Fall of Singapore Documentary
Department of Veterans' Affairs 2017
Created to mark the 75th Anniversary of the Fall of Singapore, this film includes reflections from 8 veterans who served in the Malaya and Singapore. Some were taken prisoner and were allocated to work parties in Japan or on the Burma-Thailand Railway. Others served aboard naval ships in the region and were fortunate enough to escape capture. Their stories provide an emotional and compelling insight into a significant moment in Australian wartime history from a deeply personal perspective.
Hours before the raid on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Japanese forces landed in Thailand and northern Malaya. Their rapid advance forced British and dominion troops down the Malaya peninsula. After more than a month of fighting, they encountered Australian troops in southern Malaya but could not be stopped. By the beginning of February 1942, Allied forces had withdrawn to Singapore. 2 weeks later, on 15 February, they surrendered to the Japanese. Tens of thousands of Allied troops became prisoners of war (POWs). Others were taken prisoner elsewhere in South-East Asia and the Pacific, including members of ‘Blackforce’, who were taken prisoner in Java.
On-screen: In December 1941 Japanese forces landed at Malaya and began a rapid advance southwards, leading to the Fall of Singapore. Australians were among the Allied forces fighting to halt the advance.
Guy Griffiths: And so we were in Singapore at the naval base – not actually – we were anchored in the Johore Strait off the naval base, and then, of course, the Japanese entered the war on the midnight of the 7th – 8th in our time – and the Japanese bombed Singapore at about 4 in the morning, and they had no difficulty in finding the target because the city was a blaze of lights. There was no, sort of, any warning that the danger was so close.
Dixie Lee: We got bombed in Singapore Harbour and I was doing stoppage of leave. I was always in trouble, and I was doing stoppage of leave and so many were ashore and I thought ‘if a bomb drops here I’m dead’, so I dashed down. I had the ability, a companionway is a stairway sort of thing and they’ve got brass rails on the side. And being young and like a monkey, I was tearing around all over the place. I could hold this [railing] and put my 2 legs out and whoosh straight down. So I went choof-choof-choof right down in the engine room, so if a bomb dropped, I’d live. Because it would go off before it met me. Then I could hear the ‘voov … voov’ and I thought ‘if one lands alongside the warship, the plates will open up, the sea will pour in and I’ll drown’ so whiff-whiff-whiff-whiff. So there I was, you’ve got all the different decks, I’m right in the middle, sort of hanging both ways. Anyway, they left. Next day, we left, I think it was the next day or the day after that and we went past 2 beautiful ships: Prince of Wales and Repulse. Everything brass and shiny, oh everything was absolutely perfect. And we sort of looked at it and wished we were on that. So we left there and went in a northerly direction up towards Calcutta, where we arrived later, and the Prince of Wales and the Repulse left after us and went around and went the other way, up the coast of Malaysia. And about 2 or 3 days later, they were sunk. And then the dear old ship, you could feel her, feel her going down like standing in the bathtub with the plug out, you know, as the water came in. And so ‘abandon ship’ was given, people got off, those that could. And destroyers then picked up the people swimming, those who could, and that was sort of the end. The ship sank at 12:33, virtually about, within 10 minutes of the beginning of the attack. It was a sad, sad day because we lost over 500 officers and sailors from a ship’s company of about 1300. Prince of Wales sank a little while later. Picked up survivors, and we were taken back to Singapore.
James Kerr: Where I went into action at Muar, the 2/29th Battalion – a Victorian Battalion, had been sent to oppose a supposedly small force of Japanese that were stationed across the river. Unfortunately, the few Japanese, they said it was small force, turned out to be an Imperial Japanese Guards division; superbly trained troops. Well, we held them up for 4 days, which was incredible, considering a small force like that against a full division. And the 2/19th Battalion, which was a New South Wales battalion, had been sent up to reinforce the 2/29th so they were coming up the road to reinforce, but they then met the Japanese, of course, that had gone around us, so they were trying to fight their way up to us and after 4 days we realised that the Commanding Officer of 2/29th had been killed. They realised we couldn’t hold them any longer, so they made a fighting withdrawal back to join the 2/19th. So, unfortunately, we had to leave our guns behind – we couldn’t bring our guns with us, so we just walked out with the infantry. So we made a fighting withdrawal.
William Ennis: We moved around a few defensive positions before we set up an ambush at Gemas, which was from our point of view very satisfactory. Annihilated a few Japs. And then the next day, there was a head-on, and we were in danger of being surrounded, so we retreated. That was the story right down the peninsula. I’ve got visions of them flying overhead– 27 of them, you know, all in groups of 3, you know, 9s and 3 sets of 9s. Perfect formation, and they were flying over us toward Singapore. [They] dominated the skies; that was a real plus for them.
Bart Richardson: When we got back into Singapore Island there was not a strand of barbed wire erected, there was not a trench dug, there was nothing. Singapore was never, never, ever, ever an impregnable fortress.
