15th Sept. 1945
The Liberation of Singapore
- After 3.5 Years -
The Royal Navy is once more in Singapore, home port for the Eastern Fleet. After three and a half years of Japanese domination the White Ensign together with the Union Jack now fly where the hated flag of the Japanese Imperial Forces flew, to remind the occupants of the island that they are no longer under the protection of the British Empire but alone under the heel of the yellow aggressor. For them the long years of terror, death and darkness are over and now, within one week of the first landing of troops upon the island the population are looking forward to a peaceful existence once again.
On Wednesday, 5th September, 1945 at 1130am., H.M.S. “Sussex” carrying the Flag of the Rear Admiral Cedric Holland, entered Singapore Harbour and made fast at the famous Empire Pier. Berthing parties were put ashore to assist in making fast the miscellany of hospital ships, landing ships and cargo vessels of all descriptions which shortly after entered the harbour, carrying the food supplies and necessities of humanity for the semi-starved internees and liberated Prisoners of War. An escort carrier arrived, carrying instead of her usual cargo of death dealing aircraft, more supplies for setting up administration and opening up the amenities of the port. Long lines of landing craft, guided in under the protection of the eight inch guns of the “Sussex”, bumped against the piers and jetties to disembark the troops, Indians and Royal Marines, whose job it was to take over from the Japanese. Within a matter of hours the harbour was packed with cargo and troop ships of all sizes, while on shore, patrols were busily making contact with the men who had landed by parachute some three days previously to intercede with the Japanese against unnecessary killing or looting. Everything moved with clockwork precision so that by the time darkness fell, the area had once again assumed the appearance of a busy and thriving port as it had done three years previously.
The impression may be given onwards that perhaps undue prominence is given to the activities surrounding the “Sussex”, but this is only for the simple reason that H.M.S. “Sussex” was the one and only centre of attraction and activity. Never, except perhaps in the “Titanic” and “Arc Royal” disasters, has the name of one particular ship been on so many lips. As His Majesty’s Ship “Sussex” she was perhaps, not so well known, but as the Sussex Hotel, Singapore, she was known to all the prison camps on the island - and they were far from few in number ! . From midday on the Thursday our guests commenced to arrive; Dutch and Javanese airmen and soldiers, Aussie and British Metelots, some of them survivors of the ill-fated “Prince of Wales” and “Repulse”.
Just before teatime an effort was made to organise some method of catering for our guests. Each mess was asked to state just how many they would entertain and given double rations of butter, bread and jam, the total figure amounted to over one thousand or rather more than the whole of the ships company - but by seven o’clock it was estimated that roughly more than twice this number had come on board. Hundreds of gallons of tea were made in the space of minutes, kettles being refilled countless times. None of the lads had any thought for supper for themselves, and the cooks served up dish after dish of hot steaming food until the supplies in the galley were exhausted. The bakery was completely cleared in next to no time, even the supplies for the following day. Bread -that was all many of them cared about for the time being for after living so long on a concentration of rice-flour and water, fried in palm oil, bread was far more precious to them than gold.
On the following day, the paymaster, Commander (S) Hok, was appointed supply officer for Force “N”, and since Force “N” was composed solely of the “Sussex” and her attendant landing craft and M.L.’s, the title was hardly explanatory, as the position incurred the feeding of the whole of the services population of the island and these numbered fourteen thousand in Changi Jail alone. There were four principle camps on the island; Changi Jail, fifteen miles outside the city and originally built to hold six hundred; Changi Hospital, too hopelessly overcrowded to deal with the wrecks of men that it held; Sime Road Camp, packed with men of all races, creeds and colours; and the Internees Camp, composed mainly of the residents of Singapore, together with many who had been caught on the island when the Japanese invaded. These last were not in such a pitiful condition as the troops for many of them had had money and personal items with which to bribe their guards or the coolies working outside the camp and were thus able to obtain a certain amount of food with which to supplement their meagre rations.
Now I must say a word about the seemingly impossible feats achieved by the galley and bakery staffs. In all the time we were in Singapore, neither of them closed down for an instant. Naturally there was no question of an organised feeding of the countless numbers of released Prisoners of War who came on board - the best that could be done was to make as much food as possible and to allow the messes to draw over their normal rations. The biggest strain of this unofficial feeding fell on the Chief Baker and his staff, as bread was almost the only item that could be issued ad. lib. On the Tuesday previous to our arrival, the normal issue of tea, sugar, butter and milk had been made to the messes. On Friday (when messes may buy any reasonable quantity of tea and milk) some messes bought over a weeks issue, but by the following day even those stocks were finished, so that a further issue of butter, sugar, tea and milk had to be made. So much for the conditions on board as far as feeding was concerned. I can only give the barest outline and I doubt if the full facts will ever be known - very few of the lads had any tea or supper but that seemed to matter but little as they were amply compensated by watching the pleasure of the men and women, sitting down to food after those long years of semi-starvation, the realisation of a dream come true. Yes the “Sussex” was very rightly dubbed “Hotel”. From engine room to bridge, from stem to stern they wandered and when they had satisfied their curiosity they were entertained in another way. In the massive sheds on the jetty, tier upon tier of seats had been erected and here they were able to sit and see for themselves what the rest of the world had been doing with itself while they had been so cut off from it. Of the films shown during the evening performances the newsreel was by far the most popular. They saw the honour accorded to the war leaders by a grateful people; they saw, with no little pleasure be it said, the damage inflicted on Germany and japan by Allied bombs, they watched the scenes as the troops policing Germany mixed with a people who looked far from defeated - and they weren’t so pleased. That men and women who had inflicted horrors as great, if not greater, than they themselves had suffered should be allowed to walk the streets of Berlin, free and unrestricted was a bitter pill to these men. They, on the whole, have no inclination to inflict torture and pain on a defeated enemy but it is only to be expected that they would like to see that they have a taste of the hardships which they themselves have so recently undergone. Such things, apart from the outward signs, have left an eradicable mark, they talk but little but they think a great deal and only time will tell what the Japanese domination has really meant to them.
