kept watch at nights for Japanese mine-laying planes.
Our first stop was Pulau Sambu, one of the Dutch oil-islands. While we were there, a dog-fight between Japanese planes and some of our surviving fighters took place overhead. We proceeded down the Bulan Straits and anchored at the Southern end. An R.A.F. speed-boat (105) used for air-sea rescue, hurtled past us and anchored a little further on. At Pulau Sambu we had learnt that the Resident of Rhio had gone to Palembang, so we decided to make straight for Palembang. We were soon in the open sea and steered in a S.S.W. direction. I took the steering wheel for about an hour before sunset. As darkness fell, we lit two small paraffin lamps and fixed one above the compass, but it was not satisfactory, so we lit the big lamp and hung it from a hook in the ceiling. It was a calm, clear night with a brilliant moon, and we decided to sail all night. We were to take turns at the helm. Taylor took the first watch. I went to rest on one of the bunks in the tiny cabin behind the steering-house, and managed to slumber in spite of being unused at this stage of the journey, to sleeping on boards. Fanny remained on deck, lying between the two hatches.
By 10 p.m. a wind sprung up and the sea was rough. Hearing a whistle, I instinctively jumped down from my bunk, forgetting where I was. For the past few weeks I had got used to the whistles of the hospital roof-spotters, blowing for danger immediately overhead, at which point we in the lab., had to take cover in a slit trench. On this occasion the whistle was a signal from Taylor to Deryck who was in the engine room.
The wind became more fierce and the boat sped through the water until - calamity - the steering jammed. Owing to the force of the wind, which was a following wind, we had made more speed than expected and we were already off the coast of Sumatra - probably near Tanjong Dato. We were in shallow water with fishing stakes dangerously near. The boat was rolling in frightening fashion. Deryck went forward to drop anchor. The paraffin tin had upset and spilled its contents over the cabin floor. The lamp was swinging dangerously on its hook, and fearing that it might crash and set fire to the paraffin, I rescued it and held on to it while paraffin swished around my feel and all moveable articles crashed from side to side as we rolled. Deryck was in difficulty. The anchor rope was stuck, so he called to Taylor to go into the for'ard hold and pass the rope out to him. Taylor did so and became seasick and retired from action for the rest of the night. Fanny, like other moveable articles, was hitting first the port rail with her head and then the starboard with her feet! Taylor obligingly made himself into a wedge and put an end to her expectations of being projected into the sea at any moment.
As soon as we were anchored (2nd February), Deryck came to fix the steering and I escaped for a breather on deck. The paraffin was rather overpowering. After a short time Deryck righted the steering. He had wrenched the wheel when the boat had "bumped" violently and unexpectedly. He was not happy about remaining at anchor in our present position, so we decided to up anchor and retrace our steps. We should be sailing into the wind and also going towards possible help. It was quite obvious Deryck could not go on single-handed. None of the rest of us knew anything about the boat, and in emergencies such as this, at least two people were necessary to cope. I took the wheel while Deryck went for'ard and with superhuman effort raised the anchor single-handed. We steered by the stars. I only took very short turns while Deryck went down to the engine room and he steered for the whole night.
It was warm in the cabin. On deck it was cold and as the waves broke over the bow streams of water ran towards the stern, making lying on the deck wet and miserable, but preferable to the paraffin-soaked cabin. When daylight came we all went into the cabin and tidied the decks. At about 7 a.m. (3rd February) I took a turn at the wheel. There were islands to steer by now, and it was easier. Deryck had some breakfast; the rest of us were not interested in food, We had no means of making a hot drink, and we had only a limited supply of water, so were being very careful with it, as we had no idea when we should be able to get fresh supplies.
Deryck insisted on steering most of the morning as he was worried because be could not see a group of rocks which lie to the South of the Bulan Straits and are dangerous. We never saw them! They must have been covered with the tide, and we missed them by good luck.
Early in the afternoon we arrived at Pulau. Bulau. Deryck was quite exhausted and went to rest while Taylor and Fanny went ashore to see if they could find anyone willing to come with us as crew. The greater part of the village was soon squatting on the end of the jetty. The policeman was amongst the first arrivals - a Chinese "Robin Hood", in his grey-green tunic and breeches with puttees, and light brown straw hat. He had a rifle across his back and a sword dangling at his side, a picturesque but not awe-inspiring figure. The usual questions were fired at us: "What news?" "Where have you come from?'" "Where are you going to?" etc., etc. Taylor and Fanny returned after about three-quarters of an hour, with the skipper of the Leck Chew, a Chinese motor-boat. He was possessor of a captain's ticket, and thought he might like to come with us, as his own boat was idle owing to the cessation of traffic between Singapore and the islands. He came and inspected Kurau, and expressed his approval until he found there was no cooking apparatus on board.
This presented a very real difficulty. How could he live without rice, and how could he have rice if there was no means of cooking it? "Susah, susah". Fortunately for us the crowd was feeling very sympathetic towards us. It cajoled, coaxed and threw out innumerable suggestions. One was that the Leck Chew should come with us and then the skipper could have his food on his own boat; in the end that is what happened, and at about 4 p.m. we set out again, the Leck Chew leading the way, the Kurau steered by Tai Kong. He promised to take us to the island where the Dutch Controller lived.
