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Rob's Shed

A Singapore Story - 1942

The author of the following account, MR B. LAURENSON, was an employee of the Admiralty, on the directing staff of the R.N. Armament Depot, Singapore, at the time. An attempt, unsuccessful in the main, was made to deny the ammunition stocks to the advancing Japanese forces. LAURENSON's account of this attempt is a graphic story of a civilian at war. The Australian connection lies in subsequent events.

The arrival at Fremantle of LAURENSON and other Admiralty staff from Singapore and Batavia provided a nucleus of experienced staff to man the new RAN Armament facilities then under development at Byford and Preston Point. Some of these staff remained on exchange duty with the RAN for long periods - until 1950 in one case.

Tom Dalgleish, Senior Clerk at R.A.N.A.D. Byford during the war, and later Superintending Armament Supply Officer at Sydney added a postscript to this story:

"Messrs Laurenson, Harrower and Oxenham joined our staff when they were evacuated to Fremantle and they had many tales to tell which unfortunately are not all recorded in this report.

As a result of this report all civilian staff leaving UK were granted Service status for the remaining period of hostilities."

LAURENSON's account was written shortly after his arrival in Australia and was first published in Naval Supply Newsletter, Vol 4 No. 4 June 1992 Pp. 37-41, although in an incomplete form. This version is complete, apart from several places where the typescript was illegible (denoted by squared brackets []. Notes are shown in braces {}.

January 31st {1}

At 0600 the Ghurkhas moved into the Western Depot and viewed the area for gun positions. The R.N.A.D. Staff went to residences in Singapore, and a rendezvous was arranged at Amber Mansions, where Mr Morris outlined duties. The endeavour was to remove all stores from the Western Depot to Singapore by road transport, and to load into lighters and railway wagons. Sufficient stores to replenish outfits of the ships remaining on the station were to be maintained in Singapore.

February 1st, 2nd and 3rd

During the next week the staff worked day and night. With only one or two hours sleep each day they endeavoured to move all possible stores. Had the complete staff remained, together with the Asiatics, it would have been possible to have removed a considerable quantity, if not the major portion of the Armament Stores, but as conditions were - only ten men were on hand, including officers, and these had to be divided between the Depot and the off-loading point in Singapore.

Some of the difficulties experienced are detailed herewith.

General Conditions

The Japanese forces were on the Johore side of the Straits, and the R.N.A.D. was under occasional shell and machine gun fire. At times this was varied with dive bombing attacks. The road from the jetty to the laboratory was literally the front line, and the buildings there could be only entered from the Japanese side. Considerable credit is due to the staff who worked under these conditions.

Labour

Few coolies were available in Singapore, and they seemed afraid to work at the Naval Base. Upon occasions it was possible to obtain some very poor material. The Military authorities objected to local labour being taken up to the front line - as the Japanese infiltrations were made by troops in cooly dress - and our coolies had a habit of scattering into the trees when Japanese planes appeared. Local labour dried up after a batch on the way to the Depot were machine gunned by a plane on the Bukit Timah Road. Sixty of these disappeared into the trees, and were never seen again.

The Officer-in-Charge of the Sector detailed a working party of 50 Ghurkhas during one night, and these were of considerable assistance.

Small Naval parties of ten men or so were detailed for work on occasions.

In view of the shortage of labour almost everything had to be manhandled by the R.N.A.D. staff, and they worked magnificently under the extremely bad conditions.

Transport

During the whole time only one reliable vehicle was permanently available - the R.N.A.D. lorry. The lorries requisitioned for the Department proved useless - all broke down within two or three days.

All Military Transport was attached to a Mobile Unit detailed to stand by at all times to rush troops to invasion points. It was arranged that 20 lorries would be provided each night and these were received for four days. The L.D.C. supplied 30 lorries with drivers one night - and although shelled on the way to the Western Depot they did sterling work.

Power

All electricity was cut off from the Western Depot immediately the Military took over. Lack of power-operated appliances - hoists, lighting etc, handicapped us severely.

Loading into Lighters

East Wharf, the point at which the loading was arranged, was used for embarking evacuees, and the Singapore Harbour Board early in February would not permit the wharf to be used for handling explosives. Every morning Keppel Harbour was heavily bombed and native labour was at a premium. That the stores were successfully handled at east Wharf, appreciation must be given to Mr Harrower who looked after that end.

