Escape from Singapore

Courtesy of OSPA

by Lieut. Col. P.A.B. McKerron (1896 - 1964)
Escape from Singapore
Burning Oil Tanks, Singapore
Singapore, Sunday morning, 15th February 1942. - The sun was rising as I stepped on to the verandah outside my office in Fullerton Building and leant over the stone parapet to look out to sea. In front of me, almost directly beyond Clifford Pier, was the blazing beacon of Pulau Samboe, where the large Dutch oil installation, set on fire on Friday the 13th, was still burning furiously and lighting up the sky. Away to the right, but not directly visible, the British oil tanks on Pulau Bukom were blazing too - I could see the glare in the sky past the edge of the tall buildings in Collyer Quay. In between lay a pall of smoke and the lesser and ruddier glow of the fires burning in the Telok Ayer and Harbour Board areas. The harbour and the roads were empty of ships. Away to the east, in the direction of Sea View and Katong, lay rolling, jet-black clouds from some oil depot which had been set on fire either by us deliberately, or by enemy action. The sun as it rose shone bravely through the smoke clouds which floated over the city and the harbour. The shell-fire, which had been going on intermittently and at times heavily throughout the night, had momentarily ceased and there was an extraordinary air of calm over the scene.

Nearing the End

Escape from Singapore
Fullerton Building
Sometime between 10 and 11 that morning I was informed confidentially by my brother-in-law, who was Secretary for Defence, Malaya, that it had been decided to treat with the enemy and that Hugh Fraser, the Acting Colonial Secretary, was being sent out to the enemy lines about noon under a flag of truce. We agreed to meet with my sister in their room at noon to deal with a bottle of champagne which had been kept for "a special occasion". "Robbie" (Commander C. A. Robinson, D.S.O., a great mutual friend) was invited to make a fourth. We collected my sister, who had refused to leave Singapore and who was nursing in the military hospital down below, and started to make our way up to the fourth floor, where their bedroom was. Just as we were in the corridor outside, the air-raid alarm went and we could hear the enemy planes overhead. A few seconds later down came the bombs and the whole building shook. It was all over in half a minute or so, and we proceeded with "Operation Bubbly". Tooth glasses were all we had. We drank in silence because we all knew this was the end and that we should all four be in enemy hands (unless a miracle happened) by the same time the following day. Then off back to our jobs - mine was to complete the destruction of the remaining manpower records, some of which might have been useful to the enemy. As I crammed the stuff into the incinerator on the stone verandah outside my office, I looked out and saw the results of the most recent bombs which had shaken the building. The nearest had fallen in the Clifford Pier ear park, the remainder on and around a derelict ship moored alongside Telok Ayer reclamation. The whole ship was blazing furiously and so were many of the cars in the park. This time there were no attempts to put the fires out - the fire engines could not get near the sea and there was no water in the hydrants.

Planning Escape

By this time it was after 1 o'clock and I went down to my office to see what the chances of a meal were. At lunch my brother-in-law told us that the end was near. Hugh Fraser had come back with a message from the Japanese Military H.Q. that the Japanese C-in-C would receive General Percival at 16.00 hours that afternoon under flag of truce to discuss the terms of complete and unconditional surrender.
Escape from Singapore
Surrender Terms
The Governor had also let it be known that any Government officer who could get away was now at liberty to leave, if he could find any means of doing so. Some decided to go off and see what the chances of organizing a junk party were. I went to see "Robbie" about the possibility of getting charts for navigation through the minefields. I found a large number of people in his office, all wanting charts and inquiring about the possibility of getting away. Among them was a party of young officers, part of the recently disbanded "Dalforce", who had been ordered to get away if they could to Sumatra, but who had failed to escape the previous night with the main party. They still had found no means of conveyance, but were determined to find something that would float to get away on. "Robbie" was prepared to do all he could to help them, and it was agreed that if a vessel of some sort could be found, I would be given the chance of a passage if it would hold any extra passengers. I agreed to go off to try to find a navigator.