What of conditions under which these people existed all that time. As one of the supply staff of “Sussex” I was perhaps in a good position as anyone to see what they had gone through. Each afternoon a truck left out jetty bound for Changi Jail, carrying food and essentials for the naval and service personnel there. It consisted in the main, of a complete meal; soup, meat either roast or in pies, two vegetables, a sweat and plenty of lime juice to drink. There were two hundred ratings in the jail proper, and in small chalets outside the walls, nearly one hundred officers, three or four to a room ten foot square. As a slight consideration for their rank they had fairly presentable beds, running water and a separate galley to each row, but the food was no better than in jail. In the jail, an Aussie, his body swollen with beri-beri, caused by the considerable amount of water absorbed with their principle item of food, rice, offered to show me round on the first day. Frankly, although I am far from squeamish, I should not like to have to visit such a place again, although by the end of the week I had become more or less accustomed to it. The inside of the American Prison, Sing Sing, is familiar to those who frequently visit the cinema, floor upon floor of cells surrounding a well down which guards watch for any disturbances. This jail is built on similar lines but with one exception. Wire netting was stretched across each well at floor level, and this provided space for beds for over seventy men on each floor. The cells were about eight feet square, lighted by foot square, heavily barred openings let in the massive walls. Six men occupied each cell, designed originally for a single occupant and on the whole floor, one hundred feet long and fifteen feet wide, two hundred men were herded together for three years, electric lighting was at its minimum and as darkness fell the whole place took on the appearance of a morgue. The sickly smell of palm oil permeated the whole building. I was taken into the galleys where the evening meal was being prepared, It consisted of soup, a yellowish looking mess with pieces of dismal looking vegetable floating like scum on top. “This is much better than the lot we had last night”, said the guide, “You can see the stuff is there - last night you could see the bottom of the tub”. At home a farmer would think twice about feeding such a mess to his pigs.
The ‘meat’ dish for the meal was called Beeni or some such name, and was made of rice pastry as a crust for the meat salvaged from the Red Cross parcels. The Japanese had a very pleasant trick of allowing the ships carrying the Red Cross parcels to get through unharmed and the parcels were actually landed, however instead of issuing them to the prisoners immediately, they were put in a store for a few months. By the time they were eventually issued the contents were in the later stages of decomposition - even tins will not stand up to tropical temperatures for months. So what meat could be salvaged was made into some sort of pie, and the whole fried in palm oil. They say that in time it is possible to become accustomed to the stench from a bone factory, but I am sure that if I lived amongst it for twenty years I should never get used to the pungent odour of that oil or clear the smell from my nostrils. It pervaded the whole building and the look of it was enough to turn ones stomach over, a revolting orange coloured mess which appeared far more suitable for engine grease than cooking fat.
As a Grande Finale, the Supply Officer sent up a Xmas Dinner on the last day of our stay - Tomato soup, Roast Turkey, green peas and potatoes followed by Christmas Pudding, Rum sauce and Mince Pies. Judging by the expressions on their faces, the fare was considerably more palatable than that which they had been having until recently.
In one week after our arrival most of the men had gained upwards of a stone in weight; even so they were still pitifully thin; probably that which helped most was the bread - over thirty-two thousand pounds were sent ashore, all the ships in the harbour contributing.
And so the “Sussex” added to her share in the war effort even though the major contribution was made after the fighting had finished. It was killing work and it is doubtful if many could have stood the pace of a further week, but it was a labour of pleasure, giving what little compensation one could to those men who for three and a half years had fought and had now won the greatest battle of all - the battle of Morale. Thousands died, but those who were left flaunted their spirit of determination in the faces of the Japs, no matter how much they were ill-treated. While talking to one of the officers, I mentioned how pleased and yet somewhat puzzled I was by the amazingly good spirits of all the men - he soon solved that for me.
“The thing which made the Japs so angry”, he said, “was the way in which we laughed at their propaganda. Had they been able to find out our secrets they would have been even more angry. Our really big secret was the radio, or rather radios, for there were scores of them about the place and all made of any materials we could, - well, ‘borrow’! The favourite hiding place was a water bottle with sufficient water in it to fool them if they took it into their heads to make a search, which they frequently did. Others were hidden in the heads of brooms and left propped against a wall when the Nips came in. With these radios we kept in touch with the outside progress of the war - and we just laughed at them !”.
So this morning we put the remainder of our stores ashore, leaving ourselves just enough to get back to Ceylon. Numerous letters of appreciation poured into the ship but we hardly deserved them - we had had a job to do and we did it, our only regret was that we were unable to do more.