top of page

Make a Donation

Alternatively, send a cheque to our treasurer

Re-new Membership

12 Month (August to end of July)

Choose between a single or joint membership

If you are joining after August, please choose the month you are joining in below. The full year membership runs from August to the end of July the following year.

Single Monthly
Joint Monthly

Mary Harris Talk

"The Fall of Singapore February 15th 1942. What happened to the women and children" 

Soon after I met Roy and accepted the honour of being asked to talk with you today, I began to get cold feet because I knew that I would have to say some terrible things. But as Roy reminded me, the Burma Star Association only exists because of terrible things. We will remember them.

Watching the television news lately (and I'm not talking about the wedding!) I have found that there are 2 things I needed to say right at the beginning.

One is the appalling thing that has happened to Japan. Like most people, I find it very difficult to get my head round the sheer size of their catastrophe. But today I am talking about history, things that happened 70 years ago when two nations, one in Europe and one in the Far East, were overtaken by a particularly cruel sort of madness and deliberately killed almost unbelievable numbers of men, women and children, sometimes subjecting them to unspeakable horrors first.

The other thing relates to what is going on in the Middle East and North Africa: all those young men waving a gun in one hand and making the victory sign with the other. Sometimes, behind the fired up young men, you see a small, sad, slow procession of women and children, sad because they have lost everything except what they can carry, and slow because they have to move at the pace of the smallest child. Every time I see them I think that was us. It is what happens to women and children in all wars, always did and probably always will because we do not seem to be able to learn from our experience.

So what happened to the women and children when Singapore fell, February 15th 1942?

(Here I improvised a map, with me as the Malay Peninsula, the matting sitting next to me being Sumatra etc so as to explain the location of the sea where all the little boats headed. I said that there were hundreds of islands, some appearing only low tide, some uninhabited because they had no water or had been abandoned because infested with some tropical disease, and all surrounded by very swift currents. And of course sharks.)

I have three subheadings. Who were these women and children? What was it like at the end? And what happened to them?

First, who were they?

Any Singapore history or guide book will tell you of the island's many communities. In the early days, it was said of Singapore that the colour of your money was more important than the colour of your skin. But when Singapore became a colony there was a definite pecking order, defined clearly on race. Although they were in a tiny minority, British whites were at the top and, as Lee Kuan Yew himself said in his book Singapore Story, this was generally accepted. By far the most numerous were the two communities of Chinese. There were, equally broadly, two Indian communities. Relatively few Malays lived in Singapore, mostly in rural communities, in contrast to the sophisticated, long-standing and highly educated Malay peoples, ruled by their own Sultans (in a complex arrangement with the British) who lived on the Malay peninsula. Also on the peninsula lived small groups of the indigenous peoples, those who were there before even the ancient Malayan kingdoms arrived. In times of war, these people retreated to their almost impenetrable jungles and mountains and got on with their own lives, with occasional interruptions from people like Spencer Chapman.

In addition there were smaller communities In Singapore, including Armenians, Arabs and a long standing Jewish community. The word Europeans included anyone white, such as Australians and New Zealanders and other European nationalities.

But there was one community, which probably suffered most from the social divisions of the day and they were the Eurasians, the families with mixed marriages. Some of the Eurasian families had been in Malaya since the first long haul pirates arrived from Europe in the late sixteenth century: the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British all fighting to control the spice trade. In pre-war Singapore and Malaya, there was ferocious social snobbery against them, which ignored, or perhaps feared the fact that most Eurasian families were highly cultivated, highly educated and much more likely to have a library and a piano than many of the Europeans. But, along with everyone else who was not very clearly white, Eurasians were not allowed to be members of the Swimming Club . . .

As we know, after their landings on the north east coast of Malaya at the beginning of December 1941, the Japanese worked their way down the Malay peninsula with astonishing speed. At the beginning of a war which lasted only about 10 weeks, Singapore had been bombed at more or less the same time that the Japanese landed in both Malaya and Thailand, and bombed Pearl Harbour, Hong Kong and the Philippines. Many people in Singapore who had families in Malaya, immediately went home to be with their families. But from the time that the British army ordered out the white population from Penang, causing public outrage as they did so, refugees of all races headed south. Some of the white women and children were put straight onto ships and sent away. It was the beginning of the chaos of the lack of an evacuation policy, that was to cause so many deaths. By the time the end came the population of Singapore had doubled to a million, with obvious pressure on all public services, by then heavily damaged.

