PASSAGE TO MALAYA
A clerk somewhere in the R.A.F. records in Ruislip, having decided that since I had been back in the U.K. for two years, it was high time for me to resume my role as an Empire Builder, dispatched a Posting Notice to R.AF. Harwell, and so I found myself on Didcot Station on November 25th 1938 clad in Best Blue", with a suitcase, two kitbags, the one with two blue rings being the "Deep Sea" one, bound for the far East, in general, and Singapore in particular.
I think that I am not exaggerating when I say that I felt somewhat exhilarated at the prospect of journeying to the other side of the world on what was considered, in those days, to be a "Plum Posting", although this was to an extent counter- balanced by a feeling which I am sure all explorers experience, anticipation of the unknown, that I boarded a train for London. At Paddington I met up with some dozen other airmen and we were directed by the R.T.O. to catch a train for King George V Dock. I should explain that I was at this time holding the rank of Corporal and that my previous tour overseas had been to the Middle East whence I had been transported to and from, by two very famous ships, the Bibby Line's Lancashire" and "Sommersetshire" the latter being a ship of great renown in song and verse throughout the R.A.F. Cruise Liners they were not, let it suffice to say that they carried over 1,000 troops on troop-decks, sleeping in hammocks and having only its deck forward of the bridge on which to obtain any fresh air after the ug which existed below deck where a sentry with fixed bayonet stood guard over every fresh water tap. Meals consisted mainly of corned beef hash, porridge and rice pudding, and where the only exercise was playing Housey- Housey(Bingo) or "Crown and Anchor", the latter being illegal but very popular and extremely profitable for the ship's crew. I have often wondered since how the authorities ever permitted such practices, and whether the modern airmen would put up with it, I think not. To return to my last, them were about 30 R.A.F. personnel gathered at the dock-side, six or so Senior N.C.O's, six Corporals (including myself) all the rest were L.A.C.'s all of us were looking up at the large black ship with two narrow white rings around the funnel which towered above us. She was the Royal Mail Steamer, "S.S. Amra" of the British India Navigation Company of about 10,000 tons, brand new and about to make her maiden voyage from London to Calcutta where she would afterwards be employed on the Calcutta -Rangoon mail runs.
We were instructed to embark, so picking up the two kit-bags which we tied together and slung around our necks, and with the odd suitcase we staggered up the gangway, amid cries of "Stop crying in the rear rank!"
What a wonderful surprise when we finally arrived aboard, stewards were waiting to take us to our cabins having first divested us of our luggage. "Cabins!?" It was unheard of; after all we were just "Other Ranks’! but no! it was correct for we were ushered into cabins with four bunks, wardrobes, and luxury of luxuries, a wash basin, shades of Ministry of Transport troopships, we could not believe our luck! But there was still more to come, for we 'were informed that we were traveling as second class passengers which meant that we would have our own dining saloon, and our own deck - the aft weather deck.
By this time it was early evening, and as we were washing away the stains of travel, and changing into clean uniform, for we were traveling in uniform, a Goanese steward went along the companionway outside our cabin ringing to signify that dinner would be served in fifteen minutes. Being airmen we had already sent out a "Recce Party" to
ascertain where the dining saloon was, we made our way up a couple of decks to the saloon where we were guided by the head waiter to our respective tables. We had a really magnificent five - course meal, of which I still have a menu-card1 served so efficiently by the Goanese stewards, and everyone who has met these delightful people will know how efficient they can be. This was the first time that the dining room had been used and, of course all the equipment, as everything else on the ship was brand new. After the meal, we wandered up to our deck to watch the loading of the vessel1 for she was a passenger/cargo ship. As always it was a scene of great activity and bustle, with the arc lights blazing, and the derricks swinging to and fro with laden nets, whilst the winches wheezed in their labours and the dockers yelled instructions to the winch drivers. Then it was back to the cabin to natter and to get to know our new colleagues, also to compare notes about previous stations and experiences, what’s more there was no Orderly Sergeant to yell, "Get those lights out!" at ten p.m. We were awakened at 7 am. by our cabin steward who also brought tea and biscuits, this was to be the ritual throughout the voyage, and if you have never had this luxury aboard ship with the early morning sun coming through the porthole, you haven’t lived.
