Our knees wobbled down the gangway and, glad to set foot again on solid ground, we staggered bow-legged along the quayside to a row of Army trucks waiting to take us to the barracks. A gruff transport officer instructed us to hoist our kit bags, which contained all our worldly possessions, into the back of the small pick-up trucks.
We clambered up, eight to each green open-top truck, and sat with our feet on our bags. It was only mid-morning but the sun was high, the city already alive and raucous. I was more than glad to get off the ship. It had become so monotonous and tensions were running high. It felt a whole lot safer to be back on land. We still did not know what was in store for us but we were getting accustomed to that by now. The fear of the unknown had started to lose its edge.
Singapore was a sexy posting for British colonials, who enjoyed a privileged, bungalow-dwelling existence. They had servants to prepare their Singapore sling cocktails, grown men, known as ‘boys’, to run their households, and ayahs, native nannies, to look after their children. During the twenties and thirties the explosive growth in the automotive industry had created a terrific demand for the rubber grown in the vast plantations up-country in Malaya. The material was shipped out to Europe and North America from Singapore’s heaving port. The outbreak of war had further boosted demand for rubber and Malaya’s other great export, tin. Fortunes were being made and Singapore was a boomtown. The island even boasted its own Ford factory, the only car manufacturing plant in the whole of South-East Asia. Symbolic of Singapore’s affluence was the shimmering splendour of the Cathay Building complete with a large air-conditioned cinema. It was an opulent existence for officers and colonials, with no shortage of exotic nightlife at places like Raffles Hotel – all strictly out of bounds to us ORs as the ‘other ranks’, the non-officers, were known.
The sheer diversity of the population was amazing. To us it was a kaleidoscope of humanity. There were Chinese, Javanese, Indians, Tamils, Malayans, lots of Eurasians and even a sizeable Japanese minority, several of whom had been busy spying for their motherland. It was an ethnic melting pot and a political cauldron. Refugees from the Japanese invasion of China in 1937 had flooded in and set up aid organisations to channel arms back to the Chinese resistance.
While louche British expatriates recreated the Home Counties in the tropics and sipped their gin slings in the country club, Singapore was seething with political intrigue among groups who had very different ideas about the future of the British Empire. Malayan nationalists, Chinese nationalists and Indian nationalists vied with Malayan communists, Chinese communists and Indian communists, not to mention Japanese sympathisers. And then there were the Buddhists, Muslims, Jews, Christians, Taoists, Sikhs and Hindus!
The driver told us to hang on. It would be a bumpy eighteen-mile ride to our barracks, situated at Selarang, east of the city, past Changi village on the Changi peninsula. As we bounced along the dusty, unpaved roads, gripping on for dear life, I saw for the first time how poor the place was for the vast majority of people. As we trundled past rickety open-fronted shops and shacks, a heady mixture of tamarind, cinnamon, nutmeg, wisps of incense, frying fish and rotting fruit invaded my nostrils. Groups of Chinese men were hunched over benches clattering down mah-jong tiles with great flourishes, gambling and shouting.
The sights, sounds and above all the heat hit us like a sledgehammer. I looked at my intrepid fellow conscripts who were also soaking up their new surroundings. We had never seen anything like it. Small, tan-skinned men were standing around fires frying green bananas in their skins while others cracked coconuts with machetes, tossed their heads back and drank deeply. After passing through Singapore City and its bordering villages, we were soon in the countryside, and countless rice fields and banana plantations.
Finally at the end of the forty-five-minute journey, we arrived at Selarang, the home of the 2nd Battalion of the Gordon Highlanders. I noticed immediately that the fencing did not extend all the way around the barracks and it seemed a rather sleepy haven. As we approached the parade ground I saw five blocks of two-storey concrete barracks, with open verandas overlooking the square. Little did we realise that this inoffensive-looking complex, designed to house 820 men, would later become the scene of one of the most infamous episodes in the history of the British Army. These blocks were to be our new home and they were certainly modern and a bright change from the grim greyness of our Bridge of Don base.
Joining a regular battalion of time-served soldiers was a daunting prospect to us rookies. We unloaded our kit and were ordered to the dining room for lunch, where Chinese cooks gave us British food. After we had eaten, the commanding officer Lieutenant Colonel W. J. Graham welcomed us to Singapore. He was an authoritative figure, who quite obviously came from a ‘good’ family. He certainly spoke better English than we did. He gave us an informal pep talk right there in the dining room, welcoming us and reading a lot of the King’s regulations from his wee Army book.
