Sketch by Jack Chalker

The Road To Singapore

Chapter Five

The Road to Singapore

 

January 4th 1942 : Bombay.

Captain Kelly aboard West Point, was asked by the British Authorities in Bombay, if both West Point and Wakefield, could be made ready for sea and make passage for Singapore. Kelly affirmed it could be done.

While the men and transports of the 18th Division had been in India, the situation in Malaya had been changing by the hour.

Kelly received orders, to the effect, that all troops disembarked within those last few remaining days of 1941, were to re-embark and be conveyed to Singapore, for the purpose of reinforcing the Island Fortress, “ The Guardian Of The East”.

 

Alf Robinson recalled his return to Bombay.

Mr. Alf Robinson. 1st Battalion Cambridgeshires:

Apparently things had gone from bad to worse in Malaya, with repeated cries for help from General Percival and Shenton Thomas. So we re-traced our steps and boarded the same transports that we had disembarked from. A new convoy was formed and we left Bombay on the 19th of January bound for Singapore.

 

So it was, that Albert, Alf and many of their comrades of the 18th Division returned to Bombay.This time there can have been little doubt as to their destination.

Due to unusual low water conditions, neither West Point nor Wakefield could moor alongside the harbour piers to re-embark the troops. The two vessels had to remain anchored in the roads and the troops ferried out to them by barges and lighters.

My Dad recalls his Dad Albert, often mentioning how awkward it was to climb rope ladders, whenever this appeared in a film they would be watching on television. I have often wondered, during my research, wether Albert`s recollection came from his time in Bombay.

 

A mystery solved, thanks to Arthur Bates.

Mr. Arthur Bates. 5th Battalion the Sherwood Foresters:

We returned to Bombay Docks. At first there was no sign of any ship, then there she was, two to three miles out, the last ship we wanted to see, unmistakably, the West Point.

We were taken out to her on barges because of the low tide. We had to climb up rope ladders to board the West Point, in full kit and carrying our rifles, we were swinging about like monkeys.

The American crew had rigged up a sign to greet us on our return, it read “ Welcome Home!”

 

Mr. Les Pearson. 5th Battalion the Sherwood Foresters:

We returned by train to Bombay and to our surprise we were taken out to sea to board the West Point once more. Not knowing the fate that was to come or our intended destination, the boat sailed from Bombay on the 19th of January.

 

January 19th 1942 : Bombay.

West Point and Wakefield now forming part of convoy BM 11, sailed out into the Indian Ocean escorted by the cruiser HMS Exeter. Destination Singapore.

Alongside West Point and Wakefield, convoy BM 11 incorporated Empire Star, Duchess of Bedford and the Empress of Japan. Between them they carried some 17,000 troops.

 

Mr. Les Pearson. 5th Battalion the Sherwood Foresters:

Looking to the future we knew our time was to come sooner or later, we didn`t know for certain where we were going, but a good guess being Singapore.

The food on the boat was not so nice as we had experienced before, pictures and concerts were as usual, but reading was my other pastime.

After a few days at sea the compass and the sunsets revealed our destination to be the Far East. Common sense told us we were bound for the great Naval Base of Singapore.

 

Heading for the Sundra Straits, the convoys escort was headed by HMS Exeter, Captain Oliver Gordon R.N. commanding. Due to concerns over possible attack by Japanese submarines, Gordon set a course through the shallow coral lined Sundra Straits, each transport sailing in single column order with escorts steaming between. Any deviation from the set course could have had disastrous consequences.

 

Mr. Jesse Adams. 1st Battalion the Cambridgeshires:

Our first encounter with the Japs, was sighting their bombers over the Sundra Straits.

 

Captain Gordon aboard HMS Exeter, planned to arrive at Singapore with as many ships as possible, by dawn on the 29th of January. He suggested that the three faster transports, West Point, Wakefield and the Empress of Japan should increase speed and sailing ahead of the convoy, proceed to Singapore. Captain Kelly aboard West Point approved this move and the three transports steamed ahead under bright moonlight.

Upon their arrival off Singapore, the transports lay to until pilots could be arranged to bring the ships in. Since the Navy yards came under heavy daily air raids, the transports were guided into Singapore`s commercial basin, Keppel Harbour.

 

So here they were, Singapore.

The island of Singapore situated off the southern tip of the Malayan peninsula, separated from mainland Malaya by the narrow Strait of Johore, across which stretches the Johore Causeway, approximately 1000 yards long, carrying the road and railway that run across the island to Singapore City. A major trading station positioned at a junction of seaways. Whoever controlled Singapore, controlled trade, shipping and most importantly the money in the Far East. Singapore, our “Impregnable Fortress”.

Singapore Island -1

Singapore, The Guardian Of The East

During my research for Albert`s War, I have visited the Public Record Office at Kew on a number of occasions, to read war diaries relating to Albert`s Army days. The following passage is taken from the war diary of Admiral Sir G. Layton, Commander in Chief Eastern Fleet 1941-1942 (ADM 199/1185)

 

Thursday 29th January 1942.

