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John Garner now retells the start of his epic escape from the Japanese. 

 

I was only standing idle for a couple of days but I knew I’d be getting involved in what was going on, as I’d already been issued with fresh kit, whereas some of the lads were still almost naked. They looked more like refugees than well-trained sailors. Initially, I was sent to guard a fuel depot, it wasn’t very exciting work, but all the Marines I was with knew the Japs were going through Malaya like a knife through butter. This had to mean we’d be getting involved against them sooner or later. It was just after Christmas when things began to turn very ugly; I’d previously watched our troops leaving for Malaya and although we were now pulling out of there, hardly any had come back, It could only mean one thing; our lads were being slaughtered. I think the last regiments to pull back over the Johore Causeway were the Argyll Highlanders, they’d taken a massive beating and were down in numbers to about two hundred men. Subsequently, the remaining Marines off both our ships were sent to Tyarsell Park, to meet up with their survivors. As both our ships had been Plymouth vessels it was decided to form a new regiment, we’d now all be known as the Plymouth Argyles. 
The combined force was quite evenly matched, consisting of two companies of men; I became a signalman in ‘A’ company. Time was of the essence, but we still managed to have a few days training with our new regiment. Eventually we had to go and face the Japs and moved out to a place called Kranji. Readers who are well versed in the war time history of this part of the world will also be aware that this same place is now one of the largest cemeteries in the Far East for allied servicemen. It is also sadly the final resting-place for some of the Plymouth Argyles who fought the actions I shall now recollect.   
To begin with we destroyed the surrounding oil and fuel depots, then had to dig in. The weather was atrocious as it never seemed to stop raining and everywhere was knee deep in thick black mud. As soon as you completed a trench, it would immediately fill up with water. This and other problems meant that quite a few of our lads never saw any action, as they came down with Malaria. The message came through the ranks that the Japs had crossed the causeway and the only thing stopping the rout of Singapore was the men in their way. 

 

