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Extracts of Singapore Burning

From Chapter Thirty-two:-

Every time the gun on Blakang Mati fired Katherine Stapledon noticed how the blast flapped her trousers against her legs. She was standing on the deck of the SS Gorgon, a small Blue Funnel liner anchored in the roads and not far from where the coastal gunners were firing inland. Next to her was her friend Billy, an Australian woman who had worked at the RAF communications centre with her. The ship had come in from Australia a couple of days before laden with tinned food. When the crew discovered that, because of the air raids, most of the dockers had fled they had unloaded it themselves.

Like many of the wives, Katherine had put her name down for evacuation under protest and when the chance came had left only because her husband had insisted. There had been very short notice and the two permitted suitcases were not fully packed. At the last moment she had scooped up some table silver and cutlery, wrapped them in a silk petticoat and stuffed them among her clothes. Partings of this kind were a wretched business . There could be no certainty whatsoever that they would meet again and many did not. Nor was it always the ones who remained who died. Few realised it but the situation was rapidly reaching the point where Japanese naval and air supremacy would make it more dangerous to go than to stay. Women registered on evacuation lists would often be telephoned at home or their place of work and told they had an hour to pack and get down to the docks. “The men said goodbye to us cheerfully, waving and saying they would come down next morning, but none of them came. They realised too well how painful it would be for all of us.”

Twenty-four later, the SS Gorgon had got no further than an anchorage in the roads and during that time they had been boarded by two gangs of deserters. The first were sixteen British soldiers off a motor launch. Katherine Stapledon watched them come aboard.

There was no-one to stop them. They were armed and looked very determined. They went straight to the captain and demanded to be taken with us. Their story was that they had been told to get out as best they could... They commanded the deck with their rifles and we thought that if the Captain refused to take them, some of us would surely get shot. As soon as they heard they could come along they collected their rifles and gave them up. It was clear that they had seen heavy fighting and appeared dazed and strung up...

To avoid a repetition of this the Gorgon’s master took his ship a little further out to sea but an hour later thirty-two Australian soldiers under a sergeant came out to the vessel in sampans and Katherine was amazed at the way they managed to paddle through the swell. This was followed by a brief struggle with some of the Gorgon’s crew who were in a launch at the bottom of the gangway.

It was a ghastly sight. They shouted, “Take us, Oh! Take us - don’t leave us behind.” We then hoped they would get aboard safely...Directly they appeared on deck our feelings changed...all of us were feeling bitter and distraught at the thought of our husbands left behind, most of them unarmed. ..who knows what mental and physical strain had led them to take this cowardly step?... I approached the sergeant and asked him why they had come. He said that Singapore was falling and they thought they might as well leave. They could do nothing.... I told him they should have stayed and done their best. After all, they were armed, and many civilians including our husbands, had stayed though they had no means of defending themselves. He then told me that they got lost and didn’t know to whom they ought to report... the women ignored them though some of the men made much of them and bought them drinks.

When Wizardus woke up he was in a bed which he later discovered was in an overcrowded ward of Alexandra hospital. He had probably been given quite a lot of morphia because he kept drifting in and out of consciousness and even when he felt awake he suspected he was dreaming. Shells were apparently landing close by. Sometimes he thought he could feel their blast. It was night and the orderlies were putting blackout boards on the windows but as fast as they put them up they were blown out again. In one of his waking moments he asked the man to the right, who was not on a bed but lying on a stretcher below him, if he still had a right hand. The man picked up his arm and for the first time Anckorn saw there was a stump or lump at the end of it bandaged up like a boxing glove. Then his neighbour put his hand in inside the boxing glove and started, finger by finger, with “This little piggy went to market”. By the time the last little piggy had gone all the way home, the conjuror knew he had not made his last stage appearance after all. He drifted back to sleep. The next time he woke up he was obviously dreaming because there were Japanese in the ward. Then he noticed his neighbour seemed to be staring in the same direction.

I said, aren’t they Japanese soldiers and he said yes they are. I said what are they doing? He said they’re taking people on the front lawn and killing them. I said, “Oh I see.” Then I went off again. The next time I woke up the Japanese were back in the ward, going from bed to bed with fixed bayonets. I said out loud to myself two things. “I’ll never be 24”. The other one was, “Poor Mum”. By then they had got close to my bed for my turn of bayoneting.


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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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