Fred GURNSEY’s escape from the Japanese attack on Singapore, February 1942

[The following account is taken directly from the memoirs of my Great Uncle, Fred Gurnsey, and is used with his permission.]


Build up to invasion

In October 1936 Fred joined the Royal Engineers, and by February 1938 he had been posted to the 41st Fortress Company at Changi in Singapore. In October 1939 the Chief Engineer, Malaya Command ordered Fortress Headquarters to transfer three NCOs to the Works Services who were now very busy. Fred was selected to be one of these, and was posted to the Commander, Royal Engineers department at Alexandra Barracks, Singapore.

At that time Singapore was making up for lost time and the Works Services were supervising millions of pounds worth of work such as gun emplacements for two batteries of 15-inch naval guns as well as smaller ones, a large hospital, barracks, roads, airfields etc. Singapore was only open to attack from the sea. Japan was 3,000 sea miles away and it would not have been possible to transport thousands of soldiers over that distance to take part in an invasion. To deter a sea-borne attack Singapore had the two batteries of 15-inch guns mentioned earlier, 5 guns in all, firing armour-piercing shells. There were also many batteries of 6-inch guns. The garrison was largely depot troops, Gunners, Engineers, Service Corps and Ordnance. There were very few combat troops since it was not thought that Japan would be able to land many, if any, troops on the island and reinforcements could arrive fairly quickly.

However, the situation changed dramatically in 1940 when France fell to the German Army and the new French Vichy government co-operated with the Axis powers. The Japanese were allowed to walk, unopposed, into French Indo-China (now Vietnam) and this placed them less than 600 miles from Singapore and only 300 miles from the north of Malaya. The Japanese also had a secret agreement with Siam (now Thailand) allowing them to land troops unopposed. Their aircraft were now within easy reach of Malaya and Singapore and the British troops had no defence against air attack except for ineffectual anti-aircraft guns whose shells exploded well below the height at which the bombers flew, and a few obsolete aircraft such as the American Brewster Buffalo fighter planes that could not fly as fast as the Japanese bombers, and Wildebeests – a sea-plane that carried one torpedo and flew at 80 knots.

The Japanese attack

About 3am on Monday 8 December 1941 Japanese planes bombed Singapore without warning and at dawn they landed troops at Kota Baharu on the north east coast of Malaya. The Indian unit defending the beach was destroyed by this unexpected attack. Singapore had not been warned of a possible air raid and so all the lights were on. A few old-fashioned planes, like the Brewster Buffaloes, were operating from an airstrip near Kota Baharu, but they were no match for the Japanese planes. Also, there was a British officer attached to RAF Headquarters who was spying for the Japanese and he was able to give the Japanese information that enabled them to attack the RAF and Naval planes on the ground. He was eventually caught and was shot by a Military Policeman on the dockside in Singapore just before the fall of the city and his body was pushed into the sea.

Singapore was no fortress – it was a Naval Base, and it had been starved of resources and there were few tanks, few anti-aircraft guns and once Malaya was occupied by the Japanese the Base was useless as it was on the north of the island only half a mile from the Malayan coast.

The Japanese forces advanced rapidly down the length of Malaya and by the end of January 1942 were infesting Singapore, and the Naval Base had been abandoned so no purpose was being served by hanging onto Singapore except as a possible base for a counter attack. The water supply to the island came from the Scudai Hills on the mainland and was conveyed through a three-foot-diameter pipe. This supply was cut and the two small reservoirs on the island were soon empty – not being enough for the one million inhabitants. The island was under continuous attack from the air and the oil storage tanks, the warehouses holding stocks of rubber and latex were soon burning fiercely, covering the whole island in a blanket of thick black smoke out of which planes continually dived unopposed. There was then no water to put out the fires.

Winston Churchill then issued orders that Singapore was to be held ‘to the last man’ and that all officers must die at their posts. Apart from the military this would have led to the deaths of thousands of innocent men, women and children. Luckily for all concerned the General Officer Commanding, General Percival, very sensibly surrendered on Sunday 15 February 1942.

14th Feb 1942 – Fleeing to the docks

Fred continues the story in his own words:
Just before the fall of the city, we were ordered to try to escape and report to General Wavell’s Headquarters on Java. The idea, we were told, was that Singapore would soon be recaptured and that we, with our specialist knowledge, would be able to get the place working again. So we went down to the docks, which were being very heavily bombed and shelled, and managed to get a small ship – the Shu Kwang (a Shanghai steamship of 788 tons owned by the Asiatic Petroleum Company). There were, it was estimated, about 300 souls on board. We set sail for Batavia (now Jakarta) on Saturday 14th February 1942. About 45 miles from Singapore at 12.30pm – in position 0°35′ North and 104°0′ East – we were bombed by a formation of eight bombers. About eleven were killed and 40 wounded. Major Moore, the Deputy Commander Royal Engineers, Tanglin was killed. He and I had been talking together when we heard the planes and saw the bombs coming down. He dived one way and I the other, and his was the wrong way. Four of us who had worked together under his command found an iron bar, tied it to his body, and pushed him over the side. I think all the other dead were left where they lay. The Shu Kwang settled down into the water with a very steep list and all power gone. The four of us went down into the engine room (one of us was a mechanical engineer) to see if there was anything that could be done but found the room a complete shambles, steam issuing from every pipe, and the Chief Engineer sitting on a stool with his head in his hands in complete shock.

