Servants to the Gods
Everyone was talking at once, mainly about the landings and the air raid, but with no indication of feeling. One said that he had just come down from Patani where the Japs had landed and amid protestations he assured one and all that the Japs were being pushed back. A couple of Indian soldiers were standing back away from the group each wearing the insignia of the eleventh Indian division. The one who could speak relatively good English explained that they had come down with the wounded and were having a rest before returning.
After listening to the various hypothetical questions and answers, Chuck, who’s eye had never left the brand new .303 rifle, which had been slung casually to one side by its owner, decided that it was time to leave and find a place to lay his weary head. Then just as casually as the rifle had been abandoned by its owner, he picked it up and went outside.
How many times he asked himself, have I drummed it into the recruits that your rifle is your best friend, your bond with life itself and it should never leave your sight or side for one moment, he gave a knowing sigh as he looked back on chance that he had been observed taking it .
All the men leaving the place seemed to be heading in the same direction, and that could only mean one thing! a bed for the night. As he walked along behind a group of signallers, he saw a sign indicating that they were heading in the direction of 153 MRU . Further along an arrow pointed to 135 Orderly room and a little further other arrows signifying the direction to take for the MI room, baths, clothing store and so forth. Without realising he was in the middle of 135 MRI. But the most appreciative sign was the one pointing to the cookhouse and dining rooms. It was getting late as he approached the dining rooms, inside a well lit and well laid out room, men of differing nationalities sat at tables eating, each discussing the war and other subjects as they ate. At the far end was the serving hatch and close to it several British and Australian servicemen. Selecting a plate of egg and chips, Chuck sat with the latter.
Their talk began to depress him, it was something about the Prince of Wales and Repulse being sunk by Japanese planes. Not having even glanced at a newspaper since leaving Singapore the revelations gave a feeling of unease. After a second helping of food, he decided to try to find a bed for the night and walked around the camp to familiarise himself with the layout. There were dozens of tents, mainly the old bell tent style, outside many were stacked rifles belonging to the tent occupants. Most of the tents were however empty, the occupants having gone for supper. So throwing caution to the wind Chuck entered one or two tents and helped himself to whatever items of equipment he would need, plus a razor here and a comb there. In one tent he found a wallet thick with Malayan and Singapore currency, so he pocketed a small percentage for emergencies.
Having acquired enough to give him confidence, he decided to find the wet canteen, which from the sound of shouting and singing was not going to be so hard to find. Dropping the first pint in less time than it had taken to pour it, he ordered another then took a seat at the side of one of the Malay volunteers who introduced himself as Dick Cartright.
Cartright was a rubber plantation manager from Ipoh and he was leaving the next morning with a group of his own unit for Kualu Kangsar, where at that very moment the Japs were preparing for an attack.
“What’s the chance of a lift ?” asked Chuck.
“A lift to where ?” asked Cartright, “you must be off your rocker”.
“I’m a free spirit” said Chuck deciding to tell Cartright his story and hope that he would not reveal it to anyone else, telling him of his efforts during the bombing , his return to camp and being awarded a court martial and his eventual decision to leave it all behind.
“You must be nuts” said Cartright, “but I’ll give you ten out of ten for guts” He paused for a moment, “Ok then, we leave at first light, I will meet you outside the orderly room at exactly six thirty and make sure that you are wearing a tin hat. Do everything I tell you and you just might make it”.. They spent the remainder of the evening putting the world to rights and as they stood to leave Cartright asked, “where are you sleeping?”
Chuck shrugged his shoulders, “I haven’t a clue”
“Well you had better sleep in my tent, there’s plenty of room and you will be sure of being on time”
They walked down a line of tents where Chuck had helped himself to equipment and cash, but fortunately the tent they entered was not one of them. The tent would normally have accommodated six men, but only two beds were in use, so he took one of the remainder. No sooner had his head hit the pillow, he was sound asleep.
The clamouring of a bell woke Chuck with a start, outside it was light, men were singing, shouting and generally making a din, in preparation to moving out. Thinking that he had been deserted he quickly washed and shaved and was down at the dining tent within minutes, where he obtained a breakfast of bacon and eggs plus a haversack ration, a tin of bully and a packet of hard tack. Moving as fast as possible he arrived at the orderly room and joined the party which was being organised by Cartright. They made their way to a line of trucks parked along the main road, each carrying about twelve to fifteen men, with an officer or senior NCO with the driver up front. By eight o’clock the convoy started to move and as they left the camp area they were joined by several more vehicles, mainly fifteen hundred weight trucks equipped with either a Bren or Lewis anti aircraft gun.
Chuck felt that at last his war had started and he looked round at his new companions. His friend of the previous night Dick Cartwright, seven Indian and four Malay soldiers, an Indian driver and an Indian subaltern.
The journey commenced in silence, there was no central topic of conversation because of the language barrier. After a while the Malays began to converse with each other followed by the Indians and being at the opposite end of the truck to Cartwright, Chuck decided to catch up on some sleep, but not before handing out his cigarettes.
He woke with a jolt, sweating profusely as the convoy came to a sudden stop . The NCOs shouted out for everyone to get out of the trucks and converge onto a shaded grassy area, as they made their way the sound of heavy gun fire could be heard in the distance . The officer commanding who was a British army major assigned to the Indian army, started to address the men. “The Japanese much to our surprise have advanced very rapidly, giving our forces in the front line very little respite. Your job today will be to set up a position further along the road , to enable those men to filter through our lines. Once we are sure that they have all passed through we will drawback to positions already allocated”. He had been talking for several minutes before he realised that not only was there units of Indian soldiers speaking several dialects under his command, there was also Malays, Gurkhas, Chinese and Europeans. The exasperation on his face when he realised shone like a neon light. He looked to one of the Punjabs and asked “can you understand what I am saying?” The soldier nodded, probably not wishing to offend. The OC held up his hands for silence and asked, “Are there any of you who can who can translate what I am saying” One or two Malays and a European said that they could, but it was doubtful if the full impact of what they were about to be involved in could be conveyed in its true prospective .
The unit had been sent to a position across a railway junction about sixty miles north of the Slim river crossing. And this was the point where they were now standing. Seeing that his attempts to get the message across was to say the least falling on deaf ears, he called the NCOs together.
Spreading a map out on the ground he pointed out the salient positions of the area to be covered. There were no maps available to give each of the NCOs one so it was up to them to try to remember the place names.
The men by this time had dispersed along the grassy river bank. In different times and circumstances the scene would have been tranquil. None of them would know or even remember later that the place where they were resting would shortly be the scene of one of the greatest battles in Malaya.
This was the Slim river crossing where sixty per cent of the Argylls were soon to be wiped out, plus hundreds of men from other units .
