Winds of War
It was dark when Chuck Stewart began to pack his few belongings into a recently purloined haversack. He had not slept a wink all night, trying to figure out his best move. It was in the early hours of the morning that he finally decided to return to Singapore and face the music. They could not shoot him out of hand he had decided. They were short of men, and there was no sense in putting him in jail, he would be more useful fighting the Japs. His mind raced on and on as he arranged his equipment. Then slinging his rifle over his shoulder he walked toward the rear of the camp, deciding that it would be much easier than going through the main entrance.
Making his way round the perimeter to a point where the main road to the station came into view, he climbed over the fencing and out onto the road. During the night he had heard the sound of aircraft and the sound of explosions. Now when the wind was in the right direction he thought that he could detect the sound of battle some miles to the north. Arriving at the station one would have imagined that it was a bank holiday. The station approach was full of people, mainly civilians, Chinese, Malays, Indians all eagerly waiting transport to the south.
Chuck walked through the crowd to the station masters office, which was now occupied by the military, and sat on a seat just outside the ticket office window, hoping to be able to overhear some of the conversation going on inside, from which he might be able to concoct some excuse for being there.
Nothing seemed to materialise however, so he decided to brass it out. Marching smartly into the room he sprang to attention in front of the sergeant sitting behind a large desk . “Is there anything going to Singapore sergeant” he asked briskly. The sergeant looked up from the papers in front of him and seeing Chuck in his accumulative uniform, assumed that he was another squaddie down from the front, replied, “If you are not in any hurry we are arranging a train and six carriages, but unfortunately we are short of engine drivers.” “Is that a problem then?” asked Chuck. “Probably a two hour wait” said the sergeant and returned to reading a book on the table “No Orchids For Miss Blandish”
Chuck had ants in his pants, he could not sit or stand still for more than a few seconds. Walking back to the outside of the station, he noted several vehicles were standing idle, some with drivers others looked like they had been standing for years. Chuck dragging his kit bag behind him wandered along the line of trucks. Then coming alongside a Humber snipe, he noticed a young driver dosing behind the wheel and leaned inside shaking the drivers shoulder he asked “Any chance of a lift?”. Half asleep the driver replied “Depends which way you want to go”. “Singapore”. The words had hardly left Chucks lips, than the lad had sat upright flipped his slouch hat to the back of his head and was clicking the starter. “That will do me” said the driver. Chuck could not believe his luck, but he hesitated This driver seemed to be in too much of a hurry.
“Who’s car is this?”, asked Chuck“, how come you can just decide to offer me a lift to Singapore just like that?”. The driver looked up rather sheepishly, “To tell you the truth mate, this aint my jalopy, I just saw it parked her for a couple of days, then after a while I got nosey and decided to take it for a spin, but it was knackered, so I tinkered about with it for a bit until I got it firing. I was hoping to see a convoy going south, and then I was going to tail it down”
“Why ? , asked Chuck, still suspecting that there was something not kosher.
“Because that way I could follow them and at the same time I would have company”. He paused, “anyhow, how come you want to go to Singapore?, the fighting is in the opposite direction”
Chuck shrugged his shoulders, “ its a long story, but just lets say that I am going to rejoin my own unit”. He opened the passenger door threw his kit into the back then sat beside the driver. “My name’s Stewart, Chuck Stewart” he said putting out his hand. “ Jim Osborne” replied the driver, shaking hands. “Do you know the way?”.
Chuck gave him a curious look, “How long have you been in Malaya?” he asked.
“Five weeks” said the driver
“I might have guessed” said Chuck, “Just keep following your nose and heading south, you can’t miss it, you’ll come to some water with a causeway across it”.
“Your taking the piss now aren’t you?” Asked Osborne and Chuck started to laugh, then continued laughing, realising that it was the first time he had done so since leaving Singapore.
They drove in silence for a few miles, then Chuck began to get curious, “What unit are you with?” he asked Osborne. “Artillery, ninth India corps” said Osborne “and before you get to thinking that I am a deserter, I was with eleventh div. for the opening shots, I was the old mans driver. Brought him down to headquarters about five days ago. Then he left with some brass to go back up front and there was no room for me. Then I heard that the old man had bought one, and I was instructed to make my own way south, so I hung around for a bit trying to get a lift, but no such luck, everything was going north, then I spotted this Humber doing nothing and decided to try to get it going”
Chuck sat back once more satisfied, “If you see anything that looks like a field kitchen, pull over and we’ll try and get something to eat”. He let his head fall back against the back of the seat and dozed. The car slowing down was enough to wake Chuck, “what are we stopping for ?” he asked.
