The Company fared better than most in the region and found itself in a position to acquire two more lesser Companies. The first was the Muar based Hua Khiow Steamship Company which owned Najam and had also recently taken delivery of a 280-ton new ship Hua Tong. Just as Somerville was about to retire he purchased the larger Ho Hong Steamship Company whose Fleet stood at three ocean going steamers and twelve small coasters but the main interest in purchasing this Company was not just its other assets but the right to berth at Rangoon previously forbidden because of the Victoria Point Agreement. A much smaller Company purchased at the same time was the Singapore Steam Laundry which eventually was to launder all Straits Steamship's linen, small and insignificant at the time this Company grew into a valuable asset of Straits Steamship. By the time Somerville retired the Company had grown at an unprecedented rate, he had acquired new routes, three Companies, and excluding other companies his Fleet stood at fifty-three ships, a truly remarkable achievement.
As previously mentioned when D.K. Somerville joined Straits Steamship he insisted on First Class accommodation for his passengers, he also implemented a colour change for the Fleet which remained for most of the Company's existence, that of white and from that time on the collective name for the Company's ships became 'The White Fleet'. At the outbreak of war with Japan in 1941 the ships were painted grey and at cessation of hostilities the unfortunate hull colour change was to that of black and that after the Straits Times welcomed the Company's ships home with the headline 'The Little White Ships Come Back'.
When Somerville retired he was succeeded by the Chairman of Mansfields, Mr. C.E. Wurtzburg, his appointment coincided with a 'commission of enquiry into the trade of the Colony' which had been brought about by a lawyer, a Mr. Roland Braddell who maintained that the Depression which was affecting Malaya was due entirely to the Shipping Conference. In his own words he stated that a Shipping Conference 'is an octopus which is strangling the Colony'. The commission sat between 1933 to 1934 and its ruling was that Braddell's wild accusations had in fact never been properly investigated by himself and had not taken into account the Depression which had beset the whole industrialised world, the Commission dismissed Braddell's motion. To explain, a Shipping Conference system is basically an agreement between ship owners to charge the same rates across the board. It does away with cut throat competition which in turn enables ship owners to plan for the future and to commit large sums of money on new tonnage. It also maintains stability, efficiency and uppermost safety in the Company's operation. Whether or not the same can be said of todays cartels is open to discussion, I personally believe that we have reverted back to the bad old days with the safety of some Shipping Companies questionable to say the least. However, I digress, during the 1930's nine Shipping Companies operated out of Singapore, six were Chinese varying greatly in size from one ship operations to seven ships, they were as follows:
Kheng Seng Steamship Company
Tan Siew Inn
Thong Ek Steamship Company
Hoe Aik Steamship Company
Teo Hoo Lye
Heap Eng Moh Steamship Company
The latter Company had been established in 1912 by Oei Tiong Ham whose firm Kian Gwan had interests throughout the region he was known locally as the Java Sugar King but was far more diverse than the title suggests. He operated five ships which all sailed under the Red Ensign and they included Giang Seng, Giang Ann and Zweena. The remaining three Companies were Ho Hong, Straits Steamship and KPM, KPM was the largest operator starting in 1891 with twenty-seven ships, its ships linked Java with the Dutch controlled Islands and by 1932 had a Fleet comprising 144 vessels totalling 288, 211 tons. In comparison Straits Steamship's Fleet stood at 40, 700 tons but it did operate 55 out of the 81 Steamers which operated out of Singapore.
During the Thirties Straits Steamship operated a fast passenger service from Singapore to Port Swettenham, the ships on the service were Kinta, Ipoh, Perak and Klang. Amongst their many passengers were Government Officers and business men who much preferred the excellent accommodation and cleanliness afforded them on the Company's ships rather than travel by the grubby alternative of rail. The ships left the Roads at exactly 4pm and arrived at Port Swettenham as the Victoria Tower clock was striking 8am, refreshed and having enjoyed a first class breakfast they caught a train for the short journey to Kuala Lumpur. Three of the ships extended the service to Penang. Kinta, Ipoh and Klang would sail later in the day and arrive at Penang the following morning. Kedah Pride of the Fleet operated a direct sailing from Singapore to Penang sailing from Singapore at 11.30am every Thursday and arriving at Penang the following morning at 08.30 having averaged 18 knots for the voyage.
In direct competition to Straits Steamship on its coastal service was the railway of the Federal Malay States which made consistent losses, the losses were met by the public and this caused much bitterness in the Office of Straits Steamship, this was a direct clash between Singapore and Kuala Lumpur and most certainly not in the Nation's best interest.
In 1934 the Company purchased a majority of shares in the Kheng Seng Steamship Company which operated the Sin Kheng Seng between Malacca and Singapore, by acquiring the vessel it not only gained a valuable asset but removed a competitor as well. The furthest that the Company's ships travelled up the west coast of the Peninsula during the thirties was Rangoon. Rangoon lies at the mouth of the Irrawaddy River which in turn flows into the Gulf of Martaban. The service was operated by Ho Hong Steamship a subsidiary of Straits Steamship and its three ships sailed a route from Amoy (Hsiamen) through the South China Sea to Singapore and then north to Rangoon. Two of Straits' men W.W. Jenkins and J. Crichton had steered the Ho Hong Company through the Depression inspite of the operation being conducted entirely in Chinese. When the Ho Hong Company moved to Chinatown in the Thirties all its office staff, agents and most of the ships' staff were Chinese, all the Company correspondence and trade was conducted in Chinese, the latter by ship's Chinchens. The Chinchen was in charge of the ship's cargo and were all under a bond usually provided by a Chinese firm of some standing. All accounts were submitted on a standardised English form but from then on all transactions were in Chinese, it was only when the documentation reached the office that it was translated into English. Gradually the losses of the early thirties were eliminated after the sale of Hong Hwa for use as a coal hulk, the remaining two ships were joined in 1935 by Hong Siang formerly Dimboola of the Melbourne Steamship Company.
