The day had started quiet with a blazing hot sun and perfect blue sky, with the temperature in the mid seventies. The Manchester Regiment had been billeted in tents on a rubber plantation for several weeks at a supposedly secret encampment known as tenth milestone camp, in anticipation of a Japanese attack on Singapore. The war in Europe had been going on for two years now and it was thought that the Japanese might take advantage of this situation very soon. Apart from placing the four infantry regiments and the artillery and service units in Singapore on a war footing, nothing approaching the real thing seemed to be happening. The conditions in camp were somewhat rough. However most of the men considered the change a welcome relief from continued square bashing and guard duties at either Government House or Fort Canning. Or the weapon training and bullshit, which they had, been undergoing since arriving in Singapore four years previously. At that time the servicemen and women in Singapore were considered to be the fittest and healthiest in the Far east. However apart from the monotonous drilling and sports activities, there was nothing to occupy their minds, apart from boozing and dancing.
Tenth milestone was situated, inside a rubber plantation, and as the name indicated, it was ten miles from the centre of the city. Covering an area of about ten acres, local craftsmen were busy building a series of wooden barrack rooms to military specifications. Being constructed in the middle of a constantly damp atmosphere, one wondered how long they would last, looking at the state of the local wooden dwellings, not very long. The message, which seemed to be getting home to the men, however, was one, which indicated that this was probably going to be their permanent home. Large marquees were erected to act as mess halls or dining rooms. main supply stores, battalion and company administration offices until the builders could get around to erecting more substantial accommodation. All round the perimeter there should have been coils of Danet wiring, but due to arguments between the army and the owners of the rubber plantation, only certain parts were covered. This kind of dogmatic attitude had always been the same in Singapore. The civilians who owned the Tin mines, Rubber estates and other industries in the Federated states of Malaya believed the island of Singapore was theirs, and they were the ones who dictated where the military could or could not build their defences.
On the East Coast beaches our battalion had commenced building massive boat obstacles which could not be seen at high tide, but were clearly visible at low tide standing eighteen feet in the air. The Japanese who owned property along this stretch of coast, complained to the Governor that the building of defences was obstructing their view, in some instances defences had been built on Japanese owned property. So the whole of the defences along the East Coast were ordered to be demolished. Orders for the removal of the machine gun pill boxes was the last straw and it created a bad feeling, not only toward the Japanese but also the ex patriots living in Singapore The men having the knowledge of each position and having constructed each post, they felt that their hands were being tied by civilian red tape.
Every two or three hundred yards round the camp perimeter a series of machine gun posts had been built, each to be manned if and when any action came. In the meantime they were to be manned by skeleton crews, whose job it would be to keep each individual post clean and tidy. The machine gun post consisted of a circular hole about twelve feet in diameter and four feet deep, with an earth shelf about four by six foot on which to set the machine gun, facing the approaches to the camp. Each machine gun post had been hand built by the men whose job it would be to man the guns when the time came. The main feature of all posts was the firing step. This was sacrosanct and was the regimental sergeant major’s altar, his birthright, and his pride. Although was in fact just a shelf cut out of the side of the bunker, typewritten orders had been posted. The one referring to the firing step insinuated that It would be considered a cardinal sin to use it as a step when entering the gun pit or to use it to sit on during break periods. Although the change of scenery had in some ways created a release from the monotony of army life, the diversion was soon becoming a boring chore.
Once inside their jungle lair, there was very little in the way of entertainment for the men, apart from drinking, playing cards, and the occasional game of housey. Nerves were becoming frayed and it was no wonder. Unfortunately in this Island of paradise, even the ordinary private soldiers wife had at least one servant to assist her with her daily chores and looking after the children, which led many to believe that they actually were a cut above the unmarried squaddie. It was necessary on several occasions for the military authorities to have to resort to a court order, to obtain permission for a group of engineers to build a foot bridge across a stream which was for the benefit of those people living in the married quarters, their objection being about the noise and inconvenience for the short period while the work was being done.
Such was life in this far-flung extremity of the British Empire as Chuck Stewart prepared himself for his night out. As he waited for the piggy bus which was the only means of transport into town. He looked in the direction of Singapore centre, and even though it was ten miles away, its lights could be seen gradually glowing as the sun began to go down. Beneath them there would be the usual dance halls, cabarets and Mahjong parties, fair grounds and every other imaginable avenue of entertainment designed to extract the utmost profit from these colonial’s and their soldiers.
