Friday, 26 November 2010

2: Air Attack at Sea - Part 2.

It was now three and a half hours since the first air raid had begun and Singapore was well behind us. We kept watch and waited, prepared for another attack, wondering if the Jap's would give up, leaving us still afloat. Our answer came soon enough, as another alarm sounded. We had obviously moved out of range of the previous aircraft as now, high in the sky was a formation of large twin engine bombers.

Now, after the noise and commotion of the low level flying and the continuous firing of the smaller guns, it seemed uncannily quiet, only the larger guns went into action and were firing at what seem longer intervals, there were only two on our ship that could reach the altitude required. The planes were keeping high and continued flying towards us with no apparent damage to them from our gunfire. As I watched I saw some bombs glint in the sun as they left the aircraft and as they whistled through the air, it looked as if they might hit us.

There was silence on board except for the guns which kept up their fire, then, as the sailor and I stood gazing up, we heard course alterations being shouted out from the deck above, the ship immediately heeled over onto a new direction as four bombs crashed into the sea where we would have been.

The ship felt and sounded as if a giant had hit us with a very large hammer, there were four rapid blows as large geysers of water with bright orange centres went skyward.

I wondered how much of this can a ship take before the riveted steel plates sprang and began to leak water. My sailor friend was quite happy, he had been through it all before and had great confidence in his Captain who, he explained was lying on the above deck keeping watch on the planes through binoculars, waiting for the bombs to leave the aircraft, deciding where they were likely to fall, then taking what evasive action was necessary. He was quite rightly, proud of his Captain, also, regarding the closeness of the bombs, the ship's hull could stand plenty of that treatment. There might be some joints that leak steam and light bulbs may be broken in the engine room where most of the damage would occur.

The raid continued with the aircraft using their bomb  singularly. They had no doubt observed our Captain's actions, as with the next attack, as one plane dropped his bombs, the ship changed course, turning to the right, another plane dropped his bombs into the area we were turning into. Our Captain had no choice but to turn back in the hope we would be between the two sticks of bombs. Those to the left of us exploded first only yards away. The noise was deafening as the ship seem to stop dead before plunging on into the next concussing noise of the bombs to our right. This time there was damage in the engine room with burst pipes, but the ship still moved forward and we were all alive.

It was almost 1:00 p.m. when the last planes departed. We had endured and survived four and a half hours of attacks.

The 'Empire Star' had been hit twice and suffered casualties as had the cruiser 'Durban'. We maintained our position at the rear as we continued on our way and now at half speed due to the damage inflicted on the ship during the bombing. The rest of the convoy gradually sailed out of sight as we gradually made our way to Batavia, now know as Jakarta on the Island of Java.

Friday, 19 November 2010

2: Air Attack at Sea - Part 1.

We made very little progress and eventually stopped. Mines had been laid and it was too risky to proceed in darkness. We spent the night chatting and wandering about the blacked out desk, occasionally trying to rest.

Daylight came and we continued our journey, picking our way through the minefields. We had just eaten a makeshift breakfast when the ship's alarm sounded. The Captain spoke over the loudspeaker system asking his airmen passengers to be helpful and try making themselves useful in the forthcoming action, or get below decks out of the way as we would be under air attack within the next few minutes. I decided to try to be helpful and walked over to a sailor I had noticed standing by a Lewis gun mounted at the ship's side. At his feed were several loaded drums of ammunition. He was busily scanning the horizons as I asked him, "Would you like me to load for you?", "I would be very pleased", was his immediate reply. It was a glorious day, a brilliant morning sun in a cloudless sky, the time was around 8:30 a.m.

We recently caught up with two merchant ships that had left Singapore the day before us. One of them was crowded with airmen and had aircraft refuelling tankers on deck. I recall seeing the name 'Empire Star' on its stern. Our ship heeled over as it went into open sea behind these two ships, the cruiser 'HMS Durban' which had been alongside, sailed to the front.

