Personal Stories

Charles Wilson

Charles Wilson


Charles Wilson



Personal Stories

A VIEW OF THE RIVER – Charles Wilson


In 1986 Pamela and I visited our son Stuart and his wife Elizabeth in Hong Kong. They had lived and worked there for several years - he as a civil engineer involved in the development of the colony and she as a teacher. One evening we went out to dinner where we met some of their friends. One of these, who was a Royal Air Force Officer, sat next to me at table.  Our conversation turned to the invasion and occupation of the Colony by the Japanese during World War Two and this naturally extended to my experiences as a prisoner of the Japanese in Singapore and Thailand.

Stuart, who was sitting opposite us, listened to this conversation apparently with interest. Later, he said that he knew nothing about that part of my life and asked why I had never talked about it. I suppose that the reason for my reticence was the fact that many of my experiences were not the kind of things about which one would naturally talk to children. Then, later, when my sons were older, it had lost its immediacy and was allowed to settle back into its place in history.

However, because of his interest, I said that I would try to put on record an account of those years for him. Before I could begin though, I had to make the decision as to the point in time at which to commence. After much deliberation I decided that, in order to present a balanced record, I should begin with an outline of the life and times of our family in that all too short period of uncertain peace, between two gigantic World Wars, in which I grew up. So, perhaps the title I have chosen refers not only to an obscure tropical river which achieved lasting fame, but also to the river of time.



The Japanese entered the Second World War late in 1941. This was, very much, an opportunist decision taking advantage of the total involvement of the British Empire, the European powers and Russia in the conflict with Germany, in which they believed that Germany would be victorious, to realise their dream of 'The New Order'. This great vision of the Japanese war lords was the creation of a mighty oriental empire extending from the western Pacific across South East Asia and the Indian continent.

They were already in occupation of Korea and Manchuria and had invaded China. The United States of America had shown disapproval of these expansionist activities by imposing an oil embargo which was creating serious difficulties for Japan due to her great reliance on imports for her supplies of oil. Breaking this oil stranglehold was vital to the realisation of  her  plans  and  for  the  maintenance  of  her  massive  war machine.  Therefore,  the  prime  objective  in  the  strategic planning  of  the  Japanese  military  leaders  was  to  take possession of the rich oil fields and natural  resources of the Philippines, the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia) and Malaya.

The powerful Admiral Yamamoto and others believed that, if Japan  could  strike  in  great  strength  with  the  element  of surprise, there was reason to think that America would probably agree to a negotiated truce rather than engage in the long and bloody war which would be necessary to drive out powerful, and well established occupation forces. By the end of November 1941, Japanese sea and air armadas stood fully prepared and manned to launch a great wave of 'lightning strike' invasions.

However, before that momentous order to attack could be given, it was imperative to prevent or, at least, seriously to delay intervention by America until landings had been made and Japan's forces were firmly in occupation.

And so it was that a quiet Sunday, the 7th of December 1941, became what the United States President Franklin D. Roosevelt described as “A date which will live in infamy!” At just before 8.00 am., a powerful Japanese sea borne force made a shattering surprise attack on the great American Pacific Naval Base at Pearl Harbour, Hawaii.

Wave after wave of carrier borne bomber and torpedo planes, and a small number of midget submarines, wreaked havoc in the harbour, the dockyard and on the airfield. In a little over forty-five minutes they left the base an inferno of blazing, exploding wreckage under an enormous pall of smoke.

Eighteen warships - including eight battleships - were sunk, or so completely wrecked that they were fit only for scrap; three hundred and fifty aircraft were destroyed on the ground; two thousand five hundred United States Navy personnel were killed, and over two thousand    injured. This tremendous destruction and carnage was achieved with the loss of only twenty  nine  aircraft and five midget submarines. For that small cost, Japan had rendered American naval power in the Pacific impotent. Her way ahead was clear.

The only stroke of good fortune, in what was otherwise a great disaster for the United States, was the fact that her two aircraft carriers in the Pacific - 'Lexington' and 'Yorktown' were not in port at the time of the attack. They were later to be instrumental in taking revenge.

Early on the following day, 8th December, Japanese assault forces, launched from ports in Indo-China, were storming ashore on the Kra Isthmus of south Thailand and at Kota Bahru in northern Malaya.  On 10th December,  the British battle cruiser 'Repulse' and the battleship 'Prince of Wales', steaming north to take action against the invasion fleets, were attacked by almost a hundred bomber and torpedo aircraft of the Japanese 22nd Air Flotilla. Both ships were sunk with the loss of almost a thousand lives. The catastrophe destroyed allied sea power in the South East Asia theatre of war and, by exposing their vulnerability to air attack, signalled the end of the era of the great fighting ships.

Two days later, with America still reeling from the attack on Pearl Harbour, the Japanese landed in a two pronged attack on Luzon in the Philippines and, in a little over two months, her   apparently   invincible   armies   were   established   in Java, Sumatra, Borneo, Thailand, Burma, Malaya , Hong Kong, Guam, New Guinea and the Solomons. On 31st January, 1942, Allied Forces in Malaya, driven south by the Japanese advance, made their last withdrawal, across the Johore Strait to Singapore Island, blowing up the causeway behind them.

Nevertheless,  the  much  prized  'Fortress  of  Singapore' surrendered on  15th February,  1942  - a  week after Japanese landings at four points on the north of the island had resulted in the cutting off of all water supplies to the city. There were no defence works on the north of the island, the builders of Singapore's defences in the nineteen-thirties not having envisaged the possibility of an attack through the Malayan mainland which was a part of the British Empire

The loss of this great strategic British base in South East Asia stunned the government in London and the families and loved ones of the tens of thousands of servicemen and civilians who became prisoners of war, or internees

Almost sixty years before these events, the Thai Government had considered a plan for the opening of a land link with Burma. This involved the construction of a railway to connect their existing line, west of Bangkok, to the Burmese railway at Thanbyusayat, south of Moulmein. The idea was abandoned upon realisation of the enormous  problems, and danger to life, involved in driving a railway through two hundred and sixty miles of virgin mountainous rain   forest and tropical jungle, swept by torrential monsoon rains for half  the year. However, in 1942, the Japanese High Command,  faced with the  difficulties  involved  in  supporting  large  forces  in Burma, were urgently in need of a more direct and safer supply route to avoid the long and hazardous sea voyage through the Bay of Bengal. They saw, in the building of the railway, the solution to their problems.