Chuck straightened his tie and glanced down at his polished shoes as the piggy bus came creaking down the road. On board the Asian relatives of prisoners incarcerated in Changi Jail There was no room to be able to sit down so Chuck managed to find a place on the rear step, his hands gripping the hand rail at each side. Every stench of the east came flooding from the interior, the smell of curry, joss sticks, mangosteen, nangka and durian, all embroiled in the stench of children’s urine. Hanging on like grim death as the bus seemed to crocodile around each corner, Chuck tried to wipe the sweat from his brow, and afterwards relieve an itch in his groin, while at the same time trying to manitain his balance and refrain from breathing in the stench as the vehicle creaked along.
Finally the nightmare journey came to an end as they turned the corner into Serangoon Road, and, throwing all caution to the wind he jumped clear, running forward behind the bus to maintain the momentum. He entered the first bar along the road, the Swing Cafe, which was situated on the corner of Bencoolen Street and Serangoon road.
Ordering a glass of Tiger he then leaned against the bar, his attention drawn to a bunch of lads, which included Aussies and Gordons, each competing in trying to lift a chair, holding it by one leg with one hand while perched on the chair was one of the pretty young dance hostesses. One or two had tried but had not succeeded, others had managed by cheating, but so far no one had actually bent down and using just the one hand, actually lifted the chair and its occupant above head high. That was until a ginger haired lad, one of the Gordons, aptly named Ginger took up the challenge.
Bending down he took hold of one of the rear legs of the chair and gradually started lifting. As it reached waist high, he swiftly pushed upwards, lifting the chair and the girl high above his head . Everyone in the cafe cheered and clapped their hands, beer began spilling and above the noise came the distinct crack as the leg of the chair snapped sending the little dance hostess spinning like a spent match into a corner of the room. As she hit the floor with a splosh, Stewart sent the chair spinning through the open door and into the street, bringing more cheers. The little dance hostess embarrassedly sidled across the room and into the ladies room.
Outside there had been a light shower, but not enough to cause too much discomfort and Chuck decided to go and search around for friends, choosing firstly the New World. His night out had not worked out as anticipated and he was feeling more than a little bored. He must have called into every known bar between Serangoon Road and Anson Road without running into any close friends or mates. What was it, he thought to himself, everywhere he looked people seemed to be enjoying themselves, while he could not even begin to get started. The absence of friends from the regiment in itself was unusual, and he was about to go over to the taxi rank when a strange feeling of foreboding seemed to descend. In the distance he could hear the sound of planes approaching, and it occurred to him that he had never heard such a heavy noise. He had just reached the taxi rank on Stamford Road when he heard the swish as the first bombs started to fall. It seemed everyone was oblivious of the sound, yet it was a sound, which they would hear for some time to come, a sound, which they must not shut their ears to.
He had heard the swish of mortar shells and six-inch artillery shells, but this was a sound, which he had never heard before. As soon as the first explosion came, he didn’t need to think any further, and he wondered if it was possible that the RAF had accidentally dropped a couple of bombs, but from the sounds of the screaming and shouting there had been more than a couple. He had not even realised that he had instinctively dropped to the ground in self preservation and as he began to lift himself up, he could see the lights of Singapore, shining like neon's, with the noise of dance music filtering across from the Cathay area and from the Malay Cafe came the voice of Deanna Durban singing “My own, let me call you my own”. Chuck scrambled out of the drain as from the distance came the sound of the fire engines and ambulances. Speeding past him they headed in the direction of China town and he began to run after them. If he had been asked why at the time he would not have been able to answer. He could see fires as groups of terraced houses had begun to burn. Down streets which he had never entered before he found ambulance crews, firemen, and the police, heaving and pulling at the debris in an attempt to try to rescue some poor soul. Without thinking, he went in alongside the firemen and started to pull away at what remained of the roofing beams and lattice ceiling. Realisation came to him suddenly that all the talk of what one would or would not do in such emergencies was vastly different when actually brought face to face with the reality.
