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Tweedale's War Part 8

by MamaJane

Contributed by 
People in story: 
Harry Tweedale
Location of story: 
Far East
Background to story: 
Royal Air Force
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
15 May 2004

Without kit, clothing or firearms, we prepared to defend the Dutch East Indies. Presumably Churchill sent that message with his tongue in his cheek. I quote from his book "The Hinge of Fate": --

"After the Supreme Headquarters had been dispersed all the allied forces passed to the command of the Dutch for the defence of the island. General ter Foorten commanded the 25,000 regular troops of the Dutch garrison, who were joined by the British contingent, compromising three Australian battalions, the light tank squadron of the 3rd Hussars and an improvised unit of armed men from administrative units, including 450 of the RAF together with a number of American artillery men. The RAF after the withdrawal from Sumatra was formed into five squadrons of which only about 40 machines were fit. There remained a score of American fighters and bombers.


To this scanty force fell the duty of defending the island, whose northern shore was 800 miles long with continuous landing beach. March 1st. The Japanese convoys from the East and West discharged off all five divisions. The end could not be long delayed".

March 3rd

After ten days in Batavia, we were suddenly called together. Thirty of our men (fitters etc) were sent to a drome to assemble some kites for the Americans. The rest of us were put on a train. We didn't know where we were going. We continued through the night and next day through the most magnificent scenery -- mountains, rainforest and Jungle until in the early evening we found ourselves in a small port called TJILATJAP.

March 2 1942

This cheered us up enormously, although we still didn't realise how desperate the situation in Java was.

There were two boats only in the harbour. One was a medium-sized passenger ship and the other was a cargo boat. These were to be the last two ships to get away as the Japanese took control of the port that night.

We were put on the cargo ship "The Cota Gede”, a Dutch ship and one of our original convoy out of England. Then it had carried our Hurricanes in crates -- now it carried us and as many other men as could be got on our boat. The number of men they shipped on board that boat was amazing. No one was left behind who made it to the harbour on time. Unfortunately they hadn't time to ship an adequate supply of food and water.

We sailed in the evening to be followed a little later by the other ship (an American film " The story of Dr Wassel" reconstructed the events of its departure). They went to Australia; our destination was Ceylon.

March 8

Four days later the Dutch had to surrender and again from their own forces 5000 airmen and an over 8000 British and Australian troops became prisoners of war.

We were heading for Ceylon, a distance of about 1500 miles by the direct sea route, which was to take us eight days. We were without escort unless you count the dolphins, flying fish and swordfish which swam and jumped and dived alongside. Completely alone, the Cote Gede ploughed its way across the Indian Ocean.

Battle of Palembang (Kelly)

A.C.. Presdee was one of a party of unarmed men making their way in single file along the road towards the Teibu (Palembang). This party was ambushed. He is believed to have lost his life there, as nothing more is known of him.

Conditions were appalling, but we couldn't be too grateful for the Cota Gede. For just over a fortnight it was to be home and refuge. Like most others, I slept on the bare steel of a cargo hold. My only pillow was my steel helmet and we had nothing to cover us -- I indeed didn't need anything in such a crowded space and in the climate. I had no possessions at all except what I was wearing -- steel helmet -- shirt -- shorts -- stockings and shoes -- two handkerchiefs and my wallet containing a little money. The Cota Gede wasn't designed for passengers and so very little was available on the ship even in we had the money to buy.

After four days at sea, food (always in short supply) virtually became almost nothing. Twice a day we received two small, plain round biscuits, one teaspoonful of butter and one teaspoon of jam. Once a day a mug of tea. Water for drinking was adequate, but not particularly pleasant to the taste and sea water had to be used for every other purpose. These two small daily meals became our main preoccupation and we got as much pleasure from them as most people would get from a dinner at the Ritz.

The journey was uneventful and gave us time to take stock. It seemed incredible that I had survived Malaya, Singapore, Sumatra and Java and was still alive to tell the tale, even if somewhat deficient in "worldly goods" -- which seemed not to matter.