Derek Holyoake: We arrived in Singapore on the 1st of February 1942. We stayed there until the 2nd, and there was utter chaos. And, of course, we left there and those poor people who were taken, a fortnight later they were in a POW camp. And I was on the wharf and all these poor Australian soldiers who’d been cut off from their units or whatever, and they were wandering up and down the wharves saying, ‘which ship’s going back to Australia, mate?’ The Japanese were just over the, well, they were waiting on the Johore side of the strait to come over. And as I said, it was all over in 14 days.
Bart Richardson: The artillery did a good job of it, all our mob did a good job. And the Japanese were surprised at the reception they received. They lost heavily. Very heavily. But we couldn’t stay there, it was a case of moving back anyway. And that’s just the way it went. Eventually, the Japanese captured the only two water reservoirs on Singapore and turned off the taps, and there was no water. In Singapore City, there was no water to wash, to drink, toilets, anything.
On-screen: On 15th February 1942, Singapore fell to the Japanese after a fiercely fought campaign in Malaya. More than 130,000 British and dominion troops became prisoners of war, including some 15,000 Australians.
Norman Dillon: It’s 20-mile march, sort of thing, up to Changi – up to Changi prison – where there was the gathering place. So that was it, it took all day for us to march … in the heat. Then they sent us to Japan in the northern island to start with, in the middle of winter, their Christmas in November, which up there was snow, but that was probably, well we lost 20 [men] in the first few months there, just from the cold and that, you know, that was the big killer. You were better off staying in Singapore; Japan was a killer, sort of thing.
James Kerr: People speak of Changi – you know, ‘oh you were in Changi’, as if it were some horrible camp like Belsen or one of those, but Changi compared to what went on up in Thailand was, you know, was just nothing. I would have been happy to have stayed in Changi for three and a half years, I know that. I went up to Thailand in March 1943, on D Force. We were 30 men to a steel rice truck – an enclosed rice steel truck. Fortunately, the doors were open, with the Japs sitting at the door. 30 men to a truck for a 5-day journey to Bangkok. So that was, you know, not a very pleasant journey. I can remember marching into my camp, which was Konyu 2 on the railway, on Anzac Day 1943.
Colin Hamley: When I first arrived in Burma, as I said, my brother had already gone up there. When we came through … they brought us through in trucks to our first camp, the 28 Kilo camp. The word must have got through that we were coming through because I saw my brother on the side of the road as we went through. He called out, and he had a hat full of cigarettes – he didn’t smoke, fortunately, and he saved all these cigarettes. It was like throwing gold to me, and he threw this hat full of cigarettes up to me onto the side of the truck. I got most of them but I didn’t get them all. But yeah, it was like throwing a hat full of gold, you know, because he could use cigarettes to barter for food and all sorts of things. But that was actually the last time I saw him, when I was going through.
James Kerr: My camp was below the one which you’ve probably heard of – Hellfire Pass – that was the biggest cutting on the railway. The one that we had was only a small cutting. So we had a small cutting and an embankment. So we had what we called ‘hammer and tap’ men, where you had a steel rod with a pointy end and a fellow with a 7-pound sledgehammer. So you held the rod while he belted the end of it, and you know, you turned it so you bored a hole in the rock. And then when they had enough holes they wanted to use in that particular section, they’d put dynamite in and blow the rock, then we’d have to clear rock. All we had was a rice sack with 2 bamboo poles shoved through each side, and that was how you carried the dirt and the rock – no wheelbarrows. It’s incredible, isn’t it? But that’s how all the dirt and rock was moved.
Colin Hamley: We’d go down to the quarry, hide behind trees, and the Japs’d blast, light the fuses and blast all the rocks down, and then the next job we had to do was to break all these great big bluestone boulders up – break them up first with an 8-pound hammer. We’d then go ahead and break them up with knapping hammers, as they call them. Knap them down to the size of 2 or 3 inches in diameter, to use as ballast for the railway sleepers – to put under the railway sleepers.
James Kerr: And you couldn’t just knock off your work on the railway and go and have a drink until they told you to have a rest, which wasn’t very often. What they called ‘Yasmine’ didn’t happen very often. They might give you a 10 or a 15-minute [break] but [it] didn’t happen, and once ‘Speedo’ came in, there was no breaks then – go-go-go.
Colin Hamley: The quarry work was responsible for so many ulcers that developed on the legs, through cuts received in the quarry, which became infected and developed into tropical ulcers.
James Kerr: I was right next to the ulcer ward, and the people with ulcers – and I’m not talking about tiny little ulcers, sometimes they were huge and would take up all the shin – and they used to have to be cleaned each morning. The only means of cleaning those was with a sharpened spoon with no anaesthetic. So you can imagine the pain, the screaming. Terrible. And they were men above men – the doctors on the Thai-Burma Railway. Absolutely, you know … the way they fought to, like, the Japanese would say they wanted so many men for a working party, so they’d line the fit men up, and they might be 5 or 10 men short. So they’d pull all the men out of the hospital tent. And if you could stand, you were fit enough to go to work. And the doctor would fight then, you know, trying to keep his sick men off the line.
