Preparing for Action
After a most uncomfortable night we were awakened by a bugle blasting out reveille, and jumping out of “kip”, shaving and dressing we lined up for our first meal since four o’clock the previous day, perhaps a forerunner of things to come.
The sun was overhead before breakfast was finished, and so were formations of twenty-seven Jap bombers in V formation, and they just jettisoned their loads indiscriminately after the leading plane gave a rat-a-tat-tat on his machine gun, and down they swished with a screaming eerie noise which frightened the life out of even the most brave.
In between the raids we unloaded our guns and ammunition and started cleaning, oiling and preparing for action. Final instructions were issued regarding the nature of the exercise and what little knowledge was known about the enemy was given to us, but really the only sure thing that was known was that they were small, yellow skinned, slant-eyed, and fanatical, but here we were without any jungle training whatsoever, going into action against an enemy, who had been training for years and who were actually fighting in an environment similar to their own, but which was absolutely foreign to us.
That first day on Singapore was a long frightening experience, and we were continually under air attack, however, the day came to an end, and we loaded the trucks and moved out of the area to another spot about halfway across the island, to a position where we would rendezvous for a further move into the front line.
The second day was worse than the first, and as we waited in a wood, bombs rained down on us and I witnessed the first devastating result of indiscriminate bombing.
A truck fully loaded with men from another regiment was in line with a stick of bombs, and suffered a direct hit with men and metal blasted to pieces, and flying in all directions. Anyone who has witnessed such a catastrophe will know how we felt, and the effect was one of extreme shock, but we were soldiers, and soon realised this was the name of the game.
In Civvy Street I would have fainted at the very sight of blood, but here I was with my mates rushing over to the area to render help to those torn bodies, and the injuries were such as I had never seen before. It was false courage I am sure, but believe me in situations like this, one gets beyond fear and something else takes over. I believe the saying “there are no brave men, there are only those who do not show fear as much as others.”
The wounded were laid out on the grass, and as we had to move on I do not know whether those poor unfortunate young men received the medical attention, which was needed.
Darkness fell for the second night and we were now all prepared to move up near the Naval base to taste OUR first experience of front line fighting. Actually that is not quite correct for many of our battalion, as they had tasted action in France, and had been evacuated from Dunkirk, with all the horrors that had had.
Nearing the Naval base was a hazard in itself, as a huge area of round oil-storage tanks was ranged by the Japs from across the Causeway with their mortars, and every now and then, they would plop a mortar bomb into a tank which would light up the area as bright as daylight. They kept on stoking it up and instead of moving in darkness we would be visible to the enemy as clear as footballers playing under floodlights.
The positions we were to take over were at the moment held by soldiers from the Leicestershire Regiment, and were sited on the water edge near the Causeway with the Japs a little more than four hundred yards away on the water edge at the other side, so you can imagine the precarious situation we were in, and really we were nervous wrecks.
The machine-gun nests were camouflaged and we were given strict instructions that we had to be careful not to do anything which would permit the enemy to locate these posts, as we were the element of surprise if they attempted invading the island.
Extreme care had to be taken to get into the nests and allow the Leicestershire lads to withdraw onto the island for a well-deserved rest as they had had a really rough time fighting all the way down Malaya.
The moment came when we had to crawl forward with guns, ammunition and kit for the take over, and we had about five hundred yards to go from the cover of our initial rendezvous.
Dressed in full kit and lumping all our gear, we slowly moved forward, lying flat on our bellies when the oil-stores were again ignited and lit up the place like daylight. Inch by inch we got closer until we came in sight of the first position, which had an opening at the rear for ingress and egress, and looking out towards us were four faces, grimy, frightened and tired faces, and hands were waving, beckoning us forward,
My first gun team was with me and I instructed them to lie down and not move until I came back for them. I then slithered along on my belly to the opening in the machine-gun nest to make direct contact, and to see if they wanted to tell me anything about the situation.
The lads from the Leicestershire’s were in a bad way, and the sergeant in charge in a very tired voice said “Thank the Lord you’ve come, let’s get out of this lot before the balloon goes up” to which I retorted “O.K. off you go and good luck, we will look after them now.”
The change over on that first nest took place without further incident and the men were given their instructions, and I told them I would have a relief for them before dawn. The pre-arranged system for this operation was that a team would man the position just after dusk and stay until just before dawn when they would be relieved by a team who would stay during the hours of daylight.
My other machine-gun team relieved further Leicestershire’s and we were safely in our positions with guns set up and ammunition stacked before midnight, and the relief teams and myself were bedded down inside an ammunition dump camouflaged as a green grassed hillock, about fifty yards behind the two machine gun positions.