It was agreed that I kept a look out for enemy aircraft to the left whilst the sailor I was assisting searched the sky to the right. Suddenly there was a shout of "There's one" from him, I turned and saw a plane coming towards us at about fifty feed above sea level, with flashes coming from a single gun on each wing as the plane rushed towards us. The sailor open up with his gun as the plan seemed to be making a direct line for us, emptying one drum which I immediately changed, the plan passed over with a roar. 

The noise was now deafening, shell bursts everywhere, bombs exploding in the sea around us and aircraft attacking from all directions. 

The ship was vibrating and sailing at maximum speed as we changed direction frequently to try to evade our attackers, a trail of black smoke marking our course. As suddenly as the attack had started, so it ended with no apparent damage being done. 

My sailor companion and I discussed the attack, he telling me he was happy to be in the navy and on a ship as it was maneuverable whilst under attack. I told him I preferred to be on land as I couldn't walk on water and an airfield didn't sink.

Lookouts were scanning the sky as we waited for the next attack. The other ships were all steaming on as if undamaged. It didn't seem likely we would be left to continue out journey unhindered. There obviously wasn't another squadron waiting to move in to carry on the attack, so I pondered how far the planes had to go to bomb up and refuel.

The alarm sounded again, then we heard the aircraft engines and saw shell bursts high in the sky. Around the shell bursts were the planes and as I watched, some of the aircraft started to dive. We resumed our erratic course and as the aircraft came within range the multiple pom poms from the deck above filled the path of the dive bomber with exploding shells. The tactics were a success, the bomb missed us, falling into the sea. The aircraft, their bombs gone, resorted to low level attacks with cannon fire and machine gun, before flying off.

I began to see the sailors point of view as we seems unscathed apart from small dents and chipped paintwork. Buckets of tea began to appear, which was a welcome sight. The tension eased as we took a break and enjoyed a cup of tea.

Friday, 12 November 2010

1: Evacuation, Singapore to Java

The situation was pretty grim as most of the island was in Japanese hands. I was working in the Operations room of 224 Group Fighter Control.

It was the morning of the 12th and another unpleasant few minutes at work was ahead. The controller got the news that three aircraft had just passed the eastern side of Singapore and were now coming along the south beach towards us.

'Find your tin hats and when I give the order, get under the table'. Then it came. They roared overhead at low level, I thought someone had given our activity away, then quick as they arrived they were gone. 'Back to normal', said the controller.

There was no talk of being taken prisoner, we just carried on. We knew fighting was going on at Singapore as Army ambulances were going along East Coast Road filled with wounded soldiers.

Had breakfast and walked to work with just water bottle, mug, knife, fork and spoon in a side haversack, for eating lunch. Around 11am we were told to destroy all our equipment and then go outside for transport to the docks. What about our kit? Told, not much of Singapore in our troops possession, go and see if you can get on a ship.

We were then transported to the docks where some warehouses had been set alight and others bomb damaged, as shelling was going on nearby. The quayside was covered in black oil and littered with hoses where ships had bunkered and left in a hurry. There were many airmen waiting on the quay and a few more truck loads followed after us - approximately three hundred men gathered, but not a ship in sight.

It was late afternoon when a small river boat, HMS Li Wo, manned by Royal Navy personnel tied up at the quay in search of coal. I approached a young naval officer who had come ashore and asked if he would be taking us on board. He said he was on his way to a nearby R.N. office to get further orders. He requested for us to assist with the coaling up of his boat and said we would be going along with them if nothing else was coming. Later, he returned to inform us that two ships would be collecting everyone that night. When they left on the 13th February, we felt isolated. Time seemed to drag very slowly.

