Sketch by Jack Chalker

Empress of Japan

It was about 7 a.m. when the train arrived at our destination on the morning of 9th November 1941. Masts of coastal ships were visible over lines of trucks in the sidings. This was not Glasgow as we had expected, but the embarkation point. As we stepped from the trains Military Police cordoned each end of the platform, and there was no alternative for anyone except to walk straight across and on to the packet boat. Not having seen a liner I wondered if this was the ship which was taking us overseas, but I soon realised differently because it became crowded with troops and even Q.A. Nurses.

In due course the packet boat left the jetty and after an hours sailing, word went round that we were coming alongside the liner. Since I was below decks I didn’t get a good view of her, but only a glimpse as I stepped aboard through a door in the side, and what I saw then shortly afterwards left me speechless.

It was a cold November morning and we hadn’t had food since leaving Dorman’s Hall, Middlesbrough at 4 p.m. the previous day so you can imagine how I felt when I saw that the door into the liner was near the kitchen, and how glad we were to get into the warmth. On our way to our quarters we passed through the dining hall and I was simply amazed at the marble pillars and panelling with even a stage! We then went up a very wide staircase to the lino covered floor of B Deck. We immediately removed our boots and wore gym shoes for the whole of the voyage in order not to damage the floor. Small kit was stored in racks in the rook and kit bags later taken to the hold. Shortly after we went to breakfast which was laid on long tables by some of our chaps acting as orderlies, and like subsequent meals, was so good that no one could complain.

Empress of Scotland
Empress of Scotland

The name of the liner was Empress of Japan, since renamed Empress of Scotland, of 26,000 tons, which is small compared to the Queen Elizabeth. We little realised that Japan would be a name for us to hate. They had not declared war then and we were expecting to go to the Middle East. More troops embarked during the three days the ship was lying in the Clyde until about 3,000 were on board.

It was 11.45p.m. on Thursday 12th November 1941 when we sailed just 15 minutes before Friday 13th, because I am told that sailors are superstitious, but for us it could have been the 13th, because we landed at Singapore on 13th at wharf 13, and the figure was prominent with us on other occasions afterwards.

As we came off Northern Ireland next morning other ships joined us and also destroyers. They took up positions round the convoy which eventually numbered 30 ships and included the Capetown Castle, Monarch of Burma and Duchess of Bedford. About the second night we were joined by the battleship Royal sovereign which was loaned to Russia. She steamed alongside us and we were surprised to see how low she was in the water and the waves breaking over her bows. It was fairly rough in the Atlantic, many were sick, but I pushed the food down and although often doubtful was never seasick.

After 4 or 5 days the sea became calmer, probably because we were getting further south, and the Officers started to get things organised, such as lectures on the Bren Gun etc. We were told we were going to Bombay, and then on to Basra where a railway was being built to carry supplies of arms etc. to Russia. We had plenty of spare time however and walked around the open deck, leaning over the rails thinking of home, or playing cards, draughts, housey (bingo) etc. At dusk all troops were confined below decks on account of the danger from submarines if anyone should light a match. This was not too bad until we came to the tropics and then we sat on the decks with sweat running from our bodies. Wilf and I played draughts most evenings, but Walt was in a gun crew and did periods of watch.

Nevil C.C.Benham-KitWith the warmer weather the ship’s officers changed into their smart white uniforms and we discarded our battledress for kaki drill uniforms. Nothing unusual happened, we had a glimpse of the Canary Islands on the horizon and a couple of ships left the convoy for Gibraltar.

The evening before reaching Freetown on the west coast of Africa explosions were heard and we learned afterwards that submarines were about. At that time the Germans occupied Dakar which is on the same coastline. Early next morning all troopships reached Freetown, having used their extra speed to leave the transporters and submarines behind.

We stayed in Freetown harbour for 2 days but were not allowed ashore. Even before going on deck in the evenings we had to use anti-mosquito cream to prevent malaria. During the day natives came out to the ship in their boats selling fruit. We were forbidden to buy but in spite of the Military Police many did. The method of conducting business was most interesting. The native would have a long line with a weight on one end which he would swing and aim at a prospective purchaser on board, but it might take many throws before it was caught by this person. Eventually he would haul in the line to which would be attached a basket, the native in the boat holding the other end of the line. The purchaser would put money in the basket and allow it to go back to the native, but still holding on to the line in order to haul the fruit back. The most enjoyable part of our stay here was watching the natives dive for coins thrown in to the water from the ship. They would dive for coppers, but of course preferred silver and they were not backward in expressing themselves in English when coppers were wrapped in silver paper and they were disappointed in their catch.