Hong Sieng and Hong Peng were in Hong Kong Harbour in September 1937 when one of the worst typhoons in living memory struck the island. The Master of the Hong Sieng Captain D.M. Cole decided that his best option was to make for the open sea and so he piloted his ship through a melee of drifting ships. At one stage to avoid colliding with another ship he turned broadside on to the howling 100mph winds and Hong Sieng heeled over so much it was thought by many of the 800 passengers onboard that she was sure to capsize, due to magnificent seamanship by Captain Cole she came back on course and was able to clear the harbour and make for the open sea and safety. Hong Peng however was not so fortunate, tied alongside and powerless due to the fact that her engines were undergoing overhaul and survey she was buffeted against the wharf at Taikoo dockyard so severely that her plates sprung and she sank with only her superstructure visible. Fortunately the Taikoo dockyard staff were able to salvage her and after extensive repairs she returned once more to her normal service.
Piracy was ever present in the South China Sea and is even practiced today though not on the same scale. Straits Steamship had its Ho Hong Line Bridges and Engine Rooms protected by grills, the ships carried revolvers and shotguns for use by the Deck Officers and Engineers, also armed guards patrolled the thousand or so deck passengers. Pre-arranged signals could be sent by the ships to the British Naval Authorities in Hong Kong and if that wasn't enough to deter would be pirates the Officers regularly had target practice when on passage just to let it be known to all onboard that the ship's staff were armed. By the late Thirties Japan had invaded China and for reasons best known only to themselves did everything possible to prevent Chinese boarding the Ho Hong Line ships. They would attack the smaller craft as they carried passengers to the ships lying at anchorage at Foochow not only with Naval vessels but by aircraft also, eventually the constant harassment and murder proved effective and the trade in passengers dwindled to a trickle leaving just cargoes of rice to be shipped.
Another route operated by Straits Steamship was its East Malay Coast service up to Bangkok and it was on this run that the Company lost two of its ships within a week of each other.
Hong Kheng Deck Meal
The first to be sunk was Asdang on the Kemaman Bar on the 23rd of October 1936, embarrassingly a week later Mahidol also ran onto the same Bar and suffered the same fate.
Hong Kheng from Yardarm
Cargoes carried on this route were rice, copra, dried fish for consumption in Singapore and of course rubber from the East Coast plantations, in particular Kelantan.
Unloading Rubber at Singapore.
Rice was the main export from Bangkok and between 1929 to 1939 1, 500, 000 tons were exported to Singapore annually, from Singapore it was redistributed to Java, Sumatra, Borneo and lesser islands.
On deck of Hong Kheng
Trade in and around Singapore still suffered from the Depression and also Straits Steamship came under increasing competition, however under the guidance of its Chairman C.E. Wurtzburg profits continued to rise.
Hong Peng 1937 after Typhoon
Hong Kheng in Drydock
C.E. Wurtzburg left Straits Steamship in 1937 and returned to Great Britain where he became Managing Director of Glen Line and Chairman of McGregor, Gow and Holland.
© Alan Spencer-Jones
He held high post in the Ministry of War Transport during the war and in 1951 became the President of the Chamber of Shipping. One of Straits Steamship greatest men he died in 1952.
Before he left Singapore he had instigated a major ship rebuild programme Pahang being the first from Taikoo dockyards in 1937 but also the changing of ships' engines from steam to diesel. Work was carried out between 1936 to 1939 at Sungei Nyok on Kelantan, Larut, Lipis, Raub and Pangkor more would have been completed but for the intervention of the war.
By the end of the Thirties Straits Steamship and its subsidiaries and associated companies were flourishing, the following is a list of the companies which came under Straits Steamship:
The Sarawak Steamship Company
Sabah Steamship Company
Ho Hong Steamship Company
Kheng Seng Steamship Company
Hua Khiow Steamship Company
Malayan Water Transport Company
Kelantan Lighterage Syndicate
Singapore Steam Laundry
Straits Steamship also had an investment in the Thai Navigation Company.
THE WAR YEARS.
At the outbreak of war Straits Steamship's Fleet stood at 51 vessels with a combined tonnage of 38, 860 gross, the largest was Kedah at 2, 499 grt, the smallest Brunei at 101 grt. Whilst the war raged in Europe Malaya prospered and it was designated the Empire's Dollar Arsenal, for the first twelve months no one from this region was allowed to volunteer for the Services but had to stay in their Civilian employment. Before he left the employ of Straits Steamship C.E. Wurtzburg had prepared a most detailed shipping control plan for Malayan waters at the behest of the Governor. This plan was sent back to Britain for studies and returned with criticisms and suggestions from the Board of Trade under Top Secret cover, on its arrival it was locked in the safe at the Governor's residence where it lay undisturbed for the next two years. After the Munich Crisis the heads of the Singapore firms asked Alec Small the Colonial Secretary to nominate a Shipping Controller for the region, Small nominated Andrew Gilmour an M.C.S. Officer who had a bent for commerce. The papers from the safe were handed to Gilmour after his appointment to Board of Trade Representative for Shipping Control Designate and he was made Chairman of a secret Shipping Control Planning Committee which met on Sundays. The committee was made up of Gilmour, F.G. Ritchie, W. Penrice of Mansfields, H.K. Rodgers Chairman of the Singapore Harbour Board and finally Commander Torlesse a Naval Staff Officer. It was Ritchie who persuaded the Naval Authorities not to go for the bigger cargo ships of Straits Steamship but to accept its smaller vessels for use as minesweepers and patrol boats, this served not only the British War effort but the interests of the Company also.
