Retreat in Malaya

Bob's account of his retreat in Malaya

After becoming a prisoner of the Japanese Imperial Army, from entries in his war diary and memoirs, Bob reflected on the events of the retreat in Malaya and the surrender of Singapore Island and all British Forces by Gen. Percival. Bob documented his experiences in a long letter to his parents - the following is a faithful recount of that letter. Any comments in (..) are not part of the letter but complimentary fact.

Started 3-2-42

War broke out on the 8th. Dec & we at Boomtown (Bukit Tiga) were first on a war posting - feverishly digging dugouts & interposing trenches - patrolling and generally making ourselves impregnable, we thought. On 8th. Jan., we of "A" Coy. ("A" Coy. 2nd/26th Battalion A.I.F.) were moved up to the front with the rest of the Battalion. At this time I was made 2 i/c of "A" Coy. and should have been made Captain K, but having a retiring disposition, I did not press the point. We ("A" Coy.) went into our defensive position on a cross road a couple of miles from the 26th. (2nd/26th. Battalion A.I.F.) & were juggled about from one position to another for a week.

The trenches at Bukit Tiga. Digging in at "Boomtown". Bob outside "A" Coy. HQ.

Then we were all surrounded! Our flanks "beat it" & we were forced to do our first retreat. At our holding place we had a shave and a feed & that night dragged ourselves up to a position defending a river. The Japanese knew we were there & we left the following night just in time to avoid being dive bombed out of existence. I and all the other 2 i/cs were nearly left behind on that occasion as we were on a reconnaissance & knew nothing of the retirement.

It's no joke retiring & taking up a position at night as no one knows where they are or what sort of a position they are occupying. On this occasion, like many others the "higher ups" knew nothing either. It took us until 9am. to do the move & get into a position (Yong Peng) which should, or could be easily defended. We lay in that rotten hole - or bathed in our cramped slit trenches for 2 days while enemy planes looked for us. Our move came at 3pm. and we all fell back to guard a road. (Ayer Hitam) Again we got in at night. Then we saw a very confident Britisher Battalion go sailing up the road to do battle. They came tearing back again in the morning yelling that the Japanese were there in thousands. Capt. Beirne took a platoon up further than the "Brits" went the same day & saw nothing.

We had 2 days here & were badly mortared. That night we sneaked off and took up another position a few miles away on an important crossroad. (Sinpang Rengam) Here we were badly shaken by dive bombers, which like the poor and the 5th. Columnists were always with us. The next day we were getting ready to get out when our Coy. was attacked & we had an exciting couple of hours when the enemy retired. We were to get out at 7pm. At 6.45 a bugle, like the knell of doom, sounded & the enemy opened fire from every where. However we had to go & did so, trotting over a hill on which tracer and ball ammo was falling like rain.

By a miracle we all got out, I was pretty badly shaken by an aero bomb falling very close to me. In the early morning we stopped in a new place (Namazie) & were sniped all day, but they were crook shots & I, at least, was not worried by them. Here poor Keith Horsley, late editor of "Cobbers" was killed in a skirmish. This was also my very first counter attack, when we of "A" Coy. moved over to help the 30th. (2nd/30th. A.I.F.) We arrived in time to get a whiff of tear gas - wasn't much - & to cause the enemy to change their minds about attacking.

That night we staged another nightmare retreat - moving through jungle in single file where the enemy had been only that afternoon & by a miracle we had no casualties. Before break of day we were put into another position with an assurance that help would arrive before daylight. However this we did not get and that day some one put a red flag on the road to show where we were & did we cop it from the bombers!

In 10 seconds "A" Coy. lost 6 killed, 12 badly wounded & 12 shell shocked. That night a very shaken crowd took up another position 10 miles back. (Kulai) Poor old "Tissy" Nisbet, was we think, killed on this retreat. Two days we stayed here & then at 9.30 came the news we all expected - retirement to the Island.(Singapore Island) At about 8pm. violent firing started in our rear causing a great deal of worry, however another crowd quietened that & we got out again in single file. The transport taking us back was led by Jack Heath whom I was very glad to see.

Of course these terrible days ran into about 3 weeks. There was no large scale fighting (for "A" Coy.) - only small skirmishes mostly & all the time we were lying for hours at a time hiding from aircraft.

"The boy fron Bowen was not ready for war"...Play

The Fall of Singapore

Bob's recollections on Singapore Island leading up to the surrender included in his letter, including a Jap leaflet dropped by aircraft.