For five years before war broke out in Europe, Japan had been at war with China. Singaporean Chinese communities had run campaigns to boycott Japanese imports, and to raise funds to send home, along with many of their young men, to fight. In 1937, 2 years before war broke in Europe, the Japanese army invaded Nanking, and within weeks, more than 300,000 Chinese soldiers, and civilians including women and children had been killed. This is more than the total number of people killed at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and I am not going to talk about what the Japanese military did to thousands of Chinese women. You will find details in Iris Chang's book The Rape of Nanking but it is not bedtime reading. The point I am making is, that by the time the Japanese reached Singapore, the Chinese community knew it had plenty to fear. Young Chinese women cut their hair short and concealed themselves amongst boys doing manual work. Families hid their daughters or married them off in the hope that they would be safer that way. A coldly academic figure of the number of Chinese people killed systematically by the Japanese army after the fall of Singapore, is 25,000, but many believe it is much more, and we will never have an accurate number, not least because many people were tied together with ripped down telegraph wire and dumped at sea.

As soon as war broke out in Europe, back in 1939, men of all races in Singapore and Malaya joined the volunteer units or the reserves of all the armed forces, and, in addition to the number of women already working as teachers, doctors and nurses, very large numbers of women of all races took courses in first aid or more formal nursing, or medical ancillary services like blood banks and so on. But only British women could work as clerks for the increasing Singapore garrison because the civilian authorities did not trust the loyalties of Chinese and Eurasian secretaries. At one stage when it was proposed that army families really ought to be evacuated, it was pointed out that military administration would collapse if they were. Many women trained as cipher clerks and I know of at least one who moved on to Bletchley Park after the Navy evacuated its intelligence people to Ceylon. One became Wavell's personal cipher clerk and moved with him to Java, right at the end.

But it was Eurasian secretaries who kept many commercial companies, and organisations like the Malayan Broadcasting Company going, and Eurasian nurses who made a huge contribution to nursing right to the end. Research, such as that of Becca Kenneison's (on the handout) is beginning to reveal some of the appalling things that happened to Eurasian women after the fall.

My mother, who was a scientist, began work in Radio Direction Finding at the Singapore Naval Base, where she signed the official secrets act and became an intelligence officer. She had to have rank to give her access to classified information, but so far as I know she only pulled it once.

I quote from a piece written by Mrs Reilly, the Governor General's cipher clerk, written in February 1942 soon after she got to Melbourne, after a very hairy last minute escape just before the fall.

I was astounded when I arrived in Australia to find that it was generally believed that we had continued with cocktail parties and dancing and golf even when the Japs were actually at the door of Singapore. Never was any statement more unjust! In the first place there was a complete blackout in Singapore - no one drove about at night unless they had to - air raids were practically continuous. . . to say that people carried on with sport, oblivious of the war - is just tommy rot. I cannot think of a single one of my friends who was not doing a war job - many of them, like myself, on call night and day; and most of them had started their work when war broke with Germany.

Mrs Reilly did not mention that civilian cars had long been requisitioned, petrol rationed and that when the Navy abandoned the Singapore Naval Base at the end of January, a fortnight before the fall, Admiral Spooner had requisitioned the Club House of Singapore Golf Club as Naval HQ. Right next to it was RAF HQ in Sime Road. This was to become the camp where my father and thousands of other interned civilians were to be moved from Changi Gaol in 1943. But we can safely explode the myth that all the women of Singapore were a flighty lot of party goers with loose morals. No doubt a few were: there are women, and men, like that in any community, but the vast majority most definitely were not.

Second what was it like at the end?.

Sometimes it is difficult to imagine a lot of things at the same time.

