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Extracts of Singapore Burning

From Chapter Twenty-five:-

Over the next few days some more stragglers from Painter’s brigade got to the island. By 3 February the grand total had reached 62 officers and men. The last was a British signalman called Winterbottam who removed his boots and swam across. None of these appear to have brought news of Painter’s capture and it was sometime before Percival’s HQ could bring themselves to accept that his brigade was lost. Dane and other daring Tiger Moth pilots went searching for them but brought back nothing more than fresh holes in their four wings for the fitters to patch and glue.

At night the search was continued by a couple of officers from the newly arrived Sherwood Forresters, part of the 18th East Anglian Division which was now almost all on the island and had been allotted positions on its northern shore. Captain “Black Bill” Thirlby, a keen yachtsman, had discovered an abandoned RAF launch armed with twin Lewes guns. Along with Lieutenant John Goatly, the battalion’s intelligence officer, they would go to the broken end of the Causeway, switch off the engines and then drift towards the enemy occupied shore, calling into the darkness, “Are there any British troops there?” But the only reply was the, “tok,tok, tok” of the nightjar which sounded remarkably like a small engine coming towards them and made them reach for their machine-guns.

There were, of course, plenty of British Imperial troops still at large on the other side of the water but mostly well out of earshot. The loose ends of Percival’s shaken command were distributed the length and breadth of the peninsula. In Kota Baharu bazaar some of the Dogra soldiers of Keys’ old brigade, who had given the Japanese such a bloody nose on the beaches there, were learning to pass themselves off as locals. On Penang island, deep in its mountain forest, were seven Leicesters under a Sergeant Bennett. With the help of some courageous Chinese, they had been hiding out there ever since Jitra and the ambush of their battalion as Morrison led it singing into Alo Star. In central Malaya, often still not all that far from Slim River, there were scores of Argylls in various states of repair as malaria, blackwater fever and beri beri began to take their toll. Dr Ryrie, the Scots doctor who had witnessed Kuala Lumpur’s moment of anarchy, was feeding a party of Argylls hiding out in he jungle near his leper colony at Sungei Buloh . The Japanese were suspicious of him but, terrified of leprosy, they seemed willing, for the time being at least, to let the doctor stay on. Lindsey Robertson, who had enjoyed such a brief moment as the Argyll’s commander, was leading a small party of determined men south and had made it plain that he did not intend to be captured. Others were heading for the west coast in the hopes of getting a boat across the Malacca Straits to Dutch Sumatra. Among these was the Australian anti-tank gunner Harrison who had wreaked such havoc at Gemas and had spent a few days with some Chinese guerrillas before heading west. Most of the evaders were helped by the more politically aware Chinese, often at a terrible price. A sick Argyll officer, gradually recovering his health because of the bundles of food delivered daily to a certain tree by the teenaged daughter of a Chinese schoolteacher, one day discovered with his lunch a note in English: “They took my father and cut off his head. I will continue to feed you as long as I can.”

Near Parit Sulong a strange Ben Gunn figure with filthy matted hair, long bushy beard and wild, staring eyes haunted the Malayan villages in the area. This was the Australian Lieutenant Ben Hackney of the 2/29th battalion, survivor of the massacre of the Australian and Indian wounded at Parit Sulong who, unable to walk, had told his companion to go on. He was being fed by nervous locals who were not as hostile as the more middle class Malays, particularly the school teachers and doctors, who had organised the pro-Japanese Malayan Youth Union. They would not allow him into their homes but would put food out for him the way people sometimes feed stray cats. Hackney was living from day to day, giving time for his legs to mend, determined not to be recaptured. Already the fate of his fellow survivor, Lance-Havildar Benedict who had been caught with his two comrades in the Sappers and Miners while they were trying to find a boat at Muar. This time they were reasonably treated. Nor did their new captors show much interest in the prominent half healed gash in Sapper Periasamy’s neck.

Not all the British on the northern side of the Straits were evaders. The SOE stay behind parties had gone into action. After a shaky start when most of his explosives were stolen Spencer-Chapman had not only recovered them but was beginning to refine his ambush techniques, supplementing War Office plastic explosive with some mining gelignite they had acquired.

"I hit Sartin on the shoulder and we all pressed our bodies down into the soft soil. Harvey and I pulled the pins out of our grenades. As far as we could make out on reconstructing the scene later, the bomb must have exploded beneath the petrol tank and ignited that too...the flash was followed by a steady and brilliant blaze which lit up the whole scene like stage setting. As I threw my grenades, I caught a glimpse of another large closed truck crashing into the burning wreckage and the third one turning broadside on with a scream of brakes."


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Buy this book from
  Singapore Burning - Heroism and Surrender in World War Two
Viking Penguin,
London, 2005

ISBN 0-670-91341-3
A Penguin paperback edition is scheduled for May 2006.
(The Amazon catalogue entry that it came out in September this year is a mistake. As yet, no paperback exists.)
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