There were a small number of ex-pats trying to pick up the remnants of pre-war businesses and a lot of British civil service administrators, for Singapore was still part of the Crown Colony of the Straits Settlements (of Malaya). In true Colonial fashion it was deemed an appalling intrusion to initiate any conversation with civilians, and beyond bounds to speak to a British woman, unless she was in the Forces.
Poverty afflicted a large proportion of the population, coupled with food shortages. All rice was reserved for them and was never part of our diet. Our bread came from a central army bakery, but the provenance of the flour was open to question. The loaves were sliced in the relevant Messes, but they always contained hordes of baked weevils. I suppose if they were sieved out more flour would be required, and it never improved, but having no taste for weevils I always picked them out with care to the amusement of others who simply ate them. During the whole time in Singapore there was only one temporary shortage, when Indian troops ran out of supplies, but otherwise meat (probably from Australia and New Zealand ), poultry and vegetables were in good supply. Fish must have been fairly plentiful, but I don’t remember it being served.
It was at the Mess we found that we’d be moved to Changi in a few days.
The village, which was barely a half mile from the perimeter of the airfield, consisted of no more than twenty houses strung along a narrow but good tarmac road which, beyond the village turned abruptly to run between palm groves and a long sandy beach. The houses were single storied, mostly of three or four small rooms, quite often on stilts, and of plank construction with thatched roofs. The use of stilts may have been twofold; they created a barrier to unwanted creatures, especially snakes, and the space beneath the house could be used for storage, keeping a dog, or even chickens if suitably caged. There were no possibilities of flooding to necessitate stilts.
Each house was near the road but had its own plantation of coconut or banana trees and it was the ownership of these that had provided the primary income for most of the families, many of whom also cultivated a small plot of vegetables. Now some of the men had found work locally and one or two had ventured into running tiny shops, in one instance including the sale of ice cream, using a small generator since there was no mains electricity. All the inhabitants were indigenous Malays (unlike the city, which seemed to be 75% Chinese, 10% Indian, and 15% Malays). They were friendly and peaceful, “laid back” and unambitious - traits that had encouraged Chinese immigrants to take a near monopoly of businesses, from rickshaws and street vendors to legal firms and manufacturers. And, of course, the more doubtful and illegal activities.
Changi Gaol was fairly close but well out of sight of all the Air Force buildings, and may have been screened by a band of scrubby jungle, of which there were still good sized patches on the island. By way of retribution, several hundred Japanese prisoners of war were now held there, but under Geneva Convention rules. A few of high rank were awaiting trial as war criminals, while many of low rank were marched out under guard each day as working parties on various tasks decided by the military. Naturally, they were not popular, especially with the Island’s Chinese population who had suffered greatly under the Japanese occupation, considering them as an extension of the war against China. The Malays had bent with the wind, but many Indians co-operated.
Changi Airfield occupied a large area with a NE/SW runway approximately a mile long, constructed for the Japanese by Allied prisoners, mostly British and Australian who were, apart from such very long working days as these, incarcerated in the Gaol. The runways had been cut by clearing bush, jungle and any mangrove swamp so that the Northeast end reached almost to the sea shore. The cleared stretch was around a mile long and quite wide, maybe 150yards, and half way along, at a right angle was another strip of at least double the width and a half mile long, presumably intended as a cross runway and for dispersal, hangars etc. It had been a massive undertaking by pick and shovel, and the normal Japanese brutality had resulted in scores of British and Australian deaths, the bodies being buried in a rough cemetery on the southern side of the runway.
Just inside each back entrance, which had stairs to the first floor, there was one large room containing washbasins and toilets. And beside the entrance, facing the back pathway and the “servants” lodgings, another little room of uncertain purpose but possibly for washing up. It was simply equipped with a tap and sink, and since it also had a bed it was this I appropriated as my personal single room accommodation. On the floor above me were two four bedded rooms with concrete floors and a group of showers. These bedrooms had at least one wall socket for appliances. Windows did not have glazing but louvred shutters, a single or double pairs according to room size.