There are people who find the normal heat and humidity of Singapore hard to bear. By February 1942, a grossly overcrowded Singapore was under both continous bombing and shelling because the Japanese were now in Johore, just the other side of the Causeway. Shells were much more frightening than bombs because at least you could see bombs coming. The bombers came in low, in V formation and dropped all their bombs at once, very accurately, just where they wanted to. They sometimes came round again, very low and machine gunned people on the ground. By then the retreating British had fired the big oil tanks at the Naval Base so that the sky was black, and when it rained, as it does in Singapore, oily black soot came down and covered everything, including faces, so that troops could not recognise each other. As the defensive perimeter round the town shrank before the Japanese advance, the oil tanks on the south and west of the island which supplied the docks, were fired too. Fires were already raging in the wooden Chinese go-downs where the rubber was stored and burning rubber makes its own smoke and smell, and because the water mains were bombed there was not enough water to put all the fires out.

There were nothing like enough shelters so when the bombs and shells rained down and shrapnel flew around, people dived for the big monsoon ditches, which had open channels in the bottom, which were sewers. And the big guns, which made Singapore impregnable from attack from the south by sea - which is why the Japanese came down the peninsula - were turned round so they could fire north. Another Singapore myth is exploded. Of course armour piercing shells are not the best ammunition for jungle warfare, but at that stage of a battle you fire off everything you have got, and those big guns made the ground shake like nothing else. Add the normal heat of the day to black clouds that blotted out the sun, sticky black rain, the screaming noise of the Japanese bombers, ack-ack firing back, the explosions of bombs and shells, the noise of machine guns, the screams of men, women and children hit by flying shrapnel, the ground itself reverberating every time one of the big guns fired, and you have a pretty good idea of what it was like at Singapore docks as people tried to get away.

We ourselves, my mother and her three small children, had got away in good time in early January, by flying boat, because she was intending to leave us with my father's family who are New Zealanders, and return to the Naval Base with radars being made in Australia. But it took us over 3 weeks to get to Wellington because the flying boats of the Trans Tasman Air Service had been requisitioned by the military and she had to find a ship, and by the time she had got us settled, Singapore had fallen. Before she left Singapore she could not tell friends that she was acting on Naval orders and was coming back, because her work was so secret, and she was criticised by friends for not staying. The Governor's wife herself had gone on air telling the women of Singapore that they should stay with their husbands. She herself stayed and was interned in Changi. Nearly everyone believed what they were constantly told by both military and civilian authorities, even until the morning it fell, that Singapore could not fall, and the even bigger lie, call it propaganda if you want to remain polite, that help was on the way. In his Mansion House speech in the middle of 1941, widely reported in Singapore, Churchill boasted that Japan would be scared off by the knowledge that Britain could quickly send a powerful fleet to Singapore, when he knew it was not true. The Royal Navy was fully stretched in the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. And we all know what happened to the Prince of Wales and Repulse, too little, too late.

People who actually did know how bad things were, including those who knew just how small the fleet at the Singapore Naval Base really was, were accused of being defeatist. Ships bringing in troops, which could have taken women and children out, were leaving half empty as late as the middle of January but by the end of the month they were becoming hugely overcrowded. Some women could not leave because they were too pregnant to be allowed to fly, in the un-pressurised aircraft of those days, or who would have given birth on a less than clean troop ship with no guarantee of a doctor on board. Geoffrey Brooke, whose book is on the handout, tells of two women who gave birth on the beach of the island where they were washed up, after their escape ship was sunk. Wealthy Chinese and Indian families who had homes away from the war zone sent their women and children to safety, but as always, the poor are left to do what they never can do - fend for themselves. Some refugees arriving in Singapore towards the end, were sent back into the war zone; others camped on the island wherever they could. Most Malays had nowhere to go: it was after all their country, even though it was run by foreigners. On the whole the Japanese occupiers left the Malays alone; their policy, on paper, was to rescue them from their British colonial masters for the freedom of their proposed Co-Prosperity Sphere. But everybody knew what the Japanese troops had done to the nurses of all races including the white ones in Hong Kong when it had fallen on Christmas Day, and everyone knew about the Rape of Nanking.

All refugees, including those like us who left in early January by air, came under fire. We had already been bombed and I remember both. The seas had long been infested with both German and Japanese submarines and raiders. One of the things I remember is the fear, in particular my fear of the rayed Japanese flag with the big red arms that were coming to kill us. I remember the black dots coming up from the sea towards our aircraft and my brother making little boy gun noises, until somebody told him to be quiet. Our pilot, who presumably had oxygen, flew as high as he could to be out of range of the guns on the islands that the Japanese had already occupied, while his oxygen-starved passengers went to sleep.

