2/20 Bn AIF in Singapore and Malaya in June 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.
1 June 1941
The Unit Band travelled to Malacca to play at the Hospital (10AGH) and the next day the Unit Guard returned from duty at Divisional Headquarters.
On 4 June one Corporal and 37 Other Ranks were declared medically unfit and were returned to Australia. The following day all unit transport was camouflaged. The women back in Australia used to meet at places where there was plenty of room, for example billiard halls, to make these nets, and, as reported in “Pounding Along to Singapore” schoolboys used to carve the required needles from hardwood in their craft classes.
5 June 1941
The Unit vehicles were used to take troops for regular swimming sessions and the Adjutant noted “there is always a very cheerful and bright atmosphere which proves the great relaxation that they are.”
The next day the cheerful atmosphere was destroyed when Private WG Wilson died from injuries sustained from a shot from his rifle. A court of Inquiry was convened. He was buried with full military honours in Seremban that evening.
7 June 1941
The Battalion’s War Diary reported that, in a further attempt to improve morale for troops who were becoming frustrated at playing a waiting game with the Japanese, two Companies adopted a new leave scheme by bivouacking for the weekend alongside the beach. No Reveille, no parades of any kind. Control was maintained by Officers and NCO’s without any difficulty and the troops voted this weekend an excellent idea.
Bill Gaden wrote home: ‘Today Betty Bryant, star of “Forty Thousand Horsemen”, arrived at our camp in person. The lads were pleased and made a lot of noise.’ He commented that part of the reason for her warm welcome was that ‘girls are as rare as emus here.’ He continued ‘The weather must be very cold at home. I wish we could have just a little cold breeze here. We are sleeping in underpants only and our only bedclothes are mosquito nets. The temperature is pleasantly warm and we sleep soundly. The constant heat is causing our blood to become very thin. A little cut bleeds much more freely than in Australia. One officer recently spent a week high up in the mountains. The temperature up there was evidently cold. He used blankets. I have not slept with a blanket since our ship left Fremantle. When the officer came back to camp he went off duty immediately and has taken a couple of weeks to recover from the change of temperature.’
Meanwhile the training routine in Malaya continued. Yet another soccer match took place between the local police force and the Battalion, and the rugby team played a team of lads from the Riverina. An indication of increasing tension saw all ranks advised that the Sunjei Ujong Club was out of bounds, a restriction which became more common leading up to the fighting, with the fear that some ‘locals’ were spies for the Japanese. It wasn’t long before the properties Hythe and Salcombe opposite the Malay School and Telak Kemang at Si Rusa were also out of bounds to all troops.
16 June 1941
The War Diary of the 2/20 reports that Lt David Campbell MacDougal (NX12539), was one of the men who ‘marched out’ on leave this day, returning on 20 June. A couple of months later, in August 1941 he and twelve others from the 2/20, including Corporals Joe M Moore (NX20081) and Rolphe WU Barker (NX28141), left the battalion and became part of Mission 204 along with Fenton Braund (NX12551) of 2/19. They all had to be volunteers, single men with no dependents and medically very fit. There were around 250 men in all, including 40 Australians. The other 2/20 men were Privates HM Browne, SK Eddy, JW Gilmore, R Green, TR (Pat) Hamilton, C Martin, JF Sinclair, DGH Strand, R Ward and MFM Weber. The men sailed on ‘Karoa’ to Rangoon, then they moved for training to Maymyo in Burma where Rolfe Barker died of typhus on 5 December 1941 and Cecil Martin (NX31696) also died of typhus in China in July 1942.
They followed the Burma Road into China. David MacDougal wrote “We were in Kweiyang, Southern China when Singapore fell and on our way north to help our ‘comrades-in-arms’ and I can tell you we went on with a good deal of trepidation and soon after, Burma was lost. We spent 9 months in the blue with Mr Forde and general staff denying our existence when suddenly Smith’s Weekly found us and got a story plus photographs (we were then between Changsha and Nanchang, in some of the filthiest country I have even seen.) With us of course were all the local diseases, malaria, blackwater, cholera… after everyone becoming too crook to do anything we were withdrawn and brought home.”