After a while I decided to have a saunter and walked over to a bomb damaged warehouse that was no alight. Inside was stacked with cases of Plymouth Gin. I opened a bottle and took a swig, my first taste ever of gin, which I thought tasted pretty disgusting, needless to say, I've changed my opinion since then. I picked up half a dozen bottles to take over to the chaps thinking someone must have a taste for it. The first couple I offered it to turned it down when an officer who had obviously been watching approached and asked if he could have some. I told him he was welcome and gave him the lot remarking, there was a warehouse full over the way if he needed more. I decided to take another stroll and entered another warehouse. The one was stacked with cases of condensed milk, something of which I was fond of. I managed to open a tin with my jack knife and drank the lot, that tasted far better than gin and more to my liking. I was feeling very hungry, as I hadn't eaten since breakfast.

Towards evening a flight of Japanese bombers flew over but didn't drop anything. We assumed it was because there were no ships in harbour to be bombed and secondly, they had no wish to damaged the quay as they themselves would shortly have use of it. Darkness eventually came but the shelling continued and the fighting was getting closer.

Time hung heavily until at 2.00 a.m. two ships glided in out of the darkness, lit only by the flames of the still burning warehouses. The total silence of their arrival was amazing, they were well within our sight before any sound could be heard, needless to say, a very welcome sight. A Chief Petty Officer appeared at the side of the ship saying loud enough for us to hear 'lively lads', we needed no encouragement, the ship represented freedom.

We embarked in complete silence, each man boarding the ship nearest him, the one I boarded was an armed merchantman named HMS Kedah, the other a cruiser HMS Durban. We stood on deck silently watching the shell fire and flames recede as we slid out of the harbour leaving Singapore behind us.

Friday, 5 November 2010

Introduction - Part 8.

The next day we were taken to Kuala Lumpur railway station, the group of us that had been working together, put in our own carriage on our way to Singapore. The journey was very slow, sometimes we stopped, but it was uneventful, I would not have liked to be attached by aircraft and was pleased to get off the train at Singapore.

Most of the air raids had been on the RAF stations in Singapore, not much damage elsewhere, troopships had been sunk in the harbour by bombers, so men had been landed with their guns and rifles lost, the worst thing to happen once again the Japanese knew the time to come.

Taken to a transit camp where we enjoyed a good meal and a clean up in our barracks. On parade next morning at 9am, we were told that we could have the day off as we’d been having a rough time lately and could also go to Singapore, transport of which would be available.

We looked around the shops, had a meal, then our first experience of an air-conditioned cinema and froze in there. Was like walking into an oven when we came out and our transport was waiting at 4pm for our return. We’d seen enough anyway and did feel like a good nights sleep.

Next morning on parade an officer had a list of work placements. Bill and I were taken to collect our kit and off to the figher operations building. This was a very large bungalow on the sands of the south shore and very exposed being all alone. In the main room was a large table with a map of Malaya, Singapore, Sumatra and some islands.

The RAF station we were at now was Kallang on the south of Singapore, which was attacked regularly by the Japanese aircraft, so we were to live and work away from the airfield, only going there for meals. Lunch was normally the only chance attack took place, early breakfast and late dinner was peaceful.

The workings of the job, symbols and information were explained to us and informed that we would also be sounding Singapore’s air raid warnings. New observation posts had been set up in Sumatra and I was to be in contact with them. Information was not long in coming, a flight of aircraft flying over Sumatra making their way to attack our troops fighting near Singapore and none of our aircraft were available to help, but at least the troops were warned.

At the end of the working day we were taken to the house in East Coast Road, that was to be our home. A very grand house with a massive entrance hall and matching staircase each side joining the top floor with our bedrooms upstairs.

All of us were youngsters with mostly the same likes and dislikes and used to stay up late listening to big band music from the UK on our large radio. A very pleasant atmosphere was spoilt one night when five drunken Australian soldiers came through the front door demanding whiskey. We asked if they would like a coffee, which resulted in one pulling out a revolver and firing a shot into the ceiling. I looked for the most sober one, telling him we did not have any alcoholic drinks at all, were not allowed in town, and at last managed to get rid of them. We decided to lock the door from now on.