Sketch by Jack Chalker

Journey to Singapore, The War

A few more ships joined us as we left Liverpool and we had an escort of seven ships from the British Navy.

'Where are we off to, Jock?' Jimmy enquired 'God knows, Jimmy,' I answered, 'but wherever it is let's hope we make it" thinking meanwhile of the 'U' boats around.

The food on the ship was not too bad, but the accommodation was awful. We were on bunk beds and the heat was dreadful. I was one of the instigators of the game of housey housey on the ship, so that passed the time away.

We had been sailing about two days, when in the distance we saw about eight ships coming towards us. The German Navy perhaps, I hope not. Closer and closer they came and all at once flags started to fly, signals were passed from ship to ship, what we saw was amazing.

Our escort of the British Navy suddenly left us and headed back, our new escort was the American Navy. But why? This in itself was a great relief. 'What the hell is going on, Jock?' asked Jimmy. 'God only knows, Jim,' was the answer. 'I wish I knew.'

In time we learned the reason, after another three days we sailed into Halifax in Nova Scotia. It was a beautiful day when we docked, we were really seeing the world and thought what next?

Waiting there were troop ships belonging to America. We were transferred to these ships and the one we embarked on was called the Wakefield. For a troop ship it was very good, there was plenty of food, entertainment and of course a dance band. We made good friends with the American crew and shared most of our time telling of our exploits etc. We enjoyed the company, and things soon began to hot up. As regards entertainment, etc., we had variety shows and even put on a musical.

Jimmy was enjoying this because he used to be a bit of an eccentric dancer and me being a drummer in the band, things were not too bad. As a matter of fact, we felt we were on a Sunshine Cruise!

Again we set sail, to where no one knew except the Captain of course, but eventually we sailed into Trinidad. What are we doing here? I thought. We were confined to the ship, but the shores of Trinidad were very inviting indeed, this was only wishful thinking on our part.

We were there only a few hours and off we sailed again. Sailing south-east we came to the equator, and as tradition will have it, we all became 'shellbacks', even Davy Jones attended the ceremony. The American sailors knew all about this, so they were enjoying themselves, laughing at our ducking into the water, etc, we took it all in good part. The weather was absolutely gorgeous, as we lay there basking in the sun and watching the flying fish.

So we sailed and sailed until in the distance we saw land. 'Where are we now?' was the cry, closer and closer the land came towards us and finally we were told it was Cape Town, South Africa. Cape Town, what the hell are we doing here? We were miles from any theatre of war, but then things were beginning to materialise, Rommell had already taken North Africa and we could not use the Suez Canal. We were taking the longest way round to have a go at him, so rumour had it. We did not like this rumour one little bit, desert warfare was not appreciated.

This time we were allowed ashore and we spent a good four days in Cape Town. The people were very good to us, cigarettes were cheap and there was also plenty of cheap fruit, but the thought was still at the back of minds, 'Where are, we headed?' A whole division of men, sailing half way around the world with no destination, at least we thought so. Little did we know what was ahead of us, perhaps it was a blessing.

We paid a visit to one or two clubs in Cape Town, one of these was the Union Jack Club. In this particular one we were very well looked after, the powers to be fed us very well and did not charge us anything for it. Ths was appreciated very much as the Army pay is not all that good, mind you, we could have made for the ship to eat but this meant quite a walk, and to get back to the centre of the city again seemed to be wasting time, so we accepted our hosts' hospitality with great enthusiasm. This sort of treatment carried on all the time we were in Cape Town, how lucky we were, at least at present.

Arrangements were made with the locals to visit certain places while we were in Cape Town. They used their cars to take us around the important sights, even to the top of Table Mountain, what a wonderful sight. Then down and along the coast to various small towns, and all the time stopping at places to eat with once again our hosts picking up the tab. As I have said before, fruit and cigarettes were very cheap. If I remember rightly one could purchase half hundred weight oranges for about five shillings at that time, at present day prices twenty-five pence each.

One thing I noticed in my travels in Cape Town, was the segregation of black and white people, places for black people and places for whites. This visit to South Africa was in 1941 and the same rules in these places still stand today. So after four days of leisure, it was back to the ship and still unaware of our destination.