Osborne pointed a finger at the sky ahead “We might be having company” he said hugging the side of the road and looking for somewhere to get under cover. A break in the mass of tree’s appeared just as the plane passed overhead, and he pushed the car as far as possible into cover of the jungle. It was obvious that the plane had spotted something interesting.
The sound of exploding bombs and machine gun fire set the jungle creatures scurrying around, through the occasional break in the leaves the Japanese plane could be seen swirling and diving, with its machine guns barking, the only sound of defiance seemed to be coming from several rifles being fired haphazardly.
After a short while the shooting stopped, and Osborne reversed the car back onto the main road, although there was power in the engine the wet jungle offered no resilience to the wheels and by the time that they had managed to get back onto the road, they had used up most of their personal equipment and clothing. Having managed this they sat exhausted neither having the strength or inclination to move. Finally “What mob are you with?” asked Osborne “and what are you doing on your own?”
Chuck took a cigarette from his pocket and offered one to Osborne.
“I am with the Manchesters” Chuck answered, then went on to tell how he had decided to go it alone. During which time Osborne had restarted the car and they were once more on the move. At Tampin they found a small Chinese cafe, where for two dollars each they could have the best menu of the house, and they began to discuss the situation in hand as they saw it. “Who was up there with you?” asked Chuck, referring to the fighting in the north. “ I don’t know how many or any of the wherefores, but I understand that the Surreys were the first British regiment to meet the Jap, alongside the Leicesters. Ten days ago the Gordons and Argylls were holding the line, while the eleventh div fell back, but apart from that I have no idea what is happening”. Ron looked at Chuck enquiringly. “I know that most of the lads felt that they had been shanghaied and the rumour that reinforcements are on the way was just a load of balls. We seem to be forever retreating, Alor star, Kota Bharu, Lubock, Taiping, Ipoh Patani,Kuala Kangsar, and finally Slim River. They were all secured defences, but we still retreated”. He sighed and continued. “But what can anyone expect, we have no air support, no tanks, and we are outnumbered four to one at all turns”. Chuck settled down as Osborne related incident after incident. “At Slim, we were ordered to retreat as far as the bridge, where we were apparently going to hold and then counter attack. The heavies, the corps unit, Dogra’s, Jats, Punjabs and other Indian army units were all set and poised waiting for the little yellow bastards. We waited for twenty four hours and just as the Jap attacked at dawn, the order came to retire to the other side of the bridge”. He hesitated momentarily “We managed to cross at about nine o’clock, but by noon the engineers had blown the bloody bridge, leaving a good fifty per cent of our lads on the other side. You could see heavy artillery firing the last of their shells before being ordered to get to hell out of it. The river was in flood and it was full of men, some swimming, others trying to float using whatever wood or floatable object they could find , men were shouting encouragement to each other as many of them sank to the bottom”. Osborne took a drink from his coffee then continued “The Japs came along and began to fire in amongst the drowning men. At one stage it might have been possible to have walked across the river on the bodies which were floating. Then the sounds of the Japanese cleaning up” He swallowed hard and sat quiet for a second or so, before continuing. “I don’t know who the f— was supposed to have been in charge of this fiasco, but whoever it was should be strung up by the balls. Everything about this f—— war stinks, it seems that those in charge are living in hope rather than face the facts. I hope the Japs don’t attack, I hope everything will be OK, I hope our rations appear on time hope hope all the time. There seems to be no solid. We will, attitude and that cigar smoking grinning ape back in England, has no idea of how to find a brewery, let alone organise a piss up in one. He is the devil in disguise and the only thing that matters with him, is that he should be made to look powerful. His only capability as far as I am concerned is that he can tell a good tale, despite his speech impediments. And the only thing we have left is hope, hope that the Japs will go away, hope that we will be getting reinforcements in time, hope that the RAF will put in an appearance. Its all bloody hope and if things don’t move soon, it will be bloody hopeless..”