Just a few days before the fall, a unit of Marines had set up an escape route from east to west across the swamps, jungles and mountains of Sumatra so that small groups of escaping troops could be fed back into Malaya behind enemy lines. It was of course all very secret, but they arranged for supply dumps and transport by boat, road and rail, with the support of the Dutch authorities who then ruled Sumatra.

Meanwhile, the civil bureaucracies in Singapore, tried their best to carry on as usual with results which were not short of farcical. Until just before the surrender, people trying to get out by sea, on the ships that had just brought fresh forces in, still had to buy a ticket, and get visas. Right until the end, women and children who had tickets, queued at dock gates as a sentry checked all papers before letting them on to the docks, air raid or no air raid. People were killed as they stood in line. One man standing by his wife with their two year old son, saw her killed instantly by flying shrapnel. He had no choice but to pick up the child and board the over-crowded little boat, supposed to be taking his family to freedom. At the last minute, the military nurses were ordered out by authorities who knew what had happened to the nurses in Hong Kong and some of them and some of the women doctors were killed or wounded on the dockside too./p

Most of the civilian nurses and doctors refused to leave their patients at a time when any building of any size had become a hospital or a dressing station, and all public open spaces had become mass burial grounds. It is they who ended up in Changi. My father was one of them. He was of course in the volunteers but like my mother was in a reserved occupation with Naval intelligence. As a physicist he knew how to keep the X-ray machines going in Singapore General Hospital, where, like everyone else, he turned his hand to anything that could help, like burying the dead, very carefully in mass graves, according to their religion, and fetching water from the only main still producing a trickle of water. When the guns finally fell silent, people working in the hospitals, who had long since lost any sense of night or day, did not know which side had won - after all they knew help was on the way.

Thirdly, what happened to them?

According to records pieced together soon after the fall, some 44 little ships left Singapore in the final 24 hours, and very large numbers of the passengers, 200 or more crammed onto vessels designed to take about 20, were women and children. As they sailed south, and as the top brass in Singapore certainly knew, they sailed straight into the Japanese navy and its aircraft, intent on attacking the oil installations of South Sumatra, and invading Sumatra and Java. Tokyo Rose, the Japanese equivalent of Lord Haw Haw had been broadcasting that Britain would not be allowed the honour of another Dunkirk. She was right.

Of the 44 known little ships that left in small groups as they worked their way through minefields, or waited for a tide or a convoy, only 4 made it. People are still working on what happened next. Accounts in the Imperial War Museum, in the National Archives of UK, Australia and New Zealand are still being carefully gone through, together with accounts in family records which are still emerging for the first time on the charity websites. These accounts are pushing the figures up, and we now know that there were more than 44 little ships. Of course there were. People tried to get away at the end on anything that floated. And of course, when it came to head counts, what records could be pieced together later were often from military sources, and British military sources often did not identify women and children, and they just ignored women and children who were not British. A few days ago, I contacted two people doing research on these little ships, to see if we could agree even approximate figures of the number of women and children who were killed in what can only be called a massacre at sea.

Given that much of the basic research has still not been done, and excluding the number of women and children who became interned in dozens of camps, and remembering that many people were sunk more than once because the little ships that tried to rescue people stranded on islands by a first sinking, were then sunk themselves, the best we can come up with is about 500 women and children killed. As a proportion of those women and children who tried to escape at the last minute, it is nearly a half. And a warning. Quite a lot is currently being published by authors cashing in on the personal accounts that have been appearing on the charity websites. They tend to reproduce the same old figures without checking where they came from. Most of their figures are too low, because they do not include Eurasian, or Chinese, or Indian, or Malay women or the women and children of other ethnic groups.

