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Another Door Part 1: War in the Far Easticon for Recommended story

by Tom Simkins MBE

Contributed by 
Tom Simkins MBE
Article ID: 
A1118387
Contributed on: 
22 July 2003

This story is taken from my father's unpublished autobiography, which covers the early years to the end of the war. He never finished the book, which he called Another Door, because he suffered a stroke which affected his speech and memory - and in fact now he cannot properly communicate with us.

I have also included his account of his time in the Far East on this website, but this story covers his account of the invasion of Africa. My father worked for the Marconi company as a ship's radio officer. He was a chief radio officer in the Merchant Navy. Here is his story:

Japan declared war on December 7/8th 1941, the exact date depending upon where one was situated at the time.

They did this by attacking the American Naval base, Pearl Harbour, at Hawaii at dawn with a massive air strike by carrier-born aircraft of the Japanese fleet. That attack was co-coordinated closely in time with bombing attacks on Hong Kong and Singapore, and amphibious landings on the north-east coast of Malaya, between Kota Baru and the border with Thailand. But of course I knew nothing of this at the time. The first inclination I had that something was amiss was actually being shaken awake personally in the early hours of the morning by Captain Thomas and being told to stand-by the radio. I wondered later how he could possibly have known about the attack at such an early hour, since the Americans themselves on the island were taken by surprise. History tells us now that they ought not to have been, for information had been available concerning the movements of the Japanese fleet, both in America and Britain.

Dawn in Hawaii would have been about 0300 on board the 'Pinna' in our position, so no doubt the captain must have heard a news flash on his radio just before coming down and waking me.

Although Japanese intervention had been a topic of conversation on board having seen an increasing Japanese presence as we sailed around, we had been of the opinion that they would not start anything until events showed a sure sign of an axis victory in Europe. So, I was quite perplexed as I went along to the radio room, wondering what the urgency was all about. The old man had disappeared without explaining and I was not prepared to go wandering up to the bridge accommodation when he had instructed me to go to the radio room. I was on friendly terms with him, but I did not feel that it was expedient to be as friendly as that under the circumstances. It was 0500 in the morning and the deep indigo sky had paled towards sunrise in the east. It was a lovely early morning; cool and fresh on deck, the sort of morning that makes one wonder why early rising is not the norm for every day.

I need not have gone on watch, for as I would have expected at that hour, and still dark, my headphones were full of static roar. In addition, superimposed were electric stabs of lightning. This went on until daybreak making the reception of any signals, impossible.

Just before breakfast, around 0730, an American ship, the 'Admiral Cole' started up with loud signals saying that she was being attacked by Japanese aircraft. After repeating the message, further signals said that the vessel had been bombed. After that, silence. Later we received official news, via Rugby radio and the BBC, that we were now at war with Japan. Then later still, we received radio instructions to divert to Balikpapan in mid-east Borneo, one of our previous ports of call halfway up the Macacca Strait. We were three days out.

The position given by the American ship had been 4 degrees north and 124 degrees east, which placed it (if the transmission or reception was accurate) east of the north end of the Macassar Strait. By that evening we had heard of the wide areas covered by the attacking Japanese. Since aircraft carriers do not normally float about without accompanying naval support, we wondered where was the task force whose aircraft had bombed the 'Admiral Cole' and which way were they heading the East coast of Borneo with its valuable oil supply terminal ports of Tarakan and Balikpapan? In view of our destination with respect to the 'Admiral Cole' message and the Japanese demonstrated capability, I kept the phones glued to my ears all day. There could be another diversion message for us. Well there was not, and we duly arrived at Balik.

With reference to the diversion instructions referred to before, I should clarify here, that throughout the war period there was a strict radio silence at sea, except when attacked. Messages for ships were broadcast, and there were schedules of broadcasting times to which ships strictly adhered and listened out to without the need to reply themselves. Ship's call signs were broadcast first after which a ship called would copy the coded messages. The decoding books on board were of course sensitive documents to be ditched if circumstances demanded. In addition, throughout hostilities, the ship's position, correct to an hours sailing time, or sometimes half-an-hour, was always kept in the radio room, night and day.