Chuck sat open mouthed “Are you sure your finished ?” he asked, Osborne was close to crying “Christ”, said Chuck, “you certainly allow yourself to get worked up a bit don’t you”
“I was just letting off steam”, the Chinese cook came over probably assuming that something was wrong with the cooking, he apologised and asked if everything was OK. Chuck nodded and pulled a twenty bill out of his pocket. The cook was feeling in his pocket for change and Chuck shooed him away, “thanks the meal was great” he said “keep the change and buy yourself a ticket out of here”. The man didn’t have a clue what Chuck had said as he showed his appreciation and bowed out of the room.
“I never suspected that you were a soap box champ” said Chuck with a bit of a twinkle in his eye. Osborne smiled back, “I know how it must sound to you, but I was up at the top when it all began and it was no picnic I can assure you, young green Indian recruits our first line of defence, backed up by three or four battalions of British soldiers who had mostly all finished their time, half of them were time ex twelve months ago. Most of them gone now. I lost fifteen good mates in that first two days, since then I had been transporting the old man around. He got his last week and it left me on my tod” The tears were now obvious, and to Chuck it was an embarrassment, grown men and boys don’t cry. He left the cafe and returned to the truck followed a short while later by Osborne, now in full control of his emotions.” I don’t know why I was telling you all that” he excused, “It makes me feel so pissed off, I would imagine that you must have seen some action yourself” Chuck shrugged his shoulders. “Come on lets get moving” he suggested. They drove in silence for a short while, but the atmosphere was not what one would call Sans souci
Osborne began to slow the car down, “Truly though, don’t you think we’ve been dropped in the shit”.
“By who” asked Chuck.
“By our government, by that cigar smoking bastard” replied Osborne, Has it not reached your mind yet, that we so called Empire soldiers have been set up like a shower of bloody pansies. The Brits and the Yanks have been baiting the Japanese for months, egging them on to have a go, yet when they do come on strong, we cry foul as if we didn’t expect it. You must realise by now that there will be no Dunkirk, no falling back to secure positions, Singapore will be our last stand and after that it will be every men for himself”. Chuck remained silent trying to concentrate on the passing scenery his head beginning to go forward onto his chest and the car began to move a little faster.
It was some time later that Chuck woke suddenly with Osborne shaking his shoulder. The car was stationery. “This is the end of the line” said Osborne, “I have decided to go back up”, he paused, “your welcome to come back with me if you want to”. “Where are we?” asked Chuck Osborne pointed down the road. Just three miles that way is the causeway, all the vehicles that you can see are ours, so all you need to do is stick up your thumb and any one going either way, will stop and give you a lift.” Chuck stepped down and pulled his equipment from the back of the car. “Thanks for the ride” he said. “ best of luck mate”. As soon as the car door was closed, Osborne swung the car round and with a toot on the horn, he started his journey back to only he knew where.
Chuck thumbed a lift from one of the Australian vehicles heading for Singapore. “Bad news aint it?”, said the Aussie driver. “What news is that?” asked Chuck. “KL falling so quickly” replied the driver, “I was there two days ago and it seemed OK then” Chuck clicked his tongue behind his teeth. “Where are the Japs now?” asked Chuck.
“It looks like they have got down as far as Port Dixon and Bahau”.
It was the 12th January and the Japanese had travelled over two hundred miles. The truck crossed the causeway and travelled east along Mandai road, and across to Tampines. As they approached ten milestone Chuck asked the driver to stop while he collected his equipment. It was dark now, and as he walked into the camp he half expected to be challenged, but there was no sentries or pickets. Across at the wet canteen he could hear the noise and chatter of the men as they indulged in a pint or two of McEwans. Above the noise the sound of Charlie Bleeze giving his rendition of “Those Singing Hills”. Slinging his equipment onto the ground, Chuck walked into the canteen and straight to the bar, where he ordered a pint. No one recognised him as he walked pot in hand to take up a seat at one of the tables. It was as if word had been passed round that he was to be persona non grata. As he took a deep drink from his pint, there was a momentary silence, followed by a booming voice.
