Squadron Leader Ronald H. Williams
No.92 Squadron, RAF Regiment (Malaya)
and his family.
Singapore and Malaya 1946-1950
By Adam Williams
Story supplied by Peter Mersh (M1768)
My father joined the Royal Air Force (at the third attempt) aged 34 in February 1941 and was commissioned into the RAF Regiment in May 1942. After service in UK and Europe he embarked for the Far East on 16th September 1945.
His first posting was to Medan in northern Sumatra where he was involved in quelling a rebellion of local tribesmen for the Dutch who were still the colonial rulers of Indonesia but were in no position at that time to send troops overseas. He used to say that it was a very dangerous job; on one occasion he woke to see a blowpipe coming through the window aimed at him, but fortunately the dart missed. That lasted a few months (he commanded a guard of honour for a visit by Lord Mountbatten at the end of April 1946), and he was then posted to Malaya, initially to Changi. A short while later he was posted to Kuala Lumpur, promoted to Squadron Leader (substantive rank) and assigned with another officer (Sqdn.Ldr. Crewe) to form the RAF Regiment, Malaya, whose function would be the defence of the RAF airbases in Malaya. Having made their initial plans they then had literally to go round the villages recruiting. Sqdn.Ldr Crewe was the senior, so his squadron became No.91 and my father’s No.92.
There was a quite considerable anti-Japanese terrorist element in the jungle during the war, largely based around the Malayan Communist Party, who were in the main Chinese. Mao Tse-Tung’s communists were gaining the upper hand in China and communism was spreading, exploiting the anti-colonialist feeling post-war. It was clear very early on that the communist terrorists in Malaya would become an anti-British or at least an anti-colonial force, as they did, and there was a progressive increase in rioting and terrorist action in 1946/7. This got worse in 1948 and the Emergency was declared in June of that year. My father with his newly recruited squadron were assigned to anti-terrorist jungle patrol work with the Army.
My mother and sister (Jackie) joined him in Kuala Lumpur in July 1947. The Emergency was a full-scale terrorist war between the ‘bandits’ who were well armed and skilled in jungle warfare and the military. There were numerous restrictions on civilian movement and everyone had to carry an identity card, for instance. One did not venture out of town and even then there was the risk of attack especially at night. Father was a very good shot and mother told the story how, on one occasion, Jackie felt frightened during the night and crept into their room under the ‘saloon-bar’ style swing doors. Father had his gun in his hand as mother landed on top of him in their bed; he would not have missed. Thereafter Jackie had instructions to come in as often as she felt she needed to, but to make a lot of noise doing so! It was a nervous time. In 1948 he was posted to Seletar Air Base on Singapore Island but continued to ‘commute’ to jungle work until late in 1948.
I left school in England to join them in December 1948. I was to be in the charge of a Squadron Officer of the WRAF who would be my guardian on the ship and duly hand me over to my parents in Singapore. I was 12 years 4 months old, off on a sea voyage of 32 days. I think the controls would be much more comprehensive and carefully enforced nowadays. Anyway, on the 7th December my grandparents took me up to Waterloo and duly handed me over to my guardian, and we boarded the boat train to Southampton. That famous boat train! Everybody who was anybody, and a lot who weren’t, travelled on the boat train from platform 10 of Waterloo Station until Heathrow and the aeroplane took all the romance out of international travel (but, in fairness, also made it practicable and widespread). It was raining and dark when we arrived in Southampton and we went straight on board. My guardian saw me to my cabin (C78 on D deck) which was a four berth inside cabin, shared with three other boys of my age. I can’t remember if any of them had their parents on board but think not. And that, as I recall it, was the last I saw of my guardian for the 32 days of the voyage. She may have kept an eye on me, but if so I didn’t notice!
The Empire Windrush was a converted German passenger ship, built by Blohm and Voss, Hamburg, in 1930 as the Monte Rosa for the Hamburg-South America Line and in her day had been a fine ship. During the war she served as a naval accommodation ship and workshop, latterly to the Tirpitz, and was damaged and partially sunk more than once. In 1945 she had been taken as a prize and converted into a Government troopship. Her initial voyage included the West Indies, bringing the first group of immigrants from there to the UK. That was a famous event, still remembered by many. Soon after, she joined the fleet of similar troopships which served the UK to Far East route carrying large numbers of military personnel and their families to the British bases from Malta to Hong Kong. They were known as the Blue Riband Line as they were painted white with a blue riband right round the hull, all looking very smart.