Quick shower, shave and shampoo, and up on deck for a look around before breakfast to see what was happening and the scenario was that we were to sail at 10a.m. Breakfast was a rather rushed affair although with hindsight, I think it would have been wiser on my part to have lingered a while and eaten a more substantial meal, as it was to be my last solid meal for well over twenty-four hours. Up on deck again, arms on the rail to watch hawsers being moved and crew scurrying to and fro about their task of preparing for sea. Suddenly! the first vibration throughout the ship as the propellers started to revolve and we were on our way under the central control of tugs in the dock entrance. It was quite a tight squeeze for the ship to go through but there were very adequate fenders all along the dock gate and walls and as far as could be seen there were no bumps or bruises. Then we were dear of the gates, turned by the tugs in the main stream, towropes were dropped too much hooting of sirens and we were "Oft down the river Thames and heading for the "Mysterious East". I can remember my grandfather who had "sailed before the mast" once telling me that a sailor liked to feel a ship moving under him, and to hear it creak for it showed that it was flexible, they did not like a quiet ship for it was rigid and would not be a good bad-weather craft. Longfellow wrote in “Hiawatha", “who has smelled wood-smoke by twilight and who is quick to read the noises of the night" to my way of thinking there is nothing better in life than to be on the deck of a ship which is heading out to sea, to smell the sea, to smell the sea-laden breeze, to hear the lapping of the waves against the hull, and to feel the vibrations of the propellers under ones feet. We dropped the pilot of at Tilbury; or rather he went down the rope ladder on the port beam to a pilot cutter, which had come out from the shore. Then the bells rang and it was "Full Speed Ahead" out into the Channel. The next thing of interest after the morning coffee was to watch the "lascar" crew dismantling the gangway, which was over the ship's side whilst we were proceeding at a rate of knots, quite a feat! but they swarmed over it at great speed and in no time at all it was in pieces and stowed away. England was now a gray shadow on our starboard side, and it was time to go to lunch. My intentions were fine when I sat down, but as I watched the level of the top of my soup constantly changing, and the odd piece of crockery started to move a little, I decided that discretion was the better part of valour, and left the table with the minimum of fuss but with the greatest possible speed to assume a recumbent posture on my bunk, after all Nelson was always seasick when he first put to sea, so why should I, a much lesser mortal, an airman, not a sailor, worry? My cabin mates were not very sympathetic but although I felt that I wouldn’t mind if the ship turned turtle and sank, I had sufficient life left in me to warn them not to laugh to soon, and how right I was. For the next thirty six hours none of us had any interest in anything, for it consisted of being administered hot tea and biscuits by our steward, who gave a pretty good imitation of Florence Nightingale, and very hasty visits to the nearest toilets and ablutions. Hence we saw nothing of our passage down the English Channel, around the Cherbourg Peninsular and half way across the Bay of Biscay. However all things come to an end, good or bad, and for us it was on the third morning – a breath of good sea air.
Our deck being a 'Weather Deck’ meant we had a deck over our heads so could not see the sky. However, them was a very adequate supply of ozone from the open sides, the sea was blue and calm and the coast of Spain was a hazy blue on our port side. I think at this stage it might be as well to explain the origins of the word ‘POSH’ ~ if not already known. In the days of the ‘British Raj’, the travellers to and from the 'Outposts of Empire’ requested cabins on the port sides of the ships going east and on the starboard side when coming home, in this manner one enjoyed the early morning sun in the cabin, and not the afternoon sun which made the cabins unbearably hot - hence 'Port Outwards and Starboard Homewards" or 'Posh’.
Now we really did begin to appreciate our voyage, good food, good service, and nothing to do all day except read, talk and lean over the side of the ship watching the waves, and being at the stern of the ship, the wake also. Attached to the rail at the stern called, I believe, the ‘Taffrail" was the ships log, this consisted of a dial of numbers in a metal casing from the bottom of which was a thin wire which also had vanes, when trailed through the water the wire spun round, and this indicated distance travelled by the ship through the water. I often felt that the stern of the ship travelled further up and down than it did forward. There was a hatch cover in the centre of the deck and on this were piled large coils of new hawsers for the mooring of the ship, and with a large quantity of deck chairs having been provided for our use, we were able to make ourselves quite comfortable.