He reminded us of our great traditions and the need to uphold the honour of the regiment. The Gordons seemed to have been in so many of the key battles fought by the British Army. The buttons on our white spats were black – in memory of our commander during the Napoleonic Wars. The details of his interment were taught in verse to generations of British schoolboys as ‘The Burial of Sir John Moore after Corunna’. At Waterloo the Gordons had grasped the stirrups of the galloping Scots Greys when they charged into Napoleon’s troops with the cry ‘Scotland Forever!’ – a scene immortalised in Lady Butler’s famous painting. It was certainly a hard act to follow and frankly we hoped that we would never be required to do so.
Colonel Graham then went on to speak about Singapore itself and the dark dangers that lurked therein. Pacing up and down before us innocent recruits he suddenly announced to our surprise: ‘Venereal Disease! I’m sure you all know what it is. I can tell you now that it is rife among the Chinese, Malays and Eurasians. Any soldier contracting the disease will be charged and severely dealt with.’
Talk about being punished twice for one crime!
He warned us to watch our wallets when in the city and also reminded us that the military police would pick us up and bring us in front of him if we were spotted without wearing proper uniform – including our thick, redchecked, woollen Glengarry caps, despite the intense heat.
He finished up by saying, ‘Tomorrow you will rest and draw equipment from the quartermaster’s stores and familiarise yourself with your surroundings.’
After the commanding officer’s speech we were split into our companies – A, B, C and D. I was assigned to D Company, along with three others from my platoon of new arrivals. We joined the barracks and tried to settle in. But we were the new meat and fresh targets. We got some amount of ribbing, most of it good-natured but some below the belt and bordering on bullying. Like a new football club signing entering the changing rooms for the first time, there was plenty of macho posturing and mock sexual advances towards us ‘pretty young things’. I decided to muck right in and do the best I could. I was sure that I could become a good soldier and be better than most of my tormentors anyway.
The following day, after a sleepless night, was spent mostly drawing equipment, clothing and rifle. When the officer in the quartermaster’s store handed me my rifle I thought he was kidding me on. I stared at the antique gun and turned it over and over in my hands. With utter disbelief I saw it was dated 1907 – a bashed-up relic from before the First World War. I realised that the rifle and its accompanying bayonet, along with my webbing and buttons, would require much cleaning, polishing and general elbow grease to bring it up to the standard of regular soldiers, whose long experience in Singapore gave them the edge over us.
We paraded for inspection and for extra drill by the RSM. Unsurprisingly not one rifle or bayonet passed. When the drill commenced the regulars hanging over the balconies on all sides of the parade ground took great delight in our pathetic and shambolic performance. They hooted and hollered, subjecting our efforts to merciless and withering comment. For two solid hours in the heat of the afternoon sun we sweated and toiled. With our fatigues soaking we were a bedraggled spectacle when dismissed and we stumbled back to our respective barracks with bleeding toes and red-raw feet.
Christmas Day in 1939 was celebrated in real traditional British style. The officers mucked in for a change and served up generous carvings of turkey with all the trimmings and plum pudding to the men. The dining room had been decorated with festive bunting and there was a cracker for each man. All of us enjoyed the atmosphere and it was probably the most euphoric we had been for weeks. But less than a hundred miles north of the equator the temperature was well into the nineties and it did feel strange to enjoy festivities without being wrapped up in woolly jumpers and scarves. It was my first Christmas away from home and would be my last celebration for six long years.
For the first six weeks at Selarang us new recruits had our own drill and weapons training in the morning, and went our separate ways in the afternoon to complete basic training. This was simply an extension of the Bridge of Don training – the same drill, just done in tropical conditions. Being fair-skinned, I found the heat got to me more than anything. But it never stopped me from giving my all and I was as good as any in the squad. Myself and the three others from the original Bridge of Don platoon pretty much stuck together during those first few weeks. We had yet to be accepted by the regulars so we stayed close and kept each other right.
Once a week we went down to the rifle range on a stretch of virgin hillocky land at the back of the barracks. We enjoyed letting out our frustrations on the trigger of the Bren gun. Rifle practice was fun too, even though I could hardly hit a barn door with my defective gun. We would usually start target practice from a hundred yards, which seemed the preferred distance to keep your enemy at, but occasionally a bit further.
The officers would also order us on weekly route marches of ten miles or so over uneven ground – sand dunes, semi-jungle – never a proper path, hauling full kit and rifle. They kept us pretty fit – they had to stave off the boredom somehow.
By four in the afternoon we were left to our own devices until dinner at six. Most days we would walk the three or four miles to the neighbouring Roberts barracks, home of the Royal Artillery units. They had a twenty-five-metre outdoor swimming pool that they let us use. After a hard day of training the cool of the pool was fantastically refreshing and reinvigorating. We would eke out as much time as possible before we had to get back to Selarang in time for dinner. If you were late, you went hungry.