February 4th

It was decided that the balance of "A" Mines, N.D. and P.D.M in the Depot should immobilised - and during the day this was done - the P.D.Ms were removed and thrown into the sea. This work wad done by the European Staff alone and late in the evening all returned to Singapore extremely tired after four days and nights of working under shell fire. At approximately 10 pm a Naval Officer brought a message that a fire had broken out in the Armament Depot. Mr Morris A.S.O and Mr Boyce A.A.S.O, both in a exhausted condition, drove out to the Depot but had a severe motor accident on the Bukit Timah Road which rendered them unconscious.

February 5th

At 2.30 am the Civil Secretary sent a signal to me regarding the accident and in company with Mr Selway I proceeded to the Bukit Pandang Casualty Clearing Station, where I saw the two injured officers on the operating table. Mr Morris had his left knee cap amputated, his right ankle fractured and the bone chipped, left arm lacerated, with a deep head wound. The doctor informed me that it would be six months before he would recover.

Mr Boyce had head injuries and laceration with an injured knee. I was informed that he would have to remain on his back for some time as it was thought he had concussion.

After operations they both remained in the Casualty Clearing Station for two days before being transferred to the General Hospital, Singapore. The Captain Superintendent visited Mr Morris there. During the day Mr Harrower, Mr Oxenham, Mr Selway and Mr Day continued to remove and stow stores at the Depot and in Singapore.

February, 6th

The road from Woodlands Gate to the R.N.A.D. was under shell fire and I was informed that it was mined. It was necessary to go by the Thompson Road from this date. Work proceeded by day and night as usual.

February,7th

All secret mine sprocket gear was removed and thrown into the sea at Keppel Harbour. Dept charges and warheads were worked during the night. Conditions were so bad at the western depot that it was only possible to enter during the dark hours. The Bukit Timah Road was a mass of shell holes and craters. The Kranji oil dump had been burning for days. It was a severe task getting past the Military Transport movements in the dark, and the shelling never ceased. It was necessary to halt frequently and take cover during a barrage. Conditions were chaotic, and only grew quieter as one arrived at the front line. Getting the stores away from the Armament Depot was nerve racking business.

February, 8th

Conditions at night were, if anything, worse than before. Upon arriving at the Depot to work 21-inch warheads, the Officer-in-Charge informed me that No 10 Magazine had been hit. Mr Oxenham and myself went to look at the damage. By the jetty was an enormous crater, and the Eastern End of the Depot and been heavily shelled. The entrance to No 10 Magazine was blown away and pieces of masonry were hanging loose. It was impossible to investigate fully in the darkness, as the British Machine Gun Posts were situated on all the Magazines and the shelling from the Japanese lines went on continuously.

It might be mentioned that from the time the Armament Depot as civilians worked in the front line they were in a most peculiar position. Having no Service status they were liable to be shot by either side. The Ghurkhas - not able to speak a word of English - had killed German officers in Malaya and an unknown European was an enemy to them and quite rightly so. It is considered that all members of the staff should have been been given a service rank, and it is hoped that this suggestion will be placed on record for reference should similar conditions ever arise again.

At the Singapore end, East Wharf was finished as an offloading point. The Harbour Board would not allow explosives to be handled there, and it was decided to use the Barlayar Creek Magazine.

This was fairly successful - but lighters were only able to go up the creek on a favourable tide - and it was almost impossible to get towage. However, the Military lorries were off-loaded as quickly as possible - bearing in mind the labour shortage.

February, 9th

The Captain Superintendent, through Lt Comdr Packard, stated that it was the intention to flood the Magazines in the Armament Depot. This was impossible. No flooding apparatus was installed and the magazines were not designed to be flooded. It was the further intention to pierce all BL Cordite Cases - with a view to wetting all charges. This again was impossible as no power was available and the only lamps on hand were Hurricanes. However, the staff proceeded to the Naval Base, under heavy shell fire on the Thompson Road. The Senoko Oil tanks were burning furiously and received direct hits as the convoy passed. The Military authorities anticipated a landing, and the atmosphere was very tense. In the Depot by the Jetty, the rail lines had been flown into the air by constant shelling and assumed fantastic shapes.

As stated previously, it was impossible to flood the magazines, and the conditions were such that any movement in the Depot was dangerous. After endeavouring to work in the No 3 Magazines opening BL Cordite Cases, it was decided that the operation was too hazardous. The staff returned to Singapore at approximately 4 am the following morning, having left the Royal Naval Armament Depot for the last time.

