This is a fascinating and very detailed insight into the experiences of a WAAF in Singapore and Malaya in 1946. How I wish I had kept such a comprehensive diary of my life in Changi. TH.
Margaret Skene died on the 17th January 2017.
This story will remain on the site in her memory.
BPO – Base Personnel Office
BOR – British Other Ranks
Memories of a WAAF in Changi, 1946
By Margaret “Midge” Skene (M2375)
We were living and working on the camp at Changi, which pre-war had been occupied by the Royal Artillery. The Guard-room wall displayed a ‘Gun carriage’ badge in relief. The whole compound reminded me of High Wycombe days, a vast area with buildings dotted among trees, but the difference being the profusion of palms, and cacti and the splendid views across the busy shipping channel.
One of the reasons for our Unit going to Singapore was to compile and produce PORs for our returning POWs, sending several copies by air to London, without which pay increases, etc. would not be paid. Perhaps this is the reason why our Wing Commander Smith OBE and Warrant Officer Bert Luxford MBE were sent to carry out this work, having been decorated for their recording of all men and women returning from Dunkirk.
We were first billeted in a large room divided by screens into small areas to accommodate 6 girls in each. The Flight Sergeant in charge related lurid tales about her introduction to Singapore, as one of the first two WAAF to fly in while the Japanese were still being rounded up, and the unpleasant tasks they undertook. The cleaning of lavatories with acid, and the hacking up of enormous communal beds which had been used continuously for 3½ years with little apparent attention. The one almirah allocated to each two girls was inadequate so later we commandeered some of the crates used for transporting office equipment.
The sight of fresh green trees and shrubs with the background of blue sea was delightful but we had arrived in a monsoon period and although it didn’t rain that first day, the sky was overcast with humidity high. We had no anti-malarial precautions apart from taking mepacrine tablets; no mosquito net, no stockings and long sleeves after dark. Later, after being severely bitten I did ask the ‘chippy’ to cut me four poles to fix a net for myself and we were once more told to take dress precautions.
As well as sending all our khaki drill to the dhobi we were allotted an Amah, one to eight of us, who made beds, cleaned up and laundered undies and civilian clothes. They were usually gabbling to one another and rather coy, shy and giggly with us, but we enjoyed having them around and felt the 4 dollars (a dollar was then 2s4d), a month we paid them was money well spent. All money was in the form of paper and a pocketful gave the impression of wealth whereas a bundle of one cent notes was practically worthless.
The ablutions were fairly primitive with stone floored cold water showers the water being turned of each day between 2 and 5 and, occasionally, all day. We sometimes talked nicely to the cook and cajoled a bucket of hot, water for hair washing, when a cup of char and a piece of tart might be negotiated as well! There were often rats scuttling around as well as big beetles and praying mantis in corners.
On this first day our new offices were still being painted and none of our equipment had been unpacked. The BOR club served cold drinks and had a table tennis table which was soon put to good use. It became clear that there would be no duties that day so Jan and I took the ‘ACSEA Circuit’ bus, which ran every hour, to Singapore. We were able to do this by day but not allowed out of camp after dark without a male escort, either to Singapore or Changi Village.
Singapore (Singa pura, ‘City of Lions’), situated on the south-east of Singapore Island, was, even then, a large city and our first impression was that its forceful white buildings, the Secretariat, the Cathay, the Cathedral, tower blocks and cinemas gave a feeling of a clean brightness, yet Angus in his short stay there near the docks found it only a smelly place. A friend who holidayed there a few years ago thought it extremely clean, free of litter with apparent little vandalism and crime. She felt happy to wander the streets at night on her own, whereas she rarely goes out after dark in her native Shropshire town.
We did find a more squalid area by the many small shops adjacent to the harbour where Indians and Chinese expected goods to be bargained for (The very first oil-painting we felt we could afford after 10 years of marriage is just such a scene, of Singapore – a colourful row of these open-fronted units with sampans in the foreground).
At the westernised end of the city the all-purpose stores displayed expensive goods by service-pay standards, the only reasonable commodity being shoes at 17 – 20 dollars a pair, which usually had crepe soles, Malaya being a land of rubber. When we learnt that a film would cost 4 dollars we realised that photography would be a luxury to be shared. As in Bombay the streets were full of noisy traffic, so the Shackles Club run by the NAAFI for BOR’s was a welcome discovery. We had a rest over a 3 cents cup of tea before more wanderings, admiring the palm tree and gardens, after which we caught our 6 o’clock bus back to Changi. A satisfying day.
