Ralph Stobart Robson, signalman, life in the British Royal Navy World War Two, sinking of Prince of Wales and the Repulse, Singapore
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  1. Chatham to Gourock
  2. The Messman Discovered
  3. Life on Board
  4. Crossing the Line
  5. The Sinkings
  6. H.M.S. Sultan
  7. The Signal Office
  8. Left to Our Own Resources
  9. Colombo
  10. Drafted to Mombassa
  11. Eine Kleine Nachtmusik
  12. Sharks, Lobsters and Going Dutch
  13. Askari Skirmishes and Tea Making
  14. Tramp Steamer
  15. Molo
  16. Deer Hunting
  17. Ralph the Italian and off to Bombay
  18. Arrival in Bombay
  19. Vultures and Buffalos
  20. Poona
  21. Swimming Motorcycles and Monsoon Storms
  22. The Royal Corps of Signals
  23. 'Trixie' Vaughan Lewis and Drowning Men
  24. On Leave in the Himalayas

    Ralph as a telegram boy before the war

7 - The Signal Office

While these minor events were taking place, the major war against Malaya was proceeding apace. Since the time of the sinking of the two ships the city had been subjected to daily bombing.

Right up to the eventual surrender not a day passed without the enemy planes being in action. On their trek down the peninsula, the Japanese had captured more airstrips, with the result that more continuous raids could be mounted. I believe there were also raids from across the Gulf of Siam.

The further the Japanese advanced down the Malayan peninsula the heavier the attack. We were not allowed into the city and could therefore not assess the damage. The only free time I had was spent around the perimeter of the barracks.

The local population of Indians, Malayans and Chinese seemed to have vanished and though we wandered as far as Changi we saw very few people. These forays were made with a very close eye on the sky. Although most air raids were made in the afternoon, raids at other times were not unheard of.

After I had spent about two weeks in the barracks, some change took place. More officers and ratings were drafted. A number of harbour and coastal craft were taken over by the Royal Navy and their crews were being replaced by naval personnel as it was felt to some extent that the native seamen were not entirely trustworthy.

The number of sailors in the barracks was dramatically reduced. I had no particular wish for one of these postings. What I wanted was a drafting to something large and ocean going like the Express. This did not occur, luckily for me, because if it had it would have been a case of out of the frying pan and into the fire. Only a few weeks later the Express was sunk in the battle of the Java Seas and so were the Electra and the other similar vessels in Singapore at that time.

The problem was soon to be resolved. One morning I fell in outside the office where draftings were taking place. The Regulating Petty Officer stood in front of me and began to call out a series of names, mine included. We were eventually called into the office where, with rapidly beating hearts we learned our fates. I found that I was being posted to the base Signal Office situated on a hill behind the dockyard. Two other ratings and I were to proceed there immediately on foot. This we did, wondering all the while what use Signalmen could possibly be in what we knew was a wireless facility. I walked with a heavy heart feeling very despondent. It seemed that I was to be stuck in Singapore for evermore.

When we reached our destination we were marched into the office of the man in charge who turned out to be a strange and not very likeable person. A Lieutenant Commander, well on in years, he displayed all the characteristics of a man who had been passed over, that is, having failed to gain promotion he was very bitter. This bitterness he took out on his subordinates. His back was covered in a large tattoo, which consisted of an entire foxhunting scene. He had huntsmen on his shoulder blades together with a pack of hounds spread over his lower back. Only the fox's tail was visible where it disappeared up his jacksey. He took great delight in displaying this embellishment to all and sundry. Fortunately he was more often absent than present.

We found that our duties were light. Our chief task was to distribute any signals received and as these were few and became daily even fewer, we were not overworked. The signals came from local stations on Malaya, Borneo, the Dutch East Indies, etc. as well as the United Kingdom. They were nearly always in code and therefore unintelligible to us.

At the signal office we worked eight-hour shifts and only worked the midnight until 8 a.m. shift every two days. Sometimes I wandered through the almost empty building. One night I wandered into a room where many books were stored on shelves. In a table was a most wonderful book. It measured about four feet by three and contained many large-scale maps, some of which folded out. They were maps of the whole of the Dutch East Indies and they showed everything in marvellous detail. I spent a lot of time at night studying them. They were never used and as far as I am aware these wonderful maps were left behind when the navy finally left.

While working at the signal office I had an unpleasant experience. I met what I can only describe as one of the most deadly females of the human species. There were white women living on the island who were employed to do similar work to us. I cannot claim that all Singapore white women were alike, but a large proportion had a very superior attitude towards soldiers, sailors and airmen. I once heard an airman sum up this attitude very accurately. He said that they treated us like white coolies. They were in the habit of calling for sailors in an imperious manner and no doubt did regard us as lower class human beings.

