SALAMAT TINGGAL MALAYA
Good bye to Malaya
Chuck returned to his company position south of the causeway on the 15th January where all his past friends and associates came one by one to welcome him back and to wish him well for the future. Although he still wore the stripes of a corporal, he knew that to him they meant nothing, but the men with whom he had served over the years still respected him as a person and it was only now that he realised that to set out on an adventure such as the one he had, it was always advisable to have people you knew and could trust with you. He watched the fifteen hundred weight truck which the perimeter guards, had stopped. The two Asians on the back of the truck looked very much like Japanese, and he walked over to get a better look at the enemy. The truck started to move off as he stared at the two men and Lim Hung stared back wondering if such men as these would be able to repel the Japanese.
Chuck watched the truck until it went out of sight, then returned to his gun post. “How did you go on up there?” (Meaning up country) asked Bill Rushden, Chuck had probably told his stories to dozens of men since his return, and was about to once more go over the main points, when there was a yell from sergeant Nolan for all men of “D” company four platoon to parade in full battle order ready to move out immediately.
“What’s happening?” Chuck asked
“We have been asked to provide eight sections to assist in a rear guard action, alongside the Australian 2/4th Machine gun regiment”. Chuck seemed to be dumbstruck, at last he was going to go into action with his own men, He shouted out his orders alongside sergeant Nolan, urging the men to get a move on, “The bloody war will be over by the time you lot are ready”
“Where are we going?” he asked, turning to the sergeant. Sergeant Nolan shrugged his shoulders, “I’m not certain, but I understand that the Japs are being held at Gemas by the Australians, They gave the Japanese a bloody nose there yesterday and annihilated hundreds of them. The 45th Indian brigade have been wiped out to a man and news is that the Aussies and some of the Indian 3rd Corps and 9th div have been under fire for the last five days. We will be fighting a rear guard with the Aussie machine gunners, to allow the Indian and Australian divisions to retire to pre- set positions between Kluang and Yong Peng. This is a last desperate attempt to stop the Japs, after this, its backs to the wall in Johore” He looked round at his captive audience, then continued “Our guns will be set up outside Labis kampong on the east side of the railway. We are to hold our positions without firing a single shot until instructed to do so. As you know, the Japanese will most certainly send out probing patrols, you are not I repeat Not to fire”
The sergeants news did nothing to inspire enthusiasm. The news over the last few days had been dismal if not drastic. Seven thousand men and equipment lost at Slim river battle in just one day. It was not that the Japanese were some type of special fighting man. It was the lack of support from the air and bungling ideas from the top brass. Most men were aware that something had gone wrong at the outset, but instead of plugging the gap and preparing to fight it out, there was a constant string of retiring to fixed positions. Fixed positions, which were just a figment of the propagandist imagination..
As soon as the trucks were loaded, they inched forward toward the causeway, each man aboard wondering if he would be able to remember the months and years of training for what they were about to do. Ten trucks each loaded and ready, waiting for the company commander to give the signal to depart. There was no cheering banter, each man sat grimly looking ahead or to the side of the road. The shelling from the Japanese had been the usual steady one every five minutes, but now it seemed that they were aware of the truck movements, and as the last truck left Singapore soil, a steady heavy barrage commenced.
Halfway across and a Japanese plane appeared as if from nowhere and as the drivers accelerated the plane swooped and its machine guns opened fire. The local anti aircraft guns, Bofors, and small arms took up the challenge and engaged the pilot sending a multitude of shells at the swooping plane, a small shaft of smoke came from its tail, and as the pilot manoeuvred swooping to the right, the shore gunners took up the attack. The first truck had reached the Johore side as the plane burst into flame and was lost to sight, a large explosion and a plume of smoke indicated that the gunners had been successful.
On the mainland the trucks accelerated ignoring the shells whistling overhead and the small arms fire coming from those loathsome beings, referred to as fifth columnists. No soldier no matter which country he belongs, has anything but contempt for those civilians, who shoot soldiers in the back. These creatures had been aiding the Japanese from the beginning. Little did they know that once the Japanese took over, they would be surplus to requirements.