I had never even seen a large ship before, let alone been on board one. All this was going to be something totally new. We quickly formed into a small group of friends and we found plenty to do. We had formal schooling in the mornings but the rest of the day was free and we had more or less the freedom of the ship. On the downside, we left Southampton in a winter storm and the following morning I was seasick. A naval NCO told me how to avoid it – dry food and fresh air on deck – and I have never been seasick again. It doesn’t work for some (like Nelson) but it did for me. On the other hand, being up in the forecastle going through the Suez Canal, or watching the flying fish in a flat calm in the Indian Ocean are things I will never forget. We called at several ports, at last rounding the point of north Sumatra. Excitement was building, of course, but even so it is true that you can smell Malaya from out at sea, a combination of warmth and rain, of rubber and spices. It is a smell never forgotten. So down the Straits of Malacca and on 7th January 1949 we came into Keppel Harbour, Singapore.
I was anxious whether I would recognise my parents, not having seen my mother for 18 months or my father for three and a half years. But in fact I very quickly spotted them on the quayside and soon afterwards they came on board to meet me. After the usual formalities we left the harbour and drove across the island, first through the city and then the tropical hinterland and some rather sinister looking Mangrove swamp, to Seletar airbase and to our house at No.6 Maida Vale. This was a semi-detached house of two living rooms and three bedrooms above with a big enclosed verandahs front and back on the first floor and open ones on the ground floor. The kitchen and servants quarters projected L-shape and we had a garden front and back. Behind our back garden there was a small rubber plantation. My parents had a cookboy and amah, also a kebun (gardener) who, among other things heated the water in a large boiler and brought it in for the evening baths.
Seletar airbase was a large place and there must have been several thousand people there. There was a bus service around the base but no shops. It was spacious and I remember the cannas in flower, the palms and other trees, the greenness of the vegetation and the colours of the flowering plants and bushes. The military parts were out of bounds to families, of course, but with the swimming pool area, the sports fields and so on there was no feeling of claustrophobia.
We had a proper school, looking at a photograph there were perhaps 100 there, and Miss Campbell was headmistress. I certainly enjoyed my time there and think I learnt all I was supposed to. We followed a full syllabus of subjects and were allowed to work at our own speed within reason, provided this was faster than the class minimum. We worked normal school hours and had our games periods, football and hockey, after class. The swimming pool was very important to us and we went there as much as possible. It was a full 50 metre pool surrounded by coconut palms and grass down by the beach from which one looked across to the mainland of Malaya. Magnificent and beautiful. We had to get the bus to and from the swimming pool, being about a mile away, and the fare was 5 cents. We were probably little pains to the driver but we all enjoyed it. I quickly learnt to swim, though I never had any lessons.
In the Summer of 1949 my father was posted to Changi to prepare and implement a plan for the defence of the airfield there. Changi was a bit more ‘rural’ than Seletar, with a couple of small hills and some woodland and including Changi village right in the middle. My father’s lines and office were on the eastern corner of the base, looking out to sea and quite well separated from the bulk of the base by the runway. The very fine Changi International Airport is now built on the site and my father’s lines were just about where the Domestic terminal now is. The Headquarters of both the Air Force Far Eastern Command and the Malaya Command were at Changi so there were a number of very senior people around, many with correspondingly grand houses. But we children did not care about that and we roamed and played at liberty.
In fact, my father had been in Changi before. The British POW’s during the war had done the work of levelling a small hill (entirely manually) to prepare for laying a runway. After my father got to Singapore from Sumatra in 1946, one of the first jobs he was assigned was to use Japanese labour (surrendered troops) to lay the runway on the levelled site. They used a triple layer of perforated steel planking, which came in pieces about 6 feet by 2 feet, interlocking. Initially it was used a lot but by the time we got there four years later there were no flying squadrons based at Changi although the runway was still used for visiting aircraft. Actually, it was still in place and used as a taxiing area as late as 1969 when I saw it when passing through Singapore. Not bad for a job done in only a few weeks.
So we moved to the Base, to a bungalow overlooking the Johore Straits. On entering the Base, one drove through the village and out along the road overlooking the Straits, past the golf clubhouse and then to three or four bungalows. Ours was on the landward side of the road, on a small rise, with a lovely view over the couple of bungalows opposite to the Johore Straits and Pulau Ubin island. It was smaller than the house in Seletar, having a large living room with dining ‘alcove’ behind and a bedroom with bathroom on each side. Parents had one room and the other we split with a screen for Jackie and me. The servants’ quarters and kitchen were a separate small building behind the dining room. We had a bit of land to the right hand side and I quickly laid out our badminton court on that. There was rough, wooded land around but we did not have a garden, little more than space for a few pot plants. We could go down to the beach opposite, though it was not suitable for swimming. The principal snag was that, about 30 yards away, there were two enormous diesel driven portable generators which ran for much of the day to boost the station’s power supply. The noise was very distracting at first but it is amazing how quickly one gets used to something and ceases to notice it. When visitors looked a little put off it sometimes took a few minutes to realise what was upsetting them. Our cookboy, Wong He Lit, came with us. He was a Hokkien Chinese (most servants were Cantonese), in his forties I guess, and quite tall. We got on very well. Our amah did not come and mother employed a new one, but I don’t remember her.