As a result of their sweeping victories they had a ready made labour force of prisoners of war and an immense pool of native labourers - not only on the mainland, but also in the islands of Sumatra and Java from where they could be shipped in to Singapore.

In Singapore, they were packed into steel railway box vans and transported, in their thousands, eleven hundred miles north to Thailand. Each truck was loaded with thirty odd men and all their baggage. There was no room to move and the walls of the trucks became too hot to touch in the tropical summer sun. There was a stop each night and morning at pre-arranged points for a meal of rice and watery soup. The journey took five days. In Thailand, they were formed into groups and then began the long march through jungle tracks to the labour camps spaced out along the route of the railway.

Many became sick. Some died and were buried along the way. Nothing was permitted to halt the marching columns. Those who fell from exhaustion or sickness were kicked to their feet only to fall again after a short distance. Their comrades combined to carry them along until the days march ended at dusk. Of one of these great columns of marching men, whose destination was   northern Thailand, only half of them survived. At the same time as prisoners from Singapore were marching north, thousands more, shipped into Moulmein in 'slave ship' conditions, were marching south to Thanbyusayat to begin the construction of the line southwards from there.

In the labour camps, the men lived in long, low bamboo huts roofed with 'atap' - palm leaf thatch. The huts were infested with bed-bugs and mosquitoes were everywhere.  Each morning, every man, including the sick, paraded for 'Tenko' - or roll call. All who could walk were marched out to work - clearing jungle, digging cuttings, building embankments and laying track until they marched back to camp at dusk.

During the heavy monsoon rains camps flooded, latrine pits overflowed and burying the dead became a macabre struggle against the mud. Clothing and footwear soon disintegrated and most prisoners lived and worked wearing only a  'fundoshi' or loincloth,  held  on  with  string,  and  home  made  flat  wooden clogs. The Japanese supplied nothing.

Life was a constant struggle to survive. Worn down by long hours of grinding work,  malnutrition and  the conditions in which they lived, the prisoners fell victim to beriberi, malaria, dysentery, jungle fevers and skin disorders. From time to time there were outbreaks of cholera, the symptoms of which could appear in a man one morning and leave him dead the following day. Tropical ulcers of the legs were common. From a small scratch they could develop rapidly to become a great festering hole in the flesh which, in severe cases, could require amputation below the knee

Medical officers among the prisoners of war did everything possible, but they were always short of drugs and medicines to treat the sick. The Japanese pirated all the supplies sent in by the Red Cross and kept them for their own use, handing over just the barest minimum, to support  the fiction that medical supplies were being used for the benefit of the prisoners.

Some sixty five thousand prisoners worked on the railway. Over twenty thousand died. The number of deaths among the native labourers - many of whom took families north with them on promises by the Japanese of good pay and accommodation - will never be known. It has been estimated that well over one hundred thousand of those poor people died.

Many of the prisoners of war who lived to see the Japanese defeated died later, some, most sadly whilst en-route home, some soon after repatriation, and  some following a  short  span of years of ill health. Others lived on with disabilities.

It is now a matter of history that the fanatical and cruel Japanese drove the railway through before the end of 1943. Each one of its tortuous two hundred and sixty miles is estimated to have cost over four hundred and fifty lives. Now, apart from a section in the south, preserved as a tourist attraction, it has gone. The great cemeteries in the south are also tourist meccas and places of pilgrimage for the loved ones of those who did not return. But, further north and on into Burma, the countless dead lie in burial pits and graves, their resting places overgrown and hidden by the advance of the relentless jungle in which they lost the battle for life so long ago.

They were sacrificed to the fulfilment of an oriental dream of empire which ended in ignominious defeat under the mushroom clouds of Hiroshima and Nagasaki

I was one of the very fortunate ones who not only came back from the Kwai, but was able to take up life anew; to marry my fiancée, Pamela, who had waited through the dark years with an unshakeable faith in my eventual return; to make a successful career, and to have two strong and talented sons.

Now,  with  time  to write  and  record  impressions of  that time, I find old  friends - and enemies - unchanged by time, moving through these pages like characters in a play against a backdrop of tropical jungle scenery. The friends I recall with affection and gratitude for their great comradeship.  The enemies I remember - apart from just a few - as bombastic and arrogant when power was in their hands, but later, as pathetic and servile in defeat;  expecting retribution for the years of despotism. They had always taunted us for capitulating at Singapore, boasting that Japanese soldiers would have defended it to the last man.  At the end, their code of ‘death before defeat or surrender’ was forgotten.  All they wanted was to survive.



'The way things were'

In 1938, Thailand - or Siam as it was then known - was to me a small country in the Far East. I confess that I would have needed to consult the index section of an atlas of the world in order to be able to put my finger on it. My 1930 edition of 'Pears Encyclopaedia’ describes it as a country bounded by Burma, the Malay Peninsula and French Indo-China (Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia). Its area is given as 198,000 square miles and its population as 8.5 million. At that time, the population of greater London was 7.5 million. It was not a place upon which a great deal of attention was lavished in school geography lessons, in spite of its proximity to Burma and Malaya - both then part of the British Empire. However, in the not too distant future, fate would rectify my ignorance and provide me with an intimate knowledge of that quite backward country and its quiet, gentle people.

Meanwhile, approaching eighteen years of age, I was the eldest of three children. My brother was fifteen and an apprenticed shipwright. My sister was five years old. Born late in 1932, her advent was a considerable surprise to my mother, who was then forty and totally without any ambition to increase the family. Most babies were delivered in the home by the local midwife and it was considered to be necessary for the mother, having been delivered of the child, to  spend the following two weeks 'lying in' - a period of bed rest in which to recover from the effects of the birth. This practice, which would be deplored today, created a need for assistance to the family where there were other children and the husband was working.

My mother was, quite often, called in by families in the neighbourhood to look after the mother and baby and the rest of the family at these times. I have no doubt that our family finances benefited at the end of the two weeks.