We did not go far that day. The Chinese were afraid of night-sailing in case they hit floating mines. Several had been washed up on the shores of the islands. We tied up at a little fishing Kampong called Sikoko. Taylor went ashore hoping to hear the news of Singapore, but although there was a radio they could not get Singapore. We could hear gun-fire and could see the pall of smoke hanging motionless over the island. Next morning there was much activity aboard the Leck Chew. Men were busy with pails of sea-water, sluicing the decks or throwing it over themselves. Others were busy cooking the morning meal. All were talking at the tops of their voices and no one appeared to be listening to anyone else. Fanny went on board (we were tied up alongside) and returned with some hot coffee - the first hot drink we had had and it was delicious, thick, black and sugary. We had acquired a big earthen jar full of drinking water at Pulau Bulau, so the drinking situation was relieved.
Although the Chinese were up early (4th February), they did not make an early start, and this was so throughout the journey. They liked to eat first, and there was always a great deal of "messing about" before the anchor was weighed. When eventually we set off Tai Kong was at the wheel and we followed the Leck Chew, threading our way between islands of great beauty, It was so peaceful sitting on deck watching the sun sparkling on the sea and the tide lapping gently against the rocky edges of these truly enchanting islands that it was difficult to believe that we were within a few hours' sailing of a scene of death and destruction, of noise and horror. Deryck speeded up the engine so that we could keep pace with the Leck Chew but after half an hour or so the engine showed its resentment of such treatment by stopping so we had to reduce our speed to normal. The Leck Chew circled round until we got going again and then went ahead. In the early afternoon we arrived at Nopong, and anchored of the outer edge of the reef. We all went ashore, the crew of the Leck Chew in sampans and we in our dinghy. We were made extremely welcome by the family which inhabits this delightful place. They gave us coffee and the most delicious of all bananas - a large yellow variety, called pisang bunga.
Most of the family, including several generations gathered round to fire questions at us and exchange news with their Leck Chew friends. After a while we wandered along the beach to the main dwelling place and were escorted to the bathing places. The women's place was surrounded by attap walls, paved with stone slabs and contained a well of lovely cold water. Fanny and I revelled in our first fresh water bath, which we took in Malay style, clad in sarongs and pouring bucket after bucket of water over our heads. After that we attacked our laundry but didn't get very satisfactory results as our clothes were so very salt sodden. However we rubbed and slapped them on the slabs in the approved fashion and hung them on the lines on the beach to dry.
While we were sitting chatting idly at the front of the house we heard several explosions, as of bombs. Several of the men further along the beach reported having seen Japanese aeroplanes, so we suspected that they were bombing ships in the Rhio Straits. The womenfolk were busy making the evening meal. This family living alone was very self-sufficient. They were not worried by the lack of shipping, although their only way of communication was by sea. They had an abundance of food. They had cultivated a considerable area of land, growing fruit trees and vegetables. The fruit trees of course require very little attention. There were plenty of hens and ducks fending for themselves for the most part, picking up bits from under the house and on the beach. Fish could be caught very easily and eaten fresh or dried. There was certainly no concern over the food question here, and we all ate heartily of the meal provided, drinking quantities of brandy which the Chinese seem to like next best to their own spirit "samsu". It was growing dark and we should like to have gone back to the boat, but the tide had gone out uncovering part of the reef, so it was impossible to float the sampans or dinghy.
We were pressed to stay the night on shore, but the heat, the stuffiness of the house and the enormous hordes of mosquitoes made us politely but firmly refuse. We sat on the beach swathed in extra sarongs and watched the moon arise as a glowing red ball. As soon as the tide was reasonably high we carried a sampan over the reef until we could float it and were rowed out to the Kurau.
Next morning (5) our friends came out in sampans and took us ashore for the morning meal, a meal which surpassed even that of the previous evening. We sat at a round table with men of the family while the women busied themselves fetching and carrying the many dishes. There was chicken curry, many kinds of fresh fish cooked in a multitude of different ways, each with special sauces, a variety of dried fish, omelette, and mountains of rice. Again brandy was produced and partly from politeness partly for hygienic reasons we drank diluted portions.
The tide was high, so we were able to row out in the dinghy. We heaved it on board, as it reduced our speed when trailing it behind. We were given a parting gift of a huge bunch of the bananas we like so much. The Leck Chew decided not to come any further, but an old man of the Nopong family, with the face of an ape-man, but kindly withall, offered to come with us.
For the next two days he stood placidly steering the boat speaking when spoken to, but otherwise content with his day-dreams. He knew every rock, every current, and every island of those waters. In the afternoon of the first day we reached Rejai. We had to anchor far out from the Kampong. As soon as we were sighted numbers of sampans came towards us and as we dropped anchor crowds of men and boys swarmed on board. There was terrific excitement. We had come from Singapore, then surely we must have brought food or cigarettes. No, we had no cargo. A wave of disappointment spread through the crowd; the community was a big one and they were getting desperately short of rice, coffee, sugar, flour, tinned milk and cigarettes. The disappointment was soon overcome. At least we were visitors and an excitement in the day.
