Sketch by Jack Chalker

Calcutta to Singapore

Calcutta to Singapore

It was in 1937 that I joined the army. Your mum was holding your sister Anne when I left them in Lucknow. I can still recall Mum holding Anne in her arms. There were no tears, we were just grateful that I was able to get into the Royal Signals and things were looking brighter. Anyway, I arrived in Meerut in May 1938 and I joined a party of about five recruits. We were housed in a great big barrack block, in which ‘punkhas’ swung day and night. The ‘punkha’ is a fan, nothing like the circular fans with blades one sees in films about the east, but mats, similar to praying mats, hung from the roof on long wires with an electrical motor centrally installed that pulled these mats in a pendular motion. Before these garrison towns got electricity, small boys used to sit outside on the veranda, pulling ropes that swung the ‘punkhas’. The amazing thing was that the ‘punkhas’ were only five feet from the floor and would hit you on the head if you went near your bed. We son adapted and got into the rhythm of the thing and were weaving and ducking like boxers by the second day of our stay in Meerut. The ‘punkhas’ also groaned and squeaked all day and all night but didn’t keep me awake. We were not allowed to speak to the soldiers who were ‘sworn in’, I never fathomed out why, but I suppose they might have dissuaded us from joining. Three of the five boys disappeared and only Terence Ross and I were enlisted. We were sent to the Royal Signals Depot in Jubblepore where we joined another twelve recruits and sent up to the Ridge where the Leicestershire Regiment trained us for the next four months. We were pretty fit when we left and returned to the Depot. The mess room tables had white enamel tops and it was an awful din during meal times, but when the twelve of us marched in for lunch, you could have heard a pin drop when about a hundred pairs of eyes followed us the whole of the mess room. It was my first taste of snobbery. These soldiers were snobs, as they had a ‘drag’ hunt. Instead of chasing a fox, they chased a lamb’s skin for miles over barren countryside and talked about ‘hounds giving tongue’ and walked around in long boots all day. We stayed about a fortnight and were drilled everyday by a Corporal called Dunlop who swore at us, but after our basic training with the Leicester’s, Dunlop was only chicken feed. He hated us as we had planned to regard him with disdain, he tried to get me to run over the horizon and went mad when I disappeared down the road. I met him after the war and he couldn’t have been nicer, although he was a Major and I was just a Lance Corporal. Our next move was to Karachi via Bombay on a troop ship. In Karachi we were trained to be Signallers. It was a great life. In those days, Thursday was a holiday for the Army. So, we worked Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday. Thursday was off, Friday way pay-day, Saturday half day and Sunday off, although we went on Church parade.

I went home twice to see Mum and Anne, travelling the thousand miles by intermediate class on the railway. Intermediate class is the one between second and third class, but still had wooden seats. I couldn’t afford second class and first class was out of the question. In August 1939 we embarked for ‘somewhere in the east’ this time by troop train which I think was more uncomfortable than intermediate class. On the third day, we arrive in Howrah, the railway station in my home town of Calcutta and we had to march across the Howrah Bridge to Fort William. The bridge was still a pontoon affair although the new bridge was under construction. What memories this brought back. I was cycling across the bridge when I was an apprentice at Burn and Company and riding on the trams when I worked for the advertising firm only five years before. In the evening I went to see my Uncle, Gerald Hart and his family. I wasn’t recognised at first because I was in uniform. Uncle Gerald was quite ill but sat up in bed and got very excited. He was going to fight the war against Hitler single handed. He died shortly after this. After staying in Fort William a couple of days, we embarked for Singapore on a converted troopship, converted from a trampship. It was the before the days of the cafeteria, we had mess decks, twelve to a mess and took it in turns to collect the food. Most of our mess were sea sick and didn’t appear for meals so we ate the lot. When they did start appearing on the fifth or sixth day, they all got filthy looks as if they were not entitled to their rations. We slept in hammocks. This got some getting used to, but we soon adapted. It was a bit tiresome having to roll them up every morning for ships inspection and there were the usual pranks of undoing the ropes and the men falling out. We were on the high seas when war was declared against Germany and it took ten days from Calcutta to Singapore as we were zigzagging to avoid submarines. When we approached Singapore, I remember being struck by the greenness of everything. A huge expanse of green relieved only by the white of houses on the hillsides. Mum and Anne joined be at the beginning of 1940 and we lived out at Changi at the top of a hill where we could see the sea right out to the horizon. It was marvellous to get up in the morning and see the sun rising over the sea. I was now the wireless operator on the ‘TS Anderson’, a small launch that pulled targets for the guns to fire at. I used to have to get up very early in the morning and board the ‘Anderson’ who had to be in place by daylight, when the 15-inch guns were firing, we had to be over the horizon as the guns had a range of over 35 miles. No such thing as voice those days, everything was done in Morse code on a Morse key. I was told when to start winching in the targets, the theory was that by doing this we would increase the speed of the targets. In practice all that happened was that the boat stood still, and the targets moved at the speed of the winch. I then signalled the shots on a grid system. As the targets were costly, the batteries of guns were not supposed to hit them, just straddle them, but every now and again the would break them up and everything would be called off and we would start the long voyage home. Twice or thrice the shooting was so bad that I was drenched in the wireless cabin from the splash of the shells in the water. I had to go out at night on a fast launch for searchlight practice and even took Mum and Anne with me. The launch crews were all Malays and we would stop near a fishing ‘pagar’ which was manned by Chinese and the Malays would climb aboard the ‘pagar’ and raid the place bringing back huge fish. But all good things had to come to an end. Your sister Anne was in hospital awaiting an operation when Singapore was bombed. Mum was staying at the Farrers on East Coast Road to be near her. The city was in chaos, the transport system just fell to bits and somehow Mum go to the hospital and brought Anne out. They were not going to operate on her as all the beds were wanted for the wounded. They got back to Changi, I think the Farrers sent them back in one of their cars, to ‘Z’ Block where we used to live. When the planes were retreating they had one bomb left which they dropped on Changi, a couple of blocks away from our block. It didn’t explode and just made a hole in the building. No one was hurt.

Next Chapter

Japanese Invasion


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