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Escape from the brink

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Once showered and in receipt of some fresh kit, I made my way down to the canteen. Whilst eating my last substantial meal for the coming days, one of the personnel on duty informed me of the type of situation we were going into; his words filled me with dread. All but one or two minor actions on the mainland had ended in defeat for the Allies, and on all fronts we were being pushed back at an unbelievable pace. Even more worrying was that up until the time of our departure we still didn't know what our duties would consist of, once we hit Malaya. However I do have one pleasant recollection of that day; this occurred when I met some old Repulse lads in barracks. We spent a short while discussing the troubled times that lay ahead. I enquired if they knew the whereabouts of my (towny) Stan Hayward. Unfortunately they'd also lost touch with him, but were of the opinion that he'd been evacuated from Singapore. This was the correct assumption and Stan and I were never to meet again until the end of the war.

My greatest worry concerning possible future orders were that I'd be expected to fight alongside our troops in the jungle. This fear was well founded, as from the first day back in Singapore after the loss of Repulse many of my shipmates had immediately been sent over the Johore Causeway to fight alongside the army; most would never return. I was a sailor and as such had no problems performing my duties on a warship during any action. However, I'd have absolutely no idea what to do when encountering a battle-hardened force of enemy soldiers within the confines of a dense and hostile jungle.

It wasn't long till we were on our way; the army laid on two wagons to hasten our journey up to the frontline. They travelled deep into the night with dimmed lighting to evade detection from the many Japanese planes constantly patrolling the area. After crossing the Causeway we made swift progress; the first dropping off point was "Bata-Pahat" to which I was to return in the not-too distant future, although it would be under far more harrowing circumstances. On arrival quite a large number of our party disembarked taking up defensive positions around the encampments perimeter. This was somewhat worrying particularly, when we were informed that our final destination was a town called "Muar" which was some 30mls or so further up the coast of Malaya. If our officers were accepting the fact that "Bata-Pahat" would come under fire then I was most concerned about what they expected to occur at Muar.

The final stint of our journey was very uncomfortable, the truck rattled and banged over rough track roads. This, along with the wooden bench seats made our back-sides numb to such a degree that every so often we took turns in standing up to shake some life back into our deadened limbs. After an hour or so we ground to a halt, the Sergeant in charge told everyone to get out and stretch their legs. He finished his deliberations with a warning that still makes me shudder. As we jumped out he said "Right lads walk around but stay on the road, don't walk in the grass the whole area's teeming with crocodiles". I'd been looking forward to a quick stroll and a smoke; as soon as he mentioned "crocs" I dived straight back into the wagon.

Shortly afterwards we reached our final destination. I'd found myself in the company of two Repulse shipmates, namely a scouser called "Delahunty" and a young cockney lad whom I can only remember as "Blondie" along with a stoker I hadn't previously met. Leading our small group was a P/O from the barracks at Singapore, once disembarked we lined up, the officer in charge who began delegating work parties. Our group was under the direct orders of the 45th Indian Brigade; their main duties were over-seeing the withdrawal of troops across the Muir River. The C/O informed us that we'd be operating a motor launch, towing a pontoon across the opposing riverbanks. Adding that we'd only carry out these duties if our army was pushed back by the attacking Japanese forces. However it didn't take a military genius to realise our army was actually in full retreat and due to the nature of our work it was obvious that once the forces in this vicinity began to withdraw we'd be among the last service personnel allowed to evacuate.

 

After having a meal of sorts we were taken down to the jetty were we saw our boat for the first time Owing to the strong currents in evidence we decided to take it out for a trial run. The river was about half a mile wide and it didn't take long for the P/O to work out the safest route across. After about fifteen minutes we reached the opposing bank with no mishaps. Once tied up we decided to have a quick scout around, there wasn't much to see. The only thing of note was a car that was parked close to a fuel dump apart from that it was jungle as far as the eye could see. Shortly after this we returned to the comparative safety of the other bank. Our P/O then went over to the army camp which was situated a short distance from the jetty to enquire if they had any further orders for our group to carry out that evening. He also asked if they had any updated news of the conflict-taking place a few miles away.

