Signalman Wader´s Diary

Part 1

Liverpool to Singapore


We got off the train at Liverpool and marched through the streets to the docks. What a march it was too. We had plenty to carry, our rifle, one kit bag and toffee on one shoulder and another kit bag on the other shoulder. Women and children came running to us with bread and cakes, we couldn't help ourselves being loaded with kit so they put it in our mouths for us. It made me realise what I was leaving behind me.

Finally we reached the docks and got on board our ship for overseas. She was called ``Duchess of York".

Duchess of York - PC-DU01 

Duchess of York

The "Duchess of York" was a 20,021 gross ton ship, length 601 ft x beam 75.2 ft, with 2 funnels, 2 masts, twin screw, speed 18 knots. Passenger accomodations for 580 cabin, 480 tourist, and 510 3rd class. Built by John Brown & Co, Glasgow for the Canadian Pacific Steamship Ltd., she was laid out as the "Duchess of Cornwall" but launched as the "Duchess of York" on 28 Sep 1928. On 22 Mar 1929 she left Liverpool on her maiden voyage to St John, New Brunswick, with calls at Belfast and Greenock. In addition to her normal Liverpool-Canada run, she made several trips on the NY to Bermuda service in 1931-32. Bombed off the Spanish coast 7 Jul 1943, catching fire and abandoned with the loss of 27 lives.

We got on board and got the best accommodation on the first deck. The others who went on first were out down in the bowels of the ship, they had to stay in hammocks. We were lucky, we had bunks with spring mattresses, pillows and white sheets. We got our equipment off and went round the ship, finishing up at the canteen. We waited nearly 2 hours before we got near. There were civilians on board and we weren't allowed to send any letters ashore, but I squared one chap to post one for me when he went off and the Duchess went out to anchor in deeper water.

On the morning of the 23rd March she pulled slowly out to sea, I stayed below decks, I didn't want to see Liverpool going out of sight. We went up by Scotland and some more ships joined the convoy at the Clyde. It was the biggest convoy that had ever left for the Far East up to then. There were thirtyfive ships escorted by the ``HMS Nelson". We had good food and fresh bread every day.

We had been at sea nearly two weeks when we sighted land. This was our first stop, it was Freetown, known as the ``White mans grave". We couldn't go ashore because the previous convoy in Jan caused a lot of trouble, so we had to be contented on board ship. Freetown appeared to be all jungle and palm trees. It looked very picturesque with its palm trees hanging out over the sands.

We got to bed early that night. The next morning we were off again, the sea looked more like a lake it was so calm. We stood by the rails watching schools of dolphins jumping out of the water, and flying fish skimming the surface. This was a real fisherman's paradise.

By now, a lot of the men were off their food and feeling sick. It never worried me. I ate all before me. We were beginning to feel the heat of the tropical sun now. Quite a few went down sick through sun bathing and one man died. We buried him at sea. It wasn't a pleasant sight to see a body sewn up in canvas go sliding over the side to a watery grave fathoms below. It was a few days before I got over that. We got orders – ``No more sunbathing!"

By now we seemed to have been at sea for months, when one morning some of the boys came running in all excited shouting, ``LAND!" we all rushed on deck in our pyjamas to look at it. What a marvellous sight met our eyes, we could see saloon cars on the shore, there was massive skyscrapers standing above other buildings, this place was ``Cape Town" South Africa. We could see Table Mountain, it is called Table Mountain because it is so flat on the top. From the top you got the most wonderful view anyone could wish to see.

We arrived at Cape Town in the 30th April, all the way from England the decks had been in darkness, well we didn't go ashore that day, but that night all the ships in dock were lit up, and we could see all the lights of Cape Town. I shall always remember that night. Blackpool Illuminations was nothing in comparison. It was a sight for sore eyes after leaving England in the blackout. I thought of those at home treading their way in the darkness.