 

Own Operations and Movements.

Convoy B.M.11, with the two remaining brigades of the 18th Division, and the R.A.F. ground personnel of three fighter squadrons, arrived in Singapore without incident.

 

Securing abreast godowns (warehouses) 52, 53 and 64 West Point commenced, disembarking troops and off loading equipment, all were ashore before nightfall.Local coolie labour had been recruited to assist with the unloading, but due to frequent air raids by Japanese bombers, the coolies would vanish, taking to the shelters, leaving the vital cargo unloaded. West Point`s crew and the disembarked troops completed the unloading.

 

January 30th 1942:

Around about mid morning a small force of Japanese bombers appeared over the city, they were engaged by a seriously depleted force of British fighters. As the alert continued, a larger formation of Japanese bombers were reported to be heading for Keppel Harbour. Bombs straddled the transports. Wakefield took a direct hit, which destroyed her sick bay, killing five men and wounding five others. West Point was showered with shrapnel. As the raid lifted West Point sent a medical team to render assistance.

 

Ron Dodman was on the West Point when she arrived in Singapore.

Mr. Ron Dodman. Royal Engineers:

When we arrived in Singapore we berthed in the commercial docks, a rusty old submarine was berthed between U.S.S. Wakefield and U.S.S. West Point. All the troops disembarked including us. After the rest had cleared off, we were told to get on board again. It seems that the day before they had blown up the Johore Causeway, which carried the main railway line. Several times we were ordered off and then back on again. From what I heard, because we were a tradesman unit, only the War Office could direct us to a theatre of operations.

 

Mr. Alf Robinson. 1st Battalion the Cambridgeshires:

We arrived at Singapore on 29th January (Thursday) after running a gauntlet of Jap bombers, during which all troops were ordered below decks, we kept our fingers crossed in case we took a direct hit (the Wakefield did take a glancing hit in which five were killed). We unloaded our kit and moved into the Ketong area.

 

Mr. Les Pearson. 5th Battalion the Sherwood Foresters:

The crossing from Bombay was without incident to our surprise, the Japanese planes would have had a great reception if they had dared to attack us, with the ships guns and four 75 Bren guns alone on the West Point. However we arrived safely at Singapore on the 29th of January, to fight in the battle, being greeted by Japanese bombers.

 

Mr. Jesse Adams. 1st Battalion the Cambridgeshires:

When we disembarked we were issued with Australian style slouch hats, before that we had only our Topis. Our uniforms were sand coloured, almost white, because our intended original destination had been the Middle East.

We were kitted out for the desert, not the jungle. The hats might have been a ploy to fool spies or fifth columnists that we were an Australian Division.

 

Mr. Arthur Bates. 5th Battalion the Sherwood Foresters:

When we disembarked on Singapore, it was at the double. We got all our gear together and we were off, there were bullets flying about from the machine guns of the Japanese bombers.

 

Mr. Ron Dodman. Royal Engineers:

We started taking on civilians from the dockside. I read an article a few years ago in the Readers Digest, entitled “The Sinister Silence”, it described the scene fully, a card table with an officer inspecting credentials, there were all sorts of nationalities.

Sinister Silence -1

Smoke Over Singapore -1

Sinister Silence   

Smoke Over Singapore

We were called to help with their luggage, which we loaded at dock level and then carried up to the Promenade deck, where they picked out their own luggage, then we carried it to their allotted cabins for them.

 

All that morning the docks and their approach roads had been heavily attacked by formations of Japanese bombers. Half of the big godowns in the docks were raging fires. The smell of burning rubber mingled with that of burning tar and rope.

West Point, Wakefield, Duchess of Bedford and the Empress of Japan were berthed at the main wharf of Empire Dock. The quays, which were seething with women and children and their menfolk who had come to see them off, were so hot that one could feel the heat through the soles of shoes. Every inch between the line of godowns and the ships was jammed with women and children waiting patiently for their turn to pass through the one small gate, where sat an official, one lonely man with a small table and a pencil, who took down every passengers name, writing it beautifully but with painful slowness in a ledger.

In those last few hectic hours before Singapore became a beleaguered city, the four transports managed to get away. West Point and Wakefield left on Friday the 30th, carrying a large number of European women and children.

 

War Diary. C in C Eastern fleet. 1941-1942 (ADM 199/1185)

Friday 30th January 1942

Malaya and Singapore.

Keppel Harbour and Singapore dock area were heavily bombed. U.S.S. Wakefield damaged. Empress of Japan and Duchess of Bedford holed above waterline by near misses.

These three ships escorted by Dragon and Durban, however, sailed from Singapore later for Colombo, with more than 4,000 evacuees, dockyard, naval, military, and air personnel.

Singapore Dockyard closed down. Commodore and all Heads of Departments, except CD, CE, NSO, VSO, and skeleton staffs, left in WEST POINT.

 

Mr. Ron Dodman. Royal Engineers:

During the voyage back to Ceylon we went round in circles, at one time we thought we might be going to Australia, someone said there was a Japanese flotilla in the vicinity. Anyway we made it back to Ceylon, where we disembarked most of the civilians and then carried on to Bombay. We returned to the holding camp.

