‘Pounding Along to Singapore’… the story behind the story

‘Pounding Along to Singapore’… the story behind the story

by Caroline Gaden ©

My book ‘Pounding Along to Singapore’ is a Military History. It is the story of the 2/20 Battalion AIF, men who went to fight in Malaya and who suffered the dreadful aftermath of the Fall of Singapore in 1942.

In this paper I am going to inter-twine some military history with a travelogue “From Changi to Hellfire Pass” and my own journey in writing the book.

When it became known that I was writing ‘Pounding Along to Singapore’, I had challenges thrown at me by three different men:-

You are science trained, you couldn’t possibly know how to research history.

You are English, you couldn’t possibly know how to write about Australian history.

You are a woman, you couldn’t possibly know how to write a military history book.

I had already overcome the cultural challenge of moving, on my own, from the liberation of the Swinging Sixties of Britain to the stifling prejudices of Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s Queensland, three narrow-minded men were not going to put me off what had finally developed into my goal of writing a military history about this specific Australian Battalion.

In reality the book had a very long gestation. From being a young child I’d always had an interest in WWII as my father had been a pilot with the Air Transport Auxiliary, flying close to 60 different types of plane…. in fact every single aircraft which came off the production line in war-time Britain was at some stage flown by one of the ATA Ferry Pilots, flown from factory to airfield or to transport fuel and munitions.

Passengers were taken too, my father flew to Scotland taking the men planning the invasion of Normandy.   He was considered to be a very good SAFE pilot, so much so that he was often sent to Scotland to pick up the whisky supplies for the Mess.

It was rumoured that my school’s headmaster and my English teacher had both been prisoners of the Japanese… both were skeletally thin. One used to roll his eyes so all you could see was the white and the other just could not stand still, he continually moved from foot to foot and wrung his hand together!

All my Pony Club instructors had been Brigadiers and Colonels and Majors and Captains… so the military influence was everywhere in my life.

My parents had bought one of the first televisions in town (specially for the Queen’s coronation) and I have a clear memory of watching one of the very early ‘This is Your Life‘ programs on the BBC in the 1950s. The subject was a woman who had been a prisoner of the Japanese, she was kept in a small cage with male POWs and she recalled how they used to avert their eyes when she needed to go to the toilet… they received severe beatings for doing so, but continued to help her to preserve her dignity.

With my father I used to watch TV programs like the BBC series “War in the Air”, the American produced “Victory at Sea” and the series called “The Valiant Years” based on the memoirs of Winston Churchill.

When Churchill died in late January 1965, I represented my Yorkshire school to file past the catafalque at his lying-in state in Westminster Hall. He is the only non-Royal to whom the honour has been given in the 20th Century and I remember it vividly… I had never seen so many distraught adults, adults unashamedly in tears.

For three days, 23 hours a day, the public filed past the body of Sir Winston Churchill lying-in-state in Westminster Hall. People queued, most for three or four hours, to pay homage to their statesman. A total of 321,360 people filed past the catafalque during the three days of lying-in-state.

After studying at the University of Wales I moved Down Under and married an Australian, Bob Gaden, in late 1973.  Just a couple of years later, in 1976, my father-in-law, Bill, died from war related illness.

Due to my interest in genealogy I was delegated to be the ‘official family historian’ and was given a shoebox full of letters written in the Second World war. There were letters to and from Bill (who was in the 2/20 Battalion) and his mother Vera, sisters ‘Sue’ and ‘Ginge’ and several family friends and also there was Bill’s POW diary.

I promptly put the shoebox aside as I was then too busy with other things like work, farm, training horses and, most importantly, looking after our three children.

But in 1994 I enrolled in the Graduate Diploma in Local and Applied History here at UNE and one of the subjects was Oral History. I decided to try and find a former Prisoner of the Japanese and talk to him about what happened in the POW camps.

By now it was the 50th anniversary of the end of the war and, as Gordon Gaffney, my interviewee said to me, ‘if we don’t start to tell you what happened no one will ever know’.

Gaff was part of ‘F’ Force who worked on the Burma-Thailand Railway… he was a tall man, over 6 foot but he told me

“Well at one stage there I was – I don’t know, about four and a half, five stone. (30-40kg) When I was up at cholera hill a fellow died along side of me – and he had cerebral malaria which is a dreadful thing – he bucked over on top of me and I couldn’t kick him off, I was too poor to kick him off. While I was up there, orderlies came around … to pick up the dead” (to place on the funeral pyre). They thought Gaff was dead and said ‘this poor bugger’s had it’, and they pulled off his boots ready to throw him on the funeral pyre. Gaff recalled “You couldn’t talk, your eyes were back in your head and I winked at him, and …he fainted!”