David told me they were expecting the Chinese Army to supply them with food ‘ration packs’, but none were forthcoming, they were expected to ‘raid’ the local villages. In the end the men were withdrawn as it was thought the Chinese wanted Allied equipment but not Allied soldiers.
Their story is told in:-
“The Surprising Battalion, Australian Commandos in China” by William Noonan published by Bookstall and Co, 1945, Sydney.
Don Wall also includes Pat Hamilton’s report of Mission 204 in “Singapore and Beyond” (pages 353-360 and 376).
David MacDougal’s papers are found at the Australian War Memorial <http://www.awm.gov.au/collection/PR86/259/ > .
A brief history is at <http://www.awm.gov.au/collection/records/awmohww2/army/vol4/awmohww2-army-vol4-app1.pdf>
16 June 1941
The Battalion’s Routine Orders advised that ‘from this day the sender of an Expeditionary Forces Message (EFM) telegram would not be permitted free choice of words in the text but had to use one or other of the expressions shown on the list of standard texts, a copy of which was with the Postal Orderly. Under the new arrangements a flat rate of one dollar per telegram was charged with a maximum of 3 numbered texts. For example an EFM telegram from Pte Jones saying “John injured and in hospital, please don’t worry writing” would be sent in the following form: 125 JOHN 74/16 JONES. Telegrams not exactly covered by one or other of the standard texts cannot be accepted as EFM messages but may of course be sent by one of the other classes of telegram available for this type of message.’
The EFM telegram was for sending messages both to and from Soldiers, Airmen and Nurses abroad. The codes were listed under several headings such as Correspondence, Greeting, Health, Promotion and Money. Number 12 was code for ‘Many thanks for letter’, 13 ‘Many thanks for parcel’, 43 ‘Love and kisses’, 57 ‘Many happy returns’, 73 ‘Are you all right, worried about you’, 105 ‘Have you received money?’
Families back home paid 2/6 and could send the telegrams via ‘Beam Wireless’ from any Amalgamated Wireless Australasia Ltd office or via ‘Imperial Cable’ from ‘Eastern Extension Australasia and China Telegraph Ltd’ at ‘Electric House’ in Sydney
But sometimes the messages received were not quite as planned:
A father received a decoded EFM telegram from his son in the Middle East: “Delighted to hear your voice on the radio. Love and Kisses. Baby and I are both doing well.” Following an investigation, the sender was found to have won a sweepstake in the officer’s mess. The prize – a free EFM telegram, but he had to consent to be blindfolded and told to chose his code groups using a pin!
A Major in the Middle East sent a telegram to his bank manager asking for details of his account. The reply from the bank was “Pounds135.14s.10d”. The message seemed to have slipped through the tight censorship and was handed to the telegraph company minus the Pounds sign. It was then considered an EFM message as it contained only numbers. The puzzled Major received his decoded telegram from his bank manager as follows: “Very happy to hear from you dearest. Am fit and well. Many thanks for your telegram. Parcels sent.”
References: Routine Orders 16 June 1941, <http://telephonecollecting.org/telegram.html> and PA2S page 68.
18 June 1941
In Malaya a District Court Martial was held on 18 June with two 2/20 men in trouble. They were charged with various offences:- resisting an escort, striking an officer, common assault, malicious damage to property and conduct to the prejudice of good order and military discipline. There is no mention of being ‘drunk and disorderly’ so had they been drinking, if not, what triggered their behaviour? One was sentenced to 80 days detention and the other to 150 days detention. Where were they detained, was it at the camp or were they removed to 8th Division HQ and sent to Singapore? (On 27 June the War Diary reported that 4 O/Rs were sent to detention at Port Swettenham, so perhaps this was the most likely place.) One eventually returned to the battalion and died as a POW in Sumatra on 25 May 1944. The worse of the two offenders was discharged from the Army on 20 August 1941, well before his 150 day sentence was complete. According to the DVA Nominal Roll, he did not become a POW so must have been repatriated to Australia before the fighting began.
