My father (Joseph Cheshire) was on board the HMS Thanet when it was attacked and sank on 27th January 1942 off the coast of Malaya and the following is an account of what happened to him that he wrote to his mother after his arrival in Singapore. He was on one of the last ships to leave Singapore before it fell to the Japanese.
We knew when the skipper paraded us that afternoon to tell us that we were going to make a torpedo attack on a Japanese convoy that ‘something was going to happen.’ I cannot explain, even now, looking back on those nightmare days three weeks before Singapore fell just exactly why we knew, but we sensed it. On deck, through the evening and night watches, a new tense expectancy seemed somehow to have put us all on ‘tiptoe.’ We laughed and joked about it then as our destroyer, with its accompanying destroyer, raced through the silenced inky sea, north eastwards from the island, searching, searching… Through the cloud the brilliant moon wreathed the other destroyer in a ghostlike blaze of silver.
On and on we ploughed… More cloud patches hid the moon and stars and darkened the night now and we began to have to strain our eyes, peering into the nothingness of the night. Suddenly, in a fleeting spell of light, an enormous shape slipped down our starboard side. Perhaps, who knows, it was a Japanese cruiser. If it was they must have been just as surprised as we were for they never opened fire and slipped away from us into the darkness.
Twenty minutes or so later the destroyer screen of the convoy came into sight. I don’t know now what my thoughts were as I stood on the flag deck and saw and heard our torpedoes leave the ship. This must have given our presence away for the searchlights of the Japanese escort vessels which were forming up into a sort of half crescent astern of us lit us up from stern to stern, our ensign fluttering proudly and bravely in the light. Within much less time than it takes to write, we and they had opened fire and the whole world around us seemed to become a mass of moving, flying things and noise.
Soon, very soon, we were hit in the engine room, disabled but firing on as our other destroyer laid a smoke screen, but it was no use then for she began to sink and we were ordered to abandon ship. Sixteen of us clambered into a small float built to accommodate about ten men as she sank and six days of something which now seems to me to be like a Robinson Crusoe adventure began for me.
Still too stunned to realise that we too were ‘survivors’, we could not take our eyes off the spot where she had gone down, until the full realisation that now we were alone with the night overtook us. We took turns in fours to swim the float from the stern towards the darkened mass we knew was the land. But we knew too that we were far enough north from Singapore to have to break or steal through the advancing Japanese troops if we wanted to get back.
I shall never forget just how that darkened mass seemed always to be just exactly as far away from our float as it was when we started. Sometimes as we were thrown farther back and at a greater speed than we could swim, I felt like throwing the whole thing up and giving up the unfair fight but always someone in the float would make some jocular remark. Fatuous I know to you comfy in your armchairs but full of life and hope to me out there.
Throughout the rest of the long night and through the forenoon that followed – in fact thirteen hours – we pushed and paddled that float until, exhausted, we reached the beach and stumbled through the surf to rest ourselves on the soft sand. How long we rested I don’t know but it was almost dusk when I awoke to face the seemingly hopeless task of walking to Singapore.
Another float I know had landed around a headland and with three others I decided to try and make it along the shore, hoping that somehow or somewhere near at hand we could find a more swifter moving vessel to take us on. The others decided to break their way through the jungle – a short cut they said, but to us too much of an uncertainty. We parted there, light-heartedly wishing each other good speed, both sides confident in the face of the other, but each other just a little uncertain. Before us we knew were the Japanese. They were behind us too but soon they might decide to come down to this part of the beach anyway and none of us had any weapons at all.
We turned back to wave goodbye to the other party as they disappeared into the dense Malayan jungle and began our long trek towards uncertainty. None of us had shoes or boots of course and within a few minutes of clambering over rocks and stumbling over stones on the beach, our feet were cut and bleeding. Upwards over the headland we climbed, amazed and dismayed then to discover that it was cut at the top forming a canyon about 100 feet deep through which the sea hissed and foamed below. It was not really wide and I know that had I been fresh and fed instead of being tired and hungry I could have jumped it with ease, but I wasn’t and momentarily I believe I was afraid. But my pals had made it – two by jumping and the other by falling across it in a sort of ‘dead man’s fall’, clutching hold of the edges and pulling himself up. I too decided to ‘fall’ across it. I did but as I dangled over the edge the sea crashing against the rocks below seemed to rob me of what remaining strength I did have and I just dangled there, fearful and immovable, until my pals pulled me up to safety.
Night had almost set in by then and rather than risk the descent in the darkness, we decided to sleep somehow on the top of the headland – cold, soaked and still oh so hungry! Throughout that long night of cold winds that seemed to cut through our shorts – for shorts were all we wore – I dozed through sheer exhaustion but woke again almost immediately afterwards through the cold. How I wished for that dawning with its welcome sun and warmth and light to chase away the darkened things which seemed to close in around us.
