Memoirs of Douglas Morris
Japanese Invasion - At this stage, soon after the outbreak of war, the Malayan Government ordered the formation of a 2nd Battalion so our immediate and responsible task was the recruitment of about 1,100 new recruits.
Teams were formed and we selected with care, countrywide, our future soldiers who were to go to war. Joan was allowed to accompany me and my team up to the north of Kedah Kelantan and parts of Penang. Staying at Rest Houses, we travelled round for a fortnight and selected carefully. Training of every sort from the square, weapon training and primary tactical work went on apace and we had at this time the arrival of the first Australian battalions of a division that was eventually to arrive.
At this time also, Jack Masefield, a distinguished Police Officer of the Malayan Police had been appointed OCPD Port Dickson and had just returned from England with his bride, Veronica, a daughter of Lord Hawke of cricketing fame.
Jack and Veronica became firm and lifelong friends. Jack, a nephew of the Poet Laureate and Veronica, who among many friends was referred to as “The Hon. Veron” entered fully into Port Dickson life, she and Joan among other things running a canteen for the Australians who were stationed in Port Dickson Barracks.
The Malay Regiment, in the event of war, was to be a part of the Singapore Brigade in defence of the Island. The 1st Bn was now taking on newly formed companies with the intention of the two battalions being equally divided so that each had equal shares of old hands, both officers and trained men, with equal shares of the latest recruits. When in 1941 this happened, Col. Toby Andr was in command of the 1st Bn with George Wort of the Wiltshires his Adjutant and Col. Walter Young was given command of the 2nd Bn and I was appointed his Adjutant having been promoted Captain.
During our first year of married life Joanie, becoming a good officer’s wife, was learning the language and helping greatly with soldiers’ wives and families, many of the men being married. We found ourselves at times the only Malay Regiment officer and wife in Port Dickson, with the battalion heavily involved in Singapore. We did what we could for Col. Varley and his officers of 2nd/18th and for a medical team of Australian nurses posted to Port Dickson.
I remember so well an occasion early on when we invited a number of officers and Matron Drummond and several nurses to drinks. I asked her where her home was and she told me Adelaide. By way of conversation I then said, “I suppose it is stupid to ask whether you ever met a Doctor Walter Morris who is my uncle and now lives in the Adelaide area”. She looked at me wide-eyed and said “Can you believe it? It was he who helped bring me into this world!” It formed a bond. Sadly and to one’s horror within the year all these fine girls were to die at the hands of the brutal and ruthless Japanese soldiers, machine gunned in the water as they struggled ashore from a sinking escape vessel that had brought them from Singapore Hospital on 11th/12th February, three days before Singapore capitulated. This took place on the Java beaches. Only one survived, Sister Graham, who lived long into her eighties, to tell the story.
Joanie and I were blissfully happy with each other but of course life and military duties had to go on and we had several periods of separation. But it was not long before 7th December 1941 with the Japanese destruction of the American Fleet at Pearl Harbour, without any declaration of war, and the bombing of Singapore City with all lights blazing, on the same night causing considerable damage and casualties.
We felt satisfied that now, as regular soldiers, we were rightly and properly alongside our countries’ forces, already two years into a war in which we had suffered some heavy reverses. We had no conception of what was to follow and our fate under the Japanese for the next 3 years until peace and the Japanese surrender was finally achieved under Lord Louis Mountbatten.
It was now that Winston Churchill realised the perilous position in which General Percival stood, woefully short of aircraft, armour, trained forces and naval forces. He ordered out Admiral Sir Tom Philips with Battleships Prince of Wales and Repulse and with an aircraft carrier, which broke down and never arrived. Their arrival was a tremendous morale boost.
To follow, but not until three weeks before the end, was the British 18th Division, an Eastern Counties Territorial Division commanded by General Beckwith-Smith, originally destined for India. Carrying them, a number of liners shortly to take away many wives and children from Singapore saving them from Japanese capture and shocking prison camps.
With the reported approach of a large Japanese fleet carrying men and equipment sighted in Indo China waters, Admiral Philips decided to sail his battleships out to seek and confront this body unsupported by aircraft. It was a fatal mistake.
While still in waters off the coast of Kuantan, heavily armed Japanese fighter and bomber aircraft armed with torpedoes and other heavy weapons, numbering sixty or over, attacked the ships and, with some Kamah Khasi (suicide) pilots who crashed their aircraft into their targets. Both ships were sunk and over 1,000 of their crews lost. It was a disaster of the first order. Admiral Philips went down with his ship. Meanwhile, off the coast of Kota Baharu, Sungei Patani and Singara in neighbouring Siam, the Japanese landed with, among much else, over 100 tanks. With highly trained infantry with experience in China they quickly broke through defending units in spite of stubborn and courageous resistance. By 10th December tanks burst through the defences at Jitra and by as soon as 16th December were approaching Butterworth and Penang.
