The sun or honey-bear was a different proposition.
Although small and friendly looking, these bears could give you
a nasty wound, so we knocked off the lock, propped open the door
and went for our dinner. After dinner I went back and was just in
time to spot a little plunge down the shore as the bear entered
the strait. I watched as he gamely struggled across. Finally he
reached the other side, a cheering sight in a series of dismal days.
Below the swimming pool were the playing fields. There
were football and cricket pitches, the whole green sward running
down to the water's edge. A huge oil pipe ran across the green near
the sea. It came from a compound of oil tanks which lay to the western
side of the barracks and carried fuel to the naval dockyard. Across
the strait was the far jungle-covered shore running down towards
the sea. To the right, stretching towards the dockyard was the officers'
The survivors fell in before the Regulating Office
every morning, waiting to be told what to do. In truth there was
such a huge number of men that there was nothing for them to do
but await a draft. Pretty soon the numbers dwindled as men were
drafted to ships of all kinds. Civilian ships were crewed as a desperate
search began for vessels to use against the enemy. Many seamen and
marine rates of boys were returned to the United Kingdom during
this time. Among them were two good friends of mine, Signal Boys
Henry Heron and 'Tich' Backhouse. Happily I did see them both again
when they got held up in Colombo through lack of homeward-bound
ships. I never saw either of them again after that, although Henry
kindly visited my mother a few times on Tyneside.
During this time of waiting I began to wonder whether
I had done the right thing in recording myself as a Repulse survivor.
Doubts began to arise. Had I still been listed as part of the crew
of the Prince of Wales? Had my documents, things which sailors rarely
thought about, recorded my transfer to the Repulse? A terrible thought
crossed my mind. If I had been recorded as still part of the crew
of the Prince of Wales, my mother might have been informed that
I was missing.
Off I went to the Jaunty's Office where one of the
petty officers listened to my story and then advised me to go to
the Pay and Records Office. Here one of the men behind the counter
heard my tale and then went away. He came back with a Pay Bob, or
Pay Officer. The officer said that it would take some time to sort
things out. He advised me to return to my barrack block until sent
Some time later a rating appeared and said I had to
report back to the Pay Office. When I got there the Pay Officer
asked me to sit down. This invitation, unprecedented in my experience,
astounded me. He then said, "You have been reported as missing
from the Prince of Wales, but don't worry. A signal has been sent
to the Admiralty to say that you are alive and well. They will pass
the good news to your mother." For the first time in my naval
career I had met an officer who had behaved like the proverbial
gentleman. He held out his hand and wished me good luck.
Almost from the moment of the survivors' return to
Singapore the island had been under air bombardment. The orderly,
imperial city we had found on our original visit had been transformed
into a bewildering, uncertain place. Flights of bombers daily made
their way towards the city, which lay on the southern and western
side of the island. The navy base lay towards the north-east and
we often saw parties of twenty-seven bombers flying high above us.
Usually the planes split up into groups of nine before swooping
towards their target. There were sporadic attacks on a nearby airfield,
then one morning the oil tanks were hit.
The oil tanks were tall cylinders each contained in
a bund about ten or twelve feet high, consisting of earth mounds
lined with concrete and brick. These bunds were to contain any oil
spillage. Fortunately the larger bunds never seemed to leak. Several
tanks were ruptured and set on fire. The air was filled with huge
columns of oily black smoke which towered over the island, including
the barracks. When the wind was in the right, or more accurately
for us, the wrong direction, the air at the barracks was filled
with black smuts. Luckily this did not happen very often.
As the tanks burned there was a loud roaring noise,
very menacing and highly unpleasant. The bombing continued with
ever-increasing ferocity. The barracks were hit several times. There
was general damage but I remember in particular that the galley
was hit, killing the Chinese cooks. The dining hall too was damaged.
The galley staff who were not too badly hurt promptly voted with
their feet and took off. It took some time for white cooks to be
organised as their replacements.
Vice Admiral Sir Geoffrey Layton had been made Commander
in Chief of the Far Eastern Fleet and was therefore in charge of
all the remaining naval personnel. One day he had the unpleasant
task of telling the men who were assesmbled on the parade ground,
mostly survivors, that they were not to be sent home but were to
be retained for local duties. The news was not well received. This
was in no small part due to the utterly insensitive wording and
arrogant delivery. We were told that we were not to be sent home
to sit on our backsides while other men carried out "unfinished"
jobs. This seemed to us to imply that we were responsible for the
One old stoker behind me began muttering unprintable
oaths, something that was previously unheard of. There were numerous
mutterings from the ranks while the speech continued. Judging by
the vice admiral's furious expression he could plainly hear them.
Sir Geoffrey addressed us from the first floor balcony
of the barrack block. He hadn't been speaking long when the muttered
grumbling noise increased. This time it wasn't the matelots. Sneaking
peeps over our shoulders, we confirmed that a large group of aircraft
were approaching. We assumed that they were heading for Singapore
and were not unduly alarmed until a group of nine planes left the
main force and made their way towards us. It was obvious that the
pilots had spotted the large group of assembled men and were not
going to miss what was for them a golden opportunity.
The planes were approaching from the right, to the
rear of the assembled men. Sir Geoffrey, who faced them from the
balcony, urged us to stand fast and show the Japs what the British
were made of. The first man to indicate his contempt for this advice
was the stoker, who uttered a loud oath and declared that he was
leaving the ******* parade ground that very instant. Immediately
the parade took on the aspect of spilled quicksilver as the men
ran for the shelters.
A few of us hared down to the football ground and
into the mangrove swamp alongside the oil pipeline which was now
empty. As we struggled along we had a clear view of the bombers.
We saw the flashes and spouts of flame and smoke as they scored
This was the only occasion that I have heard of when
there was a virtual mutiny in the navy. As the bombers disappeared
we slowly returned to the barracks. Everyone thought that we were
in dire trouble but surprisingly not a word was said. In the centre
of the parade ground was the justification for our action, two medium
sized bomb craters. These had been caused by anti-personnel bombs,
bombs which exploded and threw out a huge spread of fragmented steel
pieces. These would have cut through the men on the parade ground
like a scythe. If we had stayed behind there would have been a horrendous
Sir Geoffrey had disappeared and that was the only
time I saw him. Shortly afterwards he demonstrated his determination
to 'stand fast' by prudently posting himself to Ceylon, where he
doubtless continued to show what the British were made of.