So at about 3.15 p.m. I set off in my car to look for an old naval officer, by name Whittaker, who I thought would be a suitable navigator, and who I knew lived somewhere in River Valley Road. I took one of the members of the Gammons' staff, who had been helping with manpower matters, with me. The town was being heavily shelled. We approached River Valley Road by a somewhat devious route, avoiding as far as possible the main streets, which were being strafed worst. The streets were deserted. Telephone wires, glass and rubble were strewn all over the road, which made driving very tricky. As we commenced to climb the River Valley Road incline beyond the United Engineers Works, things got very hot and we found ourselves in the middle of a heavy barrage. We hurriedly got out of the car there is nothing worse than to be in a car when shells are flying around - and spent a very frightened quarter of an hour or so in one of the deep, concrete roadside drains. The shelling then began to moderate a little in the area we were in - and we set off in the car to look for the address we have been given. We eventually found the house and the man we were after. He agreed to come, but we decided to wait to see if the shelling would not moderate still further. Sure enough, about 4 o'clock it did, and we set off back to Fullerton Building.
Escape from Singapore

M.L. Kembong

"Robbie" by this time had got the escape party fixed up. It was limited to 25, in addition to navigating and engine-room staff. The craft selected was M.L. Kembong, the Straits Settlements government Fisheries launch, which the Director of Fisheries put at "Robbie's" disposal. It bad been out of commission since the outbreak of war with Japan and the native crew had gone. The engine was a German-made diesel of an old type. She was a fair size of vessel but a very large portion of the space below decks was taken up with refrigerating chambers - she could, therefore, only take deck passengers. The difficulty was to find engineers who knew how to start and run the engine. On receiving information that there were two Europeans employed in the Singapore Municipality who had actual knowledge of the engine, Wyatt Smith and some of the other young "Dalforce" officers had actually succeeded that afternoon in running these two men to earth, and they volunteered to come. By 5 o'clock or so, skeleton navigating and engine-room staffs had been collected and a list of passengers to make the attempt was drawn up. In the meantime the first thing to be done was to try to put the engine-room staff on board to get the engine ready. The difficulty was how to do this, as Kembong lay about 500 or 600 yards out from the Master Attendant's Jetty and there was literally no craft available of any sort to take us out. Eventually Wyatt Smith and another officer managed to get hold of a very small motor boat, manned by R.E.s, which had been towing one of the water boats alongside for the use of the hospital.

Escape from Singapore
Singapore Docks
By this time it was about 5.30 p.m. and the road between Fullerton Building and the sea was a scene of indescribable confusion. The roadway was clogged up with lines of Motor Transport, mostly stationary. Troops were everywhere, all bewildered. Already word had gone round that we were about to surrender, and some units actually had had orders to lay down their arms. There were crowds of troops (mostly Australian) on all the jetties, looking longingly for anything that would float. The chances of our being able to get on board our launch did not look too bright, and to make the prospect less bright, the Japs suddenly, at about 6 p.m., started to shell it. Some enemy gunners must have seen the motor boat take the engineers out to it and thought they might as well put an end to our little game, whatever it was. We watched in an agony of suspense about half a dozen shells falling all round the launch and throwing up clouds of splash, which glistened in the bright evening sun. There were one or two very near misses. It was time to get moving.

I had spent the time between 5.30 and 6 in going to see the Governor and saying goodbye to my sister and brother-in-law. I had sounded "Robbie" about taking her with us, but he was adamant that no women could be allowed on any "boating party" at this eleventh hour. In the meantime the faithful "Shepp" had been doing for me what little packing could be done. We could, of course, take only what we could carry - I had an Army pack containing a few tins of food, change of clothes, and a sponge bag. All my confidential papers, including my war diary, had already been burnt that morning, when it looked as if there was no hope of avoiding falling into enemy hands. "Shepp", who bravely refused to come with us, although he was a "Dalforce" officer, because he felt he still was not fit enough for the attempt after his bad go of tropical typhus, offered me a sum of several hundred dollars he had with him, but I couldn't possibly take it; and so back to "Robbie's" office, just in time to see the shelling of Kembong.