It did break with all its loveliness of colour which does accompany the dawns out there and stiffly we clambered down the headland and on to the beach. And there we found coconuts – delicious milky coconuts, fresh, juicy and lovely. There we also found a canoe abandoned on the beach, some pottery jars in one of the uninhabited huts and some water. We loaded the canoe, tested it for seaworthiness and put to sea again, paddling along at a good rate, southwards, hugging the coast throughout the day until dusk when we decided to put ashore to sleep. We built a wind breaker from some palm leaves and then burying ourselves in the sand prayed again for another dawn… The new dawn came and again we put to sea, still hugging the coastline. Two canoes passed by but we paid little attention to them thinking they were native fishermen, never dreaming that they too were survivors from our ship. On and on we paddled round the irregular coastline never knowing when we might be challenged and shot at by Japanese coastal patrols – but then never knowing when Singapore might come in sight!
Dusk came at last with its welcome break between the blistering heat of the day and icy, chilling winds of the night and again we made for the beach where there was a cluster of palm leaf huts huddled round a water hole a few yards from the beach. Tired, hungry, blistered and faced with what hourly seemed to become a hopeless and still more hopeless task, we staggered towards the huts; at least there was shelter, perhaps even something to eat. An old Malayan who though he could not speak English (and we had no idea of Malayan) made us welcome by signs, gave us rice which was plain, half boiled indigestible stuff but warming to our stomachs, and fruit. He then led us up into the rafters of a rickety old ‘house’, gave us some old sacks to cover us and… I remember no more save that I fell asleep almost immediately, lulled by the myriad night twittering, too sleepy even to think or plan for the morrow. I have eaten more succulent meals but never have I felt such a delicious sense of complete tiredness and been able to sleep it away before.
Dawn again and the realisation that technically we were not really any better off than we had been when we first started out. The Malay, who seemed to have taken us into his family, then made us understand that we were the second group of British sailors who had been to him. The others were a day or two ahead of us and had been guided through the jungle to a main road which went to Johore. We were delighted and amazed at the sudden turn of luck in what seemed before to be a pretty hopeless job. We immediately asked him by signs if we too could be guided to our friends. He understood and loading us with coconuts called another Malay and I suppose gave him orders. Anyway we went full of hope and high spirits on a trek along the narrow, tortuous pathway.
Even through the denseness of the jungle, high grass, strong and whippy which lashed our legs and thighs as we brushed through the undergrowth, a dozen different birds and pests buzzed and flitted alarmingly around us and our pace soon slackened to little more than a mere crawl. We had been travelling for about four or five hours this way and I suppose we were astonished to see the gunner from our ship with a pilot officer coming towards us with another guide. We whooped with delight as we saw him and bombarded him with questions, “How did so and so get on?” “Where have you come from?” and so on until at last we let him tell us that he, with about twenty others, had made the beach in the whaler and had met a friendly Malay who had provided them with a guide to the township ahead of us, and to the main road to Johore, but when they arrived at the township the Japs were shelling heavily and advancing so they had decided to move, he to go back to the whaler to make it seaworthy and the rest under the command of another officer to make their way down the river in any craft they could find and meet him on the beach where the whaler had been abandoned within six hours. They had stipulated six hours rather than keep waiting unnecessarily if they could make another easier journey onwards. The air force officer he had met alone near a rubber plantation, wandering along the path unconsciously picking up shells and putting them into his haversack and trying to find some sort of transport to take him back to civilisation. He had been shot down over the jungle in a dog fight with Japanese zero fighters.
The gunner advised us against carrying on towards the town as he felt sure advancing Japanese forces were dangerously near. We took his advice and trekked back along the path we had taken – back to the friendly Malay and to the beach. There around an headland we found the whaler, except for being full of sand and water and now embedded in the sand it was not really seaworthy. While three of us made a sail from an old blanket given us by the Malay, the fourth, a stoker, went in search of stores (coconuts etc) and the gunner with the air force officer bailed out the water. We worked away perhaps for an hour or so when two more canoes came paddling up the shore. In these were ten more survivors from our ship and the crew of four from a torpedo bomber aircraft who had taken part in the aerial attack on the very same convoy which we had been sent out to attack but had been shot down and found by the crew of one of the canoes during one of their ‘runs’ ashore. One of the crew, a sergeant, was wounded in both legs. They brought with them tea, rice, sugar and tobacco. We greeted them warmly over sweetened tea and rice. We rolled cigarettes with any old piece of paper we could find.
We held a council of war and decided to split up; a dozen of us including all the airmen, the gunner, a seaman who was badly skinned, a banting and we four in the whaler, and the remaining eight in one of the canoes. We split the provisions too. We then bid them farewell and good luck as we got underway, sails set and filled with breeze.
All through the night we sailed close to the shore where we knew Japanese troops were moving up towards their goal. Somehow to me it seemed like some life and death race. Throughout the night the air force officer full of fun kept our mouths watering with vivid descriptions of what he was going to do with a hamburger with tomato ketchup.
The night dragged on and soon the first greyness of dawn crept into the sky astern of us. It grew paler and paler, a breeze stirred the sea and as the first light of day broke, a tiny pin of brickwork broke the horizon ahead – the lighthouse outside Singapore harbour. We stared unbelievingly at it until the full realisation dawned upon us – we had made it!
Sandra L. Smith (Daughter)
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