BBC HomeExplore the BBC
This page has been archived and is no longer updated. Find out more about page archiving.

15 October 2014
WW2 - People's War

BBC Homepage
BBC History
WW2 People's War Homepage Archive List Timeline About This Site

Contact Us

The Evacuation of Palambang and Java

by Clockhouse

Contributed by 
People in story: 
Basil Frank lawrence
Location of story: 
Sumatra, Java and Ceylon
Background to story: 
Royal Air Force
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
07 July 2004

This is Basil and A.C. Prewitt on the "Kota Gede"; Basil is on the Left.


The words which follow are from Basil Lawrence; he gave them to Richard Wales with permission to put them into the BBC archive and to write this introduction. Lin Reed of Age Concern Oxfordhire has prepared the text for this contribution. Basil took many photos during the war and has allowed us to store some on our computer at the Clockhouse. The story is a general overview or history and then some specific memories from the evacuation of Palambang in the Far East. Palambang 1 and Palambang 2 were simple airstrips or aerodromes on the island of Sumatra.

Photography has been one of Basil’s interests for many years; the picture he chose to illustrate his memories is the only one which includes him, because he was usually behind the camera. After the war, Basil spent many years in the Police force in Oxfordshire.


I served in the R.A.F. from August 1940 until March 1946. My initial training was at Bridgnorth after joining at Uxbridge. I was then posted to Coventry and was there during the several air raids on the city.

After applying for training to the radio branch I went to Cranwell and having passed out as an operator I was posted to Elgin. At Elgin I joined Hurricane Squadron No, 232, our base was a grass runway at Bogs of Main. The squadron then moved to Montrose. From Montrose we were kitted out for overseas and went to Loch Fyne and boarded the Polish ship the "Batory". We were on board for several weeks and trained for an invasion with landing crafts and route marches, occasionally with the Commandos, under Lord Lovat.

All this came to a stop. We returned to Greenock and after being sent on leave, we were then sent to the "Hainings" at Selkirk with no aircraft, and we resumed invasion training. This again came to a stop and we were sent to Ouston and became an operational squadron again.

We were then posted overseas and on 10 November we boarded the "Monarch of Bermuda" and sailed on 11th 1941. On route to Singapore we stopped for water at Freetown and spent Christmas at Durban before going to Singapore.

After four years overseas service I returned to the U.K. and the troopship docked at Southampton on 10th November and I disembarked on 11th November 1945.


At 13.10 hours on 7th February the red flag went up and ten minutes later the drome was being blitzed. The start came as Ken Lunan and I reached the edge of the drome and the attack began with a stick of bombs on the main runway. We dived into a clump of bamboos straight on top of a nest of red ants and we lay there watching the raid. Before many minutes had passed there were planes on fire and ground strafing and dive bombing all going on at once. In front of us two Hurricanes were burnt out and the ammunition and petrol tanks were exploding, all about fifty yards away. In all, about seven planes were burnt out also a Bowser of petrol. I saw the markings on the tail of a Jap plane as it was about thirty feet from the ground as it strafed the runway. The raid lasted about twenty five minutes. I remember this day by the souvenir I collected, a stray piece of shrapnel hitting the calf of my leg.


The sirens went at 08.50 hours on Saturday 14 February and half an hour later the bombs were dropping. This was followed by ground strafing. The bombs and strafing were aimed not just at the drome but into the surrounding jungle where we all used to go for shelter. Bombs dropped very near me but owing to the heavy bushes I was not hit by them although the ground shook a great deal and leaves were being shot off the trees above. At about 10.30 hours we got back to the road and were told that paratroops had been dropped all around the drome and we were to make our way back to the town which was about fourteen miles away. The Japs were in the jungle on both sides of the road and several of us had to crawl along a ditch to the Army camp about ten miles away. These miles were deadly and not a sound disturbed the silence apart from an occasional whine of a shell going over us, fired by a Bofors gun which had now been ranged for land shelling, not exactly a comforting noise. Eventually we reached the Army camp and got a lift back to town in an armoured car and twice I heard the sound of bullets hitting the side on the way back to town. Back at the Marie School we were told to get to the ferry to evacuate the town. I went into the school to get my top pack which held personal items and walked to the ferry. From the river we marched to the railway station and waited there for some time until a train took most of us to Palambang 2, about forty miles away.


The day after we arrived at Palambang 2, several of us were detailed to stop at the drome as a servicing party while the rest of the squadron made their way to the docks en route for Java. After spending all morning doing nothing we decided to follow the first party who had now had six hours start. With some of the others I was lucky enough to get on a train that was held up by a signal in the jungle. I got in a closed goods van into which about forty people were crowded. The train left Palambang 2 at 13.00 hours on Sunday 15 February and at 01.45 hours the next day we all got out at Oosthaven.

