Sketch by Jack Chalker

Evacuation from Singapore

Letters to Tom

2nd March 1942

Evacuation from Singapore


Capt. B. Savory

5th Bn. The Royal West

Norfolk Regt.

At Sea

2nd March 1942

Dear Tom

The address at the top of this letter is a bit deceptive as the battalion as a whole is not at sea, all of them but for eleven men being to the best of my knowledge prisoners of war. Of the officers, Stuart Boardman, Greville Kerrison, Palliston, Wilmerick and McKean were killed; Douglas Gray, Kenneth Potter and I have eluded the Japs so far; Arthur Self got dive bombed and broke an arm; Charles Wood got slightly wounded by shrapnel in the leg which did not incapacitate him for a day or two when he got so stiff that the C.O. sent him off to hospital; all other officers, including the two wounded are, I expect, prisoners, but they were unharmed up to 2 days before the capitulation of Singapore.

I hope you got the letter I wrote you at the end of January after we got back to Singapore after the battle of Bata Patrat. We were in the next camp a little under a week, during which time the battalion was re-equipped with clothes, weapons, transport, etc. and we were then sent up to the Naval Dockyard on the North of Singapore Island. The sea there is about one mile wide between one island where we were and the mainland where our enemy was. We hadn’t been there a day before they started shelling us and it wasn’t long before the forward companies had to stop work by day and do all their digging, wiring, etc. by night. I only had three carriers up so soon became the general odd job man about for H.Q. and after a few days I became a kind of manager of sandbags, wire, pickets, etc. which I had to collect by day and deliver by night wherever they were wanted by the people in front.

Our living conditions were fairly comfortable as we were living in and under the houses occupied in normal times by the officers and other officials who work in the dockyard. many of the private garages were completely fitted with cases of tinned food, so we all lived on the fat of the land, and one of my chief trials was to make my platoon, who were reserve, understand the enormity of offence of allowing smoke to emerge from the chimney of one house where they were and where one man seemed to be cooking the whole day through in a most successful attempt to supplement the rations.

After about a week we had to withdraw, as the Japs had landed on another part of the island and the authorities decided to make a fresh line further back. This was a complete surprise to us as we had been told it was to be a last man last round touch, and once we heard the Japs had landed landed, few of us had much hopes of leaving the dockyard alive if the Japs were to land. Incidentally, by this time I had taken over command of Headquarters Company. Peter Hansell having become second in command in the absence of Hugh Crane who left us in the middle of the night to command the 6th Bn. owing to a lot of sickness among their senior officers.

Well we withdrew quite successfully and started to dig and wire ourselves in feverishly on the “final line”. The second night there I was woken at midnight when the C.O. read me a personal message to him from the Brigadier telling him to detail 3 officers and 7 other ranks to report to Bde H.Q. st 12.30 for special duty. The people selected to have outstanding ability in the field and no consideration to be given to consequent loss of efficiency of the battalion. The C.O. hadn’t got time to get anyone from the rifle Companies, so he had to send people who were at hand. As he read me the message my heart sank as I thought it meant some awful patrol behind the Jap lines, which was not at all to my taste! However there I was sitting beside him on his bed and when the C.O. had finished he said, “Well Barham, are you game?” so all I could say was “Yes, sir”. Douglas Gray and Kenneth Potter were also asked and felt much the same as I did about it, but we got along pretty well together, so felt that whatever it was we could see it through somehow together.

We each chose a few good men to come with us and then we all filed into a truck and went off to Bde H.Q. where we found similar parties from other battalions. There everything was very hush-hush and one Brigade major wouldn’t tell us anything. The Brigadier was dug out of bed and he came round in his pyjamas to shake hands with us and say good-bye - I didn’t quite like that touch - it seemed a bit permanent! Then we went off in other trucks to the docks which cheered us up a bit until we learned that or boats which were to have taken us had made a quick get away without us after being shelled. Just as it was getting daylight, Col. Thorne, who commanded our Brigade party, told us that it was an attempted evacuation and was to be repeated the next night and that in the meantime we were to go to the Y.M.C.A. building. We spent a long day there full of rumours. In the afternoon we were told that there would only be enough boats for half of us, so Douglas made me draw lots for who would go, and the lot I drew for myself meant that I would stay behind. Then they decided to take the whole lot of us in relays to the docks, so that we should be at hand for any boats there might be.