We spent this lull in activities chatting and wondering if we'd ever make it out of this dire situation. For myself I was desperate to reassure Teresa of my well being, however this was impossible; it was hard enough to get supplies into our area, so the relative luxury of having mail delivered was out of the question. I have to add that for my entire time in this part of the world she was always the one focus of my attention, I had no doubts that whatever situation I found myself in, I was going to return home. The determination to see her again was always my main driving force whenever my morale took a plunge.

The P/O returned with some sobering news, our troops were fighting a rear-guard action and it would only be a matter of time before we'd be operating the ferry in earnest. Adding that at present, things were quiet, and as such we were to "stand down, get a bite to eat and grab some sleep". A short while later the stoker in our company began to scream in pain; apparently he'd picked up some sort of ailment and was in a real bad way. The C/O took the decision that he must return to Singapore for medical treatment. He told our Petty Officer to return with him as an escort. Inside of an hour they left; we never saw them again.

 

After a few hours we made our way down to the jetty, then it began to rain, this persisted at an unbelievable intensity for hours. Eventually we were issued with oilskins and wellingtons but such was the ferocity of the downpour, every so often we'd have to brave the conditions and bale out the boat, otherwise it could easily have sunk. This was the beginning of the monsoon season and we caught the full brunt of it. Any further hopes of shelter were soon shattered with the arrival of a messenger. He informed us that the Japs were on the move and we'd have to remain on station to aid withdrawal of retreating troops. Thankfully he also brought a massive can of piping hot tea. From that point on, it really did become a life and death situation; every journey was fraught with fear. There was a solitary road leading to and from the jetty and it was a heart-stopping moment whenever we seen any soldiers walking towards us.

The reason for this was quite simple, with all the confusion surrounding movements of the Japanese; we could have easily been surprised by one of their forward reconnaissance groups.

Such was the speed of their conquests, it was difficult to gain accurate reports of their relative positions throughout the course of each day. During that first damp freezing night a couple of Indian troops came over and relieved us, they went on to say that the C/O had ordered us back to camp for some food and warmth. After drying out we got our heads down for an hour or so; all too soon a Sergeant dragged us from our slumber. On returning to the jetty the impatience of the Indian lads was beyond belief even though they reported "all was quiet"; they still couldn't wait to get back to camp. It's funny to recall one small point over the situation, they had rifles, yet even though we could quite easily face Jap troops in the coming hours, we didn't even have a sharp stick between the three of us. I have to add that up until the actual moment we left this camp, not one of our group had a weapon of any kind. Our duties continued for a couple of bleak days; although matters were obviously coming to a head, every so often we could hear the sounds of distant gunfire. The Japs had to be on their way.

It must have been about the fourth evening of duties when we were told to report to the opposing bank. On arrival we were shocked to see a Brigadier and four officers, they were extremely pleased to see the pontoon intact and manned by friendly faces, after gathering their belongings they jumped onto the pontoon. The weather was still appalling and because of the persistent rain there was quite a heavy swell; this made disembarkation very tricky. I warned the Brigadier to steady his footing as we reached the docking point, but he paid little attention to my warning. As he went to step ashore the pontoon lurched upwards; he stumbled, then fell between the jetty and the pontoon. This could easily have been life threatening, as we couldn't reach him. Although it's still funny to recall that when he initially boarded the raft he was carrying a storm lamp. After he fell overboard the bloody thing kept alight, all we could see on attempting to rescue him was the lamp splashing around under water, with him hanging on the end of it.

