British Empire Article

Courtesy of OSPA

by Tom Roebuck (FPS)
Escape from Singapore
SS Plancius
Early in February, 1942, Professor G. A. Ransome spoke to me about his plans to try and escape to the Dutch East Indies if the Japanese should capture Singapore. He invited me to accompany him in his pram-dinghy, a flat-bottomed boat about 12 feet long, bermuda-rigged with bamboo mast and boom, and designed for racing in the sheltered waters of the Straits of Johore. Other members of the staff, with the exception of R. L. Bucknell, an American refugee from Siam who had been employed in the Medical Auxiliary Service since his arrival in Singapore, considered the venture much too hazardous. We agreed to include Bucknell in the party, but when Ransome later introduced a fourth member I decided that the boat would be dangerously over-crowded and that I would seek other means for Bucknell and myself. I did not see Ransome again after the 7th February, and have heard since that he abandoned his scheme and escaped eventually in the S.S. 'Plancius' to Batavia, and thence to India.

Escape from Singapore
Royal Singapore Yacht Club
Mr. B. M. Johns, Senior Surgeon, Singapore, kindly offered to give me his yacht 'Hui', a much more seaworthy boat than the pram-dinghy, and suggested that we should make in the first place for the Indragir River in Sumatra. She was about 12 feet long, teak-built, bermuda-rigged, and equipped with a single-cylinder 4 h.p. engine which proved of great help in negotiating the channels between the islands. There was sufficient accommodation for two persons and the food, water, and stores necessary to reach Sumatra. The yacht was moored in the Royal Singapore Yacht Club lagoon, near to East Wharf, and I found that she had been slightly damaged in the frequent raids on the harbour. The mast was scored above the cross-trees, one of the stays and the main halyard were broken, and there were splinter holes in the main-sail. A Malay sailor was engaged to repair the damage and by Monday, 9th February, she was sea-worthy again. That evening we saw three Americans, including Fred Waterhouse, leave the Club in a 'B' Class yacht for Sumatra.

By Tuesday evening, the 10th February, we had collected our stores of food, water and clothing, but had been unable to obtain a compass or a chart of the route we proposed to follow. The food comprised bully beef, tinned beans, condensed milk, biscuits, tea, sugar, salt, dried prunes and raisins, oatmeal, chocolate and brandy, all packed in two 28 lb. dried milk tins fitted with screw lids. There were two 4 gallons drums of water, and a quantity of chlorinated lime for the sterilization of any drinking water taken on en-route. We put in a small frying pan, kettle, spoons, enamelled plates and mugs, a parang (native axe) and a first-aid kit. We carried spare sails and rope, two anchors (one being a Malay 'sow'), and about 5 gallons of petrol and cylinder oil mixture for the engine, the clothing was limited to a kit-bag each of khaki shorts, shirts, towel and soap, shaving kit, spare canvas shoes and a waterproof sheet. The noise of gunfire was much nearer the Hospital, and the air-raid sirens had ceased to function because raids were now almost continuous. We were cut off from all news of the progress of the fighting, and as there were indications that we might have to move quickly in the near future, we packed all the supplies in the back of my car in readiness.

Escape from Singapore
Burning Oil Tanks, Singapore
Next morning, Wednesday the 11th February, there were sounds of gunfire from Pasir Panjang Road and the oil tanks in Ayer Rajah Road were burning, pouring out thick clouds of black smoke which drifted across Alexandra Road and out to sea. There was a raid at 0730 hrs as we were having breakfast, and at 0830 hrs we ran down to the Yacht Club in the car to see if the boat was still intact. As we passed along Cantonment Road we noticed a huge pile of broken bottles where Caldbeck MacGregor & Co., had destroyed their stock of spirits by the roadside. We found the boat still undamaged and with the sails bent, ready to leave. There were several Europeans at the lagoon, including Thomas and White of the Electrical Dept., P.W.D., who informed us that they were leaving in a Johore Customs launch at 0930 hrs. They intended to call first at Pulau Samboe for fuel and directions from the Dutch authorities. At 0900 hrs Blake arrived with his wife and informed us that they had been advised by the military to leave the Ardmore Flats before they were cut off. He and his wife left later in a 'B' Class yacht and sailed across to Bulan Bay where we lost sight of them. There was news also that the Japanese had reached Alexandra Road and Orchard Road, that our troops were falling back on the centre of the City, and that it was now only a matter of time before the Island would be in enemy hands.