The Senior N.C.O's had access to a lounge bar, and arrangements had been made for us to have a limited supply of bottles of beer each day, in those days ‘Other Ranks’ were not permitted to drink wines or spirits on camp or whilst aboard ship, other than in the Navy of course, for they had their daily issue of ‘Nelson’s Blood" (rum). We had one RAF officer travelling with us, and he had what was then called an "Imprest Account”. This was a small sum of money from which he paid us a small amount each week. I can remember one day putting my head out of a porthole and one of my pals putting his head and arms out of an adjacent porthole and with a camera taking a photograph of me and very successful it was too.
Our trip down the west of Spain and Portugal was uneventful, and we did not see Gibraltar as we made the passage of the Straits during the night, but it was soon apparent that we were in the Med, as the dark blue shapes of the Atlas Mountains could be faintly seen on our starboard side.
One of the great delights I have always found at sea is to see a small plume of smoke on the horizon and to watch it gradually get larger as it develops into a ship coming towards you and then after perhaps an hour it is a large ship about half a mile away going in the opposite direction, one conjectures where it is bound? its passengers, its country of origin, etc. I can remember one particular ship that passed us in the Med. it had two funnels shaped like mushrooms and was named 'Pasteur".
It was very interesting watching the crew cleaning the deck, hosing down with sea water and the crew squatted only as Asiatics can and with half a coconut shell in each hand and a pile of sand would scrub their way along the length and breadth of the deck. I believe in the old days it was called "Holystoning the Deck" Another daily occurrence involving the crew was evening prayers, for about a dozen of them would appear on our deck, they would place small mats on the deck and would pray on their hands and knees for about ten minutes. The thing that always interested me was the fact that the angle at which they prayed varied according to the ship’s heading and it was always approximately in the direction of Mecca, how these presumably uneducated people knew this, I could not understand, unless they had some inside information from the ship’s navigating officer.
Early on our sixth day at sea we arrived at Malta, our arrival at any foreign land from the sea is always an event. I
was quite ‘blasé’ about this for I had been here twice previously so was able to point out some features of Valletta Grand Harbor to my colleagues. There were quite a few R.N. ships in the harbor and in the creeks that run from it. The gray paint used on R.N. ships is known in the R.A F. as 'crab fat’, R N. personnel as “Fishhead’", and we are known to the R.N. personnel as 'Crabs', all most gentlemanly.
To the newcomer Malta at first appears to be quite barren, few trees, white houses and many, many churches which seem to dominate Valletta, and when bells are ringing it is a veritable cacophony of sound as they are not pealed as in the U.K. but are just pulled in any old fashion, in fact Malta was once known as the island of “Hells, bells and smells, we could not test the latter as we were not permitted to go ashore. We were however, visited by the bumboats, the small boats which come alongside each visiting ship laden with articles for sale, a kind of floating market, in this case largely of lace and fruit. The procedure is as follows, the customer would call out the item that he was interested in purchasing, the boatman would then throw a line to which a piece of wood was attached, and very good they were in throwing. Having caught the wood, you then pulled on the line which had a basket attached to it, into this basket one placed the agreed purchase price for the item, the basket was then lowered to the boat, the item placed in the basket and the whole hauled up to the purchaser. It reminded me of an incident on one of my previous visits to Malta on a troopship, the sides of which had many rows of port holes, as a basket was being lowered with the purchase money in it, a hand shot out of a port hole grabbed the basket, took the money, to howls of anguish from the purchaser and the boatman.
After a few hours we set sail again, the weather much warmer, and daily we had schools of porpoise playing around the ship for hours at a time and then suddenly they were gone as quickly as they had appeared.
On the morning of our ninth day at sea we reached Port Said, our next port of call. The approach is not very impressive for the surrounding countryside is very flat and featureless with just the odd building and oil tank outstanding. We tied up to a flouting pontoon in midstream and the coal barges came alongside for we were to be refueled. A ship being "coaled" is no place to be, for the dust and noise are extreme, so we were given permission to go ashore. We corporals went off together with the vow that we would have our photographs taken at each port of call were we were allowed ashore, with a bottle of beer in front of us. Well! we wandered around the streets constantly accosted by beggars and street vendors of every description. However I was able with a small knowledge of 'Barrack room Arabic' to largely keep them at bay and at least to make our wishes clear. We finally arrived at a street-side cafe with tables on the pavement where the local Palm Court Orchestra were playing, piano, violin and cello. Bottles of the local beer "Crown Bomonti" were ordered, the duly and the photograph was taken.
