Sketch by Jack Chalker

Sumatra

Gun positions were set up and I went to Battery H. Q. in a private house or bungalow as they are in those parts. Transport had been brought with us, but these were not allowed to be used until a special attachment had been fitted to the exhaust pipe. The Dutch supplied us with a ‘tool car’ similar to the A40 trucks we have today, only this was a Ford V8. After a few days our lorry was sent to have the exhaust pipe fixed.

It was paradise in Sumatra, very little for me to do, and during the evening we would visit the Dutch Club where you could see a picture show whilst a native waited on you with iced beer or you could sit on the veranda and chat and have a drink. It was simply grand and we had many enjoyable nights there.

During this time a ship which had been bombed came up the river and was beached on the opposite bank near us, lying on her side. Many of the chaps had been across in boats (a trip) and had brought back a load of things from foodstuffs to ornaments and cutlery. I had been on one trip and on the morning of Saturday 14th February I was standing on the river bank with some others preparing to make another trip. The sound of planes could be heard in the distance then someone said “What are those white blobs?” We were not long in realising that they were parachutes and that the Japs were attacking an aerodrome on the other side of Palembang where another part of our regiment were in gun positions. Within a few minutes planes were heard coming in our direction and we immediately started running for our H.Q. a short distance away! Quicker than it takes to tell they were all over us and we could see the paratroopers sailing down on the refinery half a mile away! A heavy A.A. gun just up the road opened up on the planes, but they were too low and very soon gone. The only arms I had been issued with was a revolver and it didn’t take me long to get it! Our Officers were not at H.Q, but had gone to visit gun positions and the captain of the H.A.A. Regt. ordered all to fall in under him. As luck happened I was the only N.C.O. in the party at the time and he detailed me with a couple of men to form a road block and prevent any Jap troops making their way along the road to Palembang. The rest of the men he took on a lorry onto the refinery after the Japs. They couldn’t have been more than a dozen but this didn’t worry him. Wilf was among them and I know from him that they had a warm time because the Japs had landed on top of the oil tanks and were covering many of the roads. Out of that bunch, the Officer, Capt. Sheridan did not return and another fellow was badly wounded and died. All of our chaps came back, one of them having had a bullet go right through the thick of his arm below the elbow.

Walter was at a gun position inside the refinery with our Officer when the paratroopers came down. He came out by a circular route and saw a Jap chase a native. I think someone in the back of the truck fire at the Jap but they had no other trouble.

Shortly after taking up position at the road block we were blessed by the sight of a lorry full of rifles and ammunition. All had a few extra slings of ammo and I took a rifle, which I thought would be of more use than the revolver, which I had never fired. Then the cars started to come from the direction of the refinery, all Dutch employees who lived in bungalows just outside. They came down the road at terrific speeds and we had to level a rifle at them before they would pull up. At the same time natives were crowding the roads making their way to Palembang and away from the refinery.

This continued for a time until our Officer, who had now returned, told me that we would now require the lorry which was being fitted with a new exhaust in a workshop in the refinery and that I would have to go for it! Walter was ordered to take me down in his truck and I must admit that my heart was a long way down or out of place at any rate. We set off, not knowing exactly where to find the lorry. Dutch native troops were in position in the hedges just outside the refinery while we drove into ‘the lion’s den’! We turned into the main gates of the refinery expecting to see a Jap but by an act of providence there was the lorry at the side of the road. I jumped out quickly and before Walter could turn round, had started it and then followed him back to H.Q. I handed this lorry over to one of our drivers and, seeing a truck of the same type as Walter’s drawn into a native’s hut, I went to investigate and commandeered it.

Day became night and we were all concerned about one of our gun teams in a position on the other side of the refinery which could only be approached by going through the place. From the reports of the men mentioned in the first paragraph it was suicide to go in without an armoured vehicle of some kind. Even on active service there were only about three rifles between a gun crew of about eight and they could not therefore put up any resistance. It was late at night when a Dutch Armoured vehicle came down from Palembang and a party went in to look for our chaps. They drove right to the gun position but there was no sign of them. We learned later when we returned to Singapore as prisoners that they had retreated into the jungle and were later taken prisoner.

During the night some of the chaps raided a Dutch shop near our road block, the occupants having long gone. Walt was one of them and he helped himself to two bottles from the wine stand. An amusing incident regarding one of these follows during our train journey.

Before dawn news came that we were to move, fires were burning in the direction of the refinery and we learned that the place was being set on fire to prevent the Japs making use of it. Troops had come down from Palembang and there was much activity all round. Walt and I put a few things in our trucks ready for the move, taking great care that our kit bags were not left behind.