The speed at which the sun went down was something that I never really got used to. It was dark by 6 p.m. After dinner I sat on my bed in the barracks, spitting and polishing, and writing letters home. I had never written as often as I did in those early days. I would write to Mother mainly and would include notes to my whole family. Mum would tell me news of home to keep me updated. But she never mentioned Douglas for some reason I never quite understood. I think that maybe she did not want to worry me as I later learned he had gone off to be a glider pilot. I wrote occasionally to my old pal Eric, who had joined up with the RAF, and also to Hazel Watson, the girl I danced with before I left. On days of extreme boredom I would think of Hazel, who seemed to become more attractive and intelligent with every day and every mile that passed between us.
At the end of the six weeks us conscripts were considered passable as soldiers. Without fuss or fanfare we became fully trained members of our respective companies. Aside from the regular training sessions, each company was assigned to guard duties.
Now that I was in the Army proper, spit and polish was the order of the evenings, with drill, manoeuvres, guard duties and PT during the day. Bizarrely each day between 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. the whole camp came to a standstill for a compulsory siesta. Every man had to be in his bunk during that period. I disagreed with this from the start. The enemy seemed unlikely to suspend hostilities to allow us time to rest during the hottest part of the day. One’s body gets accustomed to the habit of daily routine. It was hardly suitable training for jungle warfare but our superiors thought differently. This ridiculous routine, a hangover from the days of the Raj, was fairly typical of the complacency that served the British so badly in Singapore.
During training with D Company I soon found favour with the commanding officer, Captain W. H. Duke. Noticing my high fitness levels, he was particularly interested in my athletics background. I told him that I ran 220 and 440 yards at grammar school and generally spent my life sprinting here and there. He was impressed by what he saw and I, along with another of the new conscripts, wee Davie, was put through training in athletics for the annual battalion championships between companies. He told us to be ready for training at 6 a.m. the next day.
The following morning I was on the parade ground going through my exercises. Captain Duke, Sandhurst-trained and the best officer I had ever served with, produced a pair of spikes. I was familiar with spikes and had used them many times back home, although wee Davie found them difficult and took some time to get used to them. Captain Duke was himself an excellent runner, particularly over the 220-yard races. Training was held for an hour across from the guardroom on the pedang – not an athletics track, just a patch of coarse grass that served its purpose for us very well.
Captain Duke watched us intently as we sprinted laps, timing with the stopwatch that hung permanently from his neck. He was very softly spoken but knew how to get the most out of us. After a few laps he would come up and give some technical tips, like how to run the bend or how to maximise your stride – things that the sports master at school never taught. I improved a lot under his tuition.
We wanted to shine as individuals and trained hard. But we also wanted the Company to perform well. I was allotted to run the 440- and 880-yard races while the other chap was given the mile race. Captain Duke did the long jump and high jump duties were shared by myself and wee Davie.
Finally the day dawned for the battalion sports day. I was extremely nervous throughout the day before the event kicked off at 4 p.m. on the pedang where we had trained. I wasn’t too sure why, as I had competed in various events back home without any such nerves. I guess after all the stick we had taken from the regulars I wanted to prove myself in my own way. I was certainly out to win. All of the officers, their wives and children were there, along with the company support, cheering us on from the sidelines. Stakes had been hammered into the ground to mark out the makeshift track. It was covered in bumps and rises that could put you off your stride but since I had practised on it I knew all the bad bits and dips.
After a shaky start I managed to hit my strides and win the 440-yard race, while wee Davie won the mile event. I didn’t fare as well in the 880 yards but still finished a credible third. I also won the high jump and the officer won all of his events as anticipated. Our 220-yard relay team was augmented by a fairly good runner, and with Captain Duke as anchor man we came in a solid second. On that showing we lifted the cup for 1940. There was no hugging and kissing, no grand party, just back to the barracks to spit and polish and get ready for the next day. But the grin on my face remained for a good while.
Athletics helped get me out of the cocoon that is military life. And after the battalion championships I decided to travel into Singapore as often as possible to break the tedium. However, as a conscripted private paid just a shilling a day, less deductions for my keep, and when converted to Singapore dollars, it was nigh on impossible to leave the barracks more than once a month.
