- Bower, Laurie
- Biographies and personal histories, WWII operations
- RAN Ships
- HMAS Bingera, HMAS Bendigo I
- December 1996 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
I have been asked to write something about the draft which went from Sydney to Singapore in January 1942 in the S.S. Aquitania.
I had just been drafted from HMAS Bingera into the overseas pool at Garden Island and before long was notified that I had a draft to HMAS Bendigo which was at Singapore.
With some 20 other ratings, I boarded S.S. Aquitania in Sydney Harbour and before long we were on our way overseas and, in our young minds, adventure and excitement. We departed Sydney with much waving and cheering and after crossing the Australian Bight which for once was quite calm, we arrived in Fremantle.
It just happened that a school mate of mine was a crew member in the Aquitania and being quite smart and wanting to have a run ashore he lent me some civilian clothes and a wharf pass. I got into the liberty boat with other members of Aquitania’s crew, arrived at the wharf, showed the pass and was stopped as it was not the correct colour. Naturally I was returned to the ship. Meanwhile all the soldiers and sailors taking passage went over the side into the liberty boats and passed through the gates into Fremantle while there was I, being so smart, confined to the ship.
Later that night we weighed anchor and proceeded to Singapore. Members of the draft were allocated lookout duties during the voyage. Fortunately, however, I was an apprentice in the printing trade and as soldiers on board decided to print a small newspaper, I was allocated the task of printing the paper on the ship’s printing press. The paper was reproduced in a small book form. This activity allowed me to be exempt from keeping a watch.
On arriving in the Sunda Straits we were all transferred to small Dutch merchant ships for the final passage to Singapore.
Being a telegraphist I was assigned to the bridge of the merchant ship as the signalman and slept on the settee in the chartroom which was luxury compared with all the other troops onboard.
On arrival in Singapore Harbour the naval contingent was taken by truck to Fleet Shore Accommodation (FSA – the local Naval Base) – I was just making myself comfortable when I was piped, loaded onto a truck and taken to the dock where the Bendigo was doing a boiler clean. Little did I realise that this was going to be my home for the next two years.
There were 7 Australian Corvettes stationed at Singapore: Ballarat, Bendigo, Burnie, Goulburn, Maryborough, Toowoomba and Wollongong and each in their own way led a charmed life; as things developed, all should have been sunk.
The ship was allocated many jobs including mine sweeping and searching various areas where submarine activity was anticipated.
We were ordered to proceed – with haste – to where an inbound convoy had been attacked by Japanese aircraft, and assist where possible. Arriving in the area we saw the Canadian Pacific Liner Empress of Asia with the upper deck ablaze and hundreds of British soldiers in the water. HMAS Yarra was first on the scene and when she passed us she was returning crammed with survivors. Later we heard that she had some eighteen hundred aboard; there were so many that an order was given for no person to move as the ship was in danger of capsizing.
We lowered the whaler and motor boat and started to rescue as many as we could handle; eventually we had some 200 soldiers lying every where on the mess decks and all over the upper deck. When we discharged our sorry cargo in harbour we literally had to hose down the decks to clear the blood etc. What an introduction to war for an O/D some 17 years of age!
The air raids increased each day and when anchored in Keppel Harbour with all the other shipping we were ordered that during an air raid no ship was to move. Various ships were hit and in our case we were straddled on many occasions, the nearest bomb being some 6 to 8 feet away.
Within a short period, the corvettes were ordered to other stations. Some proceeded to Mombasa, East Africa, and we were ordered to Batavia (now called Jakarta). Bendigo was the second last Australian Corvette to leave Singapore followed by Wollongong about an hour later.