Letters to Tom
1st February 1942
Escape From Malaya
5th Bn, The Royal Norfolk Regt.
1st February 1942
Since I last wrote to you I have had some pretty odd experiences and enough excitement to last me for quite a time to come. After eleven weeks on the journey, we eventually landed at Singapore when I was issued with ten new carriers, and within four days of arriving and two days of my disembarking - I having been left behind to unload the ship, we were on the move up country. After such a long period of idleness it came as rather a strain, as we were pitched straight into it. The Japs are unorthodox but extremely efficient fighters and have a most unpleasant knack of getting round your flanks and shooting you from behind and from the tops of trees. Those we came across were very well disciplined and absolute experts at camouflage. Apart from distant fire and odd sniping, I have been under heavy close fire three times but I haven’t seen a single Jap, who has all the same left his mark on my platoon, although personally I have been most extraordinarily lucky. I have twice rejoined the battalion and have been greeted with surprise as one pretty well given up for dead, so I have much to be thankful for.
I can’t tell you a lot about the fighting, Greville Kerrison, Adrian Cutlack and my Sgt. Jones have been killed - also Palliston whom you may remember, but no-one else that you know. Early last week we cut off and were ordered to take to the jungle on foot and find our way back as best we could, so after destroying my few remaining carriers, I collected my men and started off. Being the last away I soon fell in with the C.O. and his servant, so I decided to go along with him. Owing to the crush in other directions we decided to make it to the sea, so we made our way back over a bridge, which had been blown up to stop the enemy using it, and started off through the jungle.
We were already pretty tired having been on the go for a week or two with seldom more than a couple of hours’ sleep and often none at all, so after going a mile or so we decided to lie up for the night in the jungle and get some rest before before morning on the next day. When we stopped we had a count of heads which produced the depressing number 13 plus a dog which attached itself to us. The C.O. was pretty done up, having sunk into the mud above his waist by the river bank, but his servant was able to get some clothes from his car before we moved on. I had with me a compass and a 1/4 inch map also a haversack with a water bottle, tin of bully beef, belt, pistol, rifle and bandolier, as well as a red cross haversack which I rescued from my carrier before leaving it. Most of this party had water bottles and between us we could raise about ten tins of bully beef and some biscuits, so we weren’t too badly off for food. We took it in turns to keep watching during the night - an officer or sergeant and two others at a time - and got on the move as soon as it was light in the morning. Getting to the sea wasn’t an easy job, as along the coast was dense forest growing out of the swamp to a depth of a mile or more. We moved about three or four hours without making much progress as we couldn’t find a path through the swamp, so we then decided to lie up for a bit in a native hut.
Most of the huts in the villages had been deserted which was a good thing, as all along we have never known who was with us and who was against us. This particular hut suited our progress well as it had a large stone jar of water which we could drink and use to fill our water bottles, and it also had sugar came (very strengthening) and coconuts whose jungle juice was a godsend to us all along. Well we stopped at this hut for a couple of hours and took the opportunity of getting our boots off and washing our feet - a real luxury, having had my boots on for four days at a stretch, at one time, not having them taken off for well over a quarter of an hour for well over a week. Not having made much progress in the morning, we decided to change our course, and hope for better luck. After about an hour we came across a village where the dog let us down; it spied some goats and chased them barking wildly, whereupon the men shouted at the dog making more noise than the dog, and what with one thing and another, I nearly had a heart attack! Luckily there weren’t any Japs about, or if there were they didn’t take any notice of us.
I am afraid we didn’t move in a military formation with scouts ahead or anything like that, but just wandered on in single file and when we came to anything suspicious, the C.O. would say, “you stop here while I go on” and he and I would go on and leave the rest behind to cover us. After a bit we came to a village where there was a Chinaman and a boy working, but they didn’t they did not seem able, or willing, to guide us to the sea, but then a Malayan appeared who was all for us. The C.O. was in Malaya twelve years ago and knows a little of the language - very little, rather less than my French; however he got the Malayan to lead us to a place on the river about a mile from the sea, and he also guided us to a boat which, in normal times, I should have thought twice about using to go up Blakeney Channel, but my Private Smith of Wells passed it as seaworthy provided the sea was calm.
We had to carry this boat and its six paddles of various sizes and shapes about 500 yards, when we deposited it in an almost dry ditch which the Malaya assured us would fill up by 6 o’clock that night when we could float down into the river and go out on the tide. It was then about four and the Malayan having secured the entire private fortune of the C.O.s servant (about £5) said he could come back at six and come along with us.
The interval of waiting was a great trial as, quite apart from the mosquitos which made a satisfying repast on us, we were only 2 or 3 miles from the main road and village which we knew to be in the possession of the Japs. and we imagined they would send patrols out. Well we waited until six and there was no sign of the Malayan, nor did the tide rise in the ditch where our boat was, so we waited a bit longer. About half past eight our sentries reported that two natives were snooping about, so we thought our number was up, as many of the Japs don’t wear uniform but just a pair of shorts and native dress. However we decided to have a stab at it, so we heaved the boat out of the muddy ditch and carried or dragged it the remaining 300 yards to the river, where we all filed in, except the dog which disappeared at this stage. The thirteen of us could just fit in and we floated down the river on the tide with the C.O. guiding us with his paddle. from every hut we passed we expected a burst of fire, but we eventually reached the sea with nothing worse than the loss of a paddle which got stuck in the mud.