But the more I did get out, the more I encountered the local colonial population. And the more I saw of them, the less I liked what I saw. Most of the white people, rubber planters, mining company managers or those working for the government, conducted themselves with swaggering arrogance and had nothing but contempt for the armed forces who had been sent out to protect them. On one day off I thought I would venture into Singapore. I had heard that the air-conditioned Cathay cinema was showing Gone with the Wind. I caught the ‘piggy bus’ and got dropped off downtown. Walking along the pavement, or ‘sidewalk’ as they called it, I had my first experience with the local colonials. Two chaps dressed in sandals, khaki shorts and immaculate open-collar cotton shirts were striding towards me. As they approached one of them said to me in a pukka upper-class English accent, ‘Hey, soldier. You have to get off the sidewalk to let us past.’
I stopped in my tracks, stunned. ‘Excuse me,’ I said. ‘Who are you talking to?’
‘You. Who else?’ one of them sneered.
Bristling with rage I replied, ‘Why do you think I’m here? I didn’t want to come to Singapore but we’re here to defend you and there’s no way I’m getting off the pavement for you or anyone else.’
Greatly affronted they threatened to report me to my commanding officer and stormed off pompously. I stood there shaking my fist at them. ‘You do that! But I’m not moving off this sidewalk!’
I was still cursing them as they disappeared from view. If this was how they treated us, goodness knows what they meted out to the native rubber-tappers. It was a miracle that there was not more trouble, I thought, as I marched to the cinema. I had never been treated like that before and it was disgusting to witness these English and Scottish colonials and their diabolically superior attitude to all and sundry. I swore never to become like them and arrived at the cinema only to discover that the screening had been cancelled – which did nothing for my mood.
A few weeks later I received an unexpected invitation to lunch from a chap called Ian, who was engaged to my cousin Cathie Kynoch. He was a fellow Aberdonian – a very large proportion of the colonials were Scottish – and managed a rubber plantation in the Singapore area. I was pleased to have been remembered and excited at the prospect of meeting people outside the stultifying confines of the military. Naturally I dressed immaculately in Army ‘whites’, my formal attire, and made my way to the exclusive club in the middle of Singapore City. I clutched my invitation to a club usually out of bounds to the likes of me and as I approached suddenly felt extremely poor. The club was housed in a huge white building that had been converted from a former mansion house. I walked up the palm-lined pavement and, finally plucking up the courage, entered the teak-panelled drinking club popular with expat traders, rubber planters and their guests. As I went in I felt the welcoming cool of the air-conditioning and the swish-swish of the ceiling fans. The louvred blinds kept out the heat of the sun and white-jacketed bar tenders were shaking cocktails. It was another, well-heeled world. I could sense all the men in the room sizing me up, the only non-civilian there, and felt extremely uncomfortable under their disdainful stares. I walked up to the long bar beside the vacant snooker table and under the swooping of the fans took my bearings. The all-male clientele were standing, drinking brandy and gin slings in equally copious measures and smoking cigars and expensive filtered cigarettes. Shouting at the Chinese waiters and making derogatory comments, they were much the same arrogant characters I had seen abusing the rickshaw drivers in the streets of Singapore.
I was wondering whether to turn around and leave when a large man with a bloated face and stomach came forward and introduced himself as Ian, my cousin Cathie’s fiancé.
To my horror the man was one of the two planters who had tried to chuck me off the sidewalk. If he recognised me, he concealed it well and offered a sweaty palm. I shook his hand automatically. In a loud and artificially acquired pukka accent, he asked, ‘What’ll you be having to drink, good fellow?’
‘Iced lemonade,’ I replied, noticing the smell of alcohol on his breath and the red lines that webbed his eyes.
‘What? Iced lemonade?’ he roared, as if I had just asked for Hitler’s barber.
‘Yes, just iced lemonade, thank you.’
He tossed his head back laughing, shouted to a waiter to fix my drink, and went back to his pals, who were in stitches. A few of his drinking buddies came over and attempted some forced small talk. Ian came back over and said, ‘So you’re just a private, then?’ in a voice loud enough for everyone to hear.
My lemonade arrived and despite not being particularly sour, it certainly went over that way. I downed it rather quickly, made my excuses and left. On the bus journey back to barracks I kicked myself for not having asked Ian if he had yet volunteered for the Malay Volunteer Force. He would be roped in eventually and I doubted that he would fare very well.
When I got back to the barracks I immediately sat down and wrote a letter to my cousin: ‘Dearest Cathie, I had never met your fiancé before I came to Singapore, but now that I have, I urge you in the strongest manner possible not to marry him. He is no good for you. He will ruin your life.’
I will never know whether it was my letter that changed her mind but I was delighted when she called off the engagement soon after.