The Gurkhas covered our right flank and on the left were the Australians, we were told that they’d be hitting us first. I don’t remember thinking that much of it at the time, being more concerned that my rifle was fully operational and free from mud and debris It wasn’t long afterwards that they were on us, everyone fought their hearts out and they couldn’t budge us one inch. The fighting was severe; we were suffering a lot of casualties, but so were they. The Japanese had fetched new forms of warfare into the fray. For once we had proved too resilient for them. Instead of trying to find a weakness in our lines they went along the whole line of resistance until they managed to make a breach, forcing their way through the Aussies lines. The vast majority of their lads had come straight off the boats, with little or no training. Obviously this didn’t give them a chance against battle hardened soldiers.   
After breaking through they started to encircle our regiment; I managed to escape certain death by swimming across a river; some were less fortunate. They died where they stood, as at that time the Japs had even less interest in taking prisoners. We regrouped and fell back to one of our lines that were supposed to be held by the Sikhs. On reaching it we could see that there wasn’t one of them there, they’d even left the Vickers machine guns in place and fully loaded. We took up positions using the Sikhs weapons. However, once we gave resistance, the Japs again began to encircle our company. 
I think I’m correct in my recollection that we fought one more rearguard action after this, before making for a village called Buckatemar, situated on the main road joining Singapore to the Johore causeway. Once there, we regrouped and the officers in charge started to do a head count. It didn’t take them long. We started that morning with a company of some 90 men; once everyone was accounted for we mustered 29. We then tried to hold a small river crossing, but again the Japs showed their ingenuity. We were firing at what we thought were men trying to cross, but they’d thrown bags of coconuts in the river, we’d been giving our hidden positions away by the smoke from our discharging rifles. This again showed to what degree the Japs had been preparing for this conflict. One other point that I became aware of later on in the war was that they had smaller rifles than our soldiers. We again had been led to believe this would make them inferior in a battle against the 303’s that were our standard issue. Sadly again they’d done their homework in a couple of areas, firstly it was accepted that our rifles had more hitting power, but if one of their bullets caught you properly you’d obviously die. More to the point is that smaller rifles require lighter ammunition, which meant they could carry more bullets. Secondly they soon realised that it wasn’t in our nature to leave an injured man. As such they’d be quite happy to just wound a man, as he’d take two or three men out of the fight just caring for him. Whereas they’d leave their best friend on the jungle floor before pulling out of any action, at that time in the beginning of the war against them it gave their soldiers yet another advantage over ours. 
Eventually we pulled back to Singapore, it was hopeless to continue as our losses were appalling and the morale of the allied forces had completely fallen apart. It was terrible to walk through Singapore and see no semblance of discipline. The once upper crust Raffles Hotel was full of drunken servicemen. I don’t understand to this day what must have been going through their minds, but I suppose I knew more than they did, because I’d seen just how fiercely the Japs had been fighting to capture Singapore. Although at that time I never imagined they’d have stooped to the levels they did against captured men. I was also sure I didn’t want to be around when the island would inevitably fall. I was determined to get away. 
On the 15th February the impregnable Fortress of Singapore capitulated. Unfortunately I was still on the island at that point, but was also looking for any form of transport to get me from there. I made my way down to Raffles harbour and met up with an Australian soldier, his name was Bill Bland. He was a smashing bloke. We immediately found our common interest was to put as much space between the Japs and us as possible. So we made our way to Kepple harbour and came across a group of Australians who had a motor boat. It was only about 20 feet in length and seeing as there were about 11 of them, it was going to be a tight squeeze. They asked us did we want to take a chance. We didn’t need to be offered twice, and quickly set out for a small island in the Malacca Straits. It was an awful sight leaving the harbour; all of Singapore was ablaze, I couldn’t help thinking back to the time not much more than two months previous, when we’d sailed in on Repulse. To see how badly things had gone in that short while didn’t give any of us much hope for the future.   
However, our troubles were far from over as halfway across to the island the engine cut out. We attempted restarting it, but to no avail, the only option was to row and I think this took somewhere in the region of 7 hours. Thankfully not one of the many Japanese boats and planes in the area spotted us, the consequences of this happening didn’t bear thinking about. I remember being very apprehensive when first landing, thankfully our luck was in. It was inhabited by Chinese, and they treated us proud, offering a simple but filling, meal of fish and rice, after this we got our heads down for the night.   
The following morning, these people who have never received any favours throughout history by our country, risked their own lives in getting us away from the Japs. They are the finest race of people I have ever met and to this day hold a special place in my heart. We were smuggled out in small crafts, the Chinese covering us in leaves and whatever else was at hand; as we began our quest to evade the Japanese who were looking for men such as ourselves who should have obeyed orders and stayed in Singapore. 

 

We sailed right on the shorelines of the small islands that are all over this part of the world and they certainly knew their stuff, as again our luck held out and we finally landed on quite a big island. I can’t remember the name these days, but I think it was ‘Paulo’ something. On entering the harbour we could see an old tug there called ‘Trader the Second’. All her crew was ashore, either sleeping or getting drunk. The Australian in charge of us decided that he wasn’t going to wait around to ask for a lift so I suppose we were all part of an act of piracy, as we boarded her and tried to sail away. I say tried, because some bright spark forgot to cast off and we certainly left our mark, because we pulled their pier down before getting clear. I remember one of the Aussies shouting to the natives. ‘It’s alright Churchill will pay for that.’ We knew that this was our only chance of escape and all pulled together as one unit, our main worry was the boat had very little fuel onboard so anything that would burn was broken up and used. Once again, we had no option, but to use the islands as cover. This may sound like some ‘Boys Own’ story, but it’s the truth, we had nothing left to use as fuel and our situation was desperate. Then miraculously we came upon a small Dutch settlement; in the harbour of which, was a mountain of coal. I remember thinking we could sail to Southampton with this lot. After refuelling it was decided to take a chance and try and get clear of the area now known to be held by the Japs. 
This was the most worrying time of all, as we’d be easy prey for anything that spotted our tug. As you’re aware we couldn’t outrun anything and except for throwing lumps of coal had nothing to fight back with. The closest call we had was when about halfway across the Malacca Straits, a Jap plane flew over us, appearing very inquisitive. Although in our favour by this time was we must have looked like natives as we wore the same clothes as they did. He flew back once more, but seemed happy enough with what he’d seen and went on his way. 
We finally reached our destination of Sumatra, but one more obstacle remained; the tidal river of the Indrigarri. The skipper asked could anyone swing the lead (take depth soundings) I volunteered, so this was the way we sailed some 80 miles inland to Dutch colonial town of Rengat. It was decided at this point that we’d disperse and take our chances. I have to say that they were great blokes and it was an honour to have been with them, but Bill and myself would now be fending for each other.  