After leaving Freetown we didn’t see land again for 20 days. During this time the Royal Sovereign left us for a few days. We heard on the wireless that a German raider had sunk one of our ships, but as far as I recollect the raider was sunk shortly afterwards, anyway this took place in the South Atlantic and we learned from the crew that we had crossed the Equator several times while the German raider was being hunted.

It was during this time that we heard of Pearl Harbour and the Japanese entry into the war.

Our arrival at Durban was a sight I shall never forget. It was known that we should arrive on 18th December 1941 and as was my usual custom at that time, I was on deck early. The sun was glaring as I lay on the rails with only shorts on, and the warm breeze giving such a wonderful feeling. I looked forward and there was Durban, a gleaming row of buildings on the horizon!

Everyone was excitedly looking forward to going ashore in the afternoon, the first time since embarking at Gourock on 9th November, but for some reason we lay in the bay and didn’t dock until the following day. This operation again was something which interested me, with little tugs pulling and pushing until we were tied up. Shortly after this was done, the ‘Lady in White’ came along the quay singing to us through a megaphone. She did this with every convoy and must be remembered by thousands of troops.

Berthing Card

It was not until I stepped ashore that I realised the immense size of The Empress, but didn’t admire her for long, being eager to get to town. Troops poured in on lorries, buses, cars etc. anxious to make the most of the time ashore. Wilf and I had a grand time and even took a few rides in a rickshaw and can’t these boys run! In the evening we went for a ride on a tram to the outskirts. When darkness fell we were on high ground overlooking Durban. The lights were on and it was a treat after the blackout at home. On returning to town we watched the dancing at the amphitheatre on the sea front and then went for some supper. As we walked along looking for a place, a man standing at a gate asked if we would like some food, which was’ just down our street’. This turned out to be a hall organised by a religious body. It was full of troops having food, all of whom had been invited off the street as we had been. Everything was free and on leaving we were invited to give the address of our nearest relative and then a fortnight after the convoy sailed they wrote to say that we were well.

Durban
Durban-2
Durban-3

Durban-4

It was late when we returned to the ship, soldiers and sailors were lying about drunk and sleeping. Some couldn’t find the ship, or went to the wrong docks and didn’t get back until near daybreak.

Ngoma Native Dancing

On the second day we were ordered to prepare for disembarkation because we were being transferred to another liner, the Narkunda, and it was late before I could go ashore because I had to supervise unloading of kit from a hold of The Empress. Then on the third day all the Regiment put on full kit and marched to where the liner was lying in another dock. It was mid-summer in Durban, very hot, and we were glad to reach the Narkunda.

Narkunda

There was much speculation as to whether we would spend Xmas in Durban, but on 23rd December there was no shore leave and we ’cast off’ on the next stage of our journey, which was now to Singapore, but by chance the liner lost an anchor and we re-docked. Again our hope rose of Xmas in Durban, but work proceeded all night on the forward part of the ship and on the 24th we really did leave.

There was a certain amount of festivity on board on Xmas day, but this was such a change from The Empress with her spotless Chinese crew. The Narkunda had a Lascar crew and this was even reflected in the quality of the food. Meals were served on long tables between decks, there being no separate dining room from living quarters. One advantage we did enjoy was being allowed to sleep on deck. Hammocks were slung in every conceivable place and even rolled out on the decks. I recall one occasion when I slung my hammock a little too near the side and when the ship rolled in a rough sea off the Cape, the water appeared to be immediately below me! I need hardly say that I made a hurried move to a safer place!

Some days after leaving Durban the convoy divided, one part going to Bombay and the other with the Narkunda to the Maldives Island which are south of Ceylon. This was truly a beautiful sight, just like a scene from a film taken in the South Seas. We were not allowed ashore because there was only a wireless station and the stop was for refuelling only. Although I might have been bored at times, I really did enjoy the whole trip and was sorry to reach Singapore, which we did, as I have already said on 13th January 1942.

I can’t say we were welcomed to Singapore, because it was the other way round. The Japs chased us from the start, as we steamed into harbour planes could be heard overhead. I was standing on the front part of the promenade deck, when suddenly there was a burst of machine gun fire and bullets spattered into the water near the side of the ship. In a matter of seconds a plane was seen to dive into the water some distance away and all who had seen it gave a cheer thinking it was a Jap. Immediately the ship’s air-raid warning was sounded and all troops had to return to quarters below decks. We had often practised this and lifeboat drill, but this was the real thing, however we were very near to land and didn’t worry. It was not very long before the all-clear was sounded and we were back on deck to see the ship dock and later to learn that the plane which had been shot down was one of ours.

