Episodes & Studies Volume 2
Evacuation of Singapore
Evacuation of Singapore
On the morning of 1 February the squadron was ordered to embark with its machinery on the SS Talthybius. The equipment was sent down to the docks, and at one o'clock in the afternoon was all at the ship's side, ready for loading. As a result of the daily bombing of the port, all the native labourers had long since disappeared. No help could be had from the ship's native crew, who were untrained and useless as stevedores. Consequently all the work of loading, including working the winches and stowing the cargo, had to be done by the squadron. The ship's derricks were rigged, winches manned, and loading began at three o'clock.
Work ceased at nightfall, as a strict blackout had to be maintained. It was resumed at daylight next day, and by that evening most of the equipment was on board. There were numerous air-raid alarms during the day; but the work continued without a stop until enemy bombers were practically overhead, when the men took cover, some in shelters on the wharf, others in the ship's hold, to emerge again immediately the raid was over. Several times bombs fell close, but the Talthybius was not hit. In sixteen hours of working time, despite interruptions, the men loaded between 2300 and 2500 tons, ship's measurement, of heavy equipment, including tractors, trucks, stores and machinery.page 23
The ship remained at the wharf again that night, and the men returned to their camp at the Dairy Farm. Next morning a working party went down to straighten up the cargo and help to load some additional RAF equipment which was to be taken. In the middle of the morning there were two heavy air raids. The Talthybius survived the first, although bombs fell close by. In the second she received two direct hits from bombs which exploded in the holds, and there were several more near misses. The working party was caught on board, and one man was killed. Seven more were seriously injured, with severe burns and shock, one of them dying in hospital the next day. The ship was set on fire, and water poured in through holes in her side.
The fires were put out after a 24-hour struggle by the ship's crew, but she continued to make water fast in spite of the rigging of auxiliary pumps. Much of the cargo was destroyed by the bombing and fire, but the heavy excavating machinery and large quantities of medical, dental, and other stores were undamaged and it was hoped that a good deal could be saved. A party of volunteers went to the docks on the afternoon of 4 February and unloaded the medical stores and the men's kitbags, but lack of steam to work the winches prevented any of the heavier gear being taken off. Later the same afternoon another bombing attack set the ship on fire again and sank her.
The next two days were spent at the Dairy Farm waiting for fresh embarkation orders. By this time the Japanese were shelling the island, and the hazard of artillery fire was added to the constant bombing attacks. Shells burst all around the camp as the enemy fired at observation posts on nearby hillocks and searched for Australian batteries hidden in the neighbouring rubber plantations. Overhead, bombers swooped low as they dived to attack big oil installations half a mile away.
On the afternoon of 6 February the squadron was told it would be evacuated in a convoy sailing that evening. The men struck camp immediately and were taken in lorries to the docks. There, amid the litter of bomb wreckage and in the glare of burning buildings, they loaded all that was left of the unit's equipment on to the waiting ships. There was not much: only their personal kitbags, the medical supplies, and their rifles and ammunition.
Two parties were formed, one going on the SS City of Canterbury and the other on the SS Darvel. Both ships moved out into the stream to join their convoy, but the Darvel was ordered back to port by the Naval authorities, partly because she had insufficient crew and partly because she was too slow—her best speed was eleven knots—for the other three much faster ships which were going.
The convoy sailed that night, with a strong naval escort, for Java. The troops on the City of Canterbury suffered the discomfort of overcrowding and insufficient food, and there were frequent air-raid alarms; but the escorting warships warded off all enemy attacks, and the ships reached Batavia safely on 9 February. The Darvel, after lying at anchor in the stream all night, returned to the wharf again on the morning of the 7th. The men landed and were taken to an RAF transit camp near Seletar. There they were between the Japanese batteries on the southern tip of Johore and the British on Singapore, and the air was full of the roar of shells passing overhead.
The following afternoon they again went down to the docks and embarked on the Darvel. After some hours, during which there were several air raids, she eventually put to sea at dusk. She had just cleared the harbour when she was again recalled and brought back to her berth. page 24 Bad weather was brewing outside, and visibility had become too bad to risk going through the protective minefields beyond the entrance. That night the Darvel lay alongside the wharf and the men slept on her decks.