In the event of a ship being attacked, the first information that the radio officer had to transmit, was the ship's position, before providing any other information which he might or might not be able to do, depending on circumstances.

Instead of the international signal, SOS, the nature of the attack was indicated in the address. If by a surface vessel, “RRR' was first transmitted three times, if by aircraft, 'AAA' or by submarine, “SSS”. A typical message would read, 'AAA AAA AAA” - position of the ship - name of the ship'.

With that message successfully transmitted, the captain would then initiate further helpful information. The use of those prefixes not only alerted authorities who might be able to counter-attack, but also alerted merchant ships in the vicinity to take 'disappearing' action. It was perplexing to have received our first orders to proceed to Balik. It was even more perplexing after we had docked to learn that we were to go to Tarakan 450 miles north of Balik in the region 03° north, and after loading for Singapore proceed there via the NORTH of Borneo and NOT south! In view of the attack on the 'Admiral Cole' 04° north, and that possibly somewhere near that position and heading towards Tarakan, was the Japanese task force, with it's supporting aircraft, our instructions were difficult to swallow. The old man was not one to 'lose his cool' but he was doing so with a few well chosen words, prior to saying, 'Follow me Sparks and bring that bloody wireless log with you ...'

When he produced the information ashore about the 'Admiral Cole' nobody locally seemed to know about it, but obviously somebody else did somewhere, for later the order was cancelled. Obviously the original one had been despatched before the Japanese hostilities.

Next day there were new orders. We were now to evacuate the residents of Balikpapan - 1200 Asians and 100 Europeans, and deposit them at Surabaya in Java, leaving a skeleton staff to carry out the demolition of the oil installation with the co-operation of the defending garrison, should it become necessary - and it did.

During the next day a bevy of American Naval craft arrived and anchored. Two cruisers, two or three destroyers and a small aircraft carrier. I thought at the time that they could be doing something useful like engaging that task-force, but they did not seem to be in a hurry to go anywhere, for they were still there a week later when we had departed. Hindsight tells me now, that a small force like this American one, would have been helpless against Japanese bombers operating from a carrier. While we had been tied up at the wharf there had been plenty of activity on board. Shelters had been built on deck to accommodate the evacuees. Rows of cookhouse facilities and latrines were installed, also extra life rafts fitted and numerous amenities. It was a sad sight to see these bewildered looking parents and kids, or just mothers and kids and grandparents, carrying armfuls of belongings, climbing aboard, then looking around for a suitable spot on which to establish squatters rights on a patch of deck before spreading their pans and beds.

Looking over the ship' ship's side the scene below was one of a great sea of up-turned faces. I thought, surely they could not ALL get on board, well no, fortunately that was not their intention. Presumably they were friends and relations who had arrived to wave good-bye and who did not want to be evacuated.

In the end, the passenger count was now 900 ex-residents, six Europeans from the oil installation and three nurses. I looked hard among the gathering on and off the ship, but I did not see Elli, and because there had not been any shore leave, there had not been any visits to the 'Golden Drake'. I wondered since, if later she was serving 'Shanghai Gestures' to the Japanese with her usual gusto, and I wonder if she had managed to protect her good girls?

Probably after the first official panic that the Japanese could be just over the horizon, and then after a week without any disturbing news of imminent invasion, a few minds had been changed about rushing off too quickly. We would most certainly have preferred to be on the move. The old man voiced his opinion on the matter quite loudly as our cargo of people settled down to a new life on board a ship ... tied up to the wharf!

Although there had not been any air-raids, there had been a number of alerts possibly because of reconnoitring aircraft sightings, but now, with this huge crowd on deck, and the patiently waiting crowd on the wharf below, it began to feel an uncomfortable situation. The Japanese might not want to wreck an oil installation, but a harbour full of ships could be a tempting alternative. There was a strange lack of official information as to the local situation and one wonders if officialdom ashore knew anything about it, or if they were keeping quiet, or like us, listening to the BBC to find out.

