Seven Aussie diggers excape Singapore on a sixteen-foot skiff

Name: James Iliffe
Date: 1941-1942
Unit: Ordnance Unit attached to 8th Division Headquarters
Location: Malaya & Singapore

When British officers advanced towards the Japanese lines on Singapore on 15 February 1942, waving a white flag, seven Australian soldiers decided to make a break for it.

Singapore sat at the crossroads of the British Empire. Lodged between the Indian and Pacific Oceans, equidistant between the 'crown jewel' of India to the west, Australia and New Zealand to the south-east and Hong Kong to the north, it was 'undoubtedly the naval key to the Far East'.

James Iliffe was a corporal serving in a special Ordnance Unit attached to 8th Division HQ. In early December 1941, he and most people in Singapore felt very secure. This was until Japanese forces began to advance down the Malayan peninsular.

The records show that everywhere the AIF met the Japanese in Malaya up to the time of the final overwhelming assault on the island of Singapore itself, they held them until their positions became untenable because of withdrawals elsewhere or until they were surrounded and had to fight their way out.

The Australian and British forces on Singapore, like the British and Canadian forces in Hong Kong, ignored the Japanese invitation to surrender, spelled out in thousands of leaflets dropped from the sky behind our lines.

But the position became more and more desperate, and hopeless. The enemy gained control of the two reservoirs in the centre of the island - the naval base was occupied - the troops were being pounded unceasingly by dive-bombers and by the enemy's artillery. They were completely exhausted - they had been fighting with little rest for nearly a week. Capitulation was inevitable.

Finally, in the early afternoon of Sunday 15 February 1942, three British officers advanced towards the Japanese lines waving a white flag. They were escorted through Japanese lines to the Headquarters of General Yamashita, located in the Ford Motor Company factory at Bukit Timah.

The surrender was confirmed on the evening of 15 February and troops were told that 'anyone wanting to make a break had better do it tonight'.

It was about midday on Friday 13 February and I copped a shell fragment in my left ankle. It knocked me over, but wasn't too bad at the time. It was bleeding rather freely so decided I had better get some medical help. By now, the sisters from the 13th Australian General Hospital (AGH) had all been compulsorily evacuated. Tragically, the Japanese massacred many of them on Banka Island, off Sumatra. There was an emergency base hospital set up in the Singapore Post Office and I got a lift there. There were no doctors available but a young Chinese nurse bathed my wound and bandaged it up, but she wouldn't attempt to remove the shrapnel.

It was hot and steamy, and to make room for bed patients, I elected to sleep out in the open area at the top of the PO steps; I did, and slept solidly for some 22 hours, amid bombings and shellings and sirens. I guess I must have been tired.

Nobody who was not there could describe the absolute chaos prevailing in those final days, from Friday 13 February (when the last of the AIF nurses were evacuated against their will) and when there were reported cases of a group of Australian soldiers forcing their way on to evacuation ships. There were dozens of troops in Singapore City, cut-off from their units, without ammunition or food. They were not deserters, they were the innocent victims of a futile effort to halt the invasion of a small island against an enemy whose navy commanded the seas surrounding Singapore and whose super-efficient aircraft controlled the skies protecting a well-trained and disciplined Japanese army of superior strength.

By Sunday 15 February, my leg was pretty painful - the shell fragments were still in my ankle and I couldn't walk on that leg. At about 3 o'clock in the afternoon two of the fellows out of my platoon came looking for me. By this time, everyone knew the surrender was only a matter of hours or minutes away. There were troops wandering around, some with and most without equipment.

One of my blokes, Barney Hanrahan, had an idea of making a break for it by getting hold of a boat. He said there were a few pleasure craft anchored in the harbour and he would swim out and bring one in. By now there were seven of us. They put me in a rickshaw and off we went down to the docks. The big storage sheds (godowns) were filled with cases of aeroplane parts, sundry equipment and a lot of canned foods.

Barney had his eye on a sailing boat and swam out to it. After what seemed like an eternity, we heard a motor start up and he brought it into a small landing on the dockside. He had discovered that it had a "Pup" petrol motor and a full set of sails. We ripped the petrol tank from under the seat of an abandoned Blitz buggy (truck) and transferred what we didn't spill into the tank on the boat. By about sundown, we were ready to go and still no sign of the Japanese.