During our tour around the town we called at a very large shop, a sort of Harrods of the 'Middle East, it was called "Simon Artz" and was world renowned reputedly selling everything from a camel to the needle through the eye of which the camel is reputed to find it very difficult to proceed. We also went to the side of the canal where there is, or was until the Suez incident, when it was pulled down, a statue erected to the memory of Ferdinand De Lesseps, the builder of the canal, it was then back to the ship to continue our voyage.
A large searchlight had been hung over the bow of the vessel as part of our passage was to be made during the hours of darkness and we had also picked up a pilot, a very skilled man as it is easy to imagine the chaos that would ensue should the canal at any time be blocked. I was once given a quick rule of the thumb regarding the statistics of the canal, 100 miles long, 100 yards wide, and 100 feet deep; about half way along its length there are the Bitter Lakes near Ismalia and it ends at Port Suez which is at the entrance to the Red Sea; the Bitter Lakes are used as lay-byes, as the ships wishing to make passage of the canal are formed into convoys at either end and it is at the Lakes that the convoys pass each other. Going south there is quite a lot of habitation and vegetation on the starboard side but on the port side it is just desert.
During our passage we were entertained at one stage by someone known to all travellers to the Middle East, the Gully - Gully Man who did the most amazing things with day old chicks and three cups, rather similar to the "Three Card Trick". We only stopped at Port Suez long enough to drop the pilot, his boat crew, the searchlight, and the "Gully - Gully Man", and then we were off into the Red Sea
It was now warm enough to change into our drill uniforms, and thereby hangs a tale. The Air Ministry in there wisdom have articles of drill uniform made in the U.K. by people who have no idea of how it should look when worn, and also the range of sizes is such that no one but no one! has an item of clothing that fits them. The sight of airmen wearing shorts and shirts for the first time must be seen to be believed, added to which are pale knees and arms, by which all new arrivals at units overseas are greeted by old - timers.
“HENCE THE OLD R.A.F. DERISIVE CHANT OF "GET YOUR KNEES BROWN"
It became very hot as we went South and what little wind there was followed us. It became necessary to put metal scoops out of the portholes to catch the movement of air caused by the ship's progress, and to augment the forced ventilation system.
We had come to an arrangement with our cabin steward to have our laundry, or "dhobi" as we called it, done daily, we gave it to him each evening and it was returned to us the following day; starched and ironed.
Our next port of call was Port Sudan, about half way down the Western side of the Red Sea. In those days it appeared to us to be a God- forsaken place, a small harbour with quays, warehouses, and cranes and then abut a mile inland a few single -story houses with corrugated iron roots surrounded by sand and red hills. It was frightfully hot ashore, but we did manage to get a trip in a small boat that had a glass bottom through which we were able to see the wonderfully colourful Coral and fish for which this area is famous. There were also "fuzzy-wuzzies" standing idly around. They were the people of Southern Sudan who wear their hair in a style, which I believe ladies of Europe would call a "Beehive" hairdo. They are also of the tribe who fought with the Mahdi at Khartoum when General Gordon was slain. We only stayed for about six hours in Port Sudan and were not at all sorry to leave for its barrenness was quite depressing.
We sailed south for another day or so until we reached the Straits of Bab El Mandeb at the southern entrance to the Red Sea. About 2am one morning there was a terrific bang and the ship's engines went astern and then stopped. We all naturally wondered what had happened, shot out of our bunks and up to the deck at a rate of knots. Looking over the side, I saw in the light from the floodlights which had been switched on, a large dhow with a couple of huge sharks on its deck slipping away under our stern on the port side, also a boat was being launched from our davits manned by members of our lascar crew. They disappeared from the range of the lights, reappearing after about fifteen minutes, were hauled aboard, engines were started again and we were under way. Apparently the following had been
the course of events. There extended from the side of the ship where the front deck meets the bridge house a large boom about 20 feet along and over 12 inches in diameter, it was used in some way or the other in connection with navigational logs and depth soundings. This boom had collided with the mast of the dhow, which was sailing with no lights, and had dismasted it. The crew of five who were Somalis from the island of Sokotra who had been shark fishing were brought on to the 'Amra’ and their vessel was abandoned. Our next port of call was to be Columbo where they were to be handed over to the Consul for Somalia, so they had quite a long journey over the Indian Ocean in front of them. They lived in the crew's quarters and we made a small collection among ourselves, which we passed on to them.