Chuck sat alongside Dick on the grassy bank under one of the weeping willow trees which grew so profusely along the river bank, both taking in the scenery. Had it not been for the fumes from the many lorries with their engines still running, possibly one could have been able to smell the perfume given off by the many tropical flowers, hibiscus, azalea and others. The grass was of an emerald green rolling down the slope to the river bank along which were dotted the weeping willow, vines, and conifer type firs. with the occasional clump of bamboo.
Unknown to the group, hundreds of other allied soldiers were lining up at various points along the road. Each unit would be taking up its own position for this dramatic effort at creating a stand in order that those men who had been fighting from day one without respite, might be able to fall back for a well earned rest.
The tranquillity of the setting was such on the bank that several men had fallen asleep. Suddenly the NCOs began to shout for the men to mount up and muttering and grousing, each for his own reason. The men began to climb back onto the trucks which had brought them. If anyone had taken the trouble to look back, they would have seen a display of multi coloured birds and butterflies, swooping down to feed on the crumbs which had been left. Each man began to load his magazine in silence as the trucks moved away, gradually the hum of the vehicle tyres the heat and the buzz of conversation caused Chuck to start to doze. He was back in England about to enter a football ground, the swell of noise and the roar of the crowds. Suddenly the truck bounced and swayed to one side, the occupants shouting their dismay, then as the truck stopped came the shouts from a dozen throats, “Everybody out”.
As Chuck jumped from the tailgate he could hear the noise of whistles, rattles and indistinguishable orders being shouted out. He hit the deck and made his way, in a crouching position toward a clump of trees. The sound of ack ack guns to his left directed his attention to two Jap Mitsubishi A6M2 zero fighters, which were attacking a convoy of trucks coming from the opposite direction. He could see several groups of trees and bushes, but very few of the men seemed to be taking advantage of them. He shouted to those nearest to follow and went deeper into the undergrowth. Suddenly one of the pilots spotted a truck which had not been properly concealed and sweeping low poured shot after shot into the foliage . First one truck started to blaze, followed by a second and third. Hell had suddenly broken loose and they were in the midst of it. The ack ack gunner on the fourth truck was hit and fell outside the truck, his gun tippling sideways as if looking down to see where he had gone. A second plane attacked, strafing anything which appeared to show any form of resistance. The most irksome thing of all however was that there was no sign of the RAF coming to their assistance. The war in Malaya had been going on for almost two weeks now, but Chuck could not recollect having seen more than one or two British or Australian planes. The Japanese pilots must have run out of ammunition or they were getting low on fuel. Without a scratch, they wheeled round and headed in the direction of Alor Star
Chuck was joined by others as they inspected the damage. Of the convoy of trucks nine had been totally destroyed, fire was pouring from them at all angles, several men lay dead, while others were staggering about wounded and in shock. Several men began to race to their assistance, but it was a wasted gesture as a second wave of Zero’s came in scattering the area with machine gun fire. It was no use trying to be brave, every one raced for cover and waited for the planes to expend their ammunition. After about fifteen minutes, peace returned to the convoy, well a kind of peace. Ten trucks destroyed completely and the others damaged. A complete unit of men demoralised, shaking and in most cases in total shock.
Chuck went over to one of the Malay boys who had been in his truck, he was lying in the undergrowth having taken a shell through the groin. He took out a field dressing and commenced trying to fix a pad over the wound to stem the bleeding, but feeling the wetness emanating from the boys back, Chuck eased him over onto his side to reveal a hole the size of a medium cocoanut. As he passed the dressing round the boys body, he knew that it was a wasted attempt and as he placed him back onto the ground a further wound revealed itself in the boys shoulder. A feeling of utter uselessness caused Chuck to hit the ground with his fist. The second bullet had hit the breast bone and Chuck took out a further field dressing and was about to try to bandage it as he felt the boy pulling at his arm. ”Tedapa Tuan, Cik piggy lakas, tedapa. ” (Never mind sir, you go quickly, never mind) Chuck understood just enough what the lad was saying, enough to want to pull the balls off every Jap he met. After a while a fleet of ambulances arrived, of the two hundred and fifty men who had been on the convoy, thirty were now dead and fifty wounded. The dead were loaded onto two slightly damaged trucks, leaving two more to transport the remainder back to where they could rest and recharge.
It was at this point that Chuck suddenly remembered Dick, and he went off in search, finding him on one of the ambulances having taken a bullet in his foot. “You’ve certainly put your foot in it this time” he chided “Ha bloody ha” came back the reply.
Using what remained of the transport and commandeering further vehicles of a sort from the locals, the men managed to get to the Allied position at Bidor. Chuck followed the weary survivors as they walked along between two huts. It was anticipated that there would be a meal of sorts, looking down at himself, even though it was beginning to get dark, he could see that he was in a mess, with mud and blood everywhere, so the first essential, was to find a place where he could wash and change. Food would come second in his priorities. Some minutes later having located a rough made shower and been provided with a change of clothing Aussie style, he decided that now was the time to feed the inner man. Passing between two of the wooden huts he could hear a voice, which in his mind he knew could only belong to one person. It was a deep Lancashire accent full of gravel and fire, which at the time was asserting itself on some young rookie who had probably disappointed the owner of the voice by not knowing the difference between a rifle and a gun, as the voice was loudly explaining that a rifle was for shooting and a gun was the thing between your legs which was used for fun.
Chuck stood and listened unable to believe his ears. He had heard the phrase so many times being used on the raw recruits it could only be Sergeant Hammett, who was repeating “This is my rifle, this is my gun, this is for shooting and this is for fun.
Although the huts had been hurriedly constructed, they still maintained the typical British army characteristics. One large room to sleep fifty men with at each end a small room to accommodate either a sergeant or equipment.
It was from the bottom end of the hut that the voice was coming, and as Chuck walked down between the lines of beds it brought back vivid memories of similar barrack rooms in Strensall, Ladysmith and Moascar, at which times there would have been the noise of banter, plumes of tobacco smoke and the cursing and chatter of the card players. Now the only part of that past was the distinctive Lancashire voice hitting his eardrums.
At the bottom of the hut, two men were sat talking, and Chuck gave a slight cough to indicate his presence. The men stood up as the sergeant came out of his room, his eyes suddenly focused on Chuck, a dozen expletives exploded from his mouth at the same time. “Bloody hell its Stewart, where the f—— hell have you sprung from?”. He looked Chuck up and down “What the f— are you doing in this neck of the bloody woods?” Out came the torrent of words, each a vulgar but sincere welcome as he threw his arms round Chucks neck, then half pushing and pulling him into one of the chairs. This accomplished he turned to the others in the room “Now this man will tell you what I have been trying to tell you for days, he knows that I’m not F— bullshitting” the tirade stopped and Hammett turned round to Chuck “Anyhow, what are you doing here?”, he asked. Then “Is the battalion here” followed by “Why are you dressed like a pansy f-- Aussie prat”
The questions came fast and heavy from Charlie Hammett, ex company sergeant major with “A” company, but now transferred to the Independent brigade with others from the Manchester’s Loyals and Leicester’s. Hammett was one of those do or die soldiers, to whom promotion meant little except the chance to stay at the bar longer than his subordinates. He was a mans man and a squaddies squaddie, Errol Flynn’s looks and sense of adventure, but underneath a heart of gold.
