The problem was soon to be resolved. One morning I fell in outside
the office where draftings were taking place. The Regulating Petty
Officer stood in front of me and began to call out a series of names,
mine included. We were eventually called into the office where,
with rapidly beating hearts we learned our fates. I found that I
was being posted to the base Signal Office situated on a hill behind
the dockyard. Two other ratings and I were to proceed there immediately
on foot. This we did, wondering all the while what use Signalmen
could possibly be in what we knew was a wireless facility. I walked
with a heavy heart feeling very despondent. It seemed that I was
to be stuck in Singapore for evermore.
When we reached our destination we were marched into the office
of the man in charge who turned out to be a strange and not very
likeable person. A Lieutenant Commander, well on in years, he displayed
all the characteristics of a man who had been passed over, that
is, having failed to gain promotion he was very bitter. This bitterness
he took out on his subordinates. His back was covered in a large
tattoo, which consisted of an entire foxhunting scene. He had huntsmen
on his shoulder blades together with a pack of hounds spread over
his lower back. Only the fox's tail was visible where it disappeared
up his jacksey. He took great delight in displaying this embellishment
to all and sundry. Fortunately he was more often absent than present.
We found that our duties were light. Our chief task was to distribute
any signals received and as these were few and became daily even
fewer, we were not overworked. The signals came from local stations
on Malaya, Borneo, the Dutch East Indies, etc. as well as the United
Kingdom. They were nearly always in code and therefore unintelligible
At the signal office we worked eight-hour shifts and only worked
the midnight until 8 a.m. shift every two days. Sometimes I wandered
through the almost empty building. One night I wandered into a room
where many books were stored on shelves. In a table was a most wonderful
book. It measured about four feet by three and contained many large-scale
maps, some of which folded out. They were maps of the whole of the
Dutch East Indies and they showed everything in marvellous detail.
I spent a lot of time at night studying them. They were never used
and as far as I am aware these wonderful maps were left behind when
the navy finally left.
While working at the signal office I had an unpleasant experience.
I met what I can only describe as one of the most deadly females
of the human species. There were white women living on the island
who were employed to do similar work to us. I cannot claim that
all Singapore white women were alike, but a large proportion had
a very superior attitude towards soldiers, sailors and airmen. I
once heard an airman sum up this attitude very accurately. He said
that they treated us like white coolies. They were in the habit
of calling for sailors in an imperious manner and no doubt did regard
us as lower class human beings.
Normally I finished work at 8 a.m., but one particular morning
I was kept there until 9 a.m. An imperious voice called out to me.
The first time this happened I ignored the voice but it persisted
and grew louder. Eventually the woman stood right beside me and
in a piercing voice demanded to know if I was deaf. I stood up and
towered over her. "Madam," I said, "I do not like being spoken to
as if I were a dog." She stood for a moment with her mouth agape
then turned and stalked off, returning a few minutes later with
a nervous looking Sub Lieutenant of the Royal Navy Reserve. He asked
me what I thought I was doing. I took a long look at him. He was
considerably shorter than I was and looked distinctly uneasy and
"Sir," I said, "I strongly object to being spoken to as if I were
a dog. If you spoke to me in the same manner as this person you
would get the same response." Looking somewhat taken aback the Subby
said that he would have to see about it and retreated, taking the
woman with him and I heard nothing more.
Many of the Singapore white women displayed a similar attitude
and my dislike of them increased when shortly afterwards I learned
that these women were getting a weekly wage of about £5. This they
earned for doing little other than drinking tea and chatting. I,
as an ordinary Signalman was getting about 14 shillings a week (70p).
The average wage for a working man in Britain was about £3 a week
at the beginning of the war.
After this incident with the waspish wifey, most of the women avoided
me although some still spoke. The problem was soon solved, however,
as shortly afterwards the women were sent to another country for
their own safety.
The war situation continued to deteriorate. As northern and central
Malaya were over-run the Japanese air force increased its bombing
and the effect could clearly be seen in the barracks. Bomb holes
and damaged buildings were everywhere. The swimming pool, which
had been my sole means of recreation, had received two direct hits
and was now empty.