We now move onto stoker John Dykes tale of the fate that befell him with the fall of Singapore. The full account of his life after the Japanese conquest of the island will be told at the end of the stories given by his former shipmates, during their war time years.

After a couple of days I managed to get some clothing from the naval stores, this by itself made me feel a lot better as up until that time, I had literally nothing to wear, having lost everything when Repulse sank. A few days later I went out of the docks where I’d been since the battle. It was a shock to see the panic and mayhem all around. Whilst in the confines of the naval yard we’d been to some extent isolated from the truth. This being the Japs were tearing through our defensive lines in Malaya. 
I didn’t know what to do, but I certainly wasn’t going to sit back and do nothing except get drunk, as some of the other allied servicemen had started doing. It was terrible to see the whole of Singapore fall into disarray. The main cause of this was that the ordinary servicemen were watching all the main high ranking officers leave the island everyday. The reason given for this was usually that they had to go elsewhere for logistical reasons, usually to form fresh regiments for a counter offensive. This was such a pathetic excuse the island hadn’t fallen. In fact, fresh troops were arriving every day, yet they’d decided to go and regroup, when the battle hadn’t been lost. This had two main effects, firstly there weren’t enough officers of high quality to effectively manage the huge numbers of troops on the island and secondly it destroyed all the remaining morale amongst servicemen left behind.   
I thought my luck had changed when in the region of two weeks or so after our sinking I was in the docks and who should I bump into, but one of the P/O stokers off Repulse. He was pleased and relieved to see me, as believe it or not, he was on a mine sweeper that couldn’t get out to commence its sweeping operations, because they couldn’t find enough stokers to man her. I quickly remedied this point, informing him of the whereabouts of other stokers. In no time we had a full compliment and set out on our clearance work in the waters around Singapore. As with other sailors, I was happy to be back at sea, but now I could see the full and hopeless situation confronting this doomed island. It was a daunting task in carrying out our clearance operations as the Japs were laying the mines far faster than we could locate them and a lot of our shipping was being sunk everyday because of this.   
As I think back to that far-off time, in the comfort of my own home it’s near the festive season, this makes me vividly recall how I spent that Christmas day 1941. We’d tied up on one of the small islands off Singapore and had no provisions of any kind. This was relayed to the mainland and they sent out a small picket boat to drop off some supplies. They needn’t have bothered, as for we four stokers onboard, all we had between us was one two pound can of stewed steak. Mind you, I’d have given my left arm for that same can twelve months later, but that’s another story. 

 

