Desperate last hours in Singapore

A launch returning from an island in Keppel Harbour at Singapore after Royal Engineers had set fire to oil storage tanks there, January 1942.

Royal Navy officer R. G. Curry (later Lieutenant Commander) had been assisting the RAF but now, after all the aircraft had been evacuated to Java, found himself without any responsibilities – he made his way to the Singapore docks to find a ship that he could volunteer to join. It was the 12th February:

From the ship’s bridge I was horrified to see scores of children, and women, standing right up to the very edge of Clifford Pier, waiting desperately for rescue. Our guns on Pulau Blakang Mati were shelling the enemy lines, the shells passing over us. Jap planes were slowly circling over the city, throwing red anti-personnel grenades on to the soldiers and civilians which exploded before they reached the ground. The Captain told me that our job was to proceed to the minefield at dusk, show a red light and guide escaping ships and craft through the minefields, and return to base at dawn.

The Japanese were at a radius of 3-4 miles away, and the people were being killed at a rate of 2000 per day, not counting wounded. He was telling me that he had to attend a conference at Fort Canning on Friday 13th Feb, when he heard the drone of planes, there were 27 Jap Bombers approaching the docks from the east. Before going below to take cover I looked at those children, dressed mostly in white with ribbons in their hair, waving to us – no shelter at all – Dear God.

Down below I found an air raid shelter built entirely of large tins of corned beef, and as I dived in, it was explained that the bomb splinters could slice through the sides of a ship, but could not penetrate the corned beef. Good old Admiralty ham. As the bombs exploded all around us I thought of those children standing on Clifford Pier unprotected. As soon as the crash of bombs finished, I rushed up top and thank God, the children were still standing there, waving to us. A large Chinese junk was burning and people, also on fire, were jumping into the sea.

At dusk we steamed away to the minefields to show our red light, the children and women stopped waving as they watched us leave. I have had the picture of those children in my minds eye for 34 years, even though I was slightly comforted by a shipmate who assured me that the Japanese even in their brutal unpredictable way, were fond of children.

Throughout the night we guided escape craft through the minefields to what we all thought was safety. None of us appeared to know that a Japanese Naval Squadron consisting of two 8inch Gun Cruisers, an Aircraft Carrier, and three destroyers, under the command of Admiral Ozawa, was already cruising between the escaping ships and the south, and they sank nearly all escape ships with tremendous loss of life.

At dawn we returned to our moorings at Keppel Harbour to witness the slaughter, the fires, the children, the bombings, and take refuge in our corned beef shelter. It was Friday 13th February 1942.

Read more of Lieutenant Commander R. G. Curry’s story on BBC People’s War.

Bert Miller has also left a graphic description of the final few days:

Jap naval units had taken station around the island and sought, indiscriminately the few remaining 25-pounder batteries. Shells from the guns concentrated on the mainland, punctuated with the click, whine and ‘crump’ of nearby mortars, hammered the pockets of resistance still operational.

The never-ending flights of bombers blasted everything. Buildings folded like decks of cards on to streets festooned with wire that once fed telephones and power. An ominous web supported in its disorder by the uprooted poles and crumpled stanchions.

Thousands of refugees crouched in the hollow drainpipes and monsoon ditches, seeking protection from shells, bombs and the machine-gunning from the low flying planes.

No deep shelters existed the waterlogged ground and on the surface any substantial refuge was out of the question as the city was so congested, there was no space. Many of the streets were impassable. Civilians driven from their up-country plantations had abandoned their cars bumper to bumper, and when struck by bullet or shell fragment would burst into flames; igniting the car in front and behind. Such chain reactions would spread the fire to the length of a block.

Meanwhile, demolitions had gone ahead at the Naval base with the oil tanks well alight. Smoke darkened the sky and midday became dusk. So high and so vast the great columns seemed to reach forever. In the canals and ditches, bloated corpses of air raid victims and their animals floated on oil from the streaming tanks.

Among the ruins, stark and stiffening bodies lay unburied, while along the thoroughfares the water from burst mains dowsed corpses as it rushed to waste.

Still the bombing went on: unopposed. The same areas were struck again and again. It was devastation of devastation: if anything like that is possibly conceivable.

Casualties were reaching 2000 a day.

The air was full of choking dust and during the showers the clouds wept black tears as the rain passed through the oil-laden smoke: there was no escape from the stench of cordite, sewers and the rotting flesh.

Read more of Bert Miller’s story on BBC People’s War.

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