KNOWN SHIP OF EVACUEES FROM SINGAPORE
There are well documented accounts of some of the ships that fled the chaos of Singapore as the Japanese troops were advancing across that small island in the final days before its surrender - these include the tragic story of the SS 'Vyner Brooke' which left on the night of 12 February and, earlier, the SS 'Empire Star' which had left at dawn on that day with a convoy that is variously described as ranging from six to thirty two vessels. Other vessels mentioned as being in this convoy are 'Gorgon', 'Yoma', 'Delamore', 'Jalibahar/Jalibar', 'Jalakrishna /Jalikrishna' and 'Li sang/Lee sang'. This convoy was apparently accompanied by the light cruiser HMS 'Durham', HMS 'Stronghold' and possibly the HMS 'Kedah'.
No published accounts, however, seem to record the fact that at dawn that day the Royal Navy requisitioned auxiliary minesweeper HMS 'Scott Harley' (620 tons, built 1913) also departed (possibly with the convoy) and was one of the few ships leaving at that time which successfully reached the safety of Batavia (now Jakarta).
Some authors have estimated that only two or three of the approximately 40 ships (i.e. not including small craft such as junks and launches) that left Singapore during 11 - 13 Feb 1942 actually made it to safety and that only about one in four evacuees/escapees during the last week before the surrender reached sanctuary. Our family's recollections include the statement that eight out of the thirty two in the convoy mentioned above safely made it to Batavia, but this cannot be proven.
On the 'Scott Harley' was my grandmother Annie Clark, a New Zealander in her fifties, who had been living in the Far East (as it was called at the time) for some years with her husband and children. This is also a slice of the story of Annie Clark and her daughter Kathleen who both experienced the war as wives of men in Japanese POW camps.
To make it easier to understand the context of her following account of the harrowing last week before surrender and (with the benefit of knowing the massive loss of life and ships escaping Singapore at this time) the very lucky voyage of the HMS 'Scott Harley' I will include some information on the family she refers to in Singapore at the time.
Annie was a gentle lady who, in the decade leading up to the fall of Singapore, had travelled and lived with her husband as he worked in Siam, Borneo, Shanghai, and by 1940 in Malaya. In 1941 they moved to Singapore where her husband Norman "Nobby" Clark (also a New Zealander) was an engineer in the Government Rice Mills. Nobby was a NZ Artillery veteran of the First World War campaign at Gallipoli.
Also in Singapore by 1940 were my father Harold Pether (an Englishman and a manager with C.C. Wakefield & Co. - now known as Castrol Oil), mother Kathleen (who was Annie's daughter) and their baby daughter Maureen. Harold wisely put his wife and daughter on a ship to New Zealand in Dec 1941 when the Japanese invaded Malaya.
In 1940 Nobby and Annie had left behind in Kuala Lumpur their 17 year old son John "Jack" Clark, fresh out of boarding school in New Zealand and in his first job as an Assistant with ICI. Malaya Ltd. In 1941 Jack joined up with the Federated Malay States Volunteer Forces, where he was a Private in the 2nd Selangor Battalion.
Nobby Clark and Harold Pether were to become civilian internees after the fall of Singapore - firstly in Changi and then Sime Road Camp. Jack Clark went missing (some recollections point to him being executed by the Japanese) whilst escaping from Singapore's island fortress of Blakang Mati after the surrender on 15 February 1942. He is remembered on the Singapore War Memorial at Kranji (his last days and the FMSVF are the subject of ongoing research by our family).
The following is an account of Annie's experience during the last days prior to the fall of Singapore and her evacuation to Batavia on the HMS 'Scott Harley' - from Batavia she spent many weeks on ships to India, Ceylon and Australia, before reaching New Zealand in June 1942.The account was written by Annie and her husband (probably in 1961) - it seems they are referring to a diary for much of the content and I have not attempted to correct any spelling or dates.