Time and the war were moving on and everything was going the way of the Japanese, I don’t mind admitting that I’d have been extremely happy to have sailed away from this area and never return. Sadly, this couldn’t happen, our work was too important. The seas around Singapore would have been impossible to navigate, if it hadn’t been for all the minesweepers, doing constant clearance work. I was by now, becoming increasingly worried about my fate as the Japs had managed to cross the last remaining obstacle for the conquest of Singapore, the Johore Causeway. It was now obvious the island would fall, subsequently we’d been told to make an escape when the position was finally hopeless. This seemed to lift my spirits somewhat as l now felt we hadn’t been overlooked and at least we’d be able to take our chances on the open seas.   
Sadly this wasn’t to be. I think it was on the 12th or 13th February when in the Malacca Straits, we encountered a Jap cruiser, obviously we didn’t have a chance and she soon had our range. It was a totally one sided battle; in a matter of minutes we’d been sunk. Thankfully, they didn’t bother with us after this, steaming off, most probably looking for more victims. I’d got onto a life raft with the rest of the crew and we made for a small island actually in the straits, which took about 1˝ hours to reach. We landed and made a form of shelter for the night as it was going dusk. I remember thinking if I carried on in this way, soon no one would sail with me, my second sinking in as many months. I felt I was becoming a ‘Jonah’. The next day as we could see no signs of life we assumed the island was uninhabited. It wasn’t uncommon in this area, as some of the islands were so small they were incapable of sustaining human life. However, this was to be the last major mistake any of us would make for a long time.   
The island was inhabited, but not by natives; the Japanese had taken it and in our ignorance we walked straight into one of their patrols; it was the biggest shock I ever received. They took us at bayonet point to a sort of transit camp where other previously captured men were being held. It was terrifying. I didn’t know what would happen to me. A small insight into all our futures was gained when two allied officers began to fight over an empty can. Initially I couldn’t see the reason for this, until a man who’d been in the place for a few days told me that without a utensil to hold food in, they wouldn’t issue you with any rations. Therefore, that day I didn’t eat.   
The following morning I was to see another incident that gave me little hope of future fair treatment. One of the higher-ranking Jap officers had reason to mete out discipline to one of his subordinates, this was done in a frightening manner. He literally beat the soldier to the ground with a massive stick; the man was given this punishment until the officer had done, what he felt was enough damage to him. We had no idea why he was punished, but no attempt was made by anyone to intervene in this matter. None of us had ever seen this sort of treatment given to any of our servicemen before, but the Japs just accepted it and got on with their work. I was immediately aware that if they’d do this to their own, then there was no point in any of us complaining because we’d obviously receive worse treatment. I admit that initially, I felt sorry for this soldier after seeing his public humiliation, but it was the last time I ever felt any compassion towards any of them. All of us in years to come would receive beatings far in excess of this spectacle on our first day of captivity. It was to become a way of life and sadly, some would receive one beating too many, and never taste freedom again. I later found out that we’d landed on Banka Island, our following day of captivity dawned with no food for the vast majority of us.   
I began to worry when they started to rouse us with their rifle butts and made us walk into the village of Mottocke, unbeknownst at the time, this was my first day of 3˝ years forced labour. They had us transferring loads off barges that had tied up at the jetty and taking the goods under cover and in a matter of days we all received our first proper beatings as they were anxious to show us how things were going to be. Anyone that showed the slightest insolence, no matter what form this would take, even a slightly long stare, would send these animals into a rage. This was to carry on for several more days, but at least I managed to get some food inside me. Although it was only a bowl of foul smelling rice, I willingly ate it. It’s just as well because this was to be my staple diet in the years that lay ahead. 

 

Once all the barges had been unloaded and we’d been told of the triumphant Japanese victory in Singapore, they began putting labels on what was left of our clothing. It turned out that these corresponded with the their identification number of our ship that they’d sunk; ours was 21. I soon learnt my first Japanese word, because it was constantly screamed at our group from our first day of captivity. It was ‘Kikai’ it meant ‘engine room’. It was plain to a blind man they had something in store for us, but at the time I was more interested in trying to stay alive. Since leaving Singapore I’d been in the company of a stoker from the Prince of Wales whose name was Fred Marlow. I soon realised he was the only good thing that was going to happen to me in the years that lay ahead.   
It didn’t take long to find out why they made us remember to say Kikai, after 7-8 days on the island Fred, myself and some of the other engine room personnel were taken onto a minesweeper, which was under the supervision of two Japanese sailors. These men seemed a little more approachable than our guards on the island, and through means of sign language they made it clear that they wanted us to go down below and get up steam. Subsequently a short while later we were on our way off the island, in company with half a dozen other ships full of prisoners, escorted by a Jap cruiser. As it grew dusk we anchored for the night although the Japs left us in no doubt that we have no-chance to jump ship. When a destroyer with a huge searchlight circled the ships for the full duration of darkness, making sure everyone stayed onboard. 
The following day we arrived in Singapore and from here an era began in my life that has never left me. All the recollections I shall offer in further chapters are in memory of fellow friends and prisoners of war that never returned. I have never forgotten them or the degradation we all suffered under the hands of our inhumane captors, but at least some of us did return to give people of future generations an insight into how we suffered. Let us hope it cannot ever happen again.