There were now rumours that the Japanese had landed at Sarawak across the island on the west coast of Borneo, and if this were true, then aircraft could be operating from there very soon ... So, it was with a sigh of relief that we eventually set sail on December 16th, and much to Captain Thomas's disgust (which he voiced loudly to departing officials) not one of the American ships accompanied us, notwithstanding renewed news of Japanese submarine activity in the Java Sea. The most dangerous weapons we had on board were my spears and bows and arrows acquired in Papua.

The voyage to Surabaya on the north coast of Java was uneventful. We sailed due south out of Balik, across the Java Sea, and then hugged the coast, passing on the inside of the island of Madura and finally docking at Surabaya on December 20th.

That evening after our passengers had all been landed, we sat on deck after dinner with the ship blacked-out, as too was the town, discussing and conjecturing as to our future movements. The area around us was aglow with numerous fireflies and now and again there were vivid lightning flashes across the sky that lit up the sea.

Just ahead of us (we had moved to an offshore anchorage) there was an American cargo ship and from it came strains of the piano accordion and singing. It sounded so nice as the sound floated across the water and roused quite a few nostalgic memories of family occasions at home and Scout campfires.

The radio that night gave more details of the Russian resistance to the German advance, and our own bombing raids on Germany. This better news of our increasing ability to fight back was upset by the disheartening report of the Japanese successes in the Pacific and their rapid advance down the Malayan peninsula, after landing on the North east coast. Also, that Penang, an undefended island on the west coast, had surrendered on December 18th after suffering quite unnecessary bombing attacks which had killed hundreds of civilians. The attacks had been made possibly after the Japanese had occupied the airfield at Kota Bharu 120 miles or so east.

'It was sad to think of pleasant dreamy little Penang being subjected to such carnage and subsequent Japanese occupation” is what I wrote later, and also 'I wonder if the Japanese are now relaxing in the E & O hotel lounge' where I had had many pleasant mornings with some of our “Kistna” passengers, enjoying chats and Singapore gin-slings.

Like the Sea view Hotel in Singapore, it too had a dome roof like a mini St Pauls, offering the same whispering gallery effect. Going ashore, I used to enjoy the quiet tranquillity that I did not experience in Singapore' s busy shopping area. I nursed happy memories of the island. To me, it had an atmosphere of serenity that prompted the thought, that here, time had found a place in which to rest undisturbed ... Alas it had not.

We were still swinging around at anchor the following evening without any knowledge of our next move. The steadily deteriorating news, since the old man had given me a shake that early morning, had not improved. Quite the opposite. The Japanese were reported to be still advancing at great speed southward down Malaya, with our forces in retreat, and there had been frequent bombing raids on Singapore and on shipping in that area.

The American naval base at Wake island had been taken and now we heard officially that the Japanese had actually landed in Sarawak at Miri (Northwest Borneo) on December 16th, so confirming the rumour heard in Balik. We heard for the first time the news of the disastrous loss of the battleship “Prince of Wales” and the “Repulse” sunk by enemy aircraft on December the 10th in the Gulf of Thailand.

So it was with mixed feelings the next day when orders were received to sail and that we were to proceed to Singapore taking a course that would eventually keep us close to the east coast of Sumatra. We assumed that this had something to do with the landings at Sarawak. That morning I heard signals from the tanker MV 'Harper' she was being bombed west of Singapore. It was a shock because we knew her Captain and his bridge crew and we had met many times at Bukom. Since there was plenty of time before sailing, it was decided to open our reserve stock of Christmas wine for lunch, as was voiced, 'we might not get another chance' (alcohol was not on the menu at sea).

Later that day we received further instructions as to our route. We were to avoid the Java Sea because of reported submarines in the area, and take the longer route first east and then west via Bali and then southern Java. Later I heard a vessel being attacked north of Semarang in the Java Sea not far west from Surabaya. Well that again confirmed the reports of submarines in the Java Sea.

