Sketch by Jack Chalker

Empress of Asia

Scuppered with a dose of Bombay

Our first night in Bombay, for the medical staff, was horrendous.  We didn’t even understand why we were there on duty.  The officer-in-charge (a doctor) said;  “Wait and see.”  He was a regular and well used to army life.

As midnight approached, the troops were returning to the ships and were queuing up to board ship.  All the soldiers who had visited brothels had to be treated first, and the doctor said;  “We do it by numbers.  If they want to go to brothels – they can treat themselves as they return to ship!”  He showed us the ‘method-by-numbers’ and all the soldiers treated themselves.  Goodness knows how many times, we nurses, said;  “One – Two – Three – Four”.  Never in my whole life have I seen a queue of such prodigious length, and we remained on duty all night.

Being a nurse was teaching me a lot about sex-life, and seeing this ‘prophylactic’ treatment for people who had been to brothels, was an eye-opener.

When we walked around Bombay the next day, we were to see people actually having sex in cages.  Blimey!  I didn’t know what sort of world I was in.  Now I could understand our doctor giving the prophylactic treatment.  These places were on every street and I started to wonder what sort of place India was.  Let me say, without hesitation whatsoever, that India was the filthiest country I have ever visited – filthy brothels, filthy streets and the filthy conditions its people lived in.  In fact, I haven’t one good thing to say about India.  Anyway, it was another first in my medical life because I had never treated people for having sex.

We left the SS Washington the next day and many Goodbyes were said to the Yanks.  We got on very well with them.  Although they gave the impression that they ‘knew the lot’, I enjoyed their company.

We boarded a train for Amadnarga after our two-day stay in Bombay.  The train journey was also to take two days and was very boring.  The land was barren, no nice scenery to break the soul-destroying monotony of that dreadful journey.  We were all down in the dumps.

At the end of the journey we were in for a surprise and I was starting to believe that anything was possible in the army.  This train of ours – and they have very long trains in India – was one of many to leave Bombay and go up-country.  People actually sat on top of the carriages, and at our destination open-air canteens were set up.  We had to queue up to receive our rations; a cup of tea first, then two slices of bread and butter, and one hard- boiled egg.

Before we actually received our rations, I recalled hearing the Indians tittering and passing comments.  I thought something was in the offing.  Sure enough – it was in the sky – these birds, nicknamed ‘Shite Hawks’ swooped from the sky – collected our two slices of bread and hard-boiled egg (shell as well) and we were left with nothing.  Believe me; you learn a lot in the army.  It so happens that the Indians don’t tell anyone about these ‘Shite Hawks’ because they wouldn’t be believed if they did – and so they thought it was a waste of time but good for a laugh or two.  They were big birds and you can guess the size of their beaks by the amount of food they devoured.  These birds could swoop out of the sky and clear your plate as fast and as clean as could be.  That introduction to their country was to be one of many surprises.  I was to receive one of the worst blows to my life in that woebegone place.

Football, our national game, was always first on the agenda wherever we went, and that place was no exception.  A match was arranged with ‘A’ and ‘B’ Companies.  It was during that match that I received the worst injuries that a man of my profession could get – badly torn ligaments in my knee.  And so I had to visit the hospital as a patient.

The next day, we were on the move again.  I asked my Commanding Officer if we were going into action.  He didn’t reply.  I told him that I’d have no chance with my injured knee if I didn’t have a reasonable helping of good luck.

We all knew that we were going into action, and we had bets on that our destination was to be Singapore.

Empress of Asia - 3

The Empress of Asia

The 18th Division was the best-equipped Division ever to leave the shores of England, so it was odds on that we were going into action.  And so, it was back again to Bombay and onto a ship named ‘The Empress Of Asia’.  We called at Ceylon (Shrilanka) for one day and we all got shore leave.  Now we knew for certain that we were hell-bent for action stations.

Quite a pleasant day was spent buying presents to send home.  It was to be more than three years before our relatives were to hear from us again.

As we neared Singapore, we heard planes overhead, and sure enough, The Rising Sun markings on their sides confirmed the fact that we were at war.