Escape from Singapore
6 Inch Guns
We decided that the gravity of the news justified an immediate departure, and we accordingly transferred our supplies from the car to the yacht, which was moored alongside the slipway. I then locked up my car and left it in front of the Goodyear Rubber Co. godown. We found that we could not hoist the main-sail above the cross-trees because of the damage to the mast, but we decided to postpone repairs and left at 0915 hrs under jib and engine. The six inch guns on Blakang Mati were firing over our heads at the Japanese positions in the City as we set our course for Peak Island, some three miles away, where I intended to anchor and repair the mast. We were about half a mile from shore when bombers came overhead and dropped two sticks of bombs across the front of the Yacht Club and on Telok Ayer. We anchored in the channel between Peak Island and E. St. John's Island and effected the repairs, but lost an anchor (the sow) in the coral. Continuing under full sail and the engine, we steered S.S.W. experiencing an uncomfortable passage through the tide-rips south of St. John's Island.
Escape from Singapore
St. John's Island
The centre-board was raised until we cleared the minefields, but about 1115 hrs we were able to continue normally and passed three junks crowded with Chinese refugees. All this time there had been incessant gunfire and bomb explosions on Singapore, and the oil tanks on Pulau Bukum were on fire with dense clouds of black smoke drifting overhead. Our first meal on the boat consisted of a few biscuits and a bar of chocolate, washed down with a mug of water. We kept well away from land to avoid reefs but at 1500 hrs when about half a mile off-shore we found ourselves over coral. I put the boat about and we scraped clear without damaging the hull; the extensive reefs kept us constantly on the alert and in some places we had to sail three miles off-shore to avoid them. A heavy rain squall came up at 1600 hrs and drenched us in a few minutes, but we kept the stores dry under the waterproof sheets, and our clothes dried quickly in the hot sun. We decided to anchor in the lee of an island for the night, and just before dark we found an anchorage near fishing stakes about fifty yards from shore. It was a coral bottom and the anchor dragged repeatedly, but by tying a rope to one of the flukes as well as to the stock we had no difficulty in releasing it from the coral. There was little shelter from the wind and the boat rolled heavily all night, but after a light supper on bully beef and water we covered ourselves with the spare sails and dozed uncomfortably until daybreak. The sky over Singapore, some thirty-five miles away, was red with the flames and smoke from burning oil tanks, including those on Pulau Samboe, and the rumble of guns and bomb explosions continued throughout the night.

12th February

Escape from Singapore
Dutch East Indies Islands
We left our anchorage at daybreak, after a light breakfast on bully beef and biscuits, under full sail. There was a strong wind and a heavy sea running as we sailed S.S.W. until 1100 hrs, when I decided to head due west directly towards the mainland of Sumatra. We sighted a large motor launch as we crossed one of the main shipping lanes, which was well buoyed, and about 1300 hrs we sighted an island off which three large junks were anchored. We spoke with some Chinese at a kampong on the island, who gave us directions for reaching Koender Island where they said we should find a Dutch Controller. We continued on our course due west, still steering by the sun, and using the engine as we followed a tortuous course through channels between mangrove islands. At 1600 hrs we sighted a pile of huge rocks in the sea near a large island and, assuming that we had reached our destination, we anchored near a sandy beach in about a fathom of water. A Malay came alongside in a koleh, informed us that he was a coastwatcher, and asked us to go ashore with him to see the Assistant Controller. We were met by this official, a Eurasian, who was accompanied by the penghulu and a crowd of Malays, and after our passports had been examined we were taken about a mile through the jungle to Toeman, where we were regaled on soft-boiled eggs and ice-cream soda at the village keday. The Controller told us that eight Europeans had landed from Singapore at Tandjong Batu, at the other side of the island, that morning and had been taken to Tandjong Bali where the Controller of the Karimun Islands was stationed. It was decided that we should leave for Tandjong Bali at 2300 hrs that night to join the other party, and until then we were provided with camp beds in the penghulu's house which seemed to be the meeting house for the Malay elders of the kampong. We gave them the news we had of Singapore and learned that even Tandjong Bali and small kampongs in the islands had been bombed. We arranged to leave our boat in the care of the penghulu, expecting that the Controller would send us across Sumatra in his launch and, after thanking our hosts for their hospitality, we left in a prahu rajah at 2300 hrs during a heavy thunderstorm. We crouched on the wet deck and shivered and dozed until we reached our destination at 0530 hrs next morning. The Police met us at the landing stage and took us to the Controller who informed us that the only available launch had just left with the party of Europeans for Sumatra, and that we would have to return to Toeman and continue the journey in our yacht. Mr. Feling kindly gave us 4 gallons of petrol and a chart of our course as far as Silat Pandjang, and we enjoyed a bath, shave and breakfast before leaving on the return journey in his personal launch. There was an 'alert' during breakfast, when Japanese bombers passed overhead on their way to Sumatra.