I reported this to the old man, who said, 'Keep it under your hat. There is no need to cause any further despondency, there is enough around already'.

The voyage around the western tip of Java and past Bali was uneventful in nice comfortable sailing weather as we sailed up the south coast of Java, where Christmas lunch was enjoyed, if not celebrated. But we did have a scare just before levelling with the Sunda Strait at the north end of Java, but first I should explain the following.

The hostilities procedure when one vessel was challenging another at that time, was to signal WBA. This letter group represented a command 'Stop your ship: do not use your radio: do not lower boats: do not scuttle: if you disobey, I will open fire'. If the signal was not obeyed, action followed. This would be the case, if say a German naval or armed merchant vessel accosted one of our ships, when the first action that would take place would be to silence the radio, should it be used, to prevent the attacking vessel's position from being disclosed. This was not difficult since DF loops and aerial terminations indicated the position of the radio room on the merchant ship quite plainly.

Being so near the Java coast, I had been relieved of the continuous watch order and had reverted to the regulation two hours on and two off routine. It was breakfast time and I was in the saloon with the Captain, Chief Engineer and the second mate. The third mate was still on the bridge where he had been since 0400 and where he would normally remain until relieved by the second mate when he had finished his breakfast at 0830.

I think we had all more or less finished when the second mate received a message to go onto the bridge which was unusual, and which was indicated by his raised eyebrows. After a time lapse, equal for the time taken for the second mate to get onto the bridge and Shorty Armstrong, the cadet, to get down with a message, the old man left too. To me that departure indicated trouble so I hurried into the radio room leaving the perplexed chief engineer sitting at the table.

Upon arriving there, the first thing that confirmed that there was trouble, was cadet Armstrong, whom we nicknamed Shorty, falling over the door coaming with the ship's latest position, and then the brr-brring of the telephone. The old man said, 'stand-by sparks' ... so I did, wondering ... As I did not yet know, for what, I stood up and turned to Shorty but he had disappeared. However in doing so I had the shock of my life for I saw a tiny shape of a vessel in the far distance, it's signal lamp blinking WB8 at me through the porthole!

I started up the transmitter generator, more a reflex action and not a brave one, for in that instant I remembered tales of operators not getting enough time to send the last groups of their RRR’s messages. The thought that I might have to soon start pressing that transmitting key was a very nasty one as I hung on to the telephone and waited (“the coward dies a thousand deaths, the brave man only once') I heard the clanking of the ship's telegraph to the engine room, then the change of motion of the ship. My immediate thought was “Hell's bells, we are making a run for it” then brr-brr again. The old man said 'It's OK sparks, we have just been challenged by a Dutch cruiser!'

When I look back on that incident I wonder now, and also wonder why I was not curious at the time, why it was that that Dutch cruiser was not seen before it became a shape on the skyline. Normally one sees another ship by the top of its mast or funnel or perhaps smoke before it becomes a complete recognisable ship. It had been a very sensitive situation ever since we had left port, so where were all the other lookouts? Well perhaps the cruiser came rapidly out of the morning haze. Just before that incident I received confirming messages that the Japanese had landed at Sarawak and also on the west coast of Borneo, and that their aircraft could be now operating from occupied airfields there. I had received the same information when I went onto the bridge to receive the Aldis lamp signals from the cruiser, who also signalled, 'Important you keep west of Banka Island and report Naval Control at mouth of Musi' (the Palembang river).

We sailed through the Sunda Strait and towards Banka, passing the ex-crater of the volcano Krakatoa that did not look very much at all - just a small island with a crater-shaped hill rising out of it. When it erupted in 1883, it was, as far as records indicate the biggest bang the world had ever known since Santorini obliterated the civilisation of Crete. Following the eruption of Krakatoa that caused tidal waves and the deaths of thousands of coastal inhabitants, dust travelled right around the world causing spectacular sunsets for years afterwards. What I saw, was not what caused the devastation, but what meekly rose up out of the sea afterwards - Krakatoa.

