Bombay to Singapore
Our stay at Deolali ended and we were marched off to the railway station and returned to Bombay docks, where we embarked on to a Free French ship called the Felix Roussell.
We pulled out of Bombay and headed south and we had little doubt that our destination was to be somewhere facing the Japanese, whether it was Burma, Sumatra, Java, or Singapore, we were not too sure, but some were actually saying we were bound for Australia.
About three days out to sea we were left in no doubt where our destination was, as the Commanding Officer, Lt. Col. Thomas, gathered the troops together on deck and spelt out the situation, Singapore here we come.
Not knowing anything whatsoever about the Japanese, there developed some very interesting discussions amongst the troops, and the biggest problem appeared to be recognition, as to us who had never left the shores of Blighty before, the only certain feature we knew, was that they were small and had slanty eyes, but so had all the other Asiatics. We would soon learn!
The sea voyage was a zig-zag affair going all directions, north, south, east and west, but eventually land was sighted and we headed for a narrow slit of sea which separated Sumatra from Java, and having got through that Strait we turned left towards the Banka Straits and Singapore.
The ship radio informed us the Japs were speeding down Malaya, capturing town after town, and at one time we thought we may have to turn back as it looked as though the Japs would be on Singapore before us, however, we pushed on.
The hazards confronting us from now on would be the Jap bombers and submarines, and we were on continuous guard duties, watching the sea and the sky. I had an experience, which I shall never forget, and it happened while I was on guard on the bridge deck. The night was as black as charcoal, and it was impossible to see a hand in front of you and there I was searching the blackness for subs, or planes. I thought it was ridiculous and lay down on the deck for a bit shut-eye, when within a few seconds something was biting my hand, which was under my head, and quickly drawing it in the air, a hairy body rubbed over my face, a bloody rat, and it had such a hold I had an awful job knocking it off. As soon as I was free I nipped smartly to the medical room, where the doctor cleaned the wound and gave ma an anti-tetanus jab, which was repeated three times the next day. I never again lay down on duty.
The ship was crawling with rats and it was alleged twenty dead ones were fished out of the water-tanks one day while we were at sea. We had reason to believe this, as the food and drink on board always had a queer smell and taste, and in fact when we docked in Singapore, half the troops were suffering from colic or stomach disorders.
We were now on continual lookout as we neared the Banka Straits as it was thought this very narrow strip of water would be a likely target area for subs. However, we squeezed through and headed for Singapore.
The radio informed us of a terrible tragedy in waters, I think to the immediate north of us, which would have extremely detrimental consequences on stemming the advance of the Japs in Malaya, and that was the incredible news that H.M.S. Prince of Wales and H.M.S. Repulse had been sunk. We were absolutely flabbergasted at this horrific news.
Our turn soon came, and the morning before we landed in Singapore the beautiful sunny sky was suddenly filled with Jap planes making a beeline for our little convoy.
Machine-guns, bren guns, a Merlin, and squads of men with .303 rifles were assembled on all decks ready for action, and the Jap pilots felt the full force of this fire-power.
My respect for our Commanding Officer on this occasion was increased considerably, as he was as cool as a cucumber. When the action started he stationed himself at the forward end of the ship and took complete control of the situation. Shouting to us that haphazard firing was of no value, he would give the signal when to open fire, however, on occasions planes were coming in at us from left, right and centre, and one had to use one's own discretion, but when the attack was by one plane only, the pilot knew he was in a fight, there was no Koma-Kazi, and planes came in on a flattish gradient, and I well remember one plane, whose pilot's face could easily be seen gritting his teeth and firing his guns as he carne over us to release his bombs, and the front of that plane was being riddled with thousands of rounds of ammunition. The accuracy was so good it appeared every shot was streaming into the nose of the plane, and the result was very encouraging as just before he got in a position to release his bombs, the wings tilted one way then another and he veered off, losing height as he attempted to reach dry land, success No. 1, but we had no time for congratulating ourselves as more planes were heading very menacingly towards us, and we were firing so much ammunition, the deck we were on was covered with empty casings, and if we moved we slipped on to our back-sides.
The ship behind us, the Empress of Asia, was getting more attention at this stage than we on the Felix Roussell were, and eventually a direct hit seemed to stop her in her tracks, and this unfortunately left her a sitting duck, which the Japs took full advantage and hit her again and again.
Nets were thrown over the sides and lifeboats were being lowered and men were scrambling into the sea as the poor old Empress took fire and smoke poured over the sea.
That part of their mission accomplished the Japs now turned their full attention to us, and the Felix was attacked with ferocity. Lt. Col. Thomas was shouting instructions "Hold your fire”, "Hold your fire”, “Now, fire”, and the small arms fire power ripped into the attacking planes, one often wondered how the hell the Jap pilots were surviving as the amount of ammunition streaming into the noses of their planes was so very heavy it seemed unbelievable that they could continue their run in at us, but they did, and bombs started to hit the target, one just missed my head and swooshed past my ears, exploding amongst men on the deck below ours. This particular bomb was an incendiary and it showered a big area of the ship, including our deck.