Getting on Board

It was now beginning to get dark and so time to start moving off. We could see the motor boat coming along according to plan to take the first party on board. She came alongside the water boat, which was tied up to the jetty. The jetty was crowded with troops. Our advance party, with tommy guns slung over their shoulders, moved determinedly on to the jetty and started to clamber down on to the water boat - there were no steps but there was a piece of rope hanging handily. Some of the men above on the jetty moved up and at one time it looked as if they might rush the boat, but we shouted to them that we were on a special mission and they resumed the role of spectators. When the little motor boat came alongside it was found that she was leaking badly and would take only three or four of us at a time, and all the way across to Kembong one of us had to be baling all the time to keep her afloat. Eventually, after four or five trips, the boat becoming more water-logged all the time, the rear party arrived - by now it was after 7.30 and quite dark. The small motor boat sank shortly after.

Escape from Singapore
Japanese in Fullerton Square
A few minutes later the engine started. This was the critical event of the whole show. When the two engineers got on board, they found that the engine had not been used for some weeks, and there was only one air-bottle charge for starting it and no means on board of re-charging the air-bottle except off the main engine. They therefore decided to leave nothing to chance and spent the next two hours examining and going over the whole engine thoroughly, to adjust it for starting. So well did they do their job that it did start at the first go and showed no signs of faltering. Upon deck in the dark we did not realise that we had got over the first and most important hurdle of all. The next job was to get up the anchor. We dared not show a light and had some trouble getting the windlass adjusted, but after a struggle and some hard pulling, "the hook" came away and at about 8 we started to nose our way slowly through the inner harbour, past the breakwater, and along the edge of the minefield towards St. John's Island.

Singapore in Flames

It was a terrible and unforgettable sight to see the town as we slowly passed down the waterfront past Collyer Quay and Telok Ayer - there was a blazing inferno of warehouses and buildings from Finlayson Green down to the region of the Yacht Club, and especially all round Fort Canning, there were jets of flame and smoke stabbing the sky where houses and stores had caught fire. Over the whole city lay a pall of smoke lit up by the glare and glow of the fires. Astern of us, in the direction of Katong and Sea View, there was another mass of fires. In addition, as we stood out to sea, we got an awe-inspiring view of the blazing volcanoes of Pulau Bukom and Pulau Samboe. A tragic, weird, and unforgettable scene - proud and rich Singapore on the eve of surrender to the Japanese. Crowded on the little piece of open deck, not knowing who we all were, or how many of us there were on board, we took our last look at the stricken town as we headed out to sea.

Escape from Singapore
St. John's Island
"Robbie" had given us charts with the mine-fields plotted on them, and also a few general sailing directions. The main minefield came close up to St. John's Island, but there was a narrow, open channel close inshore - too dangerous for a large vessel to attempt to use but quite all right for us, so long as we kept within 100 yards of the island and at the same time took care not to get too close in and run on the coral reefs. As we neared St. John's, I went up on to the little bridge, where the skipper was poring over the chart with the aid of an electric torch. I was able to be of some assistance to him (drawing on my memory of various yachting and launch trips in the harbour during the last twenty years). We rounded St. John's safely and set course for Raffles Light.


As we turned west, we could see ahead of us a thick cloud of black smoke lying over the water, caused by the blazing oil tanks of Pulau Bukom. We were soon in the middle of this cloud and visibility became very bad. The skipper posted two of us in the bows, one on the port and the other on the starboard side, as look-outs - our job was to pick up Raffles Light, where we had to make our next change of course to clear the reefs that lay to the north of it. Owing to the smoke clouds we failed to pick up this mark when we were due to do so, and the skipper decided to risk it and alter course. As it turned out, he was quite right to do so, but unfortunately his decision was just a few minutes too late. We were out of the smoke by now and suddenly ahead, a few points to port, the other man and I on look-out saw something looming ahead that looked like land. We shouted back to the bridge and as we did so there was crunching and a shivering and we were well aground before the engine could be got going full-speed astern. The skipper tried the usual methods (which I remember so well, having run on the bars of the East Coast Malayan rivers) - bursts of "full speed astern" and a touch of "go ahead," but all to no purpose. Kembong wouldn't budge. We knew that the tide was falling to dead low water about dawn and it was about 1 a.m. that we went aground. Then we tried lightening the ship and, incidentally, someone in his zeal to lighten her threw overboard our one and only decent cooking brazier - we missed that badly later on. The skipper also tried the effect of getting us all on the port side and then moving us over to the starboard side, but that proved dangerous and very nearly our undoing, as Kembong, in spite of all we could do, began to heel over to port and eventually, just as we thought she was going to capsize on us, settled down at an angle of 40 degrees, with the whole of the ship's company sitting precariously in the dark on starboard rail. Very unpleasant it was for a few moments until we realized with relief that she was going to remain stable at that angle.

