Sketch by Jack Chalker

Japanese Invasion

Japanese Invasion

The Japanese invaded Malaya in the north and the army families were evacuated from Penang. Mary Bradley and her kids came and stayed with us. In the meantime, we were formed into 2nd Malayan Brigade with the 2nd Battalion The Gordon Highlanders Regiment. We had our headquarters about 2 miles down the road. The Japanese were advancing down Malaya rapidly and Shenton Thomas the Governor, said in a speech on the radio that there would be no evacuation of service families. The radio had adopted the signature of ‘Keep the home fires burning’ and played it incessantly. The same day that Shenton Thomas made his speech all the married men were sent for very secretly and asked where they would like their wives to go, England, India or Australia. Of course, I chose India and we were given a short time, I think twenty-four hours, to get ready. I was not allowed down the docks and had to say goodbye to Mum and Anne as they boarded the coach. Mum and I were having a tiff and I said something like ‘here you are fighting with me and you don’t know when you will see me again’ and she replied. ‘you’ll come back’. It’s funny how those three words kept me going three and a half years. I found out later why I was not allowed down to the docks. A group of Aussies had gone down to the docks and had hijacked a ship that was evacuating families the day before so none of the married men were allowed anywhere near the ships.

I moved out of the house and into the barrack block with the single men. This block was facing Pulau Ubin, an island to the east of the Changi where we had spent many a happy weekend in the Farrers bungalow which had its own beach and orchard of luscious tropical fruit. The next bungalow belonged to a rubber planter and had a rather long beach, it was on this beach that the Japanese started building boars to cross over to Changi. Our guns soon destroyed these boats, but they were soon built again by morning.

The Gordons sent out a patrol at night but found nothing. Japanese planes started strafing our barrack blocks and we spent most of our time in the slit trenches and after about a week of this, we withdrew to an ‘atap’ camp in a rubber plantation. It was while we were in the ‘atap’ camp, ‘atap’ are roofs made of coconut leaf thatch, that the Brigadier decided that as the Japanese were supposed to have occupied Changi we would withdraw right into Singapore and a recce partly consisting of an officer and sergeant from the Manchester Regiment, Lance Corporal Prime and a gunner went out to find a new Headquarters. After looking at a couple of houses, the Officer decided on the ‘White Horse Hotel’ in Bencoolen Street. I can’t remember whether it was ‘White House’ or White Horse’. Bencoolen Street is in the heart of the red light district and this hotel was five or six stories high. The owners refused to get out and after a telephone call to Government House we reached a compromise in which the owner and his family were allowed to stay in the top story. When that was agreed, the officer said he was going back to camp to get them ready for the move down to the hotel. ‘You three clear the hotel by five o’clock’. It was now midday and I thought it was impossible but the sergeant from the Manchester Regiment saw no difficulty. ‘We’ll start on the floor below the owners flat and work downwards’. It was comparatively easy until we hit the third floor.  All the rooms were occupied by prostitutes or by prostitutes and their clients, mostly Aussie soldiers. On the third floor we encountered a young drunk Aussie with a tommy gun and he wouldn’t leave. We got him out of the room, but he took his gun with him and ran upstairs. We heard a couple of bursts as he was firing into the doors of the empty rooms on the floors upstairs. The Manchester sergeant was up to it and he detailed me to go up the main staircase while he went up the spiral staircase at the back. The gunner was to stay at the main entrance. I have never been so frightened in all my life, crouching behind the bannisters taking as much cover as I could, with one round in the breach of my old .303 rifle with the safety catch off. I look at the bolt of the rifle and thought ‘clean, bright and slightly oiled’ words that had been drummed into me when I was a recruit. The bolt was none of these things now. Anyway, the firing continued on the floors above and I found the Aussie was shooting the locks on the doors off. Never understood why as the they were all open. The firing ceased eventually. He must have emptied the gun and he ran down the owner’s staircase, which we didn’t know anything about, into the arms of a couple of military policemen. The firing had emptied the rest of the hotel, so we had the place to ourselves when the Headquarters arrived, late as usual. I had chosen the main lounge for the signals office with the counter clerks seated behind the bar. The refrigerators were all well stocked, but the water was cut off and drinking pure orange juice seemed to make me thirstier. That night we put our bedding down on to the floor and started preparing for the night, when I noticed a fellow who was sleeping at right angles to me, had his .38 revolver lying on his blanket at right angles to where my head was going to rest. I remember I was loosening my belt and I said to this chap to be careful as he might roll over in the night and the thing might go off. He was a dispatch rider in the Artillery, and he said, pointing the revolver at me, ‘this thing will never go off as I have it on the empty chamber’. I was motioning him to put the damn thing down and he pulled the trigger. A flame about six inches long spurted out of the barrel and the shot went between my legs knee high, ricocheted around the room in which there must have been forty men and never hit anyone. A piece of masonry chipped one man on the wrist. I was speechless for about a minute, while another chap disarmed this idiot who blamed the army for not teaching him to use the gun before giving it to him. He rode around unarmed for the rest of the war.

