Escape from Singapore

Escape from Singapore

Escape from Singapore

Our December-January edition of Old Africa magazine has a story by Barbara Dods. She tells about growing up in Nairobi while her father, Arthur James Scott Hutton was the architect overseeing the building of Kenya’s Government House (which later became State House) and the Law Courts in the late 1920s and into the 1930s. After finishing those jobs, Arthur Hutton took a job in Singapore. He was there when the Japanese attacked in World War 2 and his family was in Australia. He had a narrow escape when the Japanese overwhelmed Singapore. For weeks Barbara Dods and her mother and sisters didn’t know what had happened to their father. Barbara has a copy of the letter her Father wrote to her Mother describing his escape from Singapore. We had planned to use it as a sidebar article to accompany Barbara’s memories of growing up in Nairobi. But we ran out of space. So here’s the letter. And if it piques your interest, be sure to get a copy of Old Africa issue 62 where you can read Barbara’s story about her Nairobi childhood.

 

Written by Arthur James Scott Hutton at the Taj Mahal Hotel, Bombay, 11th March 1942.

Margaret My Darling,

I have not dared to tell you of my whereabouts before this but I am hoping that mail from Bombay will reach you in Perth. You will have received my Bombay cable informing you that I was free, safe and well and you may have had official notification from Ceylon of my safety before my cable.

I felt your anxiety on my behalf from the date that Singapore fell, and I have tried to get a cable through to you at various places en route here but for obvious reasons no cables were allowed to be sent. The safety of so many depended on absolute secrecy. I cannot tell you now how I reached here but you shall have the story in full in due course when I reach you or you me…I left [Singapore] with 68 other PWD officers two days before the end. Since then we have been bombed repeatedly, set on fire and sunk. Many among us were badly wounded, others drowned and a few killed or died. With my usual luck I escaped injury and swam for it to an island near us. I had no lifebelt when I dived in and to make matters a bit more complicated I came to the surface close to a nursing sister who hadn’t one either and she couldn’t swim. She obeyed every instruction I gave her, however, and floated very successfully while I pulled her along as I swam on my back. Imagine my state trying to make the shore against a swift current when the bombers returned and dropped their bombs among the poor wretches in the water. Again I escaped injury and so did the nursing sister. I battled on getting nearer to the shore when I struck the anchor cable of another ship and hung in there with my burden for a breather. Fortunately the sister could now hang on without assistance to the anchor chain, but I realised that a half stunned and wounded man was also on the cable but his strength was going fast…I kept the man afloat and shouted at the top of my voice for help. One of the ship’s boats finally picked us up and I was still full of energy and replaced one of the rowers while we rowed back to the ship to pick up more survivors hanging onto ropes and wreckage…We rescued a lot of women and men and pulled for the shore which we reached safely. By this time I was spent, wet through and a bit bewildered and turned to look at our ship which settled slowly in the water, turned over and disappeared…When we had rested a bit we cleared a space in the jungle for a ‘Hospital’ for the wounded…The PWD engineers then set off and discovered a fresh water well…with the water and the barest of rations we existed on the island for a week. I was Officer in charge of food for 600 people and at long last we were taken off in small parties…

I have lost everything of course – furniture, car, refrigerator, clothes, I have only what I stand up in plus towel, razor, comb, tooth brush, soap and a spare shirt…All my papers, Bank Pass Books, Passport and files went down with the ship…Our lives have so much convention attached to our every day activities in peace time that we don’t really appreciate peace, quiet and simple living. I’ve had all the excitement I shall ever want by way of dangerous living…

How is Barbara getting along in the WAAAFs? I can imagine her in uniform looking very neat and being proficient at her job…

All my love my Darlings. May God bless you and watch over you. Jim