They began to bomb us and the ‘Powers-to-be’ battened us down.  God only knows why they did that because it was a terrifying feeling as the bombs battered the sides to the ship.  Massive vibrations shook the ship, and so we were all in a state of fright and shock – especially me with only one good leg.

A sergeant major yelled at the top of his voice, using many blasphemous words, and stability was restored.  The next thing he did was to open the hatches so that we would have easy access to the deck above.  That was the 5th of February 1942, which I celebrate to this day with the words – “Thank the Lord I survived”.

We learned that all our planes on the island had been destroyed.  Our huge guns were pointing out to sea, in a fixed-firing position, and therefore unable to fire inland.  By all the laws of war – we could never win and this was like Fred Karno’s Army.  We had no chance from the word ‘Go’.  Many people’s heads should have rolled for that fiasco.  We had travelled thousands of miles just to be meat-on-the-plate for the Japanese.  We should never have entered Singapore at all.

That episode was the most frightening in my life, and of all the things in my army life – that above all stood out from all the rest.  Bombs blasted all around the ship and we were seriously hit twice.  The call to ‘Abandon Ship’ was given out over the loud-speakers and we were in a cabin of a huge converted hospital with only small windows.  We had to evacuate our patients first, of whom I was one, but fright made me run around like a two-year-old.  And so I immediately became a nurse again caring for my patients.

Fright is a great cure for pain and I was to find out just how much one can do beyond the limits of endurance if one has to survive.  And so I entered a pain barrier, which I never noticed due to the fear.

All the stairs had been bombed out of existence, so we had to evacuate through the portholes.  Fires raged all around us.  We were trapped.  There were five nurses with our patients and in-charge was Captain Barber.  He showed great control and did an excellent job with the evacuation.

It was our turn to save ourselves.  Luck was with me again.  As I put my head out of the porthole, a rope came past my face and it was attached to the ship rails on the deck above.  My colleagues pushed me out first because of my leg injury.  I grabbed the rope and went down it so fast that I had rope-burns on both legs.  I was only too glad to get out of that burning ship and I was soon in the sea.  I went down that rope knowing full well that I couldn’t even swim.  I had first spotted on of those inflatable rafts with handles round the sides to which one could hold.  It was either that or being burned to death.  More people dropped from the rope beside me and I floundered until I was able to grab a handle and hang on for dear life.

Almost immediately the raft had filled to capacity and off we drifted.  I was told to get on top of the raft to signal or shout if help was to come.

Our raft was drifting away from Singapore and Heaven only knew where we were destined – not that it was going to be very pleasant wherever we landed.  In the distance we could see the burning ‘Empress of Asia’.  We were miles away by now.

We heard an engine in the distance.  It got louder and louder.  It was a motor-launch, and there in the front, shouting “SAM!” was one of my football colleagues.  He was with two others and he said “You’ll be alright – we’re looking for other survivors!”

There was no-one else in sight that I could see, and all I could think to say was;  “If you don’t turn that boat around and get us all in it – you’ll never play for the 197th  Field Ambulance again at football!”  At the time, I don’t think that he would have been much bothered about that, but in a crisis, one says and does some odd things.  He turned the boat and got us all onto it and then headed for Singapore.  My normally raucous voice was now hoarse and I was quite content to stay quiet – but not for long.

We were nearing Singapore once again.  To our left; the lighthouse, and on our right was a mass of tie-up boats.  Suddenly we saw Japanese planes diving to attack any small boats that were carrying soldiers or sailors.  Immediately the launch-captain said that he would drop us of at the lighthouse.  Whilst being machine-gunned and bombed, we leaped from the launch and up the stairs of the lighthouse.  The excitement was terrific and again I retained my ‘lucky’ image because we landed safely with no injuries. 

The launch-captain bravely put out to sea again to search for more survivors.  The cannons continued to spit venom as the planes maintained their barrage on us.  The attack on the lighthouse was terrifying as the shells tore great lumps out of it.  It was packed with troops.