F.G. Ritchie didn't always win the day with his arguments with the Admiralty but more often than not the Naval Authorities accepted Ritchie's wisdom. On the 4th of September 1939 Gilmour was Gazetted Authority for Shipping, Ritchie became Deputy Superintendent Sea Transport Officer, Penrice became Shipping Advisor and the control staff was selected from the various Shipping Companies.
Kampar was the first Company ship requisitioned on the 28th of August 1939 just before Chamberlain announced that Britain was at War with Germany, she was quickly followed by Circe, Medusa, Pengkor, Tapah, Jeram and Raub for the Navy. Kuala, Kedah, Gemas, Malacca, Jerantut and Tung Song for the Airforce. Rahman, Trang and Hua Tong had all gone by the end of the year.
Both Klias and Jaarak were requisitioned in 1940 for patrol work on the East Coast of Malaya, Ritchie wanted the ships back because they were unique in design for the service that they served prior to being taken over by the Navy. As always a compromise was reached with Kliasa and Jarak being replaced by Kudat, Kelantan and Raub. The three latter were strengthened, armed fore and aft and manned by Royal Navy Gunners, the ships then combined trading with patrol work becoming known as the East Indiamen. Civilians when travelling on the ships which flew the White Ensign had to sign indemnity forms similar to those used when flying with the R.A.F. as a civilian.
Klang Entering Singapore Harbour 1940.
With the railways under tremendous pressure transporting Military traffic more cargoes were expected to go by sea but with less ships due to requisitioning Straits Steamship began to feel the strain especially the vessels' crews. Up until this time crews had stayed with their respective ships but with the increased work load the Company commenced a rota scheme resting crews ashore whilst replacement crews took over their vessel for the next voyage, unpopular at first, everyone was soon to adapt.
War arrived in the Peninsula when the Japanese invaded on the 8th of December 1941. Ozawa's Warships began bombarding Kota Bharu in Northern Malaya at 0115, Yamashita then commenced landing his three divisions of sixty thousand troops first at Kota Bharu followed by landings at Singora and Patani in Southern Thailand before returning once more to the Northern Malayan Coast.
The impact on the Company's service was immediate, Lipis was requisitioned immediately and within a few days Kudat, Kelantan and Vyner Brooke all hoisted the White Ensign. The following month Ampang Rompin, Relau, Hong Kwong, Sin Kheng Seng and Hong Thong had all been taken over. By this time thirty-one of the Company's fifty-one ships had been requisitioned and remained in Malayan waters until being driven south by the advancing Japanese. The first Company ship to be attacked was H.M.S. Lipis when she was escorting a small convoy from Kuching on the 13th of December. She was repeatedly strafed by enemy aircraft and during the engagement her Captain, O.G. Jones was seriously wounded, he handed over to J.H. Thomas, Chief Officer. Major A.W.D. Slatter of the 2/15 Punjab Regiment and two of his Punjabis soldiers were killed whilst defending Lipis, fourteen others were wounded. H.M.S. Larut was attacked a short while later when carrying petrol and stores for the R.A.F. at Kuantan. The first Company ship to be sunk was Kudat which had become base depot ship for the Perak Flotilla, the Flotilla was made up of a Destroyer, H.M.S. Scout and lesser light craft. Kudat was bombed by enemy aircraft on the 30th of December when in the Klang Straits near Port Swettenham,she caught fire and eventually sank.
Shortly after the attack on Lipis the Japanese invaded Sarawak, the larger ships of the Company were able to escape but nearly all the smaller vessels of the Sarawak Steamship Company were either caught or sunk. Georgetown the capital of Penang was bombed on the 11th January, earlier the Company had appealed to the Naval Authorities for permission to move its ships south for safety. This appeal was turned down and in the ensuing confusion the Japanese captured the Company's Jitra, Intan, Pandai, Petaling, Rengam, Rima and Rimau. On the same day H.M.S. Kampar became a total loss when she was beached after sustaining much damage during the day's action. Two more Straits Steamship vessels were sunk a few weeks later which had been employed minesweeping in the Straits of Malacca, H.M.S. Raub was bombed on the 20th of January 1942 near Belewan and after her Captain (Lawes) attempted repairs alongside she was bombed again and subsequently capsized in the mud.
H.M.S. Larut was bombed and sunk at about the same time at Sabang. Captain C.E. Cleaver, his Officers and crew then set off to rejoin the Company heading south through Sumatra. His Engineers took over a train and managed to run it from Belawan to the south eventually crossing to Java.
The Japanese began the invasion of Singapore on the 8th of February and the battle was to continue for a week until hard pressed Lt. General Arthur Percival surrendered on the 15th of February. The irony is that General Yamashita had outrun his supplies and would have had to withdraw if Percival had counter attacked as he wished, but unfortunately his Commanders had vetoed his plan leaving him no other option but to surrender. During the previous days small craft had been streaming across the Straits to Java and Sumatra, smaller boats and ships were attempting to carry as many women and children as they possibly could to larger vessels anchored in the Roads. Captain Matt Bin Ali of the Company's Brunei was so tired he was unable to stand and was relieved by Captain Chamberlain. The little ships continued this operation until all the larger ships had as many onboard as was humanly possible before sailing for the safer shores of Australia. Brunei, Rawang and H.M.S. Ampang were all scuttled before the Japanese arrived at Keppel. H.M.S. Trang with Captain H. Rigden in command had to be set on fire and abandoned after she broke down off St. Johns Island.