The Shu Kwang had three lifeboats, but they had all been damaged – one beyond repair – but we helped the ship’s carpenter repair the other two and we got the wounded away in them, together with a number of the injured. Many had already jumped into the sea and probably wouldn’t have lasted for more than a few hours. A couple of dozen of us remained on board and, at about 4pm, the four of us were on the bridge discussing the situation with the Captain and other ships officers, when four Japanese bombers flew over and one dive-bombed us to try and finish us off. I think he hit the stern and, since those of us left were forward, no one was hurt and little damage was done, but the Captain thought that the bulkheads might go at any minute and the ship sink. Officially 20 lives were lost and 273 saved, but I would not place any reliability on those figures as no roll call was ever made. There were a number of Australians on board and they would have been deserters.

At about 6pm a small Naval gunboat, the Tanjong Penang, came alongside and took off those of us remaining. We discovered later that we were fortunate to have been bombed where we were since, if we had gone on, we would have run into the Japanese Navy in the Banks Straits. Some forty or so small vessels which reached these Straits were sunk and their crew and passengers either killed, died from thirst if they managed to reach an island, or were captured and spent the rest of the war as Prisoners of War.

17th Feb 1942 – Fred’s 25th birthday

All that night we travelled south and, about dawn, after covering about 80 miles, we entered a large river, the Sungei Indiragiri, in Eastern Sumatra, and went up the river, which was very wide with mangrove swamps on either side, until we reached the village of Tembilahan where we spent the night in a Malay school. The Tanjong Penang went back to sea to rescue others, but we learnt much later from an article in The Times that she had been captured. We then moved a little further up-river where there was a road and there we hired a lorry to take us to the town of Rengat, where we slept in a Chinese school. This being Tuesday 17 February – and my 25th birthday – and having had nothing to eat since the previous Friday evening, I treated myself to a Chinese breakfast of a boiled egg, the white of which was green, and then had a haircut and a bath in the river.

There were a lot of people at Rengat, about 300 having been brought across from Singapore on the Han Ann, which had been a private yacht of the Sultan of Kelantan. The Dutch authorities took charge as Sumatra was part of the Dutch East Indies empire and they arranged to have us taken up the river sitting on the open decks of two river barges, towed by a tug. The river at first was very wide, but as the day wore on and we got further up-stream the banks began to close in. When it was quite dark, perhaps about 10pm, we arrived at a Ford rubber plantation at Ayer Molek, which means ‘pretty water’. There we had our first meal (apart from my breakfast) since the previous Friday. It consisted of boiled rice and bully beef. We then had to make our way over the mountainous backbone of the country to a place called Sahwalunto, which was at the head of a mountain railway. The jungle-covered mountains rise to about 12,000 feet and the scenery was magnificent. We boarded a train there and went to Padang, the major port on the West coast facing onto the Indian Ocean. The journey across Sumatra was about 300 miles – with no roads.

On arrival at Padang we were put up in a school and I went to the hotel to have a breakfast rather than eating the stuff we were given at the school. I didn’t believe in suffering while running away! Lieut-Colonel G A Piper RE was in charge of all arrangements regarding those people using that route to escape.

20th – 26th Feb 1942

On Friday afternoon, 20 February 1942, some of us were put on a train and went down to Emmahaven, the port for Padang, where there was a British Cruiser, the HMS Danae. I expect that she had been sent a radio signal to get her call to there. We boarded this vessel which took us down to the port of Cilacap on the South coast of Java. And that evening we went by train to the town of Purwokerto, which was up in the hills, and we stayed in a school for four days arranging transport to take us to Batavia (now Jakarta) where General Wavell had his headquarters. We then learnt that the Japanese had invaded Java and so we were on the run again.

On 26 February at 6.45am we got on a train and went back to Cilacap where an old Chinese river boat had been discovered in a corner of the harbour. We set about stocking her up and, luckily for us, she had plenty of coal – she being a coal burner. About 500 escapees from Singapore and other places were collected together, including some RAF officers whose planes had been destroyed. Commander Cromarty, RNVR, was appointed captain and some of the RAF were navigators and there were some infantry to do the stoking, and we Engineers did the general running of the ship and kept watch. The vessel was called the Wu Chang and had, I believe, operated on the Yangtse River in China and was flat-bottomed, with very little draught; she was top-heavy and rolled badly.