Normally I finished work at 8 a.m., but one particular morning I was kept there until 9 a.m. An imperious voice called out to me. The first time this happened I ignored the voice but it persisted and grew louder. Eventually the woman stood right beside me and in a piercing voice demanded to know if I was deaf. I stood up and towered over her. "Madam," I said, "I do not like being spoken to as if I were a dog." She stood for a moment with her mouth agape then turned and stalked off, returning a few minutes later with a nervous looking Sub Lieutenant of the Royal Navy Reserve. He asked me what I thought I was doing. I took a long look at him. He was considerably shorter than I was and looked distinctly uneasy and embarrassed.

"Sir," I said, "I strongly object to being spoken to as if I were a dog. If you spoke to me in the same manner as this person you would get the same response." Looking somewhat taken aback the Subby said that he would have to see about it and retreated, taking the woman with him and I heard nothing more.

Many of the Singapore white women displayed a similar attitude and my dislike of them increased when shortly afterwards I learned that these women were getting a weekly wage of about 5. This they earned for doing little other than drinking tea and chatting. I, as an ordinary Signalman was getting about 14 shillings a week (70p). The average wage for a working man in Britain was about 3 a week at the beginning of the war.

After this incident with the waspish wifey, most of the women avoided me although some still spoke. The problem was soon solved, however, as shortly afterwards the women were sent to another country for their own safety.

The war situation continued to deteriorate. As northern and central Malaya were over-run the Japanese air force increased its bombing and the effect could clearly be seen in the barracks. Bomb holes and damaged buildings were everywhere. The swimming pool, which had been my sole means of recreation, had received two direct hits and was now empty.

In spite of the obvious success of the Japanese offensive, a ludicrous propaganda campaign continued. The Straits Times and the local radio daily put out government statements belittling Japanese competence. One claimed that Japanese aircraft were made of wood and were merely glued together. If they flew into clouds or rain they would disintegrate. They also claimed that the Japanese were all very shortsighted and would not be able to fire guns or aim bombs with precision.

Such claims were recalled with wry humour by those of us who lay on our backs in a storm drain one dark night while being machine-gunned with uncanny accuracy by one of these 'short-sighted' gunners. We had been standing outside the barracks watching the bombing of nearby Changi airfield when we suddenly realised that one plane had sunk lower and was making a beeline for the barracks. Underneath the plane was a gun sponson in which crouched a gunner who was joyfully spraying the countryside. The assembled matelots dived for the storm drain where we lay terrified until he flew past. This then was an example of the men with poor eyesight and co-ordination!

Another myth perpetrated about the Japanese was that they were superb jungle fighters. The fact was that they had not fought in any jungles before invading Malaya. They had fought in Formosa against a primitive, poorly armed people and their next experience had been in French south east Asia where they were allowed to take over the country virtually unopposed. They learned all their jungle-fighting skills in Malaya and these eventually ensured Japanese mastery of the whole of the western Pacific. Their bulwark was a staunch belief in the god-like status of the Mikado.

The plain truth was that the west's knowledge of Japan and the Japanese before the war was abysmal. We disregarded their enormous conquests in the Far East, China, Manchuria and Korea.

One example of Japanese cunning and proficiency was in the use of their bicycle. Malaya was a country of two road systems, one in the west where the roads were fairly well metalled and could take heavy traffic, and the other in the east was nothing more than a series of jungle tracks unsuitable for mechanised vehicles. Bicycles were very popular in Malaya and when the Japanese began to advance down the peninsula they soon realised how easy it was to confiscate them. For many years it was believed that the Japanese transported these bicycles from Japan, but nearly all of them were acquired locally. The Japanese infiltrated behind the British lines using bicycles to travel along the jungle tracks. How successful this was we know to our cost.

One day I strolled into the mess dressed in my 'undress'. This consisted of a length of cotton print (sarong), the more lurid the better, which was tied around the waist and allowed to cover the legs as far as the knees. No belt or fastener was used, just the secret cloth fastening. No other clothing was ever worn. A group of ratings was gathered round a leading hand, fully dressed in shore-going rig. I recognised him as a leading signalman from the Prince of Wales. Asked where he was going, he replied that he was off to hospital to visit a Signal Bosun Fisher. As it was well known that this man had been my bete noir on the Prince of Wales, everyone was surprised when I asked if I could accompany him.

The leading signalman agreed but said I would have to hurry. I quickly dressed and went outside the barracks where we boarded a small 1200 cwt. truck. He then asked me why I wanted to see Fisher. Somewhat shamefaced I said that I felt sorry for him.

We proceeded to the hospital which lay to the north of Singapore. For the first time since my return to the island I saw the damage that was being inflicted by the Japanese bombers. It was horrendous. Houses and buildings of all sizes had been devastated and the people were wandering about in a daze. When we arrived at the hospital we saw that it too had been bombed but not much damage had been done.