It is not part of this story to recount the whole of the two months’ campaign but, briefly, with complete command of the sea and the air, and when strong defences were made, the Japanese could and did land behind them. Withdrawal was continually enforced although we inflicted quite severe casualties.
At the outbreak of war, Joan and a number of wives stayed on in Port Dickson, They were watched over and cared for by Jack Masefield, our splendid Police Officer, and helped by our good RSM McCarthy. With the threatened overrunning of Port Dickson, one glad day I was given leave to drive up and collect her and what baggage we could save and others were similarly helped. All were cleared by 15th January from Port Dickson.
On arrival in Singapore, Joan was accommodated with other wives in a pleasant block of flats. With increasing bombing, everywhere possible had some form of bomb shelters. Determined to help where she could, Joan took on a driving task On the arrival of 18th Division I was appointed as personal escort and help to General Beckwith-Smith to take him around the Island to the various sites to which his units had been posted. It was a busy and interesting three days and I greatly enjoyed the privilege. Their arrival was a boost also.
With ever increasing pressure to meet the advancing enemy, sadly the 18th Division units were committed to battle piecemeal and not as a single controlled unit which history feels was a mistake after a long voyage and scarcely acclimatised. But beside land advances, bombing raids were increasing in size and intensity reaching sometimes, in daylight, 100 aircraft flying in tight formation and their total load would be dropped in one act. It was devastating.
In the early days of February I felt that Joan was in greater danger than I was. I was looking over my shoulder in my anxiety and it was formally arranged that she should cease this job – so very well done.
Finally at this stage with the Government offering passages to Malay Regiment officers’ wives among many others together with young families to leave the country by available boats, I pleaded, in fact I ordered, that Joan should accept.
As Mercy Bretherton, Kathleen Young and Grace Andr were all destined to leave she agreed; her passage, the document for which I still have in my possession, was to be in the last of the liners, the Felix Roussel, French manned and commanded, which had carried in 18th Division. She was to sail on the night of 8th February from Singapore’s Main Docks.
It was that night, never to be forgotten, I was given a few hours leave to drive Joan to the docks to see her safely off. Carrying two suitcases, all she could manage, and all the money I could give her, we drove down in almost pitch dark. There was desultory shelling and occasional bombs.
Black smoke was pouring from numerous oil tanks on close neighbouring islands. The dockside was heavily pitted and littered with abandoned cars and vehicles left by women who had driven themselves down.
I left our car near the place I was told the Felix Roussel was tied up. She was not there! We started walking down the docks and in the dark I bumped into a man going the other way. He turned out to be a British sailor. I asked him if he knew where the Felix Roussel had gone. “Oh!” he said, “I do. I’ve just come off her. I’ll help you to board her.” I could have hugged him I was so thankful at such a lucky and happy coincidence. Goodness knows what could have been our fate. Many people failed to make it, I believe. I found an officer and handed Joan over. Our goodbyes had to be short. I staggered back to find the car and somehow managed to return to my post.
That night, eight days after the last troops crossed over the causeway to the Island, the Japanese attempted their first crossing of the Johore Straits opposite the 22nd Australian Brigade and we knew that the Battle for Singapore was about to begin.
The Felix Roussel slipped away that night. She was bombed on two occasions by single aircraft and by the grace of God all bombs missed. Making a long way round to miss submarines, it took 17 days for her to reach Bombay in which time may of the wives of all nationalities without children, sleeping on the forward deck with Joanie one of them, survived a rigorous and uncomfortable time but, thank God, they were spared and survived. In spite of difficulties, Joanie managed to write some letters while on board, during her months of waiting with good regimental friends and finally after her return home on 12th December 1942 when she received official confirmation that I, with others, had survived and was a PoW. Her joy knew no bounds and, as she said, she started to live again.
None of these letters ever reached me as the Japanese in general allowed no long letters to be sent or received. However, by some miracle, a letter from Joan with her photo sitting in the sun on the rocks at Kalaba Harbour, Bombay, and which was posted by a friend after she had left India, reached me in September 1943 many miles up the railway. It was an enormous boost to my morale and a determination to survive. However, it was to be two more years before Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the capitulation this time of Japan.
I am way ahead of the story but I plead forgiveness as I wish to show Joanie’s marvellous fortitude and loving loyalty to her man!
The Malay Brigade, consisting of our two battalions and 2nd Bn The Loyals, commanded by Colonel Bill Elrington and in which we had many good friends, was given the Pasir Panjang Ridge to defend. In justification to the whole brigade I cannot do better than to quote verbatim Noel Barber’s historical record called “Sinister Twilight” which records in some detail the Fall and Rise again of Singapore.
A chapter headed “Black Friday” covered 13th February only five days after Joan’s escape. It was a day when we never saw the sun because of the thick black smoke which covered the sky. Barber wrote: “All day, when so much was happening, an extreme tension prevailed at Fort Canning. The British perimeter, which was clearly defined, stretched for twenty-eight miles and at one point, where it crossed the Bukit Timah road, was less than 3,000 yards from Orchard Road.