The drivers had to detour on a number of occasions to avoid the bomb odd shell craters and as they drew nearer to their destination, the sound of battle increased in velocity. An officer ran out from the side of the road, waving his arms in the air and the trucks came to a halt. There was no time to place the trucks under cover as the officer identified himself and called for all the men to gather round while he gave last minute instructions. Most of the men had never been under fire before and the coming few days would come as something of a shock to their minds and bodies thought Chuck.” The Manchester guns” Chucks mind was quickly alerted when he heard the name Manchester “will situate round the village of Labis, I must warn everyone that absolute silence is to be observed. The Japanese will most certainly be sending out probing patrols, I repeat there is to be no firing until the order is given, just one shot could destroy the whole plan”
Within minutes Chuck was setting up two machine guns within a thousand yards of the Japanese front line at the cross roads. On the left was the remnants of a rubber plantation store. Inside the stocks of latex had been scattered. Chuck ordered the men to use the latex bundles instead of sand bags, then proceeded to camouflage the guns. In front was the village of Labis. The rest of the guns had been spread to the west of his position, which meant that Chucks two guns were positioned on the centre of the village. The sound of battle was now intense, and forward along the road, a Japanese patrol could be seen quite openly as they walked through the village, dragging the screaming occupants from their dwellings, beating them savagely and finally killing them off with either a swish of the sword or with the butt of a rifle, one or two began to shout “I coming Jonny” trying to intimidate and possibly cause panic. From his position behind a bale of latex, Chuck watched as a young Japanese soldier came out of one of the dwellings carrying a small child by its legs. Screaming his oath to the Emperor, he swung the small body crashing its head against a tree,
He continued the action until the child was dead, then threw it to the ground like an empty cigarette packet following this by throwing several Chinese fire crackers. “Hold your fire” murmured Chuck. Two Japanese soldiers walked slowly out of the jungle as if on a country walk. “Hold it”, whispered Chuck. Suddenly with lots of shouting and the throwing of fire crackers, hundreds of Japanese soldiers came hurtling from the jungle. Most had no idea what lay in front, they just ran blindly forward and as they did so, they were met with the withering fire of several machine guns. It was impossible to estimate the number of men, who seemed to be hurling themselves at the guns just for the hell of it. Chuck expended belt after belt of ammunition but there seemed to be no let up, the firing from the guns, part covering the screams, cries, and shouts of the Japanese soldiers. Chucks mind went back to the nature films he had watched, where the Lemmings scrambled behind each other to hurtle over the cliffs to their deaths. Ammunition was beginning to run low. Finding just a single moment to speak, he shouted instructions to Bill Riley at the back, to fetch more ammo, but there was no answering shout. Bill had joined the other poor sods who had died without a cause. The other guns in the section sounded as if they were firing over open sights as belt after belt was exhausted
“I think we have just about had it” he said to the remainder of his gun team. Smith and Howarth, he ordered “I’ll keep you covered while you get down the road, then I am going to dismantle the gun and fling it into the jungle” He continued firing the last of the ammo, but after just one burst the gun was so hot that it jammed. Without further consideration, he took out the firing mechanism and threw it into the jungle, and followed the others. It had been the usual fiasco, a two day slog to get to positions and a one hour battle before withdrawing.
Keeping to the shadows of the jungle he began to jog trot after the others, going over and over in his mind, the mass slaughter which he had just been a party to. It was nothing like Palestine, then it had been a matter of sending a few bursts at a mob of ignorant terrorists, today he must have disposed of at least 500 single handed.
There was shouting ahead, English men were shouting get stuffed followed by Japanese voices, and several shots. Moving into cover of the jungle they crept quietly forward. Several Japanese soldiers were grouped together, blocking their escape route. Leaning against a tree, Chuck tried to figure out in his mind, just where he was and where he wanted to be. To the south was Johore to his right the Japanese advancing down the coast. He decided the best bet would be to follow the advancing Japanese who were to his right, then when the opportunity arose, they would take their chances. If he had but known it, and had chosen to go a few hundred yards lower, there were no Japanese at all.