We were rowed ashore and landed at the house of an extremely jovial Hok-Kien. We scrambled up on to the platform in front of the house. The houses were built in the usual fishing kampong style, out over the sea. Soon the tiny verandah was full of people, the talkers asking hundreds of questions and the rest standing in groups in the background. With usual Chinese hospitality we were offered baths.
This time the bathroom was in the house, the floor being made of poles with spaces between, so that as one ladled water from the Shanghai jar and poured it over oneself, it drained straight into fhe sea below. By the time we were clean, the penghulu (village chief) and towkay (head business-man) had been summoned and we had a discussion on ways and means of transporting their ever-growing stock of dried fish and charcoal to Singapore and bringing rice and other essentials to them.
In spite of the shortage, our host insisted on us sharing a meal of rice and chicken with beer to drink. Later in the evening we went back to the Kurau to sleep. It was a warmer night. We always slept on deck, and until now it had been cold and we had had two blankets and worn jerseys, slacks and even shoes in order to keep warm. It was a beautiful starry night with a light breeze blowing and a moon rising about 10 o'clock.
Several jungle fires were burning on nearby islands - a perfect guide to the whereabouts of Singapore for the Japanese, should they need it!
We made an early start next morning, for a change. The bilges were pumped dry, the decks washed and the engine ready when our two crew came aboard, bringing with them a welcome kettle of coffee. The native coffee is black and sweet and very sustaining. We sailed for seven hours across some open sea which was rather rough. Much to my astonishment and Deryck's pleasure, I appeared to have found my sea-legs and was quite unperturbed by the heaving and tossing. We eventually came into the calmer waters of Penuba Straits and fetched up at Penuba itself, a delightful spot in a sheltered strait with mountains of Lingga behind. The 'Lieutenant' of the Kampong was a wise and very kind old Chinaman. He lent us one of his men to show us the way to Dabo on the island of Singkap, where the Dutch Controller of the Archipelago lived. There is a bay at Dabo with anchorage for quite big ships, but it is nearer from Penuba to go to Kuala Raia, and then across the island to Dabo by taxi. The Kuala (river mouth) would be almost impossible to find without a guide and it is always difficult to navigate. We just managed to bump over the bar, winding our way between the poles which mark the course of the Kuala.
The river itself is narrow and a little way up there is a foot-bridge. As we approached several policemen (Malays) hovered around looking worried. They confessed afterwards that they were afraid we might be Japanese. We tied up the boat to the bridge and left the men in charge. First of all we bathed at the local well. Fanny turned up her nose at the well as the water was not ail that it might be either in quantity or cleanliness. Still, we managed to make ourselves fairly presentable.
The chief policeman rang up the Controlleur to say we were coming and we started off in a taxi driven at tremendous speed along a not-too-good road. About halfway along a car passed us coming from the opposite direction. Our driver hailed it with a whoop, and it stopped. Out of it poured four police complete with rifles and swords. They were coming to see who and what we were. They followed us past the tin-mines to Dabo, where we arrived just before dark. We exchanged greetings with the Controlleur, who insisted on us drinking with him before we explained our presence. Then he gave Fanny and me the run of his bathroom and bedroom, explaining that his wife and children had been evacuated to Java.
While we tidied up Deryck and Taylor explained who they were and that they were concerned with fish and charcoal and other food commodities. Upon receiving this information, M. de P's attitude changed from one of polite reserve to one of warm welcome. He was in a fix about his islands. Charcoal they had in plenty, and dried fish, but how to exchange this for rice, sugar, coffee etc.? Taylor drafted two telegrams, one to the Food Controller, Singapore, and one to his counterpart in Batavia. We listened to the wireless news for the first time since leaving Singapore and heard that all was quiet there save for the usual airraids. The Japs were attacking the Surabaya Naval Base from the air. That night we dined and fed at the hotel, and the soft beds after the hard decks were a joy. Next morning Deryck, T aylor and M.de P. held conference and discussed the best way of solving the food problem. Taylor's telegrams were amended, coded and despatched. Then came the question of the next move. M. de P. suggested that Taylor went back to Singapore in the Kurau to fix things at that end, while he and Deryck dealt with the islands. The idea was that Taylor should get one or possibly more biggish boats to come and bring rice etc., to Penuba which had deep water anchorage, and collect fish and charcoal. Deryck would make it his job to see that supplies offish and charcoal were brought from all the islands and dumped at Penuba in readiness. This went down very badly with Taylor who was scared stiff of the Kurau and said in no uncertain terms that he would not go back alone with a Chinese crew he did not trust. M. de P. offered Fanny a passage on a Dutch boat which was expected at any time to evacuate the tin-miners. The women and children had gone three weeks before and now all the men were to go except the Controller. Fanny, although longing to get to Batavia was scared of the unknown and terrified of being left without friends. She was in tears and Taylor was indulging in a fit of sulking as we drove to Kuala Raia. Deryck put a match to the smoulderings by telling Taylor just what he thought of him, whereupon Taylor flew into a magnificent temper and the air was hot with angry words. Fortunately the tide was at its height and we could not delay if we wanted to cross the bar, so we bade M. de P farewell and promised to send him word from Penuba of any decisions reached. The helmsman very cleverly turned the boat and manoeuvred out of the kuala. Deryck and I sat right up on the bow to put more weight there and lift the stern a bit, and we felt absurdly happy and like a couple of conspirators, for Taylor had been an exasperating creature to have on a boat, and we had both been longing to tell him what we thought of him. On the way to Penuba the engine gave trouble; there were loud blockings and changes in rhythm. It became slower and slower and as we reached the opening of the little strait in which Penuba lies, it petered out altogether. The crew had absolute faith in Deryck and although he shouted up that he could not re-start the engine immediately, they made no attempt to anchor until the current had swept us within a few feet of some nasty-looking rocks, then they lost no time.