Rumours were plentiful, some saying that the Japs were a long way up the river and not far from our position. Our officer was gathering his things together and was very worried about the things he would have to leave behind. As a result of the stories we had heard all were anxious to get moving but the Officer still dallied and the morning was now passing. At the bottom of the road where we were waiting was the river and that had a jetty for landing purposes. Suddenly we heard a tremendous crash and looking around we saw a ship crash into this jetty. Soldiers standing on the bank started to run and everyone took it for granted that this was the Japs landing! There was a shout to our officer who dashed out and we all made for our trucks. The engines were soon racing and without another look we were on our way. We had many laughs afterwards at the speed of our departure.

We made our way along the winding road to Palembang then turned left over a humped railway bridge and there, at the side of the road was a Heavy A.A. Gun, barrel horizontal, ready to blast any Japs who might cut off our retreat.

Jap planes were overhead by now and since the country was rather open just there we had to take cover under hedges. The roads were congested with troops converging from the aerodrome and refinery, making for another aerodrome which had recently been constructed, of which the Japs were apparently not aware. Lorries that did move in the open were bombed and it was some time before all was clear for us to get along.

In the meantime the Dutch had continued setting fire to the refinery and the smoke rising into the air made it quite dusk. I later read in a paper in Java that this fire affected the weather conditions over a very wide area.

We eventually reached the ‘drome and had a long awaited meal. Since we were leaving the stores were being distributed and it was a big feast. Spare tins were stored in haversacks and store sheds set on fire.

As I stated earlier, many of the men did not even have a rifle and all unarmed were ordered to fall in and start marching to the railway station. I can’t say how far it was but it was a considerable distance. As these marched away several men were seen in the ranks who were known to have been armed a short while before and rifles were afterwards found hidden behind bushes and various other places.

Later those who were armed marched away and it was dark when Walt and I set off in our trucks. We eventually reached the railway and it was a shock to me when I was ordered to return to the aerodrome to collect R.A.F. personnel who had no transport. Walt and a Scotch chap ‘Jock’, who also had trucks, were ordered back also. Walt didn’t have lights on his truck so we arranged that Jock should be last then Walter could drive in his lights with me leading the way. It appears that Jock passed Walt and when we arrived at the drome he was not to be seen. After a few minutes a small light could be seen coming along the road and that was Walt holding a torch through the door and driving slowly. We did find a few R.A.F. chaps but they were leaving by plane the next morning so we had to return empty to the station.

Now some had made for the coast by road, while other had gone by rail and since we still had a 50 gallon drum of petrol on one of the trucks we decided to go by road and set off in the same order as before. I was leading followed by Walt, still with no lights, and then Jock. We had very little idea of the roads we were taking and after a while I could see that the surface of the road was getting very bad. Being in a hurry I had been stepping on the gas without any thought for those following, but suddenly I came up against a dead end, I had taken a wrong turning. I jumped out only to find that Jock was immediately behind me and once again the question arose, where was Walt? There was nothing to do but turn back, and after going a little way came upon Walt standing in the middle of the road.

Walt had ‘come to grief’ on account of my driving too fast. He had struck the verge and gone straight into the thick growth from which it was impossible for us to get the truck. In the back he had a motor cycle and we did our best to put that and the truck out of action before leaving them. It didn’t take long for us to realise that we were undertaking a very difficult task trying to reach the coast by road and at night, so we retraced our way to the railway and got aboard a train.

These trains are nothing like ours in this country. One should imagine the shell of a railway coach with a wooden bench running along each side and another down the centre. At each end there is a small platform with steps by which means you enter the carriage.

I still had my kit bag and with this for a pillow I stretched out on the middle bench and was soon asleep. It was well on in the morning before I woke because it was getting warm. We did have some army biscuits but no drink, with the exception of the bottle that Walt had taken from the store outside Palembang. This was eagerly opened because we were under the impression that it was wine, but we couldn’t be sure because the label was in Dutch and Malay. Out came the cork but the first swig was the last because it was a bottle of Olive Oil!

We continued our train journey all day and it was well on in the afternoon of Monday 16th February 1942 that we reached the coast. I have no idea of the name of the place; we were only too pleased to reach it. A small coastal boat was tied up in the dock with troops already on board and it was getting dark when we went on board ourselves. There was some food available, if you chose to scramble in the usual army fashion, but we made do with a cup of tea, and still being tired after our journey, stretched out on the deck just as the ship set sail.

 

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Java

 

 

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