I think the biggest blow came when we reached the Island during the night (30/31st Jan. at 2am.) Considering that about 100,000,000 pounds was squandered here, we all expected to go into trenches, concrete dugouts & have about half a mile of wire in front of us. Instead of this we were given a position (Causeway to South Maudai), 1000 yards from the main road, on a mangrove swamp, where we could not dig more than 9 inches, with not a scrap of wire out & the whole under observation by the enemy.

Up to this point I had been too busy to worry or care about my promotion, but I expected it as both former and present OCs had recommended me for it. One day the OC went along intending to bring up this matter with the CO & brought back with him a Capt. Steve Harman to be the new 2 i/c. I was sick at the time and did not give a damn about promotion or position but later reflection makes me feel it's about the raw deal metered out to anyone on this Island.

I was shot into a crook platoon - men sick, tired & fed up - naturally I got into a state of low mental depression, so when an appeal went round to us for experienced officers to go to the 2/29th. Bn, I offered with the promise of a Captain when I got there - which I did not get nor do I look like getting it. However from the things I have seen I don't think a stranger, especially a Queenslander would have a chance - though I will say they may improve on their officers if they changed about 5% of them.

Of the fighting on the Island I will say nothing - a muddle from start to finish - no information, no air support, no nothing. If the war has done nothing else for me it's made me a believer in the efficacy of preparation.

"All of a sudden there was silence"...Play

(The Johure Baru causeway was blown on 31st. delaying the Jap advance by a week (see the breech just to the left under the tower) - but following a fateful misunderstanding, the 27th Brigade began to withdraw from nearby Kranji. The defenders thereby lost control of the crucial Kranji Jurong ridge - the opening at Kranji allowed the Imperial Guards to land tanks and advance rapidly southward. On February 11th., Gen. Yamashita knowing that Japanese supplies were running low, decided to bluff and called on Gen. Percival to give up the struggle. The Japanese also managed to capture Bukit Timah, which held most of the British ammunition and fuel stores as well as control of the main water sources. On 13th. February, with the British still losing ground, senior officers advised Percival to surrender, in the interests of minimising civilian casualties. By the 13th the British perimeter was very small, from Singapore railway station round Singapore city to Changi. Percival refused but later formally surrendered the British Forces to Yamashita at the Ford Motor Factory, shortly after 5.15pm. on 15th. February 1942.)

Prisoner of War


We have been treated very well here. On the 18 mile march out, there was no booing, jeering or any notice taken of us at all. They even took our blankets and packs out by trucks. Out here we run ourselves and never or seldom are guarded. Working parties are very well treated.

"We marched to Changi"...Play

Our only food is rice and tea. Sometimes the Q.M. rakes up a little flavouring, so we get rice & fruit, rice & plum pudding & water, rice & sardines, rice & meat, rice & Bovril, rice & treacle - these items exist in small quantities only, but remind us of days to come. However rice is keeping us quite well, but we do miss salt and sugar. Naturally the chief topic of conversation here is food. We find it is quite amusing to listen to men going slowly through past feasts - course by course - even dissecting them down to condiments. One day I found two fellows with a cooking book studying how to roast a suckling pig.

To break the monotony, I have taken on teaching shorthand which entitles me to loaf round the rest of the day, but sometimes I get very impatient with my thick headed class & and fear I will never be much good as a teacher - my nerves are not good enough. Every evening a priest and I go up to the hospital building (Once a gorgeous officers mess, the one I visited when we saw the Gordon Highlander's Band) and with some of the faithful recite the rosary. Once a week we have Benediction & they are my main pleasures now - with mass, open-air, on Sundays.

You will be glad to hear I found Norman Gray & have had several yarns with him - he is a Lieut. now. I also ran into Bill Power of all people - he has just come over. Des MacCauley has been very bad with dysentery and lost 4 stone. However he is out now. A gardening group has been formed & is comprised of zealots who think they can persuade the sterile soil here to yield up vegetables - I hope they are successful. Every few nights a concert is organised, unfortunately the organiser is an unpopular fellow and they are not a great success. We do not feel like singing & as they are mostly community concerts I don't go near them. I will wait until I get home to sing, at present I am too disgusted with everything. I was overjoyed to get some mail soon after I came here. It was carried about by the 24th. for a couple of weeks. I was thrilled to get 2 from you two dears & 2 from Joe. I often read them now & know them almost by heart. Rumour has it arrangements will be made to have mail sent to us - I pray it's true. If it is it will be the first rumour that is.