The stench of explosives and kerosene was heavy on the air. A group of Chinese were assisting in extricating someone from one of the houses. Others were just sitting on the ground completely shell shocked. Several of those who had been pulled from the burning houses and who had lost a limb or were wounded had been lined up along the ground waiting for one of the ambulances to come and ferry them to hospital. An army lorry arrived full of soldiers from the hospital at Alexandra. Without waiting for orders they set about tending to the wounded lying on the pavements. Chuck gave up the idea of returning to barracks, instead he decided to lend a hand. It was six o’clock in the morning when one of the medical officers came over and thanked him for his assistance and suggested that he should return to barracks and get himself cleaned up and some sleep. Pigs might fly thought Chuck as he made his way toward the Union Jack Club hoping he might at least get a cup of coffee to clear his throat.
At tenth milestone camp the bugler had sounded “stand to” and everyone had gone to his allotted position around the camp perimeter. Chucks section had covered his absence so that he was not missed and by seven o’clock the sun was the only invader and the duty drummer was ordered to sound cookhouse call. Breakfast was served amid the constant talk of a Japanese invasion and although practically everyone who owned a radio had it turned on, there seemed to be very little information concerning the bombing raid, although one or two contradictory reports hinted that the Japanese had tried to bomb Singapore with little or no success and later an announcement was made to the effect that there had been very few casualties. In a later bulletin there were talks of the Japanese being murderers and barbarians and it was not until late morning that information was given concerning the bombing and destruction of the American naval base at Pearl Harbour. To be honest, very few men had ever heard of Pearl. The air was soon buzzing with rumour and counter rumour the motor transport section received immediate orders to begin camouflaging their vehicles and the camp became a hive of industry. Machine guns thickly coated in grease were being finally brought out of the stores where they had been kept for at least two years. Suddenly binoculars, which could be used at night, began to appear, as did .38 revolvers for the number one machine gunners. Most men had never ever seen one at close range before let alone use one.
Belt upon belt of pre-loaded ammunition suddenly appeared, the belts being of the disposable type, which were prone to create stoppages, yet no one had ever been allowed to practice with one. In fact a veritable soldiers fairyland began to appear. All this time and still no one had missed Chuck Stewart.
The dining tents were set out into sections On the drum section table, Joe Holroyd was singing his composition of “away away to fight the foe” and beating time by stabbing his toasted bread into the runny yolk of an egg, while at the other end of the table, Canada O’Hara was having an argument with Vince Price about whether the Japs could see in the dark, or was it just propaganda put out by the Japs to throw everyone off course.
The cooks similar to the duty men had been required to stand to, so there was very little time for them to set about preparing a proper breakfast, which meant everyone having to make do with a boiled egg and a slice of pre- cooked bacon. The men were ordered to attend a briefing by their respective company commanders immediately after breakfast and still no one had noticed the absence of Chuck Stewart. Sixty people had been killed in the bombing and more than one hundred and eighty wounded. Singapore hospital had not been built to accommodate so many casualties at one time. But no one complained as they went about their allotted task of cleaning and caring for the wounded. Some of the nurses and doctors were obviously overtired and practically falling from exhaustion or complete physical dehydration and one could not help but admire these devoted medical staff who did not seem to even have time to speak to each other. They had performed their duties as if it was common practice. As Chuck walked toward the door, one of the ambulance drivers offered him a lift as far as Paya Lebar where he would be able to catch a piggy bus back to camp.
It was about nine thirty when he arrived back, and as he made his way past the guard room he could not help but notice that there was no one on duty to check his pass. He wandered across to the tent which he shared with four other squaddies and began to change into fatigue dress, in anticipation of having to begin the task of cleaning and checking the machine guns which had been stored for such an eventually. Not seeing any of the other men from his unit, he assumed that they would all be either at the stand to positions or at their war stations. Hungry he made his way to the cookhouse. The whole camp seemed much quieter than usual and as he walked into the cookhouse a great booming voice shouted. “Stewart where the hell have you been, don’t you know there’s a bloody war on?”, Other similar questions were yelled out in rapid fire.