"Many New Zealanders will not know that a few of their country folk, in conjunction with Australians, formed an ANZAC Club in Singapore in 1940 to cater for the comfort of New Zealand and Australian fighting forces.
Funds were collected and with great assistance from the Australian. Mr. W. Wearne, a very fine clubhouse was erected, both Dominion flags were flown on the lawns, incidentally the blue ensign of New Zealand, presented by Mr. F. Jones, late Minister of Defence was not captured by the Japs, it was hauled down and burned by a club member just before surrender. The club was staffed by New Zealand and Australian women who cooked and waited on our men as they came on leave to the city. The following is the story of the last few days in Singapore and her escape, by one of the founder members, who with a few others kept the club working until the military thought it was time to close down.
Feb. 5th. Japanese shells are falling up Orchard Road and the bombs fell on the football field opposite the club, the club staff is depleted owing to workers being unable to get transport from outlying districts, it was decided at 11 a.m. to close the club. We have just had word that the S.S. 'Empress of Asia' has been bombed and sunk off Sultan Shoal, she was loaded with reinforcements.
Feb. 6th. Made another attempt to get a permit to leave Singapore, drove three miles out to Cluny Road where the P & O. Office was situated, as usual no permit and no ship leaving. This office staff had been shifted from Collyer Quay to a staff residence, as transport had been broken hundreds of unfortunates had to walk six miles in heat only to be turned away. When Cluny Hill became dangerous the office opened again in the city. A lot more bombing taking place today and only a couple of old Vilderbeste planes in the air as observers, buses are only running infrequently, huge fires out towards the Causeway, probably a rubber factory.
Feb. 7th. Shelling and bombing all day, nervous of staying in the bungalows it is on the northern slopes of Fort Canning (Military Headquarters) and will be in line of attack. (Fort Canning was actually not damaged by the Japs.) Stayed all day in the lounge of the Adelphi Hotel where we helped ourselves to food cooked by the Swiss chef, the waiters having fled. Drove to the General Hospital trying to locate M. B. wards and corridors and verandahs were crowded with military and civilian wounded and dead. The doctors and nurses doing a wonderful job but all worn out by work and anxiety.
Feb. 8th. Sheltered in the Masonic Club where air raid shelters had been quickly constructed, had a meal of tinned sausages and bread, one of the boys made beautiful coffee for us. Continual flow of husbands calling to see how we all were, their news was not reassuring. The men are very worried about us but they are unable to get any information re evacuating us in the ships. Returned to the bungalow at dusk, bombing and shelling had eased up somewhat. huge oil fire over towards Kranji, probably the oil tanks have been fired, the gas flashes in the smoke every few minutes are so bright that we can read newsprint on our verandah which is about thirteen miles from the fire. The barrage of gun fire is terrific, apparently the Japanese are bombarding our men on the north side of the island and are trying to cross Johore Straits, there is also the roar of the 6" and 9.2 guns on Blakan Mati and Pulo Brani forts and the scream of the shells going overhead. If the Japs land on the island we have little hope of holding out.
Feb. 9th. The Japs crossed the strait early this morning and captured Tengah aerodrome and some Hurricane planes which were still in packing cases. The bombing and shelling is not so heavy today, the Japs are concentrating on our forces in the front line, the wounded are streaming into the city, private homes have been taken over as officers messes and shelter for slightly wounded. Same reply at P&O office, "no permits and no ships".
Feb.10th. Water pressure is very low and posters are pasted up telling people not to waste water, it is not the people who are wasting it, it is broken water mains. We can see ships leaving Singapore, but still two people in authority in the P & O office say "no ships leaving". The town is full of British officers and men who have become detached, or detached themselves, from their regiments, a large percentage are unarmed. Still loads of badly wounded Australians and Indian soldiers arriving in town hospitals and schools are full.