During this period the news coming from home was worrying. Dunkirk, especially among the Highland regiments, was viewed as an unmitigated disaster. Churchill had ordered the 51st Highland Division to undertake a rearguard action to allow the beaches to be cleared of allied soldiers. Three hundred thousand men got off the beaches but forty-one thousand, including virtually the entire Scottish army in Europe, had been killed or captured at St Valery. The Black Watch, the Seaforth Highlanders, the Cameronians, the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders and two battalions of our own Gordon Highlanders were all either wiped out or marched into Germany as captives. It was a terrible thought. But in Singapore it was business as usual – still very much a ‘phoney war’. We never even had a blackout.
Somehow even the good news that came from home in late summer, when the RAF and our allies got the upper hand in the Battle of Britain, had a downside for us. The home islands were under attack and planes were needed to defend Britain. But where did that leave Singapore? There were mutterings in the barracks that we could be the ‘next Dunkirk’, a sitting duck without adequate air cover. Singapore was known as the ‘Naked Isle’ and that is exactly how it felt without a sizeable RAF contingent.
When I wasn’t taking part in athletics or exploring Singapore on the cheap, I threw myself into the training. The various companies of 112 men alternated guard duties at the barracks with stints at the governor’s house across the causeway on the Malaya Peninsula in Johore, and Blakang Mati – the small island at the foot of Singapore where the mighty British guns pointed out to sea. Each guard posting was for one week. The most sought-after duty was guarding the governor’s house and only the best men got selected. I did more than one stint at his house and I welcomed it like a vacation. It was a great number. The governor had a beautiful, lush nine-hole golf course as smooth as a billiard table, which we were allowed to play in the evenings, and the pace of life was even slower and more relaxed. At night, like something out of a Hollywood movie, huge chrome-plated limousines would pull up at the house and glamorous diamond-clad ladies in long, flowing dresses would step out and set our hearts aflutter, their escorts resplendent in white bow-tied evening wear and full regimental dress. In this idyllic existence, as the strains of the latest dance numbers drifted across the impeccable lawns, it seemed unthinkable to the governor, Sir Shenton Thomas, and his entourage that it might all come to a sudden and dramatic end.
Once in a while the battalion was ordered up-country to Port Dickson for jungle warfare training. On my first manoeuvre I walked straight into a tree that was home to a colony of red ants. Hordes of inch-long stingers swarmed all over me and were completely crazed at my sudden interference with their natural habitat. They were biting like mad all over my body, especially around my head and face. I cried out in pain and danced around like a mad man. I was in such a state that other men rushed to get the ants off me. I was in pretty bad shape and was taken off to hospital at Port Dickson where I was given antihistamine and took days to recover.
Aside from the armies of angry ants I enjoyed jungle manoeuvres. It was a welcome change from the humdrum existence of camp life. It was good too to put your training into action, even if I found the premise and the practice somewhat childish. We were supposed to attack a certain target and the officers would send us on the most ridiculous routes. Their tactics seemed antiquated and obvious, and would have us weaving through the jungle – the enemy would have seen us coming from miles away. The officers were completely out of their depth and just playing at soldiers. They had no jungle warfare expert on hand to assist them. They would have us setting off on manoeuvres and tell us to report back to a certain point by 3 p.m. – but you would never do that if you were fighting an enemy, you wouldn’t stop until you reached your objective. We were short of supplies and fuel, which meant that exercises sometimes had to be curtailed. There were times when it was quite farcical, a cross between Dad’s Army and It Ain’t Half Hot Mum. I kept my mouth shut of course.
Mail from home was slow and heavily censored but the local newspaper, the Singapore Times, kept us up to date with how the war in Europe was progressing. Almost daily it featured a headline announcing, ‘Singapore Impregnable’, and ran lengthy articles on ‘Fortress Singapore’. But the more our impregnability was trumpeted, the more I began to doubt it.
The regular soldiers never dreamed that there would be a war in the East. I used to shudder when I thought about it because I knew it would be a calamity. Our officers were in a situation beyond their understanding and our training lacked both skill and urgency. We had no tanks because in its wisdom High Command believed that they were not suited to the terrain. This was all too laboured, too tired, with too much hanging about wondering what was to be happening next. You cannot afford to do that when you are fighting someone.
After fifteen months at Selarang I was taking part in weapons training when I was summoned to the orderly room. Scratching my head I could not begin to imagine what I had done wrong. I arrived at the office and the lieutenant in charge quickly put me out of my misery. He said that I had ten minutes to pack up all my gear and report to the guardroom. I was being given a compulsory transfer to the Royal Army Service Corp, specifically the garrison adjutant’s office at Fort Canning, overlooking the city of Singapore. Fort Canning was the headquarters of the general staff and the Royal Corps of Signals. I was to take over from Lance Corporal Mackie, who was being returned to the regiment. Someone at the company must have looked at my CV and seen that I had office experience from civvy street.