February, 1Oth

The Japanese landed on Singapore Island early in the morning, and it was suggested by the Captain Superintendent that all Admiralty civilian staff, with few exceptions, sail on the "FRANCOL" in the afternoon. Mr Boyce, A.A.S.O, Mr McAlpine Temporary A.A.S.O, Mr Oxenham Chargeman of Fitters, embarked on this vessel. R.N.A.D. staff left in Singapore were Mr Morris A.S.O, incapacitated in hospital, Mr Laurenson Tempy A.A.S.O, Mr Harrower D.C.O., Mr Selway. Storehouseman, Mr Day Tempy Storehouseman. In view of the reports of the fighting it was impossible to reach the Base. Endeavoured to get a lighter to Berlayar Creek, but conditions were unfavourable.

February, 11th

In the morning at the Superintendent's conference it was stated that all further demolition and evacuation had ceased. Mr Harrower, Mr Selway, Mr Day and myself proceeded to Berlayar Creek Magazine. Hostile Aircraft were overhead frequently and Imperial front line troops from invasion points were moving into Singapore. Japanese machine guns were firing from points near the Gap Road, where it was understood that a landing had been made. Conditions were so bad that work was impossible on explosives and it was necessary to return to town. Constant air raids took place during the day and the Japanese had occupied the Race Course, with infiltration as far south as Tanglin only three miles from Union building.

In the afternoon, through Lt Commander Packard, it was understood that the Captain Superintendent wished the Armament Depot Staff to board the tug "ST. BREOCK" and tow lighters of Armament Stores to Batavia. At 2100 hours Mr Harrow D.C.O, Mr Selway Storehouseman and myself were on board the tug "ST. BREOCK" awaiting orders from the Captain Superintendent as to time of sailing. All night long shelling and firing continued.

Photo of tug St Breock

The Tug "ST. BREOCK"

February, 12th

The "ST. BREOCK" lay in the roads off Union Building, and it was learnt that the Japanese had been forced back some miles. The situation was assumed to be much better, and it was hoped that we would be able to go ashore. Heavy shelling with hostile aircraft bombing unopposed all day. The evening drew on with Singapore enveloped in a pall of smoke. Large fires burning from far west along the water front to east past the Sea View Hotel. Lt Commander Packard arrived with information that four lighters were to be collected from the explosive anchorage and taken in tow to Batavia. The master of the "ST. BREOCK" would only take the R.N.A.D. lighters, of which one was empty. Two Chinese Tonkanga were at the anchorage, but if towed out to sea they could not have stood the strain on their bows. They contained Q.F. cartridges of various natures and were left behind.

The following N.A.lighters were taken into tow:

The sea was running high and the tug with tow made about two knots. Steering was difficult and on the edge of the minefield N.A.59 and N.A.70 broke adrift. It was impossible to pick them up. A signal was flicked to the "GRASSHOPPER" notifying our loss repeating Captain Superintendent. The tug proceeded through the minefields and was under way all night.

February, 13th

During the day we anchored near the shore and proceeded again at night. During the night N.A.60 went adrift and was lost. A lighter N.A.76 which had left Singapore towed by an unknown craft, was seen aground on the beach of an island. This lighter contained most important stores. All Fuzes, Primers, Tubes and Detonators which were removed from the Armament Depot in order to immobilize remaining stores were in N.A.76. It was impossible to signal regarding this lighter, and it was the intention to report the matter on arrival at Batavia.

February, 14th

During the morning N.A.70 broke adrift and the tow rope wound round the propellor shaft. It took over two hours to clear this, and the tug was about to pick up N.A.70 when two planes without markings circled overhead. After observing us for some time they disappeared. Before the Master had time to come up again with [the] lighter the planes returned and dropped two bombs. Not wishing to be in the vicinity of the lighter during a raid the "ST. BREOCK" made for the nearest land. The planes attacked twice again and at the second attempt the starboard bow stove in and the vessel was sinking fast. Mr. Harrower went into the long boat, Mr. Selway and Mr. Day on one of the rafts. The Master of the "ST. BREOCK" and myself went in the skiff. The tug sank in less than 10 minutes, and in the meantime a Japanese float plane dived three times on the skiff, where the survivors, fearing machine gunning, were compelled to swim for it. Eventually land was reached and all hands were saved. Mr. Harrower and myself were at one end of the island and Messrs. Selway and Day landed at a point some distance away on the same island. Having no shoes it was impossible to walk along on the rocks to see Mr. Selway and Mr. Day, but I learnt that they were unharmed, having been picked up by "FAIRMILES" 1053, which had run aground with a hole in her plate. Within half an hour of reaching land the Gunboat "DRAGON-FLY" was observed some two miles away. Three waves of nine Japanese planes attacked her and secured a direct hit. She sank before the smoke had cleared away. Almost as she went down the Gunboat "GRASSHOPPER" came on the scene. She was bombed before us for two hours by over 100 Japanese planes in waves of 9 to 27. The bombing was timed with mathematical precision. As one wave dropped their bomb load, another on a different course would take its place. The bombing was almost continual - and on board of the "GRASSHOPPER" were 140 women and children evacuees from Singapore. She eventually was run aground on the island with smoke coming from the after magazine. The Japanese machine gunned the beach as the survivors were trying to get ashore. The "GRASSHOPPER" finished her career during the night, when the after magazine blew up.

