Jim Iliffe's escape from the Fall of Singapore - 80th Anniversary
This story has been adapted from an oral history conducted by Suzanne Mulligan with Jim Iliffe in 2002 as part of 31267 Suzanne Mulligan Oral Histories Archive ca. 1939-2017. Visit the online catalogue to listen to the oral history.
The 14th of February, 2022, marks the 80th anniversary of the Fall of Singapore, a devastating turn of events for the soldiers stationed there and for Australia. The British believed it impossible for the Japanese to capture Singapore, so they had no “Plan B”. The Japanese swept down the Malay Peninsula surprising the British who had expected an attack from the sea. Australian soldier, Jim Iliffe, who was in Singapore at that time is probably better known to Brisbane people as television’s “Captain” Jim. His escape before the Japanese took control of Singapore is a remarkable adventure story.
Jim Iliffe enlisted in the 33rd Fortress company, Royal Australian Engineers, at the age of 17, telling them he was 18. He transferred to the AIF after it was formed in 1940 and was enrolled in the Ordnance Company of the Eighth Division as a Corporal, later becoming a Sergeant. He did his training at Liverpool near Sydney. “Liverpool was an army camp established in World War I. The old barracks there looked like it too. It was corrugated iron construction and the walls were full of bayonet holes and sadly I was there in the wintertime. It was freezing cold.”
Jim left Australia in May 1941 and sailed direct to Singapore. He went up the Malayan peninsula and performed guard duty at the Air Force base at Kluang until the Japanese entered the war. The Japanese came down the coast and got in behind British and Indian troops, forcing them to retreat. That was the story of the Malay campaign. The Japanese had unlimited air cover and kept landing troops on the coast.
“It was just one stark tragedy after another because Britain sent two of their biggest battle ships, the Repulse and the Prince of Wales as patrols to make sure the Japanese couldn’t do that,” recalls Jim. “Within a week of arriving in the area they were sunk. We had no air force by comparison. They had modern Zero fighters which were incredibly efficient. That’s what happened all the way down the Malay Peninsula. They just kept on coming behind, landing in boats and barges behind us. They cut us off and when we got on to Singapore there was nowhere else to retreat to.”
“Morale was still pretty good until we got on to Singapore island. We realised that if we couldn’t hold the Malay peninsula, how could we hold this little island? Nothing happened for about three days after we went over the causeway and blew it up. We were just sitting there waiting to see what happened. We were ready, as ready as we could be, and then they landed. Their tactics were much the same as in Malaya. They outmanoeuvred us and came around behind us. it was just hopeless. Within a week they’d captured the water reservoirs for Singapore and had control of the water supply. They cut that off to Singapore City, which didn’t affect us but it affected the thousands of residents of the city. It was from that point on pretty much a shambles. People were being cut off from their units and not being able to get back to them. There was nowhere to go. It was pretty horrible.”
During the retreat to Singapore City, Jim and his fellow troops endured heavy Japanese shelling and he was wounded in the leg by shrapnel which was severe enough to require treatment. The Australian army nurses had been evacuated so an unofficial hospital was set up in the Singapore Town Hall.
“I was driven there in an army utility. I remember on the way, shells were landing. I remember on one occasion a shell landed close behind us. It lifted the Ute and put it back on the road again. They had Chinese and Asian, or Eurasian nurses at the town hall and they bathed my wound. They couldn’t remove the shrapnel and there was no one experienced enough. They gave me some painkillers, and because it was so hot and there were no beds, I’d suggested I go out and sleep out on the front top step of the Singapore Town Hall where there was a little bit of cool air. I slept for 22 hours without waking.