A platoon truck was ready and waiting when I reached the guardroom and I was soon on the way to my new home at Fort Canning. I had only vaguely heard of it before and I didn’t know where it was. As the truck rumbled back in the direction of Singapore City, I was filled with excitement as well as apprehension and not too sad to leave Selarang. I saw the move as something of a promotion, even if there had been no mention of my gaining a corporal’s stripe or more money.
After crossing the island and heading up the hill that led to the headquarters we arrived at Fort Canning, occupying a commanding position on what was the original site of Sir Stamford Raffles’s first mansion. A complex warren of tunnels and underground bunkers, the so-called ‘Battlebox’ of Britain’s South-East Asia command, was largely situated underneath the reservoir that provided Singapore City with much of its water supply. It had all been constructed during the 1920s when Singapore was transformed into a fortress complex to counter growing Japanese ambitions that even then were perceived as a threat.
We reported to the guardroom where the garrison sergeant major came down and met me. He was a remarkable sight and did not instil a great deal of confidence to say the least. He reeked of drink and, bent over like a hunchback, suffered from some kind of degenerative deterioration of the spine. To cap it all he wore rimless glasses and sported a huge white ten-gallon cowboy hat. This bizarre spectacle left me speechless. I certainly would never have guessed he was a sergeant major, if it were not for his insignia. He grumbled a welcome and sent for someone else to take me to my sleeping quarters, a hut by the reservoir. A ramshackle affair standing away on its own, the cabin was incredibly cramped, having barely enough room for me to stand with my kit bag, but it was my own space with its own key. After living alongside other men for so long it was such a welcome change.
I dumped my stuff and was taken to the office, where the garrison sergeant major tried to explain what my role would be but was incredibly vague. I wasn’t completely sure he knew what I was to do either. He mentioned something about dealing with ‘general correspondence’ and typing up Part 1 and Part 2 orders that came from HQ.
My official title was Garrison Adjutant’s Clerk and apart from Garrison Adjutant Fowler in the office the only other worker there was a Tamil. I could not understand why the Army would employ a Tamil to do the payroll of the garrison when there were people like myself able to do the job. He had access to our strength and manning levels. He spoke very good English but we never got on. He had worked in the office for several years and I was extremely suspicious of him. As concern over Japanese agents and their fifth column activity grew, I made my suspicions known but was told to forget about it. Typically I was told he was ‘OK’ and ‘had been with us for years’.
I had a heavy workload and things were made more difficult by the garrison adjutant and the garrison sergeant major, who were both unreliable and often completely absent from their posts. Frankly they were a couple of imperious boozers. Adjutant Fowler would disappear around lunchtime and I would be lucky if I saw him back again. If he did come back in, he was usually drunk and incapable. He would shut himself in his office, lock the door and fall asleep. This became an embarrassment on many occasions when HQ telephoned for one or the other to go across to the underground headquarters – the labyrinth of corridors and offices, operations rooms and corps of signals under the reservoir.
On my first day I sat down to type at my desk below the only window in the office. The first piece of paper I had to deal with stopped me in my tracks. By a strange coincidence I saw my own name written at the top. I had to type up the official papers of my own promotion: to acting unpaid lance corporal. The next day I dealt with another item of personal interest: my company transfer and promotion to paid corporal, which took effect from that date. It was a significant pay rise and my monetary woes were suddenly resolved.
But the inefficiency of the place shocked me. It was totally slap-dash. Whatever mail came into the office got glanced at cursorily and set aside. No one would want to deal with it and things just piled up. While the garrison adjutant was off living the life of Riley, I knuckled down. I worked very long hours, starting at eight in the morning instead of the nine o’clock required starting time and working through till 10 p.m. most nights. Despite the mountain of work that lay ahead of me, and my reservations over my Tamil co-worker, I enjoyed the job. They left me alone to get on with things and I think I did a better job than the previous fellow. There were no drills or parades and the accommodation was a lot better. I played tennis at courts in the grounds of the fort with some of the signal and medical corps officers. I quickly made friends, more so than at Selarang.
I became very friendly with a signals man from Blackpool called Tommy Barker. A lot older than me, about thirty-five, he had been in Singapore with the Territorial Army for a few months before war was declared. We got talking one night in the mess room and discovered a mutual passion for ballroom dancing. Tommy, who had a wife and kids back home in the north of England, talked about the Tower Ballroom and the great times he had had there. He had seen all the major ballroom championships and was well versed in who was at the top then.