Japanese POW’s were a common sight around the camp acting sweepers, helping in the cookhouse and sick quarters. Singapore Chinese said “Japs very bad men” but Malays gave the impression that they preferred their rule to the British. The POW’s were usually in groups with one of their officers leading, who would salute not only our officers but us as well. I was never sure how to respond, feeling slightly embarrassed and gave a slight nod in acknowledgement. A girl who gave a POW a cigarette one day was taken aback when a chinese coolie knocked it out of his hand saying “Jap not give British soldier cigarette”, adding ”British too soft with them”. I personally found it difficult to forget that my school friend’s jolly brother, whom had known well from the age of 8, had died from Beri Beri in a POW camp. He was awarded a posthumous decoration for his fighter pilot sorties over Burma.
A letter from my worried mother amused me, but I quickly wrote back to reassure her that the Japanese were not the reason for us not being allowed out alone after dark. I told her that the POW’s were always under some sort of guard and were marched into camp in the morning and marched off again at 4 o’clock each afternoon. I was never quite sure why we were not allowed out alone. In my mother’s same letter she said “We are pleased the japonica” (!) “has started sending out new shoots after being damaged by frost”.
Wednesday and Saturday afternoons were free as well as all day Sunday, so we were on a much easier schedule than at Bombay. Food in the mess was good, especially the bread, butter, jam and cakes after Indian dough with ghee; and the chinese servers, whether girls or men were spotlessly clean. They called us ‘Missie’ which we preferred to ‘Memsahib’. The billet was noisy with girls coming in late, and often during the night with torrential rain beating down on the roof.
One Sunday four of us started talking to the crew of a launch which was moored near the jetty and clambered aboard in our swim suits when offered a ride. We sailed round an island opposite Changi which I think was called Pulau Ubin, cruising pleasantly at 10 knots. We used binoculars to inspect the islands around, complete with rubber plantations, and sailed near Seletar, at that time a sea-plane base, with its planes floating on the water like gigantic gulls. We sat on the bow dangling our legs over the side until suddenly there was thunder and lightning with pouring rain which chilled us so much that we scurried into the cabin. We were given tea and fruit cake, Lyons Dundee out of a tin! We had a brief lesson on controls and compasses and were allowed to take the wheel. One of the girls steered back to the jetty, coming alongside without bumping and without any assistance. We were proud of her.
With the help or a couple of coolies, we were moved from our crowded temporary billet to a different block which had brand new lavatories where a box had been constructed over the typical ‘key-hole variety. Unfortunately it was placed so high, almost needing steps to climb on to it, that feet were left dangling in mid-air and with the uneven floor, the box rocked backwards and forwards precariously.
I didn’t stay long in this billet, moving into the Sergeants’ Section when I received my third stripe. These small terraced houses, in peace-time used as married quarters, with one room up and one room down, proved a more peaceful abode. Jan, who had also been upgraded to a Flight Sergeant, and I, had a top room with a good verandah for storing tin trunks, kitbags, etc. as well as being pleasant for sitting out. We had one chest of drawers between the beds, a wardrobe, and we soon acquired a few pictures, a wastepaper basket and odd ornaments to create a homely atmosphere. Photos of each or our families, displayed on a small table, completed our settling in and we soon felt happier than at any other time since our arrival on the island.
Our Amah, Nannie, a middle-aged rotund chinese woman, with jet- black shiny hair pulled into a bun, who we paid 5 dollars a month under compulsory WAAF rules, soon became an attentive mother figure. She fixed up nails for hanging extra garments; washed and ironed clothes taken off one day, laying them out ready to wear by the next morning; tidied up our beds even after a mid-day rest and sometimes cooked a supper iffor some reason we were too late for a mess meal. The Amahs attached to these quarters kept chickens outside and occasionally popped one in the pot as well as supplying eggs. In bed at night when heavy storms occurred it was good to be able to close shutters on the windows. There were times when the thunder and lightning was so formidable we cowered under the sheets.
There was no Sergeants’ Mess for WAAF – just one small room set aside a few houses away containing easy chairs for quiet moments when tired of our own room. We were not allowed to entertain here and instead invited BOR’s to the WAAF NAAFI where they could buy an extra beer, it being off ration through girls not drinking their quota.
We, in turn, went to the BOR’s Sergeants’ Mess for games of darts and Housey Housey where a full house could win 50 dollars if you were lucky. The BOR’S Club held occasional dances but the stone floor made moving difficult and shoes soon showed signs of wear. There was a table tennis table but the light was not very good.
