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Douglas Escapes

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Douglas Outwin Escapes Singapore

Letter Home From Ceylon


By kind permission of Michael Outwin

© Michael Outwin (Copyright)


Douglas Harold Outwin, at the time of his escape, was a Lieutenant in the Royal Army Ordnance Corps. Douglas recovered in Ceylon for about six months after his escape and then transferred to the Indian Army. He remained in India until volunteers were requested to "clear up" after the expected surrender of the Japanese.

When he got to Changi he looked for members of (his) "B" section R.A.O.C. but didn't find anyone.


12th March, 1942

My Dear Mother,

I have just written to you in the usual way but this letter, I hope, will be posted in England by an officer who has been sent home owing to ill health. I intend to describe as best I may what happened to me after we left Bombay until I arrived here in Colombo just a week ago.

I sailed from Bombay on the "Empress of India" bound for Singapore. The boat was an old 1912 coal burning, three funnelled C.P.R. boat and was fired by 168 of the worst type of Irish to be found. These men broke into the ship's canteen several times during the voyage and were ultimately responsible for the ship being sunk.

We joined up with the other ships off Ceylon and headed southwards, entering the Sundra Straits, then for Batavia where we parted company and turned north for Singapore. We were all bombed by 27 planes when passing through the Banks Straits.

We were again bombed 7 miles out from Singapore, five bombs hitting the ship and setting fire to the saloon. Now the fireman, as soon as the siren sounded, came up from below, and of course, we lost speed and finally stopped, making us an easy target for the bombers. The rest ofthe ships escaped owing to speeding up, incidentally we were at the tail end of the convoy the whole time, not being able to keep up owing to the shortage of steam and considering the convey was only steaming 12 knots and Chinese stokers could give us 17 knots, you see what trouble we had.

Well, we had to abandon ship. I went over the side, sliding as best I could down a rope to a raft but I was unable to hang on to the raft so I had to swim about with a lifejacket on until picked up. I must have been in the warm sea for about an hour.

Very few people were lost from the ship and I think we suffered as heavily as anyone, as we lost one Armourer Sergeant, Major Stanley and two Warrant Officers.

I was bandaged up on both legs and hands as a result of rope burns and after getting a little kit, went to a camp in Haig Road for the night.

Owing to my helplessness, I just stayed in the mess, dodging the five or so air raids held daily as best I could, whilst shell fire at night was terrific, usually the worst between 7.00 p.m. and 2.00 a.m. when the Jap was trying to sleep. Everything from 15 inch downwards was letting fly. The large shells could be heard passing overhead quite plainly. Thank goodness the Japs had no larger guns than .

It was Thursday when I arrived and on the following Monday 260 men together with Major Bowering, Captain Hill and Lt. Grey were ordered into the front line. They pushed off, leaving Captain Lambert, Captain Knowles, Lt. Lewis and myself all crocks - with about 70 men who were all out of it for one reason or another.

We stayed put until Friday, when during that night things got hot and we all moved down the road to join up with the 1 18 Field Regt. R.A.'s Ammunition Park consisting of about 60 men and enough shells to wipe out Singapore.

On Saturday afternoon about 5.00 p.m. I took a car and 3 men up to our old lines to collection some rations and cooking equipment left behind. Whilst there, we were amazed to hear a whiz and a shell burst in the next bungalow. We cleared out quickly, running as fast as we could steering well clear of the ammunition dump and heading for the Manchester Regt. who were manning the pill boxes along the beach only quarter of a mile down the road. The shells by this time were flying fast and furiously up and down Haig Road. We got a change of clothing as we had ducked several times into flilthy ditches.

About an hour later we returned, only to walk into another round of shelling and just in time to see Captain Lambert and party crash out of the Ammunition part and fly doyvn the road, leaving us stranded. We returned to the Manchesters and stayed the night as it was then too late to search in the town, and I left it to them to pick us up in the morning. This they did not do and so on foot I started to look for them, leaving the men with the Manchester's. By 4.00 p.m. I had reached the gas works in the town and after being fortified by a bottle of beer obtained from an Australian Armoured Car Unit, I pushed on and later stopped a truck which was being driven like fury in the opposite direction. I asked what was happening and they said they had handed over their arms as an armistice had been arranged for 4.30 p.m. and as it was then about 5.00 p.m., they intended to clear out. I got in with them and we went off at about 60 mph for the docks.

We hunted high and low for a motor boat or something capable of carrying us, but most had been put out of action and the others had been grabbed already.

Eventually we arrive on a Chinese junk moored in the centre of the Harbour. The Chinese were offered money to take us to Sumatra and as things did not seem to be going too well, two officers and I took the small native boat which is normally towed astern. Sitting in the bottom of the boat and using two paddles, we paddled about seven and a half miles to St. John's Island and there we slept on the beach without a drop of water or a scrap of food - heading for safety,

At dawn we found some Australians further round the island who offered us a lift so we abandoned the canoe and took to their motor boat. We cleared out as quickly as possible as the doctor in charge of the Lepers who lived on the island expected the Japanese about 10.30 a.m. that morning. We headed the motor boat for Morrow Island where we should get our first chance of a boat to Sumatra.

