The Day of Infamy 1941: When War Came to Singapore.
7 December 1941. An orgy of orange suffused sea and sky as the tropical sunset made its lazy curtain call on another idyllic Sunday. Only the streamlined hull of their 38-foot cruiser, Honora, disturbed the placid waters of the Malacca Straits, the Rolls-Royce motors purring them towards home.
‘This is too beautiful,’ said Denis, surveying the scene from behind the wheel. Ethel sat with long suntanned legs outstretched, a smile of radiant contentment a proxy for her reply.
Dead-ahead was Kent Ridge and the Bukit Panjang spine of green hills which framed the west coast of Singapore. She could also pick out Bukit Chandu (Opium Hill), and tracing a line down the hill she could spot their double-storey colonial bungalow along the coastal road. To the east a little was Labrador, newly bristling with six-inch 18-pound guns perched atop the low red-granite cliffs that fell away into the ocean. To their starboard Blakang Mati island loomed golden-green out of the water. Pillboxes poked from between palm trees. And 15-inch guns – the insurance policy of the Empire – added an ominous and incongruous tone to the otherwise languid landscape.
The couple were returning from their own little private island where they had built a small cottage sheltered by palms. Its main feature was an atap-roofed open-sided living area, replete with wicker chairs, where they could laze the days away as the warm waters lapped up against the 150-foot wharf they’d put in for Honora. At night the portable wind-up gramophone player would blare out tunes they, and often their guests, would dance to, relishing the sun-warmed sand on their bare feet under the Malayan moonlight.
This was a long way from care, especially with the nearest telephone being at Fort Siloso on Blakang Mati, about 10km as the seagull flies. As Denis – or Major Mulvany, RAMC, as he was by then – was on call at The Alex most of the time, he devised a rather ingenious work-around. When needed, the hospital would call the fort, which would send a soldier outside to beat a big old Malay gong seven times. Denis would then cruise back across to perform his surgery. Ethel would meanwhile go and feed the fish at the end of the pier, especially delighting in Minnie the stingray. In this agreeable way, they spent nearly three quarters of their time on the island. Magical times.
Soon after twilight their car turned up the driveway to their main residence on Pasir Panjang Road. Their exuberant dogs, Brutus and Bowby, bounded out to meet them.
From this grand portico-clad four-bedroom house they could enjoy the reverse angle view of the islands. In the past year they’d made it their home – colourfully furnished with Kashmir lamps, Persian rugs, silver tea sets, and other trappings of colonial life from several years with the British Indian Army. Bharose, one of their 22 Indian servants from those Cawnpore days, was here, plus Kuki, a Chinese cook who – when not incapacitated by generous inhalations from her opium pipe – served up delicious dinners.
Bellies full, and pleasantly sapped by the glorious weekend away, they retired for the night.
Elsewhere on the island that night, there was restless dissatisfaction, because army personnel had been confined to barracks. ‘Many were irritated by these orders, grumblings were going on,’ said bespectacled Capt Constantine Petrovsky, RAMC, of the No 4 Malaya Field Ambulance. ‘”What the hell? What’s all this nonsense – why do we have to sacrifice our fun?” and “Those cross-eyed, short-sighted yellow bastards will never come”.’ He and his unit would far rather be whooping it up at New World, Happy World, or Great World, their nightspots of choice, than be stuck in their mosquito-ridden huts. ‘They were swearing at this unnecessary infringement,’ he recalled, as he retired to sleep around 11pm.
Soon after 11pm, Mihoro and Genzhan Corps of the Imperial Japanese Naval Air Service took off from an airfield in Saigon with a single-minded mission: Bomb Singapore. ‘I and my crew got our Type 96 bomber and departed an airbase in Vietnam with 12 of 60kg bombs,’ pilot Iwasaki Yoshiaki would tell me.
The proverbial dark and stormy night necessitated navigation lights to be switched on just to keep formation. Lightning zaps skittered over the South China Sea. The further they went, the worse the weather got. Matsunaga re-called all planes around 2am. But only Genzhan listened. Mihoro’s 17 bombers ploughed on. Then the weather cleared. Singapore was clear. Sparkling even. Their targets were perfectly visible.
‘Our target was Seletar Airfield,’ said Iwasaki of his crew’s specific briefing. ‘We dropped all our bombs under strong searchlight and heavy anti-aircraft firing.’ Some of that ack-ack came from the HMS Prince of Wales’ high-angle gun crews, but no fighters were scrambled against them. One RAF torpedo bomber pilot, Sgt Norman Bryer, had been based at Seletar but had just been admitted to The Alex Hospital with inflammation in his leg, so luckily was not on the receiving end of Iwasaki’s bombing that night.
‘Wake up, Ethel,’ shouted Denis from their upstairs verandah, ‘the Japs are blitzing us!’ They rushed down to the garden, dogs eagerly in tow, soon joined by their three servants, including Kebun, the Malay gardener. Bombs crumped and boomed from the Raffles Square area, and showers of sparks and flowery fireworks filled the air.
Leaflets drifted earthwards from planes. They featured a cartoon of a fat European rubber planter, and white men lounging, cool drinks in hand, while Tamil labourers slaved around them in the scorching sun. ‘Burn all the white devils in the sacred flame of victory,’ they exhorted.
But for now they all stood on the lawn at 4:15am, slack-jawed and mesmerized. Including the dogs. But the excitement proved too much for Bowby, who died frozen where he stood. Two hundred civilians were also casualties that night.
Denis and Ethel rushed upstairs. They threw on their uniforms, Ethel affixing her Red Cross armbands, scoffed down Bharose’s hastily prepared breakfast, and sped off to The Alex, a mere five minutes away, to make themselves useful.
‘In my sleep I heard sounds of gunfire, I thought I was dreaming,’ recalled Petrovsky. ‘I looked out the window of my hut and saw brilliant flashes of light criss-crossing the dark blue sky. I heard voices: “Why do they disturb our sleep?” The formation of twin-engined planes sailing along was brilliantly outlined by several searchlights. Puffs like woollen balls were bursting all around but the planes did not look worried, their triangle formation keeping perfect order. One must admit it was a beautiful sight.’ But then the reality that this was not a drill snapped them into action. ‘Suddenly air-raid sirens began their screeching wail, explosions of falling bombs. This was the real thing. What a scramble to get into slit trenches, the same trenches our troops grumbled so much about when they were ordered to dig them only a few days previously.’ They watched the bombs fall on the city and the RAF base in Seletar.
‘We stayed outside the huts and talked about this unexpected attack without declaration of war. None of us anticipated when we went to bed that Sunday night that this was the least peaceful evening we would have for many years to come.’
On landing at Saigon, Capt Iwasaki heard that the first transports had gone ashore on the north Malaya coast and Pearl Harbour had been successfully attacked, too. 7 December 1941. The day of infamy.
[This is an edited extract from A Bleeding Slaughterhouse: The Alexandra Hospital Massacres 14-15 February 1942 by Stuart Lloyd. Available at Kinokuniya Bookstores and The Changi Chapel in Singapore, and on in print and ebook at amazon.co.uk amazon.com.au and amazon.com]