Being one of 12 WAAF Sergeants on the camp did not entail many duties apart from Guard Room Duty now and then when each billet was supposed to be checked. Some WAAF Officers were very thorough, making sure all lights were out at the proper time, inspecting mess suppers for night duty personnel, seeing that pots and pans were clean, and reporting any girl who came in late. Others were more relaxed and lenient. I once did a duty with Flight Officer Tedder – Air Chief Marshal Tedder’s daughter. We did receive a little extra money and no longer needed to book in and out of the Guard Room when going out of the camp.
Parades were few. Then we had to dress up, complete with black shoes for an 8 am inspection, sometimes marching past an Air Ministry Bigwig. On the King’s Birthday we paraded first thing in the morning and then had the rest of the day off. Someone had the bright idea that it would be better to put our backs to the sun to avoid anyone flaking out which often happened on parades. After getting in order and being inspected, the Padre said a prayer which was drowned by the noise of a plane going over, and then the Air Commodore gave three cheers for the King. We finished with a march past before staggering back to billet.
We soon became accustomed to the 50 minute journey into Singapore, thumbing a lift in one of the many service vehicles using the road daily, if the special transport was missed or full. We discovered variousclubs as well as eating places and cinemas. The NAAFI, as in England, had a monopoly in running service clubs. The Tanglin was an Officers’ club but I spent many happy hours there never getting into trouble. It was a pukkah club with lounge, dining room, games room and dance floor. The verandah overlooked a swimming pool, not in use while I was there, so after an evening of dancing and table tennis we would go back to Changi for a swim at the beach. Once coming out of the Tanglin we nearly bumped into Lord Louis and Lady Edwina Mountbatten, who drove off in an open-topped cream-coloured limousine. As we walked to the town on this occasion we passed a wedding procession with girls carrying sprays of flowers, followed by a decorated car with the occupant dressed up in shimmering gold costume and head-dress. This, however, was quickly turned into a nightmare when a taxi came along the road too fast and in trying to avoid the procession swerved to the other side of the road mowing down three or four people in its path. It did not stop, flying off with one door swinging open and people screeching after it. A horrible moment.
The YWCA was a place for daytime off-duty hen parties, for char and chat, and here on several occasions we met girls previously known in Bombay who were temporarily stationed at Tengah, a transit camp, on their way to or from Hong Kong.
Only once did I pass over the sacred threshold of Raffles, and for such a short moment that my description home was that it was like a morgue, an old mens’ club where you felt someone would say “Sssshhhh” as you walked in. I was probably wrong.
The Lido was a frequent haunt, a large hotel, run again by the NAAFI, with all amenities plus a swing in the grounds which took me back to being a child again.
The Garrison Theatre provided live entertainment. Here we saw Roger Livesey in ‘It all depends what you mean’ and ‘The Barretts of Wimpole Street’. During the latter we were thrilled to see the great man himself, Lord Louis, in the front row not far from us. ENSA gave various shows, one including Bali Mallin, ex Henry Hall’s Dance Band, singing hill-billy songs. The Anglo-Polish Ballet performed ‘Preludium’, ‘The Cow that Spoke’ and finished with the gay, lively and colourful ‘Cracow Wedding’. I missed Tommy Trinder because I was in sick quarters for a few days suffering with earache. There were also cinemas which we thought expensive and often showed old films.
The swimming pool at Changi was a fenced-off piece of sea to keep out sharks. I once, swam all the way round the outside of the nets, stupidly irresponsible and a long tiring way. There was no water in the pool at low tide, we had great fun when there was water, whether attempting to play amateurish water polo or just ducking one another, and moonlight bathing was especially exciting seeing the effects of the phosphorous rich water. The wiggle of a hand under water produced an electric-bulb-like light and swimming itself created sparks. Even shaking out a swimsuit after swimming, sent a shower or glitter into the air.
Swimming after 6 pm was really prohibited and once when a group of us were there a jeep drove down, shining its lights on the water, giving us a fright. A whisper went around, S.P’s, and we hid behind the large log which minutes before was being rolled and climbed over. What a relief to see a swim-suit clad figure emerge from the jeep and run into the water! Moonlight created spectacular scenes, either by the pool, or down on the beach behind Changi Village, where the crystal clear water lapped the sand so gently, almost silently, and the tree silhouettes, by contrast, were so bold.