Hong Siang Officers with Mobile Voluntary Aid Detachment during Wartime.
On the 11th of February H.M.S. Lipis was attacked by three Japanese aircraft when off Sultan Shoal, Lipis fought to the end and it was only when the steering gear failed and the fires out of control that the order to abandon ship was given, her Commander W.E. Steele was killed during the action. Some of the survivors from Lipis were rescued by H.M.S. Li Wo a former river boat of the China Navigation Company unfortunately Li Wo was also to succumb to the Japanese three days later. She was in transit to Java evacuating military personnel when she ran into the escorting Destroyers belonging to the Invasion Fleet heading for Banka Island. Her Commander Lieutenant T.S. Wilkinson, R.N.R., turned his vessel to engage the enemy with his ancient four inch gun, Li Wo stood no chance and was soon totally destroyed, however not before he had rammed one of the Destroyers. Of the estimated 133 persons on board only thirteen survived, for his action Lieutenant Wilkinson was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross. Preceding Singapore’s capitulation Straits Steamship’s vessels found themselves with an array of other Companies’ ships split into four groups. In the first group H.M.S. Trang and H.M.S. Lipis had been already sunk leaving H.M.S. Kuala, H.M.S. Jarak, Redang and H.M.S. Vyner Brooke representing the Company.
Having survived a heavy bombing attack on the 12th H.M.S. Kuala arrived at Singapore safely and on the 13th was ordered to assist with the evacuation of the City. She embarked 500 civilians of which 250 were women and children, under orders her Captain, F. Caithness sailed for South Java. The following morning Captain Caithness along with various other ships packed with refugees sought shelter close to the island of Pom Pong. The ships were soon spotted by Japanese aircraft heading for Java and approximately forty planes detached from the main formation and attacked the virtually defenceless ships. H.M.S. Kuala suffered a direct hit on the Bridge and consequently caught fire. The planes bombed and straffed the ships all morning even refugees struggling in the water and those that had made landfall didn’t escape their attention. In all eleven ships sank that Saturday morning with the loss of many lives, even more were to die as they attempted to reach Sumatra. O.W. Gilmour a survivor from the Kuala wrote ‘Men, women and children in ones and twos, in dozens, in scores and in hundreds were cast ashore upon these tropical islands. Men and women of all races, of all professions …… all shipwrecked. Between the islands floated boats and rafts laden with people; and here and there, upheld by his life belt, the lone swimmer was striving to make land. All around the rafts and swimmers were dismembered limbs, dead fish and wreckage drifting with the currents; below in all probability, were the sharks; and above at intervals the winged machines of death. Among those who had escaped death from bombs or the sea there was not one who did not suffer from mutilations, wounds, sickness, hunger, cold, dirt, fear or loss, and none knew what the morrow would bring forth’. Approximately 130 women and children were lifted off Pom Pong the following day by the Heap Eng Moh Steamship vessel, Tanjong Pinang amongst great jubilation. Their joy and excitement however was short-lived when the vessel which was little more than a barge was bombed a short while later claiming the lives of all on board save three or four.
H. M. S. Jarak the second of the group had been employed on Minesweeping duties often in consort with H. M. S. Tapah. In late January she steamed north behind enemy lines to Batu Pahat to rescue 1, 000 soldiers who had been trapped there. Jarak was guided in by the District Officer who was continually ducking for cover as the ship came under enemy rifle fire, the ship’s Captain was heard to say ‘I wish you would get off the Bridge you are making me nervous’ as bullets whistled past him.
She was subsequently ordered to proceed to Java by the Admiralty carrying a mixed crew of ratings from H. M. S. Repulse, her Commander was E. A. Hooper who had previously been Chief Officer on Kedah. The ship’s Captain had been ordered to sail at night and to seek shelter during the day. She sailed before dawn on the 13th of February, early the following morning she ran into the Invasion Force flank, either Banka’s or Sumatra’s, and was immediately engaged by a force of three Cruisers and a Destroyer. She was soon stationary in the water but unaccountably the four Warships disengaged and proceeded on their way. H. M. S. Jarak was then attacked by enemy aircraft and left with no other choice the Captain gave the order to abandon ship. The survivors rowed to the nearby island of Saya arriving during the evening. You can imagine their surprise when they were confronted by the sight of a badly damaged Jarak drifting close by. She was immediately re-boarded and attempts were made to make her seaworthy once more, after many hours steam was raised and the wounded carried on board. Jarak in the strictest sense of the word was certainly not seaworthy but managed to make way to Singkep Island through the night of the 16th of February. With her engine sounding like a tin of nails she finally managed to arrive at the beach at Tanjong Buku and after all the stores had been landed Jarak was scuttled in seventeen fathoms of water. Captain Hooper and his men were left with only one boat and so made their way to the small port of Dabo where they learned from a local that other survivors were in the vicinity including those from Kuala and Trang. After securing two Prahus (local fishing boats) the survivors of Jarak set sail unfortunately becoming separated during the night. First Lieutenant A. H. Huntley who was in charge of one of the Prahus sailed all the way across the Indian Ocean finally making landfall at Colombo..Having provisioned his Prahu to the best of his ability Captain Hooper sailed on the 16th of March using a compass, a smal scale chart and a school atlas to navigate. With just a few hundred miles to go they encountered three Japanese Fleet tankers which had been refuelling Admiral Nagumo’s warship that had attacked Colombo on the 5th of April. Hooper and his survivors from Jarak were taken prisoner and on the tankers return to Singapore were interned for the rest of the War. For their efforts in attempting to save Jarak E.A. Hooper and six of the crew were honoured one D.S.C., one D.C.M. and five mentions in dispatches.