The bombardment stopped and the sound of the engines faded into the distance.  It was quiet again.  During this period, I never gave a thought to the pain in my leg due to  terror.  Gradually the pain increased as my fear subsided.  I gazed around and realised that I was the only one in underpants.

I never saw any of those lads again because they were all taken to hotels that were being used for soldiers who had lost their units.  I felt alone – a funny sort of feeling considering that there were literally hundreds of troops swarming about.  There were no Field Ambulance personnel about so treatment for me was out of the question.  Everything was chaotic on that island of Singapore.  The hotel, which was now called our barracks, was to be our home until we could pick up our own units.

The next morning, we were all agog at the news that the ‘Empress of Asia’ had completely burnt out and that there was no news of there being any casualties.. 

We were told that the Japanese – instead of coming in by sea – hence the reason our guns were pointing seaward – were coming in by land down the causeway. 

We were ordered by the Senior Officer in our barracks to board one of the two lorries that were to take us up the causeway.  Then we were told to barb-wire the land on our side of the causeway to make it a bit more difficult for the Japanese Soldiers.

We reached the causeway and asked a Senior Officer there for the barbed-wire.  As God is my witness he said;  “HAVE YOU GOT A CHIT?”  We all turned round, got on the lorries and returned to Singapore.  This, and many other incidents, had to be witnessed to be believed.  It was simply incredible the blunders that were made on that island of Singapore.  If it weren’t so serious, I would’ve laughed.  Fancy asking for chits in times of action on the war fronts.  I wondered what-the-hell sort of army I was in.

I had none of my own unit with me, and we were a right bunch of odds and sods; Army, Navy and a few Air-force.  So we were a fairly cosmopolitan bunch of lads, and not one of us was over the age of twenty-five.

The Japanese were only hours away from invading the island and our hands were tied by incompetent officers.  I was told that my unit was inquiring after me and I was to join them the next day.

The civilians were evacuated in our ships , but we were told later that the Japanese had sunk every one of them.  There were no survivors.  The Japanese don’t believe in survivors.  Again, my luck held good, because I was supposed to sail back to India because of my injured leg.  Had the ‘Empress of Asia’ not been bombed, I would have sailed out on her.

I felt very sorry for most of the civilian population who were to be evacuated because they were the owners of large estates.  They were the money-people of Singapore.  When we spoke to some of the inhabitants, we were told that the wealthiest were the first in the queue.

Due to unforeseen circumstances, I couldn’t link up with my unit.  Again I became involved with situations that sometimes left me wondering, sometimes worried, sometimes even laughing, but always sure that one day I would return home to England.

I had to link up with the Singapore Hospital.  I arrived there at night and everything was chaotic.  I was told to find somewhere to kip down and report for duty in the morning.  No-one was available to direct me where to sleep.  I fumbled around until I came across a line of soldiers who were all appearing to be sleeping peacefully, so I got snuggled in among them.  I was exhausted and so I had a lovely sleep.

I was awakened the next morning by the sound of nurses wheeling out my new-found colleagues.  They turned out to be all corpses that had been put into that make-shift mortuary.  I never got disturbed by snoring that night.

I did all I could to help bury the corpses in huge bomb craters left by the Japanese bombers.  There were literally thousands of bodies, soldiers, sailors and civilians.  It was such a horrifying experience.  I had never met with the horrors of death until then.  Many thousands of dead men I have seen since then, and the great shame of it all was that most of them were in their early twenties.  It was very sad burying so many – so young.  No relatives to be nearby to mourn their loss, and again at an age when they should have been enjoying life to the full.

During all this time I had yet to see a Japanese soldier, but that situation wasn’t to last for long.






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[Mister Sam] [Kick Off] [Nurse Sam Purvis] [Skipper of the 197th] [SS Washington] [Empress of Asia] [Singapore] [Singapore Hospital] [Road to Changi] [Welcome to Changi] [Shanty Town] [Selerang] [A Good Jap] [Walking Dead] [Kranji] [Timberyard] [The Last Post] [Setting of Rising Sun] [Acknowledgement] [The Last Laugh] [The Quest]


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