In these waters it was monsoon time when it can be quite stormy, this was brought to our notice one morning at breakfast time when we noticed the “fiddles" were in place, these are small pieces of wood which are placed around the edges of tables to prevent items placed on the table from sliding off when the ship begins to move around excessively, chairs, tables and other heavy items are also made secure. Sure enough about four hours later we were in
quite a severe bow" which lasted for about twelve hours. The seas were quite rough and the ship's movements violent. However, by this time we had all got our "sea legs" and were quite able to cope, in fact rather enjoyed it I can remember having Palethorpe's tinned Pork Sausages for lunch with no ill effects at what so ever, we had taken a liking to those, and when in later years watching television from Earls Court the "Horse of the Year show" when
Dawn Palethorpe was riding, it always reminded me of that occasion. Also at this time I saw my first waterspout, two of them in fact. This happens when a column of water is drawn up into the sky by a whirlwind and is quite spectacular to see from a distance. We now began to see shoals of flying fish "skittering" away from the sides of the ship as it approached them. They fly about a foot above the surface of the sea and are about the size of mackerel.
This was the longest period of the voyage without sight of land and then early one morning one could see ahead in
the haze some quite high mountains with lower lying land on either side. Our arrival in Columbo was to be our first
sight of eternal dark green of the Tropics, something I for one had not seen before it was a dark olive green which is everywhere, only changing where there are buildings, cultivation or where mountains or hill rise above the trees.
In the 1930's Columbo did not have any quays for a large vessel to go "alongside", cargo and passengers being transported to the dockside by lighters or launches. We went ashore on one of the latter to venture into the real East for the first time. Just a little way from the jetty we were in the middle of the city and the first thing that struck us all was the pavements looked as if there had been terrible bloodshed at some time fairly recently, for the pavements were covered in what looked like streaks of blood. It was in fact betel nut juice, which locals had spat on the ground. They chew betel "pan" and it produces a red juice, which I understand has a narcotic effect, but the end product looks bloody awful. (Excuse the pun).
We wandered up the streets away from the docks past small shops with little or no shop fronts, which had small piles of precious stones displayed, sapphires, opals, rubies and various semiprecious stones, all very much beyond the price range of a mere RAF 'other rank'. We found ourselves in a small cafe in Chatham Street where we sampled the local "brew' which I think in this case was "Muree Beer” from India. We chose this small place, as we considered that the Great Eastern Hotel on the front looked far too posh for the likes of us.
We made our way back to the ship and noticed that there were two Sunderland flying boats moored in the harbour. They were white and looked wonderful, we subsequently learned they were on their delivery flights to Singapore.
My impressions of Ceylon as it was called at that time, were that it was a lovely place, its people serene, courteous and graceful. Alas! it is not so at the time of writing. Sri Lanka, as it is now called, being torn apart by internecine warfare and the thought strikes me that this has so often happened to peaceful places once the British have handed over power, Nigeria, Ghana, Rhodesia to state just a few, and therefore there must be something after all in the "pax Britannica” which did keep the peace despite all that its denigrators may say.
We sailed South from Columbo, around the bottom of Ceylon out into the Bay of Bengal and then North with the Coromandel Coast of India on our port side and on the second day we arrived at Madras, not a very inspiring sight, very flat land with hills visible far inland and terribly, terribly hot.
We were informed that we were to trans-ship as the "Amra" was going on to Calcutta and we were to go in the opposite direction, so we packed our bags, paid and thanked our stewards, and descended the gangway on to the dock-side. We had to walk about two hundred yards to another vessel belonging to the same company as the "Amra", this one was called "S.S. Rhona", she appeared to be about the same size as our previous ship but locked much older as indeed she was discovered later. However, up the gangway we went and coming to earth with a bump, unless that appears to be a contradiction in terms, for we found that we were to all intents and purposes on a troopship, but the troops this time were indentured Tamils from Southern India going to work on the rubber plantations and tin mines in Malaya, what's more, they were on board in their hundreds. We were led down about three decks to a cavernous hold which was divided by a large piece of awning or tarpaulin, one side of which had a series of bunks which were for our use, and on the other side were the Tamil families complete with livestock, i.e., goats and chickens. We were aghast after our previous relative luxury, and made appropriate noises to that effect, and were informed that we would be able to have our meals, as before, in the second class dining room, could use the decks reserved for second class passengers, and could, if we wished bring our bedding up and sleep on these decks, this we immediately resolved to do.