Early in 1932, my mother attended upon a neighbour of ours at the birth of a second child. It was winter time and very cold and, in conversation, my mother mentioned that she was going  to  have  to  buy  a  new  eiderdown  shortly. When the neighbour was back on her feet, she insisted that my mother accept the gift of the new eiderdown which she had been using on her bed during her confinement. It was shortly after this that mother found she was pregnant. When she recovered from the shock, she often jokingly attributed her pregnancy to "those germs on that blessed eiderdown”. I wondered later if she was really joking - my sister was christened Ida.

I was in my fourth year as an apprentice in an engineering works in Southampton. I worked a five and a half day week of forty seven hours. From Monday to Friday working hours were from 7.30 a.m. until 5.00 p.m., with an hour for lunch. On Saturdays they were from 7.30 a.m. until 12.00 noon. For this I was paid fifteen shillings a week (seventy-five pence). I had begun my apprenticeship at the age of fourteen for just half of that sum and working the same hours. When I achieved the age of twenty-one years I would be able to command the full rate for a craftsman, which was then about three pounds ten shillings (or three pounds fifty pence) per week.

My father was a police constable in Southampton Docks, which were owned by the Southern Railway Company and which had its own private police force. He worked a six day week of forty-eight hours on three rotating shifts with night duty every third week. He had one week holiday a year and his weekly pay was about three pounds fifteen shillings (Three pounds seventy-five pence) That income, together with the small contributions of ten shillings from me and a small amount from my brother, had to pay the rent and rates of our house; feed and clothe all five of us;  pay hire-purchase repayments and allow for a small amount each week to be paid into a   Savings Club at a local general  shop, to provide a grand feast and presents at Christmas, which was the highlight of the year.

The cost of family accommodation made holidays at the seaside impossible, but we were fortunate in one respect. Because my father was employed by a railway company, he was entitled to free passes for any rail journey for the family on four occasions each year. In addition, he could at any time obtain rail tickets at what was called 'Privilege Rates', which enabled us to travel at one third of the actual cost. This provided us with day trips, and a week’s holiday in London. There we would stay with my mother's sister and her family. Aunt Jess and her husband, Uncle Alf, had three children - two girls and a boy. My sister had not been born then, so, in addition to the four adults there were five children - of whom I was the eldest - down to cousin Billy, who was about five years younger than I. There were three bedrooms. Two were occupied by the adults. The third, which contained just one double bed, had to provide for all the children. To achieve this, the bed was made up with pillows at both ends. The blankets were also turned back top and bottom, and the two girls slept at one end whilst we three boys slept at the other. To this day I well remember, at about the age of seven or eight, being obliged to endure the embarrassment and discomfort of those arrangements.

Of course, Aunt Jess and her family came to spend a week with us during the summer. When they did so, I was spared the communal sleeping arrangements. My mother made up a bed for me on a sofa in the sitting room. Aunt Jess was short and very stout. Uncle Alf was also quite short, but he was very slim. He had dark wavy hair; a hooked nose; a loud voice, and a pronounced cockney accent. His conversation was liberally sprinkled with the expression 'bleedin'' which he used at all times when speaking to any of us. To we children he would address such remarks as "Put that bleedin' thing down" ... "Go out and play in the bleedin' garden"........or, "Don't make so much bleedin' noise”. To his wife, he would say "When are we going to have a bleedin' cup of tea?"  However, apart from this addiction to sanguinary language, which caused much giggling by my brother and me, he was a jolly man with a ready smile. He was a main line express train driver in that great heyday of the famous steam locomotives, and would talk about trains and railway engines – a fascinating subject for young boys. He also had a fund of funny stories about things that happened on the railway. Due to his manner of speech, my mother did not like him at all and, when they had departed, she could be heard to say that she could not understand 'how Jess came to marry that man'.

However, in spite of the fact that luxuries were very few indeed, and I was aware that my mother often had difficulty in making ends meet, I was quite happy and carefree. I did well at school and could have passed what was known at that time as the 'Scholarship Examination' to go on to grammar school. But, my parents could not afford to keep me at school, and so I had to leave and get a job. After  three  or  four  brief  periods  of employment in different occupations which I either disliked, or had no future whatsoever, father arranged my apprenticeship for  me  to  learn  to  be  an  engineering  blacksmith.  I was fascinated with the atmosphere of the Blacksmiths Shop and found that I had an aptitude for the craft. Nothing pleased me more, as my skills increased, than to be allowed to use the powerful steam hammer to draw out and shape a glittering, white hot billet of steel, to fashion it into a replacement for some broken or worn item of equipment for a ship being repaired in the bustling, sprawling Docks, for which Southampton was famed world-wide in the late nineteen-thirties.

I had a bicycle on which I made the eight mile return journey between my home in the suburbs of Southampton and the town. The bicycle was bought for me by my parents, when I left school, to enable me to travel to work. It was new and cost three pounds fifteen shillings (£3.75). It was paid for on hire purchase at the rate of one shilling and sixpence (7½ pence) a week over a period of a year.

At the end of the working day and at weekends, it was my magic carpet, taking me to evening Further Education Classes; to the Church Youth Club and Boys Brigade during the week; to church on Sundays, and out with the Cycling Club on Saturday afternoons in the summer.

I had met Pamela, who would, one day, become my wife, and during those halcyon days of 1938, and through the summer of 1939  as  war  clouds  gathered  over  Europe,  we spent  each Wednesday evening and weekends together. Occasionally, we went to the cinema.  There was always  a  programme  running continuously at the beautifully appointed cinema theatres from 1.30 p.m. to 10.30 p.m. on each weekday. The programme was three hours long and consisted of two feature films and a newsreel. Television was only in its infancy, and the newsreels at the cinemas were the only source of visual news from which we could obtain a picture of events taking place throughout the world. A good seat cost one shilling (5 pence) for the three hour show. Some evenings we would walk miles and, on Saturdays, cycle down through the New Forest and perhaps swim at Lepe, riding back again in the evening.

