Singapore sailor 'knew the end was nigh'

This article has photo gallery Published on CPL Max Bree (author and photographer), Calvin Wong (photographer)

Location(s): Ballarat

Topic(s): Naval Heritage, 75th Anniversary

World War 2 veteran Derek Holyoake at the Australian Ex-Prisoners of War Memorial, following at a national commemorative service to mark the 75th Anniversary of the Fall of Singapore. Mr Holyoake served aboard HMAS Hobart and saw action off Singapore. (photo: Corporal Max Bree)
World War 2 veteran Derek Holyoake at the Australian Ex-Prisoners of War Memorial, following at a national commemorative service to mark the 75th Anniversary of the Fall of Singapore. Mr Holyoake served aboard HMAS Hobart and saw action off Singapore.

A white flag and Union Jack accompanied Britain’s Lieutenant General Arthur Percival as he was escorted through Japanese lines to sign the surrender of Singapore’s Commonwealth forces on 15 February 1942.

Seventy-five years later, flags of the Australian services were slowly raised over the Ex-Prisoners of War Memorial in Ballarat, Victoria to mark a dark day in Commonwealth military history.

Veterans of the fighting were on hand as hundreds of people gathered to remember the disastrous fall of Singapore, considered at the time to be a bastion of British imperial power.

Major General Simone Wilkie, whose grandfather was captured when Singapore fell, delivered the call to remembrance.

“It took just 10 weeks for three Japanese divisions to conquer Malaya,” she said.

“There were weeks of retreat, confusion and fear; punctuated by local victories and acts of astonishing bravery.”

By the end of January 1942, the last retreating Commonwealth troops crossed the causeway into Singapore.

A massive artillery barrage and Japanese landings followed on 8 February.

“The water supply began to give out and the civilian population suffered terrible causalities,” she said.

“Percival had no option but to surrender.”

Speaking after the Ballarat service, Ordinary Seaman Derek Holyoake, of HMAS Hobart, recalled being in Singapore after escorting the final convoy of reinforcements from Fremantle.

He said nervous soldiers wandered the docks of Singapore hoping for a way off the island as Japanese forces approached in February 1942.

“I was on the wharf tending the motorboat lines and they’d say ‘mate, is this ship going back to Australia?’, I had to say ‘no, you can’t get on this one’,” he said.

Mr Holyoake served in Hobart in the Red Sea before it escorted British and Indian troops from Colombo to Singapore, then a final transport of Australian soldiers.

Despite claims Singapore was impregnable, Mr Holyoake said the fall seemed inevitable.

“The writing was on the wall even before we got there; the Japanese were advancing so fast down the Malay Peninsula,” he said.

“The reinforcements were not even trained to use a rifle, let alone in jungle warfare.

“It was such a slow convoy. We knew they [the men on board] were going to be POWs. It was so sad.”

Hobart
 left Singapore soon afterwards and joined allied ships attempting to stop Japanese forces landing on Bangka Island, east of Sumatra.

The young Mr Holyoake would man either a defence station on the 4-inch anti-aircraft guns or an action station as gun crew on Y turret.

Unfortunately for Hobart and allied ships, they attempted to stop the landings with no air cover.

“We were bombed from 10 o’clock in the morning until five o’clock at night by more than 100 high-level bombers,” Mr Holyoake said.

The small fleet manoeuvred chaotically as each ship’s captain tried to keep away from falling bombs.

“The captain would watch when the bomb bay doors opened, he’d judge where they were going to fall and he’d say ‘full ahead on one engine and full astern on the other’,” Mr Holyoake said.

“He turned the Hobart around like a motorboat and bombs would fall down one side or the other.”

Looking back on the fall of Singapore, Mr Holyoake said it was preceded by a series of high-level mistakes.

“I remember the folly of British generals and the incompetence of the whole thing,” he said.

“They were trying to make ‘Fortress’ Singapore, when they didn’t have any defences on the landward side.

“When we were in Singapore, the naval base had been destroyed. We knew the end was nigh. You didn’t need to be an expert to know all was lost.”

About 80,000 Commonwealth troops became prisoners, including 15,000 Australians, joining roughly 50,000 taken in Malaya.