The questions began to slow down as the two old mates began to talk about past encounters. “What are you doing here so far from base though?” Asked Hammett . Chuck told him about his experiences in Singapore and his return to camp, only to be banged up by the orderly sergeant, and his decision to leave Singapore and head for the north where the fighting was. “He was always a big headed sod that Cook” consoled Hammett, “but what are you going to do?, you cant fight the Japs on your own”
“What’s wrong with me tying myself up with your unit then” asked Chuck. Silence descended for the first time since they had met as Hammett gazed up at the roof. “Personally I would not recommend it” said Hammett reaching for a cigarette “We are the shit brigade”, he blew smoke rings into the air, “We are the pits, if there is anything which smells, anything which requires moving without fuss or any dirty dead end job, then its a case of give it to the British battalion” Hammett paused trying to think of an example, “Take yesterday for instance, we had been ordered to dig in at Tepah in readiness for a rearguard action, the guys up front have been holding out for all this time without relief. In front of us were the Aussies and an Indian regiment. The orders were to let them through and hold fast for the following Japs. We obliged only to find that the Ausssie’s and Indians had only been dug in five days ago and they were the ones who were supposed to be providing a rear guard action, so the poor sods up front are still holding out” he paused for breath “I wouldn’t mind so much, but we were strafed by the Jap planes and I lost fifteen men, four guns and a bloody good platoon commander, all for zonk". "I still think I would like to give it a try” said Chuck. Hammett was sat thinking. Then asked, “How long is it since we hung one on together ?”. Chuck shrugged his shoulders, “I guess it was a while before this lot started" "Well a further question” said Hammett, “How long is it since we last met and where do you think I have been?”. Chuck was trying to figure out where the conversation was leading as he answered “I haven’t a clue" “Well I’ll tell you” volunteered Hammett, “Before the F--Japs had even decided to invade Malaya, The independent brigade were heavily involved in mapping out the terrain, digging trenches at specified points for future use, setting up secret supply bases in the jungle and making ready for a war which every one except those who were going to be involved knew was going to happen” He paused for effect. “ When the balloon did go up, I was with the eleventh Indian division north of Alor Star, we knew every road and footpath in the area, but ten days before we went to our battle stations, the Japs had gone through and set themselves up at Kangar. The night before the invasion started, the bastards were attacking our troops from behind, and on the Thai border. The poor sods had no chance and that was one of the reasons why Matador was never fully complied with. All the work we had done over the last six or seven weeks, all our supplies, fell to the Japanese in one night, because there was no one there to defend it “ Chuck was about to say something, but to do so would have been a waste of time because he could see that Hammett was unburdening himself of his weeks of frustration on someone who would listen.
“Between the seventh of December and today, I have seen more Japs killed than I ever thought existed, At Pendang, Kobat and Jenun, it was like shelling peas. Then we were told to fall back, we formed the usual rear guard so the others could come through” Tears were beginning to well up in his eyes and Chuck knew that to do this to Hammett, he must have seen a lot of suffering. Hammett went on “ I’ve fought more shit end of the f——— stick rear guard actions than I’ve had hot dinners and I’ve walked away leaving more dead bodies than there are in a graveyard” A further pause then “and you say that you would like to give it a try, Shit, you must be off your f— rockers, you must be far more stupid than I ever thought, Go back to Singapore and wait for it there” he stopped talking momentarily, then pointing to the door, “Come on let me buy you a pint before I knock some sense into you, then we will cloth and feed you and hopefully send you back”
They went over to the canteen where Hammett enlightened Chuck further about life with the Independents. It appeared that the brigade had been composed of all the odds and sods from units of trained soldiers to sections of local volunteers, who had been training for several weeks in anticipation of a Japanese invasion. Although the main theory was that the Japs would attack Singapore direct from the sea, some of the men were trained as trackers, saboteurs, jungle fighters, first aiders. They were a mixed bunch comprising Chinese, Malays, Indians, Australians and British. Some had been taught to speak Japanese but it was not thought possible that they would be able to infiltrate the Japanese lines by its use.
Most of the men knew that the chances of all of them surviving was very slim to say the least. After the initial rear guard action, the unit had to withdraw to Kangsar to reorganise and he was instructed to supervise the evacuation of several wounded to KL and at the same time organise reliefs to bring back with him to the main unit. On returning a few days later he found no trace of the unit so he decided to return.
After travelling just a few miles his small convoy was halted by one of the local Malays who informed that the Japanese were putting road blocks on the road between him and Ipoh, so with a handful of men he decided to investigate. “It was like a small path you would see going across the local park, except that there were f— great trees and bamboo thicket forming a wall on either side. As I stood looking at the far side, I watched as two Japs came strolling along with their rifles slung over their shoulders, behind them a straggling mob of them, gibbering away, singing and acting as if they hadn’t a care in the world. Like snotty nosed kids, the sons of heaven some seemingly as pissed as newts. Others were strolling with their rifles across their shoulders just like f— Jesus Christ. I was totally out of my cage.
Suddenly one of my men sent off a round and all hell broke loose, a vickers opened up from somewhere close by, then a bren. They were not mine, because we had not brought any. I lay down and started to pick off the targets one by one, it was like shooting f——— ducks at the fair ground. They didn’t run away, it was as if they had a death wish, or the Jap army had men surplus to requirements and wanted to get rid of a few”
All the time Hammett was talking, Chuck was tucking into the best meal he had seen since leaving Singapore.
“The vickers accounted for about twenty or thirty in one burst and as the Japs started to fire back a couple of four inch mortars landed among them. Finally all resistance ceased .
One of my trackers went forward to investigate and just as he was close to where the Japs had taken cover, then as the boy bent down to look at something on the ground, one of the f -- Jap snipers fired from the trees and killed him. Everyone now concentrated their fire into the tree where the shot had come from, and the amount of lead that was thrown, was enough to kill a herd of wild animals.
The whole action had lasted about twenty minutes and as we were about to move forward, firing came from our rear, the Jap bastards had moved round to our rear. These slant eyed bastards did not mind how many men they lost so long as one of them reached the objective. Whoever had opened up with the machine guns must have done a runner because I looked round and all I could see was about fifteen Japs running like hell through the jungle across the position where the MG fire had been coming from.
We were a sorry looking bunch, what remained of us as we heaved and pulled the dead bodies of our mates off the blood soaked wagons. We dug a few holes and buried them at the side of the road the poor bastards.
Some time later a group of Aussies turned up, they too had been ambushed, they had a few dead and wounded and we helped bury them alongside ours”.