Our local hand hailed a sampan and he and Deryck went ashore and returned with a motor-boat which gave us a tow. It was evening and Fanny immediately went ashore and bought a chicken and ordered it to be cooked with meehun. We followed a little later and as we sat in the dismal twilight of the dreary coffee-shop with its empty bottles and rows of empty shelves the atmosphere was a little strained, until Taylor generously apologised for his outburst of anger at Kulau Raia. Whereupon Deryck added that he too, perhaps had been a little hasty, so friendly relations were established and plans for the future came under consideration. Taylor said that he really could not return to Singapore for had not the engine broken down, and had not the crew refused to go further than Nopong. He thought his best plan was to try to get to Palembang from where he could communicate with and possibly return to Singapore, on a more favourable boat. Also he could set Fanny on her way to Batavia,
The Controller's motor-launch was in Penuba and returning to Dabo next morning at 6 a.m., so it was settled that we should separate, Taylor and Fanny going to Dabo in the launch, and Deryck and I returning to Singapore.
They went off next morning, and an engineer from the motor-boat which had towed us in came to help Deryck overhaul the engine of the Kurau. The cause of the trouble turned out to be coke in the petrol jets due to the engine getting too hot when it was speeded up. While they were busy on this I went along to the well and had a bath and washed some clothes. One of the villagers lent me a pail to draw water.
The well was beyond the houses on the headland and just above the beach. It was a very pretty spot, quite exposed to both sea and road, but I was used to bathing and doing family wash in public by now. The engine was fixed in about two hours and the' lieutenant' as he was called - the old Chinese chief - invited us to have a meal with him.
It was an elegant meal served by his very charming grand-daughter. Immediately afterwards, at about noon, we set off for Rejai. The engineer and another large and brawny Chinese came to help us. The engine gave some trouble at first, but afterwards settled down to steady running.
We arrived at Rejai at dusk, and great was the excitement when it was seen the Leck Chew and also a sister ship, the Hai Chew were anchored there. We tied up alongside them. The Hai Chew had come from Singapore and brought ice for taking back fresh fish, and cigarettes - $1,000 dollars' worth. We went ashore and found people full of the joy of life. What matter anything else - they had cigarettes, lots of cigarettes.
We accepted the usual offer of a bath - Deryck was still covered in oil from the engine, not having had time to visit the well at Penuba - but we refused the offer of food. We had made a special point of eating our evening meal on the boat so that we could honestly say "sudah makan", and so not eat any of their precious rice. Half the village crowded into the verandah to talk to us, while at the far end the schoolchildren sat round a table and chanted their lessons, each chanting something different from the others and apparently managing to concentrate in spite of the babel. An old man sat amongst them looking quite placid and happy in spite of the noise.
We returned to the boat but there was little chance of sleep. The reunion of the Hai Chew and the Leck Chew called for celebration and there was much noise from chattering and mahjong until about 4 a.m. The Leck Chew made a fairly early start next morning. The skipper expressed himself very willing to take a message to the Director of Fisheries, as he was going into Singapore with some fresh fish, and so Deryck wrote the message, briefly giving the position in the islands and asking for a boat to be sent to Penuba.
I learnt later from a friend who came from Singapore to Batavia that the message was delivered, but of course nothing was done about it, as the life of Singapore was so short. We saw Leck Chew off, after she had filled up with ice from the Hai Chew. When our two worthy Chinese turned up, we started back for Penuba. It was a calm day. The tide was against us in the Penuba Straits and it was 4 p.m. when we tied up. We went along to talk to the "lieutenant" and had a very good meal with him. He had plenty of padi stored and so did not fear a shortage of rice. He told us of his plans for retirement, how he wanted to build a bungalow on the edge of a stream, so that he could fish from the verandah. Around his house he would plant fruit-trees and he would have one or two pigeons in cages. At present he could only dream about it all.
He suggested that we might like to sleep in a little rest-house which used to be used by Government Officials calling at the island. We agreed with alacrity, and collected our requirements for the night from the boat, and went along with the old man to the house "like hotel, quality-punya". It had been locked up for a long time and was not very clean, but we were not fussy. We did not bother to explore very far, but found a couple of fairly hygienic looking beds and were soon snoring. We almost slept the clock round, and when we got down to the boat we found that the engineer and an assistant were well on with the work of cleaning the engine. The lieutenant, thoughtful as ever, sent along a basket containing coffee and boiled eggs for breakfast. We set out quite early for Dabo, in order to report to M. de P. Our crew of two, and one passenger came with us. Deryck and I wanted to go straight into the bay, but for some reason the crew preferred the Kuala and it was there we went. The tide was going out and the crew miscalculated, in spite of Deryck's persistent warnings about how much water the Kurau draws. They knew that the further in we went, the less the distance they would have to row the dinghy, and they went too far and the Kurau hit the bottom, and nothing they could do would shift her. A motor boat came out and took us ashore. The police made the usual fuss and the telephone lines began buzzing. The Controlleur was not at home. A bus, a most primitive affair, was going to Dabo, and we decided to go on that, but while Deryck was telephoning, the driver nipped into his seat and the bus shot away. We had to wait about an hour for a taxi. During this time the tide had been running out rapidly, and the Kurau heaved over more and more, until she was at an angle of about 45°. The Lieutenant of Penuba came across in his motor-boat and he was very concerned that his men should have grounded our boat. He shared our taxi up to Dabo, only to discover that the Controlleur had gone to Penuba to see him! "Susah, susah". The Controller was expected back in the evening.
