There was a great call when the Japanese landed only 20 miles north of us for us to get back to the ship.
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Then after four months of sort of a crash course at Dartmouth, the Naval College, we were all assigned to various ships. And so my pal, Benny Benoit, a Canadian from my class, and I, were sent to a ship called HMS Mauritius, a colony class cruiser lying at anchor in Scapa Flow. So off we went. As soon as I got there, we were assigned to run ships’ boats. Well, both of us had had plenty of experience driving boats of all sizes, and so this was great and we enjoyed that work, albeit it was foul weather and it was cold because it was January. And our ship forayed forth with, sallied forth I should say, with the remainder of the home fleet on two occasions to attempt to find the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau [German battle cruisers], that were reported in a breakout from their home ports. We didn’t manage to meet them and it was just as well because we sure as hell weren’t ready.
However, it wasn’t very long before we were then sent to do convoy duty with liners. And they took us from Scotland to Gibraltar, Gibraltar to the Cape and from the Cape up to Aden and then we turned about and picked up returning ships with prisoners and wounded, to return them to the UK.
Well, this went on for a while and then we were detached from that duty and for several months thereafter, we worked out of Colombo to the islands of Mauritius, the Seychelles, Diego Garcia, Diego Suarez and to the Nicobar Islands and eventually to Singapore. We were there at the dry dock getting our fire main refitted because for some reason, this brand new ship had a fire main that was more like a sieve than a fire main. In any case, whilst we were there, we midshipmen again were sent off on exploration: come, let’s learn a bit more about Malaya duties. We not only flew in the local aircraft and billeted with the local regiment, the [2nd Battalion] Argyll and Sutherlanders, and the Loyal [North] Lancashire Regiment, but we also stooged around the sky in a thing called Vickers Vincent, which were biplanes from the First World War and they were better than that. They were still operational throughout the thirties but they were pretty poor aircraft against the Japanese. And, indeed, all of them were destroyed when the Japanese landed.
We, Benny Benoit and I, were sent to a place called Kelantan Province and the town of Kota Bharu, which means new town in Malay, where we were entertained by the local people there and, indeed, the rubber plantations, of which there were many, were all managed by Scots for Dunlop Rubber. Yeah, and, in fact, on one evening, we had a rehearsal for St. Andrew’s Ball. Don’t forget, it’s hotter than the hobs of hell and steam heat, and the bungalows where other people lived, these overseers, were very nice, raised off the ground to allow air beneath them, to help cooling and also be anti-snake protection.
In any case, as we arrived, everybody was in whites and there was a piper of course, why not, and we were all handed a mickey of Dimple Haig [whiskey] as we crossed the threshold. Well, that was great fun and we all drank and danced wildly. And, believe me, we were drenched because of the vigour of the endeavour. And everybody’s clothes were clinging to them like as though they were naked, especially the ladies, who bobbed up and down, and it was all very startling for young boys like me and my friend, Benny.
Any case, there was a great call when the Japanese landed only 20 miles north of us for us to get back to the ship. But, anyway, we got back and sure enough, it wasn’t very long thereafter that not only had the Japanese landed, but they were bombing Singapore. And so we midshipmen were detailed off in groups of 10 with a midshipman leading, to board police launches and to go out into the Singapore harbour to attack Japanese junks that were lying at anchor. We didn’t realize it at the time, it had been thought that they were, of course, armed and ready to do business. But when, in point of fact, we lobbed some hand grenades into the quarters down below, why we eradicated some Japanese fishermen and found their cargos were Japanese-held ensigns to be given to the, by the conquered nations to the victorious Japanese coming in. And so we were detailed off to get back to our ship, put her back in the water and get her refueled, re-vittled, re-ammunitioned, everything, in 72 hours.
We did it and we slipped out during the night and got around from the south end of Singapore island and raced up the Malacca Strait, blacked out, because our electrics weren’t connected; we couldn’t have fired the guns even if we wanted to. So, eventually, we got back to Trincomalee on the northeast coast of Ceylon and then eventually back to Colombo Christmas and New Years, and then to Durbin and back to the Cape, and home by February of 1942.