All beds were the standard locally made charpoy (“charp”), a frame and four legs made from 3 or 4 inch squared teak pinned together with teak dowels. Onto the frame a net of coarse rope was bound to make a base for the mattress squares and bedding, which, with a mosquito net, were brought to us by young Malays from the stores. The mosquito net was suspended from posts at the foot and head of the bed. Mosquitoes were as big a nuisance as in India but here each room had at least one gecko who, with suction pad feet, roamed the walls and ceilings searching for mosquitoes. A gecko would remain absolutely still for ages, then dart with great speed. Occasionally it would lose its grip on the ceiling and fall to the floor with a bang, but always on its feet, and then it could disturb sleep. Otherwise it was almost a personal pet.
A middle aged Indian called Elmer Khan came round daily to do shoe cleaning. A Chinese woman with an 8 or 9 year old daughter turned up every other day offering sewing and mending. Both squatted on the concrete path, the girl being given what I assumed to be the easier tasks, such as sewing on buttons. Another character collected rubbish in a small wheeled container.
Goodness knows where these people lived; perhaps in some of the small “servants quarters” nearby. I think that the two or three young Chinese who lived opposite my room worked in the kitchens at the Sergeants Mess, and the smallest boy, who looked about seven but was probably twelve, naturally went by the name of “Chota”, (little). He would happily bring me a mug of tea from his room in the evening, if asked. A request avoided if the obsessional mahjong was in process! As played at Changi mahjong was also a serious betting game among the Chinese, and their shouts plus the banging of the tiles made it a very noisy pastime….
Only once did I have a long conversation with one of the traders, when I assisted a woman carrying a lot of boxes to our Mess, and these, it transpired, contained freshly made potato crisps. She was about 18 to 20 and named Boey Loke Kwan. Calling her Miss Kwan, I was reproved in fairly good English and informed that it should be Miss Boey, since the family name came first for the Chinese. That noted, I found out that she had initiated the home production of crisps and after some experimentation had marketable ones which she sold on a number of military establishments. Her family assisted in peeling, cutting and cooking the potatoes and it was all done at home, probably in one of the poorer back streets. Using some form of public transport which would accept her boxes, she did the deliveries because she was the only one who spoke some English. She went on at length explaining her ambition to go to England and be educated at a university. I very much doubt if it ever happened but she might well have deserved it.
While most Station Commanders had a house adjacent to the Officers quarters Charles Riley chose a rather isolated pre-war bungalow that had survived near the end of the airstrip and beside a beach. It was an idyllic place in which to entertain the WAAF Admin. F/Lt who was known to often spend time there when off duty, but it had one particular drawback. As in Hong Kong, there were a number of islands off Singapore, inhabited by fishermen and also lesser breeds without the law. To amuse themselves and enliven others, at intervals these would sail past “Groupie’s” bungalow at night, firing shots at it. This disrespect was, of course, unforgivable, and so he had a set of twin Browning .303 machine guns mounted on the seaward side of the bungalow to act as a deterrent. About every five or six weeks one might wake up to the rattle of the Brownings and picture Riley in his pyjamas dishing out retribution.
All labouring work was done by Japanese POWs. They were brought from the Gaol by an Army truck at half past eight and were collected again around four. Each had a water bottle and some sort of rice mush which they ate during a midday break. They were short, scruffy, pretty horrid, and sometimes would employ forms of “dumb insolence” which, when out of the public gaze, earned the culprit a kick or a wallop…
On a line-up one morning a fellow in the back row was fooling around and I pointed him out to the person in charge, a Korean in white naval uniform. At the time I hadn’t realised the enmity that existed between the Koreans, who were relatively tall, and the Japanese and was somewhat startled when the Korean felled him with a massive punch to the head. Thereafter they all behaved themselves…
A Foreign Office Minister would expect a local high ranking Civil Servant to meet him, or one of Lord Mountbatten’s assistants. I don’t recall Lord Louis ever meeting anyone at the airfield.
There was no such thing as a private lounge so all introductions, welcoming etc. had to be done not far from the aircraft steps, with the appropriate vehicles parked nearby, but it was rare for more than three or four people to be present. Depending upon the importance, or the known self-importance of the visitor, one of our officers would arrange to be there also, to take over the saluting and formal nonsense. These occasions also required an unusual degree of smartness and wearing one’s cap! For politicians, particularly Asian ones, the degree of fuss was often in inverse proportion to their status.