I believed, even then, that we would marry one day but, at that time that thought was merely a pipe dream. We had no money and would have been very fortunate, indeed, to have managed to achieve a home of our own by the time we were twenty-five. I had certainly already decided that remaining a blacksmith was out of the question. There was no future in that. I wanted a career  and  intended  to  make  an  application  to  join  the Southampton Borough Police as I approached the acceptance age of nineteen.  If appointed, I would be on probation for two years, after which my appointment would be confirmed. If I took a course in Law, and studied hard, I could pass the promotion examination when I reached the service qualification at four years. I would then be twenty-three and well established, and we would be in a position to be able to marry and set up a home together. The Borough Police - Southampton had not then been created a city - had no police houses, but a 'rent allowance' was paid in addition to salary.

A three bedroomed semi-detached house could be purchased for, perhaps, seven hundred pounds in the 1930s, but it was not usual for young working class couples, getting married, to consider buying a house. In addition to saving for furniture, floor coverings, bed-linen, curtains, etc., there was the deposit on a mortgage to find. Secondly, and most important, there was unemployment and trade depression. It was common for firms to close down for lack of work, standing off all their staff. There was a very real and ever present fear that losing one’s job could mean losing the home through inability to keep up the mortgage repayments. Buying a house was more for those with secure jobs and a regular income rather than young newly­weds.

However, there was a wide choice of houses to rent. Local newspapers carried many advertisements, and 'To Let' signs were a common sight in front of houses. A three bedroomed, semi-detached house with a bathroom could be rented for about one pound fifteen shillings (£1.75) a week, inclusive of the local authority rates for the property, which would be, perhaps, about five shillings (25 pence). But, of course, that rental would be half of a working man's weekly wage.

The older terrace type houses, built around the turn of the century, had no bathrooms. These were available for renting at about one pound a week inclusive. Millions of working people had a galvanised sheet metal bath hanging on a hook on the back garden wall. This had to be carried into the back kitchen; filled with hot water from the wash-boiler, and bailed out into the kitchen sink afterwards. During one period of my youth I lived in one of these houses and remember vividly, even into my 'teens', my mother walking round the bath, with me sitting in it, because she wanted something from a kitchen cupboard. When I started work I finally managed to insist on  privacy, and shortly after that, we moved to the suburbs and a bathroom. As the decade passed, inexorably, towards its devastating end, we became more and more aware of events taking place in Europe. Our parents, watching the political situation slowly deteriorate, viewed the future with foreboding. They had seen it all before. My mother's two brothers were both killed in the world War of 1914-18, and my father had served throughout amidst the mud and slaughter in France.

We young men watched, in a curiously detached sort of way, as Adolph Hitler's Storm Troopers marched in triumph into the Sudetenland and occupied Austria.  Czechoslovakia and Poland were the next to be threatened with occupation. Great Britain had a defence treaty with Poland, and Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain went to Germany to discuss the situation with Hitler, coming back to proclaim 'Peace in our time'. Later, we realised that all he was doing was playing for time. Britain was building up its forces and armaments as fast as possible. Mr. Chamberlain’s Government was well aware that war with Germany, for the second time in twenty years, was inevitable. There began to be discussion, among those of us who would be eligible for military service, as to which branch of the Armed Forces we would prefer to join. Eventually, it was agreed that it would be preferable to anticipate the inevitable start of conscription, and to join the Territorial Army whilst it was still possible to choose the type of unit in which we wanted to serve when the time came. There was the additional advantage in this course of action, that friends could join together instead of running the risk of being split up in the General 'Call up' and sent to whichever  regiment was being built up to strength at the moment. So, together with two or three  friends,  and  many other  apprentices  from  engineering works  in  the  Southampton  area,  I  joined  the  43rd  (Wessex) Division, Royal Army Ordnance Corps (T.A.) whose headquarters were at the Hamilton House Drill Hall, which, at that time, stood next to what is now the 'Mayflower Theatre', but what was then the 'Empire Cinema', in Commercial Road, Southampton. The R.A.O.C. was then the Army’s mechanical and electrical engineering Corps, responsible for the maintenance and repair of all vehicles, weapons and instruments. The R.E.M.E.- Royal Electrical and  Mechanical  Engineers  - was  not  formed  until about four years later.

We began intensive training, numbers continued to increase and, as the war began, old style vehicles and equipment were replaced by up to date workshop trucks and mobile machinery. We became the 6th Army Field Workshops and then, in a later re­organisation, we became part of the 18th Division with the title of 18th Division Workshops. By that time we had become an extremely well trained and experienced mobile military engineering unit servicing the  concentrations  of  military vehicles and armaments, first in the south then, later, in the north of England and Scotland.

We did not know it then, but that last change of name would later precipitate us into one of the most infamous episodes of that long and dreadful war but, meanwhile, in 1940, Britain was struggling for survival. German Panzer Divisions had stormed through Europe. The forces of France collapsed and the defeated British Army had been swept back to a scrambled evacuation from the beaches of Dunkerque, where their deliverance was made possible only by the heroism of hundreds of small boat sailors and crews of small pleasure steamers, who braved all dangers to pick up boatloads of soldiers from the beaches, amidst continual German air attacks.

Following Dunqerque, the German Luftwaffe began that onslaught of bombing by high explosive and incendiaries which has gone down in history as 'The Blitz'. The attacks built up until waves of massive formations of German bomber aircraft roared across  the Channel  night  after  night,   bringing destruction to towns and cities across Britain, and death and homelessness to the civilian population.

On the night of November 30th, 1940, Southampton was their target, and my parent's home was wrecked by the explosion of an aerial land mine close by. Fortunately, they had taken refuge in an air raid shelter, and, although badly shocked, they were not injured. I was with my unit in Bedfordshire when I received a message from Pamela telling me of this. I was granted leave immediately, and came home to find them and my eight year old sister, with just a few belongings, in a church hall on the outskirts of the town, where they had been given refuge with many other survivors, all very distressed and some weeping. I found another house for them to rent and we salvaged as much of their furniture, floor coverings, bedding and clothing as we could.  To  this  day,  I  recall  gaining  access  to  the downstairs front room of their ruined home by crawling under the floor of the room above, which had fallen through and was supported on one side  of  the  room by  their piano.  We moved everything to the other house by handcart.

Gradually, the indiscriminate and terrifying bombing raids lessened as the Royal Air Force gained control of the skies, and victory in the Battle of Britain. The German High Command, having found that their great aerial blitz had not defeated Britain, hastened the development of their new VI and V2 rockets. These were fired from the continental coast. However, although they caused great destruction where they landed, they could not be directed with great accuracy and were quite random in their effect.

