When the fighting first started I was really frightened but soon became so tired that I didn’t care and just carried on like a zombie. Tom Hawkes came back with his truck filled with crates of beer, tinned bacon and pilchards and we sat with our feet in a monsoon drain until first light and ate and drank until dawn.
Everything was quiet until first light when the Japanese poured out of trucks and started dividing up the city into blocks. They did this by tearing down our walls of sandbags. Every civilian that wanted to cross the canal had to carry a sandbag. Some pleaded that they were old, some sick and one was gesturing that he had clean clothes on. They soon learned that the Japanese meant business after throwing a couple into the canal and the wall was soon built. At this time our Brigadier, who had lead us from behind and hadn’t left the chair he was sitting on under the staircase, decided that we were ‘not going to be looted by any old Chinese or Japanese’ and we were to mount a guard, one man at each corner of the building, so I drew up four rifles and five rounds each and posted the men. Where I was placed the man near the front of the door of the hotel, a Japanese soldier was pasting up a poster stating in four languages that anyone carrying a firearm would be shot on sight. We didn’t take the slightest notice, and nothing happened until lunchtime. I had changed the sentries for meals and one of the reliefs that I had posted was Quentin Clayton, a particular friend of mine, who was at the far end of the building. After lunch when I went to relieve him, he was not there and had not returned by four o’clock. I was worried by this time and got hold of Johnny Sims and asked him to take me in his truck to search for Clayton. Johnny, a lad from Luton, readily agreed on condition that we went to see his girlfriend’s house to see how she was. We got caught by a Japanese platoon and they tried to make us join a gunner regiment that they had captured and who were sitting on their haunches with their hands on their heads. In my ignorance of the Japanese, I refused. The shouted and I shouted back, and they let us go after searching our truck. We then went to the girlfriend’s house but was there was a big Japanese knocking on the door we left in a hurry. We found Clayton about a mile from the hotel, with his rifle slung, helping a Japanese soldier direct traffic. It was not until the next morning that the situation began to be realised by me. I was shaving on the fifth floor of the hotel, where we had our toilets and looking out of the widow I would see the Union Jack on Government House being lowered and the Japanese ‘fried egg’ being hauled up. In 1945 when I saw the reverse happening in Japan, I cried. It meant too much to me. Our communications were still open to relay all the instructions to the troops and they started moving to Changi. We packed Johnny Sims’s three tonner with as much food as we could, intending to take it to Changi with us, but we were ordered by Hepworth, our officer, to leave it behind and march with the rest. Hepworth did concede later that if I had told him it was full of food, he would have agreed to us taking it to Changi, but by now, like everyone else, he was hungry. It was during the waiting in Singapore to go to Changi that two or three events happened. Peters, a lad from South Shields, who had been a friend of ours in peacetime, came to see me and try to talk me into staying with him in Singapore. Peters had a Greek mother and he had this plan. He had taken over a flat in Orchard Road and was raiding and looting houses in the city for refrigerators and radios and such like, with the idea he would sell them when things settled down There were about six hungry dogs roaming around this block of flats creating an unearthly din. The remaining residents of the flats asked Peter to do something about it. Peters was carrying three revolvers and pistols besides a tommy gun on his motor cycle. I was on the pillion and as Royal Signals wore blue and white arm bands, we were allowed to go anywhere in the city. So, I went with him to Orchard Road to take care of these dogs. Peters had a couple of shots at the biggest dog, a big black mongrel, and missed him. He then went up to the dog which was barking at him and held a huge pistol six inches from its head and pulled the trigger. He missed again, and the dog ran off. It was this action that made up my mind not to join him. He lasted about a year in Singapore before being betrayed by a Eurasian and after a beating was sent to Changi to join the other POWs. He had said he was a Greek sailor and had set up a black-market business. His girlfriend supplied him with money while he was in Changi until he went to Thailand, where he and three others I knew broke out, got caught and sent to Outram Road jail in Singapore where he died in solitary confinement of beriberi cursing the Japanese to the last.