From some source or the other we ascertained the fact that the "Rhona" had a larger passenger list than the "Queen Mary,' and that she had also to pick up, en route, a cargo of onions!? At this our faces became even longer if this was possible. However, in the event our worst fears were not realised. Of course sleeping on deck meant that we had to be up and about early in the morning before the crew started to scrub and hose the decks, but it was worth it for the decks we used were promenade decks and therefore we had no need to worry if there was an occasional tropical shower but just luxuriate in the cool breezes with just the sound of the waves on the side of the ship, the slight vibration of the ship's engines and the easy motion of the vessel as it slid through the tropical waves. The sea in those areas is extremely phosphorescent, the wake of the vessel is a path of light, if you dip your hand in the sea, and the water drops off your fingertips like a cascade of crystal drops.
As we proceeded southwards again along the East coast of India we called at three main ports, Karikal, Pondicherry and Vizagapatam, the latter two being very interesting for they were, at that time, French enclaves, that is small areas under French rule, the Portuguese had a similar enclave on the West coast, it was called Goa. We did not go alongside in any of these ports but "1ay off” and the cargo was rowed out to us in lighters about the size of Thames lighters by crews of about twenty using very long oars. The cargo was small purple onions twice the size of shallots in sacks, rumour had it that they were for the breweries in Singapore. We stopped at each of these ports for about twelve hours and on completion we headed East across the Bay of Bengal for our next stop which was to be Penang, then one of the Straits Settlements.
Penang is an island about the size of the Isle of Wight, lying about five miles of Malaysia, in those days known as the Federated Malay States (FMS) Its capital or rather largest town is called Georgetown and as one approaches from the sea, on the port side is the mainland with mountains in the hinterland and palm trees, jungle and mangrove swamps dawn to the waters edge and ahead and to the starboard side of the island with sandy palm fringed beaches and a large hill in the centre.
As we went alongside the quay and tied up, I saw the most wonderful sight! All along the quay were literally piles of tropical fruit in all colours of the rainbow, durian, lychees, mangoes, mongosteens, rambultans, pomeloes, papaya, breadfruit, limes and godowns, for we were now in Somerset Maughan country, he mentions them often in his stories, all they are in fact are the largest warehouses or sheds on the quayside.
As we went ashore we noticed there were few buildings that were more than two stories high, in most cases the ground floor was a shop, we learned later that these buildings were usually referred to as "shop-houses” invariably the buildings had red tiled roofs and the exterior was whitewashed,
The next most noticeable thing was the population mix; it was now for the first time predominately Chinese, with Malays, Indians (Sikh's, Tamils and Bengalis) and Europeans. As each race was wearing distinctive styles and colours, the whole was extremely colourful to say the least. We also noticed that the betel stairs on the pavement, so noticed in Ceylon, had largely disappeared, in fact the whole of the town was far cleaner, and was very neat and tidy. Rickshaws being pulled along by what appeared to be very sick men, they were so thin, the whole of their ribcage was visible, this was long before the introduction of motorised rickshaws of course.
We hailed a taxi, easily found as taxis had painted on their bodies the word ‘Taxi' in about four languages and scripts. Our first stop was at the Botanical Gardens where there were orchids of all descriptions together with a host of other tropical plants and trees. There was also a tribe of quite large monkeys running loose in the gardens and they were a bit of a menace, as they tended to attack in search of food. The next stop was a renowned Buddhist Snake Temple, where hundreds of venomous snakes about eighteen inches long festoon the walls, tables, dishes and ornaments. Apparently they were always sleepy and inactive owing to the vast amount of incense that is constantly burning in the temple. After this it was time to find some liquid refreshment, so back to the water’s edge to the E & O Hotel
(Eastern & Oriental) this is one of the famous caravanserais of the World, all high ceilings and fans and quietly efficient Chinese waiters standing around. Here we had our introduction to a drink and a label, which would have considerable influence on our stay in the Far East. It was a cold bottle of Tiger Beer, and the bottle had a label that has become the proud official crest of No.230 Squadron Royal Air Force, namely a tiger standing in front of a travellers palm tree, The beer has a taste which has to be acquired, we were told that the vast majority of our onions would go to Fraser and Neaves Brewery in Singapore to be used in the manufacture of beer, and that there was a stomach ulcer in every bottle, correct in my case? However, we soon acquired a taste for it, and it is now possible to obtain the odd can in the U.K. and upon reflection we decided that Penang was the most pleasant port we had visited, the people seemed very happy, most agreeable and we looked forward very much to our sojourn with them and their lovely country, then it was "on board and off again”.