Escape from Singapore
Raffles Lighthouse
By now it was after 2 a.m., and we could see with our own eyes that the tide was running out fast. There was nothing for it but to sit on that rail and wait for the dawn. We hadn't dared smoke since we got on board, but we now decided in our predicament that smoking could do no harm, as we were bound to be spotted in the morning if there were any Japs about among the islands. Sometime between 3 and 4 we noticed lights ahead of us on what looked like an island, which then began to loom quite near. We found out later, when we got ashore there, that a few Malay fishermen who were camped on the island had suddenly spotted us and thought we were Japs. It cheered us a lot to know we had an island so near and that it apparently was inhabited. By 5 o'clock, or soon after, we realized that the tide had run right out and that we were now practically high and dry. As the dawn came we could see the coral and rocks jutting up through two or three feet of water, and we realized that we were very lucky that old Kembong's hull had been so built that she had settled down like this, practically on her side. As soon as it was light we started to try to get our one and only boat away, but the davits were jammed and we couldn't move her. Wyatt Smith and one or two others then set off to wade through the coral to the island, which we could now see clearly and found was only a few hundred yards away. They got very wet in some of the deeper parts, but arrived there quite easily. The Malays, of whom there were about a dozen, viewed them very circumspectly as they waded ashore, but as soon as they realized that we were not the enemy but "orange puteh" who could talk Malay, they offered to help at once and came off in their koleks to take the rest of us ashore dry-shod. We took some boxes of miscellaneous provisions along with us.

Almost a Desert Island

Once all ashore on our minute island, Palau Pelampong by name, we found the small party of Malay fishermen very friendly and helpful. "We discovered we had some tins of cocoa and they helped us to brew several pots of the steaming beverage and generously let us use up practically all the small supply of drinking water they had with them - it had all had to be brought from Pulau Sudong, several miles away in the direction of Blakan Mati. There was, of course, no well on Pulau Pelampong, which was a small circular patch of sand at the end of the coral reef on which we had gone aground, with a few coconut trees and one very fine example of a typical Malayan shade tree growing right in the middle. The island could not have been more than four feet above the highest tidemark. There were a few temporary huts which visiting fishermen used when they spent the night there - almost a typical desert island in fact.

Escape from Singapore
Palau Pelampong
The first and most important thing for us to find out was the prospect of our being able to get Kembong off the rocks on the midday high tide. An inspection of the tidemarks on the beach was very reassuring, and the Malays confirmed that the high tide of the night before had been a "low" one, and that there would be another 1.5 to 2 feet of water on the midday tide. This cheered us a lot and we detailed a party to go on board about 10 to get ready to take her off at high tide. We settled down to our morning toilets and to more cocoa and biscuits, but about 8 o'clock we had our first of several "air-raid alarms" - two Jap planes over, flying very high from the south. We all took cover in the kajang huts and under the large shade tree, and decided to post sentries to watch for any more planes there might be. Several more came over in the course of the morning, and some of them came down low over the island, but knowing our lives probably depended on the enemy not catching sight of anything to make him suspicious, we were very careful to take cover in plenty of time. One of the planes swooped down very low over Kembong to have a "look see," but the sight of her heeled over to an angle of 45 degrees and still apparently well and truly grounded, appeared to satisfy them that she was "out of the war," and no attempts were made to bomb or machine-gun what must have looked like a total wreck. At about 10.30 we sent our salvage party on board, and about midday they got her off quite easily.

