Navigator

 

My introduction to service in the Far East Air Force at Changi, in the middle of 1958, was by way of the good old fashioned troopship. We must have been close to the last of the British troops to be ferried overseas by boat.

The "Empire Windrush" had gone up in flames, and, apart from the "Oxfordshire" the only other name that comes to mind is the "Dunera". There may have been others, but the days of the troopship were fast disappearing.



Embarkation was at Southampton and the 'troops' were a mix of all services and families.

The voyage took us via Gibraltar, Suez, Aden, Colombo, through the Malacca Straights and into Singapore Harbour. In all it took about four weeks to get there.

Bussing to Changi from the docks was an experience as we travelled along the East Coast Road past all of the shop-houses and kampongs where the majority of the local people lived. As we came up to Changi, our escort pointed out the walled prison set back from the road where so many Japanese atrocities had taken place only a handful of years before. The area between Changi airfield and Singapore City was largely undeveloped up to the outskirts of the city. The prison appeared to be set in a large field about 100 metres from the main road. The high perimeter walls were all newly painted white. As we approached the RAF Station, we were shown the two-story barrack blocks which had also served as prison accommodation for the British and Allied forces caught in Singapore when it fell to the Japanese. I had previously stayed over in these on the last visit to Singapore but had not then realized the significance of them.

Some of the blocks had a very sad background. Probably the worst being where the female nurses were thrown off the upper verandahs and killed for some minor infraction. Ronald Searle, the artist/cartoonist, was held in one building, and painted a mural on the walls using blood as a pigment.

After repeated white-washing, the mural (of a religious nature), was rumoured to keep reappearing through the paint - a bit spooky! It was easy to pull the "pit" out on the verandah



When I was in barracks, there was an elderly Chinese lady we called 'Sew Sew' who used to call around all the single men's billets.

She would offer to do any sewing or repairs for a few cents. Inside her blouse she had a medal which was reputed to be a George Medal which had been awarded to her husband who had smuggled food into Changi Prison during the Japanese occupation.

Sew Sew was a wonderful old lady and I wonder if any others remember her.



(I was over in Malaysia last year on holiday and made a point of taking a trip out to Changi. As my wife and I came alongside Changi Prison in our taxi we were both "gob-smacked" to see that a Japanese school had been built directly opposite the prison on the main road. How insensitive would that be. At least they could have waited till all the old 'diggers' had passed away before pulling a stunt like that!)

After being allocated a billet in one of these blocks it was time to report for work and be told where I was going to be placed. As usual, the first job was on the loading party. As a corporal, my job was to direct a group of local 'coolies' as they were referred to in the loading of aircraft. Because of the climate, it was not considered right for us airmen to be doing menial tasks such as loading, and this was reserved for the coolies.

Well, first day and off I go with a bunch of local Chinese and Malay workers down to the lines where the aircraft are parked awaiting loading. A truck full of freight and a fork lift appear, and I begin to give my orders as to how the aircraft should be loaded. I was very explicit, and talked very slowly to make sure they understood what I was saying. They appeared to be listenening very attentively, although by the lack of response I was wondering if they understood English at all! When I had finished they sort of looked at me, then at each other, and began to load the aircraft. They did not use any of my suggested tactics and went about their business totally ignoring me. When the aircraft was finished and the loading plan handed in to the weight and balance people in Load Control, the result was that the aircraft was in perfect flight trim. The look of amusement on the faces of my gang said it all. They had been loading these aircraft for such a long time that it became second nature to them and my inclusion on their team was merely as an RAF representative.

 

Thankfully, very shortly after that, I was moved to passenger handling at Changi Creek which was the transit hotel for personnel arriving and departing, or merely passing through.






That's me on the left with the Movements Control armband, in the middle is an RAF Policeman (name forgotten), and the guy on the right was a caterer from the hotel. Notice the different uniforms. The caterer is wearing stock-standard RAF tropical issue (although he must have had the shorts tailored 'cos they used to reach to mid calf!)

The 'snowdrop' is wearing a tropical set tailored at Changi Village by one of the many Indian or Chinese tailors who could make a suit for you overnight. Because he had many more months service than me his outfit has 'bleached' from many dhobi's.