During the whole operation shells screamed over our heads in both directions, Japs shelling the island and the British troops lobbing their shells on to Malaya, and we were underneath the lot. Whoom! Whoom! Whoom! And Bang! Bang! Bang! To the front of us and to the rear, it was non-stop and one could hardly hear oneself speaking.
What does one think about under these circumstances? My thoughts took me back home and wondered how my mother was standing up to the strain as my sister Jenny was in London, a manageress of a large hotel, brother Jim a sergeant-major in the Royal Artillery had already been wounded in action, brother Bill was in the submarines and brother Jack had already had a serious accident in the mines, and here I was in the Far East, and I had not been able to write home for a considerable time and things were to get worse before they got better, such is life.
Our positions were near the Naval base on the waters edge of the Causeway, and we were less than five hundred yards from the shores of Malaya which was now occupied by the Imperial Nip forces. The Causeway was a narrow strip of roadway linking the mainland from Singapore across a narrow stretch of water, and the Japs had to cross this to take the island, and here we were, without training and still having sea-legs, pitched in the front line to stop them, and my night shift was being initiated to the perils of night observation. The Causeway had been partially blown up, as a matter of fact in a very amateurish fashion, as only a few yards in the middle had been destroyed.
About three o'clock in the morning of our first night, I got up and visited my two machine-gun posts. The first I found in good spirits and quite ready for the invasion. We had to fire on fixed lines if the balloon went up, and after a half-hour checking vital instructions I was satisfied the lads were fully aware of the significant part we were expected to play.
It was awesome sitting in the nest, looking out to the enemy through the slits where the barrels of our guns were laid and ready for action, the waters rippled on the shore, and although we could hear the enemies vehicles revving and moving about we could not see them, and it was obvious they were building up ready for crossing the narrow stretch of water. We scanned the waters intently and it is quaint how imagination over-powers the body, and you keep asking for someone else to have a look through the binoculars, as you think you have seen something important.
The second position was equally alive to the situation, and I was quite happy the lads would give a good account of themselves when the Nips decided to come within our gun-sights.
I returned to my base for a little more shut-eye before I posted my day-shift, who naturally would have more to see than the night-shift.
Just before dawn the relief teams were awakened and made ready for their baptism of front line observation.
The change-over went off under what can only be described as hell let loose, as thousands of shells speeding both ways just above our heads, and the torchlight of burning oil in the tank, made us that bit more cautious in getting to the posts unobserved, and then getting the lads coming off duty to the base in the ammunition dump. It was accomplished without any actual shooting in our direction.
Dawn spread out over Singapore like a dimmer switch on the electric system at home, and as daylight broke into sun-light we just could not believe our ruddy eyes, as there in the sky across the water, and in a position which appeared nearly over the top of us, was a ruddy barrage balloon with a basket slung underneath with two Nips standing inside observing the island. What a bloody cheek, but we had no aircraft, and our heavy guns were we believed too far back for accurate firing of this nature. I am quite sure our Vickers guns could have hit it, but we were given strict instructions to do nothing which would give the enemy our positions, as we were supposed to be the element of surprise, to blast the Japs when they invaded, or rather were on the waters in front of us and hoping to invade.
This situation seemed laughable to us after the first day-break, as observing from my base, the machine-gun nests stood out like a sore thumb, as the beautiful green grass along the waters edge was suddenly broken by two areas of dry grass or shrubbery, which were our two nests, and one of the lads said the Japs must not only be bloody stupid but bloody blind also if they couldn’t pick out our positions.
Nevertheless they must have been stupid and blind too, as we had no enemy fire on our positions whilst we were there.
The first full day saw formation after formation of those twenty-seven enemy planes flying in a V roaring over our heads, and my sympathy lay with those on other parts of the island who were the recipients of the pay-loads, as we could hear the Crunch! Crunch! as the bombs hit the ground. We actually saw Japanese soldiers on the other side of the water stripped to their buff washing themselves, and here we were with the best small arms guns in the world, not able to use them in case we gave our position away.
This was our third day on the island and strange as it may seem we had no other thoughts in our minds other than we would beat the enemy! But we had no idea really of the problems as a whole, however, we were the Fighting Fifth, and we had so many battles to emulate: and win we would sir!
The day drew to a close and the night-shift were made ready to go on duty as soon as darkness enveloped the scene, except of course, for that infernal oil-tank which the Japs kept continually stoked up, and which lit the place up as good as daylight.