The man making all the noise was the company sergeant major, who, having checked the nominal rolls, had checked at the guard room to find that Corporal Stewart and one other had over stayed their late night pass. “Where have you been?” Asked the sergeant major again. Springing smartly to attention Chuck replied “I have been on all night pass to Singapore sir”. “You know damn well that all passes were for midnight” shouted the sergeant major and before Chuck had chance to reply came the order “Fall in two men” . Chuck surmised to himself, the whole camp seemed to be empty when he came back, there was not even a mangy dog to be seen, yet with those four words, two men appeared as if from nowhere. Deciding to use his discretion Chuck silently positioned himself between the two cooks, who had volunteered to be the escort. “Left turn quick march” shouted the sergeant major, directing the party to the guard room. Although it was not a guard room really, it was a tent which would normally have housed six men . Instructing Chuck to enter and wait, the sergeant major went over to the guard room to enter the time and date of his charge against the unfortunate corporal.
Chuck lay down on top of the bed boards and within seconds he was fast asleep. It was some two hours later when the provost sergeant Sid Pritchard shook him awake and handing him a mug of tea. He smiled. “You seem to have upset the sergeant major”. Chuck smiled back, “what’s new, everybody upsets that silly little twit”. What happened? “ asked Sid as he sat down on the bottom of the bed.
Chuck told him as much he could remember of the previous night’s bombing raid and the part which he had played in it. “You should be getting a commendation not put on a bloody charge. There was at least a dozen men who were late back and in any case what the bloody hell is wrong with being a bit late. Once this Jap lot get cracking there will be no time for stupid charges like overstaying your pass”. Sid looked back as he left the tent, “I wouldn’t worry if I was you, the old man will throw the charge out in quick time”.
Having finished his tea Chuck lay back again pondering what he should do next. Although he was a corporal and a bloody good one to boot, it seemed the sergeant major had got a down on him. Only last year he had been carpeted for not answering orderly corporal call on two occasions, for which he had received a severe reprimand. Previous to that the sergeant major had boned him on some stupid charge or other and he had dipped one stripe. He was beginning to feel himself getting worked up and he pondered doing a runner and going up country to see a bit of action. His mind wandered back to those hectic days in Palestine when the lads were in action. The feeling as the adrenaline began to surge through the body. This was not going to be so easy though he thought to himself, but at the same time it didn’t seem that the battalion would ever operate as a battalion again. (As a machine gun battalion sections would be sent out to support other units) The thought of going into Malaya and having a go seemed to be paramount in his mind. Although he was a good soldier and a good corporal, he was also a rough tough lad who called a spade a spade. The bugler sounded the dinner call and shortly afterwards one of the men from his own section came into the tent bringing his dinner. “How’s it going “ asked Chuck.
The young lad shrugged his shoulders. “Apart from a brief talk by the C O this morning, things are just as normal, except that all the companies have been told to disperse to their war stations by 1600 hrs”. The man went out, Chuck looked down at the meal and quickly polished it off. and was about to lie down again when the provost sergeant came in. “You can bugger off back to your platoon as soon as you like, the charges have been dropped in view of the situation” Thanks for nothing thought Chuck as he stretched his legs before making his way outside.
Although it had been humid in the tent, the heat once he got outside caused him to gasp. Arriving back at his own tent he quickly sorted and packed the clothes and equipment he would be needing and packed the remainder into his barrack box ready to be stored. He knew that “D” company position was at the naval base and eastward along the north coast of Singapore. All the training over the last twelve months had been concentrated on the defence of Singapore, but the Japs had upset the calculations and invaded Malaya instead. It was after seven o’clock in the evening that his company moved to their positions, and after setting sentries covering the platoons gun positions, he wandered over to where he could see the long causeway connecting Singapore to the mainland, and he watched the traffic as it slowly moved across. Even though Singapore had been bombed less than eighteen hours ago the drivers of the vehicles were still using their side lights, he was half tempted to order one of the guns to send a few shots over their heads. Walking down to the main road, he came across several Australian army lorries. The men sat or lay down on the grass verge talking and smoking. One of the soldiers came over, a cigarette sticking out from his mouth. “Bit of a go this then mate ain’t it”. Chuck half replied and nodded. “Where are you off to?” asked Chuck. The soldier put his finger under his nose, “Shush, its a secret” he replied , “Even our bloody officers don’t know, that’s why were sat around here”. He pulled a packet of American cigarettes from his top pocket and offered Chuck one. “I reckon this is going to be a piece of cake” said the soldier. If he had been able to see Chucks face he would have observed the surprised expression. They were joined by one or two others, each making his own observations about the war. “You a Limey” asked one, Chuck didn’t reply, it was obvious that he was wearing British field dress. “Come on with us” suggested another, “We’ ll only need a couple of weeks to see these bloody nips off”. Chuck was about to return to his own section when one of the Australian officers arrived and spoke to a sergeant who shouted “Mount up, everybody mount up” . “ Where we going? “ shouted one or two. “Mersing” shouted the sergeant. Chuck knew the place well, that was where the battalion had done most of its training. Returning to his section, Chuck allowed his mind to wander on the pro’s and cons of moving out. Then he quickly put on his webbing equipment and picked up his pack, and unnoticed by anyone he went back to where the Australians were still waiting to move off. As he approached the tail gate of the nearest truck, several voices asked various questions, “Do you want a lift? , Are you coming with us?, Do you want to see some action?”