13th February

Friday the 13th - an inauspicious day to resume our travels - but we reached Toeman safely about mid-day to find the Malays just taking up the yacht for storage under an attap shelter. Before continuing our journey we took the yacht into shallow water and painted the hull green to make her less conspicuous, and laid in a supply of green coconuts and eggs. Mr. Feling had advised us to proceed first to Silat Pandjang where Mr. Bloom, the Controller, would give us further directions for reaching the Siak River, so we sailed due west with a good wind and were in the Assam Straits by sunset. Five large junks loaded with timber were anchored in the Straits, but we had to anchor close inshore near thick mangroves because of the strong current. We ate our supper of baked beans, coconut and brandy cocktail, by moonlight.

14th February

Escape from Singapore
Selat Pandjang
We left our anchorage at daybreak and made a frugal breakfast on raisins and tinned milk as we sailed up the Straits. The tide was with us and we had a fair wind until mid-day when we were becalmed and had to start the engine. The village of Silat Pandjang came in site at 1300 hrs and we tied up at a landing stage near a Chinese kongsi house at 1400 hrs. The occupants welcomed us and after a much needed wash, invited us to a tiffin of rice and curry, tinned herrings, bananas, tea and bottled beer. We learned that 150 Chinese refugees from Singapore had arrived the previous day and, because of the shortage of rice, had been dispersed among the islands. Rice, the staple food of the natives, Chinese and Malay alike, normally was imported from Singapore and, as a result of the war, stocks were very low. After thanking our hosts, we accompanied the Police Officer of the Settlement to the Rest House, where he examined our passports and arranged accommodation for the night. He provided a watchman for our yacht, which was moored near a Chinese saw mill, about half a mile from the village so as to be safe from raids, and then invited us to tea at his house. I.ater. we returned to the Rest House and enjoyed a bath, shave and a change of clothes before meeting Mr. Bloom who kindly drew us a chart of the course from Silat Pandjang to the Siak River. He conveyed an invitation from the local Chinese community to join them in their New Year celebrations at the Club, and we dined that night on sharks fins, birds nest soup, and other Chinese delicacies. There I met Chong Koon Seng, an auctioneer from Chulia Street, Singapore, who had undertaken the sale of medical supplies taken over from Japanese firms by the Custodian of Enemy Property. This was the first good night's rest we had had since we left Singapore, and it was to be the last until we reached Fort de Koek on the west coast of Sumatra. I was able to send a short cable to my wife in Australia at a cost of 15 guilders, and changed all my Straits currency into guilders on the advice of the Controlle.

15th February

We breakfasted on tinned sauerkraut, provided by the Controller from his private store, and after bidding him goodbye, we set sail at 1000 hrs and steered for the Ringgit Straits. The tide was with us and we reached the Straits at slack water. We had hoped to reach Lallang that day, but were about five miles short of our destination at sunset when we anchored close inshore near thick jungle for the night. We had our usual light supper and a brandy cocktail to keep the chill out. The bushes ashore were thick with fireflies which flickered in and out in unison.