Hammett shed no tears, he was never that emotional, but every nerve in his face twitched and it was all that he could do to hold back the natural flood as he continued with his story.
I sat on the bonnet of a fifteen hundred weight truck and lit a cigarette, when the colonel of the Malay regiment came along and gave me a handful of dog tags. The stupid bastard must have thought I was the driver. He gave me the tags and said here you are soldier take these down to KL and have the rest of the men follow me. Who was I to argue, I collected my gear, shouted for a driver and shot back down as fast as hell.
The last I saw of the colonel he was walking into the jungle followed by about a hundred men. Just after we pulled away, I could hear the sound of firing coming from the place where the colonel had gone into the bush.
That was yesterday and rumour has it that I will shortly be returning to the battalion and they can stuff the British battalion.”
Chuck had listened intently to his story coming to the conclusion that all the units who were part of the relief had each been attacked by the Japanese somewhere along the line, betrayal never crossed his mind, but he could not rid the thoughts from his mind. .
The empty plates in front of Chuck were evidence of his starvation, suddenly as if from a dream “What’s the chance of a shower and some clean togs” he asked “Then while you are trying to convince me that I should return to the battalion, you can buy me a pint or two”.
After a thorough soak and a complete change of clothing, which seemed to dispel the feelings of depression which had been clinging to him over the last couple of days, he walked alongside Hammett to the wet canteen and listened to more about the movements of the British independent battalion.
After saying thanks for the change of clothing, Chuck looked down and noticed that he was wearing three stripes on his sleeve.
“This is the fastest bloody promotion I have ever had” he said looking down at the chevrons.
“It was all I could find” replied Hammett, “if you look at your tin helmet, you will see that you are a sergeant in the Malay volunteers, I doubt that the Japs would give a toss what kind of uniform you wear and nobody else will, so long as you point your bond hook in the right direction”.
After drinking his first pint of McEwans since leaving Singapore, Chuck could feel the adrenaline start to flow once more and he began to reminisce, and as he and Hammett swapped anecdotes, the younger men at the table listened in silence. Starting at the depot in Ashton under Lyne, they traversed across to Jamaica, Bermuda, Egypt, Palestine and its acclimatisation to hate all men and their baptism of fire. Then on to the present day and the Japanese.
“Do you think I’ll get a court martial ?”asked Chuck, referring to his going AWOL.
Hammett looked at him and through him for a short while, putting his forefinger into a pool of spilled beer, then swirling it around he said “ Chuck my friend you are in deep shit at present, and your future does not look to bright either. If I was in your shoes, I would relish the idea of a court martial, because that would mean being sent off to India and out of this fiasco “ he stopped speaking swirled the remains of his beer round his pint mug and threw the contents down his throat. Then placing his face as close to Chucks as possible he half whispered “What you have seen and told me so far, will seem like a f -- vicarage tea party compared to what you will go through if you stay around here over the next couple of days” With the back of his hand he wiped the beer which had spilled down his chin, then pushing the now empty pot across the table to Chuck. “These Japs are no f— push over”. He pondered “They are nothing like the Palestine hastle, These are dedicated killers who will stop at nothing to achieve their objective and the only way to stop them is to weigh them down with lead” He pushed the pot further toward Chuck “Its your round” he said.
When he returned with the drinks, Hammett carried on as if there had been no interruption. “To these people, death is a future, not a past, they have no regard for their own lives, so why should they even consider anyone else’s”. He paused to take a further gulp at his beer. “This lot have no Gods or tin pot idols like we have. Their only belief is in themselves so not having the burden of wondering if there is a God or not, they just get on with the business. The majority are just ignorant peasants who cannot even think for themselves let alone read or write and to them the idea of killing is like f——— is to a prostitute”. Hammett was getting into his stride now and as he took a further drink of beer, a trickle spilled down the side of his mouth, wiping it away with the back of his hand he continued with his exhortation. “In Japan they live with death every day with their earthquakes, illnesses, Yakuzza, family feuds and other diseases of which VD is the most rife, so to them death is a welcome relief and just a process of living. When you come to think about it they are probably right”. Hammetts eyes were showing fire, now he had a captive audience. “Our clerics and religious leaders, spout on about God almighty and that there are many mansions to my fathers house. There would need to be many mansions the number of idiots like us who have been conned into believing that God is on our side and that there will be a life after death . Why would they assume that anyone of us would be interested in a further life if it is run by the kind of hypocritical clerics who run our churches, who bid you to destroy your enemy when the heat is on and when it is all over they ask that you forgive him. Why not forgive him before it all starts and then nobody would need to die”. It was obvious to Chuck that Hammett had seen and been involved in more killing than the normal, one would anticipate and he was therefore heading for a breakdown. “Come on mate” said Chuck placing an arm round Hammetts shoulder, “Lets find our beds and slaupen di bali bali” Hammett tried to pull away, but Chuck held on saying “you can’t fight this war on your own”.
Hammett looked up “I’m not trying to fight the f— war on my own, and I’m not pissed, so you can take that self satisfied smirk off your face” He loosed Chucks hold and started to walk out of the canteen. “This war is still in its infancy, If you had seen the hundreds of men including some good mates, who I have had to leave rotting away in the f——— jungle . Green young men who I have helped train for seven days, going out in the morning and by the night time they are gone, vanished as far as I am concerned, but most certainly dead, poor bastards, rotting away while back home they don’t give a f—”
Chuck had never known Hammett to be such an orator. His Lancashire accent had always given the impression that he was either uncouth or he had left school too early.
The orderly sergeant came along shouting” the bar is closed “ and Chuck followed Hammett back to the hut. “I suppose you want somewhere to kip for the night?” asked Hammett and led the way to the bottom of the hut where there were a number of empty beds. “Help yourself and we will decide in the morning what we are going to do”” Within seconds of placing his head on the pillow, Chuck was sound asleep.
After a good nights sleep and feeling completely refreshed Chuck joined Hammett in the main dining room, where during breakfast a young looking FMSVF captain gave out details concerning the Japanese advance and then went on to pass out orders to various sections. The crux of the matter was that every fit man in the camp must be ready to move out within the next two hours. Instructed by Hammett, Chuck followed the others and found no difficulty in presenting his own pay book and receiving twenty five dollars pay, two days supply of rations a twenty five round bandolier and orders to be on parade outside the orderly room immediately. Groups of men from various units and nationalities stood talking together .
Chuck was soon joined by Hammett who directed his attention to the camp standing orders, part two of which stated that the Japs had taken Treganu and Gua Musang.
