The night air, as usual in these tropical countries, was full of
insects, and bushes here and there could be seen full of glow worms
flashing their lights on and off. Walking along the road your nostrils
would be assailed with awful stinks as well as the most beautiful
and unexpected smells.
The southern beaches were the most popular, down to and including
Mount Lavinia, but the northern beaches were unused. This was because
of a particularly virulent form of malaria-infecting mosquito. I
used to get a bus from Colombo. They were like little Bedford buses
and you could ride inside or on the roof via a ladder up the side
of the bus. When I was off watch during the daytime, a mate and
myself used to catch one of these buses to Mount Lavinia.
We walked down to the sea for a swim. There was a stretch of water
from the beach to the outward reefs, about 100 yards, where the
sharks couldn't enter. There was also a little hotel where you could
get cups of tea and cakes.
One day when I had gone to mount Lavinia by myself, I was returning
up the little country lane to the main road when I fell in with
a well dressed Singalese in coat and trousers. It turned out he
was a professor and in charge of the Marine Laboratories. He asked
me if I would like to accompany him home for a cup of tea. He had
spent some time in England where he had gone to get a university
Over the main road and quarter of a mile onwards we came to a large
house surrounded by palm and other trees. He took me inside and
introduced me to his wife, who to my surprise turned out to be a
white woman. They had three daughters. It appeared that his wife
was cut off entirely from the English people living in Ceylon because
of the fact that she had married a native Singalese.
She was overwhelmed at talking English again as she had only spoken
Singalese since leaving England. Her only friends were Singalese.
Some time later she asked me with some trepidation what I thought
about her marrying a Singalese, and when I succinctly told her my
views she greeted me with an enormous smile. We had a marvellous
vegetarian meal, as they didn't eat meat. This was my first ever
vegetarian meal. I visited them once more for an entire afternoon
before I was drafted to Africa.
The entrance to the harbour was at the extreme north end and entering
form the sea you could sail straight into the harbour's only dry
dock at Kotchicadee. This was flooded by the harbour waters and
could only take smaller vessels. Right beside it was a small naval
barracks. After some time at the girls' school I was moved to the
Maritime Laboratories, which was at the south end, about a mile
from Colombo and quite close to Mount Lavinia. This took only a
small number of ratings. By now the flood of ratings from Singapore
had reduced and things were on a more even keel.
By this time we were employed at the Naval Base which was situated
in a block of offices and shops in the centre of Colombo. It was
approached by a tunnel which sloped down under the buildings and
which had a naval guard at the far end.
My job was to sit down beside the telephone operator. He was an
ex-Singalese postmaster who had worked on the east coast and retired
to Colombo. A highly intelligent man and bright as a button. He
worked the telephone system in the offices that were in use by the
navy and made all communications to places outside Colombo, such
as Trincomalee, by Morse code. He was the only man I knew who could
sit and carry out intelligent conversations whilst transmitting
or receiving Morse code messages.
About this time we were asked to submit claims for any back pay.
I decided to try to get something for nothing out of the navy. I
hoped that my pay records had gone down with either the Prince of
Wales or the Repulse, so I told them I had received no pay since
leaving England, except for odd amounts in Singapore. This caused
considerable commotion in the Pay Office, but when I told them I
was receiving my full pay as an ex-civil servant the chap I was
dealing with seemed remarkably impressed. Events proved that I was
quite right and I was never asked for the repayment of any monies
advanced by the navy.
I received wages in full from Britain to Singapore and in addition
I was given the full amount to replace my kit. The sum total was
over £70. Unfortunately this sum lasted just over three weeks. Most
of it was spent on drink and I hoped that future affairs would sort
themselves out. I had met a sergeant who introduced me to the local
sergeant's mess and I had also met a Singalese who was the Commander
in Chief's driver. So, on the nights when I wasn't at the sergeant's
mess I was out with the C in C's driver.
Whilst at the Maritime Laboratories we were sent down one day to
Kotchicadee dock. We were to be transported to an aircraft carrier,
the Hermes, where we were expected to clean the boilers. Normally
the boilers would be shut down completely before cleaning, but in
this case half were kept fired.