The noise of someone in a hurry caused the men to scatter Chuck taking cover behind a tree, from his cover he could see two men approaching, they were dirty looking, as was the clothing they wore, they spoke in short phrases like men who were hungry and tired. “Who are you?” asked Chuck pointing his revolver threateningly at them. Both men looked startled, and were about to run, until they realised that Chuck was not Japanese. “Names Russell and Nichols, we are with the 137 lot”, said the tallest of the two.
“Where have you come from?” Chuck asked, at the same time there was a shout as two more men passed close by.
“We’re with the 137 Artillery. We were at Slim, when the Japs came, and we were told to make our way back down, we followed the rest. Got on a train somewhere, then it was bombed a couple of days ago and we scattered” They spoke spasmodically as each paused for breath, “Who are you?” one asked. “ Me, O, I’m Chuck Stewart, I’m, was, with the Manchesters, but we seem to have been split up”
“Have you got any grub, I’m starving.
Chuck held out his water bottle, “There’s some water left, but I’ve got nothing to eat”
“Do you know where we are, because we haven’t a clue” said the smaller of the two.
Just then the remainder of the gun crew came from their hiding positions, and began talking, eventually relating their individual experiences over the last couple of days
“If you have come down from Slim, you must have passed through the Japanese lines” said Chuck. The two men looked at each other, I don’t know much about that” said the tall one, “we just kept moving”
He scratched his head “We left Slim about the 7th and we were bombed at a railway station on the morning of the 10th. During the bombing raid, we ran into the jungle for cover, after it was over, we went back and helped to bury the dead, the colonel said that we should assist one of the wounded men, then we shared what food there was and started walking down the main road, but the Jap planes kept strafing it, so we moved into the jungle hoping to get back to the railway line, so that we could follow it down. Smithie the lad who was wounded couldn’t walk fast so we rested for a while, then when we were ready to move out, Smithie died. I think that was on the 13th. Since then we have pinched food from here and there, and managed to find water, especially when it rained.”
“Chuck had worked out in his mind, that if they continued walking in the present direction, they would soon come to the main road. He looked round at his own motley crew plus the others. Seven bedraggled men, two with rifles, one with a revolver, two water bottles, one empty, weary, tired. and completely knackered, they walked single file through the most dense part of the jungle. On the morning of the 18th January, they arrived at the Yare Hitam cross roads, not knowing that it was being heavily defended by the 22nd Indian Brigade and the Australian 27th.
The sight of the main road ahead, acted like a pick me up to the straggling men, each wanting to be the first to walk on solid ground once more. As the first man emerged from the jungle, a volley of shots whistled over his head and they all scattered back into the cover of the jungle. They waited and waited hoping that someone would come and relieve them from their misery. Chuck began to crawl to a position behind one of the trees closest to the road, from where he could see that the firing had come from the Australians, he was about to walk out or shout a greeting, but discretion was foremost in his mind, removing his tattered shirt, he took off his near white vest and began to wave it and shout from a safe position behind the tree. several more shots were fired in his direction, before one of them had the initiative to shout “What do you want?” not who are you or a request for the days pass word. Shouting in his loudest parade ground voice, Chuck shouted,” We’re British, don’t shoot” he repeated the words don’t shoot several times before deciding to trust that his words had been heard.
Slowly emerging from his position, he watched as several Aussie soldiers, rifles pointing to the front, advanced toward him. From just a few yards away, an Aussie corporal shouted “Identify yourself” Chuck in return shouted his name, rank and regiment and that there were seven in total. The corporal reluctantly accepted that they were not Japanese and shouted for them to come out. In a very short time, they were guided to a company of the Loyals, who were able to feed them, after which they were able to get a lift back to Singapore on one of the returning ration wagons. Chuck was wondering to himself , how patchy his war had been, every time he set out, he always seemed to end up either alone. or in the company of complete strangers.