 

Eventually we managed to drag him back onboard, he was quite shaken but once in control of his faculties, apologised for his impatience. With that they disappeared towards the army camp, although within a matter of fifteen minutes or so he reappeared, giving orders that that we were to go back across the river as soon as possible to collect the car parked up by the fuel depot. I'd hoped that our previous escapade with the Brigadier had sounded the finale of our ferry duties but it wasn't to be, at first light we set off for the vehicle. To say we weren't happy over this task would be an understatement, it was obvious by the localised gunfire that the Japs couldn't be far from the crossing and the capturing of our ferry would be of high priority to their fast moving army. He wasn't content with just being in receipt of the vehicle as he issued additional orders. These were to top it up with petrol from the adjacent fuel dump. On completion of this task, we were to gather as many empty cans as possible, fill them with petrol, then store them in the boot. He allayed our fears of confrontation with the Japanese by stating "Don't worry about the Japs, they're miles away, fighting stiff resistance in the jungle".

The operation was going quite smoothly, we'd finished filling the car and were now attempting to gather some cans. Suddenly Delahunty shouted "Hey lads can you see something moving up there". We both looked; I couldn't pick anything out so retorted "What". He replied "There darting in and out of the jungle". Blondie pointed towards the jungle line and said, " I see them now, I think they're natives". Delahunty wouldn't accept this explanation and retorted "You can bugger off they've got rifles come on lets get out of here". With that we left the remaining cans and pushed the car onto the pontoon. We'd only travelled about 100yds, when all hell broke loose, sure enough Delahunty was right. It was Jap troops and they immediately opened up with everything they had, within seconds bullets began tearing through the wooden deck of the pontoon. I was in charge of the launch and swung it from side to side in an attempt to avoid their fire. I still recall that we hadn't had time to apply the handbrake on the car, amazingly it stayed on the pontoon during that hectic trip. Mind you in view of what was about to happen I wish the bloody thing had gone overboard.

Thankfully in a matter of minutes we were safely back across, and after much frantic pushing and pulling the car was finally over the ramp and on firm ground. As soon as it was over the crest, one of the officers who arrived the previous evening drove the car into the camp, with our shaken group walking some distance behind. It was at this point that we were to see the Brigadier in his true light.

I was surprised that he didn't seem to be the least concerned over our recent ordeal, mind you this point was of little concern when compared to the actions taken by his group in the coming minutes. His entourage mustered themselves, walked over to the car and sat inside. Up until that time I still wasn't certain of their intentions but at that very moment they did the unthinkable. I was the leading hand of our trio and felt obliged to enquire as to what our next orders were to be. His reply is still clear in my mind.

The camp was almost deserted and as he looked around he spoke without making eye contact. " Well the camp's all but gone and there's no officers left to lead you and as we have no spare room in the car, I'm afraid you're on your own. We unfortunately have no alternative but to return directly to Singapore; so good luck and be careful".

 

My feelings of total disgust over their actions have never diminished. The three of us stood there for a while in total disarray. Literally miles away from safety, no weapons, no food or water but more importantly, no transport. We spent a short while cursing the now departed officers but it was soon apparent that we'd better make a move and gain some ground quickly, otherwise once the Japs crossed the river we'd soon be swept up and slaughtered. The crossing had been situated on the outskirts of Muar, as it was a somewhat isolated spot, we felt it best to head for town and try our luck at hitching a lift on one of the transports that would hopefully be in the process of evacuation.

It didn't take long to realise that this was a bad decision. On hitting the outskirts of town the sound of gunfire was everywhere. We had little doubt that the Japs were in the process of capturing it. In desperation we began to check the scores of abandoned vehicles lying about the outlying areas. It was no use; any vehicles that still had their keys in the ignition had been immobilised beyond feasible repair. The only alternative was to use "Shank's Pony" so we set off at quite a brisk pace.

After walking for a couple of hours we came across a group of Chinese civilians, initially they were very worried by our presence, most probably because they didn't recognise our uniforms. Thankfully after a short period of sign language we convinced them that we were British and were in desperate need of food and water.

Eventually they relaxed and helped us, as best they were able. It still causes me great concern to wonder about the fate that may have befallen the young girls who were in this group. If the Japs captured them, I can only imagine their terrible ordeal. After this short rest we thanked them as best we could and were soon on our way. Our route along the coast road was in the general direction of Singapore and we had about 110 miles to cover; it was a daunting prospect.

