Only one bomb hit us, but horribly it was plumb on the fo’c’sle.
The S.S. “Pinna” launched in Germany in 1908 as the S.S. “Berkenfels” of the Hansa Bremen line was acquired by Shell after the 1st World War, during which she serviced the raider “Wolfe”. As the Queen of Shell’s case-oilers, she traded that commodity to the Western Pacific area after loading at Singapore and the then Dutch Indies ports of Balik Papan and Pladju for many years.
During mid-February 1942 we had loaded a full cargo of aviation spirit and petrol in 45 gallon drums at Balik Papan, then Pladju, all destined for use by the allied forces in the defence of Singapore. Malaysia by then had all but fallen to the Japanese. Heading northward toward the Rhio Straits and Singapore around noon on 3rd. February, two of our 12,000 tonners passed us heading for Australia. There were many civilians, young and old, lining the decks and waving to us who, we subsequently learned, were mainly Shell families from the Singapore area.
They signalled “Best of luck” to us which only confirmed our already established fears and Captain Bill Thomas wondered moodily why weren’t we being routed South as well, but figured our cargo of aviation spirit was important for our air force; laughable as it turned out as we had by then no air force to speak of.
Just after 5 p.m. on that day, when the Chinese crew were starting their evening meal, a V formation of five aircraft were sighted at around 5,000 feet. Taking no chances, the alarm was sounded. I dashed up to the bridge and looked up to see a bunch of silvery bombs screeching down toward ME. This confirmed that they “Weren’t some of ours”. Only one bomb hit us, but horribly it was plumb on the fo’c’sle and (I imagine) twenty-three men died instantly. We dashed forward to save anyone we could and fight the fire, but could only bring out two men still alive. Sadly however, both died within a few hours.
It was dark before the fires were controlled and we proceeded slowly so as to arrive at the Rhio Straits by dawn, as there were no navigation lights ashore at that time.
We were through and heading Westward toward Singapore by mid-morning when one lone plane, flying very low, headed toward us from starboard. I was on deck and thought I could see orange coloured roundels on both wings and thinking he was Dutch I started to wave. When however, I saw yellow flashes on his wings followed by tracers coming toward me I knew, yet again, he was not one of ours.
I flew into the accommodation, then all in one instant I was horizontal with the deck banging me upward while a red flash came in above the now opened up bulkhead of our saloon. Our No 2 hold of aviation spirit had been hit by a well-directed bomb, this hold being immediately forward of the accommodation and bridge.
On the bridge the Captain and Chief Officer Watt suffered flash burns, then together with the remaining officers they decided to abandon ship. There was no hope of a couple of canvas hoses coping with an awesome display of pyrotechnics where 40 gallon drums and 4 gallon tins of spirit were erupting above mast height, then bursting and cascading red and blue rivers of fire over the forward half of the ship.
My boat was the port after one and the second mate (J.C. Wood) and I lowered it down after we put the Captain and Chief Officer into it first; some of the other survivors launched a raft from the after deck as being quicker and further away from the No 2 hold which could of course have exploded at any time.
When we were all finally in the boat the Chief Engineer Sammy Bruce, asked me could I go back to his cabin as he had forgotten his pipe tobacco — I confirmed with the two officers that this was a little illogical and we pulled away to comparative safety.
My most remembered personal loss was my perfectly healthy appendix which had been removed unnecessarily at Tarakan a few months earlier and given to me in a bottle of preservative by Dr Colign of our own shell hospital in Eastern Borneo.
Soon after abandoning ship we were picked up by the R.N.V.R. “Bulan” who put us safely (?) ashore in Singapore where I ended up in the Seaman’s Mission. The Captain and Chief Officer were of course hospitalised and inevitably taken prisoner. Captain Thomas survived and re-joined Shell after the war but sadly Chief Officer Watt died in captivity. Sammy Bruce went down in the “President Sargent”; torpedoed in the Atlantic later in the war.
There must have been less than two dozen Shell seafarers left by now in Singapore, mainly “Pinna” survivors and the crews from small craft, such as the “Ribot” and “Kulit”.
During the first two or three days after landing in Singapore I “acquired” a sextant and a book of Nories Tables from the now abandoned and empty Collyer Quay Shell office then made my way to Bukom, our refinery offshore Singapore.
A demolition team of forces types and refinery personnel were doing their job as the inevitability of defeat came ever closer. We were never bombed on Bukom but were strafed by aircraft machine guns only — I guess they did not want to damage the installation and were only hunting people. Poor Sammy Bruce while dodging machine gun bullets jumped into a monsoon drain and slashed open his buttock on a broken hip bottle of whisky. At least the antiseptic had been applied instantly. This was the only wound I saw at Bukom.