“It was not in this direction, however, that the enemy launched the full weight of its armour on the Friday. This was reserved for the coastal area in the west, a ridge by the fishing village of Pasir Panjang which was being stubbornly defended by the 1st Malay Brigade against violent attacks by the Japanese Chrysanthemum Division. Behind the ridge lay the Alexandria area containing the Island’s largest ammunition dump and a big military hospital. For two days now the Brigade had held out until it was ‘almost obliterated’.
A locally raised regular unit commanded by mostly Malay-speaking British officers, it was a living and dying illustration of the folly of not having raised more such local forces before the war in which men could defend what was their homeland, for as General Percival noted “The Malay Brigade showed what esprit-de-corps and discipline can achieve. Garrisons of posts held their ground and many of them were wiped out almost to a man. Here was a direct fighting, a battle that could be joined against an enemy that could be seen and the Malay Brigade fought as hard as any in the campaign.”
Our casualties were heavy! 17 British officers of whom 8 were killed and a high percentage of Malay officers and other ranks. The Loyals also were hard hit. I am proud to say that among other awards the Malay Regiment was awarded two DSOs.
One short personal story which shows the odd chances of fate! The 2nd Battalion had established a forward Bn HQ in touch by telephone to the three front company positions in a short length of 6ft deep concrete monsoon drain, a common feature on the Island. My CO, Walter Young, was at Brigade HQ and I was temporarily in command. We were being heavily shelled and mortared. Capt. Bill Young, our MO appointed to the Bn from 18 Div, had been out to help some wounded. He suddenly appeared above me and shouted: “Douglas, it’s getting b----y hot up here. I’m jumping in!” He did, landing across me and coinciding with the arrival and bursting of a stick of mortar bombs straddling our position.
Two of my lads were killed and Bill was badly wounded over his right arm. By some incredible chance my body was not hit save for the blast which temporarily stunned me. We managed somehow to help ourselves and shortly after the Bn was withdrawn and the Loyals took over our position for the final hours till the eve of 15th February.
Bill, a fine surgeon, was never to use his right hand for surgery again but he survived and to this day is, I believe, with me the only survivors of that party of brother officers.
One final story connected with the campaign was the Alexandra Hospital incident. Noel Barber recounted it as follows:
The Malay Brigade had been desperately trying to hold the vital link, the Pasin Panjan Ridge but at last, after an heroic struggle and stubborn defence, the first wave of Japanese troops was pushing through into the vital Alexandria area and making straight for the Alexandra Hospital.
The advance enemy troops were sighted behind the hospital, which was crammed with wounded, just before two o’clock. After a hurried conference it was decided there was no alternative but to surrender. As the Japanese reached the grounds at the back of the building, a young Lieutenant called Weston was deputed to go from the reception room to the back entrance. He carried a white flag and stood there unsuspecting and unflinching as the first few Japanese reached the porch. Without a second’s hesitation the soldiers charged in and bayoneted him repeatedly. As Weston lay dying more and more troops surged in over him. One party made for the operating theatre block. In the corridor outside the main theatre patients were being prepared for operations. As they lay there on stretchers, puzzled by the noise of fighting and screams they could not understand, several Japanese faces appeared at the windows above them. Some scrambled through, others barged in through the corridor door.
All the Royal Army Medical Corps personnel put up their hands and Captain Smiley, who was in charge, stepped forward and pointed to the Red Cross brassards on his arms. With a flick of his gun the leading Japanese motioned the handful of British to move into one corner of the corridor. As the unarmed men obeyed, the Japanese, for no apparent reason, set on them with bayonets. The first man to go down was Lt Rogers who was bayoneted twice through the throat and died immediately. Capt. Parkinson standing next to him was also killed together with two orderlies. Awaiting an operation and actually on the table was Cpl Bill Holden of 2nd Loyals. Before he could do anything he too was bayoneted to death. Two Japanese now lunged at Capt. Smiley. Somehow he managed to deflect the first bayonet thrust and the blade hit his cigarette case in his left breast pocket wounding his left arm. When the second Japanese wounded him in the groin, he fell over and owed his life to the fact that he feigned death as the Japanese ran from the corridor.
Without continuing with individual details, over 150 were murdered this day in the hospital. The Japanese officer in command was Col. Masanobu Tsuji, a brutal Japanese responsible for a number of such incidents, never to be forgiven!
One final story that must be told was that of my brother Terry, who was among the patients in the hospital at the time.
In a ward on the first floor when the Japanese first arrived, a friend slipped upstairs and told him: “Terry, for God’s sake leave your bed and hide.” At the end of the ward was a linen cupboard into which Terry climbed and jammed himself in with the doors closed tight. By a miracle he was left untouched and survived.
On February 15th 1940 Singapore capitulated.