We could take a short cut from the camp to Changi Village through a lane lined with trees and shrubs. The village itself was a mixture of tiny shops and cafes as well as steeply roofed wooden houses. After rain there was mud everywhere, and when it rained, it deluged. Fauna was supposed to include cobras but I never saw a snake the whole time I was there. I did have a lizard on my shoulder once and didn’t know it was there until someone pointed it out. We used the village chinese cafe for late night cups of coffee when the mess was closed and often supplemented mess food by having cheapish meals there, although eggs were expensive and almost us much a luxury as at home. They excelled in their exotic fresh fruit salads. Pineapples grew locally in fields and we often had a slice for tiffin. We didn’t stick entirely to eggs and chips which were very well cooked, but also tried many chinese dishes, Chop Suey’s and Sharks Fin Soup. I understand this rural area is now one of the world’s most sophisticated airports.
I assumed everyone understood RAF slang. For instance I wrote “Jan is in dock” and my mother thought she was in jail. Another time she asked why they hadn’t heard from me and I replied “A kite with mail on board ditched in the sea”, to her bewilderment!
A group of us were invited to join the Engineering Department one Sunday when it was organising a day on a launch to sail down past Singapore City, across to a small island, a journey or two hours. The men were in civvies so it was difficult to know whether you were talking to an aircraftsman or the Air Commodore. At the stern we were towing a small dinghy which bobbed up and down. I was just thinking how nice it would be to have a ride in it, when a man, who we later heard was the Air Commodore, pulled on the rope to bring it near, got in, let it out again and had a soaking from the spray. Jan and I were the next to have a go and enjoyed a novel experience. I have a really good photo of us in the dinghy, gripping the sides, laughing. We began to feel like explorers. This was an experimental trip and as we approached the island a man was checking the depth to see how near we could get. We anchored too far away to wade ashore so decided to start our picnic before we went any further, but not before we had a swim from the boat. Sharks? No-one seemed to think about them. Getting back onto a boat from the sea can he tricky and in doing so I scratched my knees on barnacles but the salt water acted as a healer. The party was well organised with masses of sandwiches of all kinds, cakes, beer and lemonade. The local beer was unpleasant so we stuck to lemonade. After lunch we went six at a time in the dinghy to the shore and pretended to he shipwrecked on a desert island in the South Seas. Any minute it seemed the cannibals would rush from behind the trees or the spears would come flying from nowhere. Even the little boat could not reach land because the sea-bottom was mostly coral reef, so that the last lap was done on foot, picking our way carefully. We found some good shells and odd insects but no tigers or elephants, and did not, penetrate the jungle having only swim suits on and bare feet.
A new friend I made on this trip took me another day to Kallang aerodrome, where he was on duty, to look over the C in C’s York. I sat talking with the driver of his jeep while the inspection was being made and later learnt that usually, this man scarcely uttered a word. We were being beckoned over nearer the plane, which was looking handsome by the Watch Tower, and invited to take a peep inside. What luxury! Six comfortable seats in one compartment; four beds in another as well as all the controls and wash rooms. I don’t think letters were censored by this time and I recounted this tale but suggested they kept the information under their hat, as I thought Sir Keith Park would not like to think we had been prowling in his precious domain while he was visiting Australia.
Sport figured largely in our spare time, either taking part or being spectators. We played a great deal of tennis on the camp. We did not have ball-boys as in India! Even in the late afternoon it was hot enough to produce a continuous trickle of sweat and shorts finished with nearly as many wet patches as shirt. There were cricket matches but I never had the opportunity to join a women’s game.
The game most fervently followed was football. Jan’s father had been a professional in his young days, so she was a fan and instilled in me some of her enthusiasm, although I never reached her fanaticism. I often went with her to encourage our BPO team when competing against RAF, Navy or Army teams, even once against German POW’s.
One great day was on ‘Finals’ day when eight lorry loads went as supporters to a league match at Seletar, 40 minutes drive from Changi. Our team was late arriving and not very complimentary remarks were flying around the outskirts of the pitch. Then in the first few seconds of play the other side pushed a goal in which sent everyone into a frenzy, but we counter-attacked shortly with two goals and that is how the game ended. We won the Beamish Shield for the camp and were all excited, and had an exhilarating journey back which was even a bit crazy. The leading lorry had a siren on it and kept it going all the way making a frightful row. Did we care? No! There was a celebration in the BOR’s club that evening!
The airman who took the lead in the ‘Wind and the Rain’ in India, Albert, came to ask me one day if I was interested in taking part in a play he was producing. It had been fun before, so I went along to the first reading. ‘Petticoat Influence’ was another farce scheduled to go on within 5 weeks. Two of us read the lead part but Albert asked me if I would take it on, perhaps because he knew me already. I agreed and then began to get cold feet when I realised what a lot there was to memorize. I spent the next two weeks in a whirl, finding it difficult to think of anything else, even in bed having words floating round and round in my brain. Fortunately, again, it was not a character part, so my own voice was good enough, but I had to learn how to cry and sob authentically.