Jackie and I went to the school on the base but it does not stick in the memory as the Seletar school does. It must have been of similar size and I remember (with mild horror) the Christmas entertainment. I was something in a sketch from Dickens, but cannot remember the details and have no desire to do any more acting – ever! I was there two terms (September 1949 to May 1950) and sat my 11 plus examination there. I know I did well in it (I was 13 at the time but presumably that was taken into account somehow) and I have a rather flattering letter, a sort of reference, from the school to wherever I would go on return to the UK.
We played games on the station playing fields, usually mixed hockey, which must surely be one of the world’s more dangerous games! A fast moving hockey ball waist high is a painful object, nearly as bad as a hockey stick swung by a girl who believes all boys are either too tough to mind, or should be. We did not have a swimming pool on the Base but did have a fenced in part of the sea, a ‘pagar’, which was good for swimming as it also had a bit of a beach (but rather black and uninteresting sand). But although one was protected from the larger predators, it also left swimmers vulnerable to tiny fish which bit just like a mosquito bite. We never really enjoyed that and our regular Sunday trips to the Singapore Swimming Club became even more attractive. On the other hand, there was a nine hole golf course and parents learnt to play. I walked round many times with them. I had two or three lessons from the club professional and played a few holes but I was still only just 13, which at that time was considered a bit young for something like golf. Pity as it would have been nice to learn to play properly.
We used to play with other children and generally wander around the base. I remember cutting suitable huge bamboos (ie 20ft long or so) from the hill in the middle of the Base and dragging them home to mark the lines of the badminton court. I got covered in ants doing it, but fortunately not the larger black or red varieties which had a nasty bite, worse than a mosquito. I was amazed how rapidly the bamboos were eaten by termites after I laid them and I soon had to make several replacements. There was little serious livestock around. One very rarely saw a snake and the only really nasty creature I ever saw was a 14 inch long centipede which crawled across our living room carpet one afternoon. Even He Lit was taken aback. But he got a broom and bucket and duly removed and killed it. They can be dangerous. There were lots of cockroaches, of course, and mosquitoes but they just had nuisance value. I got stung by a hornet once but although it was painful it was not serious and I soon got over it.
The village, being on the Base, was more geared to the needs of the Base personnel and families. There were several grocers, tailors and household shops and most shopping could be done there. There was no air-conditioning anywhere and people, especially adults, took a lunch-time siesta unless they had to get back to work. So the place could be fairly quiet in the middle of the day and activity would resume later in the afternoon. I have a photograph of the main street of the village, which I know I took one lunch-time; the only visible signs of life being two airmen and a dog. ‘Mad dogs and Englishmen…’! There was also a stamp shop run by an expatriate who had ‘gone native’ (one used such expressions then). With hindsight I guess he was Eurasian. He was a nice old chap, from whom I bought a number of stamps which started me off on my collection, though I wish with hindsight that I had been able to buy more. I still have my Malaysia collection, which is not bad but he would have had a lot that is practically impossible to get now.
The Seletar Naval Base was farther up the Straits and there were a lot of movements of ships in and out. My father used to telephone me from his office if I was at home (after school or in the holidays) to tell me if an interesting ship was coming in and I would nip over the road to the beach to watch it. I took a few photos but an old fashioned Box Brownie camera was not suitable and all I have is some grainy snaps with a tiny ship somewhere in the middle distance. HMS Belfast was the flagship of the Far East fleet, and I saw her many times. She is now moored permanently on the Thames. HMS Triumph and Ocean were aircraft carriers and there were other smaller vessels.
My father’s job was to prepare and implement plans for the defence of the Base. The golf clubhouse was built on the emplacement of one of the big guns defending Singapore from invasion in the war. In fact, the Japanese came overland and the defences against invasion from the sea had been useless. At this time the Emergency was causing serious trouble just across the Straits in Malaya and there was always the possibility that China would take the opportunity to invade, by land, sea or air, so all possibilities had to be considered. Most of the ‘bandits’ were Chinese and the Communists were winning the civil war in China; Shanghai fell in 1949. Defence was a very serious matter. My father built a scale contour model of the entire base on a board about 4ft square. Everything was to scale (vertical scale was, of course exaggerated) and every road, house and other building was included on it. It was a real work of art. Then he took it to his office and used it to plan his defensive positions and strategies, so it became ‘secret’ from then on. He was a very good modeller and craftsman. Work and home life were much closer together in the confines of the Base and we used to go out to his office occasionally, and knew his junior officers and (Malay) NCO’s quite well. Once he had arranged an exercise where some of the station units, supported by the Typhoon fighters from Tengah airfield, would attack, while his squadron defended. I went with him to observe the action and can still say that I do not appreciate being strafed, even with blank ammunition, by low flying fighters!