The Australians had plenty of food, water and cigarettes, so we just sat back and enjoyed ourselves. We called at an island where the natives gave us plenty of Coconuts, splitting open the nuts so that we could get at the milk. We also got plenty of pineapples.

That night we had trouble with the engine and ended up by rowing the boat into a sandy beach hidden in the mangrove swamps. The tide went out and we were stranded. A native came up and offered to show us the way to Morrow Island as it wasn't too easy finding the correct channel to this island. We left as Soon as the tide came in that night and made Morrow by about 2.00 a.m.

We moored alongside a jetty and the native left us, and we slept as best we could until dawn.

At the crack of dawn, we were asked to go to an island about 3 miles away where a Capt. Lion welcomed us there, gave us food and hot tea and I had my injuries dressed. We then commenced loading up stores for the trip of about 40 miles to the mouth of the Indragiwi River in Sumatra which we hoped to reach that night. As things turned out the engine failed and we stayed for two days on this promontory lying absolutely still whilst Japanese bomber and reconnaissance planes passed overhead towards Sumatra.

During the two days on the Island we saw dozens of small boats pass by or call in, all heading for Sumatra. Incidentally Capt. Lion provided all boat parties with written instructions on how to get to Tambilahan, a small town at the mouth of the Indragiwi river. After reaching that place they were comparatively safe.

On the afternoon of the second day we decided to row the launch, but after battling for about 3 hours against the current, we had to give in. Actually we tried to paddle the boat with about 6 paddles as we had no oars but we could not have used the latter as the boat had a sort of cabin and we sat inside using the paddles through the windows. We were so tired after all this effort that we just left the boat drift and it drifted back to Morrow Island where we tied up for the night and slept.

In the morning the natives were alarmed to see us back as they were afraid of being bombed. A friendly Chinaman invited us to his home and provided us with cups of coffee and a mat to lie on.

The Australians messed about with the boat magneto all day but the engine refused to go - as I knew it would - but the Australians - well -

In the end, by a vote, we decided to hire or steal a Chinese junk and head for Indragiwi that night. The Chinese fixed me up with a junk and crew for El 00, so we cleared out about 3.00 p.m. and with a fair breeze, we went like the wind, most of us below deck to keep out of sight with one or two above to keep a look out. The sea got up in the night and it wasn't funny being packed below deck in a prone position listening to the sea breaking over the bows. The boat was about the size of a cobble and had a sail which to my mind was far too large for it, but I will give the Malays their due, they did their stuff very well, so about 9.00 a.m. the next day, we were in Tambilahan. Here I managed to get my legs dressed and I caught a steamer of the tug size, up to Rengat or nearly there.

We sailed all day at about 6 knots up a river at least a mile wide, twisting and turning to miss the mud banks. Why we never hit them, I don't know, for the skipper was an R.A.S.C. captain escapee like myself and had never seen the river before.

The steamer anchored for the night alongside an abandoned ship about 25 miles from Sengat. Two Australians came down from Rengat and collected all hospital cases from the steamer. As no one was really ill, I wangled a passage in the motor boat and arrive at Rengat about 2.00 a.m. I was dressed at the hospital and slept that night on a straw covered floor in the local school.

At 6.00 a.m. that morning I found myself in company with nine R. S. Officers on a bus heading for Imolee, a small village about 30 miles away where, in a rubber factory, we were to be accommodated until buses were available to take us to the railhead.

I stayed at Imolee for 3 days during which time the R.N. 's were very decent to me, sharing out anything extra they purchased and as I had no money, this was excellent on their part. Later one of them lent me E5. I met Major Bowering and about 30 men of the unit who had left Singapore on the Saturday night. They pushed on the same day I arrived. Major Bristow was there also.

The food was quite good, consisting chiefly of bully stewed with cabbage and potatoes and a cup oftea thrown in twice daily. I slept on the concrete floor in one of the sheds. I got hold of some crepe rubber and used that as a mattress and pillow. There was plenty of water available and I had a much needed wash down and my first shave for more than a week.

On the 24th February, our turn arrived and we left Imolee for Seelunta, the railhead. We stared at 10.00 am. and arrived at 4.30 a.m. after a hair-raising trip up mountains and down again, around thousands of hair pin bends, mostly at night in the mountains with hundreds of feet drops and no protective rails. The journey was done as quickly as possible in order to catch the train. The driver being a native did not help to soothe my mind although I must admit that they were very smart at putting a new leaf in the rear spring in one hour - not bad. After that we had a puncture up in the mountains about 10.00 p.m., the inner tube was ripped to shreds. By the light of atorch, they quickly had a new tube in and on we went to Seelunta.