Another ship in the group which fled south was the Rednang, a prize of War which had been handed over to Straits Steamship by the Ministry of War Transport. Straits managed to man her with a skeleton crew consisting of the Officers, five Engine Room crew, five Naval ratings on deck, in command was Captain S. Rasmussen, a Dane. She set sail for Bavavia carrying seventy-one evacuees but on the 13th she was attacked by two Japanese Destroyers south of Singapore near Banka Straits. Captain S. Rasmusson who survived the attack wrote ‘I estimate that sixty-two lives were lost during the attack, either killed by splinters, burned to death or drowned …… two young ladies, said to be from Messrs. Mansfield Co’s Singapore office, were instantaneously killed by a direct hit while typing out the passengers’ list in the Chief Engineer’s cabin. The Chief Officer, Mr. Riemise (a Dane), the Chief Engineer, Mr. Dean (of Straits Steamship Company), were also killed instantaneously, most of the passengers rushed below in the ‘tween deck when the attack began, and were killed either by splinters or burnt to death.
It was only possible to lower one of the lifeboats and the thirty-two survivors from the attack abandoned Redang. It took all that remained of the day and all of the next to reach Sumatra whereupon the unfortunate survivors were captured by the Japanese.
H. M. S. Vyner Brooke had been ordered south to Tandjong Priok and was to become yet another victim of Japan’s Invasion forces. Her Captain was E. (Tubby) Borton of the Sarawak Steamship Company and he’d sailed from Singapore on the night of the 12th with 64 Australian nursing sisters amongst his 192 evacuees. On entering The Banka Straits he was attacked by nine Japanese planes at 1pm, Tubby Borton zig zagged Vyner Brooke in an attempt to out manoeuvre the planes. Vyner Brooke was hit repeatedly with the Bridge being totally destroyed, the steering gear out of order, the ship on fire Captain Borton gave orders for the ship to be abandoned. In just over twenty minutes H. M. S. Vyner Brooke sank, Captain Borton was in the water for eighteen hours before making landfall at Mungtok Lighthouse. Most of the other survivors who also spent all afternoon and night in the water landed on a beach near Muntok where they set up a camp and commenced tending the wounded. A couple of days later on the 16th they were discovered by a Japanese patrol which consisted of ten men and an Officer. Those that could walk including Chief Officer W.S. Sedgeman and Second Engineer J.J. Miller were marched round a small headland lined up and shot, those who were lying wounded were bayoneted to death, one survived the bayoneting. The nurses were then ordered to walk into the sea, on reaching waist height the Japanese commenced to machine gun them and all were killed save one, Sister Vivien Bullwinkle who was shot through the throat. Vivien Bullwinkle said in a later interview that she lay floating for what seemed hours before raising her head to find the beach deserted save for her dead comrades floating around her and those that had already died on the beach. Mr. S.A. Anderson, of Ritchie & Bisset wrote ‘She was brought into the former Labour Lines of Banka Tinwinning group which already housed many prisoners. There were two Doctors, Dr. Paddy West from the Federation of Malaya and Dr. Reed of Mata Hari. She was unconscious and in a terrible mess from sun and sea exposure. Life was barely there. Her chances of survival were very slim. Because of sun blisters, her mouth was completely closed and eventually the doctors fed her through a small opening at the corner of her mouth by means of a small glass dropper’. After recovering Vivien was able to relate to others what had actually happened on the beach but was ordered to stay silent for her own safety, the Japanese certainly wouldn’t have allowed the only surviving eye witness of this massacre to go on living. Vivien survived the War and was one of Australia’s Official Representatives at the dedication ceremony of the Kranji War Cemetery Memorial in Singapore.
H.M.S. Rompin with Captain G.R. Spaull in command had sailed earlier than most leaving Singapore on the 10th bound for Tandjong Priok towing a sea plane tender and a large yacht the White Swan. En route she had trouble with the engine and put into Muntok to facilitate repairs. After working on the engine it was restarted unfortunately blowing a cylinder head off in the process and so along with the tender H.M.S. Rompin was captured by the Japanese on the 15th, The White Swan had set her sails previously and headed for Australia.
The last two ships to depart Singapore were H.M.S. Relau and Rantau again manned by scratch crews. The Marine Superintendent S. Baddeley took command of Rantau and had his Engineer Superintendent Mr. Froggatt as Chief Engineer, Mr Chamberlain the Assistant Marine Superintendent took Relau with T.E. Draggett the Assistant Engineer Superintendent as his Chief Engineer. Both ships had no seamen on board but Baddeley had the assistance of Singapore Chief Pilot, Captain C. McAlister. Both vessels sailed on Friday the 13th of February and in the following forty-eight hours Relau stopped twice to pick up survivors from other ships, thirteen of which were R.N. ratings from H.M.S. Scorpion found clinging to a raft at 0300 hours. Having passed down the group of islands including Pom Pong they approached the gap between Banka and South Sumatra. Chamberlain wrote of that Monday morning ‘As daylight came we saw a large Cruiser which signalled us to stop immediately, and as the light got better we found ourselves in the midst of a large Japanese convoy of vessels of all descriptions, evidently bound for the occupation of Palembang. We were off the northern tip of Banka Island. We considered the scuttling of Relau but we had so many sick and wounded on board that it was decided against. After a Destroyer had arrived alongside placing a prize crew on board Relau made her way to Muntok. On arrival they found the crew from Rantau who had arrived at Muntok not expecting to find the Japanese already in possession. Four hours later H.M.S. Tapah arrived with Captain Rasmussen of Redang amongst her passengers. Along with all the other hundreds of men, women and children which had fled Singapore the Officers and crew of many Straits Steamship vessels passed into the prisoner of war camps many never to leave. One, who lies buried at the foot of a large Casurina in the grounds of the hospital at Palambang is Captain C. Mc Alister, the Singapore pilot who contracted dysentery at Muntok and died in the May of 1942.