Something was happening tonight. The positions signalled me to go forward, and when I got into No. 2 gun position they told me noises from the enemy side indicated they were loading craft, and motor vehicle traffic over there was very heavy. Within a few minutes, silently and moving fairly quickly, there came into view two craft sailing across our positions, and orders were given to get ready to open fire, but just as we were about to fire, lights flashed from the two craft and luckily they were not shot at. They were two of our own patrol ships investigating the situation, but we had not been informed we had any such patrols, and caution on our behalf saved them from a very nasty situation.
Although we were in the front line the cookhouse was marvellous, and each night about midnight, hay-boxes with hot food was delivered quietly to our position in the ammunition dump, and then a man from each nest came back and collected their share. During the day we had to make do with hard-tack, which for those who do not know the meaning is biscuits and bully-beef or similar.
Well we were now on our toes and waiting for the expected, however, it didn't happen that night, and after the patrol boat episode, little to excite had happened.
The fourth day came with the repeat performance of those cheeky monkeys in the barrage balloon, there they were as large as life observing the situation, and here we were again creating merry hell that we couldn’t have a go.
During the previous night Leiut. Ward had made his usual visit, and he emphasised the need to keep ourselves under cover, as our area was a probable landing area, and the element of surprise could mean the difference between success or failure in repelling the enemy.
The day was also a repeat of the previous day, but if anything a bit more intense, and it was obvious the Japs were trying to soften us up for the invasion.
They pounded the island and it was noticeable more and more bombs were being dropped nearer and nearer to us, which was a sign that they intended, as Lieut. Ward had said, to have a go somewhere near us.
The dusk was taking over once again, and we were slowly getting used to the routine, night-shift, day-shift, bombings, barrage balloon, hard-tack, snatches of sleep, caution and cheeky bloody Japs washing their bodies and clothes at the other side of the water.
Fifth column was at work in our vicinity, and what at first appeared to be small arms fire, either rifles or bren, away behind us, I think trying to make us think the Japs had landed and were in action, turned out to be the old Chinese fire-cracker which we were to hear quite often in the next few days.
It was all building up to the invasion, and the Japs not only raised the pace with their shelling, but small arms fire was now blazing across the water in all directions, but still we kept a low profile as we were to catch them when they approached our shores, and at the moment it was all rather long-range stuff.
The din to our left as we faced the enemy was becoming louder and louder, and at that moment it was quite apparent that tonight was the night, and true enough the Japs had come in to attack we understood the Australian positions, and had broken through.
Whether it was true or not we received instructions to withdraw as the enemy had quickly formed a bridgehead, and were pushing along the coast and would encircle us in a very short time. We doubted the wisdom of this move as we had made no contact with the Japs, and we had a very strong fire-power, and would it was felt sure, give a good account of ourselves, but we were informed trucks were waiting a hundred yards back ready to move us back to new positions, to take on the Japs from a frontal location.
What difference it makes in action taking on the enemy from side, rear or front, we could not comprehend, but we were under orders to withdraw without firing a shot.
Fire-crackers were going off right, left and centre, and at first we thought we were actually surrounded, however, having loaded our equipment on to the trucks, and moved back about three miles, we hadn't seen a Jap, and quickly realised the confusion was created by the notorious Fifth column.
By dawn we had dug in to new positions, and were waiting ready for the enemy advancing. Our new position was on a downward slope facing the expected route of the Japs, and when dawn broke on the sixth day we had a view for about a mile in front of us. The vista showed a flattish valley with a road running along a wood to our left and disappearing in a left turn into the wood. On the right was other woodland ending about five hundred yards from our position, with green grassland forming the landscape in the centre.
One gun had fixed lines on the position where the road disappeared into the wood, and the other gun took in the right-hand side area where the grassland met the woodland. I was rendezvoused in a dug-out in the front garden of a building which appeared something like a week-end cottage for a European business man, and with me was the Platoon Commander, Sergeant, and batman by the name of Gardiner.
The day began as usual with those blasted twenty-seven aeroplanes making their routine indiscriminating bombing raids, but now we were to taste some of their action, and before we could finish our hard-tack breakfast we felt the force of one formation, which again jettisoned their load very, very near to our positions, and the Japs mortars had us in their range also, it was hell let loose.
We had an extremely uncomfortable morning and now understood to the full what it was like to be in action. About midday, and for the first time, Jap planes did low level runs over the island, and one did a reconnaissance over our position. He flew very slowly and was no more than fifty feet high when he went over our heads and we could see the pilot quite plainly.
