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- Alexander Dale Sinclair
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- Alexander Sinclair
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- 19 January 2004
SINGAPORE — FRIDAY 13 FEBRUARY 1943
We were a small unit of Royal Signals left in the army workshops and offices to destroy all equipment and records to deny any help to the rapidly advancing Japs. They had reached Tanglin Barracks, about a mile away and we were under continual bombardment and occasional strafing runs from very low flying aircraft.
At last our officer received orders to pull out the demolition squads and report to GHQ at Fort Canning, in downtown Singapore. Without further a do we took off in a couple of trucks helped on our way by a couple of Jap shells landing just behind us, luckily without any direct hits.
It was getting dark now and we were kept hanging around in the ‘Godowns’ in the harbour area. There was plenty of light though, from the burning sheds and buildings. The air was full of a thick acrid smoke from the oil installations on an offshore island that were set ablaze by earlier air raids, it stung your eyes and made life miserable. Large groups of Aussies and the remnants of the reinforcements, a division from the Middle East, who had landed only a couple of weeks previously, after losing their ships and equipment to air attack, were wandering around like sheep. It was chaos.
One of our officers arrived with orders and got us ‘Signals’ to fall in and marched us off. ‘Where?’ we were not told. Rumour had it that we were going to be picked up and landed behind enemy lines! However, as there were no ships in the harbour and those that were there had fallen victim to the Jap navy and bombers, it did not seem likely.
As we marched along in good order an Aussie tagged along with us and asked ‘Where you going cobber?’ When we replied ‘probably up-country’ he took off and re-joined his mates, probably believing that he would be better off.
We picked our way over rubble strewn streets to the farthest jetty in the harbour where we found an old Chinese freighter which had just tied up. She was called the ‘KWANG-HO’ or something like that. She was a rusty old tub but the chance of getting away from the hell behind us gave us some hope. We went aboard and were soon joined by small groups from other regiments, about 200 of us in all crammed onto the decks. We pulled out into the harbour at dusk and to our dismay anchored over night while we on deck watched the shambles happening on ashore.
At day break we up anchored and set out through the Malacca Straits heading, so we believed, to Sumatra. It was a tight fit on board, a job to find a bit of deck space to sit on. However, we soon settled down to a ‘nice cruise’ and it was not long before a card school started.
Our peace however didn’t last long. Suddenly a couple of flights of planes approached us, it was the Japs of course, they had been visiting our now empty airfields. One lot peeled off and swooped down on us sitting ducks. Our little pop gun on deck was soon knocked out and the first bomb effected our steering so we just went around and around in a big circle.
There were a few brave swimmers in the water, I assumed that they had decided that risking the shark infested water to get to land was the lesser of two evils but they may well have been blown overboard by the bomb blast.
Our card school was decimated by the blast, apart from a poor chap called Albert who had a chunk of shrapnel in his side. For a few moments I lay on the deck, it was strangely silent amid all of the shouting and screaming around me. My hearing returned within a minute and I regained my senses a little. Two of us who had escaped without a scratch carried Albert around to the cabin where doctors were already attending to the seriously wounded.
Another wave of planes came over and joined in the ‘turkey shoot’ this time direct hits on the engine room and ship’s side had us keeled over and sinking. It looked as if the survivors were shortly going to join the swimmers but fortunately a couple of small British Navy craft approached and picked us up from the now disappearing deck. Their gunner put a couple of shots into the side of the ship to make sure that there was nothing for the Japs to pick over.
We proceeded across the straits to Sumatra and landed safely and were put up at a local Dutch owned rubber plantation. They gave us tea served up in the cups used to collect the latex from the rubber trees, but we weren’t choosy. Our wounded were cared for in adjacent huts.
The next morning we all assembled and counted our losses. Some sort of rescue plan seemed to be operating. A variety of boats on a nearby river were ‘requisitioned’ and set off westward to the other side of Sumatra to a place called PADANG‘ Our small group of able bodied clambered aboard a dilapidated native bus and proceeded along an empty arterial road with mountain peaks on one side and sheer ravines on the other. Along a fairly straight piece of road we saw another bus, crowded with native shoppers, coming towards us. They were driving on the right, we being British, were driving on the left. The inevitable collision ripped the top off our vehicle and we went straight over the side into the ravine. Fortunately our descent was stopped a short distance from the road by a clump of trees. Scrambling back up to the road we found that the other bus had come off quite lightly so we quickly ‘persuaded’ the Malay shoppers to let us have it and we resumed our journey with no more that a few more bumps, bruises and some wood splinters in our backsides from sliding down the isle of the bus as it careered over the edge. The natives were left grumbling and waiting for another bus.