We chipped all the scale off the boilers, one boiler at a time,
at fifteen-minute intervals, which was the longest time that people
could stand due to the heat. It was ghastly and we only stuck it
for half a day before being replaced by another shift of men. We
crawled up onto the decks, naked and black. I never felt more like
jumping in the sea. We returned to the little barracks for a thorough
wash. Nobody ever thanked us for this task. The carrier went round
the coast and on the same day that the airman crash-landed (see
below) she was also sunk.
During this time at the Maritime Laboratories I was walking on
Easter Sunday morning to work at the telephone exchange. About halfway
between the laboratories and Colombo the air raid siren went off.
To my amazement I saw a British Hurricane fighter in the process
of attacking three Japanese planes. They were all over the sky,
but eventually he shot down one of the Japanese planes and then
crash-landed on the green sward between Mount Lavinia and Colombo.
I ran like hell to the plane and was greeted by a hopping mad British
"Where the hell are we?" he said, and I told him. "Look," he said,
"I must get back to the base. Will you keep an eye on the plane
until I get time to send somebody back?"
Eventually an RAF sergeant came on a motorbike. There was a large
crowd of people by then, but fortunately I couldn't understand a
word they said and vice versa. It was great to order them away armed
with my brief authority, although they were very law-abiding citizens.
The sergeant thanked me and I carried on to the telephone exchange.
There I was greeted by an infuriated CPO who asked me where the
hell I had been. Drawing myself to my full height I looked down
at him and said, "Chief, I was ordered by a higher commander than
yourself to stand by the plane he had just crash-landed on the green
between Mount Lavinia and Colombo, so I bowed to his request." I
said this with a large grin. He smiled back and said "You cheeky
bastard! Get back to your post."
Shortly afterwards we were moved from the laboratories to Kotchicadee
docks where there was a small naval base. There we were to act as
guard over an old British cruiser, H.M.S. Dragon, a quaint old-fashioned
vessel armed with 7-inch guns. She had been built before the 14-18
war and was the sister ship to such other ships as the Danae and
Durban. Her crew was going on leave to Kandy in the middle of the
The ship was a floating farmyard and there were pets of all sorts
on board which I was given charge of. There were dogs, cats, 3 or
4 goats, the skipper's hens and a myriad of other creatures. I had
to see that all the animals were fed, watered and cleaned and was
given strict instructions from the skipper before they all departed
I would sooner have gone to Kandy, but was quite pleased with the
animals. My watch mates didn't know B from bull's foot.
The skipper and crew returned and I had to wait until the skipper
had carried out an inspection. He was highly delighted and told
the ship's bosun to provide me with a tot, which I hadn't had since
before leaving Singapore.
One day I was walking down a street in Colombo when I spotted a
familiar face. It belonged to an officer in the Malayan Volunteer
Naval Reserve. I had occasionally seen him at the Signal Station
in Singapore where he worked. I froze. This was one of the men who
had abandoned us.
Upon seeing me the officer hesitated. A tide of resentment rose
as I eyed him. I hoped that he didn't expect me to salute him because
I didn't think I could bring myself to do it.
The officer slowly came across and regarded me with incredulity.
"Do you remember me?" he asked. "Yes sir," I admitted.
"I'm very pleased to see that you got away from Singapore," he
said. The words, "No thanks to you," stuck in my throat, but he
read them in my expression and actually blushed!
Obviously embarrassed he apologised for leaving us in such a predicament,
claiming that he had not been aware that we had been left behind
until long after they were all in the boat. The real responsibility,
of course, lay with the officer in charge of the signal station,
the infamous 'Fox's Tail'. When challenged about it, he had claimed
that the sudden evacuation left him no time to inform the personnel
on watch. Having to wait for them would have caused 'unnecessary
The officer seemed sincere. He had been a rubber planter until
recently joining the Reserve and his concern appeared genuine. To
my surprise he shook hands with me right there in the street and
wished me luck.
It had been an unexpected encounter. I did not see him again, nor
did I ever meet up with 'Fox's Tail', which is just as well.