There  had  been  several  occasions,  since  our  Divisional Workshops had been formed, when we were placed on 'stand-by' for service overseas,  but  these had come  to nothing.  This was, obviously, due to a change of plans by the General Staff. In view of the need for absolute secrecy about troop movements, we were never given any information. Therefore, when, at the end of 1941, we were again placed on ‘stand-by',  it was met with a shrug, and gratitude for the couple of days 'embarkation leave' which was always given to allow departing troops to say their farewells. So, I enjoyed my two days at home, said 'goodbye' to my family and to Pamela - to whom I had become engaged to be married in November, 1940 - and returned to my unit.

This time, however, there was no change of mind. Within a few days of my return we were entrained to Liverpool and, in early November 1941, I sailed out of the Mersey in a large military convoy, escorted by a number of ships of the Royal Navy,  heading west across the North Atlantic. We were leaving behind a Britain battered by two years of total war, where all essential goods were strictly controlled; where food was scarce and  tightly  rationed  or  obtainable  only after hours of queuing;  where  there  was  no  glimmer  of  hope  for  any improvement, and where merely to survive was all that could be hoped for.


 ‘The long wasted journey’

In the 1930s, many famous shipping companies operated luxurious ocean passenger liners on regular scheduled passage routes across the world. The ships of Cunard, White Star, Royal Mail, Union Castle, Orient Lines and others from the United States, Canada, France and Germany, ran to strict timetables and had appointed sailing and arrival days at Southampton. Now, air travel has taken over the mass transport of travellers and the great fast passage making ships - often referred to as 'Ocean Greyhounds' - have gone. Those luxury ships operating today were mostly purpose built for the holiday cruise trade. The record for the fastest crossing of the Atlantic at the time of writing is held by a passenger catamaran.

Normal passenger traffic across the Atlantic ceased due to the war. All available ships were pressed into use - requisitioned by the Government - to bring food and fuel, and munitions, to a beleaguered Britain, and to transport troops and armaments to the theatres of war. Both the 'Queen Mary’ and the newly built 'Queen Elizabeth' completed in 1940, were used as troop carriers and sailed unescorted, their speed making them impossible targets for German submarines.

I had been aboard many of the liners in the years before the war, and was well acquainted with their high standards of decor and furnishings. As we climbed the gangway of our troop transport - the Orient Line ship S.S."ORONSAY", a vessel of about twenty thousand tons - and filed down the wide stairways to the troop accommodation, the operation which had converted this once gracious vessel into a troopship became evident to me. Where there had been elegant corridors of cabins lined with polished wood, and floors covered with luxurious fitted carpets, there were now great open spaces of bare steel, rows and rows of rivet heads and floors of rough planking. The ship had been stripped to provide maximum space.

Overhead, the ceilings had been removed, leaving the metal pipe work, the steel overhead deck beams, and the rivet studded plates of the deck above, exposed. To the beams had been fitted lines of metal hammock hooks. The whole barn like space had been painted white and, at one end, rows of long wooden tables and benches were bolted to the deck. These were the sole furnishings. At the other end of this open area - known as a 'Mess Deck'- were racks of rolled up hammocks. Lighting came from bare electric light bulbs in wire cage bulkhead fittings and three small portholes.

The ship was divided into a number of these mess decks which could each accommodate a large number of soldiers. The object, of course, was to carry the greatest number of troops in the smallest number of ships. This was travel accommodation at its most basic.

There was no point in expending time and money to improve upon it. The life of a ship in the North Atlantic was hazardous and often short. German 'Wolf Pack' submarines were patrolling in considerable numbers and any ships - even those with an armed escort - were in constant danger. Over a million tons of shipping had been sunk whilst running the blockade between Britain and America, and we were sailing at a time when submarine attacks on convoys were being increased, although, for obvious reasons, we were not made aware of that.

Once aboard the ship, each man allocated to himself a space at one of the long mess-deck tables and a hammock from the racks at the end of the deck. Each night, he had to 'sling' his hammock by attaching the rings at each end to the overhead hammock hooks. When all the hammocks were 'slung' they were suspended at about shoulder height at the centre and, in order to  provide  sleeping  space  for  all  the  troops  in  the mess deck, they were extremely close together. There was just room to squeeze sideways between them.

In rough weather, all the hammocks would swing together in unison with the rolling of the ship, and, of course, when they were occupied, they each took up a lot more hanging space. Any man who found it necessary to go to the latrines during the night, would return to find that his hammock was now squeezed between those on each side of him, presenting him with the considerable problem of getting back in. This could be achieved only by quite forcibly shoving his neighbours away as he hauled himself up and scrambled in - a course of action which would invariably result in obscene complaints at being disturbed and which would awaken others to add to the chorus.

Finally, after rising to a crescendo of bad language and shouts for quiet, the uproar would subside to grumbling and, after a few more minutes, peace would descend once more.

At night, the air in the mess decks was stuffy and stale. The steel bulkheads sweated and there was a smell of urine from the latrines, which were partitioned off to one side of the deck. Although the ship was clean, cockroaches were numerous. They emerged from small gaps between overhead piping, and from the holes in the bulkheads through which the piping passed. Food was collected from the galleys by two men elected daily by each table. They were also responsible for clearing away the debris afterwards. Meals were wholesome but poorly cooked and uninteresting; basic ingredients put together and served up without a great deal of interest in the result.

Two days into the voyage the weather, which had been fairly calm, suddenly deteriorated. The equinoctial gales, which had held off for the beginning of the voyage, arose overnight, and, by morning, were driving heavy grey clouds and lashing rain across a heaving, dark green sea which broke into clouds of spray across the exposed decks. The ship rolled and pitched along, occasionally giving a shudder when she was caught, as if off guard, by a particularly heavy sea.

The popular press of that time, when referring to the people of the British Isles, often used expressions such as 'this sturdy island race' or 'sons of the sea'. These terms could, of course, be applied quite truthfully to the thousands of seamen and fishermen who crewed British ships world wide. It was also true of that very hardy breed known as the ‘small boat sailors', who could be found anywhere between the coasts of Britain and Europe, in time of peace. However, although a large percentage of the population might take a trip on the Thames, or the Norfolk Broads, or visit the Isle of Wight on a fine day, the stormy Atlantic Ocean in October was a very different scenario. Sadly, the weather conditions, and the pitch and roll of our ship, was not at all to the liking of a very large percentage of those taking part in our enforced voyage.