In stead of returning to “D” company position at the causeway, he was transferred back to headquarters company at Tenth milestone. As soon as he climbed down from the truck, the memories came flooding back, from the day he had gone AWOL to his journey back being driven in the comfort of a saloon car. The canteen was still the favourite place to be. It seemed impossible to see so many fully trained men, just sitting around drinking, when just a few miles away there was a war being fought. The usual crowd were occupying the usual tables and the usual songs were being sung. It all seemed so unreal, It was not the fault of the men, who he knew full well would want to be the first to go into any action. It could only be as one critic had said, General Percival wanted to keep the best for his own protection. The sound of battle was ever constant, so much so that no one now ever took the slightest notice of the shells passing both ways, or the Japanese bombers, dropping their usual daily cargo of bombs onto the city. Tenth milestone camp was so far leading a charmed life. There had been the odd scare but nothing too drastic. So it was back to the old routine of spending a couple of nights occupying the fixed machine gun posts along the east coast, followed by admin. duties and guard duties at Government house and Fort Canning.
So Saturday the 24th January brought greater surprises as he took up his position as guard commander at Fort Canning. In the past guard duty was a matter of checking the passes of all the employees as they entered for work, today this task was being done by men of the military police, while his own squad were responsible for internal movement. His mind could not absorb the large amount of red braid and red caps, which continually entered, moved around and exited the underground bunker. There seemed to be vastly more senior officers than there were junior. All hell bent on becoming a vital part of this hive of industry, but no matter how many or whatever senior rank they held, the twenty seven bombers still continued to fly over and drop their cargoes of hate every four or so hours. Chuck had never seen the inside of the bunker contain so many different branches of the services at one time. Every uniform from all branches, plus those of the Indian army, the Australian services and volunteer forces. “There is so much bumf and blarney in there, its a wonder they don’t completely block the whole system” said Chuck on his return from duty.
On the morning of Monday the 26th he was ordered to take an escort of four men to the civilian prison at Changi, where he was to collect several prisoners and transport them to the dockside, where they were to be put aboard the cargo ship Staffa, bound for India. The prisoners, two soldiers charged with the murder of a Chinese shop keeper and one for the manslaughter of a fellow soldier.
At the prison every thing was hurry and bustle, arrangements were in hand for all small time prisoners to be released. Entry to the prison was easy, The Indian sentry was oblivious to what was taking place and he allowed the truck carrying Chuck and the guard to enter undeterred.
No one seemed to have the slightest idea of what was happening and after signing the visitors book Chuck and the others were left waiting while their prisoners were located and brought to them.
Chuck walked to the nearest cell block, in which were housed two or three Chinese. “What did you do to finish up in here?” he asked one of the Chinese. The response was a vicious glare and a verbal bashing for his ear drums. A young Chinese looked over, “don’t take too much notice of my companion, he has no love for the British, since they killed all his family”.
“How come?” asked Chuck, not taking the least notice of the fact that the man spoke in perfect English.
“They were accused of being Japanese sympathisers, his father and two brothers were shot by British soldiers at the Naval base. Fang who was with them attacked and wounded a British sailor”.
“What was your crime?” asked Chuck.
“Entering Singapore without a pass or identity, I expect to be released later today” The man talking was Lim Hung, later to become a large thorn in the foot of the British protectorate.
A shout from the driver to tell Chuck that they were ready and loaded, sent him scurrying to the truck. The three English prisoners were devoid of any fight, they just wanted to get away from this stinking prison.
The Japanese were so close to Singapore that even their short range artillery pieces could now be brought into action and the defenders at the naval base were the recipients, from now until the end of hostilities the area from the Kranji river across to Changi point would be bombarded daily and Chucks thoughts went to those of his friends who were holding positions there. Returning to tenth milestone, Chuck felt the urge to once more go and try his hand on the mainland, especially later that day when he was ordered to resume sea watch duties in pill box nine, on the east coast. He knew every nook and cranny in and around the pill box having been one of those assisting in its construction. Looking out toward Blaka Mati he watched as the Japanese usual twenty seven bombers approached the city from the sea and similar to the others, watched as they dropped their bombs on any target they wished. The answering fire from the anti aircr ‡aft guns were of no avail. Lieutenant Parez was acting duty officer and part of his duties was to visit the pill boxes in this sector. Mainly to ensure that the boxes were being manned. “Have you anything to report corporal?” he asked as he sauntered down the small sand embankment. Chuck shrugged his shoulders. “No sir” then pointing toward the now retreating aircraft, “wouldn’t it be a marvellous site to see one of the RAF fighters have a go , just for a change.