The position of the survivors to which Mr. Harrower and myself were attached was intolerable. No food was available in the evening, with the exception of coconuts and native roots. It was decided, in conjunction with Lt. Clarke, R.N., Sub-Lt. Johnson and P.O. Vernon to leave the island on the following morning. The Master of the "ST. BREOCK" was informed, and it was arranged that the authorities should be advised of the plight of the people left behind.

On the following morning at dawn the five members of the party went into the jungle with the object of finding a native boat at a village in the vicinity. It was a painful experience for me - I had nothing on my feet. A native sampan was acquired and the voyage started. Mr. Harrower developed sunstroke, and was extremely ill for three days.

On the 16th February, Lieut. Forbes from the GRASSHOPPER and two Army Officers joined our party at the Dutch Island of Singkep {2} in the Lingga Isles Group. A report of the survivors left behind was made to the Dutch resident and he promised to do all he could for them. It was decided to carry on and some of the Dutch inhabitants joined us, making the party up to 10. A motor boat was acquired, and on the 17th February the Sumatra coast was sighted. Proceeded up the [Djanoi] river for two days and arrived at the town of [Djazbi]. By various means arrived at the port of Padang on the west coast of Sumatra. A full report and all details of the survivors left behind on the island was again made. While crossing Sumatra it was found that in many places telephone and telegraphic communication was finished.

At Padang the party received 20 guilders each - the Straits dollar was of no value. Commander St. Aubyn and Commander [Koffaze] arrived at Padang on the 22nd and took charge of the Naval party of which there were some 60 officers and men.

On the night of the 23rd the naval party embarked on the Dutch steamer "VAN TWIST" {3} for Java. The next 6 days were very bad. Half starved - living on boiled rice and herrings - in a ship packed to excess. Eventually the port of Tjilatjap was reached on the 1st March. No passengers were allowed ashore until 1600 when half of the Naval Party, including Mr. Harrower and myself, were detailed to go on board the "STRONGHOLD". Just before she sailed it was decided to transfer the Admiralty Civil Staff to a Dutch liner "ZAANDAM". The "STRONGHOLD" went alongside and the transfer was effected. On board of the "ZAANDAM" were the R.N.A.D. Batavia party, in charge of Mr. Stokes. They provided us with clothing etc., and so on to Fremantle.

It was learned that the survivors originally left on the island were taken to [Hingkep] and were being sent to Sumatra. It is possible that they reached Padang in good time before the Japanese invasion, but it is regretted that it cannot be definitely stated if Mr. Selway and Mr. Day are safe.

Although all lighters were lost, and some 7000 tons of armament stores remained in Singapore after capitulation, the task facing the few members of R.N.A.D. left behind was so enormous, and the conditions so appalling that the outcome was inevitable. It can only be suggested that due appreciation will be shown to the members of the staff who volunteered for the duty. Mr. S. Harrower D.C.O., Mr. R.J. Oxenham, Chargeman Fitter and Mr. Selway Storehouseman, together with Mr. Day temporary storehouseman certainly deserve some recognition of their services.

(Sgd.) B. Laurenson
A.A.S.O.
26/5/42.

A Postscript - H.M.S. "STRONGHOLD"

LAURENSON records above that he was detailed for evacuation in H.M.S. STRONGHOLD but at the last minute the Admiralty staff were transferred to the S.S. ZAANDAM. The two ships sailed in company, with STRONGHOLD providing anti-submarine protection. Subsequently, ZAANDAM was detached, due to her superior speed, for independent passage to Fremantle. STRONGHOLD was caught the following morning by Japanese surface units and was subsequently sunk.

Notes

1. 31 January is the date on which the R.N. commenced to evacuate the Naval Base. The base was situated on the north of the island and therefore was in the front line and not able to be used by ships. Being open to Japanese observation, it could only be worked at night.
2. Between Lingga Island and Berhala Strait, on the approaches to Banka Strait.
3. "Duymaer Van Twist". Tonnage, 1030 Tons. Operator, KPM. Captured by Japanese cruisers 40 miles south of Tjilatjap on 28 February 1942.

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Robert Curran
borclaud @ tpg.com.au