Here is a marvellous breeding ground for mulgas, the most ridiculous reports are believed and passed on, growing like snowballs as they go. It's enough to drive one crazy to listen to them all & I don't know what I hate most - the optimistic yarns or the pessimistic ones - or none at all. Some of the stories would test the mendacity of us - I hear, for example (while lingering at the sauce from which most of these falsehoods emanate) that the Yanks landed at a point some 2 miles away and would free us all by nightfall. The same mentalities that gave credence to that story, heard, digested & propagated a story to the affect that our Kingsford Smith was now commanding the Jap Air Force. We hear of the capitulation of Germany with monotonous regularity.

Our library is a great blessing and I put in a lot of time reading. To spin out the time I have dismissed my batman & every second morning go down to the water point with a couple of articles to wash and a towel & a book & put in about 3 hours bathing, washing and reading. The nights are very hard to put in as we have no lights. I cannot show feelings about action and that & rumours seem to exhaust the conversational powers of everyone here. After the closure I visit Des Mac & now old Graham Bourke is in with the same trouble.

Sunday: Today, after mass I went to see Graham, Des & because I did not get the OC's permission (he was not around) he tried to parade me to the CO. The swine is mad - and that's being charitable - however the CO would not see me. For some time I have heard very good reports of the treatment of working parties in Singapore. They tell me they get plenty to EAT, so hearing today that another party is going in I chose my moment today and put in to go with it. I hope it comes off as I will go off the roster here.

Changi Prisons

Bob remembers his work prisons

The Changi and Singapore areas were home to many prisons loosely refered to as "Changi".

Many months later - Well it worked and I got into Singapore & have not been hungry since. Still as long as I live I'll not forget those miserable days spent at Changi - the aching void that was my stomach - and the constant memories of past repasts. I put in 3 weeks there and am always haunted by the fear of contracting an illness which would force me back there. I went in with a party of 50 - and thanks to my friend Neal, I left almost all my carefully looted belongings behind - I was only given 4 minutes to catch the truck. We rejoined the first working party encamped near the wharves - opposite Nestle House (Nestle and Anglo-Swiss milk Products Ltd., Cantonment Rd. Singapore). Here I found Claude Griffin, Bill Metcalf & Peter Stewart. I must have looked like a half starved ghost, for they rallied round & I got many presents - a toothbrush, soap, mosquito net, a glorious slice of Peter's Christmas cake, a nip of gin (nectar), two chocolates & even boards to make a monastic couch. I was very touched by their kindness.

As soon as we arrived we got a cup of tea WITH MILK AND SUGAR and we just sucked slowly at the heavenly beverage & gasped with pleasure. We were then sent off to work - leaving our baggage where it was. Thus was I introduced to a rice stack in Godown 40. I will not dwell on these months and would prefer to forget all about them. On the whole we were well fed and treated kindly by the average Jap. But Oh! It would almost break my heart to see our lads driven like slaves when the harbour was full, sometimes - & sometimes and pretty frequently at that - they were driven all day; all night with little to eat & carrying a big bag of rice each - it was rotten.

"Bob talks about his working parties"...Play

After about a month we were shifted to the Great World which I described in previous letters. After some weeks they became very comfortable there & ran an excellent concert party. However after some two weeks a party of 100 left for Jap HQ at Outram School & Claude Griffin, Shane Abel, Bill Metcalf & I went with them. For two or three months we existed on Jap food - seaweed, dried whitebait, etc. - & managed to keep very healthy indeed. On the whole I was not happy there and missed Des & Graham terribly. (This work party lived in shelters outside the walls of the Outram Road Goal - the torture of captives and civilians by the Jap. Secret Police - the "Kempeitai" - could be heard all through the day and night.)

About the beginning of Nov. (1942) we all went to River Valley Road Camp. It was here I met Graham who lived in Havelock Road Camp across the road. I brought him a bed which I scrounged at Jap HQ. Here also I met the "bug" (bed bugs - always present in camps where "dirty" Indian or British prisoners had been). I had heard a lot of bugs, but never before had I met them. I often wondered how I would stand up to them - I soon found out. We lived in dilapidated attap huts designed for homeless native war victims that had been condemned by the British and never used. We lived in a type of fowl roost - ground floor cells 8ft. x 6ft. x 5ft. high - top floor the same. If the roof had a hole in it, it was just bad luck. Luckily I had my bed. The first night I felt something crawling over me and slapped at it. The smell arising made me think it was a "stink beetle" so I went back to sleep.