27th Feb – 7th Mar 1942

We sailed about 4.30pm on 27 February 1942. The harbour is long and narrow, running parallel with the coast and protected just offshore by an island called Nusa Kambangan (which means ‘threshold of the home’) and the exit is quite narrow. We reached there after dark as it was known that Japanese submarines operated outside, a number of vessels having been sunk. All lights were doused and orders were given that no one was to smoke or light a match. If there was a submarine waiting it did not see us.

There had been a debate as to whether we should go to Australia or to Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and the latter was chosen as it was thought that we would have more chance of not being found in the open ocean than amongst the islands on the way to Australia. There were no lifebelts on board which was a good thing as you drown much quicker without one. There were three lifeboats and some bamboo rafts, certainly not enough for the 500 or so people on board.

Once clear of the heads we plodded on at a few miles an hour on our journey of about 2,000 miles. Fortunately, the weather was calm, it being the period between the North-East and South-West monsoons, but in spite of this the vessel rolled alarmingly in the ocean swells. Then, on 4 March, those of us looking over the rails at the sea saw the tracks of two torpedoes passing directly under us. They went straight under the boat and it was the shallow draught and flat bottom that saved us. I expect the submarine commander was very surprised as I suppose had had set the depth thinking that we were a normal-shaped vessel. The submarine came up to periscope level right along side of us and examined us, and we thought that it would surface and shell us, but it dived and some time later we saw some smoke on the horizon, and it was suggested that it was charging its batteries.

We found out much later that the 1,000-ton Rooseboom – sailing from Padang in Sumatra to Ceylon and to the north of us – had been torpedoed and sunk with almost total loss of life. After the war we learnt that a few people in a lifeboat, suffering great hardship, had drifted back to Sumatra, the North Equatorial Drift having taken them there. On landing, they were taken prisoner by the Japanese and one young Malay woman was shot by them. The wife of the engineer in charge of Singapore’s water supply, under whom I had worked towards the end, was one of those in the lifeboat to survive. Her husband, Mr Nunn, went down with the vessel and his wife suffered dreadfully in the lifeboat. Several people got into the bamboo rafts, but they found that they were sitting up to their waists in the sea, and their bodies soon became pickled and they dropped off and were drowned. This story made us realise how lucky we were.

Final journey home

Four days after the attack, on Sunday 8 March 1942, we arrived in Colombo harbour. It was good to get ashore, have decent meals and then sleep in a bed. On board the Wu Chang the four of us Engineers had shared a cubical a few feet square and opening on the seaward side. We slept on the wooden deck without bedding and if we slept long-ways with heads towards the bow or stern we rolled first one way and then the other, and if we slept across ship then one minute our heads were above our feet and the next minute our feet were highest. The cubical had previously been occupied by pigs so we had quite a job cleaning it out.

Two days after landing the four of us were ordered to report to the Commander Royal Engineers at Trincomalee on the North-East coast and we travelled on the night train. The following Sunday the four of us travelled by road in two vehicles to Anuradhapura in the centre of the North part of the island. We travelled with Major C S Richards RE and we set up a Deputy Commander Royal Engineers office there and set about organising the clearing of the jungle and building camps for troops coming into the Island to defend Ceylon against possible Japanese attack. Trincomalee and Colombo had already been bombed and there was a Japanese fleet operating off the East coast. We employed a great many labourers and our job was to plan and supervise the work.

In January 1945, after seven years in the Far East, I had, with great regret, to return to England. I travelled up to Bombay by train, a journey which took several days, and on the way I caught malaria which I had, until then, avoided. I spent several days sweating it out in a hut at the transit camp at Doolaly and then went to see the doctor who gave me the choice of either going into hospital or getting on the boat, when he would give me enough mapacrine and pamaquine to last the voyage. I chose the latter course, and on reaching the depot in England the medical officer didn’t know whether to put me in hospital or let me go home and see what mother’s cooking could do! He chose the latter and when Mum opened the door to my ring, she saw a bright yellow skeleton standing there (the yellow was from the drugs). Luckily I recovered from the malaria and have never had a relapse.

Major Denis Nixon Moore (killed when the Shu Kwang was bombed) was aged just 30 years old and is commemorated on the Singapore Memorial and Commonwealth War Graves Commission website:


You can read more about the Fall of Singapore here:


Frederick Gurnsey was born in 1917 and lived to the ripe old age of 98!

Some years ago he wrote down his account of a few of his wartime experiences. Fred kept this written account to himself until decades later when he sent copies to a few family members, just for their interest. What follows is Fred’s account – changed from the first to the third person initially (for dramatic effect) and then using Fred’s exact words (used here with Fred’s permission).

This account comes from Part 2 of Fred’s autobiography ‘My Family and I’. You can read Part 1 in ‘George and Amy Gurnsey – Devoted to each other until the end‘ telling the story of his parents and family and Part 3 in For the wind is in the palm-trees and it’s there that I would be‘ which recounts Fred’s life and adventures at sea after the war.

To order a copy of ‘My Family and I’ for your Kindle, click on the image below.

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