One day I was already helping a colleague with passengers from one aircraft when another RAF plane arrived from Batavia, spilling out a small horde of men in unfamiliar uniforms. We hadn’t been informed of this flight and only later was I told they were a delegation of unarmed Indonesian “rebels”, led by a General or Dr Sukarno, eventually to be the first President, going to a conference in Singapore.
During 1946 and early 1947 there were two or three times when adventurous individuals emigrating to Australia bought their own aircraft as a quick way to get there. Always they were ex-RAF bombers, Lincoln, Halifax, or Lancaster, each flown by an ex-RAF bomber pilot and probably a similar navigator. The planes were named, and I photographed two, “Excalibur”, a Lincoln, which was a short lived variation of the Lancaster, and “Waltzing Matilda”, a Halifax. One of the crew of Excalibur had a wife and child with him so there must have been a minor degree of fitting-out. Since thousands of planes were awaiting demolition the initial cost would have been low, though getting it to conform to a Civil Airworthiness Certificate might have cost more, but the whole enterprise would not be beyond the means of many a demobilised Officer.
There were two other items that, fortunately, no longer exist in their original form. . Firstly, the “Death Houses”, which fronted roads alongside the dwelling house blocks, and at a glance looked somewhat similar, each death house served a particular area. For a family living in very cramped conditions it might be possible to deal with temporary sickness but not for a person whose prolonged and extreme illness would lead to death. Infectious diseases necessitated hospitalisation but in other cases a person would be taken to the death house where there was a degree of attendance, though relatives were expected to do most of the caring and to supply food. There was a charge of sorts, and maybe the patient had to bring his or her own bed. There was segregation into male and female “wards”, probably on the ground and first floors, and beds had some form of screening, but whether the day and night attendants lived on the premises or came in daily I don’t know, and equally have no idea how they dealt with the dead. It may be that the coffin was taken to the death house and then to the deceased home before the funeral. At the time one preferred not to know about such things.
Secondly the Singapore River, which ran through the southern part of the city, was crammed with houseboats in its upper mile or more. Families walked across other boats to get to the riverside, and all sewage and rubbish was thrown into the river. They were not allowed into the lower reaches towards the bay, but needed far more control. Now only a few licenced boats remain.
Fishing was an industry manifested around different parts of the island but larger vessels landed catches at a dock somewhere near Collyer Quay, I think. Most prominent were the vast piles of sharks fins heaped on the quayside, and their overpowering smell. Fishing boats tied up in one area while merchant vessels, troopships etc. were elsewhere, and it all seemed to mesh in without problems.
One did not have to go to the UK to be ”demobbed”; it could be done in any Commonwealth country. A Sergeant Freeman decided he would go to Australia as an emigrant, as did another one with a WAAF fiancee. Two other characters wanted to return to the UK by working their way through Canada, or to stay there if they liked it, so were sent to Vancouver. If you were free the opportunities seemed great.
The boat was the SS “Otranto”, a medium sized twin funnelled liner converted to a wartime troopship. I think it had been a P&O ship, and was almost twenty years old…
The time passed quickly enough and within a week we arrived early one morning at our first port of call, Bombay..
It took almost a week before we were in the Red Sea, and then it was only recognisable by the increase in shipping, and the number of dhows, often sailing in small fleets. I had never realised the Sea is around 150 miles wide. It took a couple of days to reach a coaling station so that the boat could replenish stocks…
There was no tarrying at Port Said, and the journey through the Mediterranean was quite uneventful, apart from seeing Mount Etna giving its regular displays of activity while we sailed past Sicily. By this time we were well aware of the significant change of temperature and wearing pullovers or whatever extra clothing that could be mustered. Gibraltar was passed at night and the next day the weather worsened to a Biscay storm…
The third day found us in calmer seas and by late afternoon we were in Southampton Water.
Part 1 - Canada, UK, Going East
Singapore Jan 46-Apr 47