Having ascertained where Mr. Fisher was, we made our way to his bed. I was walking behind the leading signalman and we were right upon Mr. Fisher before he saw us. His look of greeting turned to amazement when he saw me. Ignoring the leading signalman he asked, "What are you doing here?" In an awkward, shambling way I explained that I had been sorry to hear that he was in hospital. He sat up in bed and smiling held out his hand. What a relief! The bosun had been badly hurt and had swallowed a lot of oil causing much internal damage. After some lively conversation, during which he appeared to me to be an entirely different man, a nurse came in and said that he would have to get dressed in a hurry as transport had arrived to take him to a ship for evacuation.

We then said goodbye and left Mr. Fisher with tears in his eyes. I had never felt more pleased with anything I had done. The other rating said with a smile that Mr. Fisher was a much better man than I had thought.

A few years later I was waiting with a group of hands when the Normandy landings were in full progress. During a desultory conversation I learned that Mr. Fisher had been lost at sea just a short while before whilst on a cruiser. Apparently the ship had been sunk in an air attack. I felt very sorry but was relieved that I had made my peace with him.

On another occasion I was lounging in the early morning sun near the barrack entrance when I saw a column of soldiers marching up the road from the Naval Base. When they got nearer I realised that they were speaking with Tyneside accents. There was no sentry on the gate so I strolled out to the roadside in my sarong. This caused much amusement among the troops. However, when I spoke to them they were even more amused to find that the well-browned, blond 'native' was a Geordie. I was in the process of asking them if any Blaydon lads were with them when a voice hailed me and there was a good friend of mine, Freddie Craig. Fred hailed from Gateshead and had worked with me in the G.P.O.

He changed places with a soldier in the outside rank and we started talking about our experiences. I learned that they had come off a trooper, which was lying in the naval basin. I had completely overlooked it. When he asked me how I had arrived in Singapore and I told him, there was a distinct response from the other soldiers. Here was a survivor from a disaster that had shocked the world. They sank into silence when I told them a little of what had happened. I shook hands with Fred and as I turned away he told me that another of my friends, Harry, was further down the line.

Harry was a quiet but smiling country lad who came from Falstone up the Tyne Valley. We had a little chat then I stood and watched as the Northumbrian Fusiliers marched by. Not many of them survived. Fred and Harry finished up on the notorious Burmese railway but only Fred returned to England. Harry still lies in Burma.

Those lads who marched up the road that day had been in the army a fairly long time but had never been in combat. Against the battle-hardened Japanese they would not have stood a chance. I remember that I walked down the road feeling depressed. The war in Malaya was going badly and the Japanese troops seemed to be advancing quickly down the peninsula.

A few days later, after the morning fall-in, one of the signalmen came in looking very down-in-the-mouth. It turned out that he had been given a posting, together with an Aldis lamp and a battery, to the further side of the causeway. He had expected, when called in for a posting, to be sent to a ship. He was really downcast and was about to report to an army captain. His task would be to send the last signals across the causeway by Morse code when the telephone lines were cut. He, together with anyone who was left, would have to flee across the causeway. One wag who was listening said that he would be all right if he left the Aldis and battery. The joke was poorly received. He was another I never saw again.

One night I went on watch at the Listening Post. The women were no longer employed there and Fox's Tail didn't show up. When our shift ended the next morning the replacement watch didn't show up either. With one exception all those on watch went to the gate to enquire from the Sikh guard whether he had seen the bus.

Unfortunately the guard didn't speak English so one of the ratings went back to ring up the barracks. I noticed that there didn't seem to be any activity at the base. The Sikh's relief had not shown up either. There was no reply from the ratings office.

We strolled outside and were standing outside in the morning air when we decided to walk back to the barracks, as the bus had not arrived. The barracks were about half a mile away. On arrival a Petty Officer Torpedoman and six ratings greeted us. One of the Torpedoman's jobs was to deal with the electrics on board ship, and he was currently employed in setting charges down at the docks to blow up the dry dock gates and the cranes on the dockside into the water. He asked us what we were doing and then told us, "You've been left mates." Apparently the barracks had been abandoned shortly after we had left at midnight.

"Never mind lads," he said, "I've got a job for you. I want bodies to carry some boxes for me." The petty officer wanted us to carry explosives that were to be used to blow up the dockyard cranes and the dry dock gates. We were hardly in a position to refuse.

We loaded the stores onto a small truck and proceeded to the dockside where we unloaded them. When we found that the rest of the officer's party was already there, we made ourselves scarce as soon as we got the chance.

On returning to the vacated barracks we hunted for something to eat. While digesting the food we also digested the fact that we had been abandoned. I came to a decision and addressed the little group.

"Well lads," I said, "I consider that any contract I have with the navy is null and void. I'm going to make my way to Singapore and find out what's happening. Is anyone coming?" Two sailors opted to join me.

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