Later on during the course of the day we went through quite a dense area of jungle, I began to feel apprehensive, though mind you, we could never have imagined what was about to take place. As we approached a patch of tall grass, out jumped a "Gurkha", he appeared to be very agitated by our presence, although I was convinced we'd be OK. Surely he'd soon realise we were British sailors, I thought wrong. He also didn't recognise our uniforms and made it blatantly clear that we either, went down a path to which he was pointing; or alternatively died were we stood. With his rifle "cocked" and ready he didn't seem to care which option we chose. Needless to say in a matter of seconds we were walking along the path.

 

After a short journey we came across some bamboo buildings, emblazoned across the entrance to the largest hut was the insignia "9th Gurkha Regiment". He marched us over to a table at the far end of the building. Confronting us was his C/O, I will always remember his name it was "Colonel Osboro" and he was a different kettle of fish from the other so-called leaders of men who deserted us at the river crossing.

He quizzed me over how we'd got here. I told him that originally we'd been on Repulse and our present predicament came about after being left to our own devices at "Muar". Once happy with my replies he let us relax, then spent the next twenty minutes trying to find out what we knew of the latest Jap troop movements. It still makes me laugh to recollect the actions of Delahunty who wouldn't rest going into further details of how the officers left us behind at "Muar". I still remember his words. "We fetched them and the car across the river, then the rotten bastards left us behind". The Colonel told him to calm down but, I could tell that he truly did sympathise with our situation.

Immediately afterwards, we were given some sandwiches, a drink of tea and a few cigarettes, along with some fresh water bottles. Finally the Gurkhas offered what little packed food they could spare. After this touching show of hospitality, in the direst of circumstances the Colonel stated we must leave. Adding that as his force was expecting conflict with the Japanese in the very near future he felt it best if we made our escape whilst the going was still relatively good. We didn't need persuading.

I have to add that he was a fantastic man and his troops have left an everlasting impression on me. Not one of them seemed the least perturbed by the coming conflict, I would have been petrified. I never learnt of their final fate, but sadly have to add that they most probably perished in the coming days of action. During that terrifying period in the battle for Malaya, many allied servicemen overwhelmed by the Japs were put to the bayonet.

 

On walking out of the camp we were confronted by a Corporal who ordered us to follow him, no one knew what to expect. Thankfully it was good news. He led us over to a small truck, then enquired where we wanted to reach, we told him "Batu Pahat" he replied "OK lets go". Our elation was incredible, we'd expected to have to walk the next 30 miles or so and this would have taken a couple of days. Now we'd be there in a matter of hours, he could only have carried out this journey with the prior consent of Colonel Osboro. To this present day we owe our lives to this fine officer. We arrived at Batu Pahat and parted company, this small clearing in the jungle was now one of the main gathering points for retreating allied forces and it was full of wagons and other mechanised transports. Whilst walking around the depot it was obvious by the visible damage to the surrounding area, they'd received a lot of bombing raids from the Jap airforce.

I'd just managed to get a quick bite to eat from one of the mess tents when the officer in charge called our trio over. He told us to collect a rifle and the grand sum of five rounds of ammo each. What the hell he thought we could do with that measly amount of bullets, God only knows. Anyway, we followed his orders and had just picked up our weapons, when the Aircraft Alarm sounded, without hesitating we dived down a steep bank, then it started.

This was the worst aerial attack I've ever witnessed and in a matter of seconds the entire camp was decimated. As for the poor souls who'd been caught napping, they were slaughtered. I still remember watching Delahunty grimacing as the attack reached a crescendo, but it wasn't through fear of the bombers. The poor bugger had dived onto a nest of red ants and they were eating him alive. He obviously felt it best to let them have a meal before giving up this relatively safe hideout.