We had just got the parties nicely organised when the Japs started shelling our Y.M.C.A. building where we were and they got at least 5 direct hits on the building. The 4th Norfolks party were pretty well wiped out; Major Daltry of the Gunners was wounded in the chest; our own brigade party came out of it complete; found a nice little place under the stairs which seemed to be near every shell, but just far enough away, and it’s surprising what a feeling of security a time hat gives you when the plaster is falling.

After the shelling we collected ourselves and moved off to the docks only to find that the last official boat had gone and taken everyone in authority, (Colonel Thorne had been detailed by name to go in an earlier boat so he couldn’t help it). We didn’t even know where we were supposed to be heading for. Some of the Bgd. Officers then said we ought to go back to our units, which seemed to us a stupid thing to do seeing that we were obviously meant to be salvaged, and the presence of an extra seven men in a battalion was not likely to affect the result of the battle. Anyhow, we all set out to try and find a small boat for our brigade party of thirty, but everything we could find had a hole in the bottom; we messed about till about 2 o’clock in the morning and then decided to have some sleep and have a good look round in daylight and try to get off the following night.

Next morning we were up early and started by bothering the people at the dock officers, who gave us the news that there was little prospect of any boat being provided from official sources, and that it was our duty to leave the island if we could. So with that knowledge we started looking round once more and after a bit found a rowing boat which had no apparent leaks; it took us an hour and a half to get into the water and when it got there, it took in a lot of water, but everyone talked about the planks swelling or something and seemed to think it would be all right by night time.

All the time we had to keep our eye on the sky for enemy aeroplanes and we weren’t too sure that the enemy couldn’t see us from further along the coast, but luckily there were some good shelters close at hand. In the meantime others in the party went further afield and found a burning ship with a perfectly good lifeboat on it which they succeeded in launching and bringing round to where we were. This was a much better boat, complete with oars, sails, rowlocks, water tanks, emergency rations, a pump for baling etc. so we decided to push off in it towards Sumatra as soon as it got dark. We collected water and rations - there were tons of tinned food everywhere, so we had no difficulty about this; we even found boiled sweets and cigarettes. We also made some enquiries about which way to go, but no one seemed to know anything about the minefields except to say “your boat ought to be all right at high tide.”

We were still busy making enquiries when an Australian Major arrived with the news that we were capitulating at 3 o’clock so we decided to make a dash for it straight away and not wait for dark. We pushed our rations into the boat and got off at half past two and somehow got away without being fired on by either side or hitting a mine.

All went well until nearly dark when we seemed to be making no progress at all against the current, so we decided to put in at an island which had some big burning oil tanks on it. Before we got in there we all had to jump into the water and and push as we got stuck on the rocks and we had the devil’s own job in getting away again, but we had a bit of luck in finding four local volunteers on the island and they told us a better route. We only stopped on the island an hour so as to have something to eat and then we pushed off again and kept going all night. In the morning we put our sail up and after a time came to a Dutch island where we were told we had come miles from Singapore so we all felt very pleased with ourselves.

We had some anxious moments approaching the island, as we could see some yellow faced soldiers in green uniform and we didn’t knoe which side they were on; however, they put out in a motor boat and towed us into a jetty where we were met by a Dutchman who was kindness itself. We all went ashore and got a wash and shave and ate some of our food. The Dutchman took the officers to his own house and gave us the run of his bathroom and kitchen, while he scurried round and found a motor launch to tow us further on our way. This boat cost us the equivalent of ten shillings each which is the only fare I have paid so far.

After 3 or 4 hours at the island we got off again, this time with our life boat being towed by a top heavy Chinese motor launch, which seemed likely to turn turtle at any moment but somehow did not quite do so. Anyhow, I was able to stretch out at full length and sleep for hours on end which was something I hadn’t done for the past week or so. Early next morning we got into another island and this was as far as our launch would take us, so once more we put ashore where the locals had a club - a kind of village institute opened for us while they found another launch for us. The owner of this vessel, which was an improvement on the last one although we had to do our own navigating, wanted a fabulous sum to take us the remaining 120 miles to the nearest port which had a road, but we eventually got him to tow us for no cash by executing a legal document transferring to the Dutch Government our lifeboat - an arrangement which suited all parties admirably.