We decided to wait. The place seemed very deserted. The hotel was closed. As we were wandering towards the "High Street", we saw Fanny standing on the verandah of a little house. The boat which was to evacuate the tin-miners had not turned up, and she was staying in this little house, which she told us was the Rest-House. Taylor had been staying there too, but had grown restless with waiting and had decided to go back to Singapore. He imagined that we would still be in Penuba repairing the engine, and there he had gone with M. de P. Fanny said the evacuation ship was expected that evening, and Deryck made up his mind that I was to go on it. He went back to the Kurau for my possessions, and meantime Fanny and I consulted the Malay women about the possibility of getting food. She didn't seem very hopeful, but we gave her a dollar and asked her to do her best.
She managed to find some unpolished rice and some fish of unknown variety. Fanny said the rice was only fit for chickens, but she ate it just the same. Deryck had a difficult task in getting out to the Kurau. There was only a trickle of water left in the kuala and he had partly rowed partly pushed a sampan through this. The boat was high and dry and he waded through mud to reach her. The luggage made the sampan heavier and it was even more difficult to get back.
In the middle of all this, M. de P and Taylor arrived and they all came back to Dabo together. We foregathered once more in the Controllers house for dinner. The Singapore communique announced that the Japanese had landed on the North West. coast at a place which Deryck and I had visited about a fortnight earlier and been amazed to find unprotected. Taylor and Fanny went back lo the Rest-house. M. de Pr. asked Deryck and me to stay, if we did not mind sleeping on a mattress on the floor in the old nursery. We were up early. Deryck wanted to go to Kuala Raia to see what had happened to the Kurau during the night. M. de P. had said he could borrow his car, but forgot to leave the keys. Deryck went out to see if he could find any conveyance but failed. While he was out a call came through for M. de P. and he told me it was a message to say that the expected ship had arrived. We spent a miserable morning wondering whether we were taking the right course. It was difficult to get a proper perspective on things. Deryck was quite sure I ought to try to get to Batavia at any rate, and M. de P. supported this, it was hateful to think of parting. The island was so desolate. We wandered around, watching workmen cutting down telegraph wires. The tin-mines had been put out of action and the electric power was cut off. Taylor decided that he had better make for Batavia. He was useless on Singkap. Deryck and the Controller could do all there was to do. The Controller promised to help him.
We went on board the Goseri at 3 p.m. A rain-storm came just as we reached the end of the jetty and soaked us before we could get aboard the motor-boat, which was to take us out. M. de P. was very kind and fixed things for us with the Captain, and also waited until 5.30 p.m. so that we should have to longest possible time together. The ship had brought rice and salt, perhaps enough for two to three months, and this was being feverishly unloaded until the last minute.
That minute came. M. de P. and Deryck went off towards the jungle-clad hills of Singkap, while we turned and made our way out to sea.
Almost immediately on sailing the Captain sent for me and told me that we were heading for Palembang in Sumatra, where there would probably be difficulty with the authorities, as my passport was not visaed for the N.E.I. They might insist on escorting me to Batavia, a part of the journey we expected lo take by train, except for a brief ferry-run. He said he ought not to have accepted me as a passenger, but he hoped that someone was doing the same for his wife who was a V.A.D. in Singapore.
Fanny, Taylor and I were given camp beds on the deck along with an assortment of Eurasians. By dawn next morning, we had entered the river on which Palembang lies and slowly chugged up-stream coming alongside the wharf at one o'clock. We learnt that the ship was to go on to Batavia. We were not allowed ashore. During the afternoon some English airmen strolled along and we held a conversation. They were just out from home and had expected to go to Singapore and bemoaned their fate at being landed in a place like Palembang where there was nothing going on apart from the odd Japanese raid. They did not have long to wait for some excitement. Palembang was taken by Japanese paratroops two days later.
Next morning bedlam was let loose in the hold. The native passengers had evidently been told to get up and out of the way before loading began. As the first rays of daylight appeared coolies started loading the ship with copra; lines and lines of them plied between the warehouse and vessel carrying sacks of copra, and looking like a colony of ants on the march. This went on until mid-day. Two sister ships tied up alongside were being loaded too. Shortly after mid-day we set off downstream. We reached the sea in the evening.