And when they were eventually sent back down to Changi they were met by their commanding officer, a man with a fearsome reputation, Lt Col ‘Black Jack’ Galleghan.

Gaff recalled

Black Jack, the toughest man in the world, cried when he saw us, he said, where are the rest of my men?… Well they tipped us off the back of trucks at Changi like a lump – heap of bones and meat … We were just like skin and bone, there was nothing of us. Filthy dirty…

 It was after interviewing Gaff that I went back to all Bill’s letters in the shoebox.

Bill Gaden was an officer in the 2/20 Battalion Australian Imperial Forces (AIF). The men of the AIF, which included the 2/20 along with those of the 2/18 and 2/19 Battalions, were all volunteers. They were part of the 8th Division in World War II, men who have generally always been known as ‘Prisoners of the Japanese’. But from close family friend, the legendary Captain “Roaring” Reg Newton of the 2/19th, I’d learnt they were also ‘bloody good fighting men’ and I eventually realised that I wanted to tell their story.

The initial working title for the story was “Darling Doukie” as that was how my father-in-law started the letters to his mother Vera. The letters cover the time from him joining the 2/20 Battalion at Victoria Barracks in Sydney and being sent for training in Ingleburn and then to Bathurst, the journey to Singapore on the troop ship “QX” or Queen Mary, his time in Singapore’s Alexandra Hospital, the training the troops did in Malaya at Port Dickson and Mersing, leave at Frasers Hill, the preparations for combat, commencement of fighting, the battle for Malaya, the battle for Singapore and then nothing.

Nothing, no letters for month after month after month. How must the family have felt?  I have a tiny bit of an inkling as two of my sons and one of my nephews are serving members of the Australian Defence Forces, all three have seen ‘Active Service’ “somewhere up northwest and nasty” and I know the stab of fear when the phone rings and the anxious wait for precious correspondence, email these days, as we pray for their safe return.

The Fall of Singapore was 15 February 1942. On 29 June 1942 the Australian Military Forces wrote to Vera that Bill was “Missing” and it was not until the 6 January 1943 that she received a telegram advising he was a “Prisoner of War”.

Can you imagine living with the anguish of not knowing whether your son was alive or dead for close to a year?

 I started by transcribing Bill’s letters. They were eloquent and descriptive and gave an excellent insight into attitudes of the day, attitudes which are now considered very ‘politically incorrect’.

The letters that he in turn received from family and friends gave a good idea of life in wartime Sydney so they turned out to be an interesting social history of the time, for example did you know that women met together to make large camouflage nets and children in school classes carved the required needles from hardwood.

I was going to distribute copies of the transcribed letters round the family and that was all I initially intended. But a couple of Bill’s letters really annoyed me… he referred to the nurses, these women who had gone into danger to care for soldiers, he called them a ‘hard hearted bunch’ and one, Elaine, as having the ‘face like the back of a trolley bus and arms that ripple’ yet he invited her to go out with him on leave, she could match him at tennis and golf and he was obviously fond of her as in one letter he admitted she was “one of the finest lasses [he] had ever met”… I wondered what had happened to Elaine when Singapore fell.

I found some useful references in the library here at UNE and remember sitting at the library table with tears streaming down my face when I learned of her dreadful fate on the beach at Banka Island. Then I found that the other nurse mentioned by Bill and in the tennis photos he had sent home had died after brutal treatment in a POW camp.

I realised I wanted to know what had happened to all the people Bill mentioned in his letters, soldiers with whom Bill had played sport, laughed and lived, trained and fought alongside in the fierce and bloody battles.

Around this time I saw an advertisement for a “Changi to Hellfire Pass Tour”. It was timed for the 65th Anniversary of the Fall of Singapore. All the places on the itinerary were specific to the Second World War battles and we would even stay in the ‘Eastern and Oriental Hotel’ in Penang, a place where Bill had written that he had found ‘perfect bliss’ in June 1941… no, not like that!… he meant that after living in tents in the jungle he had a large room to himself and his own bathroom!!

We made our booking.

There is much to see on Singapore Island itself.