“Look what the cats brought in” from one and from another “look out here comes trouble”. All heads turned in his direction and the singing stopped. Half a dozen hands came from nowhere, patting him on the back and ruffling his hair, then came the questions, “where the hell have you been?” “Did you kill any Japs?” “What have you come back to this dump for?” They came fast and steady. It was hopeless to try to answer them all, so he directed his answers to Bill Riley an old mate. As he was about to expound on his adventure, the talking suddenly stopped except for one voice which expounded the theory that he was for the firing squad. “Well let them get on with it” shouted Chuck in defiance, “If they don’t the bloody Japs will, and soon”. As he looked up, the figure of Chris Colgan the orderly sergeant loomed close. “Fall in two men” shouted the sergeant, who then proceeded to extract a set of handcuffs from his pocket. As he approached Chuck, one or two shouted “Let him finish his drink” or “cant you wait for him to draw breath”. There was a general murmur of animosity, and Sergeant Colgan, although popular with most of the men, realised that he was in a sticky situation, and he pushed the cuffs across the table for Chuck to place them on his own wrists. But Chuck remained hold of his pint mug and continued to drink from it. Colgan took this as an insult and was about to retire for assistance. “Hold on” shouted Chuck, “let me finish my drink and I will be with you, and you don’t need those bloody things, co’s I’m not going anywhere”. He looked directly at the sergeant “I came here of my own free will, no one forced me and I can assure you that I am in no mood to do a runner”, he remained seated and Colgan took a seat opposite and waited. Several men offered Chuck another drink ,
But he declined their offer, instead he looked at the sergeant “I could do with a wash and brush up” he said, “Lets go” then stood and waited for his escort to finish their drinks before marching out.
The following morning above the ever increasing noise of shells going in both directions and with planes, some flying high, others flashing low across the camp. The news of Chucks return had achieved a greater interest. Rumours became rife, he had said that he preferred Jail to fighting the Japs, he had become homesick , every imaginable story was passed around except the true one, which was that he would rather fight the Jap alongside the men he had trained with, it was as simple as that. The next morning he appeared in front of the CO, boots polished and khaki drill pressed and ironed, if it had not been for the noise of battle it was as if nothing had happened. Chuck felt that a load had been lifted from his mind. He could hear the sergeant majors voice as he monologued the charge, that on the morning of December the bla! bla! Chucks mind wandered to that morning which now seemed so long ago, when he had found himself among the wounded of Singapore, and he wondered if the young Malay boy had made it. The sergeant major had finished his monotonous reading of the charges and the commanding officer was speaking. “You are hereby awarded a court martial at a time and date, etc! etc! Several further sentences followed but they were beyond Chucks thoughts as scenes of the last few days carnage flashed across his minds eye. Unprotesting he was cuffed and marched back to the tent which served as a prison cell. There he was secured by leg irons to the tent pole which ran through the middle. He had no intentions to try to escape, all he wanted was to get the whole thing over, so that he could go home and race his pigeons. Through the tent flap, he could observe the other men of the unit as they went about their daily routine. Then he lay back and allowed his mind to wander, first to the past and home, his first days as a soldier and his ambitions. On to the present and the ominous manner in which they had all become enveloped in a war which would have no winners. He remembered the odd messages which had been passed down from the men in the sigs. listening posts, messages which at the time meant nothing, but which now created some thought.
The following morning he was once more paraded in front of the commanding officer and informed that his court martial would be suspended until the end of hostilities. In the meantime he must give his parole and an assurance that he would not discuss his past activities with anyone.. On this assurance he was released to the company commander who instructed him to rejoin his own platoon.
The next day was the 15th January and in the distance came the ever increasing sound of heavy artillery, above Singapore appeared daily the usual twenty seven high level bombers, followed by a squadron of fighter bombers, all engaged in unloading their cargoes of hate.
The damage to property in Singapore was far more extensive than anyone had ever imagined and the prospect of having to defend the island presented a feeling of despair among the officers as well as the other ranks.
Hong Kong had fallen on Christmas day and from the news reports the outside world knew nothing of its final hours. The same would be the fate of Singapore and the prospect of trying to defend it against such vast odds brought visions of mass slaughter, murder and obscenity to Chucks mind.
At noon the same day, Chuck requested to see the commanding officer, and much to his surprise was given an audience almost immediately. “I wish to apply to join the 121 STS” he mouthed the words without feeling. The CO looked at him astounded. I wish to be allowed to fight the Japanese, instead of hanging around here doing nothing. The CO had other far more urgent matters to attend to and dismissing Chuck out of hand, he walked out of the room.