The Show had many ups and downs before it was good enough to perform. Albert, at various stages, announced that he had no intention of putting it on unless he thought it would be a success. A couple of times it came near to cancellation when one of the male characters had an appendix operation and the second female was also taken into sick quarters, but both parts were taken over quickly by Albert and Jan, who knew it backwards from listening to me. The smallest female part changed four times!
The entertainments officer gave us the task and the finances, to buy materials in Singapore for the tailor to make up our costumes. We were also involved in the Set, helping to make covers for a settee and arm chairs.
The first two nights in the Palm Cinema on the airstrip, went off reasonably well and I quite enjoyed it after waiting to go on when my knees were playing games with one another. A couple of Group Captains in the audience on the second evening were enthusiastic enough to make up for the initial lack of encouragement by the officer in charge of dramatics. We appreciated this for Albert’s sake, and for all the back stage boys who had given up so much of their spare time, as much as for ourselves.
Our next performance was given to an Army Signals Unit a short distance away where we were all invited to a meal afterwards in the Sergeants’ Mess. Jan and I tried to take care in packing up costumes because we were responsible for pressing them before the next evening.
An Army Wireless Unit, the other side of Singapore, a longish journey, was another venue, the theatre turning out to be a tin hut with open sides. The stage was so small our boys had to quickly cut two panels and a door out of the scenery. Here we saw what some men had to put up with in Malaya and Burma, which made me hope never to hear grumbles around our camp again. All the men lived under canvas in the jungle, and the Officers’ Mess, where we where entertained after the show, consisted of one large tent. This audience was our most appreciative, in contrast to another near Singapore. On that occasion when everyone had left the theatre, Albert said we might just as well have been playing to the chairs – there was such a wooden reaction. Their welfare officer told us later that they were a very odd crowd saying “They recently booed one show off the stage and walked out; at least they remained in their seats and made a few complimentary remarks showing you passed the test”.
Another Army Unit, where the improvised theatre was a large boarding school hall, gave us a slight irritation during the play, a bell ringing at intervals, no doubt at the end of each prep period, and then at 9 o’clock a shuffling of the older students leaving, presumably to go to bed. There was also a gang of chinese and malays watchingand giggling from a balcony, but we struggled on.
Our last performance was at Tengah, the transit camp, where we had a scramble getting dressed and made up in time, after a late start from Changi. Here we had a remarkably attentive audience creating a warm atmosphere; many of them, I expect, feeling generous in their own happy thoughts of getting near to embarking for Britain. A good dinner in the Airmen’s NAAFI afterwards rounded off another pleasant venture. After these hectic weeks, alternatively alarming and exhilarating, it was good to be able to relax and look forward to packing up for leave a couple of days later.
Nine of us, at the end of August 1946, went by train on an organised leave to the Cameron Highlands. We were pushed into austere berths, with no bedding provided, and slept in our clothes, even needing a jacket in the middle of the night because it was so chilly. Jan woke me for a cup of tea early in the morning, but I stayed up on my top berthuntil we arrived at Kuala Lumpur at 8.20 am. Here we just had time for breakfast before changing to another train, where in spite of holding 1st class tickets, we were herded into 2nd class accommodation consisting of hard seats in a hot stuffy compartment. The train, taking five hours to reach Tapah Road, snaked through almost English-type forests, so different to the monotonous Indian landscape. A two-hour truck ride up to the hills was by contrast not so picturesque or hazardous as the approach to Conoor or Naini Tal. A group of large commandeered houses nestling on a plateau, with hills in the background, our destination, looked very colonial.
After reporting to the headquarters of the YWCA, a magnificent white house, six of us were allocated to another of their leased properties, Mount Vernon, a pleasantly furnished dwelling decorated with bowls of flowers in each room – snapdragons, dahlias, roses, yellow daisies and pyrethrums. Jan, Clarkie and I shared one room. Mount Vernon did not have much in the way of catering facilities, only providing breakfast, on individual trays, which we could have in bed if required, so for other meals we went to the big white house. The climate of cool mornings and evenings with sunshine during the day was a welcome change to Changi’s overcast skies.
The Lady Warden in charge of our house asked us on our first day if we would like to go over to the Cameron Highland Hotel, an Army Officers’ leave hostel, for an ‘At Home’. Jan and I, as so often happened, were not ready in time so the provided transport left without us. Later we set off on foot. We lost our way and returned to find the Major, who looked after the whole area, having tea with our Warden. He rounded up another couple of girls and drove us over to the Cameron where we were delighted to spy a table tennis table.