Now we were to proceed down the Straits of Malacca to our next port of call, which was to be Port Swettenham (now called Port Kiang) the port for Kuala Lumpur. The Straits are shaped like a funnel lying east to West, the wide end resting on Penang and the pointed end on Singapore. It really is marvelous being on a ship in these waters, the sea is usually calm, except when a breeze called a "Sumatra" blows up, but they are of short durations, the sea is green, there are small islands dotted all over the place some just large enough to support a few coconut palms. On the left hand side is Malaysia, on the other Sumatra, which comes increasingly into view as the Straits narrow. On the Malayan side it is all jungle-covered hills in purples and olive green, then coconut palms running down to the beaches. From these beaches a series of what appeared to be fences stretched out into the sea, they are in fact fish - traps, the operators walk out on poles on the top of the fences to the end where the nets are. We were now also seeing for the first time Chinese junks of all sizes but basically the same design, that is to say, high structures at the rear, eyes painted on the bows and rich red brown lateen sails, some are fitted with diesel engines, but the vast majority in those days had only sail power and most elegant they looked.
Port Swettenham for which we were bound lies several miles from the mouth of the Swettenham River which is several miles wide at its mouth, but gradually narrows to about the width of the Thames in London, before it reaches Port Swettenham, it also follows a very winding course. To facilitate pilot age there are coloured marker pillars on the banks at intervals, it was also necessary to employ one of the ancient methods of steering a safe course namely 'Swinging the lead' this is carried out to ascertain the depth of the water under the vessel. A crew -man stands on a small platform out from the side of the ship, he has a long line with a big lead weight on the end and coloured material at intervals along the line. He swings the line and weight around his head in a fore and aft line to the ship's progress and at intervals lets go with the weight at the ship's bow. When the line is directly beneath him, he notes the nearest colour to the water and this gives the depth of the water under the ship at that moment. This he calls out to the pilot, i.e. ‘by the mark ten’, with means 10 (in number) fathoms of water. Incidentally this is where Mark Twain obtained his name. Also I understand that in olden times, the base of the weight had a plug in it, the leads-man would look at it and cal out e.g. 'by the mark ten and a sandy bottom". Being a tidal river the banks were covered in mangrove swamps in which we could see monkeys and other quite large indistinguishable animals roaming around.
Most of Our Indian passengers were disembarked at Port Swettenham to continue their journeys inland to the tin mines and rubber plantations of Malaya, transferred by lighter as the ship had to ‘lay off’ in the river.
We stayed for about twelve hours, then it was on again down the river on the last leg of our journey to Singapore, we were getting a little worried now as to 'whether we would reach Singapore or not before Christmas, which was approaching fast, although of course the weather was that which ore would expect being just a few miles from the equator.
Twenty -four hours later the morning of Christmas Day we were up and about very early, about 5 AM paying the stewards and preparing for disembarkation, which we were informed would take place at about 10 AM. Then it was up on deck to watch our approach to Singapore, and it was a sight I shall never forget. We were cruising very slowly through a mass of very small tropical islands all with palm trees and some with the odd Chinese Temple, the sea was calm and green, and gradually Singapore Islands came into view. All we could see were palm trees and buildings with bright red flies, the occasional tree topped hill and literally hundreds of ships of every description lying in the Singapore Roads outside the harbour itself. There were passenger liners, American, Japanese, Scandinavian, Dutch and French all having the flag of their country painted on the ship’s sides for World War II was fast approaching, cargo ships were similarly painted. There were junks by the hundred, bugalows from Indonesia, small coasters from the Straits Steamship Co, and a host of small lighters being used to transport goods to and from ships.
We were alongside the quay by about 10 AM and then we realised we were back in the real R.A.F. again for a Movements Control Officer came aboard, mustered us on one of the decks and informed us of the units to which we had been posted. Some were going to station HQ and some to No 36 and 100 Squadrons at Seletar but the majority of which I was One, had been posted to No230 Squadron also at Seletar. This of course meant nothing to us at the time.
Once again, it was pick up kit -bags and cases, down the gangway and aboard a number of small Morris Commercial lorries that which the RAF called "aircraft tenders" for our journey to Seletar wherever that might be.
