An Idyll Too Far - Part 11

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Chapter Eleven - Another Day, Another War

It is 11 November, 1941, and the Singapore Times blazes with the headline:


In the heavily ornate, air-conditioned lounge of Raffles Hotel, officers (ORs and non-Europeans are not allowed in, of course), yes, officers only, of the Malayan Volunteer Force, the RAF, the RN, and the Loyal Lothshires Fifth Battalion, together with certain senior businessmen and civil servants, plus one or two clerics, are gathered later on that same morning to hear the governor make a statement on the wireless; they had been forewarned of this on the 9 o'clock news. No women are present. Most of the men are sipping their chota pegs as a hush descends on the room. The announcer has just introduced His Honour, who now begins to speak. He is not much of an orator and it soon becomes clear that he is reading every word.

My dear friends, no doubt you have all read in the press of our great leader's announcement late yesterday and some of you may feel apprehensive about your own safety. Please let me reassure you. Any attack made on this island must be mounted from the sea and most of you will have seen the great fifteen-inch guns mounted for our defence on the south coast. There are also two battleships rapidly approaching and reinforcements in the way of extra troops from both Australia and the home country will be landing shortly. So let me reassure you all that there is absolutely nothing to fear; just carry on with your duties, as you have been doing so ably in the past. And may God bless you all.

The airforce officers returned to their mess on Seletar Aerodrome; it was overflowing with imported wines and liqueurs, cigars and various expensive smokes, plus other delicacies to the value of many thousands of pounds. Apart from a couple of sentries, there was no semblance of ground defence, nor a single slit trench or air-raid shelter. Its aircraft were slow old crates that in other theatres had been replaced long ago.

Elsewhere, in Singapore and on the Malayan peninsula, other services and their establishments were similarly unprepared for any sort of defence or, indeed, any kind of modern warfare. There were no concrete pillboxes or gun emplacements, no trenches and not a single tank in the whole theatre of operations.

Chinese servants had been two a penny; so officers, ex-patriots and their wives, together with all their children were, quite literally, waited on hand and foot. Chinese and Malay residents, plus people of mixed blood (whose very being resulted from pleasure snatched or paid for by Europeans), whether servants or traders, were mostly treated as though they were of a different genus. They were often looked down upon, in fact, as beings of a lower order than dogs and cats.

The Chinese there, who were naturally hard workers, having been oppressed by various overlords over a period of about six thousand years, took all this lying down, especially as they knew what had been happening to their brethren in China under the yoke of the Japanese in recent years. Better the devil, you know. Those of the indigenous (Muslim) Malayan race, however, were a very different kettle of fish; indolent and independent, they scratched a living where they could, be it by fishing, hunting, or cultivating their own small patch of land. Who could blame them for resenting these haughty white invaders? Who could not but understand that many of them were falling for the insidious propaganda that was currently being covertly distributed by Japanese agents, promising them the Earth? While the Europeans were frittering their time away in Raffles' bars, many Malays were making themselves 'fried egg' Japanese flags, ready to hang out at the first sight of the enemy's approach.

The OC of the Loyal Lothshires, whose men were doing regular garrison duty on the island, unlike many of his contemporaries, was a sincere and conscientious man; he had for long been petitioning the War Office concerning the dangers of enemy attack from the mainland and recommending certain counter-measures. His warnings had been ignored and all his suggestions poo-poohed. Life on the island carried on much the same for a few more weeks — that is, until 7 December, 1941.

It was on a Sunday afternoon and at 14.22 hours by New York time, the Associated Press stamped out worldwide the following momentous information on its teleprinters:

White House says Japanese Attack Pearl Harbour.

This brief message, reported in the Singapore press the following morning, heralded the fact which was soon to come to light, that the Japanese, whose Prime Minister Hideki Tojo had twelve days earlier assured that same White House that they had 'nothing to fear in this war', had without warning sent 360 aircraft to bomb and machine-gun ships and bases in Hawaii, the Philippines, and the Pacific islands of Guam and Wake. By catching the Americans with their pants down, they had in two short hours destroyed five battleships, fourteen other warships, two hundred aircraft (mostly before they had a chance to become airborne) and naval base installations. The attack also left well over three thousand personnel dead or badly wounded.

Again, the Governor spoke on the radio to announce there was nothing for those on Singapore to fear, but this time no-one believed him and panic set in among service personnel and civilians alike. Essential personal belongings and documents were thrown into bags and within a matter of hours, houses were left with valuable cameras, babies' bottles with the feed still inside, clothing, personal possessions and private papers, all strewn about where they had fallen in the rush to depart. Families' second cars were left outside with keys still in the ignition, or were still in the garages.

The stream of cars nose to tail heading for the docks soon ground to a halt. More goods were jettisoned as panic-stricken drivers left their vehicles at the roadside, before long completely blocking it to other essential traffic. Taking only what could be carried, they moved forward on foot. Many were carrying their little children and had the bigger ones clinging to their clothing with most of them crying for the toys they had been forced to leave behind or screaming in terror at the instability and fear all around them. At the docks, the lengthening queues ensured that those not at the front would have a long wait for a vessel. For many it would even be a matter of days; for even more it would be over three and a half years — that is, if they were among the fortunate few who survived.