16th February

Escape from Singapore
Siak River Map
We were on our way at dawn and called at Lallang, where there was a small village, to try and purchase fruit. The natives had very little food and a few green coconuts and an over-ripe papayah were all there was to spare. We tacked up the Straits with a light wind until about mid-day, when the wind and tide changed compelling us to use the engine for the last five miles or so to the mouth of the Siak River. We could see from the colour of the water that there were extensive mud-flats and shallows off the estuary, but in spite of all our precautions, we ran aground on the mud at 1400 hrs. The tide ebbed quickly and soon left us dry, so we propped the yacht upright with a paddle on each side, and sat down to wait until the tide came in again. We rigged an awning with a spare sail to protect us from the blazing tropic sun, and spent the afternoon yarning and watching the mangrove fish hopping about on their tails, then, towards dusk, the monkeys came down from the jungle and ran about the mud catching crabs. The tide floated us off at about 1800 hrs and after cleaning the mud out of the exhaust pipe, we anchored in deep water to wait until morning before entering the river. The bottom was not very good and we kept watch about during the night, and, as usual, we fortified ourselves with a brandy cocktail after our meagre supper.

17th February

Escape from Singapore
Siak River, Dutch East Indies
We entered the river just after sunrise with the tide, which was running at about 4 knots, and tied up near a kampong at 0830 hrs to replenish our store of petrol which was running low. The river at this point was about a mile wide, with occasional villages and single houses with attap roofs built on piles on the swampy banks. We were informed that only diesel boats were used on the river and that petrol was unobtainable, so we pushed on, hoping to reach Pekan Baroe before our supply ran out. There was no breeze on the river, and as the sun climbed higher the heat became so oppressive as to be almost unbearable. After long hours at the tiller my hands were burnt nearly black and had now begun to blister, so I steered with a towel across my bare knees and hands. At 1000 hrs the engine stopped, and we found that the petrol feed pipe leading from the tank in the bows was broken, and the petrol had escaped into the bottom of the fore-part of the boat. Fortunately, the tide continued to carry us along at about 4 knots until 1130 hrs, when we had to take to the paddles - most exhausting work in that heat. We reckoned that we still had some 200 miles to go to Pekan Baroe and the prospect of paddling that distance was appalling. A little later on, a Malay overtook us going up-stream in a sampan, and when I hailed him he said he was going to Siak. This was on our way, so I hired him to tow us as far as that town. Progress was slow, and by 1430 hrs our Malay was badly in need of a rest, so we tied up alongside a bamboo landing stage near a small kampong. We were able to buy three tins of pineapple and six bottles of orange crush at the keday, and this formed our tiffin. After discussing the situation, Bucknell agreed to go on to Siak in the sampan to try and buy some petrol, and left at 1515 hrs. Towards evening the villagers returned from their work in the paddy fields, and came down to chat and examine the yacht. I learned that there was much malaria on the river, that food was very scarce, and that the river was noted for the number and size of its crocodiles, which I could hear bellowing in the mangroves on the opposite bank. There was a rise and fall of 15 feet in the tide at this point, and I had to watch the mooring ropes carefully. Bucknell arrived back at 0330 hrs with the news that there was no petrol at all to be had on the river, so we decided to continue behind the sampan. At daybreak we went ashore and made a fire and breakfasted on porridge and tea, then resumed our journey.