Consequently, in the mess decks, wan looking men sat at the mess tables with heads in arms, only coming to life at intervals to make a hurried visit to the latrines. In between these bursts of activity, one could hear the weather, the war, the ship, the Army and - most of all - the sea, described in the forceful and picturesque language which unhappy conscript soldiers developed to the level of an art.

This widespread seasickness, added to the already unpleasant atmosphere of the mess decks, made it impossible for me to stay below for long, and I spent much of my time wrapped in my greatcoat and scarf, with a balaclava helmet pulled over my head, in a sheltered corner of the open deck. To my great satisfaction, I found that I was not affected by seasickness. I was rather proud of being a good sailor and enjoyed the experience of being at sea. From my position, when the weather cleared, I could see the other ships which formed our convoy spread out under heavy cloud across a wide expanse of turbulent sea. From time to time there were alarms, due to the suspected, or perhaps actual, presence of an enemy submarine, when our Navy escorts circled us at speed like busy sheepdogs, and Aldis lamps flashed messages from ship to ship.

Nobody spoke of the possibility of our ship becoming the victim of a U-boat or a German surface raider, although, from conversations later, it became apparent that everyone carried that hidden fear with them throughout the voyage. Looking out over the cold, dark water with its spray flying in the wind, I tried to imagine what the likelihood of survival would be if we were sunk. In an open lifeboat, there would be perhaps, many days of hoping for rescue before hypothermia and exhaustion took their toll. However, the number on board far exceeded the capacity of the lifeboats and, on a life raft, soaked and chilled by having been in the sea, one's strength would not last very long. But, floating in a lifejacket, death was certain in an hour or two. Our great consolation was the presence of our escort ships. If we were sunk there was a good chance of being picked up in a reasonable time in daylight.

But the days passed uneventfully. We had no idea where we were bound, except that it was obvious that our course had been steadily westward since we had left England, and America could not be far away. Finally, after something over a week at sea, we arrived in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and received the order to prepare to disembark. Many years later, I learned that the S.S.ORONSAY survived less than a year after we left her in Halifax. She was struck by four torpedoes from an Italian submarine and sank off the west coast of Africa in October 1942.

Amid much speculation as to why we were in Canada and how long we were going to stay, we were formed up on the quayside. A chill wind drove a penetrating drizzle around ears and down inside collars but, in spite of that, it was good to be ashore and, as we were marched across the docks, I looked forward to seeing something of the town. Then, to our consternation, we were suddenly on another quayside beside another ship and, very shortly afterwards, were filing up the gangway.

Disappointment at not being allowed shore-leave was very much tempered, however, by the spotless cleanliness and very high standard of the accommodation of the ship we were now aboard.  She was an American vessel named “USS Joseph T. Dickman" and was of moderate size - much smaller than our previous transport - and had the appearance of having been purpose built as a troop-carrier. Substantial cargo loading derricks were in place fore and aft. Below decks, various levels were given over to troop accommodation consisting of banks of pipe-cots in tiers of three. There was a large dining area and food was served on stainless steel sectioned trays from a gleaming cafeteria by catering staff in immaculate 'whites' and chef's hats. Food was excellent, varied and plentiful - we had not seen the like of it. Even allowing for the fact that England had been at war for two years, it was apparent that the American Forces were used to a much higher standard than any of the British Services of that time. The crew were all members of the United States Coast Guard - a very professional and highly disciplined service akin to the U.S. Navy - and very smart in their 'blues’ and 'pork pie' style hats.

On November 10th, 1941, with the weather still grey and cold at the beginning of the Canadian winter, our ship eased away from the dock and moved out to join the massive American convoy being assembled off the coast. (Appendix 'A'). Very soon, the 'Dickman' picked up the southward course which she would follow for almost three thousand miles down the coast of America, through the Bahamas and the West Indies to Port of Spain, Trinidad. The weather began to change, and soon the seas were calm and sparkling blue as we headed for the Caribbean. All troops were in tropical khaki drill whilst the crew were wearing their U.S. Navy style 'whites'

We still had no idea whatsoever of our ultimate destination, but a journey which had started so unfavourably had developed into something like a holiday cruise. We were prepared to settle for that and to enjoy it whilst we could. In the manner of soldiers the world over, we pushed to the back of the mind the possibility that we were heading towards battle and death, and lived only for the present.

Towards the end of 1940, I had been called in to the adjutant's office and told that our unit had received an order to the effect that we must have regular physical training. As there was, at that time, no one qualified to be responsible for that, I had been 'selected'. Accordingly, I was posted to a course at the Army School of Physical Training at Park Hall Camp, Oswestry.

I shall always remember the first few weeks of that course as the most excruciatingly painful of my life, but, as I became really fit, I began to feel on top of the world and eventually qualified as an Army Physical Training Instructor. Now, aboard a troop-transport loaded with soldiers who had no other inclination but to lie around in the sunshine doing nothing, I was ordered to combine with other P.T.I.s aboard 'to arrange regular periods of exercise for all’. Consequently, we were engaged each morning in running a succession of classes on the foredeck throughout the whole of our very long voyage. I think that I was never fitter in my life than I was at that time, and firmly believe that this contributed greatly to my survival through the appalling conditions of the years ahead.

The convoy remained in Trinidad for several days refuelling and victualling. Again, we were confined to the ship, lying at anchor in the harbour which teemed with the boats of the native traders plying back and forth for the custom of the troops hanging over the rails. There was a continual shouting, gesticulating and holding up of wares by the occupants of the boats, and more shouting from the troops who were, not unexpectedly, offering only half the price. Finally the native boatman being satisfied with something of an increase in the offer by a soldier - which was still at least twice the actual value of the article - a rope would be lowered down the side of the ship with the money and hauled back up with the purchase. It was all very entertaining and  against the background of that beautiful tropical island perched just a few miles off the coast of South America, it was easy to imagine the place as the pirate stronghold it once was, with square-riggers swinging to anchor instead of an armada of steel. In spite of the idyllic surroundings and the beautiful weather, it was frustrating to have to remain on the ship and there was much grumbling among the troops who were becoming bored with the inactivity. Then, quite early one morning, with shouted commands by loud hailer and bustling activity by the crew, we were moving again. Before long we learned that our course was south east, but again there was no information at all as to our next port of call. I realised  that  the  mouth of  the  Amazon was  somewhere  to starboard1  and ahead was the great expanse of the South Atlantic  Ocean.  Then came the announcement that on the following day the ship would be crossing the Equator.