Our days were spent either lazing in the sunny garden, dozing by the fire with a book or being energetic playing tennis, walking, sometimes dancing at the ‘all ranks’ Eastern Hotel. There was a cinema in the village but this meant organising transport so we mostly stayed in oneor other of the houses, listening to an arranged concert, or winding up an old fashioned gramophone to play over and over the few records available.
We had a few rides up around the hills. One day three of us set of to visit the Bene Valley, leaving the rough road to drive along a muddy, bumpy track, all sitting in the front seat, Jan and I having to hold on to one another and to the back of the driver’s seat to stay upright. At one point we thought we were to be defeated when we came across a sizeable tree which had fallen over the road with several men struggling to remove it. They told us that two jeeps had previously managed to crawl under the one possible space and we just squeezed through by folding the front windscreen down. We took one and a half hours to get up to our picnic spot but only half an hour to return by a more sensible route, glad to be with an experienced driver who manoeuvred the acute bends with ease. I particularly liked the tree ferns but we enjoyed the whole escapade through the jungle seeing cascading waterfalls, as well as fantastic views from the top of the hill.
Some days it rained solidly all day and on one or these we walked round the golf course laughing and singing, while the others sat in thinking how dotty we were. I had borrowed a small round army hat and a long beltless mack reaching my ankles, for protection, but my shoes became soaked. I had to borrow some chappals before going back to Mount Vernon when tea by the fire was welcome.
It seemed that every little thing out of the ordinary in this place became an excuse for a dinner party and so it was that I attended two Indian occasions. The first was when an Indian Colonel in charge of the hospital, was giving a farewell party, the second when an Indian civilian, who worked in the offices, provided elaborate curry dishes in a small timber shack.
Sometimes these evenings finished with dancing and once included a Scottish eightsome. I was dragged to join one group, having to respond to instructions as I had never attempted it before. We ended exhausted after all the intricate movements and the laughter when accidentally turning the wrong way or colliding with one of the other dancers.
The whole scene at this Hill Station had an artificiaI feel about it. A completely alien way of life for me. I think we enjoyed the quiet moments of the garden, the lounge with its fire and reading in bed more than the hectic social life thrust upon us. Table tennis was still the number one priority for Jan and me. This ended one morning when I smashed at the only ball we had, catching it on the side of my bat, whereupon it flew right up to the ceiling into a corner, disappearing through a hole in the roofing! I wonder if it is still there?
On our 10th day we returned to Tapah Road Railway Station in plenty of time for lunch in the Rest House before the train arrived. It was late, so we sat around On our luggage playing knockout whist, suffering the heat after the coolness of the hills, taking off as many clothes as possible and rolling trousers up to our knees. This time we found more comfortable seats and slept most of the way to Kuala Lumpur.
Jan and I had arranged to break our journey for the last three days of our holiday, taking a train for another two and a half hours ride. Two army friends we had made in Singapore were stationed about 50 miles from Kuala Lumpur and had booked accommodation for us in the Rest House at Seremban„ the nearest place to their camp.
After booking in, a gang of us bundled into a van driving at 50 mph, to Port Dixon on the west coast of Malaya. There we boarded a ‘Duck’ for a few miles of road before barging between trees on to the beach straight into the water. In my letter home I wrote “Isn’t it a pity a Duck doesn’t fly too!” We drove/sailed out some distance before swimming in the clean clear water and then had a chance to try pseudo water skiing, although on a more stable base then skis. A floor board was taken up, fixed by ropes to the Duck, with another rope for hanging on to. It was big enough for three people at a time but later I held on alone to be pulled round in large circles before being thrown into the sea. Great fun. (I still love swimming once a week with O.A.P. friends. The attendant says we are more noisy than the childrens’ session.)
The Rest House was run by Chinese and was usually used by civilians, but our friends had managed to engage a comfortable room for two, Jan and I being the only people there at the time. We overslept the first morning, waking to find a pot of tea and 2 bananas on a tray between the beds. Washing facilities were primitive after the luxury of the houses at the Camerons, with water being turned off three times a day for an hour or so. Beds were good, cooked egg and bacon breakfast, complete with bread, butter and marmalade, was excellent. Jan summed it up well, “It is all very British”.
Seremban was a pretty little place with a pond opposite the Rest House, giving a feel almost of an English village – I wonder how different it is now.