We paddled along all that night and all the next morning, having a man all the time with his foot on the leak in the bottom, and baling for all he was worth with half a coconut shell and a tin hat. By midday we had drunk all the coconut juice and only two of us had any water left in our water bottles; the men were all pretty well done up, so we decided we must land and get some more water and coconuts. But that was easier said than done and the coast consists of forest and marsh - quite impenetrable and no sign of any houses or coconut trees. We knew there would be water if we could get a mile or two inland, but we couldn’t see any way of getting inland, particularly as we were none too sure where we were; so we could do nothing else but row on till we reached a river mouth when, of course the tide was coming out which made it frightfully hard work to get our boat in.
We tied the boat up for a bit to a fisherman’s hut on legs in the sea, and two men took the water bottles and tried to wade ashore but they couldn’t do it, so we had to set to and get the boat in somehow to a village near the river mouth. This was the usual anxious job as we didn’t know who might be there, but when we got in we only found two small parties of our people who had come along in canoes and were resting. They told us the British had withdrawn from the next village up the river that morning, so we had a drink, filled up our water bottles and turned tail at once, but by this time the tide had turned and once more we had to fight against the tide which was exhausting work in a boat with a leak in the bottom with no rudder, to say nothing of a crew somewhat below the normal Henley standard.
When we got out to sea, we tied up to a hut on legs in the sea and climbed up and had a meal and a couple of hours sleep. We started again at nine and rowed until 2 in the morning, when we found we were drifting in circles in spite of my compass reading, so we tied up to another hut and slept until morning except for two men who had to keep on baling. We started off again at daylight and got to our destination about 9 o’clock. Our arrival wasn’t by any means free from care, as we didn’t know who was in possession; someone on shore signalled to us with a lamp, but the C.O. wasn’t sure whether it said “come” or “don’t come”, so we went a bit closer. Then someone on shore fired a rifle, which made us a bit doubtful about the wisdom of landing, but while we were hesitating an English voice called us in and after a bit he owned to the name of Cherry R.A. which finally reassured us.
David was very good fixing us up with meals, transport etc. As soon as we got out of the boat the water gurgled up through the leak and I shouldn’t think it long before it sank. We then made our way back to Singapore by road and got to camp here in the afternoon to find that most of those who walked got here first. My luggage, or such of it that I had left behind at Singapore, had already been put with that of missing officers, and our arrival caused a good deal of surprise. Peter Hansell who, as you know is not of a demonstrative nature, greeted me with overcoming enthusiasm and everyone seemed pleased to see us.
I have, of course, lost my valise, camp kit, pack, most of my tropical clothing, equipment etc. but I don’t mind about that. I have already replaced the essentials and a grateful Government has already given me £10 on account and asked me to submit a claim for compensation for lots of items of a military nature. These do not include gum book nor Chris’, nor my flask which was full of whiskey, nor the other numerous personal possessions which I had with me; but I wouldn’t mind getting no compensation at all after the astonishing luck I had in getting out myself. On the way back I felt our chances of success were so small that I wasn’t in the slightest bit afraid of bumping into the enemy, as I felt it was inevitable that we should sooner or later. I felt more apprehensive while the various battles were still on, and it was fifty-fifty as to whether my carriers would get through or not and do what was required of them.
If you should be in Fakenham I wish you would call at the “King’s Head” Hempton Green and see Sgt. Jones’ parents and say how sorry I am about his death. He was my platoon sergeant and a great standby. I shall of course, write to his people and to the others. It has been a very harrowing job for me; among others I have had to write to three widows, who were only married on their husbands’ embarkation leave. This quick smash has rather broken up those who are left, but I hope with a bit of rest I shall be able to get things going again. Actually, the casualties in the battalion as a whole have not been heavy.
I don’t know what our plans are for the future, but suppose we shall defend Singapore. In the meantime we are resting and getting fresh equipment and my behind is gradually recovering from its contact with a hard seat during my 30 miles paddle (that is as the crow flies but we wandered about more like a drunkard). The Battalion is much the same as ever. The C.O., Crane, 2nd i/c., Bob Howard “A” Coy., Arthur Selft “B” Coy., Charles “S” Coy., Harry Schulman “D” Coy., Peter Hansell H.Q. Coy., with all his platoon commanders still the same. Jimmy Hendry has left us for the Field Ambulance with a view to promotion and we have a nice fellow called Brown in his place. We still see a lot of Jimmy. Nobby and John Dean are still with us. Uncle is with the 1st Line replacements. Ling of the 6th Bn. is now Lt.Col. in command of 1st reinforcements!
Some most surpricing people turned up trumps in battle. Corporal Hooks of “A” Coy., whom you may remember, fought beside me one night and behaved in a most magnificent manner, but I am afraid he got badly wounded. I took him back to the A.P. in my carrier when the scrap was over, but I am rather afraid his batch of wounded won’t get back here. Two doctors and Duckworth, the Coms. padre remained behind with them. I don’t know if Molly or Aunt Gertie know Hook’s wife, but if so they might pass on what I have said to his wife who lives in Fakenham, as I think she would like to know what an excetionally fine show he put up.
I hope you and the family are all fit and flourishing. I haven’t had any letters yet but they are now beginning to trickle in. Would you mind passing this letter round the family as I don’t expect I shall have time to write at such length to them all.
Charles sends his love.
Evacuation from Singapore