Next day we had visitors. Nearly all the South African natives came alongside the Duchess on their warlike canoes laden with fruit and souvenirs. We got a kick out of it trading with them. All they wore was a loincloth. If you threw money in the water they would dive in for it and come up grinning. One fellow just wore a loincloth and bowler hat and tie round his neck! You never saw a more comical sight. Before he dived for money he would take his hat and tie off and put them back on before getting into his canoe again. He called a sixpence a ``Glasgow Tanner". One of the crew gave him a bottle of beer for some fruit. You should have seen the expression on his face when he drank it. He said ``OK Number one" in broken English of course. We thought we would have a bit of fun so we gave him a bottle of lemonade. He tasted it and threw it in the water, yelling, ``You bugger me up"!

At Noon there was a rush to go ashore. We got our pass and were allowed out till midnight. It took us nearly an hour to get off! We got out of the docks and into the town. We saw some wonderful sights, had lunch in a large garden, there was some beautiful floral beds and designs. We went from there to a cinema show, then round the fruit market. We could buy two large bunches of black grapes for sixpence. The one thing, which surprised me most, was Woolworths. That was the last thing I expected to find.

We weren't as lucky as some of the other fellows. Cars stopped and ran them all over Cape Town, took them up Table Mountain and to a place called ``Huizenburg", then to their homes and then brought them back to the ship laden with fruit and cigarettes. While we were in Woolworths, a man and his wife heard us talking so he came up to us and asked us if we came from England, we had quite a chat. He belonged to Liverpool and had been living in Cape Town for 25 years. He said he was sorry he couldn't take us home just then, so he gave us his address and asked us to next day if we could get ashore.

We got ashore next day alright, got off the bus where he told us to, but we couldn't find his house so we made a few enquiries and were told not to go as it was a rough quarter. We took this advice and spent the day elsewhere and went back to the ship. That night though an air force bloke was found up a side street with a knife in his back!

I didn't get ashore the next day as I was on guard. On the morning of the fourth day we saw Cape Town go out of sight. We got to sea again and settled down to the usual routine. We reached out next port of call Bombay, on 8th of May. We stayed here two days. I got ashore one day, which was enough for me. Bombay is called the Gateway to East. – but it's not as nice as it looks on the pictures. It is a filthy place, we saw people slurping on the pavements and all over the place. The women do all the manual labour such as building, bricklaying and mixing cement. I was glad to be on the way again.

Just after we put to sea again we went through a minefield, so they lowered down the paravanes till we got clear. The pavarane looks something like a small aeroplane. They lower down each side of the ship, it cuts mines lose then the mines come up to the surface and can be destroyed by rifle fire. Anyway, we got through the minefield safely and we were well on our way to Ceylon, Columbo. Just before we reached Columbo, the HMS Nelson left the convoy going at a fast speed, we couldn't make it out at all. When she rejoined us we learnt that she had been after a surface raider.

By now we were feeling browned off seeing nothing but water day after day, but on the morning of the fifteenth of May we anchored off Singapore Island. We had covered 18,000 miles not being able to use the peace line route. We had twenty deaths at sea in the whole convoy.

We were stood off Singapore waiting for the pilot boat coming out to us. Eventually it came alongside and the pilot came on board. One lad in my section recognised him, it was this lad's Uncle. He had been living in Singapore for twenty years. We stayed on board that night, I was on guard again on the engines deck.

When dawn broke we got ready to leave the ship, which had been our home for all those weeks at sea. The Manchester Band played for us on the dockside, they played ``Land of Hope and Glory" and ``Auld Lang Syne". We were stood to attention on deck ready for leaving, I think in those few moments everyone's thoughts went back home to those they had left behind and loved, we all had a lump in our throat.

It was raining very heavy when we got ashore, we got straight onto lorries which went to take us to our destination. We left the docks and travelled for half an hour, finally we reached a camp on the outskirts of the town called Hoolou Pandan. We were put into tents with iron beds with mosquito nets up. If we hadn't our nets down by six at night we were on a charge. I went to bed that night feeling very tired after my long journey, but I couldn't sleep. It was too hot under my net, not being used to sleeping under one. Then there were dogs howling, crickets, bullfrogs croaking and mosquitos buzzing around all night – it was like hell let loose, but we soon settled down to our new life.