 

Ian Hay now tells of his feelings and hopes, to escape Singapore before the inevitable defeat of the allies at the hands of the Japanese. 

I’d been on dockyard duties for somewhere in the region of 5-6 weeks in fact, I hadn’t moved from there since our sinking. Thankfully my best mate Michael was still with me. For the last couple of weeks we’d been serving under two P/O’s, one of whom I knew, as he’d been on Repulse, his name was Wilkinson. The other had served on the Prince of Wales his name was Pascal. They were both good fair men and certainly helped to keep spirits up in these tense times. We’d just about come to the end of our work duties in the harbour, as all the aviation fuel had been transferred onto merchant ships and taken from the island. Shortly afterwards we took part in the destruction of many new aircraft and their spares along with, machinery, cars, lorries and almost anything that could be used by the Japanese. I truly hated doing this work as it proved to one and all, that although there’d been no talk of surrender, it was obviously going to happen. I then began to have very deep concerns over my own safety, as I didn’t feel like spending any more time on this island, to do so would make it inevitable that I’d either be captured or worse still killed by the marauding Japanese. By this time I was praying for orders to make our way from the place, and after a couple of days of official vandalism, P/O Wilkinson informed us that we were to leave the docks and go up to the Seletar, Royal Air Force Base. We arrived late in the evening and the officer in charge told us to get some sleep, as he’d see us in the morning. I don’t think any of us could wait for daybreak. I for one, felt we’d be off the island in a matter of hours.   
After my first good nights rest in weeks, I just about managed to get up although once awake the excitement began to mount. We made our way to be addressed by what we thought would be Air Force personnel. After 10 minutes or so the brass began to arrive I didn’t recognise any of them which is understandable. Until I’m sure it was P/O Wilkinson said, ‘There’s Spooner’ he was our first skipper on Repulse, and we soon found out, he was there to pick out naval personnel, but none of us had any idea what the purpose of these duties would be. 
He came over, confirming we were the ratings from Repulse and Prince of Wales then informed us we were to man a motor gunboat presently moored at the Princess Pier. Going on to say, we were to go to it immediately, once there we’d be given our full orders. I couldn’t help thinking how much war had aged this man; he now looked tired and drawn. I suppose this wasn’t surprising, he was one of the few high-ranking officers to stay behind in Singapore, subsequently the pressures on him must have been immense.   
I was to some degree disappointed with our fresh orders, although at least we were now back on a boat of sorts, this would give us some hope of escape should the opportunity arise. We were taken to the pier by wagon, which was driven by an RAF rating. It chilled my blood to hear him talk of the way the Japanese had been tearing through our lines in Singapore. Like us, he felt that it was only a matter of time till the island fell and he was also praying for a means of escape before it was too late. Dropping us at the pier we wished each other good luck and he was soon on his way.

 

