- Contributed by
- Len (Snowie) Baynes
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 05 December 2003
At a quarter to three, I received what I hope will remain as the greatest shock of my life, as a messenger came with the order to lay our weapons down in front of us and surrender. I find it quite impossible to describe my feelings. Until now we had felt that we were holding our own, and anticipated pushing the Japanese back off the island before many more days had passed (we were still optimistically awaiting the arrival of Allied aircraft).
Our wildest guesses did not take into account the possibility of abandoning the territory to the enemy - we had been told that the island must be retained at all costs, since it was an essential link in our communications with Australasia. In any case we did not think of throwing in the sponge while any of us remained alive - that was not the British way. I crept round the position passing on the order, adding the instruction to remove the rifle bolts and bury or otherwise hide them.
Private Tanner stood 6ft 2in, and had proved himself in the fighting to be a very brave soldier - when he heard the order, he stood there unashamedly with tears streaming down his cheeks. His were not the only tears that sad day. I felt as though my bowels had been painlessly removed, my mind refused to work properly, and I was unable to grapple with the situation.
Hardly a word was exchanged between us, as we awaited further orders. Talking about this afterwards, we agreed that we were still undergoing a feeling of bitter shame, with our arms lying useless on the ground and our country's enemy only a hundred yards away.
Events on the remainder of the island had been going very badly however, and we were one of the few regiments not to have been forced to withdraw from its allotted area. Singapore had no previously prepared positions for defence against an attack from the mainland of Malaya, and the story of the big unmanageable guns pointing out to sea is now familiar.
For the previous few years, our military people had taught us the necessity for all-round defence in modern warfare, yet Singapore's only big guns were still concreted in to positions facing out to sea. Their main defensive weapons were therefore hardly used. This was at a time when nearly every army in the world was training paratroops, and our potential enemy had been advancing through the Chinese mainland for years. A few thousand pounds worth of concrete pill-boxes, strategically placed, a few mobile guns or tanks, and Singapore could well have proved, like Gibraltar, an impregnable fortress.
No plans seemed to have been worked out for the deployment of troops, however, should the Japanese do the obvious and attack from the dry land, instead of sailing into the muzzles of our big guns from seaward. At the time of surrender, as we were to learn later, the enemy had penetrated nearly everywhere, and Singapore City was full of leaderless men making for the docks in the hope of getting away on a ship from this doomed place.
We were also told later that the order for surrender was given because the Japanese had cut off Singapore’s only water supply, which came from the mainland, and that we were giving in for the sake of the civilian population.
Oriental people fully understand what face-saving is all about, and in the weeks that followed, they showed no gratitude to us for laying down our arms for their sakes. The Malays spat on the ground when they saw us during the first days after our surrender - but they were soon to learn that there are worse masters than the British
We seemed to wait in our trenches after the arrival of the cease-fire order for a very long time, without anything happening. An hour and a half after we received it, men dug in fifty yards away, in the centre of a lawn, decided to climb out of their trenches - a machine gun opened fire on them, and they all lay still around their position. I ran back to our RAP to try to borrow a Red Cross flag to take out over the lawn, and fetch in any wounded.
Dodging a hail of bullets from that same machine gun, I found our Medical Officer and explained my mission, but was told that since some of our men had fired on Japanese stretcher bearers, they had ceased to respect the Red Cross, and were firing indiscriminately at both stretcher bearers and ambulances. I was told to stay quietly with my men until further instructions were received. Again, it was later that we learned that Indian troops had fired on the Japanese from the windows of Robert’s Hospital, and this was responsible for the retribution.
Stepping out through the front door of the house where the RAP was situated, and seeing an ambulance standing there, I looked in over the tailboard. Within seconds I came under machine gun fire from an unexpected direction, and tracer bullets whizzed past me like fireworks and into the ambulance. Although it seemed that I could have touched these bullets, again they all missed me.
I jumped to cover into an alcove built in the wall of the house, and as I did so the ambulance burst into flames - a tracer bullet had penetrated the petrol tank. The fire spread and the ambulance became an inferno. The firing did not ease up, and I began to feel the intense heat. Soon I had to choose between roasting and stepping out again into the line of fire.
The house was built on a slope, and like most of the dwellings in that area it was built on piers, high off the ground. I leapt out of the alcove and fell flat on the ground in a spot where I could roll back under the house, and managed to accomplish this in one movement. I lay there for a few seconds, getting my breath back, and watching the tracers fly past, almost within reach of my hand. Then the heat increased, and I realised that the fire had spread to the house, so crawled to the rear of the under-floor space.
Teams of men were carrying the wounded to safety out of the back door, and they were not being fired on. I met Captain Coppin at the rear of BHQ, and stopped for a second to speak to him before carrying on behind the house. A steep bank arose a few yards from us, and I thought we were safe from fire for the moment. I continued on my way, but half-way along, two Japanese armed with a light machine gun suddenly appeared from behind a hedge, only four yards away. One yelled something that sounded like ‘shoot’, and the other released a burst of fire at me from point blank range.
Lucky escape, and hidden fear
Before I could move, I felt a pain in the back of my neck, then dived under the building and rolled out of range. I put my hand up to my neck - no blood, I had been hit only by chips of brick from the wall. Captain Coppin had quite a shock when we came face to face later on. He had watched my progress from the corner, and seeing what had occurred, had reported my death to HQ.
It later transpired that the Japanese had brought up their veteran troops. As we had defended our ground so well, they thought we were a crack regiment under the direct command of General Wavell. These enemy companies acted more or less independently, and had few lines of communication. Their leaders had therefore not been able to inform them of the cease-fire, and as a result this was our worst period, as, without weapons, we were picked off one by one.
I continued unscathed, however. Had I seen myself in a Western, being missed so many times at point blank range, I would probably have classed it as impossible fiction. Once again I reached my men unharmed, and as we awaited the next move our thoughts dwelt on what we had heard of the way the Japanese dealt with prisoners.
We had been told of soldiers' bodies found with their hands tied together with barbed wire and riddled with bullets, and that they liked torturing their captives before disposing of them. We knew that the Chinese, whom they had been fighting for several years, did treat their prisoners this way. Our comrades out on the lawn had been shot down in cold blood. We did not discuss these things as we waited in silence, each kept his thoughts to himself.
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