The next morning they were taken once more to the transit camp. During the night the Japanese had landed on the western part of the island, and by morning they had made considerable progress eastwards. Towards midday their artillery started shelling the camp and all personnel had to take to the shelter trenches. In the afternoon, during a lull in the shelling, the men scrambled into their trucks and once more made for the docks. This time they went straight aboard the Darvel, and she immediately headed for the open sea. She escaped just in time to avoid a heavy dive-bombing and strafing attack on shipping in the docks, and the last view of Singapore was one of blazing wharf sheds, towering columns of smoke from burning oil tanks, and the sky full of enemy planes and bursting anti-aircraft shells.
The ship sailed through the night, and at daybreak anchored off the southern tip of a small island to avoid observation by enemy aircraft. She was still short-staffed and members of the squadron virtually worked her. Some took shifts in the engine room and stokehold, others mounted and manned light anti-aircraft guns, and others took over the messing for all the troops on board.
The next stage of the voyage lay through Banka Strait, between Sumatra and Banka Island. Through its narrow waters all shipping from Singapore to Java had to pass, and the Japanese bombers patrolled it constantly during daylight. The ship got under way again at dusk and it was hoped that she would pass through the danger area in the night. But just before entering the Strait she was delayed for two hours assisting another vessel, the SS Kintak, which had run ashore during the day. In consequence, she was still in the Strait when the next day dawned. She anchored in the shelter of a group of small islands in the hope that the Japanese would not see her. Close by was another small ship which had been bombed some days before and abandoned.
The morning was peaceful until half past eleven, and then a formation of enemy bombers appeared. They were too high for the ship's anti-aircraft guns, so the gun crews withheld their fire and took cover. The planes altered their course slightly to bring them directly overhead, and then the bombs began to fall. For a minute all was confusion as the bombs rained down all round the ship, the explosions tossing her about like a cork and drenching her with spray. There were no direct hits, but concussion and splinters from near misses made the ship a shambles. Then it was over, and there was silence except for the hiss of steam escaping from burst pipes. Five minutes later the bombers returned, but this time they concentrated their attack on the abandoned steamer a few hundred yards away. They sank her and, having used up all their bombs, returned to their base.
The Darvel, although spared a second bombing, was in parlous condition. Her hull was riddled with holes by bomb splinters, and she was leaking badly. The steering gear was damaged, and so were all the lifeboats. Fires had broken out in several places, and many of the troops on board were killed or wounded. The New Zealand unit had one killed, seventeen wounded, and several more slightly injured.*page 25
The captain gave the order to abandon ship, but the state of the boats made it impossible. The fires were quickly brought under control, and then working parties from the Construction Squadron went below to fill in the scores of small holes with wooden plugs. Others set to work to repair the lifeboats and rigging and clear up the debris on the decks. There was no doctor on board, so medical orderlies cared for the wounded.
A naval officer, Lieutenant Commander Griffiths, RN, took over command of the ship and, rather than wait for another attack, decided to risk steaming through the rest of the strait in daylight. The passage was accomplished safely, and at the southern entrance a halt was made to repair the damaged steering gear. Finally, at half past eight in the evening when welcome darkness covered the ship, course was set for Batavia. By next morning, 12 February, the Darvel was listing badly to port, and the Captain reported that she was sinking. All passengers and baggage were crowded to the starboard side, and members of the Construction Squadron went below and plugged more holes. After about two hours' work the leakage was brought under control, and the ship eventually arrived off Batavia at midday and berthed at two o'clock. Senior officers who had travelled in her reported afterwards that, although the New Zealanders formed only a small proportion of the troops on board, it was due entirely to their work and initiative that the Darvel reached Java safely.
On arrival at Batavia the wounded were taken to the Dutch Military Hospital and the rest of the New Zealanders rejoined the other half of the squadron, which was quartered in a transit camp at King Wilhelm III School. The next day the whole unit was moved to Buitenzorg where it remained for a week while the Commanding Officer, Squadron Leader Smart, discussed future plans with Allied Air Headquarters at Bandoeng. In the prevailing confusion it was difficult to obtain any instructions. While it was still thought that Java could be defended, suggestions were made that the squadron should be employed digging trenches and tank traps in Java, but with the Japanese advance daily coming closer, the situation was constantly changing and plans were made only to be discarded. Eventually it was decided that as the unit had lost all its equipment it should be evacuated, to reform and re-equip in Australia or New Zealand. Accordingly, on 20 February it returned to Batavia and went on board the SS Marella. Although Japanese air activity was by this time increasing over Java, the embarkation was carried out without incident. The Marella sailed at six o'clock that evening, in one of the last convoys to get away from Java unharmed, and reached the friendly shores of Australia a week later.