In my quiet evenings at home, I do not read the accounts of survivors of the massacre because I know I will not sleep if I do, but there are some pictures that are always in my mind. One is of a pitch dark sea at night, with its swirling currents, a Japanese cruiser standing off, having torpedoed an overcrowded little ship, already damaged by bombs on Singapore docks which made only one lifeboat usable, though the crew didn't know that until it was too late, and refusing to put out boats to help women and children in the water, whom they could see by the light of the burning ship. In the dark water, among the debris, the dead, the body parts, the patches of burning oil, the screams of the wounded and the cries of children calling for their mothers, people managed to pick up some of the smaller children and put them on a life raft. The raft was torn away by the current. There is no point in asking what happened to it. Believe me, the more you think about it, the worse it gets.

Some of the survivors made it to the escape route, previously planned by the Marines, but it was never intended to take women and children, let alone so many of them, and it is to the credit of the Dutch authorities that so many people got across to the west coast of Sumatra and were taken off by British and Australian and Dutch war ships, until Sumatra too was over-run by the Japanese. And some of the ships that took people off, were sunk too.

Many of the women and children survivors of the massacre at sea ended up in internment camps in what is now Indonesia. We know a lot about Changi jail, on Singapore Island, which is nearly always preceded by the adjective notorious but the general public knows rather less about camps such as Muntok. Muntok was in fact a series of camps, because women and children were moved about from camp to camp. About a third of the women died, but in Changi, with its population of doctors, nurses and teachers they survived. It is the Indonesian camps that were the inspiration for the film Paradise Road, and the TV series Tenko, both accurate except that they had to condense the suffering of three and a half years into just a few hours and of course there is no such person as a live, working actress who is as skeletal as most of the women actually were.

We also know about the Australian military nurses, ordered out still in uniform, who struggled ashore from their sunken ship to be machine gunned on the beach, from the account of Nurse Bulwinkel who survived by playing dead and concealing the bullet hole in her uniform until it was safe to talk about it when the war was over.

One child who did survive was little Jimmy Cairns whose last sight of his mother was of her being killed on Singapore docks. His father, also Jimmy, survived two sinkings with him and joined the trail of wounded, hungry, badly sunburnt and dehydrated refugees who found themselves on the escape route. Big Jimmy had to move slowly because of little Jimmy - one woman said that it was remarkable that the child was still alive - and Sumatra had fallen by the time they got to the other side.

Both Jimmies survived internment and some humane Japanese officer allowed them to stay together. There were other humane Japanese officers too. After all, we had been allies in the first world war, something that possibly saved the life of military prisoners like the man I was to marry, 18 years later. The only survivor on a raft drifting away from one of the wrecks was Nurse, later Dame Margot Turner, who had kept herself alive by drinking rain water and eating baby jellyfish. She was picked up by a Japanese warship, the crew assuming, because of her burnt black colour, that she was Malay. The ship carried an English speaking doctor, who found her fresh clothes and nursed her back to health. When he had to put her ashore to be interned, the dress she had been wearing when she was found, the same dress she had been wearing for over a week through escape, shipwrecks, sweltering days and cold nights in the sea, was returned to her washed, ironed and on a hanger.

My 5 year old brother, 4 months old sister and I, aged 3, were among the lucky ones who got away in time and we were blessed, as were so many refugee children, with a remarkable mother. On their own in a foreign country, traumatised by what they had just been through, with no possessions except what they had been able to carry, no money and no knowledge of what had happened to their men, our mothers did what all mothers do, they rolled up their sleeves and got on with finding work so they could support their children. They did not on the whole sit down in heaps of self-pity and bewail the fact that they no longer had servants. Another myth of Singapore women can be killed off by hard facts. For a year my mother believed what she had been told semi-officially, that our father was dead, but when she heard from the Red Cross that he was alive and an internee, though she didn't know where, she began to keep a diary, so that he would know what we had been doing when we all met again. When he eventually joined us in New Zealand, she was able to tell him about how she had headed a top secret radar research unit during which, amongst much else, she made an interpretation of an unusual radio signal that is now recognised as the beginnings of the new science of radio astronomy.

I was not aware of her diary until she died in 1958, just before her 50th birthday. She died young as did so many of our mothers and for rather obvious reasons. It was when my father died much later that I came into possession of the diary and it is the core of her biography that I am writing. Between its accounts of the children growing up and the little she could say about her work, it is a story of a single mother with three small children, coping on her own in awful circumstances, a story of what happens to women and children in all wars, to those who survive.