We spent the second afternoon at Port Dixon, but, having rained in the morning, it was chilly and I was glad of a turn at steering the Duck to warm up from the heat of the engine after swimming. We dined in the local Mess in the evenings and, yes, guess what, played table tennis. I wonder how many tables were shipped out during the war?
Our two friends were able to use a few days leave to take us back the 208 miles to Changi. We persuaded them to drive the coast road route which we heard was longer but more scenic. The four of us, plus a driver and another soldier set off at 10 am on the Sunday, reaching Malacca for lunch. This way led through rubber plantations, rice paddies, small villages with timber buildings, palms, banana trees and many rivers, two of which we crossed by ferry. We reached Singapore Island passing over the Johore Bahru Causeway. The varied holiday had been a great success. We kept well and were happy.
LOOKING FORWARD TO CHRISTMAS
At the end of September 1946 the Drama Group started meeting again. The play being read seemed tiresome so I left early with some of the others who were keen to put on a Shakespeare play. I knew that my stay in the East was nearly at an end and had no intention of taking part. By coincidence one of the films showing was Henry V so we went along to gather enthusiasm, wondering whether it would be too ambitious putting Shakespeare before a service audience instead of the usual farce. This idea did not materialise. Someone then had the bright idea of a Pantomime. There would be plenty of time to write a script, make costumes, and gather a cast together before Christmas.
Several evenings were spent in the NAAFI, first deciding the theme – this resulted in ‘Sinbad the Sailor’, then thinking up jokes to slip into the story; sketching costumes; holding auditions for actors and singers. After much worry, enough people came forward and a microphone was acquired for the singers. The upstairs floor of the NAAFI was used for rehearsals at first and then I later they were transferred to the Cinema Theatre, when it was not in use, where lighting and flashing effects for rockets and atomic power, being written into the script, were on the spot.
Most of the time I acted as a stooge, stepping in to help where necessary. When the make-up artist needed to teach three others how to set about the task, I was the dummy; another time I was the guinea-pig when making up a dance routine in Hawaiian style to the tune of Poinciana and when complete, slowing it to girls who would perform.
For costumes we went into Singapore buying brightly coloured lengths of material to be made up by the local tailor. To be authentic sarongs need accompanying garlands. Someone suggested making beads out of plaster of paris but I put forward the idea of papier maché which I had used as a child. Three of us set about tearing paper and adding glue, but not remembering exactly the method or proportions. We slopped in the sticky mixture, rolling different shapes, and pushed wire through each one for threading purposes. When complete we carried them carefully to the cookhouse, charming the cook to let us put them on top of the stove. Before going to bed I popped in to see how they were drying out, saying, “I hope we don’t get them served up for breakfast”. Imagine our dismay when next morning we discovered the early morning duty cook, wondering what they were, had thrown them away. We were Curious. We felt he should have known that they were some thing and belonged to someone. There was nothing for it but to start all over again. The second attempt proved more successful and looked good when painted and strung up.
When the prompter didn’t turn up on one occasion a script was thrust into my hands and next minute I found myself sitting on the steps leading to the stage, frantically trying to find the place. All good fun for me with no responsibilities. It was a pity not to see the end product, or even a complete rehearsal, after all the time spent in the NAAFI helping to sort out the problems.
One of my last jaunts was in a jeep to the other side of the island, Tanjong Basir Reba. The 30 mile ride through forest, rounding hills here and there, leading to a rugged road which wound in and out along the coastline was charming. I loved every minute of it. We stopped on the top of a hill where an old Artillery Base was being converted into a holiday camp, and clambered down the steep cliff to a small beach. The tide was out and instead of swimming, we went canoeing. The canoe was a two-seater so I wasn’t too scared to have a go and paddled a long way before resting, bobbing up and down on the rippling waves. Getting back was more of a struggle and caused some amusement to the others onshore when we went round in circles my tired arms not being as strong as my partners.
It was a grand day, sunny for a change. We lazed listening to music on an old wind-up gramophone, slurping tea from a flask, eating sandwiches. The perilous ascent of the canoe up the cliff carried on four backs was fun to watch, while I scrambled behind with two jeep cushions, one tucked under each arm.
That day, in idyllic surroundings, I wondered why I was in such a hurry to leave it all. We certainly made the most of it, going into Singapore in the evening for dinner and the 9.30 show at the Capital to see the film ‘Ladies in Retirement’. Here perhaps I should quote a friend from Wymeswold, a cheerful plump girl, who wrote in my autograph book in March ’44:
My candle burns at both ends
It may not last the night;
But Oh! my foes and Oh! my friends,
It gives a lovely light.