Since arriving in Singapore 232 Squadron had lost about 50 percent of its personnel and was no longer an effective operational unit. Two close friends (both w/ops) were gone, --Jim Mallinson, killed in Singapore, and Roland Presdee at Palembang. The Army units that had been our constant companions and our artillery and ack ack support, had been retained in Sumatra to fight a rearguard action alongside the Dutch. Whatever their fate, they were now out of the war. Many of the survivors on our ship were injured or sick and regrettably scarcely a day passed without at least one burial at sea. I got to know the words well -- "we therefore commit his body to the deep to be turned into corruption" -- and the weighted body would slide from the angled planks from under the Union Jack into the sea.

With the Dutch surrender on March 8th we reminded ourselves that we owed our lives to a Dutch crew and their ship.

It may sound as though this journey was an uncomfortable ordeal, and in fact this may be true but it wasn't the whole picture. As we left Tjilatjap we were undoubtedly anxious and even fearful. It didn't seem possible that we would get away completely unscathed and as the Japanese had the skies to themselves and a large number of submarines, it was a reasonable assumption. With some anxiety we faced daybreak the following morning -- we still weren't far away from Sumatra and some form of air attack seemed inevitable. I need hardly say that once again we had no lifebelts and the lifeboats couldn't carry a 20th of the personnel on board. Yet as the Cota Gede steadily made its way across the Indian Ocean, we gradually gained in confidence. The steady throb of the engines, the gentle roll of the ship, the swell of the sea, the fish and the birds gave an air of normality to it all in spite of conditions.

March 12 1942

Finally on the 12 March 1942 an aircraft was cited and it was actually British. A little later we dropped anchor in Colombo harbour and we began to feel safe again. We were anchored a short distance from the shore, but were soon busily refuelling and taking on supplies.

March 12th 1942

At least we could start to eat again. Quite a number of our sailing companions were disembarked at Colombo -- most of the Army and a small number of Navy personnel. The rest of us were told that we would be continuing to India (port unstated) but some of us were allowed ashore the following day and the rest the day after, before sailing in the evening.

It gave us a chance to buy a few essentials and also to send a telegram once more. The telegram was eventually received in Rochdale, but it had no indication of the place of dispatch, of course. (Security insists that the knowledge of my safe arrival in Ceylon must at all costs be kept from the enemy. What a gnashing of teeth there are would have been in Tokyo). No doubt the folks at home would be glad to know that I was still safely "on the run" but wouldn't know whether once again I was in a position of danger. My father, I learned later, went to the GP 0 in Rochdale and asked to see the "Boss" who said he couldn't divulge the place of origin but did concede that there had been a fair number of telegrams from Ceylon recently. I am of course using the names in use at that time. Ceylon is now Sri Lanka, Batavia is now Jakarta and Oustenhaven and Tjilatjap have also change their names.

We left Colombo on the evening of the 14th of March 1942 and even if we still had to "rough it" below decks, at least the food was now adequate and we were fairly safe from enemy action. Our destination turned out to be Karachi (now in Pakistan) and not Bombay, about 1400 miles from Colombo. We arrived on the 19th March.

Our first sight of Karachi from the ‘Cote Gede’ didn't impress us very much. It looked the hottest, most dried up dirty, dusty and scruffiest place that we had seen so far and it certainly wasn't very inviting. Perhaps it was the lack of the luxurious vegetation we had seen in the Far East, or perhaps it was the state of our health which prevented us from seeing it in a good light, but I never really took to Karachi, capital of the province of Sind.

Anyway we disembarked and we were taken in lorries to Drigh Rd. Tented Camp, which was part of the RAF School of Technical Training. We were billeted four to a tent on the edge of the camp in soft sand. The open air toilets were behind canvas screens, about 100 yards away through soft sand. You can imagine the problems when diarrhoea and dysentery became almost universal. The first couple of days were spent ‘settling in’ or on parade, the receipt of such items of kit as were available and the inevitable medical inspections. The word went around that the M.O. had declared us all unfit and recommended that we all be sent home to recover in a temperate climate (which Karachi most certainly was not). It may well be that the M. O. did indeed do just that but he would indeed be an optimist who expected those in authority to allow so many men back home to tell the story of mismanagement, faulty judgment, bad planning and the horrendous mistakes of our far Eastern campaign.