All of us had immediately lain flat when we saw this bomb on target, and as I lay on my face I was conscious of a hit on my back, and Oh! How it hurt. I honestly felt I had a huge piece of shrapnel lodged in my body, and shouted for one of my gunners for assistance, however, when he reached me, and I pointed to the position of my wound, he said “Where is it” and retorting "Don’t be funny,” he assured me the mark was no bigger than a little finger nail. I was surprised when I could stand up, however, I was extremely pleased and had to resume action stations as more planes were coming at us.
One huge bomb missed us by a few yards and the sea spurted up in a wave just above our heads, and having informed my comrade Jacky Daintree of West Allotments, Northumberland, just before this incident that I couldn't swim and didn't know what the hell I would do if we were hit, he immediately shouted for me to jump on the spurting wave, and I would go gently down to sea level, but I ignored the advice.
The beginning of the air-raid had all of us quaking in our shoes as this was our first action, and being new to it, we didn't really know what to do, but as it progressed we were really hitting out and although I never actually saw any enemy planes crash into the sea, there were several which we had virtually torn apart and they veered off losing height and waffling from side to side as they did so, and believe it or not, we were informed we had been credited with at least half-a-dozen planes downed by our action. I understand our Commanding Officer was awarded the French Croix-de-Guerre medal for our part in this, our initial action.
I believe we had four bombs hit our ship and incredibly only four lives were lost and not so many injured.
At last the enemy planes ran out of bombs and for a moment the sky was clear and quiet, and the dead were buried in the usual naval tradition during the lull.
Whether or not the Japs thought we had taken too high a toll of their planes, and could more easily deal with us later, I don't know, but although enemy planes were often seen in the sky, they did not attack us again, and we steamed up and proceeded on our journey nearer and nearer to Singapore.
Passing a small island where Bofor guns could be seen, the Gunners waved and shouted their praise to us, and one wag with a loud hailer shouted “Are there any Geordies aboard?” now, what a chorus for him when a hundred voices shouted back, “Yes about a thousand, we are the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers,” which was answered by an enormous cheer and clapping that lasted until we had sailed out of sight. The song “Wherever you go you're sure to find a Geordie,” was proved once again.
Dusk was approaching when we sighted Singapore and what a sight to behold, as it looked as though the whole island was on fire with black plumes of heavy smoke rising into the sky.
We wondered if there would be room to dock, but as we approached nearer we could see it wasn't as bad as it looked from further out to sea, however, Nip bombers were pounding other parts of the island, and a huge column of black smoke belched skywards which was obviously a direct hit on an oil storage installation, in the direction of the Naval base, but more of that, later.
The docks where we were pulling into to disembark had had a clattering, and bomb damage was extremely heavy, with many buildings flattened, and lots more on fire, and there were thousands of natives, Chinese and Malaysians working like hell on the damage, and hunting for people buried under the debris. What a welcome to this Island Fortress!
The 9th Battalion R.N.F. disembarked and set foot on our final destination after cruising around the world for more than three months, “Greetings Singapore, now your troubles are over,” said a wag as we stumbled down the gang-plank with our kit-bags, haversacks, rifles, ammunition, and other fighting equipment. How wrong could one be!
Army trucks drove alongside the docks and we scrambled aboard to be whisked through the streets of the city, which was now in total darkness excepting the light from the stars, and a moon, which appeared frightened to come out from behind the clouds.
The city was jam-packed with people scuffling about like bees in a honey-pot and although it was nearly midnight, there would be little sleep for those searching in the bombed buildings for their loved ones.
Our transport sped through the streets and we had our first glimpses, albeit in the comparative dark, of the city of which the only knowledge, we had was from our geography lessons, way, way, back at school, and even in these conditions it appeared to have the Oriental mystique.
Travelling at speed we cleared the heavily built-up areas and out into the fringes, of the city where sporadic buildings of timber and attap roofs, lined the highway and a mixture of nationalities were sitting or standing, outside, Chinese and Indians of the poorer classes in their national garb. The Chinese wore pretty shirts, which always appeared too big for them, and baggy black silk trousers with sandals on their feet, never socks! The Indians with what appeared a white bed sheet slung around and draping their whole bodies sometimes looked more like ghosts than human beings. We often compared their dress with the Jocks kilt and wondered what they wore underneath, if anything!
The night air was stiflingly humid and the sweat poured from me and my comrades who all had khaki-drill shirts and pants, stockings, boots, and steel helmets to cater with as we were bounced up, down, and sideways on the army truck.
At last the trucks stopped and as we jumped off with our kit, we were led into a heavily treed area, and assembled for roll call in our Companies, mine being ‘Z’ Company.
Recalling the men who made up this Company, I do so with sorrow and sadness, as so many really good and fine comrades stood on that parade, the last for so many, who would either be killed in battle or succumb to the deprivations of the Japanese as prisoners of war, but amazingly some would survive four years of sheer and unadulterated hell, and live to tell the tale. I was one of the few fortunate enough to see it through.