It was while we were in the White House Hotel that work got around that the ‘specialists’ were to be evacuated and I and Quentin Clayton were among those chosen as ‘specialists’. A couple of destroyers were lying off Keppell Harbour, but we had to go to Fort Canning to get our special passes signed personally by some Brigadier. We went in a recovery lorry that had a crane protruding from the back of the lorry that had got to turn around. It got the crane caught in the roof of the cookhouse. It was jammed hard and no amount of pulling and pushing would free it. By the time we got down to Keppell Harbour, the boats taking the men to the destroyers couldn’t operate anymore as the Japanese were landing mortar bombs into the warehouses on the edge of the dock, doing it with clockwork regularity. We would hear four bumps from the hill behind the docks and have time to cover before the four bursts would sound in the warehouses that were kept burning merrily. It was here that Soapy Hudson, our Corporal, ordered us back to the White Horse Hotel. A sergeant in the Education Corps, who was our cypher clerk, said he was going to stay. The boats came back at first light and he was taken off. I argued with Soapy Hudson for the rest of the War about his decision and even in about 1950 when I met him in Bulford. He was out of the Army then but carried on the argument. He maintained that had we been there during daylight, the Japanese would have started lobbying the mortars on us. The next few days were uneventful to such as extent that we were even laying bets on who many dead bodies would return with the canal that was alongside the hotel. The Japanese kept up the bombing during the day. The officer in charge of us was never in the White Horse Hotel and I remember grumbling because I had to make all the decisions, but in retrospect, he was one of the bravest men I ever knew. He belonged to the Hepworth family of tailors and he just turned up to take charge of us. With the continuous bombing, all the telephone lines were always being destroyed and without hesitation he would take a couple of men and go out and repair them. I went out a couple of times with him. Once to bring back an operator who was in the Japanese lines. This operator had his earphones on and was concentrating so hard he didn’t realise the danger he was in. I can’t remember his name. It was Cook or something who worked in the Terry’s chocolate factory in York.

Hepworth took us to Fort Canning where our headquarters were dug under twenty foot of concrete. We were told off because we were dirty! The people in the headquarters hadn’t ventured out into the open during the whole battle and had a ‘kit inspection’ the day before Singapore fell. But that is another story.

Conflicting messages started coming over our telephones from HQ. We were going to surrender, we were not going to surrender. And this went on for 18 hours. Then at last, we were to put all our firearms into a pile and with the exception of my regiment, everyone had to stand down. We were to keep our communications open for orders and instructions. We didn’t have any rations and I realised we hadn’t eaten for two days so I suggested to Tom Hawkes that he took a truck and went foraging. Tom came from Stoke and he had only one topic of conversation. Stanley Matthews.

Next Chapter

Singapore Surrenders


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