The crew were hard at work engaged in some kind of construction work on the foredeck. The result of their efforts was a large canvas swimming pool surrounded by a wooden walkway. To one side of this was a platform upon which stood a very large wooden armchair under an awning decorated with painted shells and pictures of mermaids. On the other side, at the top of a flight of steps, was another large chair with its back to the pool.

That evening, it was announced by the captain that the following day would be devoted to the 'Crossing the Line Ceremony'. All those aboard who could not convince ‘King Neptune' that they had previously 'crossed the line', would be required to take part, in order to receive their certificate. No excuse would be accepted. The following morning the 'ceremony' began immediately after breakfast and carried on all day. The American crew appeared dressed as pirates and the troops were rounded up and formed into a queue along the decks. They were then directed up the steps to the walkway. The chair under the awning was now occupied by 'King Neptune' - the Bosun made up with flowing beard, a decorated robe and a large crown on his head.

The scenario was that, before a man could be certified as a subject of 'King Neptune's Kingdom', he had to be properly presentable. That meant having a shave, haircut and a bath. So, one by one, they were grabbed by two very large and powerful crew members who held them down in the 'barbers chair' whilst a lock of hair was chopped off, and their faces were 'shaved' with a large wooden razor. Following that, a lever was pulled and the chair tipped over backwards, depositing them upside down in the pool. Other ‘pirates’ were in the water to ensure that they were all well and truly ‘dunked’ before being allowed to climb out and receive their certificates, which were very well produced and printed in colour, with the man's name entered upon it. The 'Ceremony' - which had come down through the years from the days of the old sailing ships, when it was used to provide a diversion for crews who had probably been at sea for many weeks with poor food and appalling conditions - went on all day, with the crew taking turns and the troops being hustled up the steps as quickly as they could be dealt with. I shall always carry in memory a vivid picture of that day, when the war was forgotten for a few hours of crazy horseplay and laughter as the ship ploughed steadily along under the tropical sun. The generous lock of hair lopped from my curly head came from right at the front. There was nothing for it but to visit the ship's barber, who was doing a roaring trade trying to make victims look presentable.

I came out of his 'salon' with a ‘brush cut'- all my hair on the top levelled off at about three quarters of an inch long. As many others looked very much the same, I was not too concerned about this drastic change in my appearance until we arrived in Cape Town on 9th December, 1941, and were told that, at last, we were going to be allowed shore leave. Then I began to feel conspicuous!

During the four days the ship remained in Cape Town harbour, parties of troops were ferried ashore in 'liberty' boats after receiving very stringent orders as to their behaviour. There was a particular area known for its brothels which was declared 'Out of Bounds', and about which dire threats of disciplinary action against any soldier disobeying the order were made.

At that time the drugs which today provide an effective remedy for venereal diseases were not available and treatment was said to be primitive and painful. Stories about unspeakable acts committed, with the use of weird instruments, upon the persons of sufferers, in the name of treatment at V.D. hospitals, were legion.

Although there was always a suspicion that these horror stories were propaganda circulated by the Army Medical Corps, in order to reduce the incidence of illicit intercourse - particularly in foreign ports - they did create a general belief among the troops that  it would be very stupid to take any chances whatsoever, no matter how alluring the lady appeared.

I made two trips ashore with friends during the four days of our stay. The second occasion was on the last day. The convoy was sailing the following morning and there were strict orders that all personnel should be back aboard by 10.00 pm. On my return, just before that deadline, I was told that there were a number of men of our unit who had not yet reported back, and I was to take eight men and try and find them.

So, having been provided with 'Shore Patrol' armbands and truncheons, and now looking very official indeed, back we went in the 'liberty boat' to try and locate the lost sheep. It took about an hour of marching round the city centre and visiting every bar. Quite a few of these were below street level and, in some cases, were populated by some very unsavoury looking characters indeed, who did not take very kindly to our peremptory removal of  half-drunken members of the missing soldiery from their midst. Eventually, we 'shepherded' these to the quayside and the 'liberty boat' - ‘marched’ would not be the right word in view of the condition of one or two of our charges. We duly sailed out of harbour the following morning, l3th December, and my lasting mind picture of Cape Town was the magnificent view of Table Mountain over the stern of the ship as she headed eastwards into the Indian Ocean.

We had still not been given any information at all about our destination but, as we were all clad in khaki drill, and there was  only one  theatre  of war where  that  would be appropriate, we had ceased to speculate. As far as we were concerned, we were bound for the desert war. The roundabout route we had been taking had been necessary because the Atlantic was the hunting ground for German U-boats. There was no other way we could reach the Allied bases in North. Africa.

Now, we figured that there were two approach routes - the Suez Canal or the Persian Gulf. The first was quite close to the war zone and within range of the Luftwaffe; therefore, we must be heading for the Gulf.

However, what we did not know was that the east was already aflame with the Japanese attacks on many fronts and - following Pearl Harbour - what had been Europe's war had now become the Second World War with the entry of the United States into the conflict. But, the most significant event for us was the landing of Japanese invasion forces at Kota Bahru in northern Malaya.  Even as we sailed out of Cape Town, orders were received diverting the convoy from the Gulf to Bombay. So, after a further two weeks at sea, the 18th Division arrived in India where my unit found itself  entrained to Ahmadnagar, a small garrison town about a hundred and twenty miles inland.

With hindsight, it is clear that our arrival there was completely unplanned. We had neither vehicles nor equipment of any kind, and spent hours taking part in marches on the dusty plains of the area. However, this boring and apparently aimless activity soon came to an end. The Division had just been in the pending tray.