As convenient we “borrowed” as much tinned food as possible from the empty bungalows and readied ourselves for our getaway. Our motley group had been strengthened by half a dozen or so survivors from the Royal Navy “Repulse” and “Prince of Wales”, lost a few weeks earlier. Meanwhile, we could see the daily bombing of Singapore, the ever growing pall of smoke and were quite aware that the gunfire from the North was coming ever closer.
It was on the 12th. February that our Bukom team decided that enough was enough and we all boarded the M. V. “Ribot”, a three or four hundred ton coaster under Captain Leslie Clayton. He very wisely waited till dusk before leaving, so as to cross the Malacca Straits during darkness and so avoid the fate of many small craft who had chanced the more Southerly routes to South Sumatra, but were gunned down by Japanese naval craft and aircraft with subsequent loss of many lives.
So, I was now the uncertified, unpaid first mate of the “Ribot”; rapid promotion indeed for a fourth year apprentice, but it lasted only until we berthed finally at Pakan Baru some eighty miles up the Siak river of Eastern Sumatra.
There we immobilised and scuttled our fine craft and then made our way by bus across the middle of Sumatra to Padang on the West coast. By great good fortune we arrived on the quay just before a British destroyer H.M.S. “Electra” was about to leave.
A large number of refugees were already there hoping to board, so we were at the back of the crowd and not very hopeful. However, Commander May came down among us all then announced he would take on board all the women and children, all the survivors from the “Repulse” and the “Prince of Wales”, that we had brought with us and our own group of Merchant Navy men. The remainder of the refugees were mainly allied soldiers and they were enjoined to stay behind and make a fight of it later. I along with a young naval rating was lugging a large two handled laundry basket of Bukom tinned food for our group and Commander May suggested we might share it out with the women and children, a request we immediately agreed to.
All this took only an hour or two then we set sail, but not for Columbo as we hoped but for Batavia on Java’s north coast where we arrived some twenty-four hours later. Here we were bundled ashore in double quick time and the “Electra” headed back out into the Java Sea and more important matters.
Batavia (now Djakarta) was in a turmoil similar to Singapore and Padang but miraculously for us we found four “Kwang” boats in Tanjong Priok harbour. All had a Master and Mate on board but very little in the way of engineers or crew so we Singapore survivors divided ourselves between them and within a couple of days “found” other seafarers sufficient to make up reasonable ship complements.
These four craft, the ”Ah Kwang”, “Ee Kwang”, “Ning Kwang” and “Ho Kwang” belonged to the Asiatic Petroleum Company of North China and were riverboats carrying about six hundred ton on a six or seven-foot draft. They had made their way down from Shanghai after Pearl Harbour to Batavia where I presume most of the Chinese crew dispersed.
During our short stay in Batavia and while we were scrounging stores for our next getaway a message was relayed to us from a Japanese source for everyone in the Eastern Archipelago to cease resistance, as Japanese victory was now assured; this also applied to all merchant shipping. Our group of Captains etc., decided however to make a break for it and late in the afternoon of the 17th February we headed out and Westward towards the Sunda Straits, hugging the coastline as close as our shallow draft allowed. Singapore had already fallen, and as subsequent events revealed the Japanese navy were already mopping up attempting escapees. We figured their ships would not come as close inshore as we could. Of course, daylight came to find us committed to a dash through the Sunda Straights and past the smoking volcano of “Krakatau”, then on to the Indian Ocean. Once again fortune favoured us and once out into the open ocean, we turned our ship toward Ceylon, but where was that?
In Batavia I had joined the “Ho Kwang”, (Captain De Boutillier, who asked only if I could navigate) and was taken on as uncertified, unpaid Second Mate, a Mr Wilson was our Mate.
On reaching the Indian Ocean I discovered we had no charts other than those she used on her Chinese trade. But armed with my “borrowed” Nories Tables, which listed salient points of the World, including Dondra Head at the southern tip of Ceylon, I drew a rough chart of that part of the Indian Ocean between South Sumatra and Ceylon.
Armed also with my “borrowed” sextant (the only one onboard) we actually picked up Dondra Head right ahead of us some seven or eight days later and eventually berthed safely in Colombo harbour. All four “Kwang” boats arrived separately but within a few hours of each other, with all the Master’s blessing the good weather we had had – any involvement with a tropical cyclone in such small craft may have had a different outcome.
This completes my story of our escape from Singapore between 3rd. February 1942 when the “Pinna” was first bombed and our arrival in Colombo some three weeks or so later.
We arrived back in England in April and it had been three years since I was last in North Shields. My Dad answered my knock on the door with the greeting, “Well, you’re back soon”, he thought I was my cousin Allen Wright who had just a few days earlier gone back to his own ship after a short home leave. My Mum and Dad, poor souls, had assumed the worst when all they heard from the Company was that the “Pinna” had been lost off Singapore and that (at that time) there was no word of survivors.
Editor’s Note: Captain Armstrong was awarded the BEM. He was nineteen years old at the time of these events.