The words had hardly left his mouth, when a Brewster Buffalo fighter began to rise from Kallang airport. “It must have been built from the remains of all those which were scattered about the airport” observed the lieutenant. Chuck smiled and shook his head from side to side, “its a useless attempt” he said, “but a brave one” just as the plane had begun to level out it was attacked by two Japanese Navy O type fighters. The battle lasted for all of five minutes and the British plane dived belching smoke into the sea.
“Why have we been so neglected?” Chuck asked. The lieutenant just a young man replied as best he could, “there is a war going on in Europe, which is far more important than this one, They need all the aircraft that they can manufacture. Unfortunately our job is to hold the Japanese for six weeks, in order to allow troops to be sent to Burma and India after which if we are still maintaining our positions, we will receive further reinforcements.” he paused wondering if he should pass on the news that the British eighteenth division and others, were at that very moment just a few miles from Singapore, but thinking better of it, he walked away.
Within a few minutes of arriving back in camp, orders came through for a machine gun section to be ready to move out to Johore immediately. There was a mad scramble to locate enough trained men to make up a section, but that was of no consequence to Chuck, he was going to see action once more. Four trucks with five nervous men on board trundled out of camp heading for the causeway. With memories of his last escapade in his mind, he vowed that this time, he would not be caught short. This time, he was going to be master of his own situation. Their destination Pontian Kechil, where the Australians were putting up a strong defence. The Japanese had cut off a force of around two thousand men above Pontien kechil and they were being evacuated by sea down to Singapore. Further Japanese were moving down from Keluang and Ayer Hitam. through the centre of the Allied defensive lines and the situation was critical. Within minutes of reaching their destination makeshift gun positions were established close to the beach. Their was a fire fight going on to the north with every possibility of more Japanese trying to land by small craft below kechil, and everyone was on full alert. Mid afternoon and Chucks attention was drawn to a small boat coming from the north and hugging the coast line. There was no indication of who or how many people were in the boat. Calling to two men Collier and Blades, to follow they moved under cover as close as possible to the point where the small boat must run aground. Watching patiently, they observed four men, one in the uniform of a Japanese soldier, the others wearing vests and sarongs.
“Let them come closer” whispered Chuck, pointing his rifle at the one in Japanese dress. The four began to run up the beach, making for the cover of the trees. “Now shouted Chuck” as he started to fire. Two of them fell while the remaining two managed to reach the cover of the trees and lalang.
“Follow me” Chuck shouted running toward the point where the two men had gone to ground, The sound of heavy breathing led them to one of the men, he had been grazed on the back of his leg and was whimpering. “Take him” Chuck ordered as he scouted for the other man. Suddenly he was joined by a number of Australian soldiers each swearing to blow the bastard away. a few hundred yards away, the man broke ground, trying to get to where there was heavy jungle. He didn’t stand a chance, a dozen rifles fired as one and the man fell. Chuck turned to the others holding the fourth man, “bring him along” he said. A British officer came running, “Good show chaps” he said, “I am captain Sherlock with Westforce intelligence, I need your man” Chuck half saluted and pushed the man toward the captain, “Bring him along” ordered the captain. The Jap had no fight in him and walked along quite meekly, First Collier, then Blades, prodded the captive with the muzzle of their rifles. “Move you bastard” they ordered in unison and he fell to the ground, once more whimpering and muttering in Japanese. a kick in the ribs from Collier brought little response, so they two men bent down and lifted the Jap to his feet. “Marcho” said Blades, followed by “get a bloody move on” from Collier. The captain turned round observing the Japs reluctance to move. “Tell him to move, or shoot the bastard in the arm or leg” he ordered and both men pointed their rifles at the mans anatomy. “Move you slimy little bastard” said Blades, who was now keen to shoot. The Jap stood up as if understanding what was being said and Collier belted him with his fist. They had probably only travelled a few yards, when another officer came running toward them “Forget it , we don’t need him” he shouted. The captain turned round to Chuck “Shoot him” he ordered . The bile rose up in Chucks stomach, it was one thing to shoot a man in battle, or even from a distance, but to just shoot one out of hand, was not in his book of ethics and he hesitated. “I’ll do it said Collier”, pointing his rifle at the mans head. Chuck nodded, then Bang !, as the Jap took the full force of the bullet from a distance of about three feet, his blood splattered among them and he fell to the ground. “Christ” said Chuck, “you could have waited while we got out of the way” wiping the spots of blood from his face with the back of his hand.