Here we go again! Up anchor and again sailing. 'Now where to?' We stood on deck, pondering, listening, looking at the flying fish, playing Housey Housey, but at the back of our minds was the question, 'Who are we going to meet up with?' After a few days, lo and behold, we sailed into Bombay. Whatever were we doing here? There was no war in India!

We disembarked from the ship, and entrained to finish up at a camp in Ahmadnager. What a place! Here we were to return to our army routine of kit inspections, route marches, night manoeuvres, lousy food, plenty of heat and cold at night time. Here comes Jimmy again. 'Enjoying this, Jock?' 'Come off it, Jim, I know where I would rather be.' We visited one of the Indian bazaars to purchase some food, etc., plenty of bartering with the shop keepers, this made a change.

One thing stands out in my mind about India. We were having a kit inspection and I thought 'what a waste of time', so I said to my officer in charge, 'My God, Sir, shouldn't we be thinking of looking after ourselves rather than have all this bull?' I could not have said a worse thing, the answer came: 'Corporal! I will remember that remark some day,' and he did, but that's another part of the story.

We had been in India about two weeks when the news went around that Pearl Harbour had been attacked and also that the Japanese had landed in Kota Bahru in Thailand. This had nothing to do with where we were, except that suddenly we were back on the train again and heading for Bombay. Where to now, everybody was guessing.

On our journey to Bombay we stopped at a small station for a short while and it was there I saw the typical Tommy. An Indian was coming along the platform selling his wares, rings, watches, purses, etc. He was bartering with some of the troops for his goods, some he sold, some he didn't. But after a short spell it was all men on board,and we would soon be moving.

Indian was still trying to sell his goods even when the troops were all on board, and the next thing I saw was unbelievable. The train was slowly pulling out of the station and one of the men leaned out of the window, grabbed the tray of goods and you can imagine the shouts, the swearing, etc., that was coming out of the Indian's mouth. Here were all his worldly possessions being taken down the platform, although he chased after the train he had no chance of catching up with it. How lousy can one be in doing such a thing? At first we thought it very funny, just like a Mac Sennet movie. A great laugh seeing the Indian running alongside the train. What happened to the goods, I shall never know, but if I had known what was in store for us as time rolled on, I would have made sure I would have been in possession of some of the spoils, believe me.

We arrived in Bombay all very apprehensive indeed and made straight for the harbour and there was our old friend The Wakefield. We embarked on her again and set sail the next day. Questions were asked as to where we were bound for, but no answers were forthcoming, until one day we had a lesson on aircraft identification. This is a Jap Plane, the big red circle identifies it. Now the British Tommy should realise, where we are bound, Singapore, or somewhere in Malaya?

About fifty miles from Singapore, a Jap Reconnaissance plane spotted the convoy, he dropped one bomb but fortunately did not hit anything. This was the first time we knew anything about war, we were all at sixes and sevens wondering what was going to happen next. 'This is it, Jock,' said Jimmy, 'I guess so, Jim, still when the Japs see us they will give up and surrender, ha ha!' As we had never come into contact with the Japanese in war or otherwise it was to be hoped that we could compete.

All of a sudden, the convoy seemed to break up, apparently the order had been given to all ships to make for Singapore at full speed. Some ships were faster than others and the Wakefield was one of the fastest.

We berthed at Singapore, just as twenty-seven Jap bombers came over the city. We guessed where they were bound, for the convoy. Unfortunately, one of our ships, The Empress of Asia was dive-bombed and finally sunk. This ship happened to be carrying all our support weapons, what a wonderful start to fight a war.

With a hustle and bustle, we disembarked as quick as we could, boarded our transport and immediately made a quick exit from the vicinity of the docks. We finished up in a camp about seven miles from Singapore at a village called Teck Hock. There we got down to strict training on jungle warfare although time was getting very short as the Japs were pushing everything in front of them on the mainland.

The enemy were coming closer and closer until they were at the outskirts of Johore Bahru. Between Johore Bahru and Singapore island there is a small island called Paula Ubiw. The order came out, that a platoon of our Company was to reconnaissance this island and clear it of all the Japs.