Feb .11th. Called at P & O office at 11 a.m. to again try and get a ship, the Judge and Senior Police officers who held our destinies in their hands stated "there are no vessels leaving today", so back to shelter at the Adelphi hotel which had just been hit by a shell, fortunately it was a dud, while there we heard a whisper the SS 'Lee Sang' was to sail; for India in the afternoon, we dashed back again to ask for a passage and again the same old cry "no ship today". I wonder how many lives were lost through the ignorance of shipping of those two officials. My husband knew the Lee Sang's agents and so we went to Boustead's office, Mr. P.R. can never be thanked enough for his kindness he gave me a passage at once, but I must be on Clifford Pier by 3 p.m. I was there alright, so were others making up a party of 14 women, we were to go off to the roadstead in one of the Marine Police launches, minutes passed into hours but no police launch. Inspector J.C. was frantic, he wanted to get us away quickly, the bombers were coming over about every fifteen minutes and gunning the waterfront, when we heard the power dive of the planes, we dived to under some stacks of timber. None of us ever saw the police launch, it afterwards transpired that G., W., and B. three police men had commandeered it for their own escape. At 5.30 pm. It appeared as if we were to be disappointed, but a young RNVR. Lieut. in charge of a tender heard our story and he wasn't going to the 'Lee Sang' but he would try and make a stab at finding her, some of our party had given up hope and returned to the city, we were travelling light, one suitcase and an attaché case, but the R. Corporal of Military Police would not allow us to take our suitcase, only attaché case, therefore very few of us had any other clothes besides which we stood up in, those men could stop women taking a few clothes away, but made no attempt to stop looting a hundred yards away on Collyer Quay. So with a farewell wave , my husband and I parted, all my men folk left behind, husband, son (killed in battle a few days later) and my son-in-law, two prisoners for three and a half years, we wanted to howl, but it is at times like these that one must keep a stiff upper lip. We steamed round Singapore looking for the 'Lee Sang', but there was no sign of her, she had sailed, we felt very down hearted, thinking our last chance of escape had gone, Singapore looked dreadful, fires blazing from Keppel harbour and Tanjong Pagir right along the waterfront to Tanjong RHU. Pulo Samboe and Pulo Bukom, huge oil installations, blazing and exploding, while a heavy black cloud hung overhead, smoke from the fire. That young Naval Lieut. steamed around the harbour hailing ships in the darkness, asking to take his few women passengers from him, apparently they could not take any more on board, all refused, but at about midnight he hailed the tiny 'Scott Harley', aux. minesweeper, the captain replied that he would take us, but he did not have any food aboard and was short of drinking water and so we transferred to this crowded little craft and found we now made up the number to 174 passengers on board.
Feb. 12th. At daybreak we sailed for Java and could now see for the first time the little cargo ship we had boarded. The 'Scott Harley' was a vessel of about 250 tons and a ripe old age, slow and coal burning, our smoke must have been visible for miles around, as said before, there was shortage of drinking water, the first day my only beverage was a bottle of cider given me by a sailor. Thank God those R. N. sailors, survivors of the 'Prince of Wales' and 'Repulse' were on board. As usual the Navy man came to light with his "make do", they scrounged cocoa, tinned soup and tinned sausages, but could not conjure up any bread or biscuits, by using water( a bit oily) from the condenser and hotwell in the engine room, they served us with soup stew and cocoa. I shared my only food utensil, a fifty cigarette tin, with two other women. We never learned the names of those heroes.
Feb. 13th. When daylight came we were a bedraggled looking crowd, two heavy tropical downpours during the night soaked us and the soot and ashes from the funnel made us look like sweeps. We cannot see any sign of the ships which left Singapore yesterday; they must have gone another route. The sun is beating down on us; some of the children are feeling the effects of heat food and privations. A shower cooled things down a bit, but also soaked us; there is no fresh water or washing facilities and only one convenience for all these passengers. Sitting and lying on the deck day and night is dreadfully fatiguing.