18th February

It was hotter than the previous day, and by 1100 hrs our Malay was nearly exhausted, so we decided to moor the boat in the shade until it became cooler. As we were pulling into the bank we heard a diesel boat coming up-river, and when it appeared around the last bend it seemed to be towing a barge covered with a red flag.
Escape from Singapore
Pekan Baroe Map
We had been hurried along by the Dutch at every place we touched en route because the Japanese were close on our heels, and we now thought that they had caught up with us. It was too far from the bank to make a dash for the mangroves to hide, so we decided to carry on in the hope that they would not interfere with us. When the craft drew closer we saw that the first was a Chinese diesel boat towing a ship's lifeboat which had an awning made from blankets and a red sail. We asked them for a tow and they threw us a line from the lifeboat, which we saw was full of soldiers, most of them wearing only shorts. We learned that they were a detachment of the 5th Norfolks who had been sent out of Singapore on special duty, and that the others had been picked up from sampans, rafts and small islands on the way. I had paid off my Malay before hooking on behind the lifeboat. The troops on the diesel boat were all sitting on the port side, which gave the boat a bad list, and the steering was very erratic, causing us to yaw from one side of the river to the other. Travelling at about 6 knots we reached Siak at 1530 hrs and tied up at the jetty. We went ashore with the troops and bought some biscuits and soft drinks, then Joined the officers in a meal of bully beef, army biscuits and tea. An Australian major was in charge of the party, and he now informed us that they could not take us any further as our yacht was too heavy to tow. He said that we could join the troops in the lifeboat if we cared to leave the yacht, and Bucknell and I agreed to this. I left the yacht with the Controlle and gave him my name and address in Singapore, and he promised to have her stored. We packed as much of our supplies as we could in the lifeboat, which was much over crowded, and found seats just aft of the mast. We left Siak at 1715 hrs for Pekan Baroe, which we hoped to reach next morning. There was no protection from the wind and I dozed uncomfortably with my forehead against the mast and shivered all night. There was a galley on the diesel boat and tea was served up at 0630 hrs, with baked beans, army biscuits and sardines. The river was now much narrower and houses and small villages were more numerous We met motor torpedo boats patrolling down river, and several were moored at the jetty when we came in sight of Pekan Baroe at 1030 hrs. The disembarkation was quickly carried and the troops fell in under a shed which had been bombed the previous day. All supplies were pooled and then shared out among the troops (including ourselves). The Dutch military authorities supplied military buses to transport our party across to the west coast, and we left at 1100 hrs.
Escape from Singapore
Fort de Kock
As we drove across the plain and into the foothills we passed three airfields which had been used by the R.A.F. and were now evacuated, small parties of officers travelling in the same direction as ourselves. The journey across the mountains would have been delightful in normal times for the views and scenery were magnificent, but our concern was 'speed' because we learned that Palembang had fallen two days before and the Japanese were now less than fifty miles south of our route. We crossed three wide rivers on ferries and were able to buy bananas and papayas to eke out the army rations at the riverside villages. We slaked our thirst with cold mountain water which was brought down to the villages in bamboo pipes. We were at the tail of the convoy and travelled most of the way in a thick cloud of white dust raised by the buses ahead. Fort de Kock was to be our stopping place for the night and we drew up at the barracks there at 1930 hrs during a raid. We were accommodated in barrack rooms, each man being provided with a mattress, blanket and pillow. For supper, a zinc bath of coffee, a basketful of enamelled mugs and a basket of loaves of bread were brought in, and we helped ourselves. After a shave and bath (native style) we turned in and enjoyed the second night in bed since leaving Singapore.

20th February

Reveille was at 0600 hours and after a meal of coffee and bread, we embussed for the railway station. At the station, having held field rank in Singapore, I was inducted into the Officers' Mess, which merely meant that I travelled in a separate coach with the officers. They were a pleasant crowd, most of them very young, and the time passed quickly until we reached Padang at 1230 hours. Bucknell went off to report to the Mayor who found him accommodation with a Dutch widow; I joined Major Davis and a detachment of the R.A.M.C. who had travelled across via the Indragiri and we were billeted in a Chinese school. On arrival we were served with curry and rice for tiffin. Low platforms of rough planks had been built in the schoolrooms for beds, and showers and latrines had been erected behind the school. After a shower, I did some washing and had just hung it out to dry on a bush, when order came to proceed to the station where we were to entrain for the harbour. It had been decided to evacuate all British troops to Java, and civilians were instructed to fall in with them. Fortunately Bucknell appeared as we were moving off, our kit in a pony gharry, so he fell in with the R.A.M.C. party and collected his bag on the way.
Escape from Singapore
HMS Danae
The cruiser H.M.S, "Danae" was being moored at the outer wharf when we arrived at the harbour, and we had embarked and were away within twenty minutes. The Japanese had bombed and damaged the harbour, and had sunk three freighters about 300 yards off-shore. We learned that one of them was the ship on which Mrs. Bucknell and her baby had sailed from Singapore for America, and that the passengers and crew had escaped unharmed. They had been sent by train to Oosthaven, in the south of Sumatra, and thence, presumably, to Java, although Bucknell could get no confirmation of this. The cruiser left at about 25 knots for the Sunda Straits, but was diverted later to Tjilatjap on the south coast of Java. There were 617 troops on board, in addition to the ships complement, and the men were sleeping in the scuppers, in lifeboats, and on any empty space they could find on deck. I messed with the officers in the captain's cabin, and slept on the quarterdeck under one of the six inch guns. It was a hard, uncomfortable bed, but the weather was good and the heavy dew soon dried after the sun got up.