We breathed more freely, but at the same time realized we were not out of the wood yet, as enemy planes might be expected to take much more interest in a sea-going launch riding at anchor in deep water off the shore. Luckily, no planes came over in the early afternoon, and the shore party lay on the sand looking across the three or four miles of water to Singapore Island, wondering what was going on there. It was a clear, bright, sunny day. Pasir Panjang and Bukit Timah behind it were clearly visible, with the sun shining on them. The quietness and peace of it all impressed us, and we could hardly realize that Japanese tanks were, as we sat there, probably rumbling down Orchard Road. The enemy's preoccupation and excitement at the capture of the great fortress probably saved us - he had lost interest now in escape ships. All the same, we could not take the risk of putting to sea till the evening, but about 5 o'clock we decided to start going aboard, to get everything ready for a start just before dark. From then on till darkness fell was our real danger period and we took cover anxiously when a plane came over quite low about 6. We expected a hail of machine-gun bullets, but none came and we breathed again.

A Narrow Escape

About 6.30 we weighed anchor, as we wanted to clear the reefs before dark. We had, in the meantime, organized ourselves into watches. As my turn did not come on till 2 a.m., I found a bunk in the small cabin under the bridge and turned in dead tired, just as we moved slowly off. I was asleep as soon as my head touched my pack, which was my pillow, and it was only when I came on duty at 2 a.m. that I learnt that just before dark, when we were well under way, a Jap plane had flown very low over our heads in a very menacing way, but again there had been no offensive action. There was, however, a more exciting moment later on about midnight. Kembong was then just off the north end of the Karimon Islands, and was making her way gingerly round the rocky north coast with engine running dead slow, when suddenly, just to the seaward of us, loomed up the dim shape of a destroyer, which could only have been an enemy one, approaching from the west and very close. Wyatt Smith was on the bridge - he dashed down the little companion-way to the engine-room and got the engine stopped. He watched the destroyer slip past with his heart in his mouth, expecting that we should be blown out of the water at any minute. But we must have been saved by the fact that we were so close Inshore that the enemy could not pick us out in the darkness against the background of the rocks. The destroyer slipped past to the east, and when she was well out of sight and hearing we started off again, laying course for the mouth of the Bengkalis River in Sumatra. We were well on the way there when I took up duty as one of the look-outs in front of the bridge. The rest of the night passed without incident and, when dawn came, we found ourselves in the wide estuary waters of the Bengkalis and Siak Rivers. The skipper had done his job very well.

Into Sumatra

Escape from Singapore
Bengkalis, Dutch East Indies
We anchored to wait for the light to improve sufficiently to let us pick up landmarks and make sure we got into the right channel. About 7 we moved off and by 8 were passing the small Dutch Customs station at the mouth of the river. They waved us on up river and we went steadily upstream all morning to reach the small port of Bengkalis about noon. As we were coming alongside the wharf, I noticed one of the Singapore Yacht Club's boats moored empty just below the town. When we got ashore I found out that it had brought Captain Bell, R.N., of Exeter fame, and two others from Singapore the previous day and that Bell and his party had gone on up river to Pekan Baharu that morning. Along with the skipper and Mackenzie, the senior officer of the Army party, I went to call on and report to the Dutch Controlleur, the local District Officer. Like all the Dutch officials we were to come into contact with in the course of our journeyings through Sumatra and Java, he was very helpful, although he was, not unnaturally, very bitter about the fall of the "impregnable Singapore". He was, however, the only official who expressed his bitterness - many of them must have felt it and have had the feeling that we had let them down, but none of the others showed it by word or action. He advised us to take Kembong on at once to Pekan Baharu, 12 to 15 hours up the Siak River, where there was an R.A.F. station and where we could get transport to take us to Padang, the large port on the west coast of Sumatra. He asked us to take with us the balance of a small party of Australians, who had crossed the Straits of Malacca from behind the Jap lines two nights before in a small sailing boat from near Batu Pahat. Some of them had already gone on that morning with Captain Bell's party, and we readily agreed to take the rest. He also provided us with a pilot for the night trip up the Siak, and we cast off about 5 o'clock.