19 June 1941
The War Diary reported a blackout in the district and the Unit carried out an Air-raid exercise. ‘Transport and Bn and Coy HQ moving to Unit dispersal areas until exercise concluded.’ The next day the Adjutant reported the battalion was finding ‘the prevalence of numerous types of skin rashes is causing quite a lot of inconvenience with regard to training and administration at present but is being carefully watched and treated.’ Five officers marched out to act as umpires for an Indian exercise. On 23 June GB Woodland of the Salvation Army marched in, attached for quarters and rations. The troops were ‘involved with Company exercises in defence and attack as per the syllabus in jungle and rubber’.
20 June 1941
Five officers marched out to act as umpires for 11th Indian Division exercises. They were Capt EW Gaden, Lt FV Mudie, Lt JC Rowe, Lt F Ramsbotham and Lt CC Gibbings. On his return Bill wrote home ‘Last week I was away on business – up in the north.’ He visited Alor Star and remarked ‘this is the town that Hinkler visited during his epic flight. The name fairly breathes romance etc but the town is dreary and surrounded by rice paddy fields. We stayed there a couple of days but saw little to write about. On one occasion I went to the Thailand border and only saw jungle.’
He continued ‘I have been to many places. Penang – a beautiful little city, full of life and not affected by war or troops. Penang is an island one mile from the mainland. When our ferry was taking us across the little town was bathed in the golden glow of the setting sun and the harbour was packed with native fishing boats with flapping sails. I stayed at the Eastern and Oriental Hotel and there found perfect bliss – no not like that. The pub is magnificent and the accommodation leaves nothing to be desired. My room was large and beautifully furnished. I had my own bathroom and a little drawing room attached. E & O to me sounds like perfect comfort. Parts of Penang were so like Sydney that once or twice I felt a ‘frog’ in my throat and I am sure the others did too.’
The Eastern and Oriental Hotel in February 2007
On our ‘Changi to Hellfire Pass’ tour we too stayed at the E&O Hotel and this is what I wrote in my travel diary of the time. I quoted Bill’s letter then wrote:-
“We too revelled in the ‘old-time’ opulence of the place. The doorman was in Colonial uniform, complete with pith helmet, the entry was onto a glorious marble floor, the foyer is famed for its echo dome. The bedroom had parquet wooden floor, rich brown teak furniture, with two ¾ size beds, a huge wardrobe with his and hers coat hangers and lights that came on when the doors were opened, a TV unit, the dressing table had lights placed for perfect makeup. The ‘living’ room had a comfortable sofa, coffee table, large TV unit and writing desk and chair. The view was onto interesting architecture and palm trees with the sea beyond.
But the bathroom was something else to behold. Marble floors and walls; a shower in one corner with a shower head at least one foot in diameter; toilet in the opposite corner; two washbasins, one at each end, laid out with his and hers accessories and in the middle a wonderfully huge bath. Slipper and bathrobes were placed ready for madam or sirs convenience. We really appreciate the space and luxury especially after the cramped facilities last night (we had travelled north overnight by train).
An article by Neil Khor and Yvonne Teh in the July-September 2006 issue of ‘Heritage Asia’ gave some history of the hotel. It was founded by three Armenian brothers, the Sarkies; they also founded Raffles in Singapore and Strand in Rangoon. It has the longest seafront of any hotel in the world, 256 metres. Three storeys high, it boasts Moorish minarets on the roof. The grand ballroom was added in 1903 and a new wing was added in the 1920s, and boasting “an English style long bath, running hot and cold water, two water basins and modern sanitary conveniences”. The teak furnishings were made by Messrs John, Little and Co and Messrs Pritchard and Co.
