The Far East
We left Glasgow in a convoy of eighty ships escorted by the Royal Sovereign, six destroyers and six corvettes. We were fairly comfortable on-board a modern liner “Monarch Of Bermuda” which still had her civil crew and all Mod Cons.
We were attacked off of Sierra-Leone by German U Boats. We were told that some of the cargo ships had been lost and a U Boat destroyed. Our ship was rushed into Sierra-Leone bay with other passenger carrying ships of the Castle line. After we left Sierra-Leone bay, a strange event took place, we found ourselves cruising around in a large circle and this happened for several days.
The Officer I/C troops explained that our escort had left to assist in a battle with a German battle ship further south.
We eventually arrived at Durban. At this stage we understood that our unit, accompanied by a flight of Hurricanes (the pilots and crews were aboard our ship) and a detachment of R.E.s (Royal Engineers) with railway engines and trucks plainly visible as deck cargo on the freighters, were destined for the Red Sea area to establish some sort of rail communication across the desert. This was not to be.
We left Durban on Christmas Eve aboard a very old ship, the Australian liner “Aorangi”. We were told to expect a really good Christmas Dinner the next day. We spent the Christmas morning watching it float away. The ships refrigeration had broken down and it had all gone rotten. Bully beef was the order of the day.
Singapore, Sumatra and Java
We arrived at Singapore on January 8th, 1942 and were soon in action on the dockside against endless attacks by Jap bombers and fighters. This did not last long for us and towards the end of the month we were shipped over to Palembang in Sumatra. Our job was to defend the large oil refineries and storage depots there.We held out for a while against Jap paratroops, but eventually we were forced out of the large refinery we were holding, by far superior forces in arms and men.
The Dutch ordered us to destroy our guns and cross over to the other side of a very wide river that ran alongside our gun emplacements. Once we were over the other side, the Dutch sprang a surprise. They had placed bombs in all the storage tanks and they now ignited them together. I do not know how many Japs were roasted that night but the heat was so intense that we scorched on the other side of the river. We then fought a rearguard action back to Hoostaven where we were taken by boat to Batavia in Java. Here we found army stores and were able to equip ourselves with Bren Carriers and small arms, turning us into infantry. The battle for Java was history and after the Dutch had ceased fighting, we made our way back to the southern beaches hoping to be picked up by the Australian Navy, another Dunkirk? The message was that the Island was surrounded by Jap Submarines and the Australians could not help us.
Surrounded by the Jap army we were left to our own devices for about two weeks. Finally, a ceremonial laying down of arms in a large field, one section at a time and the knowledge that the next day we would be marching into captivity. That evening, the Padre came around inviting anyone who wished, to join him at the top of a small hill to celebrate Holy Communion before sunrise the next day.
There were twelve of us to meet him. I think some were afraid of the Jap reaction if we were discovered, however we were not and the experience was something that I will never forget. As the Padre broke the bread, the tropical sun came up, with instant light. The sun bursting through the trees sent hundreds of darting rays of Light, the whole hill top was a blaze of glory. We all felt a presence there.
Later on when we were in the prison camp, one of those present carved twelve crosses to commemorate this event and an action when a troop was overrun by Japanese tanks and only twelve survived. I received one of those crosses and it became my companion until I was liberated. It was never touched by the guards, but more of that later.