 In February 2007 we stood on the North-West shore of Singapore island in the spot at Serimbun where the invading Japanese landed, where the 2/20th were waiting along with the rest of the 8th Division.

In 1942 a gloomy assessment of the Australian’s area had been made by Lt- Col Roland Oakes, he recalled it was thick mangrove with limited vision, movement was restricted to a few native tracks, under water at high tide. He said it was not so much a thin khaki line of Australians as isolated clumps.

Even Commander of Australia’s 8th Division, Major-General Gordon Bennet was concerned. He noted:

This part of the island is thickly covered with timber, mostly rubber, with thick mangrove swamps growing right down to the water’s edge. The posts, which are many hundreds of yards apart, have a field of fire of only 200 yards. The gaps are patrolled regularly. I am beginning to worry about the extreme weakness.

Despite the dire reports also appearing in the Australian newspapers of the time, Bill had written home on 2 February 1942

Darling Doukie

At present we are on Singapore Island. We have been here for a couple of days and during that time things have been very peaceful and sunny on the ground.

The war is still going on above the clouds. Jap planes are continually coming over and our ack-acks are having great fun and bringing them down.

The planes keep up so high that they are only little black dots in the sky. The ack-ack shells bursting make a ring around the plane with little white puffs. The war is pretty; looking up at it from here.

Soon there would be continual bombardment, and the war would be very noisy from here.

The Japanese guns and mortar fired continuously for three days, 80 shells fell on one company of 2/18th in just 1 minute, another platoon had 67 in 10 minutes.

It was so noisy that some British troops didn’t even realise when the Japanese had finally landed on the island, they were still doing parade ground drill. One British officer refused to give ammunition to some Australians troops without a requisition order…. the Aussies had been fighting the Japanese and run out of ammunition. I was told that Bluey produced his Bren gun and advised “This is my requisition order.”

The fighting was fierce, and all the names at Kranji War cemetery are some indication and the display at Bukit Chandu, memorial to the local Malayans who fought the Japanese, was incredibly confronting.

In preparation for the “Changi to Hellfire Pass Tour” I had read Colin Smith’s comprehensive book “Singapore Burning”. This book and the tour itself made me realise there was much of interest in the preparations, or lack thereof, by the Singapore administrators, and in the preparations, or lack thereof, by the British troop command. Whilst in Singapore I purchased an excellent book ‘Operation Matador’, by Chit Chung Ong and was appalled by the ever- interfering role of politicians.

By 5th December 1941 the British knew the Japanese had

  • developed a Malay-Japanese dictionary,
  • had extensive maps of the Malay jungle,
  • the support of many 5th columnists who had hidden timber to repair all bridges and were well placed to assist the Japanese,
  • were sending seventy ships full of troops to Malaya and Thailand and they had already set sail,
  • Bad weather cost the Allies vital time when they spotted the large Japanese fleet but could not work out its destination,

 There is a myth that the British were surprised by the landward attack and the guns of Singapore were pointed in the wrong direction. This is not true.

All the scenarios worked out at Aldershot and the steady progression of defence plans and the forward defence on the Kra Isthmus and development of “Operation Matador” all showed the British were expecting the attack to occur in precisely the way it did.

“Operation Matador” was to be a pre-emptive strike against the Japanese should they land in Thailand and then head south. This was a “Forward defence” plan which meant Allied troops would enter Thailand but would have to be given the okay 24 hours before the Japanese landed on the Kra Isthmus. There was intense pressure from the British Ambassador to Thailand, Sir Josiah Crosby, not to be tricked into entering Thailand unless the Japanese had ‘struck the first blow’.

After much politicking in London, the decision to unleash “Operation Matador” was finally entrusted to Air Chief Vice-Marshall Sir Robert Brooke-Popham. However Brooke-Popham had just been told he’d been sacked, at this late hour he was to be replaced… in that situation he was racked with indecision and certainly not going to instigate “Matador” “in case he got it wrong”.

Inexperienced and only partly trained Indian Troops were stationed in the Thai border area. They had lost their Urdu- and Gerkahal-speaking officers to bolster Indian battalions fighting elsewhere. They were well under strength, had no back up, no tanks and were asked to do an impossible task… think about the terrain, think about the length of the Thai-Malay border. After the Japanese attacked those brave young Indian troops were overrun and were reduced to just a quarter of their strength.

The Battle progressed southward through Malaya and eventually the Australian were called upon and took part in the Battle for Muar

So why did the war in Malaya and Singapore go so badly wrong?