Well my platoon was picked to do this job. You must have known how I felt, my first taste of war had arrived and I started saying my prayers. This manoeuvre was to happen at night time. It was a lovely moonlight night and we were all geared up to go, when at the last minute the order was cancelled. Thank God for that, but there was worse to come, the Japs had taken Johore Bahru and was making for Singapore island.

The island was joined to the mainland by a causeway, so as to avoid giving the enemy a free run, this causeway was blown up by our sappers, but the breach was soon repaired and the enemy was able to cross it.

We moved from our camp and took up positions in the northern part of the island. Here we met up with the Ghurka, the little man with the big heart and a great fighter. These men were extremely patriotic and devoted to their white officer and entirely without fear.

Their main weapon was the Kukri, a curved knife. The saying is if they drew this knife from its sheath, they had to draw blood before it was returned to its sheath. How true this was is anyone´s guess, but I shouldn't be surprised if this was the case.

To the British, Johnnie Ghurka, as he was called was very friendly and a good friend to have on your side, they were extremely famous in infiltrating, causing unfortunate situations on the enemy. One of their favourite tricks would be to submerge themselves in the river. One end of a Straw would be held in the mouth the other end would jut out above the water. Then they would wait until the enemy crossed the river, draw their kukri and chop their legs, leaving them pretty useless for the rest of the campaign. To retreat from the enemy is a complete insult to the Ghurka, but we were surrounded so many times that retreat became almost a common word. This was called a strategic withdrawal, this does not sound so bad as retreat, but it was very degrading indeed. As I have mentioned before, the Japs were very good at infiltrating behind the enemy lines, something else they did was to use qulte a lot of Chinese crackers. Well at night time, we got very scared indeed and with these crackers going off, nerves began to fray and life became very precious.

Then there were the Australians on our left, a tough, rugged hard soldier. Those guys would defend themselves with the greatest tenacity and they were pretty good at jungle warfare.

During this time, information of how the war was going was extremely slight, almost unknown because we were defending only one section of the island. How the other sectors were performing could only be surmised, but we feared the worse as the inevitable always happened, make a strategic withdrawal, what again, my God, what kind of enemy do we have here, there must be millions of them, but one thing was in their favour, they had control of the skies, our "Ack-Ack" was made up by the Indian Regiment, and this was not all to be desired. The dive bombers really pierced our defences and not a lot could be done about it.

Our own aircraft had been withdrawn to Sumatra, not only that, they were no match for the Jap Zero and they would have been shot out of the skies, so our only defence was the AckAck.

Communications between Command and units were forever breaking down, because of enemy action or because of a Fifth Column which opened in the area. It was bad enough fighting a war when you knew what you were doing, but to be oblivious to what was happening was absolutely terrifying.

We immediately dug small trenches in the vicinity and prepared to meet the enemy. I deployed my section and reported to my Platoon Commander that all was well. But on a quick look around, we saw in the distance a house standing in the iniddle of a compound suirounded by coconut trees and banana trees. This was causing concern to my section and so I reported this to my officer.

'Well Corporal, you must take a man and reconnoitre this house,' I then instructed my men to keep us covered and for a man to accompany me. The cover to the house was very limited, so we crept down along the hedge until we were within shouting distance of the house, it was policy for me to send my man into the house while I covered him. There were no shots whatsoever, but while we were looking around, I saw something move immediately at the back of the house, this movement was coming from the ground like some sort of a trapdoor. We cautiously advanced towards the house and I shouted to the inhabitant to open up, this immediately happened and out came a family of Chinese, about fifteen bods in all. I took the eldest one back to my officer and reported that everything was all clear. I got the usual 'Good work, Corporal, send one man to escort the Chinese man back to Battalion H.Q. for interrogation.'

On return from this duty, the man took up his position again, but I thought to myself, fancy finding a whole family in the middle of a war zone. My God what was next! As darkness fell, round came the bully beef and biscuits and we settled down to have something to eat. We had only just started when all of a sudden, the mortar bombs came raining down on our positions. How the hell were the Japs so accurate with these two inch mortars, we knew they fired them from their backs and were quick to change positions, but what the hell, this was ridiculous.