All the men were now parading with the units they either belonged to or were assigned to and it was only as he looked round for a sign of friendly faces that Chuck realised that there was only a small number of Europeans present. The captain who had read the orders to them at breakfast came over and addressed Chuck as sergeant Stewart, pointing to one of the six ton Bedford trucks he said, “You will be in charge of “C” section sergeant”, He handed over a map, folded to show the terrain from KL upwards to Ipoh, a cross was marked at a point where the railway crossed the road at Kampar. “That is where we are heading and where hopefully we will be able to hold the Japs long enough to allow at least part of our men to retire”. There was nothing new in the order or the approach, but Chuck could not at first take it all in.
Suddenly Hammett was by his side with an arm on his shoulder and as if reading Chucks mind “What does it matter if you die as a sergeant or a buck private?, you’ll still be dead”. He grimaced “follow me”, he said
Just as they were about to climb on board, there came a rumbling sound as a dozen or more army trucks came through the entrance, each full to capacity with Australian soldiers. Chuck gave a sigh of relief. All sergeants and above were called over to hear a quick talk by the commanding officer in which he indicated that the Japanese had taken Treganu and were at that very moment preparing to advance on Kualu Kangsar. The unit was being sent to form a rear guard behind the Punjab regiment who had been fighting the Japs from day one. The party was dismissed and just as Chuck went to get back onto the truck which he had been assigned, Hammett pulled him back. “You can travel in my section” he said . “I don’t get this” said Chuck, “I am supposed to be a deserter, and yet I am placed in charge of several men who I don’t even know the names of and addressed as sergeant”
“That’s what comes from accepting a sergeant’s pay my friend. As soon as you appeared with three chevrons on your shirt, you immediately become a sergeant in this mans army. Who cares, you’re being well fed, well clothed and being paid, follow me and do as I do and you wont go far wrong”
As they climbed into the back of the waggon indicated by the captain, the commanding officer came along with a quick word to the ones he knew. “I want every man off the trucks and in position as soon as we come to a halt sergeant major Hammett, good luck”
The section on board the truck were mainly Malays with one or two Eurasians. Chuck sat on the floor of the truck and allowed his thoughts to wander, thinking of his family and wondering what they would have thought of him at this time had they known . The truck gathered speed and the tyres gave off a loud hum. With the sun beating down onto the roof it created a mini sauna, even though the back was left open. The sound of aircraft came from overhead, but the trucks continued at the same speed as it could be seen that the planes were the usual twenty seven heavy bombers on their way to deliver their deathly cargo to the civilian population further down.
The journey did not last very long as with the now heavy sound of small arms fire and artillery shells the orders came to dismount in several languages. They had stopped at the side of the road, thirty trucks all told each containing an average of sixteen men. The road was similar to an old farm track, with just enough room for two vehicles to pass. To the left and right was solid jungle, which occasionally fell back, its place taken by gorse bushes and shrubs. Further down the road the railway could be seen where it crossed the road and made a sweep to the left. In the foreground there was a small patch of open ground about the size of a football field. On each side clumps of bamboo and smaller trees. In the distance a cocoanut plantation . At any other time it would have been a scene of tranquillity, but the noise of men preparing for battle and the sound of battle already in progress destroyed any kind of wistful thinking. The sound of a vicars gun to the left indicated that they were not alone.
Chuck directed his party of fifteen to follow Hammetts party as they moved off to the left where there was a rise in the ground shaded by a large tree. In the foreground the Lallang gave plenty of cover and the two sergeants set the men at intervals of around six feet apart.
Hammett shouted an order “All men keep a sharp lookout,
All eyes open and all mouths shut, no talking, no smoking, nothing, I don’t want to even hear of anyone wanting to go for a leak” The tone of his voice commanded respect and they each knew that the orders were an indication that they were about to receive their first baptism of fire.
The sound of battle came closer by the minute, mortars began to fall around the railway crossing, with crackle of rifle shots sounding like a heap of broken pots, followed by a second of silence then a shell splattered into the ground. From their position they could observe men falling back and others just falling, and to many the sight brought fear and the temptation to get up and run. The small arms fire became like the sound of bees and Chuck looked over to where Hammett was talking to his men trying to infuse confidence, and Chuck tried to do the same with his own group, who were all lying on their bellies in the long grass. Most had watched the men retreating and were now hugging the ground. From just behind the railway crossing, a series of vary light signals . A red followed by two green, from the left the same set of signals indicating that the Indian units were about to commence their withdrawal. His men seemed very quiet and Chuck wondered if any of them had been initiated into the art of killing or had ever fired a rifle come to think of it.. Well we will soon know he thought as he contemplated what his own reactions would be at the sight of the Japanese. Suddenly he spotted a movement to the left beyond a ridge, behind which was the railway station. He tried to attract Hammetts attention, but the sergeant major had other things on his mind. Pondering momentarily what would Hammett have done. He knelt up and in a distinct voice shouted, “ Enemy to the front, middle distance, ten o’clock”, he shouted Heads turned in the direction indicated then the whispered voice of Hammett, “Hold your fire, wait until I give the order”. The men froze and waited.
As the movement in front became more distinct, it was possible to make out a group of six or more men in khaki. They each carried a rifle and did not appear to be very much concerned about being seen. To facilitate an easier passage they climbed onto the railway embankment. presenting a perfect silhouette on the sky line in doing so. More than one of the watchers had the urge to shout to them to get down, but dare not risk the chance of exposing their own position. They watched and waited as the sound of battle came ever closer.
Then one of the men on the skyline seemed to falter and fall flinging his rifle into the air, the man by his side fell down and the remainder began to run, but they had only travelled a few yards when they each fell one by one. There was no sign of the enemy, no discharge flash from the muzzle of a rifle. It was like watching a film except that the music was the staccato sound of machine gun with the base drum being the thump thump of the artillery. Chuck was about to contact Hammett, when out of the corner of his eye he thought he had spotted a muzzle flash at the same time that one of the men close by was hit and fell. Crawling over to where Hammett was sat watching and waiting he asked “did you cop that?”
Hammett nodded and replied “I’m not quite sure, it could have been a flash or the sun hitting a glossy leaf” He paused, then asked “Shall we give it a go?”
Chuck nodded agreement, and crawled along behind Hammett until they were within two hundred yards of the suspect tree. Hammett made a motion with his arm for Chuck to stay still, then turning over onto his back he inched slowly closer and closer to the tree, his eyes watching for the slightest movement. When he had covered several more yards, he indicated for Chuck to take aim and as soon as he saw that his instruction had been understood, he let out a yell and fired of one round. A flash came from among the leaves of the tree and instantly both men began to pump round after round into the foliage. No one could possibly have lived through that fusillade. Hammett crawled closer until he was able to look up into the tree.
He waved to Chuck to return and himself began to make his way back, keeping very close to the ground. Chuck arrived first and waited while Hammett crawled to where the captain had set up his HQ, to advise him. But the captain did not seem impressed “Leave it “ he had said. He was about to return to his own section when he heard the familiar sound, a clank in the distance followed by a whirling sound and the all too familiar clanking bang as a four inch mortar landed behind their position.