We were a small convoy with a magnificent escort of four British destroyers. They had brought some oil-tankers into Palembang from Singapore and were now going to Batavia, so we went along with them. We were a mixed collection of small ships including one ancient British thing which was due for breaking up and had not been camouflaged. The night passed without incident. Fanny and I were very comfortable. Two passengers had left the ship at Palembang and we were given their cabin.
Next morning between 10 and 11 o'clock eight Japanese bombers were sighted. The alarm was given and we were made to go down into the hold. It was very hot and dark; there seemed to be only one narrow companion-way, and I could imagine a grand stampede should anything happen. There were hordes of below-deck passengers, mostly Malay and Chinese, and all their luggage, bedding etc. was scattered about. Their babies were screaming with fright, and the atmosphere was thick with so many people, mainly Asiatic, being squashed together in this confined space. When the all-clear was given we were very glad to go up into the fresh air. Our respite was brief. The Captain was describing the course the bombers had taken when a second alarm was given. The Captain insisted on our return to the black hole, as he said he could not risk passengers on deck in case of machine-gunning. We had a longer sojourn this time. When we emerged we heard that bombs had been dropped close to the old British vessel, but no damage had been done. The bombers had remained high, and our escort had not opened fire.
Japanese bombers usually flew in formation of nine. The ninth of this formation was attacking ships elsewhere in the Banka Straits, as I heard later from some one who came to Batavia from Singapore in a minesweeper. To add to the excitement of the day we had a free-fight at lunchtime. The above deck passengers were all Dutch or Dutch Eurasians with the exception of Taylor, Fanny and myself. We had to hold conversations in Malay as that was the only language we all understood. The Captain and Officers spoke English. During lunch an argument arose between a Dutchman and a Eurasian. It became heated and they rose from their chairs. Soon the glassed were flying. They were separated and calmed down enough to take their places at the table again, but soon angry mutterings began again and up they jumped and more glasses were hurled about. With typical calm, the Javanese steward standing beside me, sadly shook his head as each glass crashed and counted them - "satu, dua, tiga" - I never discovered the cause of the argument.
We had another quiet night. Fanny told me some of her life story. She was married at sixteen to a wealthy old Chinese. Her father was dead and her mother needed money to educate the younger brother, and this was a good way of getting it. Fanny was the fifth wife and had a pretty miserable time with the other four, who were all much older. She had one child who died of a fever when he was three years old; when the old man died she came to Malaya and worked as a nursemaid. Her mother had been in Malaya, but had gone to Burma to try to get back to China. Fanny was desperately anxious to get back to China too.
Next morning we found we had collected more ships in the convoy, including a hospital ship from Singapore. We all proceeded to Batavia, arriving about 12 noon. The harbour was crammed full with ships of all sizes, many of them British. We had to wait five hours before we were able to go into the harbour. Then we had another 1.5 hours wait until the immigration officers came aboard. They dealt with the Dutchmen first and they all went ashore. Then they turned to us and asked interminable questions, most of them stupid and quite irrelevant Of what use could it be to anyone at a time like this to know what rny father's occupation was, and that I did or did not go to Leyden University? They got over the difficulty of a passport without a visa by stamping it "evacuee". Then the passports were taken away and we were left in the charge of a Dutch Army Officer. His English was limited, but we talked a little in Malay and in between times he expressed his friendliness by smiling at us. Towards 10 p.m. a messenger returned with our passports and announced that Fanny and I were free to go ashore, but that Taylor must stay on board until further notice.
It was too late to go ashore that night, but next morning we bade the Captain farewell and good luck and set off for the town which is 10 miles from the harbour. We took a taxi to the Chinese Consulate. It was closed, but we rang up the Consul who was at home and asked Fanny to go to his house. We called at the British Consulate next, and here Fanny and I parted. At the Consulate I saw several people from Singapore and learned the true state of affairs there. It was Sunday (15th February), the day on which Singapore capitulated. These people told me how, on the previous Wednesday, the Japanese were almost in the centre of the town, having come through a good part of the residential area. The town was being persistently shelled and it was obvious that the end was near. There was a frantic rush to get onto any ship and make for Batavia. The docks were out of action and launches, sampans, anything that was available, was used to take people out to the Roads where they swarmed up on to whatever ship would take them from the Empire Star down to minesweepers, gunboats and all sorts of small craft. The Japanese bombed and machine-gunned them sank some but the majority got away. Some were almost without food and water for the four days of the passage to Batavia. If was a grim time. I heard that the Dalcrues the Chinese Volunteers, which the wireless reports had led us to believe were a large well-equipped force, were in reality a small band of enthusiasts who were armed with shot-guns and sent to certain death in the front line.
In the Consulate I was told that I might stay, but was strongly advised not to. Having previously decided to act on their advice, I said 1 would go. I was told that I could go to Australia, South Africa, or U.K. I chose U.K. and was given a chit permitting me to go aboard the Planceus which was said to be sailing for Colombo in a few hours' time. I left a message for Deryck in case he should reach Batavia, and went back to the docks.
The Planceus was a small Dutch steamer which, in peace-time, had plied between Singapore and Java. She could accommodate about 400 passengers. Now she was swarming with men, women and children. At the top of the gangway I gave up my permit and was told to go to Number 3 hatch and that I should find some more ladies there. I did. After wandering for some time in the bowels of the ship I found Number 3 hatch - a hold full of straw mattresses and occupied by Chinese, Indian and Eurasian women and children.