As the passes were issued by our office, most weekends I could easily obtain a ticket to leave the fort. So Tommy and I agreed that we would visit the dance halls of Singapore at the earliest opportunity.
We did not have long to wait. One night in the mess room tombola was being played. Tommy and I put in a dollar each and were lucky enough to win the ‘full house’, amounting to the small fortune of a hundred Singapore dollars. The following night, having obtained passes, we paid a pittance to catch the piggy bus from outside the barracks, travelling with the locals, Chinese and Malays into Singapore. Getting off downtown we began wandering the streets, looking for a place to blow our new-found riches.
My ears perked up as some distinctive sounds came floating down the evening street. We followed the sound and arrived at a dance hall, tucked away just off a busy Singapore street. It was called the Happy World and seemed to be jumping. Hardly able to contain my joy we rushed inside and I was delighted to see that its floor was quite large and of good quality, and that a live band responsible for those mesmeric sounds we had heard was in the corner and well into a set.
Sitting around the perimeter of the floor were some very beautiful Chinese, Malay and Eurasian girls. I wanted to start dancing as soon as possible and collared a soldier walking past to ask him what the local etiquette was. He suggested we order a drink and sit down while he explained how it worked. He told us that the girls were known as ‘taxi dancers’. To dance with them you had to buy books of tickets and for each dance the girl must receive one ticket. As I had never experienced anything like this before, I was bemused to say the least. I could not imagine anyone in Aberdeen charging for a dance!
We sat sipping our drinks and watched the performance of the mainly service personnel with the taxi dancers. There were, of course, Chinese men and other nationalities there but they seemed to drink and not dance. It did not occur to me at the time that they were probably minders or pimps. Most of the girls were prostitutes. They would let you know that dancing was only a prelude to later goings-on and would go off with men at the end of the night, having negotiated a price.
I was particularly interested in seeing Tommy dance and was not to be disappointed. He had a style all of his own and seemed to float across the floor. I loved watching him. But he was a big man, tall and bulky, and after each dance he would be breathless and sweating, needing to have a seat, puffing and mopping his brow with a hankie.
After finishing my drink, and having weighed up the girls, I decided to go for it. I bought some tickets and ventured on to the dancefloor. I nervously proffered a ticket to a Chinese girl and asked her to join me in a modern waltz, hoping she might just be able to dance. Thankfully she was a reasonable dancer and able to follow my leads. It was difficult to tell if she enjoyed dancing with me or not but on subsequent dances she seemed happy just to dance and made no untoward advances.
I was soon out of tickets and went back and bought some more for one dollar. The band played a popular tango, ‘Jealousy’. I never could resist that music and sought out the Chinese girl again and took her back to the dancefloor. She gave a very creditable performance and it was thoroughly enjoyable. It was rather difficult to dance with a strange partner but it all went very well. We danced late into the night.
Tommy and I soon had the bug and, carefully managing our winnings, we vowed to return to Singapore City the following weekend. The New World dance hall was open on Sunday afternoon and worked on the same principles as the Happy World. We managed to get passes to go and got there as soon as we could. Some of the girls from the Happy World club were there, including the girl I had danced with the previous week. This was a spot of luck for me and the smile I got when I asked her for a dance was most gratifying.
Tommy and I never went out alone and we arranged our outings to suit his shifts. One night at the Happy World we saw a notice that advertised an amateur ballroom championship to be held the following Friday night.
‘Why don’t you have a go, Alistair?’ Tommy said.
‘Why don’t you?’ I replied.
We talked about it all evening. Tommy was very persistent, to such an extent that he approached my Chinese partner, the lovely Nita, to ask if she would enter the championship with me. But since she could not speak English he was unable to make her understand. I was relieved and hoped that would be the end of the matter. But Tommy had the bit between his teeth and went up to four Chinese men sitting at another table to ask if any spoke or understood English. Apparently one did so Tommy persuaded him to approach Nita and explain what was wanted. After much excitable conversing in Chinese the chap came over and said that she had agreed, despite being extremely nervous.
It was arranged that we would be there on Friday, and as Tommy and I returned to the fort I tried to persuade him to enter too but he was adamant that he would simply be the cheerleader.
Friday night duly arrived with the two of us, dressed in whites, with highly polished brass buttons, looking as good as one can in Army uniform. For once the dance hall was full when we arrived. Lo and behold, Nita was dressed in a beautiful long white evening gown and had a very special hair-do. This was very pleasing and in my own bashful way I managed to convey to her that she looked stunning. We had a few dances together before the competition started.
Tommy was fussing and telling me just to go out and enjoy it. He helped put a number six on my back as we sussed out the competition. The Chinese were dressed in tails, while the Navy, Army and Air Force all had representatives. The dances were waltz, slow fox-trot, quickstep, tango and Viennese waltz.