In spite of the obvious success of the Japanese offensive, a ludicrous
propaganda campaign continued. The Straits Times and the local radio
daily put out government statements belittling Japanese competence.
One claimed that Japanese aircraft were made of wood and were merely
glued together. If they flew into clouds or rain they would disintegrate.
They also claimed that the Japanese were all very shortsighted and
would not be able to fire guns or aim bombs with precision.
Such claims were recalled with wry humour by those of us who lay
on our backs in a storm drain one dark night while being machine-gunned
with uncanny accuracy by one of these 'short-sighted' gunners. We
had been standing outside the barracks watching the bombing of nearby
Changi airfield when we suddenly realised that one plane had sunk
lower and was making a beeline for the barracks. Underneath the
plane was a gun sponson in which crouched a gunner who was joyfully
spraying the countryside. The assembled matelots dived for the storm
drain where we lay terrified until he flew past. This then was an
example of the men with poor eyesight and co-ordination!
Another myth perpetrated about the Japanese was that they were
superb jungle fighters. The fact was that they had not fought in
any jungles before invading Malaya. They had fought in Formosa against
a primitive, poorly armed people and their next experience had been
in French south east Asia where they were allowed to take over the
country virtually unopposed. They learned all their jungle-fighting
skills in Malaya and these eventually ensured Japanese mastery of
the whole of the western Pacific. Their bulwark was a staunch belief
in the god-like status of the Mikado.
The plain truth was that the west's knowledge of Japan and the
Japanese before the war was abysmal. We disregarded their enormous
conquests in the Far East, China, Manchuria and Korea.
One example of Japanese cunning and proficiency was in the use
of their bicycle. Malaya was a country of two road systems, one
in the west where the roads were fairly well metalled and could
take heavy traffic, and the other in the east was nothing more than
a series of jungle tracks unsuitable for mechanised vehicles. Bicycles
were very popular in Malaya and when the Japanese began to advance
down the peninsula they soon realised how easy it was to confiscate
them. For many years it was believed that the Japanese transported
these bicycles from Japan, but nearly all of them were acquired
locally. The Japanese infiltrated behind the British lines using
bicycles to travel along the jungle tracks. How successful this
was we know to our cost.
One day I strolled into the mess dressed in my 'undress'. This
consisted of a length of cotton print (sarong), the more lurid the
better, which was tied around the waist and allowed to cover the
legs as far as the knees. No belt or fastener was used, just the
secret cloth fastening. No other clothing was ever worn. A group
of ratings was gathered round a leading hand, fully dressed in shore-going
rig. I recognised him as a leading signalman from the Prince of
Wales. Asked where he was going, he replied that he was off to hospital
to visit a Signal Bosun Fisher. As it was well known that this man
had been my bete noir on the Prince of Wales, everyone was surprised
when I asked if I could accompany him.
The leading signalman agreed but said I would have to hurry. I
quickly dressed and went outside the barracks where we boarded a
small 1200 cwt. truck. He then asked me why I wanted to see Fisher.
Somewhat shamefaced I said that I felt sorry for him.
We proceeded to the hospital which lay to the north of Singapore.
For the first time since my return to the island I saw the damage
that was being inflicted by the Japanese bombers. It was horrendous.
Houses and buildings of all sizes had been devastated and the people
were wandering about in a daze. When we arrived at the hospital
we saw that it too had been bombed but not much damage had been
Having ascertained where Mr. Fisher was, we made our way to his
bed. I was walking behind the leading signalman and we were right
upon Mr. Fisher before he saw us. His look of greeting turned to
amazement when he saw me. Ignoring the leading signalman he asked,
"What are you doing here?" In an awkward, shambling way I explained
that I had been sorry to hear that he was in hospital. He sat up
in bed and smiling held out his hand. What a relief! The bosun had
been badly hurt and had swallowed a lot of oil causing much internal
damage. After some lively conversation, during which he appeared
to me to be an entirely different man, a nurse came in and said
that he would have to get dressed in a hurry as transport had arrived
to take him to a ship for evacuation.
We then said goodbye and left Mr. Fisher with tears in his eyes.
I had never felt more pleased with anything I had done. The other
rating said with a smile that Mr. Fisher was a much better man than
I had thought.