We were allowed to move freely about Singapore because we were Royal Signals while the rest had to stay put or start marching to Changi. I went to the Cathay Building, in those days the only sky scraper in Singapore, to see Ginger Oates a particular friend of mine who had a wireless station at the top of the building. I was unable to find him but later learned from Ginger that he was still in touch with Aldershot three days after the fall of Singapore but no officer in Singapore would listen to him. And no one in the Compound, Queens Avenue, Aldershot, that had a telex to the War Office in London had any idea of the importance of this channel. We were listening to BBC News telling of the fall of Singapore and that no news was coming out. The operators who ran this link were just chatting for three days. I remember Ginger saying the last thing he sent was ‘F*** the Army’.
The third eventful thing that happened was a loud-mouthed individual called Ralph asked me to join his party that had a boat and make or break for it. I dismissed his suggestion thinking that like all Ralph’s talk it was just talk. He got away and died three years later in action in Burma. I often dreamt what I could have done and how different my life would have been had I joined him. I always felt deep shame in being captured but because we never doubted that eventually we would win the war, we kept going and even when things were darkest, there was always some humour in the situation.
It was six days after the fall of Singapore that we marched the 16 miles to Changi. The roads were crowded with POWs and some were riding on lorries and trucks and throwing tinned food to those who were marching and resting on the side of the road. All very well until you get hit with a five pound tin of butter from a truck doing thirty miles an hour. It could have been fatal. One of our party had a great big bruise and suspected broken ribs from such a blow. I was billeted in the Chinese servant’s quarters of the Naafi, a room for one housed three or four. I moved onto the veranda and made myself a bed from mineral water crates. They were not all the same height, but my body adapted in a few days. We ransacked the Naafi, but others had been there before us and I carried a small wooden box up to my billet to discover it contained Knights Castile soap. One hundred and forty cakes. I have never bought Knights Castile soap since. I gave away all the soap except one cake. We were all called to HQ for a lecture by some high-ranking staff officer who told us ‘we were all British and all in the same boat’. That lasted exactly three days. Water was in short supply, only enough for cooking. None for washing and certainly none for the toilets. The officers soon got around that. One was only allowed to use the toilets if one fetched a bucket of water from the sea which was about four hundred years away. The officers detailed the ‘other ranks’ to carry water for them and although we refused, I saw men carrying water for the staff officers up to the time I left Changi. Our officers weren’t a bad bunch and we had no trouble from them.
Parties were made up every day to go down to Singapore on trucks to clear up the bomb damage. I managed to get on one of the parties two or three times. It was very difficult as everyone wanted to get out of Changi to get some extra food. It was on one of these trips to Singapore, we were working in Orchard Road clearing rubble, when Norbert Lancaster saw me and went away and bought fifty cigarettes which he bought back and gave me. He was scared to death and ran off after handing me the fags. Norbert was a Eurasian solicitor, who was in our group of friends in peace time along with the Farrars, Machado’s and others. Norbert became ‘Custodian of Enemy Property’ during the Japanese occupation of Singapore. I heard he was punished for collaborating, but he risked getting a beating from the Japanese guards by giving me those cigarettes, so he couldn’t have been all that bad.
While I was in Changi, I was approached by an Indian Army Officer from the Dogra Regiment to become his batman. He said I wouldn’t regret it. I replied that I couldn’t look after myself let alone him.