Shortly after the ship docked our battery was ordered to disembark in order to proceed to gun sights as quickly as possible. There was hurried preparation amongst us and very soon we were ashore and moved along the dock to await transport. Gradually the time passed, the minutes becoming hours until about 6 o’clock in the evening transport arrived, after we had been waiting about five hours on the dock side. This was a good example of the muddle which existed in Singapore. I should have said that before arriving in Singapore we were told that English money would not be accepted there and that we should change it for Malay currency. We had been told the same thing before arriving at Durban and had found it untrue, so for that reason or being sentimental, I had kept a few shillings, and during the long wait on the dock without food, found that the natives were quite willing to accept English money for tins of fruit which I, and my pals were pleased to have.

With the transport came the rain, and from the docks to camp it poured as it does only in the tropics. Our destination was the naval base where we were put in huts next to those of an Indian Battery. We were in a miserable state after the rain and having no food, one of my friends managed to scrounge a mug of tea and we opened a spare tin of iron rations which every soldier is issued with, this being a concentrated form of chocolate. The Indians were really good sports, overlooking many incidents where we transgressed against their customs and helped us to get organised.

Since we were new arrivals from home, we had several visits next day from sailors quartered in the base, many of whom were survivors of the battleship Repulse and Prince of Wales which had been sunk off the coast of Malaya by the Japanese. It was from them that we learned of the conduct of the war in Malaya and the shortage of men and material, which we could hardly believe, having always thought and heard of Singapore as a fortress bristling with guns, but Anti Aircraft Defences were practically nil, whilst fighter defence was actually NIL!

One of the transporters in our convoy had 60 fighters on board, all in crates, I don’t think they were ever in operation. Every morning they would take off, that is about 10 or 12 of them and that was a sure sign that the Japanese planes were on their way. Of course the fighters were not on their way to engage them, but were only getting away from the ‘drome’, not to be damaged on the ground.

It was almost possible to set a watch by the Jap planes came over each morning. Unlike our planes they came in one line abreast of 27 planes, one would think an easy target for Anti Aircraft Gunners, but I did not see a single plane shot down and of the few shells fired at them, all went wide of the target. It was an unusual sight to see these planes circle over the island dropping their bombs as they wished and all at the same time.

Our billets were within 100 yards of a number of large oil storage tanks and one morning the Jap planes appeared to be coming straight over us! Not having had any bombs near before we all stared up at the planes until suddenly the swish of bombs were heard and one and all made a dive for trenches and shelters! I remember someone landing on top of me as I lay flat in the shelter, while the ground trembled with the explosion of bombs within 20 yards! As usual the Japs had released all the bombs at the same time and had peppered the area around us. Their objective of course had been the oil tanks and sure enough they had hit one and it was on fire! Our Officer was very worried because it soon developed into a tremendous blaze and I remember him saying to me” Oh it will be out by tonight won’t it?”, but I knew how the tanks at Pembroke Dock had burned for a week or more and I informed him of this. Everyone thought the Japs would take advantage of the fire which illuminated the naval base and return that night, but they never did make a night raid.

Our Officers did not like the idea of staying there and the next day arranged another billet for Battery H.Q, Staff in an empty private house, within the Base, but near the Causeway, which joins the Island of Singapore to the mainland of Malaya. Often Walter and I would make out there was something wrong with the 15cwt truck and take it up the road for a trial, then we would get fruit, or go to the plantations after coconuts. We were learning odd words of the Malay language and really enjoyed this new experience. Everyone in turn, was allowed a day off to visit Singapore, but one couldn’t see very much in that time. One place I shall always remember was the Post Office because I was in there when the Japs made their daily visit and ducked under a desk while bombs fell in the sea across the road!

During the 14 days we had been in Singapore the Japs had been pushing their way down Malaya. At night the flashes of guns etc. could be seen in the sky and things were gradually getting worse until on 26th January we were ordered to prepare to move. On 27th we moved to the docks and boarded a small ship, guns and lorries were also loaded on this and other ships, in fact loading went on all day. I was sent to another dock on a motorcycle with a message and as I passed troops waiting to embark someone shouted to me! I turned and went back to see who it could be and that was Reggie Barnbrooke, a chap from Birmingham who had been a pal of mine when I was on a course in Bournemouth. He was with the 6th H.A.A. Regiment R.A. and had come out with the same convoy as myself.

The following day 28th January, we sailed from Singapore for the island of Sumatra, in a convoy of small coastal ships. As we reached the open sea three Jap planes flew low and dropped bombs but they all fell into the sea, however some ships had a near miss!

On 31st January we sailed up the river to Palembang on the east coast of Sumatra and landed at Pladjoe which was a little below the town. This was Dutch territory and we had been sent to defend the very large oil refinery there.

 

Next Chapter

Sumatra

 

 

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[Nevil Benham] [Empress of Japan] [Sumatra] [Java] [Capitulation] [Tandjong Priok] [Singapore] [Borneo] [Japanese Surrender] [Going Home]

 

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