We saw there were no bombs on board as there was no open bomb hatch nor was there any bombs slung underneath and as he got within about twenty or thirty yards of us, we opened fire, I had a go with my Tommy gun and others did the same with rifles, and the Platoon Commander even had a go with his .38 revolver. Several shots went into the belly of the plane, but he just flew on as though he was on a Sunday afternoon stroll. We anticipated he would be in radio contact with their gunners, and within a very short time we were blasted with mortar fire, and we had to keep our heads down for nearly an hour as shells burst in close proximity to our dug-outs. Action against aeroplanes is not nearly as nerve-racking as being shelled, because you can see what is happening in an air-raid, but the shelling is from somewhere out of sight and invariably they alter their range forward, backward and sideways, to cover a large area, hoping if one misses another may hit the target. However, don’t imagine for one moment that being in an air-raid is some kind of sport.
The lush vegetation, the beautiful green trees and shrubbery were quickly disappearing as bombs and shells rained down in our area continually. What is continually? Well, it is from daylight to dark without respite. Each and every minute we were on our toes looking to the sky, then looking forward, looking to both sides, and at times even backwards, and all the time being harassed by one form or another of the destructive powers of the enemy.
The infantry regiments were operating in the woodland in front of us, and appeared to be in contact with the Japs as quite a din was coming from that direction, but as the Japs were masters at infiltration we kept a close look-out in all directions. These regiments were part of the 18th Division, and had landed on Singapore at the same time as ourselves, and they too had no training for jungle warfare, and it soon started to show, as they trickled back through our lines unorganised and out of control. By nightfall the majority of the infantry had pulled back behind our positions, and the situation looked a bit like Fred Carno’s.
Darkness fell but was supplemented by a half-moon-light, which was sufficient for us to see a hundred yards or so without difficulty, and we waited.
Lieut. Ward and his batman visited the positions, and after explaining to him about the infantry being in disorder, with more of them behind us than in front, he ordered me to go forward and try to make contact with the infantry that were up front, and find out the score so far as could be ascertained.
The worst part of being in action is sitting in a fixed position in the, semi dark waiting for something to happen, and I felt, strange to say, slight relief to be able to reconnoitre our friends up front. Taking two of the men with me we moved off. Lance-Corporal Eagleton with revolver and grenades, Fusilier Webster with rifle and grenades, and myself with Tommy-gun and grenades.
Action was heavy with shelling and automatic small arms harassing us and we had to duck on several occasions as shells landed near, but we kept moving along the verge of the highway which had a deep malarial drain at the side, and the woodland came right up to the side of the drain, it is a frightening experience patrolling in such situations, and you begin to imagine all sorts of things are happening, and they did!
A shrub of some description was growing in the verge and we had to move around it, and as we did, I grabbed my two comrades because sitting in the malarial drain immediately in front of us, and not more than ten yards away, were four Japs with rifles at rest and pointing skywards.
The heart was willing but the flesh was weak and our legs turned to jelly, not knowing exactly what to do when we did at last come face to face with the enemy. I am sure my mind lost contact with my legs, and my body turned to move backwards but my feet were still facing the way we were going at the moment we met the Japs.
The Japs faces turned to us and it appeared they were as surprised as we were, and in those very few seconds they did not move either. Neither they nor us were at that precise moment ready to open fire, as we had our safety catches on, and the grenades were in our pouches, and they were in a sitting position with their rifles pointing in the air.
What happened could only have happened in a comic opera, as simultaneous, we three dived over the malarial drain and through the hedge, and the Japs jumped out of the drain and fled back across the road and made off. As soon as we got behind cover we blazed our guns in their direction, but whether we hit any of them there was no knowing. End of that action!
Gathering ourselves together we moved slowly and very carefully along the road but keeping cover in the wood. Phew! Our hearts were beating like drums and we got about a couple of hundred yards further on and sat down to replenish our nervous systems,
We suddenly realised that the Japs had pushed through the forward infantry and once again the machine gunners were in the front line, what sort of war is this?
Re-tracing our tracks we made back to our guns, and after warning our gunners to expect action soon, I made my way to the platoon headquarters to report to Lieut. Ward, but he wasn't there, and I was informed he had gone on patrol to other gun emplacements.
Sad to relate I never saw Lieut. Ward again, as he, I understood did not return from that patrol, neither did his batman.
The situation was serious and some one at high level had to be informed, therefore I took it upon myself to find Company H.Q., and report. Winding my way through woodland and scrub I went off in the direction I thought H.Q. was situated, maybe half a mile to the rear of us. Imagine my predicament not knowing precisely where H.Q. was, the darkness, the shelling and noise, nearly a nervous wreck, and the possibility I may get shot by one of our own men, but having information which I considered H.Q. should know about.