Food was very scarce during this period. I had a few biscuits with bully beef, tea and coffee without sugar or milk, not too bad really. At Oosthaven the majority of the unit joined us and eventually we went aboard the “Yoma” which was not at all luxurious for accommodation, food and sanitation and it was then that most of us had our first wash for three days. The ship pulled out at 10.00 hours on Monday 16 February and in twenty four hours we were at anchor in Batavia, the capital of Java.

Batavia was something different from the other Eastern ports. The whole place looked modern and clean without being much of either. The shops were of modern design with goods of European origin, and prices were dearer than at home. Our billet was again a school called the A.M.S. School, similar to the Marie School in Palambang. Condtions were very primitive. We slept on bare concrete floors using any of our kit for bedding. Food was a problem and we used empty tins from the cookhouse as our plates and mugs.

On Thursday 26th February the unit was confined to camp so we guessed that a move was coming. This move followed on the next day and we left the A.M S. School at 17.00 hours and marched to the railway station. The unit divided here as all air frame workers left to assemble planes at Banboing in the hills. The rest of us boarded a train which was the native third class of coach and we left Batavia at about 19.00 hours. The journey lasted till 10.00 hours next day. During travelling it was impossible to sleep as we were so cramped for room. On the journey across Java we saw many native villages and paddy fields with mountains beyond.

Eventually we reached Tjililigap, a small port in south Java, and we marched to the quay from the train. Luggage parties were detailed and after doing their jobs, they found no room had been put aside for them. Forty men were picked out for another boat and then sent back so it can be imagined what a muddle all things were in. One chap did go on another boat as wireless operator; eventually I boarded the "Kota Gede".


This ship was a really old cargo boat and everything on it was the worst I have ever seen. For sleeping we were in the holds on the bare boards and only a blanket for bedding. The conditions in the hold were terrible and during the night rats ran across the beams overhead and water dripped down from the roof; the stench there was overpowering.

Food was a great problem. Usually we began the day with some dried bacon, biscuits and tea. At mid-day we had three "dog" biscuits, a bit of jam and tea if we were lucky. In the evening more biscuits, a bit of bully beef or a couple of spoonfuls of mixed stew (tinned) and a mug of tea. There was no variety at all and very soon all we had was nothing but biscuits and bully beef. It hardly seems possible that literally hundreds of service men would queue for hours for such rations. I remember that one day I queued up with several others to scrape out some cheese tins in case a morsel had been left in the tins when the cooks opened them. We were very hungry.

The drinking water was usually red with rust from the tanks that had not been used for water for years and for washing there was only salt water and as we did not have salt water soap, the situation was hopeless. Sanitary arrangements were also very bad and often it was impossible to use the lavatories. No-one could keep clean under these conditions and space was so limited.

As can be expected the chaps could not last long in these conditions and an outbreak of dysentery occurred on board on 5th March. Two men died from this as there was not sufficient medical kit on the boat. I had trouble with stomach pains and the "runs". It got worse until on Monday 9th March I reported sick with a temperature of 103 degrees. I was told to get my kit together in order to go into hospital when we reached port. I was on the “ Kota Gede” from 27th February to 9th March.


I was admitted into hospital on Monday 9th March, the hospital being a converted part of the Royal College and similar to the school billets in Java. After being treated for Dengue fever and a leg wound I eventually left the hospital. My next post was to Ratmalana, the civil airport for Ceylon where with an aircraft fitter, we were in charge of a bomb dump, but neither of us had any knowledge of explosives.

After some time I was moved to the Colombo racecourse which had been taken over for troop accommodation. Most of the squadron had been sent to Chittagong with 232 squadron being disbanded and becoming part of 258 squadron. I was then sent to the Operation Room situated near Slave Island and remained there until being posted to the control centre at Dambulla in the middle of Ceylon.

From Danbulla I was posted to Vavunia, another jungle control centre. My last posting in Ceylon was to Galle, at the south of Ceylon, a base for Catalan and Sunderland aircraft, as it had a large lake suitable for water landing. From Galle I returned to a transit camp in Colombo to await transport to return to the U.K.

© Copyright of content contributed to this Archive rests with the author. Find out how you can use this.

Archive List

This story has been placed in the following categories.

British Army Category
Ceylon (Sri Lanka) Category
Singapore Category
icon for Story with photoStory with photo

Most of the content on this site is created by our users, who are members of the public. The views expressed are theirs and unless specifically stated are not those of the BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of any external sites referenced. In the event that you consider anything on this page to be in breach of the site's House Rules, please click here. For any other comments, please Contact Us.

About the BBC | Help | Terms of Use | Privacy & Cookies Policy