I clambered down and dumped my suitcase on a mattress to stake my claim and ascended with all due speed. I soon began to see people I knew. Everyone who had arrived in Batavia from Singapore had been put on this ship, and once aboard no-one was allowed to land again. Gordon Ransome, a very good friend of ours was acting as Ship's Doctor. He said I could sleep in the sick room that night until I could find a more pleasant spot to park my mattress.
There was turmoil on the ship. Everyone was champing at being held in port. I need not have been in a hurry to go on board. We did not sail for another day and a half. Lots of people were without soap or toothbrush or change of clothes. Some had been stoking in the little boats they had escaped in, and were filthy. It was maddening for them not to be allowed to go ashore and buy a few necessities.
The decks were crowded. We were all allowed to sleep on deck while in port and there were mattresses all over the place. The one great diversion was eating and at meal-times there was a terrific crush on the stairs, people always occupied. The Asiatic women settled down to a family wash squatting on the floor and slopping water everywhere. The W.C.s became filthy. Gloom settled on those to whom cleanliness and privacy meant anything at all. I had offered to do some washing up. Volunteers had been called for as there were well over 900 people on board and the Javanese boys could not cope with the extra work. I arrived in the galley at 7 a.m. and found people already hard at work. We washed and washed and dried and dried endless bowls and dishes. The portholes were closed because there was an air-raid on. It was frantically hot. The clatter of crockery drowned all noise of guns.
After a time one of the boys opened a few portholes. I asked him if the raid was over and he said he didn't know, but it was too hot in here. We lost a good deal “face'' by doing our own cleaning, washing up etc., and the boys became insufferably rude and lazy. On this particular morning we finished about 9.30a.m. and were rewarded by a cup of real coffee made by the chef and given to us in his cabin. The liquid for general consumption was a greyish-brown brew which was poured from two enormous kettles into very thick bowls. It was called "coffee" in the morning and "tea" in the afternoon. It was quite undrinkable unless taken so hot that its flavour could not be observed. For breakfast there was wet rice, as a porridge substitute, and sandwiches consisting of two chunks of bread imprisoning slices of "Dutch Sausage". Supper was the same. At midday we got stew, or curry or slabs of meat which the boys picked up in their hands and slapped onto plates - anything but appetising. We collected our food arid a few implements and then searched for a bit of deck space in which to eat it. Tables were never laid.
During my second day on board, plans were made for the better running of domestic affairs. Dr Scharff turned up complete with family and 20 suitcases! He took over "public health" and promised to see to cleanliness in bathrooms etc. The men who volunteered to help were organised into dining room stewards, deck police etc. A nursery was opened where the children could get their meals. The chef made a special effort for them, and they were fed very well.
All the time speculation was rife as to when we should sail. At about five o'clock on Monday 16th February two tugs attached themselves and we began to move. Slowly we moved past a destroyer, a troopship full of troops and two hospital ships, and then as the tugs had succeeded in turning us round, they cast off and we sailed out of the harbour very slowly. We chugged along and then as twilight came we gathered speed and we saw that we had as companions one cargo-boat, one Cruiser (Dauntless?) and one destroyer. We passed through the dangerous Sunda Straits under cover of darkness. That night Gordon said f could have his cabin but unfortunately and typically, he had offered it to two other women and three children! We were more than a little cramped, and after that! slept in die alleyway and later obtained a bit of floor space in a cabin.
We were astonishingly lucky over weather. Next morning was grey. The clouds were low and rain fell spasmodically. Visibility was exceedingly poor. It was absolutely ideal, for we were still too near to Sumatra for comfort, especially with the Japs in possession of Palembang aerodrome. It was most unusual weather. The sky was usually perfectly clear. On board we were still trying to create order out of chaos. We all went dirty that day. The bathrooms were closed and there was no fresh water in the cabins. They were opened next day, and everyone revelled in a shower. We were told that if the amount of water used was reasonable it would be left on, but the majority of the passengers knew nothing of reason or public spirit, and next day we were without water again. In fact the days when water was available became red-letter days.
At the end of the second day, while we were watching a most glorious sunset, the cargo-boat and destroyer flashed signals and then altered course. We supposed they must be making for Australia. We pushed on towards Colombo where we arrived on Saturday 21st February. We were not welcomed there. Very curt messages were sent aboard about not being able to disembark there. They did not want evacuees. Looking round the decks we did not wonder. We certainly looked like the scum of the earth - Chinese, Javanese, Eurasians, Arabs, Indians and British, none of them appearing at their best.
The trouble with most of the Asiatics was that they had left in panic and now had nowhere to go, for Singapore was their home. We stayed out in the Roads overnight and next morning went around and around certain buoys making figures of eight until we began to feel dizzy and were despairing of ever going into harbour, when suddenly in we went.
There was a big American ship full of Australian troops in the harbour and as we passed her one of the Aussies shouted "where have you come from?" The answer he got was "where you ought to have been". People were feeling rather sore with the Australians who had put up a bad show in the Malayan campaign.
We tied up alongside a smaller Dutch boat and waited - all day. We bought some bananas and pineapples from men in sampans and thought how lovely it would be to go ashore and get the little necessities we were missing so much - a towel, some soap, a clean shirt, a pair of sandals, etc., etc.