The first thing that you became aware of at Drigh Rd. were the flies. …….., large, shining and persistent. The cookhouse was the worst place. They would be on your plate, your knife and your fork. Above all, your mug of tea would be alive with them around the lip — some fell into the tea of course. I've never experienced such persistence in flies. At home, a gentle movement of the hand and they fly away. NOT in Karachi. You have to actually knock them off and even then they are back again before you can get your mug to your lips. If you spill a little tea on the concrete floor of the cookhouse, it immediately becomes a shining mass - no floor visible

It is easy to see why, and in our weathered state, the Dysentery and Diarrhoea were almost universal. W/O Russell was still with us and he saw t o it that what could be done for us was done. We received, as I have said, some pay, even though our records hadn't caught up with us -and also some clothing of which no record was kept, so that we were able to claim it again in Calcutta. He also gave us all passes so that we were able to get out of camp at will. Karachi was really the only place to go - Drigh Rd. railway station was almost at the camp gate and trains were frequent, cheap and (as is usual in India) crowded with people sitting on top of the carriages and hanging on the sides.

We went into Karachi two or three times but could never get to feel that the effort was really worth it. Palembang and Batavia were far more my cup of tea and yet to come was Calcutta, almost indescribable. However that was in the future. Karachi, now the largest city in Pakistan and one-time capital obviously has some attractions. A common sight, almost biblical, was to see a solitary figure clad in white riding on the back of a donkey across the sand. Another romantic event was the passing of the camel trains, with the bells on the camels’ legs and harnesses jingling almost like a soundtrack to our recording of ‘Hassan’. They usually passed about dusk or early evening and some of them came from beyond the North West Frontier - from Kabul and other places in Afghanistan. The wind blew most of the time in Karachi - hot winds that seemed to shrivel you up. There seemed to be sand in everything — eyes, ears, nose and even what hair I had. But then, Sind is mostly desert.

On our last visit to Karachi itself, I persuaded my three friends and tent mates to visit the native quarter (I suppose that nowadays we would refer to it as the Souks or Kasbah). At that time, I hadn't yet experienced Marrakech or Tangier and it was before the days of TV, so I had no idea what to expect. It was a fascinating experience. We went in by gharry - it was about 11 pm and then walked. As all over India, many people were sleeping outside on the pavements, generally curled up on a mat. Some others sat on the floor under a street lamp reading a newspaper.

By this time it had been confirmed that 232 was beyond redemption and postings came through splitting its members up all over the place. The majority of us were posted to 221 Group H.F. Calcutta.

My final night at Drigh Rd was spent at the camp cinema with Brian Wilson watching "Fantasia”. Bob Robinson and Jack Spencer didn't feel they could face it for the third time so settled for the limited joy of the canteen.

The following day, April 26th 1942, we began our trans India rail journey from Karachi to Calcutta. It was to take four days and it was a tiring but wonderful experience. Wooden seats in the compartments gave room to lie down to sleep. There was so much to see, hear and smell that I slept only in snatches. Travel by train in India is a real experience. I suppose the journey was about 1600 miles and took four days. Allowing daily stops totalling about 4 hours for various reasons it works out at 400 miles a day in 20 hours -i.e. an average of 20 mph. Why the four hour stops? Well, the train had to take on fuel and water as well as load and unload people and luggage and take on food. Also, it used to be the practice to phone through from one station to the next to say how many people wanted a meal, lunch or dinner. The train would then stop at the next station for an hour or so whilst supper or whatever was served in the station restaurant. The rest of us would have our food delivered from the cookhouse truck or would go for a walk around the train until time to depart. Whenever the train stopped, one of us would run up to the engine with a large iron pot containing tea leaves and fill it with hot water.

So, by and large, 20 hours travelling a day was fair enough and 20 mph gave us ample opportunity to see the details of this fascinating country as we passed along. The route was like a history lesson with its familiar place names -- Karachi -- Hyderabad -- Jodenpur -- Jaipur -- Agra -- Cawnpore -- Allahabad -- Benares -- Calcutta. Almost every type of scenery was experienced from the desert of Sind to the jungles of Bengal with such wonders as the bridge of Benares in between. Many and varied were the appearance and dress of the people we saw. All in all, one of life's high spots -- an unforgettable experience.

Our excitement and anticipation mounted as we neared Calcutta. We had no idea what our new home would be like, but feared the worst after Karachi.
At last we arrived at Howrah station and were put into buses. I found it difficult to believe that what I was seeing was real.

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