We had not gone very far through the Sunda straits when I heard the 'Harper' being attacked again in the Strait of Malacca, and also the “Aldegonda”. They were being attacked by aircraft and sending out the regulation “AAA” signals.

The remainder of the voyage was uneventful. We did not see the Naval Control at the mouth of Musi, so the old man pushed on regardless, but hugging the Sumatra coastline. We finally dropped anchor 25 miles south of Singapore, north of the Rhio islands as the sun set on December 31st.1941. The captain had been told, that in view of the now enforced precautions, arrival in the Singapore area at night might mean being shot at first and questions asked later.

We arrived at Pulau Bukom mid morning the next day. As already referred to, Bukom was one of the two oil installation islands for Singapore (the other one being Pulau Sambu a few miles further east) that provided wharfing and fuel handling facilities. I had enjoyed many social evenings at the island's club which sported a bar and a piano. It was a cool peaceful little island, probably half-a-mile wide and one-and-a-half miles long located south of Singapore Island, with a very frequent ferry service.

This time, the club was unusually packed with a motley crowd of sailors and soldiers, the former mostly survivors off the sunken battle ships 'Repulse' and 'Prince of Wales'. There were also some of the crew off the 'Harper' that I had heard being attacked a few days before our arrival. She was attacked and sunk later in the Rhio Strait on the 27th January, with the loss of a cargo of fuel destined for Batavia.

We were In Bukom for nine days, and during that time as far as air raids were concerned we had a peaceful time because all the aerial aggro was taking place over Singapore, of which we had a grandstand view. One might assume that an island like Bukum, loaded with fuel and all the facilities associated with it, would have been a prize for Japanese attacks. But not so. It was never attacked because I suppose, the Japanese needed the island intact for their own use after they had taken Singapore, of which, even at that early stage, they must have been so very confident.

From the idyllic untroubled existence that we had been enjoying slowly and surely that situation was deteriorating daily. I went across to Singapore by the ferry two or three times and I was quite surprised to see how little damage there was on the couple of visits, except for the first bomb which had hit Robinson’s department store in Raffles Place.

It seemed that most of the damage that had been done, which I saw later, was in the Chinese and Indian quarters. The docks at Keppel did not appear to have been damaged, although I did not manage to see much of that area at that time. I assumed that Keppel docks had been ignored by the Japanese for the same reasons that Bukom had not been attacked.

The Keppel harbour dock area ran for quite a distance along the south coast of Singapore Island sheltered on the seaward side by the long length of Blakang Mati Island (now renamed Santosa). It was on the summit and the seaward side of Blakang Mati which accommodated some of the much-talked about Singapore defences that looked out to sea.

If the Japanese had done what was expected of an attacking force approaching Singapore, they would have had a very warm welcome from Blakang Mati and all the other coastal guns. Instead, they arrived by the back door, so to speak, and there was little that Blakang Mati or any of the other coastal defences could about it to any great extent.

In the past, a lot of accent has been placed on those guns that looked out to sea, which could not look the other way. I have since read that that is only partly correct, applying only to large calibre guns. By turning through 180° they were deprived of remote control facility but not their ability to fire. If they did they still did not possess the correct shells for the annihilation of troops. The shells available, only in a very small quantity, the armour piercing type essentially for that purpose i.e. making holes in naval armour.

As I went about the city, it seamed to all outward appearances that Singapore life was continuing normally. The only thing that I noticed out of the ordinary was the digging up and the defacing of the sacred cricket ground. I thought that perhaps they were digging slit trenches, but at the same time, they looked sadly like graves. Mind you, if I had bothered to move further away centre at that time, as I did later, I would have had different thoughts on normality.

The second mate, John Wood and I, went to the “New World” taxi-dancing “joint”, Raffles Hotel, and then shopping in Change Alley (the bargain-hunters mecca off Raffles Place) then, on Sunday, out to the Sea View Hotel just around the coast. Later, on several occasions this time alone, I went to the swimming club all day. I mention mundane items merely to bear out my remark, that if I had not known the Japanese were only a matter of 75 miles away and closing-in fast, I would have thought that what I was experiencing was the everyday life of the city hitherto enjoyed.