There was about to be immediate panic. “Keep your positions” yelled Hammett, “Keep stum” shouted Chuck glancing round at the backsides of dozens of men flat on their bellies clinging to mother earth for protection Chuck had experienced the feeling himself. Most of you will be ready to defend your life with just a pen knife before long he thought.
Then “Stuff it” he shouted, “I’m out of here” and started to belly crawl back to his own position followed closely by Hammett. Their manner of crawling would have brought admiration from a snake. As he was crawling back his mind went back to when as a kid, he had played soldiers and would often crawl along the ground. But usually when he got home his father or mother would be waiting with the strap, followed by instant dismissal to his bedroom without anything to eat. Sometime later his sister would creep upstairs with a squashed jam butty.
This time, there would be no jam butty, it was more than likely that he would be sent to kingdom come.
With the unusual amount of grunting and groaning, they finally mad it back to their own section, Chuck lay on the ground trying to recover both his breath and his nerve, when one of the men appeared as if from nowhere to inform the sergeant major that the captain was doing his nut over two men who were shooting at a tree like a couple of bloody fools.
Chuck was not listening, he was more intent on trying to get rid of dozens of red ants which had decided that he was an ideal meal. It was taking all his willpower not to stand up and strip off. His antics would have amused any audience as he tried sitting on his backside, sliding backwards and forwards and then rolling onto his back. He was about to make a run for the trees so that he could strip off when he heard the sound of engines There was more than one of them. His first thoughts was that the captain was pulling out without informing them, but no, the sound was coming from the front and above it all could be heard the sound of Jap mortar and heavy artillery. It slowly dawned that this was the withdrawal they had been sent to cover. These were the units from Grik, which had held the Japs for the last three days. Looking up from his position he could see a number of trucks, ambulances, artillery vehicles pulling limbers and guns and as they started to pass through, the Japanese continued to range their guns, sending round after round at the retreating men.
Captain Walsh came crashing through the undergrowth and shouted to Hammett “I want you to continue to hold your fire until the last of the trucks have passed through, then I want as much fire power as possible concentrating on the bridge area to enable the sappers to lay charges on the road and railway. .
Blowing the road and railway up wont stop the Japanese thought Chuck, they will just bypass the area. He was about to argue the point with Hammett, when the Japanese proved his point for him as a number of Aichi fighter bombers came flying along unimpaired dropping their bombs from minimum altitude. Their immediate target seemed to be the bridge, and amidst the noise of the falling bombs, artillery shells and mortars came the sound of a train, which was spotted immediately it came into sight by the Japanese pilots. Two planes broke away and swooped toward the approaching engine, plastering it with bombs and machine gun fire.
The artillery shells began to fall amongst the men now and it was up to each man to do his utmost to remain steady, to panic now would be to invite death swift and positively. The situation was now one of every man looking after himself and the man next to him, there would be no umpires in this game, no bands playing rousing marches or people cheering from the touchline. It was a case of them and us and if us didn’t fight like mad then there would only be them. Forgetting the captains orders, Chuck began firing like a man gone mad. In his opinion the rifle as a weapon of war was useless. Even as a sharp shooter, by the time you have fired a shot and reloaded, your quarry has gone to ground. He looked round at the others to see how they were managing in trying to match fire power with the Japanese Askari’s. Apart from the heavy guns behind them, they had no positive fire power, no machine guns, mortars or anything else above . 303. Most of the men who had formed his section were now down on the ground contorted in death, some grinning defiance in their death throe’s, others appealing to the sky’s to open up and take their souls, because that was all that was left of them. Of the fifteen men who had left camp that morning, only Chuck and a young cockney lad had managed to survive. The cockney had been working in the cook house and had volunteered to join the party.
The shelling and firing never abated and it was hard to realise that it had been seven hours since they left camp and since then they had not had even a drink of water to sustain their dejected feelings. A number of lads had disposed of their packed rations assuming that they would be given a cooked meal at some point, but most of them now they had no earthly use for food.
Chuck slithered over to where Hammett was on one knee trying to assess the situation and was met with the usual torrent of profanities and expletives “It looks f——— hopeless, there’s about fifty or sixty of us left and we haven’t a cat in hells chance of fighting any kind of rear guard action” he looked at Chuck “I’m going to try to find the old man to try and suss out the situation, if I’m not back in ten minutes, you had better start making your own way back”, he looked round surveying the scene “the railway would be your best bet” he said then he was gone.
Chuck remained in position for a short while then decided to follow the same route that Hammett had taken, on the way he passed others who similar to himself had been lucky so far. Finally arriving at the truck which the captain had designated as his HQ, It was still intact but there was no one about and the area was deserted.
Deciding to return to his former position he passed several stragglers all asking what they should do. Chuck was about to reply “how the hell should I know”, He suddenly realised that he was wearing a sergeants stripes, and these men assumed that he would know all the answers, so he advised everyone to make for the captains truck and to wait there. The firing had eased down considerably as the sun began to slide down the horizon.
The only firing now was mainly from the big guns, so he decided to get whatever men he could muster and make his way back. On arrival at the HQ, it was as if someone had shouted “have a break”, men began to appear from all directions easing their way toward the several trucks still remaining . Chuck lifted the camouflage covers from one of the trucks, inside several men lay hiding from the unknown. By the time the wounded had been collected and the dead buried , it was time to organise a return from whence they came. There was just enough trucks to carry what remained of the party which had arrived that morning. As they were about to move out a group of men led by Hammett came straggling through the jungle, with them three Japanese soldiers looking a little the worse for wear.
“ I wondered where the hell you had got to”, said Chuck, “where’s the captain”
“Mati” (dead) replied Hammett, “I lost five good men to grab this little lot” he looked around in the failing light, “What’s happening here then” he asked
Chuck looked around at the mess, “ We’ve got about two hundred and fifty men here and I was just about to make a move when you came”.
After arranging for the three Japs to be put in one of the six ton Bedfords, with a guard of as many men as the truck was capable of carrying, Hammett took over and ordered the convoy of battered vehicles to move out. Within two miles three of the vehicles broke down two put on tow and one had to be abandoned, so a roster was organised whereby certain men would travel on board for one hour and then change places with men who were walking by the side of the vehicles. The maximum speed due to travelling without lights, the moonless night, and the volume of men, was zero miles an hour.
Travelling all through the night they finally arrived back at five o’clock in the morning, and as the first truck arrived at the gates it was stopped by an officious red cap, who required chapter and verse of who, they were and where had they come from. In just twenty four hours the camp had been taken over and the original occupants written off. None of the men one were in any mood for argument as they assisted the wounded from the trucks, and brushed the military policeman aside. They were blooded men now and had no time for officialdom or regimentality. Most just wanted to lie down and lick their wounds while others were content to just drop on the ground and sleep
Chuck looked around, it seemed that everything in the camp had changed in the few short hours while they had been away.