We climbed aboard, seven Australians aboard a sixteen foot sailing skiff with a pup engine. We started the engine and got away to a good start. None of us had any knowledge of sailing. We decided that we would head west to Sumatra. We had no compass but decided to get well out into the harbour and wait till dark before proceeding further.

Then, we noticed a smell, a hot kind of burning metal smell. The chug-chugs grew less frequent and the little pup engine gave up the ghost. Nobody told us there was a need to turn on a little tap to cool the engine. Nobody told us that a two-stroke engine was not built to run on full strength fuel.

Singapore harbour isn't really a harbour at all. Well, it is when you get to it, but the way in is not by the customary entrance headlands. A dozen or so small islands dot the entrance, and without knowing the way, one could sail around in circles. The authorities had decided to prevent the Japanese taking advantage of the oil installations located on two islands and set off explosives so that as night fell, the sky was a bright orange and red, and the whole area was illuminated in a soft glow. We decided to drop anchor and await morning. We figured we were far enough offshore not to be noticed.

This adventure was one of horror and relief. One of the horrors was that knowing Singapore harbour was heavily mined, we discovered, at daybreak, that we had drifted all night, dragging the anchor. The relief was that we hadn't been blown sky high. However the relief was short-lived because we had drifted almost onto the mainland and were now in a calm. We fiddled and experimented with the sails and finally appeared to have solved the riddle and were just moving away when a party of Japs appeared running along the shore, firing machine-guns.

You'll forgive me and understand when I say that what followed is still a very painful and emotional memory. Suffice to say that providence decreed that the Japanese had no small craft or patrol boats in Singapore harbour. We had done a reasonable job on the sails because a fairly stiff breeze was taking us away from the shore and out of range of the Japanese guns.

Knowing that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, we put the sun behind us and after a few wrong turns, were headed for the open sea. We had stocked up on water - well, we had all available water bottles filled with fresh water. We each had two tins of bully beef and some army biscuits, and somebody had grabbed an arm full of tinned peaches from one of the godowns on the wharves.

The breeze dropped at about sundown and we drifted, goodness knows where until soon after sun-up we were on our way again. We rationed the bully beef to half a tin each per day, and drank sparingly of the water. We kept the tinned peaches until we had something to celebrate, like sighting the coast of Sumatra.

Soon after lunch on the second day, the breeze dropped completely. I had never imagined the sea could be so calm, it was like a pane of glass. It was hot, Japanese bombers were constantly flying overhead and, as we found out later, on their way to bomb the Dutch oil wells at Palembang in southern Sumatra.

It was around about 4 o'clock that afternoon that the sky began to change. We set sail in a fairly stiff breeze and about an hour later sighted land ahead. It had to be Sumatra. We used a bayonet to open two tins of peaches.

Then the storm grabbed us. We were getting closer and closer to land, but we were out of control. Finally, we were turned on our side by a rocky outcrop about twenty yards from the beach. We scrambled ashore and horror upon horror saw a group of uniformed soldiers patrolling along the beach towards us.

Bloody Japs, we said. We had two bayonets between us and I had a .38 revolver and a few rounds of ammunition. But they didn't rush us, they waved, and smiled, and identified themselves as native Dutch soldiers.

After much rejoicing they took us to a nearby village where we received wonderful attention. My ankle was cleaned and re-bandaged and we had a good sleep on mats on the floor and a breakfast of rice and dried fish. We were then taken to board a sampan, a big wooden boat, something like a giant wooden bathtub with rounded ends, and with eyes painted on the front, and off we sailed to the mainland.

The main villages are on the river so we were taken to the first village, about five hours away. There the administrator was sympathetic, gave us food and fresh water and put us into his little patrol boat and took us to the next village.

This went on all day, we were hosted by five different villages until the third day when we were taken to a township at the head of the river, a place called Rengat. After something to eat, we were told that the Japanese were expected at any time and that they didn't want to be found harbouring escaped soldiers from Singapore. So that was why they were so generously helping us on our way. We realised that our only hope was to get to the west coast and we were allowed to travel in the open trucks of a goods train travelling over the mountains and 26 hours later arrived at the seaport of Padang.