Eventually we reached PADANG a port on the western side of Sumatra and immediately saw that the Japs had already plastered the place. Lots of burnt out buildings around the docks and not a ship in sight! We were quartered nearby in what looked like a school or barracks where we were fed and watered and had a chance to wash our filthy clothes.
No sooner were we stripped off and nicely soaped up when our officer came up and told us ‘You’ve got two minutes to get your gear on, the Navy is coming in to pick us up’ We did not need to be told twice, we put on our wet clothes and headed for the docks at a smart pace. As we arrived the welcome sight of a British cruiser and destroyer rounding the headland appeared and they shortly tied up with engines running, it was not the time to be hanging around without air cover..
Our little signals unit were accommodated on the destroyer and when all survivors were aboard the two ships departed PDQ, before the port got pranged again!
We went off south, not a good move in our opinion as that was where the Jap navy was operating and we were a bit of a handicap to the Navy boys. During the night the two ships split up, the cruiser heading off elsewhere. The destroyer landed us in JAVA, Indonesia, at a little port called CHILLI CHAP. Again the Nips had visited the town before us and had already occupied some parts of the country.
Two small boats were requisitioned by the officers and were hastily provisioned with local fruit, veg. and even a large old pig which was accommodated in a deck latrine on our ship. Then unusually for the army, we were offered a choice of which ship to take. One was going to Australia the other to India.
Some of us signals, now down to eight, chose the India bound ship, lodged ourselves in a little cabin on the deck and off we went again with about a 1000 miles to go to our first stop, CEYLON. As soon as we were under way some officers and other ranks on the top deck got busy constructing a sort of dummy gun out of pipes, wood and canvass as a deterrent to any potential enemy we might happen upon.
The first two days at sea were pretty boring, like the grub, only highlighted when the pig appeared on the menu! We were all wondering constantly about how our comrades were getting on with the Japs as we heard that Singapore had surrendered on the 15th February. We had made it by the skin of our teeth.
At a particularly quite moment one of our wireless ops, who was draped over the rail being sick, suddenly interrupted our boredom with a shout of ‘Sharks!’ Some shark, it was the streak of a torpedo coming straight for us. The captain told us later that the torpedo had in fact been one of three but they all went right under us. Probably because we had a very shallow draft, with little cargo we were high in the water or maybe the Japs had just set the depth settings wrong, who knows?.
However, a few moments later the bows and conning tower of the sub broke the surface about 100 yards away. Panic! Now they would surely finish us off with their deck gun. We only had a few rifles between us. Immediately there was a lot of commotion and shouted orders from up top as our dummy ‘gun’ was manoeuvred to line up on the sub. It obviously convinced the Jap for he rapidly drifted astern. The sub commander obviously did not relish fighting it out with ‘an armed merchant ship’
The captain came over the Tannoy and asked for volunteers to help with the stoking, he got plenty and we rapidly put some distance between us and the sub, which by now had fully submerged.
The rest of the voyage was uneventful apart from a spouting whale in the distance, looking a whole lot like a surfaced sub. Eventually we reached the port of COLUMBO in Ceylon. We disembarked and got into temporary quarters in the dock area. Our journey had taken a month, for it was now Friday 13th again.
Sure enough the ‘Yellow Peril’ struck again (they must have heard that we had arrived) Swarms of Jap planes came out of no where, presumably from a carrier borne force out in the Indian Ocean, and dropped bombs and machine gunned the docks. This time though there was considerable opposition from Ack Ack, despite tye ammunition ship they had hit.
The main Jap force was apparently heading for TRINCOMALEE, the British naval base up country, where there was strong opposition from Hurricane fighters who this time, being fully prepared, gave the Japs a bloody nose. They did not try that again but continued their attacks through Burma. There they met their ‘Stalingrad’ and their advance was eventually stopped and then reversed.
Our little group were now kitted out and despatched to various units in India. I was sent to G.H.Q Indian Army in DELHI and promoted to Sergeant. The following April, 1943, I was repatriated to dear old ‘Blighty’ to help sort out Jerry, but that is another story.
Do not miss part II, of this journey on the ‘hell ship’ ILE DE FRANCE. 7,000 of us sailing unescorted, half way round the world.
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