Everywhere men looked gave the impression that the camp was now in the hands of British army units and as he walked to the hut in which he had left his surplus clothing and equipment, he was met with the snoring of men, the bed which had been allotted to him was now occupied by a stranger.
We’ve been written off already Chuck. thought to himself, Frustration was showing on the faces of several men as they realised that their equipment had been dumped and someone else had been allocated to their bed space.
Leading the way, Chuck headed for the dining rooms. “If I cant get a bed for the night I will settle for some food and a table to sleep on”.
As the men began to congregate in the dining room he was amazed to see that they were mostly Aussies or British and he brought it to the attention of Hammett as soon as he arrived, after having handed over his Japanese prisoners to the provost martial.
“I cant see how we lost two hundred or more Indians” said Hammett after Chuck had pointed out that the majority who had made it out were mainly British or Aussies. “Being natives maybe they knew a better way out of the jungle, they will probably come straggling in later in the day”.
They each found a table on which to lie down and within minutes were fast asleep. Chucks sleep was dreamless at first, but as the tension began to leave his body he started to dream of home. It was Saturday morning and he was with his mother and sister, then he was in his local pub with his father who had died five years previous, they were having a drink before going on to the match, Carlisle and Accrington Stanley. They were joined by Joe Holroyd, Charlie Marshall, Charlie Fensome and one or two others from the regiment. The ground was full to capacity and Carlisle had opened the scoring . Accrington had placed the ball on the centre spot to restart, then when he looked, all the Accrington players were Japanese. The Carlisle players were limping round or were lying on the ground. Chuck made a move to jump over the rails to help, but Joe Holroyd had grabbed hold of his shirt and was pulling him back. His shirt being pulled caused him to get mad at Joe and he turned to push him, then Joe vanished, but Chuck could still feel someone pulling his shirt. He woke suddenly as Hammett was pushing and pulling to wake him.
“Christ you take some bloody waking up” shouted Hammett “come on the colonel wants to see us”
“What time is it ?”asked Chuck wiping the sleep from his eyes with the back of his hand.
“Its after eight and all hells broke f— loose” replied Hammett
“What’s that got to do with me ?” asked Chuck “I’m not in charge”
“He isn’t looking for heads to chop off” Hammett answered. “ He wants everyone of us on parade now”
Chuck rolled over and placed his feet onto the floor, they were black feet, covered in mud and clay with a few lines of blood where he had scratched himself on the thorns.
“Just look at my plates of meat” exclaimed Chuck
Hammett gave them a cursory glance “Your feet are clean compared to your bloody face, where the hell have you been to get into such a state, have you been playing football or something”
The word football seemed to ring a bell within Chucks mind, but he could not fathom out why. He walked over to the shower room and seemed to find instant relief to his aching body as the water cascaded down, and as he looked at the floor, he watched rivulets of black and brown slurry cascading down the drain. After a quick shower and with a change of clothes he joined the remainder of the survivors from the previous day.
They all paraded outside the orderly room to be addressed by colonel Vaughan who said an officer of few words “I don’t wish to waste more time than we can afford, so listen carefully. ”The efforts yesterday were not in vain, we managed to hold up the Japanese long enough for the remnants of eleventh division to be able to make a break for it. The prisoners which you brought back have been sent down to Singapore and we as a unit are about to be amalgamated with other similar units and possibly attached to 121 STS. Those of you who wish to can now return to your own units”.
The idea seemed to have been accepted by everyone except Chuck who had no desire to return to his own unit. He looked anxiously across at Hammett. “Not to worry” he said, “something will come up”
Most of the wounded had been taken by train down to Singapore. Left behind were several more wounded and it was the intention to move these down by ambulance by road, throwing caution to the wind, Chuck decided that he would volunteer to escort the ambulances, he needed a break and some time to find out where it was all leading.
At 16. 45 the convoy of ambulances and hastily repaired trucks made their way down the main road heading for Johore, a miscellany of Indian, Australian, Ghurka and British soldiers began the journey leading hopefully to Singapore. As the convoy approached Kajang, where the railway, the road and river cross, there was a steady fall of rain and with the steady pitter patter of rain drops came the slam bang clatter of bullets and shrapnel as five Aichi D3A1 fighter bombers attacked like a screaming hoard of hornets. The attack was sudden and severe, and the drivers braked to a halt . The men who could, jumped from the vehicles without thinking or hesitating to collect their wits. Some dressed in pyjamas, others in shorts and shoes, with the occasional one carrying a rifle.
They scrambled over the tail boards of the trucks and out of the rear doors of the ambulances trying to find cover under the trees, but very few made it the short distance as the fusillade of fire coming from the aircraft gave them little chance.
Chuck had similar to others, allowed himself to be lulled into a false sense of security, mainly due to the fact that they had been travelling away from the direction of the enemy. He jumped over the tail board and on hitting the ground, rolled under the truck and out at the other side. The truck on which he had been travelling had stopped on top of a grassy slope, and he was able to dive clear from the vehicle rolling down the slope and into a clump of bushes. As soon as he had stopped rolling and had regained some composure, he watched helplessly as the planes proceeded to destroy the convoy.
Practically every ambulance had been hit, several were burning whilst from the forward trucks came the sound of ammunition exploding. The planes continued their ballet of death, swooping and diving at will, with a screaming noise which made the blood run cold and sent shivers along his spine.
He watched as one of the planes dived in his direction, with a feeling that this was to be his last day, the plane was approaching at such a speed that it seemed impossible for the pilot to pull out. He could now see the pilot distinctly, his face partially hidden by his leather flying helmet and as the plane came lower and lower, he watched fascinated as two bombs fell from it at about four hundred feet. They came out flat and as soon as they became airborne they became perpendicular and the tail fins seemed to spin as they sped toward the ground just two hundred yards away. The blast from the explosion seemed to pass over his head and his ears ached as if they had been punched on both sides simultaneously and as he reached out at the tufts of grass to pull himself upright, his body felt uncontrollable, like a jelly, he felt weak with an urge to vomit. As his senses returned, he looked around for something to throw at the fast receding planes.
There had been no return fire from the ground. Apart from the odd rifle there was nothing with which to fire back. The attack had been so swift and deadly that it was all over in a matter of minutes. The enemy planes were fast disappearing over the sky line, satisfied that they had once more demoralised the enemy, even though it had only been a convoy of ambulances.
Chuck scrambled to the top of the bank, feeling bitter, embarrassed, and humiliated. Bitter with himself mainly for having been caught with his pants down, and that was a feeling which he promised himself would never happen again. At the top of the bank he surveyed the devils handy work, the acid rising to his throat, he gulped and tried to hold it back, but even a man with the strongest constitution in the world would have been hard pressed not to show his feelings and he was sick.
