2/20 Bn AIF in NSW, on board “QX” and Port Dickson from Jan to Feb 1941
Pounding Along to Singapore’ is the book I wrote about the 2/20 Battalion Australian Imperial Force (AIF) who were sent to Singapore and Malaya in 1941 as part of the 8th Division. Captain Bill Gaden’s letters to and from the family provide the timeline along which the story of the 2/20 Bn is woven, from inception in June 1940 to the end of the Second World War. Other threads come from the 2/20 Battalion’s War Diary and Routine Orders, newspapers and magazines of the day, interviews with some of the men who survived the eventual POW years and came home and other reports from the time. This book is available from me via the BOOK link.
Following their Christmas leave the men of the 2/20 returned to Bathurst. They held a New Years Eve dance which was affected by rain and a swollen creek made the return to barracks an interesting exercise in wading through water about 4 feet deep. The moist conditions over a few days meant a plentiful supply of mushrooms for breakfast.
The new colour patches were issued and ‘looked very smart’. New uniforms were issued including drill trousers which buttoned up to become shorts. The War Diary of 2 February 1941 reported ‘A state of extreme activity exists but everything is most orderly and the absence of any excitement or unusual anticipation is still very noticeable.’
As embarkation became more imminent the camp was ‘closed’ and the unit packed, ready to leave Bathurst. Col Jeater marched out on Friday to take up duties on the troop ship and the rest of the Battalion followed, by train, on the first Sunday and Monday of February 1941.
The departure of the 22nd Brigade was supposed to be secret, but with the ship “QX”, the former liner the Queen Mary, at over 81,000 tons, in Sydney Harbour, and hundreds of uniformed men traveling to the quay and boarding, it would have been a very open secret that she was there to transport troops into harm’s way.
War Diary 4 February 1941: An inspection of all troops by His Excellency the Governor General, 2/20 troops forming up on the Sun Port Deck Side Forward. Two members of the unit disembarked, NX34176 being medically unfit and NX65741 found to be in a reserved occupation.
The ship sailed from Sydney and into harm’s way at 13.30 hours on 4 February 1941.
Bill Gaden wrote: The big vessel is wonderful at sea, hardly any movement has been apparent up to date. Our accommodation is quite good but not palatial. Most of our troops are in hammocks and are very cramped for space. We call the hammock area “Calcutta”, remembering a certain black hole. The messing for all ranks is excellent.
A plane from our man-o-war escort patrols our convoy and gives us excitement as well as protection. The plane at times flies so low that from the high decks we can look down on it as it zooms past.
Lt. Col. W.D. Jeater, issued orders that the men were not to play with the fan and light switches nor was gambling allowed, ‘gambling devices’ would be confiscated. Rubbish was not to be placed in the latrines, it caused blockages; cigarette butts and matches were to be placed in the appropriate receptacles, not strewn on the decks. The most ominous warning was
“MAN OVERBOARD” The Regulations prevent this ship from stopping under any circumstances in the event of personnel falling overboard. Troops are to be advised of this and that it is useless in any way to affect a rescue.
Other vessels joined the convoy. The Aquitania, at 45,647 tons, was carrying troops embarked from Melbourne, Mauretania at 31,938 tons and the Dutch ship Nieuw Amsterdam at 36,667 tons carried troops from New Zealand.
On 10 February the ships arrived at Fremantle. More men were disembarked for medical reasons, Privates Clarke NX33782, Cowling NX32296, Pound NX55967, Brown NX45464, Tilley NX51087, and Coulstock NX54003.
12 February 1941, the sea was particularly calm and that evening the Ship’s Officers hosted a dance. The next day the men were officially told that the 22nd Brigade was bound for Singapore. Officers received daily briefing lectures about Malaya and were then expected to pass the information on to their men. “Particularly extensive and instructive lectures given daily” which were most valuable and covered a “tremendous amount of general and specialised knowledge.”
The troops had many different training exercises, the program allowed for the rotating of training decks for all personnel so everyone had a fair share of sun and fresh air. Daily swimming was also a pleasant feature. First pay on board was made available for troops on 14 February, the rates allowed were: – Field Rank and above £10, Officers below Field Rank £5, Warrant Officers and Sergeants £2, Corporals and Specialists £1.10.0 and Privates £1.
On 16 February 1941 the convoy divided, the Queen Mary speeding at an increased rate behind the destroyer H.M.S. Durban. The others faded until they were mere silhouettes on a tropical horizon, following an ocean greyhound. And we were alone; pounding along to Singapore.
The troops bound for Singapore were now known as “Elbow Force”.
The Queen Mary berthed at the Naval Docks in Singapore Harbour at 1500 hours on 18 February 1941. The troops disembarked and travelled to their barracks by train. At 0830 the next morning they stopped at Gemas for breakfast, provided by one of the British Garrison regiments, The Loyals. The Australians then moved to Bagan Pinang where they marched in pouring rain and heat to their new barracks in Haig Lines, the original camp of the Volunteer Forces at Port Dickson.
From the War Diary:
20 February 1941 ‘Loyals’ completed handing over the camp, 2/20 did a 5 mile Route March
21 February 1941 Parade in morning followed by a 6 mile Route march after which all O/Rs had a 2 hour siesta.
22 February 1941 Heat and humid weather becoming more bearable as troops became used to it.
23 February 1941 First Church Parade on strange soil
24 February 1941 Troops commenced training, compass marches through jungle and following the siesta had organised swimming and recreational training, the Companies rotated through the different areas.
27 February 1941 Training in movement through jungle still progressing. No adequate method of storing meat as lack of refrigeration.
28 February 1941 Unit gradually settling to new conditions with a new routine to allow for early training hours. Lack of knowledge of the local native language was a great handicap retarding progress and efficiency but some of the troops were beginning to pick it up. All ranks were receiving instruction on health issues.