We reached Tjilatjap, without incident, on the morning of the 22nd, and tied up alongside the wharf at mid-day. Since leaving Padang we had lived on bullybeef sandwiches, and we were looking forward to getting ashore for a change of diet.
Escape from Singapore
SS Kedah
We were not allowed to leave the ship until 1700 hours, when the troops entrained for a military camp up-country, and the civilians and naval personnel were transferred to S.S. "Kedah", a Straits Steamships boat which had been converted into an armed merchant cruiser. We lived in comparative comfort on the "Kedah", sleeping on camp beds in the alleyways and feeding on bread and butter, cheese, and tea. There were bathing facilities, a native barber and a shop on board, and after some clothes-washing we began to look more respectable. I met Lieut. Penny, Jerry Waites, Rodgers and Wiggs of the Singapore Harbour Board, Bryden and Wallace of the Singapore Municipality, and others whom I had known in Singapore. No one was allowed on shore and, although we sent a message to him, the British Consul ignored us. I have heard reports of other cases of Consular short-comings during this time, particularly in Batavia. We lived on the "Kedah" for two days and were then transferred to the "Zandam", a Rotterdam-Lloyd boat which was moored in mid-stream, together with some 60 other ships, three abreast. We were given luxurious cabins with bathrooms attached, and were very well fed. Throughout the journey from Singapore, the Dutch had treated us very kindly and had given us all possible assistance. There were "alerts" every night during our stay in this port, but no bombs were dropped. We were allowed ashore from the "Zandam" and most of us sent cables to relatives. It was a small town of the usual Dutch East Indies type, full of American sailors and airmen, and the wharves were stacked with bombs and other war material from the U.S.A. We laid in a supply of tinned food for the next stage of the journey, and I bought blankets for Bucknell and myself. After two days on the "Zandam" we were transferred, on the 26th, to a 1200 ton K.P.M. boat, the "Khoen Hoea". We were given mattresses and fourteen of us slept on the floor of the saloon. In addition to the civilians there were 200 naval officers and ratings, and 150 escaped Australian soldiers who had "rushed" one of the evacuation ships at Singapore and had reached Batavia. The command of the ship was taken over by Captain Bell, R.N., formerly in command of H.M.S. "Exeter". Moored alongside us was the "Wuchang", a Yang-tse Kiang river boat, on which the troops who had been with us on the "Danae" were to be taken to Colombo. She drew about three feet and had provisions for seven days, but I heard later that the trip took ten days. We went ashore that evening and had some nasi goreng and beer at one of the native cafes.

The"Khoen Hoea" sailed at 1730 hours on 27th February, together with six or seven other ships, and once clear of the harbour, we struck out on our own for Australia. The ship carried two light machine guns for anti-aircraft defence, but had neither wireless nor anti-submarine gun. Just after nightfall we saw the flashes of gun-fire in the sky and learned afterwards that the "City of Manchester" had been sunk 25 miles astern. Next day everybody was detailed for gun-watch and we settled down to ship's routine. Drinking water was rationed at a pint a head daily, and the food consisted of bully beef and ship's biscuits, with tinned bacon (usually served up half cooked) occasionally for breakfast. There was no fresh water for washing and, while it lasted, we used the condensed water from the winches for shaving. The ship had been built for the trip between Borneo and Singapore and was quite unsuitable for sailing in the Indian Ocean, and for several days, with a head wind, we averaged about 2 knots. She would descend into the troughs between the waves with a crash that sounded as if she had broken her back, and some nights she rolled so badly that we found it impossible to sleep on the floor of the saloon. It was ten days before we sighted Rottnest Island at 0330 hours on the 9th March, and before then we were so dirty that, as one man said, if we had taken off our shirts and put them on the deck we would never have caught them again. Fremantle and the end of our journey was a great relief to everybody, and when we got ashore we learned that we were the last ship in from Java and had been given up for lost.

The happy ending to our odyssey came when Bucknell and I went ashore and found, in my case that my wife and child were still in Perth and expecting me, and in his case that his wife and baby had escaped from Sumatra to Java and from Java to Australia, and were in Bunbury. They came up to Perth the next day and the happy reunion took place at the house of the American Consul, with whom they lived until they were repatriated shortly afterwards.

map of Nigeria
1942 Map of Singapore
Colony Profile
Originally Published
OSPA Journals 60, 61 and 62: October 1990 - October 1991


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