My first impressions of Singapore have been with me ever since, noise, bustle and smells. The Chinese "En Masse” are great chatterers always talking and arguing, motor horns were constantly being used, everyone seemed to be in a terrible hurry, mind you, they were working loading or unloading a ship at a rate that would fill European workers with horror, as would the loads that the individuals carried, and then the smells, a combination of curries, spices, joss
sticks, fruit, dried fish, drains and swamps, marvelous! I loved it, and still do, there can be no other place quite like it. There is a Singapore saying that once you have eaten the flesh of the durian and have a drink of the local water, Singapore will have put its spell on you forever, I can vouch for that. Chinese quarter, over a canal and then a river bridge, we were kept informed of the places of note that we passed, for instance the large church with the very English spire was Saint Andrew's Cathedral, the large open green space was the 'Padang", or sports ground, at the end of which was the Singapore Sports Club, the holy of holies. It was the social centre for the expatriate British, and among the many teams for the different sports that belonged, one was a bowls club, who were named the "Non Benders" for obvious reasons. Then there was a very distinctive two -story building with palms outside, this we were told was the word renowned “Raffles Hotel” unfortunately now demolished, I understand in 1990. On we went through the Indian quarter with its many hideous temples covered in grotesque carvings. As we drew away from the city, the roads, which were very well metalled, became wider and we noticed that every space that did not have buildings was covered in quite small trees, olive green with a silvery bark, and whichever way you looked at them they were always in straight lines, they were rubber trees.
Eventually we went through a large rubber plantation, through a small village called 'Kampong", and came to the entrance of RAF. Seletar Station. A new entrance was being built with ironwork gates and a large guardroom; we did not stop but were taken to the station parade ground in the middle of the camp. We disembarked, and in our case, were directed to F Block. This was about a hundred yards away from the parade round, down towards the Straits of Johore and was situated about 150 yards from the waters edge. The barrack buildings were all very new as the Station had only been modernised a couple of years previously; they were three stories high, no windows, but louvered doors between each pair of beds, there was also a veranda about eight feet wide which ran around each floor. Inside were the usual iron beds with mosquito nets hanging from wires suspended from the ceiling. Ablutions and toilets were situated on extensions to each floor and there were also drinking water fountains placed in strategic position's, which gave a supply of ice-cold water. The views from the first floor where I had been allocated a bed were marvelous,
on one side were the very spacious sports grounds and on the other views across the Jahore Straits which were at this point about two miles across, and lo and behold! In the middle of the Straits were what had made our journey necessary, namely six white Sunderland flying boats of No.230 (General Reconnaissance) Squadron and marvelous they looked to. Of course there were also some biplane Singapore flying boats of No.205 Squadron but they looked positively antiquarian compared with the lovely lines of the Sunderlands.
However, there was no time for such dreaming, it was Christmas Day, and lunch was being served in the Airmen's Mess, a huge building, about half a mile away. So we spruced ourselves up as best we could and braced ourselves for the reception we reception we knew we would receive when we entered the dining room, such receptions are traditional and are quite good fun, whichever situation you are in, be it arrival or reception committee. As we entered the large room, there was an immediate shout from all therein of "Get your knees brown", followed by “Get some overseas service in”, this was followed by lots of references to our ancestry, our physical state and our general appearance. The latter remarks were quite understandable, for we were clad in the ill-fitting uniforms which I have mentioned previously, all the other personnel apart from those on duty, were dressed in immaculate white drill shirts, shirts and stockings and all those who wore uniform looked as if they had just come from a tailor's shop, for their drill uniforms were green, starched and well -fitting. We felt like poor relations, but it was all given and taken in the right spirit.
We were soon seated and ~ our Christmas lunch served as is the RAF tradition by officers and N.C O’s. In the midst of all this tumult, singing and shouting of barrack room songs I noticed the Station Warrant Officer, one, 'Topper Brown' riding a bicycle in and around the dining tables.
And so we had finally arrived after a most interesting and educative journey at the place where I was to spend, what upon reflection1 I consider to have been, the two happiest years of my service in the Royal Air Force. The journey I have just described cannot, alas, be repeated today, as all the liners are gone. Today the journey takes just thirteen hours by "Jumbo Jet”, but what joys and experiences the travellers are missing?! I would give my right arm (I am left handed) to repeat the journey with the same companions, but alas "Tempus" has “Fugited”.
S.L.MANFIELD No 230 Squadron` 1938-1940