We soon found out why, it was now pretty dark and this latest mortar fire had already put us off our food, but on looking around after the attack, we saw a small shed or should we say attap hut directly at our backs about fifty yards away and from this hut, I saw the blinking of light coming through the slats of this shed.

I called to one of my section and told him to follow me, to see what was going on. I told him to keep a look at the front of the hut as I crawled round the back and I could not believe my eyes, this Chinaman was giving signs in front of a candle, so the Japs could pick up this signal as to where our positions were and hence the attack of mortar fire. This type of Fifth Column was very rife during the batde for Singapore.

I broke into the hut and he never put up a fight. I was so mad I gave him one or two hits with the butt of my tommy gun and had him escorted to Battalion H.Q. I know what I would have liked to do to him, he would have been no more trouble, how-ever this could not be done but I imagined we had seen the last of him.

It was then back to my section to continue my duties. During this period the signals stopped, so did the mortar fire and at last we had some of our bully beef and biscuits. The lull did not remain long, we appeared to be fired on from behind and of course in the dark it was very eerie. The Japs were very clever at jungle warfare, and our training was solely for open warfare, and the enemy also used Chinese crackers and the thought of being surrounded did not help. So I reported this to my Platoon Sergeant and the immediate order was to make what they call another 'strategic withdrawal'. This was one of my lucky nights, we actually were surrounded and I must say if it hadn't been for the intelligence of this sergeant the entire section under me would have been killed. His prowess and intelligence got us out of the predicament we were in and eventually back to our own lines, what a saviour that was.

The order was for two companies to advance towards the enemy and one in reserve. After very slow progress we again stared to dig in. Mter a couple of days my company had to relieve one of our other companies and lo and behold, I heard my old mate Jimmie shout, `Hello, Jock.' 'Hi Jimmie, how's things going up there?' Jimmie, being a comedian, replied, 'Them silly buggers are firing real bullets up there,' this created a bit of a giggle but made us more apprehensive. As we moved up under cover of a hedge, the Jap bombers were overhead, nothing to stop them but a few Ack-Ack bursts. Coming to the end of the hedge, we found ourselves in a large clearing. Now if you will remember, in India I had complained to my office about having kit inspections and he had not forgotten.

'Corporal, deploy your section and recce that house at the end of the clearing,' this house was all of two hundred yards away, no cover whatsoever, just a wide open space. I gave him a distasteful look and all I got was a wide grin, he had remembered.

Orders have to be obeyed, so I deployed my section and advanced towards the house. I expected a burst of machine gun fire any minute from the house, the closer we got to it, the more afraid I became. We sprinted the last fifty yards and fmally made it without a shot being fired. 'What a blessing!' so far so good.

After a good look around for any Japanese, we advanced forward but were met with machine gun fire. I reported back to my officer that we were held up so we prepared to dig in.

In the meantime, the company on our right had advanced further than us and were also held up. They sent word back that they need artillery fire to clear out the enemy. We certainly got our artillery fire but the shells were falling short and a whole platoon of our own men were killed. This knocked the heart out of us and up went the prayers again. Fancy travelling half way round the world to fight a war only to be killed by your own gunfire, demoralising.

Then there came a lull in the storm, darkness fell, guards were put out and we retired to eat our bully beef and biscuits. But no sooner had we started than down came the two inch mortars. The Japs were extremely accurate with these weapons, they hopped about firing these off their backs. Again it was the same old tale, we had to fall back to new positions. I remember one night that seemed like a nightmare. A shot rang out and there was a hoarse cry, 'The yellow bastards have got me,' but this time something unforeseen had happened. A private in the next section to me had gone to the loo, as he returned the cry was, `Who goes there,' there was no answer and he kept coming, hence the shot, he was found the next morning with a 303 bullet right through his steel helmet, shot by his own sentry. I am not surprised at this happening, as nerves were beginning to tell with all of us, it's a nerve racking experience when one gets shot by their own men to say the least.

 

Next Chapter

Prisoner of War - Changi