“Come on you lot” someone shouted, the Japs have broke through. The three men ran toward the machine gun nest, followed by the Australians. With just seconds to spare he made it to the Gun position.
A Japanese patrol boat, opened fire from out to sea and at the same time Japanese tanks were spotted approaching down the road from Keluang and Batu Pahat. Chuck settled behind the gun waiting and anticipating the Japanese to make a full frontal attack behind the tanks. Out of the corner of his eye, he sighted several small boats approaching from the sea and instantly traversed in their direction. Sending out bursts of five to ten rounds, every tenth a tracer which indicated that his shots were on target. One of the small boats began to sink, then there was a barrage of four inch mortars from a section of the Loyals, which fell among the slowly moving craft. The machine gunners waited for the Japs to scramble ashore before meeting them with rapid fire.
A runner came with instructions for two machine guns to move further inland where it was expected that the Japanese would attack in full. Within seconds of transferring position, the Japanese began to lob over two inch mortars a sure indication that they would soon be making a charge. Chuck waited as did the other guns until the tanks had slewed over into the jungle to the left, as they did so, there was a cry from a multitude of Japanese throats as they charged full frontal toward the Allied positions. The guns waited and it seemed to the new members of Chucks crew that he would never press the trigger. Waiting until the last moment he chose his target, a group of charging yelling Japs, led by a ferocious looking officer carrying a sword. Within the short time it took to expend a full belt of ammunition, a hundred or more Japanese lay dead or wounded on the ground. The same sort of massacre was happening across the full line of defence. The noise of the firing having extra volume added from the throats of the defenders . There was only a short space of time before hundreds more Japanese followed with a further attack. The Japanese however were not the only ones to suffer heavy casualties as the Japanese tanks and artillery sent shell after shell among the defenders. Soon the anticipated order came, to pull back and each man begrudgingly commenced to back away into the jungle.
Chuck opened the breach cover of the gun and took out the firing lock and sent it high into the jungle, then picking up a rifle he fired a round into the barrel casing and a further one into the water container before running to where the truck was waiting to take them out.
Then fell back to the cross roads, where they were joined by other units who had begun to dig in across the main road, they had hardly started to erect barricades when the order came to move out. Chuck and Blades managed to climb aboard a six ton Bedford as it began to travel toward the causeway. At the Kota Tingi, Johore cross roads, men were busy erecting barriers and digging trenches. Someone called Chucks name and he turned to find his old mate sergeant Hammett.
“What the hell are you doing here?” asked Hammett.
“I could ask you the same question” replied Chuck walking over and clutching Hammett by the hand. “We seem to have arrived at the end of the road” Hammett said and Chuck could only nod in agreement, his mind was choked up with the way matters had gone and the number of friends and comrades who had made the sacrifice.
“I have never in all my life known such cock ups and so many errors to occur to any one unit” Hammett looked up the road to where the Japs would be coming, I don’t think I have settled down in any one place for more than two days, ever since this fiasco started” We have been shit on from start to finish” he took a deep breath before continuing, “I know men and I know their capacity for fighting, and my men have been the tops, but how the hell can any man fight without adequate support.” He stopped momentarily then “How long have you been here?”.
“ Roughly about ten hours” replied Chuck.
“Last night and the night before were the most incredible nights that I have ever experienced” Hammett wiped the sweat from his face with a bandana. “ The whole of 6th and 15th Brigade were cut off above Rengit, it was an ideal situation for a counter attack, instead what remained of the brigade were ordered aboard some naval craft and evacuated down to Singapore” I managed to bring my lads down following the railway line and through Kulai” Chuck was about to ask a question, but the voice of an officer shouted Hammetts name. “Got to go” said Hammett, “The old mans blazing, we are moving out tonight back to Singapore”.