. . . .

We received our sailing orders on January 9th 1942 having taken on a half-cargo to be topped up with a load to be picked up at Pladjoe, en route to Balikpapan. That information was hard to swallow, since to get to Balik, it would have to be via the Java Sea! You will remember that on our voyage to Singapore from Surabaya after dropping off our “cargo” of evacuees, we had been routed around southern Java in order to AVOID the Java Sea because of submarine activity. Then, just before sailing, we took on additional petrol for Tarakan (about 450 miles north of Balikpapan). This last straw made the old man explode. It just did not make sense at all. Our humble surmise, which was emphasised loudly at dinner that night, was that before we had time to get anywhere near those parts, the Japanese could have already arrived.

The interesting thing, that is if one could mildly call it interesting, was that we were being sent out alone with a volatile cargo, not to mention a valuable ship and crew, without any defensive support. I wonder if we would have felt any happier if someone had said 'Sorry Captain, we can’t give you an escort because we just haven’t got a single ship to spare'. Such was the plight of the siege of Singapore. A pitiful shortage of naval and airborne facilities. Arthur Greene, the new 3rd engineer who had just joined us said “It’s a pity we can’t swap our cargo for one of balloons - blown up ones'

Arthur was a great person and we got on very well together. He had been transferred to the 'Pinna' from another tanker ship, the MV “Trocus”. He told me that while crossing the Indian ocean they had picked up a raft full of 25 German sailors around November 20th (1941) and eventually landed them into the hands of the Authority in Freemantle. They turned out to be survivors of the German armed merchant cruiser “Kormoran” a vessel of 9000 tons which had been responsible for the sinking of many thousands of tons of Allied merchant shipping.

From an entry in my diary, Arthur said, that according to the men they had picked up, The German ship had attacked and sunk the Australian Naval vessel 'Sidney”. The 'Sidney' had signalled, and then approached to within three-quarters of a mile of the disguised German ship, to ascertain it's identity, which then opened fire with guns and torpedoes. However before the 'Sidney' sank, she hit the German ship putting her partly out of action, but also setting her on fire to the extent, that the crew had eventually to abandon ship.

Two factors stand out in the case. About 300 survivors off the ' Kormoran” were eventually picked up, but not one single man from the 'Sidney' was found by searching ships and our aircraft only one machine gun riddled life-raft. It was the recovery of the German survivors that sadly solved the riddle of the missing 'Sidney'...

Forty years later and with the availability of Naval information, Michael Montgomery has written the book covering the incident, entitled 'Who sank the Sidney'.

The whole sad event is still clouded in mystery. Who helped the “Kormoran'? Who disposed of the 'Sidney’s” survivors? Despite intensive investigation, the main facts known as I write these lines are still only as much as those Arthur conveyed to me in 1941. We duly set sail from Bukom the following afternoon except for one 'Stand-by sparks' as we negotiated the north end of the Rhio Straits when a bevy of aircraft was sighted, but who thankfully ignored us. We hugged the east coast of Sumatra southwards, and picked up the pilot at the mouth of the Musi River two days later on January 12th.

It was a pleasant repeat journey up the River Musi to Palembang. The deep channel was so narrow in places that it seemed that we would soon be pulling leaves off the trees as we sailed along with large areas of mango swamp on either side. The scent of the trees and the wet earth was delightful. During the first few days that we were tied up at the Pladjoe oil installation, there were several air-raid alerts but nothing we could see or hear happened. We met up with the crew of the ship that had sailed up from the south. They said that a Dutch ship had recently been attacked by submarine in the Java Sea, after which, the escaping crew had been gunned. Only three remaining alive were picked up.