It was here that we met up with a group of Australian, British and Indian troops who had been cut off from their units and escaped from various parts of the Malay peninsular. We were accommodated by the Dutch authorities in the local jail and two mornings later were told we could travel south to Java on a small coastal ship provided we were prepared to sleep on deck. By this time, we were prepared and able to sleep anywhere. We had no eating utensils so rummaged around a rubbish dump near the wharves and each found a jam tin or its equivalent.

We spent two days and nights on that little boat. Our food, twice a day, consisted of a small piece of horrible fish about the size of a sardine, and a cup of brown sparingly-cooked rice. We hugged the Sumatran coastline until we reached the Sunda Straits, then across open sea to the coastline of Java. It was during this journey across the Sunda Straits that we saw gunfire flashes and heard gunfire in the distance. I feel sure that this was the battle in which the Japanese sunk HMAS Perth.

We landed at a medium-sized Javanese port called Tjilitjap, and were greeted by a British Army unit who invited us to join them for a meal. It was stew, and the tastiest meal of my life. I sucked on a piece of carrot for at least 10 minutes.

By now the Japs had landed on the topside of Java and were advancing fast.

A British destroyer was in the harbour and said to be heading for Bombay. Civilian evacuees and British Army troops went aboard and we waved them off, fully expecting to be stuck there awaiting the arrival of the Japs. Tragically, the British destroyer was sunk by the Japanese within hours of leaving port. We heard the news with mixed feelings.

Two days later, a 15,000 ton Dutch passenger and cargo boat, the SS Zandaam entered port.

Could the captain find room aboard for about forty or so Australians? That depended on how many civilians wanted to go. Naturally, civilians were given preference in such an evacuation.

As we watched the long stream of women and children and elderly people board the boat, we resigned ourselves to the inevitable. Nobody would say where the boat was heading.

Two hours before sailing time, we were told to take our chances on deck provided we were prepared to use the crew amenities and conveniences and not set foot in other areas of the ship. We naturally agreed, and at sundown on 2 March 1942 the Zandaam set sail for points unknown.

By this time I was reduced to a pair of torn khaki shorts, an almost black singlet and one .38 revolver. None of us had seen a toothbrush or razor for weeks, and the best baths had been in salt water.

We noted with much advanced navigational skill that we were headed south, then west, then north for a few hours, then south again. At night time, we didn't have a clue where we were heading so the whole thing was a complete mystery. But it was becoming colder on deck at night and we figured that that meant a southerly direction.

On the morning of 7 March, Vic Rees woke me and said: 'What was the last thing we saw as we left Australia?'

I said, 'Land'?

'What sort of land stupid?'

'Don't play games Vic. What are you getting at?'

'Come and have a look at this mate', he said, helping me over to the port side of the ship.

And there they were, those sand hills on the shoreline just north of Fremantle.

What else is to be said. We were home.

I was taken to the Hollywood Military Hospital in Perth. I was visited and questioned at some length, as was each of the others, by Australian Army Intelligence.

The doctors told me that given another few days my leg would have been gangrenous.

Censorship was so rigid at the time that I was not allowed to communicate with my family. I was allowed to write them a letter to say I was safe but could not reveal my whereabouts.

The transcontinental railway was jam-packed with supply and troop trains and it looked as though we were to stay in Perth indefinitely. Then, after a week, an American troopship, the Mariposa, sailed in from Darwin to refuel. It was heading for Melbourne and we joined other troops in a joy ride across the Great Australian Bight to Melbourne.

I was then hospitalised at Heidelberg Military Hospital and after a week of pleading and cajoling was given permission to be transferred to the 113th AGH at Concord, in Sydney.

They took me to Spencer Street station and put me on the Spirit of Progress and I was really heading home. At Albury, where one had to change trains, I used my crutches to find a telephone booth and telephoned my father. It was around about 11pm and that was probably the most emotional telephone call of my life.

James Iliffe spent the next twelve months in and out of hospital. He then joined the RAAF and received his pilot's wings in February 1945, but due to the de-escalation of hostilities, he was discharged in September 1945. He remained in the Air Force Reserve for the following five years.

The material for this story was supplied by James Iliffe of Queensland
7/05/2002 10:03:21 AM


Last updated: 3 June 2019

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DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) (2019), Seven Aussie diggers excape Singapore on a sixteen-foot skiff, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 2 October 2020, http://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/stories-service/australians-war-stories/seven-aussie-diggers-excape-singapore-sixteen-foot-skiff
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