Escape from Singapore
Siak River, Dutch East Indies
Meantime, about 4, two naval launches arrived, full of miscellaneous Army and Navy. It was agreed that they would follow us up river in convoy. There was a small moon for a time, but it was not sufficient to prevent us going aground when our pilot was trying to find the channel some miles downstream, where the Siak River entered the main stream. The Navy rallied round and, to the accompaniment of many good humoured pleasantries, towed us off. All was fairly plain sailing after that, but we had to go very slowly up the winding Siak. We all took our turn at watch, helping our pilot, and dawn found us well up, but still some 5 or 6 hours below Pekan Baharu. The Siak, which was tidal all the way to Pekan Baharu (and the tide was against us), reminded me very much of the Limbong River in Sarawak - a dark, winding river, with mangrove in the lower reaches, succeeded later by jungle and belukar-covered banks, with occasional patches of native rubber and native huts. As the tide was running very strongly, it was nearly noon before we reached our destination, a typical river trading station, with a good wooden wharf. We moored alongside just as our cooks had got our morning meal ready - a savoury mess of rice, sardines, tinned salmon, Heinz baked beans, and bully beef. I hurried through mine in order to get ashore with the skipper to see the Dutch Military Commandant. His headquarters were a mile or so out of the town, but the kindly Dutch Customs officials at the wharf sent us along in a truck. We found him most helpful and he said he would arrange with the R.A.F. - a small party of whom under an officer were still there, but only just, as they were about to evacuate the aerodrome - to see about transport to take us to a railhead, some hundred miles away. We then arranged to hand over the old Kembong to the Dutch authorities, and the officer in charge of the two R.N. launches did the same for his two craft. We then returned to the wharf and got our parties ashore. About 4 o'clock a convoy of three large buses turned up, and the combined party were soon stowed away and off we set.

Bus and Train

Escape from Singapore
Padang Highlands
The road took us past the aerodrome, where the final "pack-up" was going on. About dusk we reached a large river and were ferried across. We had tea and coffee and some lovely ducks' eggs (commoner in Sumatra than hens' eggs), and set off just as it got really dark. We stopped about 10 o'clock at a small village for more excellent coffee and then started our climb into the Padang Highlands - a hair-raising road in places, but it didn't seem to worry our driver. About 2 a.m. we reached the railhead and entrained in the empty Padang train we found waiting in the station. It was not due to start till 6, so we all turned in and slept. Just as it was getting light we started, and breakfasted from the tins we carried in our packs. It was a lovely morning and the train run through the beautiful and fertile Padang Highlands was an unforgettable experience. We stopped at every little wayside station and, as the sun got warmer, more and more of the very healthy and happy looking peasants joined the train. By the time it arrived at Fort de Koek it was crammed full. These Padang uplands are one of the most beautiful and fertile regions I have ever seen - they consist of a series of great flat terraces, surrounded by an amphitheatre of volcanic mountains. Running water everywhere - all beautifully controlled by what must be a most efficient irrigation system. The soil too, must be very rich - tomatoes, cabbages, etc., could be seen growing in little plots all along the line, and there were also, of course, thousands upon thousands of acres of padi in all stages of growth.

We reached Padang about 11 o'clock. As similar parties to ours had been arriving by every train for the past few days, there was a certain amount of confusion, but the Dutch had the whole show very well organized and we soon found ourselves billeted in a school near the centre of town. After a meal I put on clean clothes and went off to find the British Vice-Consul. I found several Senior Service officers there whom I knew, including Captain Bell, Colonel Palmer, and Robin Goodfellow. Batavia had been asked to send a ship to take us off - it was estimated that there were about 600 or 700 R.A.F. and refugees like ourselves ready to go, and it was known there were more on the way. It was thought that the chances of a ship the next day were good, but we should not know for certain till the morning. I arranged that our party should be taken on the strength of the Kembong military party for rations and evacuation purposes. I dined with Colonel Palmer (the senior military officer then in Padang) at the local hotel - the first civilized meal for a very long time. Slept well on the bare boards of the school hall - quite used to bare boards by this time.