About the fifth day hunger started to hit us and those used to alcohol had finished any meagre supplies they had manage to acquire. People began to be bad tempered and everyone started to blame someone for their plight. General Percival got most of the blame, but in our Brigade’s HQ was a young Captain Peacock from one of the Malay Regiments and we became quite friendly. Peacock was one of Percival’s ADC’s and he told me that during the action, Percival was always trying to get his Generals and Brigadiers to stand and fight but to no avail. Percival came in for a lot of stick from the historians after the war, but I am sure that Peacock was not lying. It was not Percival’s fault that the men and supplies for Malaya were diverted to the Middle East and it was not his fault that the 18th Division came too late. Some had their ships sunk under them in Singapore Harbour and came ashore only on a pair of shorts. No firearms, nothing. Not knowing the difference between a Chinese and a Japanese. Having been trained for desert warfare they were only a liability. The First Battalion, The Cambridgeshire Regiment were among them and my friends now in the Club in Cambridge agree with me. But I am forgetting the most important thing at the time. Hunger. The cooks were beginning to cook rice in great big coppers previously used for boiling clothes and such like and most of the rice was like thick cake. But they soon learned how to cook the stuff. It didn’t matter at the time. We would eat anything. Guy Machado, who had been a headmaster in Northern Malaya, asked me to go for a chat to his billet. He said he had some peanuts. I had dreams of a pound that would have enough vitamins and oils to keep me going for a week or two. Guy was sitting on his bed and Sonny Farrah was there too. We were soon talking about old times. Everything was an innuendo or hint as Sonny was knocking off Guy’s wife, Violet and both knew that the other knew. What a mix up, but that is another story and quite a fascinating one. But my mind was never off the peanuts and before I left, Guy produced a small bottle, the kind used for meat pastes, and in it were five or six peanuts and he gave me one. Well, that was the life then.
As Guy’s billet was not far from Z block where Mum and I had previously lived, I thought I would have a look around and went there. I was regarded with ‘hard eyed stares’ for the intrusion. There must have been thirty men living where the three of us had lived before and it was too much for me when I noticed one of the men was using Anne’s small enamel potty to eat his rice in. Changi was now occupied by 46,000 men where it had previously housed 4,000. It must have been July when a great party of men were sent down to River Valley Road Camp in Singapore. I was among this lot, up to this point we had no truck with the Japanese, Changi being run by British Officers, one only saw Japanese being driven in cars through the camp at great speed, once or twice a month. The sight always made me catch my breath and gave us a topic of conversation for a day or two. River Valley Road Camp was run by Japanese with order through British Officers and consisted of atap huts with two shelves, one about two feet from the ground and the other about five feet above. Four of us, all boys from India, clubbed together and pooler our meagre earnings, we got paid 25 cents a day, to buy extras for our diet. So, we could buy tins of food and Marmite plus pineapples. The fruit was plentiful as the factories weren’t functioning due to damage and one could buy a large pineapple for two cents. The pooling of our money and sharing annoyed others who said we were too lazy to buy our own extras. The pineapples we bought were the large green variety and when they are unripe they are very acid. I remember eating one that was so acid that blood was trickling down from the edges of our lips. But we wouldn’t let go.
Work consisted of clearing up the warehouses in Keppel Harbour, there was a lot of food that hadn’t been damage by fire, the same fire that had prevented me from getting away before the fall of Singapore, and it was our job to load it onto lorries to be taken away. Of course, we pilfered, and I used to take home two or three tins a day. The Japanese must have known and did nothing about it. One day, three ‘Kempeitai’ the dread military police, rod up on cycles, our Japanese Guards tipped us off, and lined us up on the edge of the dock. Everyone or nearly everyone got rid of their loot into the sea. You could hear the splashes and I though how silly, they’re sure to catch them, so I took a chance and kept the tin of butter I had in my haversack. We were searched by the Kempeitai and this tin of butter was found. This fellow went mad. He was jumping up and down and screaming in Japanese. He pulled me out of the ranks and made me stand to attention and close my eyes. He then hit me on the side of my face. Being able to ride the blow because I couldn’t see it coming, I fell down. The Japanese then made two men pick me up. He then presented me with the tin. He was satisfied and that was the end of the search. When we got home, or I mean to camp that night, Arnold ‘Robbie’ Robertson opened the tin and John ‘Taff’ Barrel who lived on the shelf below remarked, ‘Ash, I bet that’s the best tin of butter you’ve ever tasted’. I agreed with him, my jaw still swollen and sore for days. This was my first insight into the Japanese mind. The work in Keppel Harbour came to an end and so did the perks that went with it. We were then moved to a quarry with rocks that resembled granite, we had to move rocks on to lorries to be taken away. It was at this quarry that I was eyewitness to one of the few acts of defiance of the Japanese. A Japanese guard went as if to hit Tom Hawkes (of Stoke and Stanley Matthews fame) and Tom raised his shovel and said, ‘Come you bastard’. The Japanese backed down and the incident was never reported.