Singapore to Sumatra
by Col J B Coates and Capt W G Gingell
Before the surrender of the British forces in Singapore on 15th February 1942, a small party was evacuated by sea in the Yangtse River gunboats HMS Dragon Fly and HMS Grasshopper. The party was intended to go to India to form cadres of new battalions. The story is told by two officers who took part, Colonel J B Coates of The Queen's Royal Regiment who was GSO 1 of the 9th Indian Division, and Captain, later Major W G Gingell, Quartermaster of the 2nd Bn The East Surrey Regiment.
Colonel Coates writes: 'On 2nd February I was appointed to command 6/15 Infantry Brigade with the acting rank of Brigadier. The Brigade was sent to the west coast of Singapore Island to stem a Japanese landing. This was not operationally possible, and the Brigade withdrew to Singapore itself where I established my Brigade Headquarters. On 12th or 13th February I was ordered to select a party for evacuation from Singapore. I saw General Heath, the Corps Commander, under whose command the Brigade then was. He told me I was to go with the party'.
Captain Gingell recalls: 'I was ordered to report to Brigadier Coates at about 2300 hours on 13th February, and was instructed by him to detail one officer and 24 Other Ranks, in addition to myself, to report at Collier Pier at midnight. Making our way to Singapore was no easy task as we were shelled continuously. On arrival at Collier Pier the shelling was so heavy it was impossible to do anything except wait, there being no cover except a sewerage drain. After the shelling had subsided, I collected all I could together and was directed towards a burning ship, which was about half an hour's walk away. Near the burning ship were other boats, and, with what remained of my party, we climbed aboard a ship which I later discovered was the Dragon Fly'.
The ship sailed at 0430 hours on 14th February. When daylight came, Captain Gingell checked his party which now consisted of only 14 Other Ranks. During the morning enemy aircraft were very active, and just before 1100 hours the little Dragon Fly received a direct hit amidships. The bomb caused a considerable number of casualties in the crowded ship, including a number killed. 'The ship was abandoned and sank in seven minutes. All had to take to the water. Unfortunately, I was only clad in shorts and stockings and got badly sunburnt during the eight and a half hours I was in the water'.
The Japanese planes came over again and machine-gunned the survivors in the water causing many casualties, including Captain Gingell himself. When the gunboat was hit the sailors lowered a boat in which the wounded were placed. Some of them died and were buried at sea. Towards evening the survivors reached an island and were able to get help from HMS Grasshopper which had run aground after being bombed. Here Captain Gingell stayed the night of 14/15th February and reported to the Brigade Commander.
The fate of the Grasshopper with the Brigade Commander aboard was similar. Colonel Coates recalls: 'At Singapore we embarked in HMS Grasshopper, a Yangtse gunboat (Captain Hoffinen RN, I think) and sailed on the night of 13/14th February. On 14th February the ship was bombed from the air and ran aground on an island, possibly Tg Paku. We swam ashore - luckily I had found a spare lifebelt. It turned out to be a deserted island. When the tide was out we were able to get to the Grasshopper and retrieve essential kit and one or two of the ship's boats. Our party consisted mostly of civilians and I remember that we made the Head of Malayan Railways our cook'!
Captain Gingell's party moved by a naval motor boat on the night of 15/16th February to Singkep Island where there was a good hospital (Dutch). Here he stayed a week, receiving treatment for his wounds. On 23rd February the party moved by boat to Tembilaham, arriving at Rengat the next day. Captain Gingell's account concludes as follows: 'From Renfat we proceeded across Sumatra by road, and eventually arrived at Sawah Weloente on 1st March. Here I saw several wounded who had been bombed off other ships. We went by train to Padang, leaving there on the night of 2/3rd March by the Dutch ship SS Weert'. The party disembarked at Colombo on 9th March. The following month Captain Gingell sailed from India and arrived back in England on 9th May 1942.
Colonel Coates's party, using the boats recovered from Grasshopper, visited several deserted islands before arriving at Dabok on 16th February. This island, says the Colonel, 'was occupied and extremely well run by the Dutch. On the night of 19/20th February a motor boat came in. Most of our party seemed to prefer staying where they were, but I went on board. We sailed, stopping at several islands, until we got to the west coast of Sumatra. From here on 23rd February, I went by bus and train to Padang on the east coast of Sumatra.
At Padang there were about 5,000 troops waiting to get away. A ship came in on 26th February; I was told it was full, but there would be another that evening. I doubted this, but one did come, and I got on board. We sailed to Colombo in Ceylon, and nothing happened en route. I heard that the earlier ship was sunk, and that all on board were lost, except for one Lascar'.