I was lucky to be able to go that evening having slipped into the monsoon ditch, taking skin off hands and ankles. Amazing the number of people who fell into Monsoon ditches!
A disappointment occurred at the end of October when my group heard we would not be leaving in November. Hopes of being home for Christmas vanished. We were apparently not due for release until January ’47 and the rule was to leave about six weeks before that, shipping permitting. I had relished my stay overseas and never regretted volunteering to travel but had had enough and was ready to return to England and a more normal way of life.
I remember a man in India who was about to be repatriated, saying he was being doubly careful how he crossed the road, and Stan in Bombay stating “I am avoiding Indian lifts and Chinese foods now that I am so near getting on the boat to go home”. I realised, at this stage, that I was beginning to feel the same way, fearing something might go wrong and started going to bed earlier, even swallowing mepacrine tablets and in general leading a quiet life. I started day-dreaming, trying to visualise what it would be like getting out of the train on Temple Meads Platform to find my parents waiting for me; how we would all sit round the long room log-fire, all talking at once which was a family failing. I hoped there would be a few Cox’s Orange Pippins left for me from the garden. Bananas and oranges were very good quality in Malaya of course but no apple ever comes up to the standard of a good English one.
In the middle of this month we did have a tragedy on the camp when an airman died accidentally. So much thieving had been taking place that extra guards had been stationed round the perimeter. This man, on duty, saw a snake and slashed at it with the butt of his Sten gun which unfortunately went off, sending a bullet right through his stomach. I didn’t know him personally but the incident cast a gloom over the camp, everyone thinking how sad it was for something unnecessary like this to happen when the war was over.
The weather also deteriorated badly at the beginning of November, becoming dull and overcast all day with plenty of torrential rain and only an occasional bleep of roasting sunshine. Twigs and leaves invaded the in-coming tides making the sea unpleasant for swimming, and the mosquitoes became intolerable.
The beach was more crowded now that families were coming out to join husbands in the regular Air Force, and it was strange to see fathers digging in the sand with their youngsters.
My Seremban army friend came to Singapore in November on his way home and we spent his last, evening having dinner at the Tavern with another couple, then going to the theatre to see “A Worm’s Eye View”, which, at that time apparently I thought was very good. Appropriate in its jokes and content as the five Air Force characters living in a miserable billet near a training centre, acted out all the same sort of little things, and used the same expressions, as we did. I doubt whether it would have much appeal now. Afterwards we danced at the Coconut Grove. It was run by an American who had been in the Far East for 17 years and was just settling back in the building which he owned before the Japanese occupation. He had the most incredible moustache I had ever seen, quite small in size, but the long thin waxed hairs, old villain style,were trained outwards and upwards into the inside of his nostrils.
On 27th November we heard the ANDES might be sailing on December 13th so we started in earnest thinking about all the odd jobs to be done. We dug our blue out of the cupboard and washed all we could; starched collars, pressed skirt and jacket, etc. We were given the address of our demob station and painted it on tin trunk, crate, and kit bag. My first attempt at opening the tin was unsuccessful and when I did find a suitable object to prise off the lid, the tin slipped in my hand trickling black paint down my leg. When 105 P.D.C. Wythall had been neatly printed on everything we were told that a signal had come through to change us to 101 P.D.C. Warton, Kirkham!
During the next two weeks we got half-cleared from the Station, collecting chits, getting them signed by all the necessary departments, B.P.O., Stores and Pay Accounts. We each had an interview with the C.O. who asked us questions from the Release Book, and we answered Yes or No. A hurried answer ‘No’ was the reply when asked if we had any grievances in respect of the Royal Air Force, and were informed if we did have any we would be held there until the matter was cleared up. The M.O. checked my ears and although I had a little wax in each, as usual, he advised leaving a syringe until I was back in the U.K. This time I said ‘Yes’.
After clearance it was not necessary, officially, for us to work, but Jan and I went to the office daily to find out if we were needed.
The last requirement of all was the release medical to have eyes tested, weight checked, papers filled by nursing orderlies, and the M.O. doing all the usual chest and back tapping watching an attempt to touch our toes and listening to our Ahhhhhhh….s looking at tonsils. You are announced to be fit – how disastrous if you were deemed ‘unfit to go home’.
My last letter from Changi was dated 17th December, 1946, before leaving the next day. I recounted the social events I attended – the film ‘Fantasia’ and a supper gathering given by a Squadron Leader and his wife, not as a farewell party but as an acknowledgement of their enjoyment of the football get-togethers.