A few years later I was waiting with a group of hands when the
Normandy landings were in full progress. During a desultory conversation
I learned that Mr. Fisher had been lost at sea just a short while
before whilst on a cruiser. Apparently the ship had been sunk in
an air attack. I felt very sorry but was relieved that I had made
my peace with him.
On another occasion I was lounging in the early morning sun near
the barrack entrance when I saw a column of soldiers marching up
the road from the Naval Base. When they got nearer I realised that
they were speaking with Tyneside accents. There was no sentry on
the gate so I strolled out to the roadside in my sarong. This caused
much amusement among the troops. However, when I spoke to them they
were even more amused to find that the well-browned, blond 'native'
was a Geordie. I was in the process of asking them if any Blaydon
lads were with them when a voice hailed me and there was a good
friend of mine, Freddie Craig. Fred hailed from Gateshead and had
worked with me in the G.P.O.
He changed places with a soldier in the outside rank and we started
talking about our experiences. I learned that they had come off
a trooper, which was lying in the naval basin. I had completely
overlooked it. When he asked me how I had arrived in Singapore and
I told him, there was a distinct response from the other soldiers.
Here was a survivor from a disaster that had shocked the world.
They sank into silence when I told them a little of what had happened.
I shook hands with Fred and as I turned away he told me that another
of my friends, Harry, was further down the line.
Harry was a quiet but smiling country lad who came from Falstone
up the Tyne Valley. We had a little chat then I stood and watched
as the Northumbrian Fusiliers marched by. Not many of them survived.
Fred and Harry finished up on the notorious Burmese railway but
only Fred returned to England. Harry still lies in Burma.
Those lads who marched up the road that day had been in the army
a fairly long time but had never been in combat. Against the battle-hardened
Japanese they would not have stood a chance. I remember that I walked
down the road feeling depressed. The war in Malaya was going badly
and the Japanese troops seemed to be advancing quickly down the
A few days later, after the morning fall-in, one of the signalmen
came in looking very down-in-the-mouth. It turned out that he had
been given a posting, together with an Aldis lamp and a battery,
to the further side of the causeway. He had expected, when called
in for a posting, to be sent to a ship. He was really downcast and
was about to report to an army captain. His task would be to send
the last signals across the causeway by Morse code when the telephone
lines were cut. He, together with anyone who was left, would have
to flee across the causeway. One wag who was listening said that
he would be all right if he left the Aldis and battery. The joke
was poorly received. He was another I never saw again.
One night I went on watch at the Listening Post. The women were
no longer employed there and Fox's Tail didn't show up. When our
shift ended the next morning the replacement watch didn't show up
either. With one exception all those on watch went to the gate to
enquire from the Sikh guard whether he had seen the bus.
Unfortunately the guard didn't speak English so one of the ratings
went back to ring up the barracks. I noticed that there didn't seem
to be any activity at the base. The Sikh's relief had not shown
up either. There was no reply from the ratings office.
We strolled outside and were standing outside in the morning air
when we decided to walk back to the barracks, as the bus had not
arrived. The barracks were about half a mile away. On arrival a
Petty Officer Torpedoman and six ratings greeted us. One of the
Torpedoman's jobs was to deal with the electrics on board ship,
and he was currently employed in setting charges down at the docks
to blow up the dry dock gates and the cranes on the dockside into
the water. He asked us what we were doing and then told us, "You've
been left mates." Apparently the barracks had been abandoned shortly
after we had left at midnight.
"Never mind lads," he said, "I've got a job for you. I want bodies
to carry some boxes for me." The petty officer wanted us to carry
explosives that were to be used to blow up the dockyard cranes and
the dry dock gates. We were hardly in a position to refuse.
We loaded the stores onto a small truck and proceeded to the dockside
where we unloaded them. When we found that the rest of the officer's
party was already there, we made ourselves scarce as soon as we
got the chance.
On returning to the vacated barracks we hunted for something to
eat. While digesting the food we also digested the fact that we
had been abandoned. I came to a decision and addressed the little
"Well lads," I said, "I consider that any contract I have with
the navy is null and void. I'm going to make my way to Singapore
and find out what's happening. Is anyone coming?" Two sailors opted
to join me.