Some of the remaining office staff of Manfield’s and Straits Steamship didn’t leave Singapore until the evening of the 14th on board a tender of Imperial Airways. Having watched Singapore burn after stranding on a coral reef they managed to refloat the tender and headed for central Sumatra, within the group were F.L. Lane, W.A. Kimpster, W.M. Oak-Rhind, A.T. Wedgwood, F.E.E. Hindley, E.D. Rushworth and P.A. Holt. Employees of the Company that had volunteered to stay behind, they were H.J.C.K. Toms, F.S. Gibson, R.F.W. Leonard and D. Richardson. Those remaining headed for Palambang and through the oil fields of Sumatra, unfortunately for the fleeing thousands these places were also on the itinery of the invading Japanese, as vessels of all kinds struggled into the river and manoeuvred past the Mangrove banks they were closely followed by the pursuing Japanese.
H.M.S. Gemas, Rahman, Klias Photographed from H.M.S. Gerantut.
One of the small convoys attempting to escape included H.M.S. Rahman, H.M.S. Klias, H.M.S. Hua Tong and H.M.S. Changteh with Captain C. Brown of Straits Steamship in command, they left Singapore on the evening of the 7th of February. Klias with her speed greatly reduced continually lagged behind and so to keep the convoy together speed was eventually reduced to three knots. On arriving at the estuary of the Inderagira River in Sumatra the following morning it was discovered that no one down below in the Engine Room of Klias had a clue as to the operation of coal burning boilers. On opening the furnace doors the reason for Klias’s inability to maintain more than three knots became apparent, the furnace was packed from top to bottom with smouldering coal, impossible for air to pass through, the result being little or no combustion. After cleaning the furnaces and securing the assistance of E.B. Quinn an Engineer from the sunken Raub all was made ready to sail. The passengers had all been landed at Palambang for their journeys either by rail to the south and Java or by road west to the Indian Ocean.
The convoy was then ordered by the Dutch Naval Command in company with H.M.S. Jerantut and H.M.S. St. Just to make for Tandjong Priok. Just before they reached the mouth of the river they were attacked by six Japanese aircraft on Friday the 13th February. Mr. Horn, Chief Engineer of Hua Tong wrote, ‘A near miss damaged our windlass and caused both anchors to run right out. With engines running ahead to take the weight of the cables efforts were made to slip, but repeat attacks and near misses rendered our efforts futile. Another stick of bombs fell close by, all fuses in the Engine Room were blown and an explosion abreast of the Bridge blew over the wheel and the compass.’
‘Down below I managed to get emergency lighting going and Lieutenant Tonge manned the 12-Pounders with assistance from several ratings. Two more near misses shook the ship violently and then the telegraphs rang ‘Stop’ as we were hit forward alongside of number one hatch..’
‘The explosion threw us forward on our faces and from my position on the stokehold plates I saw the forward bulkhead cave in and water rush into the Engine Room. The port boiler lifted on its stool and steam pipes on the top of the boiler gave way. Scrambling to our feet, we stopped the engines and I gave the order to abandon the Engine Room as the ship gave a sudden and heavy list to port. As the stokers went up the ladder, I turned to make sure that all the pipes were shut off and had just shut the last when I was blown in the air and fell into the bilges with a floor plate across my back and leg. As I was struggling to get clear Petty Officer Rosser came back looking for me and assisted to get my leg free. The plate in falling had fractured my leg above the ankle and it was with difficulty and Rosser’s assistance that I got on deck. Chief Engineer Horn managed to escape across Sumatra and Lieutenant J.D.V. Tonge although wounded twice kept the 12-pounder firing until it was finally dismounted by a direct hit, for his bravery he was awarded the D.S.O. and he too managed to escape. Horn said of his crew ‘All Engine Room personnel and Chinese cooks and stewards remained to a man and I have nothing but the highest admiration for them in the manner in which they carried on cheerfully and loyally during those tragic and helpless weeks which preceded the fall of Singapore. This applied generally to all the Company’s Officers and crew alike’.
‘All these man were Company employees serving on T. 124 agreements and I can truthfully state that not one man amongst them asked to leave the ship or failed to return on board from shore until they were ordered to leave by the Naval Authorities prior to our departure for Batavia. ‘
I would like to put on record the fact that they served their ship, the Navy to which they belonged temporarily and their Company faithfully and well’. ‘I have been in action on numerous occasions since, with British, American and Australian forces and found that those men’s conduct and bearing rates very favourably with anything I have seen since.’
As the Hua Tong sank one of the River Pilots reported that a Japanese Fleet was gathering at the mouth of the river, the convoy turned and started to make its way back to Palembang. A short while later a large formation of Japanese planes numbering about 150 passed overhead and dropped parachutists at the local airfield, this was the beginning of the invasion of South Sumatra and ultimately the occupation of Java itself. With Dutch demolition squads in action ashore it was decided to scuttle H.M.S. Jerantut, H.M.S. Klias and H.M.S. St. Just downstream on the 14th of February. Up the Inderagiri River H.M.S. Malacca suffered a similar fate on the 17th of February, her Captain, W.B. Bervis and crew managed to evade the Japanese and escape to Tjilatjab.