Stars who stayed here include Rita Hayworth, Douglas Fairbanks, Rudyard Kipling, Somerset Maughan and Noel Coward. [According to our tour leader, staff still frequently see Mr Kipling with head down busily writing at a desk, a couple in Colonial dress and a small girl who will talk to visiting children…. they refer to these ghosts as ‘uninvited guests’].
In the First World War the price of rubber fell and many former clients were penniless. Arshak Sarkie would waive the bills of friends and even provide them with passage home. The hotel became known as the ‘Eat and Owe’. But it survived, even through the horrors of the Second World War. After Malaysian independence in 1957 it declined and was closed in 1996 for extensive renovation over five long years. The meticulous refurbishment was completed in 2001 and the hotel now boasts a large swimming pool, lush gardens and manicured lawns. It has its own web site at www.e-o-hotel.com. Its history is told in ‘The Story of the E&O Hotel, the Pearl of Penang‘ by Ilsa Sharp. Their motto is ‘We draw from our past to forge our future.'”
25 June 1941
It was reported that ‘During the last evening a steel filing cabinet containing about $994 returned pay was stolen from the Orderly Room. All possible measures taken for attempted recovery of same. Cabinet found on beach with some small change and nearly all such papers that were in it.’ On 30 June ‘the Motor Cycle School commenced for the training of Officers and other necessary personnel in the riding and care of motor cycles.’ Two Officers and 13 O/Rs from the 2/19 were attached so they could take part in the school. Bill Gaden was one who learned to ride a motor bike and a few days later wrote that they had one in the camp where the Battalion’s athletics team were in training for the Negri Seremban State Athletics Championships. He rode it flat out along the beach at low tide and remarked, ‘the warm air stung my eyes and face and tried to pull my hair out.’
25 June 1941
It was reported that ‘During the last evening a steel filing cabinet containing about $994 returned pay was stolen from the Orderly Room. All possible measures taken for attempted recovery of same. Cabinet found on beach with some small change and nearly all such papers that were in it.’
30 June 1941
The Motor Cycle School commenced for the training of Officers and other necessary personnel in the riding and care of motor cycles.’ Two Officers and 13 O/Rs from the 2/19 were attached so they could take part in the school. Bill Gaden was one who learned to ride a motor bike and a few days later wrote that they had one in the camp where the Battalion’s athletics team were in training for the Negri Seremban State Athletics Championships. He rode it flat out along the beach at low tide and remarked, ‘the warm air stung my eyes and face and tried to pull my hair out.’
In early February 1942 Connie Cay, who knew Bill Gaden from his school days, wrote to tell him “I go to the netting in Milson Road now, almost opposite, saves fares and time. It’s only been going since June and 500 mark has been passed so we’re celebrating with cakes etc on Thursday week when Mrs Sisle, who lent her billiard room, can be present.” In their woodwork classes schoolboys used to make needles from the wood of silky-oak trees.
There is description of net making in Longmate’s book “How we lived then” which has some wonderful memories of wartime Britain. No doubt in Australia nets were made in just the same way. “A highly disagreeable task undertaken almost everywhere was making camouflage nets. Net-making frames were set up in village halls and even large private houses; a Portsmouth naval wife recalls spending two days a week for years ‘netting’ in the garden of an admiral’s house. Any woman would drop in whenever she had a few hours to spare. “The dust and fluff from the scrim half choked the women knotting it on the nets and the dye left their hands and clothes deeply stained. Crawling about… with bruised knees and aching backs, elderly women drove themselves for that extra hour which meant so many square feet of cover for the Army. One lady who regularly ‘went netting’ remembered it as ‘the filthiest job I have ever known. We used to wear overalls, a scarf round our hair, a mask something like a surgical mask. It was such a dirty job we drank as many cups of tea as the ration would allow.’
References: “Pounding Along to Singapore” page 156 and “How we lived then, a history of everyday life during the Second World War” by Norman Longmate, Arrow Books, London, 1973, page 368.