A wave of his hand and he had disappeared into the jungle. Chuck had a sudden urge to run after him, but realised that there was no point, they would all meet up later. An Australian captain walked over and asked “don’t you men have any guns or equipment?”
Chuck shook his head. “ What is your unit?” asked the captain
“Manchesters” replied Chuck briefly.
“Well if you have not got any arms or ammunition, you might as well go and help with the digging”
“OK sir” replied Chuck, then to the others he whispered “follow me” Chuck walked down the road toward the causeway, the others trailing behind. “I think we have had it here” he said, so unless we can beg borrow or steal a machine gun, we might just as well be back at the Naval base”
The others agreed and in single file they walked on.
It was dark by the time they arrived amid all the clamour of men and machines some going across the causeway to Singapore, others coming back. A truck slowed down to allow passage for an oncoming one, which gave an opportunity for Chuck and the other two to climb aboard. The shelling and heavy mortar fire made the trip across even more hazardous It was like being at Belle Vue during a fire works display, Chuck remarked later. Shells from both sides swished through the air, mingled between tracer bullets performed a luminous ballet of arc’s and circles as they ricocheted and bounced against unseen objects, flares of varying colours were being rocketed into the sky, giving an incandescent floret of light. The waters of the Johore strait like a placid mirror reflecting it all. As the truck began to slow down to negotiate the barriers at the Singapore end, Chuck and the others scrambled over the side.
As if being entirely on his own, he walked to his old gun post on the corner of Woodlands road and Sembawang, Collier and Blades followed by the others formed a bedraggled crocodile of slouching dejected men.
“Halt, who goes there” came the familiar cry, echoed down the ages from soldiers who could think of no other way of stopping the approach of strangers.
“Chuck Stewart, the wandering boy” Chuck shouted back. The picket was at a loss to the reply. “Who is it “ he asked, while all the time the group were walking ever closer. “Rushton, its me, corporal Stewart” Chuck replied, by this time although it was dark, the group were within three feet of the man. “You can put your rifle down now Rushton” said Chuck.
“Where the F— have you come from? asked Rushton, “You were supposed to be with HQ company down on the east coast” Chuck ignored his remarks, “Who’s in charge?” he asked. Rushton had to stop and think before replying “Major Stewart” “I meant, who is running the show, is it Sgt Fellows, Dooley, or Openshaw?”
“Sergeant Openshaw” came back the reply, the rest have gone down to tenth mile to attend a meeting”
Chuck turned to Collier, “come on, lets find something to eat and get some kip” the rest of the party followed as he led them to the brick outhouse which had been designated as the cookhouse, where they made and ate the first slices of bread they had seen for seven days topped with corned beef straight from the tin.
There was a slight commotion outside as sergeant Openshaw approached.
Taking one look at Chuck, he clicked his tongue between his teeth “I might have known that the bad penny would turn up sooner or later, how are you ?” The two embraced, “ Have you been posted back here?” asked Openshaw. Chuck shook his head wildly. “No way” he emphasised, “ we have just come back from Johore, I was with a make up section helping a pull out on the west coast at Pantian”. He took a bite from his sandwich before continuing. “We took four guns, to run alongside the Aussie 2/4th battalion. Most of Westforce came through, but we lost some at Kulai.”
“Many of our lads cop it?” asked Openshaw.
“Two” replied Chuck, “plus all the guns”
“Four” said Chuck “There was no chance of saving them, the Nips came over like a bloody waterfall. Open sights firing belt after belt, but their strength in numbers were too much for the guns, especially after they managed to get behind us along the beach”
“You look knackered, where are you going to kip down?” asked Openshaw.
“Here, right on this very spot” said Chuck as he slumped to the floor. That was the last thing he remembered until early in the morning above the rattle and blast of gunfire, he listened to the birds chirping as they foraged for food..
By noon, he had received orders to report to the company commanders quarters. The whole of the company were to take up positions astride the causeway on the evening of the 31st January, that was when the withdrawal of all Allied forces from Malaya was to begin.