I was challenged by a patrol and fortunately one of them, Dougy Nockels knew where H.Q. was located, and he took me there. They were in a dugout and the first to greet me was Sergeant-Major Jimmy Wood, as I spelt out the situation H.Q. came under heavy mortar fire and everyone had to keep their heads down, as some were very near and the ground shook.
Having delivered the message, and as there was a lull in the shelling, I made back to my platoon H.Q. to find it completely deserted, so I returned to my machine-gun positions, and informed the men of the situation and again we waited.
A message was received by a runner just before dawn to withdraw, and we were led to a rendezvous with Sergeant George Bailey, who gave fresh orders regarding our new positions which were about four hundred yards from where we were standing, but to get to them we had to cross an area of open land on which two roods crossed, and such was the speed of the Jap advance they had the cross-roads covered on fixed lines with machine guns, and they were extremely accurate. Anyone crossing in an upright position was mown down. This area was extremely congested at that moment and troops from practically every regiment were converged, and in utter dis-array.
It appeared everyone wanted to go in the direction we were moving, and there were a lot of casualties, however, we started off crawling across and after what appeared an eternity, we at last slithered to safety into a malarial drain at the other side of the crossroads.
Crawling along the drain we came upon a lad from the Royal Artillery, who had one of the worst leg wounds I have ever seen, and his arm had been hit, and his face was covered in blood.
In the heat of battle what does one do in a situation like this. Out of range of the fixed line the Japs had laid, was an old building and two of the lads nipped in and smashed off a door, while others took out field dressings, and tried to bandage the wounds, but when we touched the leg, I nearly vomited as the shin bone had been severed at the knee joint, and the skin over the shin had been shattered. The shinbone was rolled like a scroll just above his boot, and my attempt to bandage or splinter brought the agonising appeal to leave it alone. Fortunately the R.A.M.C. had men in the field, and in that spot, and two came to our rescue and carted that unfortunate lad away on the door as a stretcher, and above the din of shells bursting, and the rat-tat-tat-tat of small arms fire, we heard the screams of that lad away in the distance.
We dug into our new positions in the nick of time before dawn broke, and with plenty ammunition we were ready for the advance of the enemy.
There was no respite, and the Japs continued with their mortar barrages, and they appeared to be indiscriminately shooting off with small arms. We were at the front of a small copse and the Japs traversed up and down that woodland narrowly missing our positions. Hell! Hell! Hell!
One may wonder about two things as they read this account, the first being the lack of information regarding eating and drinking, well, there was nothing organised now, and we were literally living off the land, and as a matter of fact, I could not remember the last time we had a drink of tea or even water, but I can recall we were extremely thirsty, when one of my men carted a crate into the machine-gun nest, and upon opening it found it was gin, and I remember taking a long, long swig at it, and the result was worse than being thirsty, as my tongue stuck to my upper and lower parts of my mouth, and for minutes I was unable to speak. Others were the same.
The second point, which is possibly noticeable by its absence, is so little reference to senior N.C.O.’s and Officers. Well, the plain truth is we rarely saw either, and when Lieut. Ward went missing we were virtually on our own, as no other officer took over.
The Japs were using techniques foreign to us rookies, and one was infiltration by means of dressing up as ‘wogs’ as the natives were called, and we were unable to differentiate between the real and the fake, so instructions were given to fire on anyone suspected as enemy, and I remember one such crowd getting the content of a full belt of 303 and diving back the way they had come, that is those who survived our burst of machine gun fire.
We held this position to the end, and as I mentioned previously we were in the front stalls to witness the white flag being hoisted and carried forward to the enemy lines, to our utter and profound amazement. The battle had been hard, and food and drink non-existent for the last few days, and in hind-sight, what could Army Command have done other than capitulate or allow all of us to be killed as the Japs had all the trump cards as we had no planes, no navy and the army was in a sorry state.
The British troops on the island of Singapore after the first three days of action were in sheer and unadulterated confusion, and troops had been pulling back through the lines without orders as soon as they made contact with the enemy, and this happened on our last day, Sunday, the 15th February, 1942, and we were left high and dry with the enemy literally only yards away from the barrels of our guns.
So this was the end of the first instalment, and as orders came through to lay down our arms at 4.00 p.m. on that Sunday afternoon we were in a state of utter exhaustion and panic took over as we thought the Japs did not take prisoners.
I can well remember Ray Rutherford turning to me and saying "Well Tom, this is it, we came a long way in a long time, was our journey really worth it?"
Quiet is a strange phenomena, but here we were at last sitting in solitude somewhere on Singapore, with not a sound to be heard, its a strange world we live in, one moment it is bedlam and the next a quiet we hardly believed we would ever hear again.