Our P/Os found the vessel and within minutes an officer came over, the boat needed some work to make it seaworthy; to this end he’d found us a Chief Engine Room Artificer (ERA), in layman’s terms, a genius with ships’ engines. It appeared they couldn’t get any life out of the boat’s power plant, but he soon remedied this situation. The vessel was called P12, and we were also informed that once seaworthy we’d report to the main harbour at Kepple. He stressed the urgency of the predicament; mind you he needn’t have bothered. If this was to be our means of escape, then I’m sure we’d have paddled it out of Singapore.   
On the second day of repairs we managed, in our own eyes to redress the balance of the loss of our ships. Japanese bombers flew very low over this area on their way back from bombing raids on the city. This was a safe route for them, as all the previous AA guns stationed in this district had been put out of action early on in the fight for the island. Unknown to the Japs, the gun onboard was back in working order and one of the planes presented a clear and easy target to Michael who was manning the gun. Once hit it immediately burst into flames; to me it looked to be the same type of bomber that had attacked Repulse. Later in the war these would come to be known as a one shot lighter as they had no armoured protection for the crew or fuel tanks. To this day, it still make me wonder, how a well-drilled ship like Repulse would have fared against these death trap planes if we’d been given adequate AA weapons. However that was in the past; for that one moment at least, we’d extracted a revenge of sorts. 
No sooner had the cheering ceased than an officer appeared telling us to get the boat away as soon as possible as the other planes had seen the incident and no doubt would report that fresh AA guns were in position. He was sure they’d send fighters over to take them out. This wasn’t a problem as the ERA had worked wonders with the engine therefore, within a couple of hours we set off for Kepple. It’s ironic to recall that we’d only been tied up in our safe dock for some 30 minutes or so when a water barge lost control and rammed us, damaging the bow; in seconds she’d partially sank. I began to despair, but then I saw at first hand the intelligence and ingenuity of P/O Pascal. He went ashore and collected as many cork lifebelts as he could and tied them along the bow, then ordered a couple of us to start baling with a stirrup pump. All this was accomplished in a matter of minutes and without question saved the boat, and our only means of escape. By the following morning all repairs had been completed and the vessel was ready for sea. It was at this point we received our main orders, although these were disappointing, as we couldn’t yet leave Singapore, we were to wait for a man to come down from the city and make sure we took him and his luggage with us. No specific time had been given for his arrival, this obviously made things far more risky, as now the fighting for Singapore itself could be heard in the distance. 
On the evening of the 14th February 1942 I have a deep recollection of a high ranking army officer coming down to the harbour and addressing us. He said we’d have to surrender the following day and there was no need to worry as the Japanese had sworn to abide by the Geneva Convention. I’m afraid he got a very hostile reception from all the sailors in the harbour. None of us were going to surrender and he was told this fact. It was so ridiculous. For days they wouldn’t allow these small craft to leave the island and now we were being told to surrender, P/O Pascal informed him that unless he had a direct order from a naval officer he would carry on as he saw fit. Later that evening our wireless operator ‘Andrews’ managed to contact Colombo informing them that if the agent wasn’t with us by first light we’d have no alternative, but to leave. Thankfully they agreed and it was an anxious wait till daybreak. All through the night small vessels had been leaving port, this was obviously the best time to go, but because of the time of day we’d be leaving, our journey to say the least, was going to be an exciting one. 

 

As first light dawned and the curtain came down on the colony of Singapore our man walked into the harbour. No frills or fanfare just an extremely tired and worried man in need of rest and a wash, I noticed he had a heavy canvas bag clipped, to his arm. On the bottom of it were holes and through these I could clearly see pieces of lead. For obvious reasons, whatever its contents he didn’t want it getting into the wrong hands. He was polite and quite friendly, but you sometimes have a feeling with certain people that this, is as friendly as they’re going to be and that’s how it was with him. 
With that we left the utter shambles of the fall of Singapore. It was the greatest defeat Britain had ever suffered and was one of the saddest days of my life, I couldn’t help myself from thinking to how all the rich British colonials had felt as the island fell. Its obvious to me, their main concern would have been for the vast fortunes they were about to lose and not the manner in which their new masters would treat them. Unfortunately no one was aware just how low the Japanese would stoop in their reprisals against the allies, this went far beyond the realms of warfare. 
Sailing at high speed, hugging the shorelines we were thankfully never engaged by any hostiles, our main concern was for fresh supplies of fuel, as we’d left with our tanks half full, obviously this wouldn’t get us fully clear of the Japs. Our wireless operator received a signal that we should make for the Dutch colonies, in particular Sarawat, as this was a port with ample supplies of fuel. We accomplished this in a day or so and once refuelled, decided to sail through the Banka Straits enroute to Australia, as this would be the quickest route to safety. Again the wireless operator saved the day; as by this time we’d joined up with another motor gunboat and we’d sail together, he’d sent this message onto Colombo. They responded by telling us, under no circumstances should we sail through the Straits, as Surabaya had fallen. This now meant our only feasible escape route was to be inland up the Jambi River  

 

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