As he took up a position close to the eastern side of the causeway, he noticed the troops wearing new KD drill, new boots, new shirts, then looking again, he noticed that the majority had white arms and knees. Then it struck him that the 18th division must have landed. Everyone had great expectations of commencing a counter attack, soon they would have the Japanese on the run. Chuck walked over to one of the NCO's, from the Norfolks, and after the usual greeting he asked “When did your lot arrive?”
“Two days ago answered the corporal, came in on the Empress of Asia”.
“How many “ asked Chuck,
The corporal looked a bit non plussed “The full division plus a brigade”
22,000 men thought Chuck, we must have lost more than that on the way down. he walked back to his post scratching his head.
There was nothing for anyone to do but sit around and wait for events to happen, a number of men took off their clothes and waded into the sea to cool off, others in their boredom just lay down and tried to sleep. the noise of a full blown war was of no consequence.
Just before dark Chuck watched as a trickle of vehicles began to come across from the other side, at the same time a line of ambulances went by in the opposite direction. The Japanese mortars began to fall among them with deadly accuracy. The trickle became a long line of vehicles of all sorts shapes and sizes, men walking by their side, with other men lay on top, mostly wounded. Mostly men of the 22nd Australian division, the British 11th Indian division and the 12th Brigade. The retreat was orderly but very depressing to both the watchers and those coming across and in the early hours the sound of bagpipes wafted across on the breeze as the last remnants of 12 Brigade, the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders marched away in retreat. it was noticeable that no shots were fired as the men from the highlands covered the one point one mile length of the causeway, to the welcoming cheers of the men manning the defensive positions on Singapore. Chuck turned to sergeant Openshaw, “What now?” he asked
“As usual we lose every battle until the last, don’t worry, we will be back over there, just as soon as our reinforcements arrive” As Chuck looked round, he could only see faces, which all seemed to be asking the same question,” What went wrong?” The shelling from the Japanese seemed to ease slightly that day, the following day however squadrons of light aircraft bombed and strafed their position, every four hours, in twos or fours, they would fly in unmolested, dropping their bombs at will. More troops were now being sent to the area, mostly men who had only recently arrived in Singapore. Trenches were prepared with sand bag barricades, the whole area became a mass of men. The news was not good by any means, the total losses was in excess of 20,000 men who were missing, killed in action, or deserters, it had been noted that many India, hyph drawns had been giving up their weapons as they left their positions. At the outset Chuck remembered attending a meeting in which the number of available men under arms was not more than 56,000 of the gross total of 82,000. The arrival of the 18th div had only just compensated for the losses inflicted during the retreat down Malaya. On the evening of the 7th February He sat eyes open, but not seeing the numbers of men holding positions of readiness. His mind was numb, after hearing that the number of civilian casualties was in excess of 500 per day and service men 150. What chance have we he thought. It was shortly after midnight when the Japanese commenced their bombardment. A sure indication that an all out attack was imminent.
A shell exploded just a few feet away and he watched as several bodies were sent spiralling into the air. The sky was once more lit up with the glare of vary lights, exploding shells and tracers. The noise of battle increased and in the light of a falling vary light he took careful aim at a small boat containing enemy soldiers, then fired, watching as the bullets entering their bodies, caused them to perform like puppets. Their hands and arms shooting into the air, followed by their bodies and legs as they danced to the rhythm of the vickers. Another target appeared and was quickly disposed of. To the left of the causeway, hundreds of Japanese crossing the straits on every conceivable method of transport. planks tied to empty barrels, tree logs, small boats and some swimming. The engineers had erected a series of lamps, which would be illuminated, once the Japanese were half way across, Chuck waited in anticipation for the lights to be switched on, in the meantime firing belt after belt into the moving mass. The Japanese now seemed to be concentrating on the west coast. although hundreds of enemy soldiers were trying to come ashore below the causeway. It seemed that every gun was pointed in that direction. At daylight came the order to retire and take up a position above the Mandai quarry, Other guns were to take up positions along Mandai road and Woodlands road The Japanese had broken through on the west coast.