Chuck handed his back pack to one of them and eagerly assisted by several hands, he climbed into the truck. He had hardly settled down when they started to move everyone at once wanting to know who he was, what was it like in the Brit army, had he ever been in action? . Finally finding a place to sit down he begrudgingly told them of the battalion exploits in Palestine. Most were impressed and one or two just lay back and allowed it to ride over them.
The humidity inside became heavy and with the movement of the truck most the men fell asleep, Chuck included. It was in the early hours of the morning when the convoy pulled into a clearing. So that a field kitchen could be set up and the shouting of orders and general movement caused him to wake, He had forgotten where he was, but as his decision to join the Aussies came back to him he began to wonder if it had been the right one. Back there he knew almost everyone, he knew who his friends were and who he could or could not depend on. Then he made up his mind, I have made my bed, so now I must make the most of it. Climbing down from the big Bedford truck he tried to make himself as inconspicuous as possible whenever an officer appeared. Then with a little encouragement from one or two of the Aussie soldiers he joined the queue for breakfast. While eating he had time to observe his situation and to come to a decision. This unit was going into Mersing which was just ahead on the east coast above Kota Tinge where they were now. The Manchester’s had put up defences and erected the pill boxes at Mersing, so there was every possibility that sections of the Manchester’s would be sent to man these positions and he did not wish to be picked up so soon.
The Japs had landed at Kota Bharu in the north and that was where he wanted to be. So hurriedly finishing his meal, he took a rifle from the back of one of the trucks and moved back into the jungle to wait for the convoy of trucks to move off. Only his companions from the truck on which he had travelled were aware of his existence and they would not notice that he was not around. It was two hours later when the last truck vanished into the distance that Chuck found himself alone. Although the jungle was still , the noise from the hundreds of insects, animals and the sound from a streams close by created an atmosphere of activity unseen. Although it was not the time for him to appreciate it, he could not do otherwise than marvel at the flora and fauna growing forwards along the ground and upwards along the vines to disappear at the top of vast trees, which seemed to be growing endlessly upward. Adjusting his pack and slinging the stolen rifle over his shoulder he set out to reach Kota Bharu or as near to it as he could get. What seemed peculiar was that even though the war had commenced, there did not seem to be any mad dashing around in preparation. One would have expected trucks and lorries loaded with soldiers and their equipment, moving up country to meet the Japanese. Everything was still as normal and as he took the road leading back to Kluang, he heard the sound of a train coming from the south and quickened his step. The train whistle sounded again as it approached the station and he hoped that it would stop long enough for him to be able to climb aboard. As he approached, he could see that it was loaded with equipment, mainly artillery. Sitting among the guns were several Indian army soldiers. Deciding to brass it out with anyone who came along, he climbed onto the last wagon before the guards van. Three young Indian soldiers glanced in his direction, not knowing what they should do, Chuck gave them a wave and stuck up two fingers in a V sign which seemed to put them at their ease and he settled back between the wheels of a field gun. Using his pack as a pillow he immediately closed his eyes. A further whistle from the engine and they started to move. The normal journey from Singapore to Kota Bharu would have taken anything up to three days, so with just his rifle, a change of clothing in his pack and about twenty dollars in his pocket, Chuck set out alone to find the enemy.