Next morning I found them!! Hundreds of them - I went "goose hunting" all over & said to myself many times that day and days to come "How will I rest in the night". I put it in out in the yard for the next three nights - awake and miserable. After that I got accustomed to them & though they lived and played & spawned on my hat and in my clothes, they did not again awaken me. For this I thanked God.

The area that is bounded by River Valley Road and Havelock Road was the site for several Prisoner-Of-War (POW) camps during the Japanese Occupation. Named after these two roads, the Havelock Road and River Valley Road Camps, the Outram School Camp (Outram School built in 1907 to teach English) and the Great World Camp (Amusement Park built in 1929) were all close together. The location (beteen River Valley Road and Havelock Road) was a swamp where the British constructed makeshift huts that could easily be evacuated in the event of aerial bombing. By the time the Japanese took control of Singapore in 1942, the two camps were only separated by a small river or canal with a bridge built across it. They contained up to a total of 5,000 POWs, these camps acted as despatch sites for POW work parties. Their tasks involved the cleaning up and repairing of war - torn parts of the city and the badly bombed Chinatown area. POWs who were allowed to remain at either of these camps were often from Changi Camp and still fit to work. The POWs lived in dilapidated attap huts about a hundred feet long with wooden sleeping platforms that could accommodate up to 150 POWs.

Here we billeted some Dutch POWs & I tried to learn their wretched language. I gave up after about ten days & have felt better ever since. As a group the Dutch officers are the most cultured body of men I have ever met or am likely to meet. The men were worked very hard here & three & four nights a week had to stay behind to work on the wharf after going strong all day. I was not sorry when our crowd were sent to Havelock Road Camp - gardening crew. It was here I put in my happiest period of imprisonment to date. We were a happy mob under Reg Swartz. I was put in Captain Beirne's Coy. again & given the senior platoon which pleased me very much. They were an excellent lot and we got on very well with each other & before we left they asked me, through the Sgt., to try and keep them together on our return to Changi, under myself. This was not to be.

Almost all working parties were sent back to Changi about December; we went about 15th. No one was sorry then. For some weeks the Japs had been treating the lads badly. Poor old Graham had had several bashings from Japs, and in our camp we had to salute them whenever we saw them & if we did not see them we got bashed for not saluting. The hardest part was saluting the Indian guards. Deserters & tenth rate soldiers, they loved to make us bow to them & often would not return our salute as the Japs always did.

We got a ride half way out to Changi & I got my bed out too. We found the bugs there to be friendly. This is more than I can say about the acting CO.

Christmas Day - 1942

Well my darlings, what a different Xmas to the one which I hope is being spent at home, and what a mockery it seems, us wishing each other a "Merry or Happy Christmas"! Yet before now it was a happy day, though many were the faraway looks I saw on the faces round me. The day started well with Midnight Masses held all over the place. Ours was held by Padre Walsh in the old Gordon's miniature range shed. There were hundreds present - many could not get in. To get back to ones seat after Holy Communion it was necessary to go right outside & come in the back door. I got a fit of the "Blues" with the dawn, but what with Reveille at 8.30 & breakfast at 9.30 & High Mass at 10.30 I did not have much time to give to my thoughts. Never have I been so touched at our service or celebration as I was at High Mass. It was celebrated by Padres Dolan, Walsh, Rogers, Quirk, Sexton & one other I did not know. It was held in a small chapel in a coconut grove and the congregation flowed out on to the hillside all round the chapel. The choir was marvellous & I could not stop the tears coming to my eyes when they sang magnificent solos like "Holy Night", "Adeshe Tideles", "Ava Maria" and others & knew that you too, were hearing them & thinking of me then. I can give you an idea of my feelings when I saw that for the first half hour, I knelt in sharp gravel & did not budge, or feel uncomfortable. I'd guarantee no better or more appropriate sermon was ever preached that day than Fr. Dolan's. There was not much said by anyone on the way back from Mass.

Dinner was a happy affair - we had a really nice meal - Asparagus soup, fish rissoles with vegetables & a delightful steamed pudding - so light it melted in the mouth - I have done a copy of the menu & enclose it.

Further reading - "Becoming a Prisoner of War"