With no toilet facilities in the vicinity, after having become accustomed to being waited on for their slightest need, the situation seemed desperate to the housewives, many of whom now berated their menfolk for not getting them out of the country earlier. Others, mainly service men's wives, whose husbands were forced by duty to remain behind, had to grin and bear it without the grin. Of those that did get away over the following days, not all of them made it to India and beyond, as enemy warships and submarines lay in wait for them out there in the ocean, out of range of those much depended-on coastal guns.

Three days later, the press reported that the Japanese army had invaded Malaya and the Philippines. On the same day, one of their aircraft carriers cruised within range; this enabled its aircraft to take off and sink the battleship HMS The Prince of Wales and the battle cruiser HMS Repulse (both the pride of His Majesty's navy), practically on Singapore's doorstep. Those fifteen-inch guns were useless against warplanes.

Those that were left behind on the island frantically began to dig slit trenches for themselves, as there was no time to build proper air-raid shelters. The native population, having been told nothing and with no hierarchy in a government of their own to pass down advice, were perplexed and terrified; they hid in their pitiful little dwellings, mostly built of timber or flimsy stucco-clad clay.

Within a few days — that is, on 20 December — those carrier-based planes bombed and strafed the island of Singapore by daylight, in the first of many such attacks that were to come. Whether by design or chance, most of their objectives seemed to be in the Chinese quarter and the whole area rapidly became a blazing inferno. With the roads blocked by abandoned vehicles, fire engines (those that still had crews) were unable to attempt to stem the advancing flames. No records are known to have been kept of the native dead, but thousands of the injured were taken to local hospitals, where devoted staff did their best to cope.

Soon, disorganised and disillusioned troops from the Malayan campaign, at first mostly Australians fleeing from the enemy without their weapons, began to enter the island from across the Johore Straits; they were making for the docks, hoping to be able to force their way onto ships; they took what they needed for sustenance from the people as they moved through the city.

By now Hawaii, the Philippines, and the Pacific Islands of Guam, Wake, and a host of smaller islets had fallen. There was another heavy daylight raid on the island on 20 January, 1942, by which time, although some of the roads had been cleared, there was little or no water. In early February, Malaya was abandoned and the Royal Engineers blew up the causeway which carried the pipes of Singapore's only water supply.

Indian soldiers, retreating from the Japanese troops now flooding into the island, took refuge in the Alexandra Hospital and fired through its windows at their enemies. Somewhat to the Allies' surprise, in the fighting thus far the Japanese had respected the Red Cross insignia and tried to avoid bombing hospitals or firing on stretcher-bearers. Now all that was to change. Their troops rampaged through the hospital shooting and bayoneting soldiers, patients and medical staff indiscriminately. On every front, the Allies' ambulances and stretcher-bearers were fired on and many caught fire with the wounded inside.

On 15 February, 1942 fighting ceased, as the British OC showed a white flag and handed over an 'impregnable island', 50,000 or so troops, hundreds of vehicles, many left with key in ignition and many thousands of items of ordnance. The victorious Japanese bundled the enemy civilians into Changi Prison, herded the soldiers into camps and crucified many of the starving Chinese caught stealing. They formed regiments of 'quislings' and armed them with some of the weapons that had fallen into their hands. After taking a few days to get organised, many of the prisoners of war were formed into squads to clear up the roads, work in the godowns and build accommodation. Fed on little other than rice, much of that full of lime and extremely unpalatable, many of them soon began to look like skin-clad skeletons as they were marched to work. Although most of them were hungry themselves, many of the local Chinese risked the guards' kicking and rifle-butting them to death by approaching the scarecrow columns with gifts of food.

Most of the fitter prisoners were later moved up-country to Thailand, where their forced labour was used to build, entirely without mechanical help, a railway through the disease-infested tropical jungle to Burma. Until then, there had been no highway through Thailand other than the rivers; the purpose of the new railway was to enable the Japanese military to send enough troops through the hitherto-impenetrable countryside to take India.

The men working on the railway embankments did not stay 'fitter' for very long. They worked alongside Chinese and Tamil labour gangs, the latter in separate camps. Although these Indians were acclimatised to the hot and humid climate, they had not the resistance nor ability to organise themselves like the European troops, so instead of half of them surviving, as did the Europeans, in nearly all of their camps 100% of them died. Back in Singapore and Malaya, the Malays soon discovered on which side their bread was buttered, that there were even worse masters than the British, 'and they longed for the old one again'.


On 14 August, 1945 in America, President Truman announced:

This is the day we have been waiting for since Pearl Harbour.

The first moment of peace came during a short ceremony on board USS Missouri, when a brief statement from His Majesty Hirohito was read by Japanese representatives, acknowledging the Yankee forces' right to occupy Japan, in view of their victory. The Malays were as pleased as their Chinese neighbours to see the back of the Imperial Japanese Army and their erstwhile ubiquitous 'fried egg' flag, after over three and a half years of durance vile.

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Len (Snowie) Baynes

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