The train slowing down as it approached Kualu Lumpur station in the early hours of the morning was enough to wake Chuck with a start. Looking out he suddenly realised they were approaching KL, quickly putting on his equipment and grabbing his rifle, he jumped clear of the now slow moving train. Just a short walk across the rough ground and he was onto the main road. Although there was supposedly a blackout of sorts, it was obvious that certain people had forgotten to enforce it, one or two street lamps still shining lending assistance to his directions. Walking toward the station approach, he observed the usual convoy of trucks and as he cautiously approached he could see that they were another Aussie unit. As he walked closer, intending to climb aboard one of the trucks, he was challenged by a captain of the 2/21st battalion Australian infantry. “Here, you aren’t one of mine” said the captain, Chuck had to think fast. “I was in hospital in Singapore sir, and my unit moved out to KL, I didn’t want to be left behind so I borrowed some clobber and hitch hiked from Mandai” The captain looked at him closely. “You’re English aren’t you?”. Chuck was thinking of awarding ten out of ten for observation, but instead, “Yes sir, I am with the Leicester’s” he lied knowing full well that the Leicester’s were one of the first units to be sent to the top. “Well you had better climb aboard and I will get you sorted out when we get to the MRU”. Chuck breathed a sigh of relief as he slung his pack on board and climbed after it. Within a few minutes the trucks started to move and from the back he was able to look out and try to figure out where he was. The last time he had been in KL was a month on manoeuvres last year. There were a number of sign posts directing to the various hospitals and unit headquarters, the Japanese would have a birthday copying these down he thought. Then the sign Red Shield Club caught his eye and without a second thought he threw his pack over the back and grabbing his rifle quickly joined it, stumbling to the ground in the process. The Red Shield Club was packed to overflowing with Indians, Ghurkas, Aussies, and a smattering of Brits, mainly from service units. The tables were littered with empty bottles, slops, cigarette ends, portions of leftover food . The floor looked as if it had not been swept for decades and there was an overall stench of stale rancid beer.
Chuck was about to claim a vacant chair and one of the Aussies beat him to it. It seemed for an instant that there was going to be a dispute of ownership, but one of the bigger Aussies pushed his drunken friend from the chair, “get out of the way and leave the lads chair alone, cant you see that he has just come down”. The drunken man made an apology and wandered off to watch a card game, unimpressed that Chuck had just come down from the front line anyhow why should Chuck try to put the matter right, he didn’t dare ask “come down from where”.
Looking toward the far end of bar, he could see a number of plates piled up with sandwiches, noticing that occasionally several of the men would stroll over and help themselves, and as soon as the plates became empty they were replenished by one or two old ladies. At the near end of the bar, the Chinese barmen were pulling pints as quickly as they could. It could be that this was going to be the last day for opening. Throwing caution to the wind once more, Chuck sauntered across and helped himself to a handful of sandwiches, which tasted and smelled like cheese and onion, collecting a pint of beer for which he was charged ten cents, he walked back to the table. Looking round at the mixture of service men, he wondered what they were all doing back here in Kuala Lumpur, when just a few miles up the road there was a war going on. He noticed that round the walls hanging on coat hooks and piled up in corners of the room were dozens of rifles, with the occasional Tommy gun and one or two civilian shot guns. His eye was caught by what appeared to be a new highly polished .303 and he momentarily decided that the weapon was going to be his, given half the chance. Suddenly the room erupted as a further group of Australians arrived. The one thing which caught his eye was the fact that they all appeared to be young boys, one or two did not appear old enough to drink let alone carry a rifle.
As they settles down, one or two found room round the table where Chuck was sitting, as soon as they heard Chuck speaking in his broad Cumbrian cum Yorkshire accent they became interested, especially when they were informed that he had just come down. They were asking a multitude of questions to which he did not know the answers, “What are the Japs like?” “Is it true that they cant see in the dark and that they wont fight at night time?” The questions were infantile and he felt like spitting and telling them that the Japanese were just ordinary men, no better and no worse than most. Of course at that time Chuck had no experience of their capabilities or their murderous inhuman manner. He had heard a little concerning their actions in Shanghai but not enough to form any opinion.