On Monday morning the authorities came on board. The inspection of passports was badly organised and took many hours. Eventually we got ashore. Most people had Straits dollars. They had to get permits to change these for rupees. As the Straits dollars were now worthless they were only accepted from people coming from Malaya and were afterwards destroyed, the Government standing the racket. I had a few Dutch guilders which I changed without difficulty.
It was lunch-time and we went straight to the Galle Face. I was in a party of five. We took childish delight in sitting down to a well-laid table and having our food brought to us, and of course we very much appreciated a decent meal, in the afternoon we shopped. As I was returning to the hotel in a rickisha I overtook Mrs Bruce-Lockhart. Her husband was flag-lieutenant to Admiral Layton (Admiral Sir Geoffrey Layton. C-in-C China 1940-42; Ceylon 1942-45) and I learned from her that the C,-in-C. had been in Colombo for some little time. We had thought he was still in Java, and Deryck had hoped that if he got to Java he would be able to take a short cut into the Navy through Sir Geoffrey's influence, so I was not pleased to discover that he was not there.
We were not allowed to stay ashore overnight, but we went ashore again next morning and completed our shopping. I called at the Hong Kong & Shanghai Bank and left a message for Deryck should he come that way. We went on board in the afternoon and sailed next morning. In spite of first refusals to allow people to land, we left 300 people behind. These included many Eurasians so that life on the Planceus became more bearable. Most of those who had disembarked were going into South India.
We arrived in Bombay on Saturday 28th February. We anchored outside the harbour near to a Greek destroyer and were told we should have to stay there for two days. We had plenty of time to ponder on "what next"? The five of our party had grown very attached to each other and we felt a bit sad at having to break up. Even Betty Miller was forgiven for washing in the gin, which had been procured in Colombo, and which had got mixed up with the odd assortment of bottles of water we kept for washing on the many waterless days. The evacuee committee came on board to collect particulars and on the Monday morning they were back with arrangements for accommodation completed. Some people were given private hospitality. The Military Authorities sent their people up to the hills. Of the five of us, one went into the hills, one to Government House, one to the Bank Manager's house, one to people of the firm he worked for (Lever Bros) and I was given a pink ticket for Cutch Castle, a Maharajah's Palace which was being used as a hostel. It was reported to be a very nice place, but it meant more queuing for meals and baths and sleeping in serried ranks, and I was very relieved when another girl and myself were invited by a Mr Terry to go to his bungalow, and I was able to tear up the pink ticket.
That was the beginning of the return to a civilised existence. The Terry’s were very kind. We spent ten days in Bombay, and the best part of each day was spent in hanging around the agent's office trying to arrange a passage home. We were told that it was unlikely that we should get a passage for months, and I made an abortive attempt at getting a job. Then suddenly we had the welcome instructions to be at the docks at such a time on such a day and we went aboard the Strathnaver in which we completed the last and longest part of the journey.
We were not convoyed, and had an eventless voyage, the only "irregularity" being that we had a case of Smallpox on board, which put us in quarantine while we were in Capetown.
Our only other port of call was Freetown, where we had the thrill of seeing the convoy which went to Madagascar and a few of us were lucky enough to get some sailing in one of the smaller of the ship's lifeboats. When we did step ashore, it was in Glasgow - the journey completed. This was on April 23rd - almost three months after leaving Singapore.
Notes on Gladys:
In England during the rest of wartime G worked with Professor Alan Drury at the Medical Research Council's blood drying unit in Cambridge. She shared a house with Sheila, first wife of E J H Corner, and their children; he was assistant director, Gardens Dept, Straits Settlements, and a prisoner of the Japanese from 1942.
G and D retired to Orchard Lodge Golant Fowey where G was a Red Cross worker, Welfare Officer for the Care of the Disabled Club and leader of a team which she founded in the canteen at St Lawrence's Hospital Bodmin.
Note on Deryck:
Deryck became a Member of 43 Special Mission, captured 20th March 1942 (as stated in prison record).
Was a PoW with Major W R Busby and Rev. Rupert Godfrey, amongst others. He was honoured with a Mention in Despatches. Major Busby recommended him for a medal and was disappointed that Deryck did not receive one.
Further information on Deryck
Note by PHL 11th November 1994.
Monica Burns (nee Le Mare) lent a copy of the above account to Guy Madoc, formerly in the Malaysian Police, who knew Gladys and Deryck, Guy replied on 31st October 1994:
Isle of Man
31st October 1994
Dear Monica and John
It was extremely kind of you to think of lending me Gladys's account of her exciting escape from the Japanese capture of Singapore. I have read the story twice; and have thought about it a lot. The journey would have been far more risky and harrowing a fortnight later, when Singapore capitulated. By then, small units of the Jap navy were in waiting for the escapees; and many small vessels were sunk, and their passengers either drowned or died on uninhabited islets.
Six hours after the surrender, I and a brother officer searched for a yacht that a mutual friend had told us we could take. We found it. But somebody had thrown a grenade into it; so it was reposing on the bottom of a brimming dock.
Probably we would not have got very far; we didn't know the minefields...
Again many thanks for your thoughtful kindness.