The British Navy on the Job

Early next morning (Thursday the 19th) I went to the Consulate. While I was there, the expected telephone call from Batavia came through - that "we could expect the butler with the gin that day."
Escape from Singapore
HMS Danae
Captain Bell had no difficulty in explaining to us that this meant that H.M.S. Danae (Captain Butler) was on the way to Padang! We all went back to our billets and got our drafts ready for sudden embarkation orders. Soon after 1 o'clock the order came and we set off to march to the station, where there was a train to take us the few miles to the port. As we drew into the dock station we could see Danae coming alongside to make fast. The Navy was here again, and beautifully timed - just one of the Navy's typical routine jobs. Embarkation was quickly and efficiently done and we were heading out to sea at top speed as the sun was setting. The officers, some 80 of us, were accommodated in the Ward Room and in the Captain's cabin, and we slept in the open on the quarter-deck. There were some 400 to 500 other ranks accommodated on the main decks. The ship fed us simply, but effectively, on bread, butter, cheese, tea, and lime juice. It was all a glorified picnic. We could buy cigarettes and things like tinned prunes at the ship's canteen. We all expected to be in Batavia by Saturday evening, but Sunday morning came with us still at sea and no sign of the Sunda Straits. We then learnt that the Straits were now considered too dangerous and that we were bound instead for Tjilatjap, the small port on the south coast of Java. We were off the river mouth there by noon (Sunday the 22nd) and up alongside the wharf by 4 o'clock. The harbour was crowded with ships - far too many and too easy a target, we thought.

In Java

Escape from Singapore
Tanjong Priok
As Robin Goodfellow and I were anxious to get to Batavia as soon as possible, we went ashore together immediately the gangway was down, to see what we could do about it. We got into Batavia Centrum, just before 11. I had great fun getting through to Larkins at the British Consulate on the station's public telephone, but I managed the Dutch "Button A" all right and got him. He could hardly believe his ears and said that he would be down with a car at once. He made it quite clear straight away that the situation in Java was now very serious - there was one thing to do - to get out of Java at once. He said there was a ship leaving Tanjong Priok at 2 p.m. - she was probably the last ship and she was full, but he would do his best to get me a passage. He was as good as his word, and by one o'clock the Polish Consul in Batavia (whom L. kindly sent to see me off) and I were on our way to the docks, and by 1.30 I was on board the old SS Perak, veteran of the Singapore-Penang run. She had arrived in Batavia early in February with civilian evacuees from Malaya, but her native crew had deserted and the Navy originally decided that she would have to be abandoned. At the last moment, however, when things began to look very critical in Java, the naval authorities at Batavia called for volunteers, to officer and man her for another evacuation voyage. There were just sufficient R.N.V.R. officers available to provide the bare minimum complement of officers, but the crew was woefully below strength.

En Route for Colombo

We passengers found that we mustered about 50 men and a dozen or so women and children. We had to turn to at once to help to get her ready for sea. The skipper called us all into the saloon at 4 o'clock and told us the position and how he would want all the assistance we could give him to get the old ship to Colombo.
Escape from Singapore
PAB McKerron
The male passengers were split up into watches and working parties, and the ladies undertook to help with meals in the saloon. We set to at once to get the stores on board and stowed away, and, most important of all, to get the lifeboats ready for immediate use. We were still hard at it as we stole out of the harbour at dusk. A few hours later we set sail with a small naval escort, the last ships to sail from Batavia. We knew we had left too late at night to get through the dangerous Sunda Straits before dawn - the Japs had been in control of the western side of the Straits for several days, and it was definitely dangerous for navigation. However, our luck was in, and about 10 o'clock in the morning, the 24th February we were well clear of the narrow waters of the Straits and heading south into the Indian Ocean. Shortly after that we left the convoy, which was making for Australia, and set off on our own for Colombo. The voyage was uneventful and we reached our destination safely on 4th March - our only real hardship was a certain shortage of drinking water. However, by dint of strict rationing, no baths or shaving, and washing clothes in sea water, we made the supply last us out.

map of Nigeria
1942 Map of Singapore
Colony Profile
Originally Published
OSPA Journals 65 - 67
(April 1993 - April 1994)


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