Well that confirmed reports about enemy activity in the Java Sea. About the same time, we received news that the Tarakan north Borneo oil installation had been destroyed, and the area evacuated as a result of the attack and landings by the Japanese troops on January 11th. The following day our cargo destined for Tarakan was off-loaded. Well that made sense after the previous nonsense! That evening out on deck enjoying our after-dinner drink and chat which had become routine since there was no necessity for strict watches, we wondered about the news situation. Who was it, that was first waiting for news from the BBC before issuing orders? We hoped that the BBC would keep it up and whoever was waiting for the news, would keep his ears pinned back.

The following day, still without any further news as to our future movements, we moved from Pladjoe out to an anchorage downstream from Palambang, where we were still swinging around our anchor two weeks later!

Day after day, either from the BBC or Singapore radio broadcasts, usually the former, we listened dismally to the news of stepped-up air-raids on Singapore, one of which was 80 aircraft strong and the overnight withdrawal of troops down the Malay Peninsular to strategic defence positions. The latter piece of news we interpreted as being that our hard-pressed troops were being driven back by the highly organised and better-equipped mechanised Japanese.

The next withdrawal could very well be on to Singapore Island proper! The war news from home still described the continuing bombing of our cities; the very little improvement in the Middle East situation, and the still recurring merchant shipping losses in the Atlantic. It was all very depressing.

In contrast nothing had happened or was happening to us on board, we were living a life of Riley compared to the others in the different war zones and on the home front. Our surroundings were idyllic with all the attributes of a pleasure cruise. Placid river, pleasant cool breezes, chairs on deck, sun bathing by day and watching the flashing of the millions of fire-flies at night as we chatted over drinks. We would go to bed with the croaking of bull frogs and the many sounds out of the jungle that echoed across the water, then wake up in the morning to the shrieking of birds and the chattering of monkeys.

We were still swinging at anchor on January 26th and just as we had begun to think that we really had been forgotten, the old man received instructions that we would soon be leaving the anchorage and returning to the wharf.

So, our idyllic holiday had really come to an end. I wondered what the BBC had heard? While we had been at anchor during the last few days, there had been several air-raids on the airfield a few miles away, with the passing aircraft ignoring us and the Pladjoe oil installation - another Bukom? I wondered.

There had been news of attacks on shipping in the harbour at Balikpapan, and then the news that Balikpapan had been occupied and also ports on the Celebes across the Macassar strait. Well that would remove Balik from our ports-of-call along with Tarakan.

I learned later that the capture of the Borneo oil fields and the port of Balikpapan could provide the Japanese with over 50,000 barrels of oil a day, which more than fulfilled their requirements of petrol to continue the war in the East.

We had learned of our return to the wharf when the shipping agent boarded us. He said that he thought that now we would be going direct to Darwin, and that like another ship, we would be given a route via Banka, Sunda Strait and southern Java instead of the normal route via the Java and Flores seas. The old man rolled his eyes at this and suggested that there was nothing new about that, we had already done it - well, in reverse.

“Anyway” he said, 'its bloody obvious now isn't it ... ' He was not one to mince his words when the occasion demanded it. After the agent had departed, leaving the instructions that we return to the wharf the next morning, I heard two more ships being bombed, the 'Lamatang' and the “Larut”. Then a short time later the call sign VSJB off the West Coast of Sumatra, then the 'Van Himoff' - a submarine attack off southern Sumatra. The first three were in the region of the Rhio islands south of Singapore.

I was quite pleased about Darwin and the route there, but the later news of submarine activity around Banka Island area soured it somewhat. Perhaps the sub that had attacked the 'Van Himoff' had come around the corner and through the Sunda Strait - or was there another one? The old man's remark when I reported this to him was. 'Does anyone know about all this?' “No” I said. 'Then keep it that way,” he said.

I found it very hard to be as cheerful as the others were at dinner that night, and later on deck, for the prospect of a safe get away at dawn to Darwin had gone down well. But as I saw it, there did not seem to be any safe alternative direction that we could now go, except for up or down, and they could hardly be called safe!

-- Next: Another Door Part 2: Our Journey to Disaster

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