I can't put a realistic time on how long the attack lasted; it felt like hours; most probably it was only a few minutes. Once things quietened down, we climbed back into the camp; it was a scene of total devastation. Trucks were ablaze all the tents had been destroyed and countless men were dead and dying, it was truly terrible. For a short while we helped tend to the injured, some of whom I recognised as being with me when we first crossed into Malaya; sadly they would never see Singapore again. After a short while when we could do no more for them we left, heading for an RAF base a few miles down the road.

 

After walking for some time almost in a state of shock, we came across the camp. On entering it was hoped that maybe we could salvage some bits and pieces of kit, which would obviously help to ease our plight; it wasn't to be. The camp was almost deserted and anything that hadn't been taken when our forces left had subsequently been destroyed. However we did have one piece of good fortune, near to the entrance was a small truck with an officer onboard. He called us over enquiring as to what we were doing. We replied that we hoped to pick up a lift to Singapore. Without further a do he said "jump in"; a minute or two later his Sergeant appeared and we were on our way. They were both of Scotch descent and were fine men, as we began our journey, the officer burst into song. This certainly relieved some of the tension and I, for one, felt that in a matter of hours we'd be safely back in Singapore and the worst of our troubles would be far behind us. Sadly I was in for a big disappointment. A few miles from the Causeway a despatch rider approached us. The officer went over to speak to him, returning sullen faced he began his address by stating. "Well lads if you want to get to Singapore you'll have to jump out and walk. I'm sorry to say there's been an accident 20 miles back up towards Batu Pahat and we have to go and assist as quickly as possible".

We had no real decision to make, they'd been good enough to aid our escape and it wouldn't have been right to leave under these circumstances. Within minutes the truck had turned around and we were on our way. Thankfully it was an uneventful return journey, whilst enroute the officer informed us that we were going to the aid of some Australian troops. Apparently one of their Bren Gun carriers had gone over an elevated section of road subsequently the vehicle had trapped one of the occupants. On approaching the scene, impatience was very nearly my downfall.

 

As our truck ground to a halt, I jumped out and ran to the point where the carrier had gone over. I remember hearing the shout "Halt who goes there" I should have replied "Friend", but I didn't. As I scurried down the embankment a shot rang out, I immediately dropped to the ground. The next thing I remember were shouts of "Friend, Friend, hold your fire, thankfully he did. I scrambled to my feet and to this day I'm sure I can still feel the wind off that bloody bullet. The reason for my mishap was that an officer had stayed guard over his stricken subordinate. After this near-disaster he set about giving me the biggest rollicking of my life, finishing by saying, "Don't ever do that again, lad, you may not be so lucky next time". I stood there ashen faced without muttering a word in my defence, it was my mistake so there was little point in explanations.

The soldier's leg had been trapped when the vehicle turned over; as a result he was quite badly injured. On releasing him our Sergeant applied a splint, a short while later we got him up into the safety of the truck. As we climbed back onboard our officer really put the wind up us as he said, "Get under this tarpaulin and if anyone at all comes behind us, shoot the buggers". It was obvious he must have suspected Jap patrols to be close by. Thankfully we never encountered any, although the constant threat of air attack stayed with us all the way back to the Causeway. On reaching the bridge we could see our sappers placing explosives for the imminent destruction of the vital link between Singapore and Malaya. It wouldn't be long before there'd be no means of escape for the many allied troops left behind on the mainland.

 

Any feelings nurtured about the safety of our island fortress were soon shattered, travelling back towards Singapore City, the evening twilight sky was alive with scenes of burning devastation. From the docks to the city centre, was complete and utter chaos. On arrival at what remained of the docks we had no respite; almost immediately we were designated duties of helping with the embarkation of women and children onto waiting merchant ships in harbour. These day's it's very difficult to accurately recall, the panic and mayhem surrounding that time, as every few minutes fresh Jap planes would appear repeatedly bombing and strafing the dockyard area. It really was a terrifying situation and without doubt was one of the most worrying times I ever experienced.