The third group of ships belonging to Straits Steamship which were caught up in the invasion were those that had managed to reach Tandjong Priok, the port of Batavia. Within the group were four flying the White Ensign, H.M.S. Gemas, H.M.S. Jeram, H.M.S. Rahman and H.M.S. Hong Kwong. After the fall of Singapore on the 15th of February the four Straits Steamship maintained the Sunda Straits Auxiliary Patrol. On the 27th of February the last organised Allied Naval Force fought and lost the Battle of the Java Sea. The Japanese Invasion Force was split into two distinct groups and the overall Commander was Vice Admiral Ibo Takahashi. The 41 transports of the Eastern Force bound for Surabaya were covered by Vice Admiral Takagi Takeo’s four Cruisers and fourteen Destroyers. Opposing them was a hotch potch of Allied ships which included five American, British, Dutch and Australian Cruisers and nine Destroyers, the Fleet was commanded by Rear Admiral Karel Doorman, a Dutchman.
Although the forces were numerically evenly balanced the Allied Force was makeshift to say the least and lacked both fire power and adequate communications. There was no coordinated system of fire control and it was Doorman’s first Fleet action, anticipating a night action he had also ordered his aircraft to remain ashore. No air cover proved to be a crucial factor in the Fleet’s destruction and H.M.S. Exeter was the first to disengage when she was badly damaged and forced to make for Surabaya, two Dutch Cruisers and three Destroyers were sunk, Doorman was killed. The following night H.M.A.S. Perth and U.S.S. Houston whilst making strategic withdrawal ran into the other Japanese Invasion Fleet at anchor 40 miles west of Batavia. Perth and Houston attacked the Fleet and managed to sink two vessels also damaging three others but were no match for the three Cruisers and nine Destroyers which arrived and were subsequently sank. The same evening Exeter along with two Destroyers left Surabaya in an attempt to reach Ceylon but were caught the following morning and all three ships were sunk. The only Allied ships to escape were four U.S. Destroyers which escaped through the Bali Straits and reached Australia. That just left the Sunda Straits Patrol, H.M.S. Gemas managed to reach Java but arrived at Tjilatjap totally unseaworthy and had to be scuttled on the 3rd of March. H.M.S. Jeram managed to reach Tandjong Priok on the 22nd of February for repairs and fuel and sailed with all haste as the Japanese Navy approached, sadly she was caught by Japanese dive bombers on the 27th of February at Tjilatjap. H.M.S. Rahman was just as unlucky, she too had arrived at Tandjong to refuel and sailed before the Japanese arrived. She however never reached the south coast, having reached Batavia she was sunk by Japanese Navy gunfire on the 1st March. Her crew were picked up by the yacht White Swan which was itself caught soon afterwards. The remaining Sunda Straits Auxiliary Patrol ship, Hong Kwong was abandoned at Tandjong Priok on the 9th of March.
Java was to become the final resting place of yet more Straits Steamship vessels. Ipoh the oldest ship in the Fleet built in 1908 had served on the Port Swettenham run all her career and had been at anchor in Singapore when she suffered hull damage when the Japanese bombed the port on the 7th of February. Bombs fell either side of her and she sustained approximately forty holes in her hull, these were quickly repaired by bolting plates to her side and sealing them with tar paper, the best that could be done under the circumstances. On hearing of her imminent departure large groups of civilians began to board leaving no room for her intended passengers some 300 R.A.F. personnel. Captain Jannings refused to sail saying that some of the civilians must be put ashore because after the R.A.F. personnel had trooped aboard his ship would become unstable. It was only after the R.A.F. personnel agreed to go down into the holds that Captain Jannings finally relented and the ship made ready. H.J.C.K. Toms, General Manager of the Company who had volunteered to stay behind along with his Chairman F.S. Gibson, W.W. Jenkins, J. Crichton and others later wrote, ‘At the time there was no one at the Singapore Harbour Board to let go the ropes and I and any other of the other office staff on hand used to go down and cast off’. ‘I went down in the case of the Ipoh and as she was casting off twenty-seven bombers were spotted making straight for the Harbour Board. I let go and made for the drain behind the godown. As soon as their bombs dropped I ran round to the wharf to see if she had been hit. She did not appear to have been but near misses had sent up a cloud of spray all around. With the setting sun shining through it and the hills of Pulau Brani and Blackang Mati in the background she appeared as lifted out of the water and was floating in a veil of minute sparkling gems. Despite the wreckage all round, many of the bombs having fallen on the godowns, I could not help standing amazed at the beauty of the scene’. Ipoh sailed not only with the 300 R.A.F. personnel but 200 women and children and after a hazardous voyage arrived at Batavia on Saturday the 14th of February. She was unable to proceed any further through lack of fuel and the inability to procure repairs. Captain Jannings eventually managed to escape to Fremantle and his skeleton crew of six Malays secured passage on Angby and helped her to escape, she was the only vessel of the Sarawak Steamship Company to do so. Auby was yet another ship that had to be abandoned at Java. In need of repairs and fuel Captain Bulbrook put into Tandjong Priok only to discover that warships had priority and so he along with his crew had to leave their ship where it was. The final Company sinking was that of Kamuning which was under the command of Captain Statham. She had sailed to Madras for a cargo of rice, having loaded she attempted to return via Ceylon but was intercepted by a Japanese submarine which surfaced and shelled her until she caught fire and sank. So comes to an end the Singapore Campaign of the War for Straits Steamship, in all twenty-five ships requisitioned by the Navy and Airforce were lost leaving less than half its Fleet to continue the struggle, and so we arrive at the fourth group, those that escaped.