Feb. 14th. About 8.30 a.m. we sighted three planes overhead and thought they were British, but soon found our mistake, they were Jap bombers, in line they dived at us and unloaded their bombs, we were not actually hit in this first raid. Two hours later another three found us and again bombed us, very near misses this time and part of the decking which was our only bit of shelter was damaged and splintered wood was hanging down precariously. It was an awful feeling knowing that we were the target but we have a lot to thank the Captain for the way he zig zagged to try and dodge the bombs. About an hour later we saw a stranded tugboat crowded with British and Australian soldiers, but we were so overcrowded that the Captain could not give them any assistance. Two hours later another three bombers attacked us, one very near miss made the little boat shudder and split some of the plates on the left side of the ship, also a fire was started down below but the men worked hard and soon had it under control. From then on the ship was listing badly. One of the officers told us not to be frightened if we heard some loud noises, they were going to dump some things over the side, the R. N. men got to work smartly dumping large steel drums which turned out to be depth charges, 300 lbs of TNT but no detonators in them, those lads were quite cheerful doing their dangerous job, they certainly were a comfort to us all. The Captain was very worried having so many women on board and as these raids were continuing he wondered if he would beach the ship on the coast of Sumatra, but decided to go ahead and make for Batavia, we were due there the following morning. That night my companion took the opportunity of washing her only frock in a bucket of salt water, she hung it on the rails to dry but in the morning discovered it had blown away, however, one of the other women had a spare frock and gave it to her.
Feb. 15th. We were all pretty well spent with thirst, hunger and anxiety when Lieut. H. of S.S.R.N.V.R. cheered us up by informing us that with luck we would be in Batavia about noon, we arrived there on time, but had a little difficulty with Dutch officials about landing, as we did not have proper disembarkation papers. Lieut. H. and Mr. W. of Singapore took matters into their own hands and got us ashore. We were then herded onto buses and put on board a Dutch liner preparing to leave for India, she already had on board over 900 people, a few hours later we heard that Singapore had fallen and later learned that an hour after we left the 'Scott Harley' she sank alongside the Batavia wharf with her white ensign flying."
There are some minor inaccuracies in this recollection ,that are understandable in light of the abysmal information given by the Singapore military and civil authorities to the general population during the whole period of the retreat through Malaya and the invasion of Singapore eg. The Japanese actually landed on Singapore on the night of the 8 Feb, not early on the 9th as stated here. The 'Lee sang' is probably the 'Li Sang' that is recorded as part of the convoy that left at dawn on 12 Feb. Also the HMS 'Scott Harley' was in fact 620 tons displacement and did not sink at its moorings as Annie Clark heard as she was boarding the ship for India , but was in fact sunk during a disastrous naval engagement - on either the 1/2/3 March 1942 (depending upon which naval history account is used) somewhere South/South East of Tjilatjap - with the Imperial Japanese Navy ships ''Nowaki'(a cruiser) , and the destroyers 'Takao' and 'Arashi' . It seems most likely it was the 'Arashi' that sunk HMS 'Scott Harley' on 2 March 1942.
Annie Clark lived in Dunedin, New Zealand during the war with her daughter Kathleen Pether and granddaughter Maureen. As with other POW wives she received a few Red Cross postcards and radio messages from her husband in Changi, so by late 1942 knew that both he and her son in law were alive during their captivity in Changi. They were all reunited in 1945.
After the war Annie and the other family members mentioned in this note all returned to live and work in Singapore and Malaya.
Annie and Nobby spent several fruitless years searching for some trace of the fate of their son Jack Clark - we now know that Jack had tried to escape from Blakang Mati (he might have actually reached Padang in Sumatra on the official escape route) and there is a story that he was captured by the Japanese and "..taken down to the water and shot in the back.." . It seems that the agony of this knowledge was not divulged to his mother during her life. The family search for where Jack might have died continues .
If anyone is able to add to or improve the accuracy of any of the information in this recount our family would receive such input most positively.