To defend the Malay peninsula and island of Singapore it was thought that Allied Army Commander, Lieutenant-General Arthur Percival required:

  • 48 infantry battalions… he had just 33,
  • 446 tanks, lightweight ones able to cross the wooden bridges… he had none, they’d been sent to Russia,
  • 336 front line planes, planes capable of taking on the Japanese “Zeros”… by December 1941 Percival had just 145 aircraft, none with the dog-fighting capabilities of the Spitfire, he had no long-range bombers, no transports (yet the Russians were given 676 planes).
  • The Aircraft carrier HMS Indomitable had not arrived as it was being repaired thus there was little to no air support for the HMS Prince of Wales and Repulse and the other Allied battleships which were sunk in a disastrous battle with the Japanese bombers.

Percival also did not have the confidence of Sir Alfred Duff Cooper who was Churchill’s Special Emissary in the Far East. He wrote of Percival who he described as:

a nice, good man. He is a good soldier, calm, clear headed and even clever. But he is not a leader. He cannot take a large view; it is all a field day at Aldershot to him. He knows the rules so well and follows them so closely and is always waiting for the umpire’s whistle to signal cease fire and hopes that when the moment comes his military dispositions will be such as to receive approval.

“Operation Matador” was not instigated, the decision was delayed till it was too late.

Local Malayan administrators were too complacent…

  • they had refused to allow local labour to be used to build defences… they were needed for collection of the rubber
  • if troops damaged a rubber tree during a training exercise they were fined £5 per tree
  • they refused to allow the Special Operations Executive (SOE) to function effectively,
  • when Penang was evacuated it was in such a rush that boats in the harbour were left intact and were able to be used by the enemy,
  • they had made no preparations in Singapore, there was no black-out, no safe places for evacuees to flee, no home defences, no food rationing, no identity cards, no system for registration, no storage of drinking water.
  • the troops had not been allowed to prepare defences, the barbed wire meant to be rolled out to defend the beaches was still in the store,
  • Fifth columnists infiltrated the area and reported back to the Japanese command the precise location of Allied guns
  • the Australians were not allowed to shell the Sultan’s Palace even though Japanese officers could be seen on the verandah directing operations, the allied command were worried about compensation!
  • women and children and the nurses were not evacuated early enough, their ships were bombed and many died.
  • the heavy bombing had cut most of the wires needed for effective radio communication from HQ to troops

 What a sad litany of wrong judgements and mistakes from the Allied hierarchy both in London and Singapore.

And the result was thousands of men becoming Prisoners of War and thousands of local Chinese people being executed

 Initially the Allied POWs were housed in the Changi region but then groups were used as labourers for the Japanese. Some were sent to Japan to work in mines, some went Borneo, others to Burma to start work on the Burma to Thailand railway. As Bill Gaden was part of ‘D’ Force our main interest was the Thailand end of the railway line.

Our ‘Changi to Hellfire Pass Tour’ added to the impetus to develop my social and family history into a complementary military history of the 2/20 Battalion with the family letters forming the perfect timeline.

From here it was a logical step to use the Battalion’s Routine Orders and War Dairy and the newspapers of the day to track the events unfolding in Malaya and Singapore. The Department of Veteran Affairs Nominal Roll told me when the men had died and the National Archives is home to their individual war records.

And there are many, many military books on the shelves (and yes most are written by men!)

The 2/20 Battalion Association put me in touch with several “Originals” and these delightful old soldiers were generous with their time and stories.

However the horror of all the reading took its emotional toll and I began having the most appalling nightmares… I had to have a six month break from my research.

Also I was not confident of my writing ability with such an emotional topic. I arranged to meet with Peter Bishop, then Executive Director of the Varuna Writers’ Centre, on one of his visits to Armidale. He gave me a very positive “Manuscript assessment” saying he read the manuscript ‘with attention and absorption’ and it was ‘a good read’. He thought the story was ‘anecdotal, respectful, had humour and carried the load [of the horrors of the war] lightly. It was not written with emotion but the accounts and anecdotes left the reader’s emotions laid bare’.

His encouragement was just what I needed to re-tackle those horrors and continue.

And so “Pounding Along to Singapore” was finally born… close to 800 footnotes, extensive bibliography and fully indexed, I think I met the challenge of those three men.

Local artist Sally Lloyd was commissioned to do a painting for the cover and her wonderful boots, map and correspondence cards superimposed on top of Bill’s painting of Hellfire Pass became an eye-catching book cover.