We continued with these duties for a few panic ridden days, by now I was desperate to get from this place before it was too late. The Japs were over the Causeway and all the inhabitants of this island were fully aware that it would only be a matter of days before Singapore finally fell. The last vessel we helped to load was an American merchantman called the "SS West Point" she was a fine looking ship, and had previously been known as the, "SS America". Before the outbreak of war she held the "Blue Riband" for the Atlantic crossing. Helping people board her was a very risky operation as they were naturally terrified, matters weren't helped in any way by the Jap planes, which were constantly machine-gunning the exposed upper decks. This meant we had to take the civilians to the safety of the cabin areas. I must have carried this operation out a dozen times or so, when fate played a vital hand in my fortunes.

 

It was impossible to tell when the ship was going to sail and to be fair it wasn't a matter for consideration. Everyone was far more concerned with getting the children under cover. I'd just left a woman and her three children at a cabin, when suddenly the siren sounded and the ship lurched forward. Initially I thought a bomb might have hit us, thankfully I was wrong, she'd slipped her moorings and we were on our way out of Singapore. Although I felt in some ways that I shouldn't have left in this manner, I wasn't going to complain. However leaving the island was a very risky business, for during that time many vessels were being hunted down and sunk by Japanese submarines and warships, subsequently our shipping losses were horrific. Mind you I still fancied my chances more at sea than in the carnage of Singapore. I honestly can't begin to imagine what it must have been like for the thousands of people left behind to meet their fates at the hands of the Japanese.

 

After a few hours, one of the naval officers gave me the duty of a lookout, on top of one of her false funnels. I continued with these duties for the entire duration of our voyage. Although I saw quite a few Jap warplanes, none seemed bothered by our presence and let us sail to safety. It was a marvellous ship and being American, food was in abundance. These points along with the fact that her great speed made our hopes of evasion grow stronger day by day created a relaxing effect with all onboard.

However I have to add that I didn't enjoy the trip, solely because of a certain group of people in my company. The passengers were from all walks of life, a lot being of Chinese descent, these were a marvellous crowd, who couldn't do enough to help in the running of the ship. One contingent however went under the guise of being British citizens, but to me they were every bit as bad as the enemy from which we were fleeing.

The people in question were the rich colonials of Singapore and Hong Kong, to this present day I still detest them. They demanded preferential treatment, which was in keeping with their privileged life-styles before the war. I have to say that they received short shrift from all the servicemen in their midst, We truly hated them and from my point of view I remembered the way they'd dealt with Repulses crew whilst we were in Singapore a few months previously. During that period they wouldn't even allow our lads any freedom in the city, the reason offered was they felt there'd be too many matelots within the confines of the city and discipline could well get out of hand. Many of those lads whom they felt weren't capable of behaving themselves in what they deemed a fit and proper manner had since perished in defence of this colony.

The colonials couldn't have cared less over their deaths, and even in these dire circumstances still attempted to treat all the servicemen on this ship in a similar manner. In their opinion we were here to serve them, the only difference now was that they no longer wielded any real power. We were to take great pleasure it letting them know this, in no uncertain terms and on every possible occasion. I met many unpleasant people during the war, but I can honestly say that they were the worst breed of all. I detested every second I had to spend in their company and it was with great relief that several days later we docked in Colombo. My main hope now was that I could now rid myself once and for all of these loathsome social climbers.

Once ashore I made my presence known to the naval personnel on duty. After a few formalities they gave me some welcome news. I was to report to a camp in the jungle named "Deaetalawa" for a couple of weeks, rest and recuperation. It was music to my ears. I think the most pleasing point was that I'd be able to send some mail back home to Teresa and my family, which would obviously reassure them of my well being. I also felt that after the horrors of the previous few months, surely I must have weathered the storm. Matters could only become easier and after this short spell of rest I'd soon be on my way back home.

Unfortunately my remaining time in the Far East wasn't to run in such a straightforward manner, for in a very short while I'd be drafted onto another ill-fated warship. My troubles were far from over.

 

 

 

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