On 23rd January, 1942, we were back in Bombay boarding yet another troopship, in another convoy, bound for yet another unknown destination, with 2,235 troops and 416 crew aboard. However, a few days out from Bombay, we were informed that we were going into Singapore. We did not know that, even before our arrival, all British Forces in Malaya would have retreated before the Japanese onto the island, and Singapore would be under siege by the enemy massed on the mainland.

So, in blissful ignorance, and under glorious tropical sunshine, we sailed down the west coast of India and turned eastwards across the Indian Ocean to the Sunda Strait between Sumatra and Java, so as to approach Singapore from the south through the Java Sea. Our troopship on this voyage was an old and very scruffy converted passenger liner, of some 17,000 tons, named the "Empress of Asia". She had seen thirty years of plying the world's oceans and was used as a troopship in the First World War We were thankful that the trip was not to be longer, for conditions and food aboard this ship were appalling, with filthy crowded mess decks, permeated by the acrid smell of latrines, hammocks for sleeping, stale air and cockroaches - a very sad contrast to the spotless conditions on the USS "Joseph T. Dickman". We could tolerate the poor food for the ten day journey across the Indian Ocean but there was no need for the filthy, stinking state of the ship. However, like so many of those aboard, she was making her last voyage.

The “Empress of Asia”

Once through the Strait, and because of the danger of air attack on a massed convoy, the Convoy Commander ordered two faster transports to leave the convoy and make all speed to Singapore. The "Empress of Asia" and the remaining ships were attacked by bombers some 200 miles south of Singapore but with only minor damage. The faster ships which had gone ahead were attacked by a formation of Japanese bombers on their run into the Harbour and one was hit by a bomb which killed five men. However, they were both successful in landing their troops and equipment and subsequently making a safe withdrawal from the area, back through the Sunda Strait to the Indian Ocean.

On the morning of the 5th February,1942, the "Empress of Asia" was still some miles off Singapore. All troops had been ordered to remain below in the Mess Decks, and to stand by with kit all packed and ready to disembark as soon as the ship was in port.

I was sitting at one of the long wooden mess tables in conversation with some friends when, suddenly, alarm bells were clamouring and, almost simultaneously, the ship shook with a violent explosion. There was a pause, then gunfire and more explosions. The main lighting went out leaving only the dim emergency lights. For the next hour and a half this attack by Japanese bombers continued and the ship suffered a total of five direct hits. There was a smell of burning.  I  had experienced bombing on a number of occasions before leaving England but had never felt such a dread of being trapped as I did then, below decks in a ship at sea, sweating in half darkness, imagining that the next bomb would come roaring down through the steel plates overhead and blast us into eternity.

Then, suddenly, it was quiet. Several minutes went by. Men began  to  talk  -  tense  and  nervous  at  first,  then  more volubly, but silenced again by the public address system: “All personnel on deck -- all personnel on deck"

The relief at being told to leave the steel trap, in which we had crouched for what seemed an age, was enormous. I went to the bottom of the companionway to control the evacuation, but did not need to take any action at all. The troops filed up the staircases quickly, but with good discipline. With a last look round, I followed and came out into the open on the after-deck. I was last out, after checking that the area was cleared. As I looked forward from my position near the stern of the ship, the sight before me was almost unbelievable. A great pall of smoke shot through with flames enveloped the ship's superstructure and drifted away in a black cloud, across the sea to starboard. The route to the boat stations was completely cut off and I could see smashed boats on the port side. There was no way forward. We were trapped on the after deck, which was crowded with the troops who had come up from below.

The bombers which had attacked the Empress of Asia had obviously decided that the damage they had inflicted had prevented the ship from carrying out her mission to deliver much needed ammunition, armaments, equipment and fresh troops to the beleaguered island of Singapore, and they had disappeared into the distance

I recall wondering what I should be doing in a situation such as that. In spite of the damage and fire - which it was clear was not going to be controlled - I did not have any feeling of being in danger. It was such a lovely day, with the tropical sun, its heat tempered by a light breeze, glinting on the calm, deep blue of the sea. After the attack we seemed to be in a state of suspended animation, watching a scene in a dream.

Then, suddenly, I was jerked back to reality. A loud-hailer somewhere forward of my position      was giving us an order which I had seen in books and heard in films, but never expected to hear directed at me in a real life situation:-"Abandon ship - Abandon Ship - every man for himself – every man for himself - Abandon ship"

This was repeated several times, then, after a pause, and in more sombre tone, "And may God be with you all."

I went to the rail on the windward side, away from the drifting, black smoke, and looked down. It was a long way to the sea - perhaps thirty feet. The ship was still moving slowly. In the distance, a long smudge on the horizon indicated land but this was obviously too far away to be useful. It seemed quite unbelievable that I was being told to jump overboard from a large ship in the middle of nowhere. Then a sudden upsurge of flame roaring up through the smoke made up my mind for me. Clearly, the ship was finished, and the best thing I could do was to get off it as quickly as possible, whilst I was still able to do so.

I saw, hanging down the side of the ship, a length of rope about an inch in diameter. This was secured to a deck cleat and seemed to reach about two thirds of the way to the water. I stripped off my back pack, webbing equipment, boots, gaiters and socks, and arranged them all in a neat group on the deck. I then realised that, such was the strength of two and a half years of ingrained military discipline, I was automatically leaving my kit tidy before escaping from a blazing ship at sea!

Climbing over the ship’s rail, I reached down and took hold of the rope. Then, leaning back with my feet against the ships side, I began to abseil down. However I had gone only a few feet when my hands came upon a patch of grease on the rope. Before I could do anything, I had lost my hold and somersaulted over backwards into the sea.

With the impetus of the long drop, I went down deep near the stern and close to the ship's side. I then realised that the engines were still running slowly and the propellers were still turning. Many years later, I can still hear the sound of those churning blades coming to me through the water, and can still feel the panic as I forced myself to the surface and frantically struck out away from the ship. I realised then I should have jumped clear. As I looked back, the side of the 'Empress of Asia' was a gigantic, rusty black, steel wall sliding slowly by a few yards away. As the distance between me and the blazing ship increased, so the beat of the propeller blades became less and, in a few minutes, I was left looking at her stern as she slowly moved on, under a great drifting pall of smoke, shot through with banners of flame.

My life jacket was a short distance away and I swam over to it. I had thrown it into the sea before leaving the ship. It was a ver

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