Sketch by Jack Chalker




There we were assembled on the promenade deck in full highland dress uniform, the tropical sun beating down, the temperature in the high 80s. We quickly realised the need for our topees which gave protection to the head and neck. On the quayside stood army trucks, waiting to take us to the 2nd Battalion, Gordon Highlanders' barracks. These were situated at Selerang about 18 miles from the city centre. Having disembarked we boarded the trucks for the journey to Selerang barracks; through Changi village, past rickety open fronted shops, the clatter of the Chinese playing Mah Jong by the roadside, the smells of oriental cooking lingered in the heat of the day.

So, the intrepid conscripts at long last entered the road leading to the barracks, halting at the guardhouse, with which we were soon to be acquainted.

As we approached the parade ground, we saw five blocks of barracks two storey, with open verandas, all looking out on to the parade ground approximately 800 x 400 feet. This was daunting to us, complete "rookies", joining a regular battalion of time served soldiers. I was assigned to ‘D’ Company, others to 'A', 'B' or 'C.

So, we were ordered to the dining room, for our first meal with the 2nd Btn. The Gordon Highlanders at Selerang barracks, Singapore. The Colonel of the regiment then addressed us, reminding us of the traditions and the need to uphold the honour of the regiment. Talking of the dangers that abounded in Singapore, that V.D. was rife amongst the Chinese, Malays and Eurasians. Any solder who contracted the disease would be charged and severely dealt with.

He continued, "Tomorrow you will rest and draw equipment and clothing from the quartermaster's stores and familiarise yourselves with your surroundings".

Next day, after a sleepless night, we spent most of that day drawing equipment, clothing and rifle, a substantial 1907 one, and all of the new draft realised how much work we would need to put in, to bring the webbing, buttons and rifle, with accompanying bayonet, up to the standard of the regular soldiers, whose long experience in Singapore gave them the edge over us.

The following day was to be one you would never forget as we had to parade for inspection and extra drill by the R.S.M. Not one rifle or bayonet passed the inspection and when the drill commenced the horrors of the squad was something the grinning regulars took a great delight in, as they leaned over the balconies on all sides of the parade ground.

To say the R.S.M. did not swear was a goddam lie and for two solid hours, in the heat of the afternoon sun, we sweated. Our fatigues soaking, our feet red raw and hot, many of us had toes bleeding. We finally were dismissed and we returned to our Company's barrack room. Each day we had our own Company's drill and weapon training in the morning and after lunch joined up on the square to face the R.S.M. and his critical eye and bellowing voice, usually ending with "What arc you? Oh, get out of my sight. DISMISS". At the end of six weeks the conscripts were considered passable as solders. During this time Christmas Day was celebrated in traditional style, the officers serving the turkey, plum pudding and trimmings to the men. It was so unlike Christmas, as it was hot, the temperature up in the 90s. The dining room had been decorated with Christmas bunting and there was a cracker for each man.

So, now we are in the army, spit and polish the order of the evenings; the round of drill, manoeuvres, guard duties and physical training during the day. Each day between 1.00 and 3.00pm was siesta time and only those on punishment ("junkers") or us on extra drill were out in the sun. From the start I disagreed on this, as the enemy is unlikely to allow you time for a siesta. Hardly the training for jungle warfare, but the powers to be thought different. One's body gets accustomed to the habit of a daily routine. Most afternoons around 4.00pm my pals and I set out to walk to Robert's Barracks, the home of the R.A. as they had an open air swimming pool which they let us use. I enjoyed the exercise, swimming being something I was good at and soon found favour with the officer commanding 'D' Company. In the weeks following, 6.00am was to be the start of my day, across in the padang from the barracks, where this officer (still alive) and two of the conscripts, I being one, were put through training in athletics for the Battalion championships.

He produced a pair of spikes which I was familiar with and had used them many times back home. The other chap found them daunting and took some time to get used to them. This officer, whom I admired greatly, was an excellent runner, particularly over the 220 yard races. I was allotted the 440 and 880 yard, whilst the other chap was given the mile race. We all trained hard as we wanted the Company to do well. The long jump was taken by the officer, high jump allotted to me along with the other chap.

The day dawned for the Sports Day which commenced at 4.00pm and officers, their wives and children were all there, along with the Company support. Our officer won all his events, as anticipated, and we managed a win in the 440 and the mile, third in the 880 and a win in the high jump. Our 220 yard relay team was augmented by a fairly good runner and with the officer as anchor man we came in a creditable second. On that showing we lifted the cup for 1940. Strangely enough, at a recent re-union, this same officer said he predicted that Liz McColgan would be a world beater, as she used her legs to gain the maximum stride pattern.

One must remember that as conscripted privates, we received l/-d per day, less deductions, and when converted to Singapore dollars, it was impossible to leave the barracks to go into the city. One night in the mess room there was Tombola played and my pal and I used a dollar each and were lucky enough to win the "full house" amounting to a fortune of 100 dollars. The following night, having obtained passes, we travelled into Singapore by the "Piggy" bus with the natives, as it was much cheaper than a taxi. Guess what? We landed up at the "Happy World", a dance hall of some size with a very good floor and a live band. Sitting round the floor were the Chinese, Malay and Eurasian girls "taxi dancers", and to dance with them you had to buy books of tickets which, for each dance, the girl had to receive one ticket. As I had never experienced anything like this before, and having to pay for dances, I was bemused to say the least.

We ordered drinks and for some time watched the performance of the mainly service personnel with the taxi dancers. There was, of course, Chinese men and other nationalities there, but they seemed to drink and not dance. It did not, in those days, occur to me that they might be "minders".

So, the evening progressed and having weighed up the girls, we decided to venture on to the dance floor I gave this Chinese girl a ticket to dance a modern waltz, as I thought she might just be able to dance. Thankfully, she was a reasonable dancer and able to follow my leads.

One must remember that most of these girls, to earn a living, were prostitutes and went off with a man at the end of the night, having negotiated a price. There were the girls who let you know that dancing was only a prelude to later "goings on".

Whether the girl I first danced with enjoyed dancing with me I don't know, but on subsequent dances seemed happy just to dance and made no advances.

By this time, I had used up one book and bought another at one dollar a time. The band played a tango, "Jealousy", and I can never resist this music and decided to try and dance the tango with the Chinese girl. It was a creditable performance by her and I and quite enjoyable. It was a very difficult dance to try with a strange partner and we did do quite well.

I had taken the "bug" and by careful control of our winnings, endeavoured to return the following week on a Sunday. The "New World" dance hall was open on Sunday afternoon, again on the same principle as the "Happy World". Some of the girls from the "Happy World" were there, including the girl I had danced with the previous week. This was a spot of luck for me and the smile I got when I asked her for the dance was gratifying. These places were all air-conditioned which was essential in such a hot climate. Life, then, was beginning to be more bearable. The white people, rubber plant employees, or those working for the government, did not accept the force's personnel. On one occasion, as I was walking along the sidewalk, one of these chaps was coming towards me. As I passed he said "Hey, soldier, you should get off the sidewalk to let me past". I will not say what my reply was but it was not complimentary. We have lost so many colonies -why?

The days, the weeks, passed and the battalion was ordered up country to Port Dickson for jungle manoeuvres. During this sortie, unfortunately for me, I ran into a bush of red ants and got badly bitten and, believe me, it is a terrifying experience. We were all glad when this manoeuvre ended.

A few days after our return to barracks, I was summoned to the orderly room and was told by the officer in charge to proceed with all my kit and belongings to the guard room. I was being posted to the Garrison Adjutant's office at Fort Canning, overlooking the city of Singapore.


Next Chapter

Fort Canning



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