The last part of our journey took us nearly two days, and except for runiing slap into a sand bank in the middle of the night and sticking there four hours, the journey passed of successfully. We had a stop on the way at a village where we stretched our legs and had a meal, and on the way we picked up two civilian refugees o One American and one English who had run out of petrol for the outboard motor of an extremely flimsy looking canoe in which they had left Singapore over a week before.

When we came to the end of our journey by sea and river, we seemed to come under the control of the Dutch Government who did all they could to help us. We were not expected, but within an hour of arriving by boat, we were off in 3 buses on our journey of well over 100 miles towards the coast of Sumatra along roads rather like Swiss railways which almost tied themselves in knots in their efforts to get over the mountains. That night the men were put in barracks by the Dutch who had very proper ideas about accommodation for officers and put us up in a hotel where we enjoyed a night between sheets but felt a bit out of place in the dining room in the seaty clothes we had been wearing day and night for ten days or more. We had our own suite for 3 complete with private sitting room and bathroom, the latter being most necessary by that time. Here we encountered our first language difficulty. Kenneth Potter on arrival asked in the clearest tones of the servant the way to the water closet, whereupon the man disappeared and re-appeared a few minutes later at our room with 2 bottles of beer and 3 glasses which suited us all very well but did not exactly satisfy Kenneth’s immediate requirements.

next day we were off again, this time by train. About midday we got to a town which seemed to be overrun by British troops who seemed to have settled in the place and to have no prospect of moving on. All initiative seemed to be taken out of our hands and everything was handled rather lackadaisically we thought, by an immense staff of senior officers. We were pushed off to a Chinese school where we got a hot meal and thirty of us were herded into a room which had a wooden platform pretty well filling it on which we were to sleep.

We all felt extremely depressed as the Japs had already landed and we were in no shape to do anything about it, being practically without ammunition and anyhow rather like the Swiss Navy. However, we took this opportunity to form ourselves into a separate party from various people who had somehow joined us at one place or another and who had left their units in circumstances which we felt were not above suspicion to say the least of it. We had scarcely finished feeding when we got the order to move to the station at once. All our moves were rather like that; we would be sitting quietly expecting to be where we were for hours, when we would get told to move at once - no question of parade in a quarter of an hour, but parade now so as to make sure of a seat.

We collected our people from the showers and so on and pushed off to the station with the remains of our rations - still quite considerable, in the case of wounded man in a little pony carriage with the rest under supervision in a hand trolly. Here we had to say goodbye to our crates as those who still had haversacks filled them up with tinned food before we moved off to the train. This time our journey was only a few miles to a port where we found something which was more than we had hoped for, a cruiser of the British Navy. I think six hundred of us filed on board. Sixteen of us were accommodated in the gunroom which is normally and still was the rather cramped living quarters of nine fusion officers who were hospitably filling us up with Coca-cola (alcohol seemed to be off) and generally running around after us. One extremely good natured midshipman lent me his clothes which gave me a chance to get out of my filthy garments which I had only taken off once for more than a hour at a time since I had last had clean clothes a fortnight before. The Navy fed us on sandwiches for the 2 days we were with them, but we still had a little tinned stuff to help us out. A peacetime Naval officer would, I think, have been shocked to see three such scruffy looking individuals as ourselves sitting on the quarterdeck eating apricots out of a tin with our fingers evev though we waited until dark to do so!

The Navy took us to Java where we went 50 miles inland and were put up quite comfortably for 3 days in a school which had been turned into a kind of rest camp. This gave us a chance to get our clothes washed and generally sort ourselves out a bit. I was lucky not to lose quite the whole of my kit, as I was able to cling to a small sea kit bag containing such few clothes as i had in my valise which I had to abandon in Singapore along with such camp kit as I had replaced after losses of three weeks before. Fortunately blankets are not necessary in this part of the world; I find I can sleep quite well anywhere if I roll myself up in my anti-gas cape.

We had a bit of trouble in Java over money as they wouldn’t change Malayan or British money into Dutch money, but luckily I had a few American dollars which I had no difficulty changing. I had to fill in a form to do this and the Bank Manager got very interested over my address at Golders Green, where he said he had spent a month. On the strength of this I persuaded him after two days interval and a lot of hesitation to change for me a traveller’s cheque for 10 in spite of it being a bit bedraggled from its immersion in the sea. It’s just as well he did as at one time we were reduced to nine cents or about tuppence between the three of us.

Got to stop now. Submarine in sight, has dived, 2 torpedoes and missed.

Love to all and many thanks for everything.




Evacuation from Java

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