The remaining ships either made their way to Colombo or Fremantle, both over a thousand mile distant. H.M.S. Circe and H.M.S. Medusa under the command of Captain A. Brown and Captain P. Bruce respectively were both ordered to Tandjonk Priok on the 7th of February carrying refugees and both were to come under the control of the Dutch. Both ships were then ordered to Fremantle on the 22nd and sailed from Tjilatjap on the 25th carrying survivors from the Malacca which had been scuttled at Rengat in Sumatra on the 17th of February, both ships arrived safely. Klang sailed in convoy S.J. 5 from Batavia on the 21st of February, R.A.F. Ann formerly Tung Song sailed from Java on the 2nd March both these arrived safely in Fremantle also. Captain W. Ludkin of the Darvel had been at Sandakan when the Japanese invaded Malaya and with all speed had made for Singapore via the Macassar Straits. When approaching the Horsburgh Lighthouse during the evening before arrival he found himself in the company of two Japanese Destroyers who carried on their way without even registering his presence. She transported troops to Rangoon and came under attack by bombers when in Palembang in late January suffering fire damage, a low level attack rendered the lifeboats useless, killed forty troops that were on board and holed her in over 700 places. She eventually limped down to Tandjong Priok manned by survivors from Repulse and the Prince of Wales, all these R.N. personnel subsequently became prisoners of war. Darvel sailed in the company of a Butterfield & Swire Chinese river boat which was towing H.M.S. Vendetta and it took three weeks for them to reach Fremantle having averaged no more than four knots for the passage.
The majority of the Company’s ships made for Colombo, the first to leave being Captain H.W. Richardson of H.M.S. Kelantan who had been ordered to make for London at best possible speed, strangely this request had been made without first informing Straits Steamship or the Ministry of War Transport in the December. She was attacked on the 31st of December when off the Aroa Islands by two Japanese aircraft who dropped eighteen bombs, one, an incendiary struck Kelantan but the fire was soon brought under control. Later in the day she was attacked again by three Japanese aircraft who dropped twelve bombs, not one struck Kelantan. The next morning she was attacked once more by four aircraft which dropped a total of forty bombs, all missed but due to the evasive action which had been taken Kelantan was forced to put into Colombo for repairs. H.M.S. Pangkor had been involved in various refugee rescues before her Commander, Captain T. Sutherland was ordered to make a dash for Colombo in late February. One of the stranger than fiction stories involved Perak and Captain C.E. Cleaver of the Larut which had been sank at Sabang in North Sumatra. Cleaver had trekked across the island to Padang and had then been evacuated by Destroyer to Batavia, on his arrival in the harbour the first ship he saw was Perak lying at anchor. Cleaver went out to her by launch and to his surprise and consternation discovered that the only crew on board was one engine hand and a deckhand from the Auby. What was never discovered was why all the tables had been set for a meal with plates full of freshly cut bread and not a boy (steward) in sight, in fact no one except the two previously mentioned. Without further ado Captain Cleaver sought the assistance of Captain Bulbrook of the Auby and Captain Durrant of Kinta and together they made Perak ready for her voyage to Colombo. After securing a scratch crew ashore and supervising the loading of stores Captain Cleaver allowed as many refugees on board as possible before Perak made her way successfully across the Indian Ocean.
Rhu one of the seventy-five tonners was another semi deserted ship discovered. Mr. Deekes took her over and Mr. J. Duncan became Chief Officer Mrs Duncan also went aboard, A. Coulcher became Chief Engineer and Mr. W. Ward was his assistant, together they managed to sail Rhu all the way to Colombo and then on up the Persian Gulf a remarkable feat for such a small ship. Pahang had sailed for Madras at the end of December and had stayed on the Indian Coast, she was eventually fitted out as a Cased Oil and Petrol Carrier.
Matang, Kepong, Krian, Kajang and Maruda all successfully made the Indian Ocean crossing unfortunately the Angby of the Sarawak Steamship Company disappeared without trace. An employee of Sarawak Steamship, Captain A.C. Benfield had recently retired and had chosen to stay in Singapore. As the Japanese began to advance down the Malay Peninsula Captain Benfield was called up for service in the R.N.R. and given command of a flat bottomed Shanghai river boat called Wu Sueh. His first trip was carrying Military and wounded to Tandjong Priok and after arriving there was ordered to load 400 wounded and make for Colombo, he sailed in late February arriving in Ceylon early March, a brilliant feat of seamanship. The three ocean going steamers of the Ho Hong Line also successfully travelled across the Indian Ocean, Hong Siang, Hong Kheng and Hong Peng, the company's smaller coastal vessels were never seen again. After many adventures H.M.S. Kedah loaded men, women and children at Singapore even when coming under heavy artillery fire from land based Japanese and she sailed in the early hours of Saturday the 14th of February. For three hours she came under heavy attack from both the Japanese Airforce and Navy but Captain J.L. Sinclair, D.S.O. was able to manoeuvre Kedah out of Singapore and reach Batavia safely. She was then ordered round to Tjilatjap to pick up the defeated General Wavell and 400 refugees bound for Colombo. She sailed on the 26th of February but a few days later suffered a complete failure of the boilers due to impure water, the rest of the voyage was spent on the end of a tow secured to the stern of H.M.S. Dragon, they arrived on the 9th of March.
To close this particular chapter of the Company’s history, December, January and February without paying tribute to the Officers and crews of Straits Steamship Company is impossible. Some received medals but most didn’t and yet they carried on against overwhelming odds in situations that neither you nor I can comprehend. There can be no doubt that they were badly let down by the Authorities, not the first, certainly not the last, but they served both their Company and Country in the finest traditions of the British Merchant Navy and should never be forgotten.
Go to Straits Steamship History Part Three