It was just at this time that father had arranged a leave trip to Hong Kong for all the family, which would be something of a highlight of our time in Malaya. The point was that the troopships ran up to Hong Kong but most of their passengers were troops coming to the Emergency in Malaya. The last leg of the voyage had plenty of spare space and, with five days each way and five days turnaround in Hong Kong, it was the perfect leave arrangement. I caused something of a domestic panic shortly before we went as I contracted a dose of Impetigo. We hardly ever hear of it now, but it is a nasty skin infection and is extremely contagious. The standard treatment was to coat the blisters with Potassium Permanganate, a purple disinfectant and germicide and isolate the patient. A few days of that and it was still spreading on my arms, so my mother took me to the station medical centre. The Doctor looked at it and at me and said, ‘have you ever had a dose of penicillin?’ No, I had not, so he gave me an injection of this new wonder drug (I suspect the armed forces had it well before civilian doctors). It was fantastic. In less than 48 hours all trace of the infection had disappeared and I was fully fit again. So off we went on the troopship Lancashire and we had a memorable holiday.
The next few months passed happily in Changi. We used to play and swim, and once we took a trip from the village across to Pulau Ubin in a little motor boat and we generally enjoyed ourselves. The Emergency still dominated the News and everything else and we all had identity cards, complete with photo and thumb print, which had to be carried at all times and one could not really go anywhere into mainland Malaya. The Bases were safe, of course, and so was Singapore island but people were nervous that the communist terrorists would move across from the mainland. But they didn’t.
Then in early 1950 North Korea invaded South Korea and the Korean War began. The immediate expectation was that this would rapidly spread and China would become involved, but fortunately that did not happen. My father was posted to Hong Kong with his squadron to defend Kai Tak airfield (which was still more of a military base than a civil airport) while troops there were allocated to the United Nations force going to Korea. And families were to be repatriated to the UK. So we had to pack hastily, initially in the belief that household stuff would be stored and we would return, but that was changed to permanent repatriation. On 27th April 1950 my mother with Jackie and myself boarded the ‘Orbita‘, one of the oldest troopships on the run. She was built in 1914 and this was to be her last voyage. She was, of course, much more full than usual because of the number of families to be repatriated. My mother and Jackie were in the same 8 berth cabin, with a single porthole (much superior to an inside cabin) and I was allocated to another 8 berth cabin with other boys. That was down at the aft end looking out onto a shipside passageway which ran all the way round the stern. I remember it as functional but not uncomfortable. The voyage was not bad but it was no longer a new experience and I remember little special about it. So we arrived at Liverpool on 27th May, a Sunday, and it was raining. I remember being at the shipside guard-rails with mother watching the hold luggage being unloaded when we saw one of our crates come ashore in the usual net sling on a crane. The load was dropped from about 10 ft height and I remember my mother’s look of horror. When we ultimately took delivery of it in Leatherhead there was not a thing unbroken in it. All parents’ china just went straight into the dustbin. Fortunately none of it was valuable, but it still hurt a lot. We ultimately got through customs and immigration and on to a train from Lime Street to London.
My father returned to England some 6 months later, was posted to Spitalgate O.C.T.U. in Grantham and left the RAF in 1953, to return to Malaya in a civilian capacity for another four years. During his service in Malaya he was Mentioned in Despatches twice, but had no awards other than service medals.
I have mentioned few people, largely because even if I remembered their names I never saw them again. But one must be included. John Sanders (then a Sqdn.Ldr) and his wife Marcia lived opposite us. John was in the Education Department and responsible for courses and education of the servicemen generally (not directly connected with the school for children, though he did countersign my school reference). They and my parents became firm and lifelong friends. Marcia taught me my catechism at the school. We continued to know them after Malaya. John eventually became Chief Education Officer (Group Captain) in Germany and, when he retired, they lived in Hove. He died in the 1980’s and Marcia a few years later.
I had wanted from the age of nine to become an engineer. That time in Malaya, especially the voyages there and back, convinced me that I wanted to design and build ships. I became a Naval Architect and worked in a shipyard, then Lloyds Register of Shipping until I retired. I have never regretted it and have always been very grateful for the experience when I was young.