 

Albert was to be one of the very fortunate ones, he came away from Singapore with the West Point. Why, I`ll probably never know. The majority of the lads of the 18th Division were not so fortunate.

They had travelled over twenty thousand miles in Three months, crossing three oceans. They disembarked on Singapore Island on the 29th January 1942, to reinforce the besieged Island Fortress. The battle was already lost, they had been sacrificed by the “Whitehall Warriors”.

 The loss of Singapore, was described by Churchill as “The greatest disaster and capitulation in British history.” Only days before the 18th Division were to disembark on Singapore, Churchill was still pondering the question, should the 18th Division, be diverted to Burma? “There was still ample time to turn their prows northwards to Rangoon”. For Churchill realised, as he told the Chiefs of Staff:

“Obviously nothing should distract us from the Battle of Singapore, but should Singapore fall, quick transference of forces to Burma might be possible. As a strategic object, I regard keeping the Burma Road open as more important than the retention of Singapore.”

Yet the 18th Division were disembarked on Singapore, the battle was already lost, they had been sacrificed by our great wartime leader, Churchill the “Whitehall Warrior”.

130,000 British and Commonwealth troops became prisoners of war to the Japanese, many died, all suffered.

During my research for Albert`s War, I have been very privileged to have made the acquaintance of seven of Albert`s fellow travellers from the West Point, who I am proud to call friends. Of the seven, Bill Pope stayed on in India, going on to serve in the Middle East, only one came away from Singapore with the West Point as Albert did, Ron Dodman.

Those who were not so fortunate. Arthur Bates, who sadly never met Albert again after disembarking from the West Point in Singapore. Arthur was wounded in the fighting at Bukit Timah. Les Pearson, Wally Wren and my two friends Alf Robinson and Jesse Adams. Both Alf and Jesse served with the 1st Battalion the Cambridgeshires, “The Fen Tigers”. When Fortress Singapore capitulated on the 15th of February 1942, the 1st Battalion Cambridgeshires were the last battalion to cease fire.

These five men were to go on, as many many did, to endure three and a half years of hell under the Japanese, in the camps along the Thailand-Burma Railway and in the mines of Formosa and Japan.

 

Mr. Alf Robinson. 1st Battalion the Cambridgeshires:

Sixty years later, there are still many questions unanswered. I know that the Japs came into the war as we entered Cape Town and that the Repulse and Prince of Wales were lost, that does at least explain why we went to Bombay rather than Basra. But it doesn`t explain why the 18th Division was broken up, the 53rd Brigade was diverted to Mombassa and then on to Singapore arriving on the 13th of January 1942. Everyone knew that General Percival, Brooke Popham and Shenton Thomas were screaming for reinforcements. Meanwhile the 54th and 55th Brigades made for Bombay, landing on the 29th of December 1941 and made for Ahmadnagar, it looked at that time that we would have had jungle training and face the Japs in Burma. However we were recalled to the same transports and on the 17th of January 1942 we left for Singapore arriving on the 29th of January. Seventeen days were therefore wasted, as a member of the second wave, we knew that we were sailing in to a battle that was already lost.

There are a few theories as to why, the most popular one being, that the American troopships would never have agreed to go to Singapore unless they were carrying troops and that the Malayan Command badly needed them to take off the thousands of civilians who needed to be evacuated, it thus seems as though seven or eight thousand men were sacrificed to save twelve thousand or more civilians (the civilians should have been forced to leave as soon as the Japs got a foothold on the Malayan mainland). This has got to be put down as being the fault of a weak Governor ie. Shenton Thomas. As regards the 18th Division, we arrived only carrying small arms. Our transport including bren gun carriers, lorries and general ordnance were a week behind, they eventually ended up in Java and were turned over to the Japs when the Dutch surrendered. As regards to our own surrender, even this the powers that be managed to cock it all up, we were ordered to lay down arms at 4 o`clock Singapore time. The Japs were then still fighting, they were told to take over at 4 o`clock Tokyo time, which was 6 o`clock Singapore time, if they had come in firing, we would all have been goners, having made our weapons useless. In all this time, the only officer I saw was our Platoon commander, Captain Skinner.

I don`t suppose that the truth will be known until way beyond the passing of the last survivors.

 

Jesse Adams returned to Singapore in 1982, on his return home he thought of his visit and wrote this poem:

I stood in Adam Park again

Where forty years before

I, and gallant comrades

Defended Singapore.

 

On that spot we rallied,

Our final stand was made

Until the sad surrender

Found us weary and dismayed

 

I thought of years in prison camps

Just waiting to be free,

A freedom which so few of us

Were ever blessed to see.

 

I stood in Kranji cemetery

Midst war graves on a hill,

Each facing home to England

In that moment time stood still.

 

I thought of all those yesterdays,

What had it all been for

That such a lovely Island

Could have ever seen a war

Jesse Adams

 

 

 

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