Seelunta proved to be a picturesque town set in a steep sided valley very much like the small Swiss towns one sees on postcards. We were accommodated in a large shed rather of the railway station type with a high roof and about 60 yards by 30 yards in area. Mats and straw were provided by the Dutch who were magnificent throughout, providing hot tea and soap before we turned in at 5.00 a.m.

Next morning, after a visit to the Hospital, I went along to the local hotel of modern design and they gave me a bed. I stayed there two nights and caught the 4.30 a.m. train on the third night for Rengat.

The train departed at 5.00 a.m. and sitting on wooden seats, we headed at breakneck pace down the line.

Sumatran railways seem to ignore gradients as the train climbed mountains and descended them with equal ease, resorting to a rack on the line on the steeper gradients. For the heavy work, the Locos had 4 cylinders, two on either side, the upper pair being inset and built into the saddle, this pair being coupled by plain gearing to the rack but I believe they also worked in conjunction with the two lower cylinders on an ordinary gradient.

The scenery was marvellous - Lakes, Paddy (Rice) fields, coconut, banana, and pineapple plantations; in fact by far the prettiest part of the country so far.

The journey ended that afternoon at 3.00 p.m. and I was billeted in a school back on the floor again, thanking my lucky stars that I still had my crepe rubber mattress holding together my few possessions such as soap and mess tin (borrowed), so for three more days I slept on the floor. On the third day, Sunday March 1 st, another officer and I took a native tenga and visited the docks and to have a scout round for a native boat as we did not seem to be leaving the place too quickly and considering that the

Jap was at Rengat only 150 kms. down the west coast, I thought it was time I made arrangements for my own evacuation, and I did not intend staying behind in Pandang without arms and I did not feel that the Japs would appreciate my escaping from Singapore.

My friend of the afternoon was of the same opinion and we planned to head out to some islands off the coast and thence northwards to the Nicobar and Andaman Islands and on to Burma and India. My friend could speak Tamil which the driver knew and we got a lot of valuable information from him, including an offer to take us up into the hills and there hide us until the end of the War. This was quite a sound idea and we felt like accepting but - on the old cart reaching the docks, we saw a sight which gladdened our hearts no end. Two glorious destroyers flying the white ensign. We turned tail and fled back. The camp was in turmoil, all were getting out that night.

We caught the train at 4.00 p.m. and were aboard H.M.S. Tenedon about 5.30 p.m. but we could not put out until 7.30 p.m. as she was oiling, having come from Batavia that morning in company with H.M.S. Scout a sister destroyer and three cruisers, H.M.S. Danae, H.M.S. Dragon, & H.M.A.S. Hobart. They were on route for Colombo, being the remaining force in Batavia, ordered out.

We put out that night about 8.00 p.m. and were all transferred to H.M.A.S. Hobart where we were made very welcome in the wardroom, although they hadn't enough beds to go around. I slept on the floor in the wardroom for the three nights aboard.

The next day, a number of passengers were transferred from the Danae which was overcrowded with people, including civilians and nurses. One of the interesting people on board was a Chinese Guerrilla, a girl of 16, who was equipped with a Winchester rifle, which she clung to like grim death, with water bottle and bandoleer, a slip Of a girl in a flowery dress, who if seen in the street would be described as charming and ingénue.

On Thursday, we were a few hours from Colombo, it was decided to increased speed to 28 knots, so as to get in before darkness fell. This they did and it was a grand finale to be travelling at speed for three hours into Colombo, arriving there at 3.00 p.m. on the 5th March, 1942, twenty days after leaving Singapore and after travelling about 1400 miles by sea, 100 of which were covered by individual effort, the remainder by the Navy. Sixty miles up the Indragiwi river by steamer and motor boat, about 350 kms, by motor bus and 150 kms, by train. Making a total of about 1950 miles accomplished in 20 days.

Well, Mother, that's the story, perhaps not grammatically correct but at least the unvarnished truth. From these notes when I return I will be able to elaborate, describing many funny incidents and some not so funny.

Please let me know when this letter reaches you, as I shall naturally be worried until it is safely in your hands.

As an afterthought, I suppose you will be interested in my equipment and dress during the journey so here goes.

I left Singapore dressed in a khaki shirt and shorts, actually the shorts was a khaki boiler suit which I subsequently altered by means of a razor blade, hacking off the legs about the knee, a pair of socks and white canvas shoes and pants - that is all.

At Capt. Lion's place I scrounged a bottle of Dettol and half a roll of Elastoplast and they proved very useful.

At Rengat, I ordered a cup of coffee and walked off with the cup and spoon.

At Imolee, I begged half of A.Q.M. S. Heath's mess tin and so with mess tin I fed myself until I got aboard the cruiser, I also begged a pair of shorts from another R.A.O.C. Men.

At Padang, I obtained 40 guilders from the paymaster and purchased hankies, vest, pants, straw hat, tooth brush, razor, sarong, towel and one or two odd things like that.

I spend quite a lot of time walking around in straw hat, blue shirt, sarong and canvas shoes.


© Michael Outwin (Copyright)


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