Married quarters were, in the main, off camp and were RAF vetted hirings. I had recently married before being posted to Singapore, and, as our firstborn was due soon, I was in a hurry to get my wife out to join me . She travelled out by a Hermes aircraft operated by Skyways of London.

We initially had a flat, but when a new estate of terraced bungalows was nearing completion, we grabbed one of them and, although they had an Asian toilet set-up (aka 'a hole in the floor'), they were approved on the proviso that proper toilets were to be fitted later when the sewage system was completed.


This picture was taken in 1983 when I returned to Singapore for a company Convention from Australia

This house was opposite a Chinese Burial ground of some proportions and it was often that we witnessed (and heard) the celebrations as the deceased were laid to rest. The picture was taken in 1959.

The burial ground was still there in 1983, but on a trip to Malaysia and Singapore last year the whole thing had gone, and houses were built on the site

The Singapore Goverment paid for the removal and relocation of the remains. This area used to be classed as 'bush' but with the increase in population and a finite border, all land is now at a premium. Incidentally, the row of houses we used to live in had also disappeared and up-market houses were built there.

NOTHING STAYS THE SAME

During my service in Singapore we saw the first Comet belonging to BOAC, but on RAF charter, land at Paya Leba, which was then the civilian airfield in Singapore. It was only a short distance from Changi, but all civil aircraft, even if on charter to the RAF, always landed at Paya Leba. I remember the passenger terminal was the size of a large shed and just as salubrious! I recall that the Comet was doing tropical proving trials before acceptance into the RAF Transport Command fleet.

 

Much more comfortable than a Hastings!




In 1958-59 there was a lot of increased activity with through flights to Australia. During this time the Atomic Weapons and rocket testing trials were taking place at Woomera and Maralinga. My duty was a 24 on - 48 off routine, which was great because as soon as things quietened down of an evening it was possible to grab a bed at the hotel and get a good nights sleep. However, with the increased activity in Australia, it was getting near impossible to get any sleep, and things got even more hectic.

I was getting pretty run down by now, and whether that was a contributing factor I'll never know, but my career in Singapore came to an end when I contracted Polio. After a period of intense quarantine at Changi Hospital, it was decided to casevac me on the next available flight to the UK. My boss at the Passenger section was a Flt Lt Myer, and he was a great help to my wife in preparing for a hasty return to the UK.


There was also a Flying Officer, whose name eludes me, who contracted meningitis just after me going down with polio and it was feared at first that he had the dreaded disease also. It was a bad year for polio worldwide. A footballer from the Birmingham City team in the UK contracted the disease and died - Hill or Hall .....??


 

This photograph was taken on a visit in 1983, my first time back since 1959


And so, from being a Mover I suddenly became a Movee! I was casevac'd back to the UK via a Comet 2 and landed in (where else?) Lyneham!

From there to I went to Wroughton Hospital and eventually to the Medical Rehabilitation Unit in Chessington, where I spent the best part of a year.

Last year my wife and I vacationed in Singapore and Malaysia for two weeks. I can report that Malaysia is going ahead in leaps and bounds. Everywhere there are signs of affluence and the economy is rapidly moving from the old rural style based on rubber, tin and coconuts, to one based on manufacturing and hi-tech industry. Tourism is also being marketed, and some fine hotels and resorts are all over the place.

We mainly followed the West Coast up from Singapore, calling at Johore Bahru, Malacca, Kuala Lumpur, The Cameron Highlands, Ipoh , Butterworth and Penang Island.

Singapore, to us, had lost some of its oriental flavour. Highrise buildings abound. The East Coast Parkway, a multilane motorway, links the city to Changi International Airport. Kampongs have completely disappeared and the population seem to all live in highrise blocks of flats.

Raffles Hotel is timeless of course, and has been added to, but done very sympathetically to maintain the heritage of the era - Noel Coward would be pleased. In my day, Raffles was ‘out of bounds’ to other ranks, and it was great to be able to order a Singapore Sling at the Long Bar after all these years.

The Britannia Club, the other rank's club in Singapore which is across the road from Raffles, is still there. It now serves as the other rank's club for the Singapore Defence Force. Visitors are welcomed and they maintain a guest book . It was amazing to see the entries from all the ex-service people who had made the trip back and taken the time to visit the club again.