I said to Tommy, ‘It’s a foregone conclusion. A Chinese couple will win it.’
‘Nonsense,’ he said. He handed me a whisky on the rocks to tame my nerves, which were beginning to spiral out of control. I couldn’t get on the floor quick enough when the first dance was called. Nita and I took the floor with another twenty couples.
Once the music started we danced well and Tommy, who had a very loud voice, started shouting, ‘C’mon number six! Go number six!’ Out of the corner of my eye I saw Tommy recruiting more cheerleaders and he soon had a whole gang of people chanting for ‘number six’.
Things were going well, especially in the slow fox-trot and the tango. Between dances Tommy kept saying, ‘You’ve only got the Navy chap to worry about but I think you’re well on top.’
‘Do you think so?’
‘Absolutely. Keep your head. Nita is doing great, you two haven’t made a single mistake.’
After a final faultless dance Nita and I, number six, were adjudged the winners. For our efforts we were presented with a small cup and a ‘Big Ben’ Westminster Chime metal clock.
We were popular winners and I think my pal’s cheerleading experience learned in Blackpool got the judges thinking ‘number six’, whether consciously or subconsciously.
The manager of the Happy World came to our table with a bottle of bubbly and brought Nita to join us for the rest of the evening. Lots of people came over to congratulate us and I felt quite the celebrity. When things quietened down a very well-dressed Chinese gentleman approached our table and asked if he could join us as he had a proposition for me.
‘Pull up a seat, sir,’ said Tommy quickly.
The Chinese gent asked if I would go along to his studio to give some lessons on how to dance smoothly. Tommy thought it was a great idea and practically decided on my behalf. So it was all arranged for Sunday afternoon and I launched into a new and all too brief career teaching the ‘dancing girls’ of Singapore how to fox-trot. They came and collected me at the fort gates and took me back after the classes. It was perfect.
Teaching dance without a grasp of Chinese was every bit as difficult as it sounds. I suggested that I demonstrate with one of the girls so that the permanent teacher could understand what I was trying to impart. So it was back to basics for the class. They learned steps from the teacher, who was using a Victor Silvester book on dancing but had not grasped the basics of ballroom dancing himself. Each class was based on balance, posture and walking through the steps. Initially I spent time working with the men because they are to be the leaders and I explained that all dances came from the hips. Then with the ladies I explained how to avoid getting their toes trodden on.
A few weeks later they were progressing well enough to introduce some variations to the basic steps. The Chinese were very good at learning and had supple bodies. Suffice to say that a few really good, smooth dancers emerged from the class and most of them went on after the class to the New World dance hall, where I met up with Tommy who benefited from all this by getting free dances for the afternoon, as the teacher paid for the girls’ tickets.
As I approached my second Christmas in the tropics, the band was playing on in Singapore but the new Japanese government, headed by the war-mongering Prime Minister Tojo, was keen to call a different tune. By now Britain was fighting for its survival in Europe and the Japanese could act to seize Malaya and half of the world’s rubber and most of its tin in one fell swoop. Tommy, a corporal in the signals department, kept me in the picture about the latest developments and Japanese movements. It had been obvious for some time that things were hotting up. Reinforcements were arriving from Britain and in February 1941 the Queen Mary would sail in with six thousand Australian troops to bolster the Singapore garrison and strengthen the lines up-country in Malaya. The pace of evacuation of women, children and civilians was also increasing ominously.
Singapore began to resemble less of a boomtown and more of a frontier town. As reinforcements continued to pour in tensions between the Australians and the Argylls sprang up and regularly spilled over into massive punchups and wild drunken brawls. The Argylls were even known to take their bugler with them to summon reinforcements when the inevitable boozed-up battles broke out.
On 2 December HMS Prince of Wales, the brand-new battleship that was the pride of the British Navy and which a few months earlier had hosted Churchill and Roosevelt’s North Atlantic talks, steamed into Singapore accompanied by the mighty HMS Repulse, a First World War-vintage cruiser. These two naval giants and a handful of destroyers were intended to act as a deterrent against Japanese aggression, in what seemed like a throwback to the era of gunboat diplomacy.
But the Army also had a plan, Tommy revealed. ‘Matador’, he said, swearing me to secrecy, was the codeword that would signal an imminent Japanese invasion. The British, Australians, Indians, Gurkhas and Malayans would launch a pre-emptive strike and turn our beaches into killing fields, forcing the Japanese back into the seas.
At Fort Canning we waited for the inevitable. We waited for Matador, and we waited and waited . . .