Chuck lashed out with his feet at any inanimate object within reach frustrated and fuming he ran to an ambulance which was on fire, kicking obstacles from his path in order to get to the screaming men trapped inside. He pulled and wrenching until the door gave way. Then he wished that he hadn’t. The screaming was reaching a crescendo as he viewed the carnage inside. What had once been an ambulance of wounded bandaged men, was now a stinking squirming mass of humanity, Limbs, arms, legs, heads, with the overall stench of excreta, vomit and burning flesh.
From somewhere in the middle came a constant scream of what seemed like an animal in distress, then. ”Oh God help, please, please, then a further scream and a cry of “mother” followed by a cacophony of guttural expletives trailing off into a low moaning sound.
Chuck once more felt the urge to be sick but there was nothing left except bile. He inched his way toward the screaming, and tried to pull one of the men into a sitting position, but the arm was not attached to the mans body. He started to scramble over the bodies in an attempt to reach out to the one who was screaming. The sound coming from the forward section, but it was so useless, everywhere was covered in blood.
He had managed to reach half way, when some shouted to him to get clear “get the hell out of there its on fire, jump quick its going to blow any minute”. He moved as quickly as he possibly could but he was not fast enough! Woof, a searing hot flame shot through the vehicle and there was a dull roar which half assisted him through the rear doors.
The fuel tank had exploded and the drivers cab was burning fiercely and through the crackle of the flames came the continued cry for help. Jumping up, Chuck screamed “Give us a gun, a rifle anything” he spotted a rifle lying on the ground and hurriedly picked it up and checked that it was loaded. Then he aimed at where the screaming was coming from and fired . His first shot must have missed because the screaming continued, so he fired again and again in quick succession until the screaming stopped.
Throwing the rifle onto the ground he burst into tears. He cried because he had felt so useless. He cried out of hopeless ness and for those who could cry for themselves no more, but most of all he cried because there had been no help from God.
A young officer clasped a hand on his shoulder, “come on lad, you did the best you could, come on buck up there’s work to be done and I cant do it all myself.”. Chuck looked around at the carnage, he felt like bashing the officer just for being there, but inside he knew that there was a lot of work to be done, it was not over yet by any means.
Of the two hundred wounded, seventy perished, sixty received further wounds with twenty slightly wounded it left fifty semi fit men to establish some form of rescue plan. One of the less damaged trucks was loaded with a handful of wounded and despatched back to the 32nd MRU hoping that there might be someone still at the camp which they had that morning vacated. While this was being done, Chuck assisted in giving what first aid he could . The officer commanding the convoy was one of those severely injured, having been flung into the air by a bomb blast and landing with both legs half up his back. After making sure that they had given what assistance they could the survivors sat down at the side of the road to wait.
They did not have very long to wait, for within the hour a small convoy of trucks was sent from the MRU and in the leading truck sergeant major Hammett. Chuck told him about the scene at the ambulance and was about to become emotional. “You did your best” said Hammett “I would imagine the lad whoever he was would agree with me, were he here now”. He paused “Which ambulance did you say it was?” Chuck pointed to one still smouldering, from which were protruding the remains of what just over an hour ago had been living breathing human beings. Both men lapsed into silence.
The new arrivals began to remove the wounded first and then set about the grim task of burying the remains of those who had perished. It was close to seven o’clock and the evening shadows had started to develop, as Chuck took a seat beside Hammett on the last truck, which was returning to the camp at KL.
As soon as the truck had come to a halt, Chuck placed an arm round Hammetts shoulder and steered him in the direction of the canteen, where they could wash away the taste from their mouths and the thoughts from their minds, before even considering washing away the grime and dirt from their bodies.
At six thirty am the following morning Chuck woke with a shivering start and listened to the sound of approaching aircraft. There had been no alarm sounded, but he was not going to be caught out yet again. Quickly pulling on a shirt and shorts, he grabbed the first rifle which came to hand and started to run. He had no idea where he was running to, until he found himself close to the perimeter wire, where he took time to look up, shielding his eyes from the glare of the sun. Three RAF Brewster Buffalo’s, the first British planes he had seen since the war started. Slinging the rifle over his shoulders, he walked sheepishly back to his quarters, where after a wash and brush up, he strolled down to the dining room. After a second helpings of bacon and eggs, he felt in a better frame of mind. “Did you see the RAF fly past?” asked one of the diners, but he might as well have spoken to the wall for all the attention Chuck gave him, his mind was on far more serious thoughts. A young man displaying RAF insignia looked over at Chuck. “I’ve just come up from Tengah and those planes were the last we had in Singapore”, he looked for some form of acknowledgement but Chuck just sipped his coffee. “We had about a hundred of those in Malaya when the Japs started and rumour has it that we lost a half of those on the ground, most of the remainder were sent to Java”
Chuck looked at the man talking “Typical, bloody typical” he stormed. “It’s been the bloody same all the way through. Dunkirk, Tobruk, Mersa, and now Malaya, we have never been prepared or supported in this bloody war” said Chuck.
“Ha! but we always win in the end” said the young airman.
“Win! win! what the f— are you on about?. Try telling them poor bastards who were blown away yesterday and the day before that, try telling them that we always win in the end” Chuck was beginning to grow red in the face out of exasperation “You patriotic bastards make me want to puke, how can anyone be asked to fight a bloody war without air cover, naval cover and one hand tied behind their back?”, he paused for breath “I suppose you will be telling us next that the Japanese pilots are blind in one eye and that yesterdays fiasco was just an unlucky break”. He threw his knife and fork along the table and was about to carry on, when Hammett came along and placing an arm round Chucks shoulders “come on lets go and look at the order board and see what stupid detail they have given us today” As soon as they were outside the mess, “you will have to simmer down my old mate” said Hammett. “Those kids don’t know their arse from their elbow, they are just youngsters, who have not even been on the firing range let alone see battle, you don’t want the powers that be hearing funny noises, or asking who’s that bolshi soldier we seem to have picked up, If the old man finds out that you have deserted your regiment no matter for what reason, he will most certainly shit a brick and have you in irons in double time”
Chuck acknowledged the wisdom of his remarks. “But I get so pissed off when I hear stupid bastards like that, shouting the odds and singing Rule Britannia, they just don’t have a clue”
“What are you going to do?” asked Hammett. “You just cant keep running, and then again you cant afford to give yourself up at this stage”
“OK then, lets go and look at the order board “said Chuck
The orders had been posted the previous evening and in them there was a reference to the forming of a group of volunteers to work behind the Japanese lines, similar to the commando units which operated in Europe
Although keen to have a go, the thoughts of having to return to Singapore did not seem very appetising. His thoughts now were of Singapore and he wondered what was happening and what they would think if they could only see him now, up to his neck in mud, with burn marks round his shoulders, dressed in gaiters, grey socks, an Aussie hat, no badge, three stripes and armed to the teeth. “I think I will stay put for now and take my chances “ he said poking a finger into Hammetts midriff.