When we went into Singapore we had to get a piggy bus, then we would get a rickshaw and go sight seeing. There were plenty of loose women knocking around, a few were Chinese but most were Eurasians. There is something about the East that fascinates you.

We had to go and do guards at a new camp, which was being built for us. Two weeks later we moved into the camp, it was called Fowler Camp. We had showers laid on, wooden huts with verandas all the way round and electric lights as well. We had to be careful at night, as there were a few snakes in the long grass.

I had just been here three weeks when three of us were posted to Fort Canning, a place very near to the town. The other two were put in the signal office working on the switchboards. I was put in charge of the Indian boys who cleaned the area up and had to see they did it. Many times I would find them asleep under the huts.

Juts behind our hut you could see all the ships in harbour and the Clipper plane when she came in with airmail. I used to get up at six, have breakfast, then see the area was cleaned up. I had finished by ten o'clock every morning. The rest of the day was my own. I would to go down to the swimming pool - I soon learnt to swim. At night I would go to a cinema show, the two main cinemas were called the Cathay, and the Capital. They were air condition cooled with big electric fans in. We used to go in wet through with sweating, it was nice and cool inside, coming out you could feel the heat as it rose from the ground. While I was in Singapore I saw the best two films I've ever seen. ``Gone With the Wind" and ``Back Street". I didn't like the civilians of Singapore because they treated us like dirt and in the pictures they would get up and move away from us.

I had a good job at Fort Canning but I soon lost it. In October I was called back to Fowler Camp to join my section to go up country, a place called Kota Bahru, six hundred miles up in Malaya on the east coast. Some of the lads had been up two weeks. I said goodbye to the friends I had made at Fort Canning, I joined my section and next day we boarded the train.

On the journey we could buy drinks and fruit. As we were drawing out of one station, my pal from Bradford grabbed a white toupee off a chinks head, I don't know what the chink was saying but he waved his fist and babbled something in Chinese. My pal sold it at the next station to a Malay for fifty cents. We travelled for two days and two nights. On our journey we saw quite a bit of Malaya, palm trees, coconut trees and Malay peasants ploughing their rice fields. The ploughs were drawn by water buffalo and the children played in their kampongs.

We finally got to the end of our long train journey at a place called ``Kula-Kri". Our O.C. and some of the lads had come in lorries to take us to our camp. They had some hot tea waiting for us just outside the station. We had a drink then boarded the lorries and got away on the last fifty miles of our journey. We arrived at out camp, a place called Montgomery Camp near Kota Bahru aerodrome. When we arrived they had a hot meal waiting for us. We went to bed very tired that night.

Next day our O.C. told us we had a lot of hard work to do. Two telephone routes to build, one twentysix miles long. We had a lot of jungle clearing to do as we proceeded to build these routes. We got settled down to a change of life. There were 76 of us attached to the 9th Indian Div. The food wasn't too good, we were all paid 70 cents a week, messing to get a little extra such as eggs or pineapples for breakfast. Our bread had to come up from Singapore by train, and by the time we got it, it was sour and stale. The only way we could eat it was fried.

We used to be away by 8 o'clock every morning taking with us ladders and cable. When we got on the job we just worked in our shorts stripped to the waist and we finished about six o'clock at night. We weren't up there long before we got so brown you could hardly tell us from the Malays! Well we had decided to all put two dollars away for Christmas so we could buy a few chickens and have a decent time.

Montgomery Camp was two miles from Sabut beach. We had two entrances to the camp, one leading into Kota Bahru and the other to Sabut beach. We got half day off on Sundays and went to the beach swimming. We made a big raft with bamboo and would take it well out and have some real sport with it. To get to the beach we had to go through a small native village and over a pontoon bridge across the river. On the beach were outposts of Indians guarding the beach.





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