Colin Hamley: I remember one day I was – it must have been the malaria – but I was coming home from one of those work parties one day and I started to feel very odd, and I felt as though I was walking up a hill like that. I must have been just about to pass out. And one of my mates – I was pretty thin, I suppose – one of my mates picked me up, slapped me across his shoulder, carried me home.
James Kerr: Of course, the malaria – when we got malaria, unfortunately, there was no treatment. You just lay there and you’d feel terrible, and you’d get the shivers, and you’d sweat, and you’re hot and you certainly don’t feel like eating, so your other mates would get your rice and they’d share that amongst themselves, and then when they got malaria, which we all did in our turn, you’d share their rice around.
Colin Hamley: Everybody was hungry every day, every minute of the day. You’re always hungry because you never had enough to eat. Breakfast of a morning was pappy rice, which is watery rice.
James Kerr: So you’d get a cup of that, and that was what you worked on the railway on. You know, no sugar, no salt, no nothing, and that’s what you went out and worked out on the railway on. Then at lunchtime, you took your lunch out, so your rice would be sour by the time you got to it. You might get something a bit dry to eat with it, but then at nighttime, you’d get another mug of rice and hopefully a watery pumpkin stew, and maybe a few other little veggies thrown in or something.
Colin Hamley: You were that hungry that even this rotten food we were getting … there were times when I would say to my mates, ‘Geez, that was great’, you know, because I was that hungry. I was that hungry that it even tasted good. Even the rotten food we were getting tasted good.
James Kerr: We never had beds – they built our huts and they were all a platform of bamboo, big bamboo which had been cut open and flattened. So we slept on bamboo slats, alongside each other, but you never had your own individual bed or anything like that. They always got full of bed bugs, these little bugs that … they’d bite you and suck the blood. Oh, terrible things they were.
Colin Hamley: The toilets were just a great big pit in the ground, about 8 foot deep. They’d be about 6 foot wide and about 20 foot long, with bamboo across the top and just little openings on the bamboo to do your business through. During the wet season, the pit had filled up pretty well with water and, of course, the maggots were everywhere. And you’d go to the toilet, in your bare feet, and you’d stand on these slats and maggots would be crawling up your legs.
James Kerr: Our morale during those 3 and a half years was fantastic. You know, we’d been taken prisoner, we accepted that you adapt to the conditions, particularly up in Thailand, but our morale, never ever lost it. Never ever lost it. We were never beaten.
On-screen: Following the Allied bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan surrendered. Of the 22,000 Australians held in Japanese captivity, some 7400 had lost their lives.
Colin Hamley: When the war ended, we didn’t know, but we had been called on to parade to go on a work party. We went out, fell in on parade, and we stood on parade for about an hour – nobody came. Then the following day at about 7 o’clock in the morning, just on daybreak, this group of about half a dozen Commandos came through the gate into the camp. They were armed to the teeth. There were a few Americans and a number of British Commandoes. This was about a week after the war had finished, by that time, after the Japanese had surrendered. We’d been going to work all that time, and the war was over. And that’s how we found out the war had finished.
Bart Richardson: One of the fellows came, and he said, ‘It’s all over fellas’, and we said, ‘Don’t be silly, you’ve been saying that for three and a half years.’ ‘No, I think it’s right this time.’ ‘No', one member of our group said, ‘I know a fellow with a wireless, I’ll go and find out’. And he did, and he went away for a long time, and when he came back he said, ‘That’s right, it’s all finished, the Japs have surrendered, but we must act as normal because the guards don’t know’.
James Kerr: And we were marching out this day and all of a sudden they turned us around, so, ’hello, what’s going on here?’ – so they took us all back to camp. So they lined us up on the parade ground and we had an English sergeant major in charge of our camp. and he lined us up and he said ‘The war is over’, he said, ‘an atomic bomb has been dropped on Japan, and the war is over’. We wouldn’t have cared if it had been a custard tart that had been dropped on Japan to finish the war, but it was over, and we’d survived.
Guy Griffiths: But I must say that it was the most incredible feeling of relief, incredible feeling. ‘Really, we’re not going to have to shoot anymore?' Really, you know, tomorrow is an ordinary day? What’s it going to be like?’
Bart Richardson: We left Singapore with a naval escort. The sea was calm. We pulled into Darwin, which was good. The people of Darwin were magnificent. They adopted us for the day. They took us all around Darwin, they fed us, they showed us a picture at night, took us back to the ship and off we’d go to Brisbane’s, the next. We were moving so slowly through the water – they were trying to feed us up by the time we got back. Turned south to go down to Sydney and I said to one of the officers, ‘What time are we likely to pass Nobby’s?’ ‘Oh, about one o’clock in the morning.’ ‘Thank you.’ So we went, got going to bed. I woke up, looked at a watch, nearly one o’clock. I didn’t have a watch, somebody had a watch, I think I’d flogged mine earlier. Got up, and there was Nobby’s. We’re nearly home!