I have been amazed at the connections we have found on this journey-

  • for 20 years my husband Bob worked in NSW Agriculture with a man who never mentioned that he had been a former soldier from the 2/20 and even been in the same Company as Bill.
  • of the members of Bill’s relay team from the Negri Serembam State athletics competition, the sons of William James Bell played cricket with Bob and he also worked with a nephew of Irwin James Want for many years.
  • at a family gathering an uncle was there with his companion… she told me ‘Caroline, Roland Oakes was my former father in law.”
  • One of Bob’s friends from university days contacted us only last week to tell us his cousin, who he knew had been killed in WWII, he had just discovered had been a member of the 2/20 and was killed in the fighting on the Island.
  • in 1972 Bob jackarooed with a lad in north Queensland and we have kept in touch through the odd visit and Christmas letters, he told us that the prolific letter writer Connie Cay who wrote many letters to Bill is a close family connection of his.
  • the Godmother of my eldest son is a Pom like me, we met when we were teaching at the same school in 1972. We became engaged and married to Aussies and had our children at similar times… I had a phone call from her husband one day quite recently… Terry told me his father was in the 2/20th, he’d died in Thailand during the war. His mother died soon after war’s end so Terry was brought up by Legacy knowing nothing of his father or what he had been through. Terry was the first to receive a copy of the published book.

The book reviews by the Chairman and Secretary of the 2/20 Battalion Association have been very gratifying … they are men who have researched the Battalion and talked to many returned soldiers so they know their story and it was great to get their positive comments.

Review from James Keady
As the former long-term Secretary of 2/20 Bn Association I have been reading and studying the 8th Division but more particularly the 2/20th for about 25 years. I can’t tell you how many books I have read and how many returned men I have had private conversations with, but about ten years ago I started to question times and events that some books portrayed as history to find that they were incorrect or licence was used. Don Wall, author of ‘Singapore and Beyond’, was a stickler for accuracy … I am quite sure Don would have enjoyed your book and would have been proud of it. I don’t know what I was expecting but received a great surprise and couldn’t put it down. Bill’s letters to his mum put a different light on things for me. My uncle’s letters were not as frequent or as newsworthy as Bill’s.  Referring to time and events was much simpler to understand for me than in ‘Singapore & Beyond’ and the emotions of the people involved was easier to grasp.

I think your book is one of the 8th division’s finest and your husband and family should be very proud of your achievement. Congratulations on a great book


Review from Peter Salter
I’ve now read the book and I am greatly impressed! I liked your very readable style and the way you’ve woven the letters into their historical times makes the book a great read. Loved all the references and indexing … I found the insights into wartime Sydney was very interesting too … Caroline I think your excellent book adds significantly to telling the stories, life and times of the 2/20th Battalion and so it is therefore a very significant work.

But the reviews I love best are from two people who lived through it.  One is from a 2/20 widow, she was engaged to her soldier Theo when the troops sailed away on QX.

She wrote

Have just finished reading your wonderful book. I wept often and also the last chapter which I loved. Most of all I was so proud of our men. I relived the home front and can see we all suffered the same anguish and despair. Bill and Theo were much alike and had similar health problems…. You gave us all the little details we wanted to know and throughout the fighting I had many goose pimples even though I know it all so well. The reader is left feeling satisfied. The whole family must be so proud of you Caroline and rightly so. Thank you Caroline for giving us all such a treasure. Joy Lee, widow of Lieutenant Theo Lee, 2/20 Bn.

And the other is from one of the Original soldiers. He rang me to tell me that the troops had had so many questions left unanswered about the development of the war in Malaya, so many things the soldiers were not told and never knew, and they’d had so many questions about why the Allies surrendered. He said that at last, after reading my book, he understood the sequence of fighting and why it went so badly wrong. And of the things he did know he said ‘You got it so right. Well done’

As an author you can’t ask for better than that.

And I want to end this talk in the same way I ended the book, with a quote from the memorial at Bukit Chandu in Singapore:

If we do not remember our heroes we will produce no heroes   

If we do not record their sacrifices, their sacrifices will have been in vain

The greatest strength we have as a people is our common memories of the past and our common hopes for the future

For without those memories the next generation will not have the fighting spirit to carry on                                                       



This paper was presented as one of the 2013 UNE Humanities Lecture Series

8 March 2013