“I’d been there from Friday afternoon till Sunday afternoon – the day of the surrender. A couple of fellows from my unit found me and they said the surrender’s been signed and a cease fire declared and it was every man for himself. They put me in a rickshaw and took me down to the docks and Barney Hanrahan swam out and brought in a little 16 feet sailing boat. He started the little pup motor and it went chug chug chug in to the dockside. By that time there were seven of us altogether. The buildings on the wharfs were called “godowns” and they were full of supplies that had never been touched including aeroplane engine parts and all sorts of things and a lot of canned fruit, peaches and pears. So we grabbed an armful of those and filled our water bottles up and got on this little boat and chugged down into the middle of the harbour. By now it’s about 7 o’clock and the surrender was 3.30 in the afternoon."
“The sky was almost daylight because they’d set fire to all the oil installations around the islands in Singapore Harbour and so it was just like a big rosy glow. It was eerie because by now all the fighting had stopped so there was no gun fire or shelling or bombing. It was deathly quiet. It was a traumatic atmosphere because for weeks and weeks you’ve been constantly having this dreadful noise in your ears of gun fire and shells and suddenly it’s quiet. It’s a little bit hard to adjust to and we were sitting out in the harbour. It’s surrounded by islands, little islands and so you don’t know which way to go. You don’t know which way is out. We decided that we’d wait till morning so we threw out the anchor. We’d moved away from the shore and we put the anchor overboard and decided we’d spend the night and wait till daybreak and then get going. “
“None of us knew anything about sailing a boat and so when we started the little pup motor on the boat – every boat has an auxiliary engine – we didn’t know that you had to turn on the little water cock to keep the engine cool. So by the time we got out and decided to throw the anchor overboard there was this dreadful smell of metal and the engine was just ready to seize because it was red hot. It hadn’t had any cooling and so we decided we had to find out how to put the sails up the next morning to make it go and I don’t recall much of what happened then. We’d drifted all night and had drifted right into near the shoreline again. We found out later that Singapore harbour was heavily mined, so we probably dragged this anchor through minefields. I don’t know how we missed any. We started to put the sails up and we saw Japanese running along the shore and they were firing at us, but we were out of range and just by some miracle we got the sails up enough to get a strong breeze and sailed out of range.
“If things had been just slightly different, we’d never have had a chance to get out. We sailed through the mass of little islands and got out into the open sea and put the sun behind us headed west to Sumatra and we went along at a good pace. It was actually just after dark on the second night and the wind dropped and we were becalmed. But we thought we were far enough away from land now and the next morning we woke up and we were still becalmed and it was something I could never have imagined. The sea was just like looking at a mirror, not a ripple, no breeze, just absolutely still. And you sit there and you sweat and it’s hot and of course we didn’t have any nice big Australian hats. All we had was our tin hats and you’d perspire in those – pretty horrible.
“Japanese planes were flying over on the way to bomb Sumatra and we saw quite a few of those. One came down and had a little look at us and went on its way. And the next morning we got a breeze – it came up again and we set sail again and that afternoon, we ran into a violent storm. We saw land and we thought it was Sumatra, but it was an island off Sumatra. We saw this land we were heading towards it and this storm got so violent then we just lost control of the little boat and the storm swept us on to an outcrop of rocks. The boat hit the rocks and tumbled on its side We were thrown out on the water and on the rocks and then somehow got ashore. We were sitting on the beach wondering where we were going to go from here and around a little headland came this group of soldiers, all dressed in green. We thought they were Japanese. We were desperately wondering what we should do next – nobody had any rifles but three or four of the others had their bayonets in their belt. I had a .38 revolver. We wondered what we’d do and this voice called out in English. It was a Dutch army patrol and I remembering him saying “Where the hell did you come from?” Because they had been around the other side of the headland they didn’t know who we were but they took us to a little Dutch settlement on the island and gave us provisions and treated my leg.
“The next morning they put us in a sampan- a funny sort of a boat with two eyes painted in front - and Chinese fisherman took us up the river and to that part of Sumatra. Up the river was the first township and they took us in there and we spent the night. They gave us food, looked after us. The next morning they took us in a patrol boat up the river about 100 miles to the next village and we spent the night there. This went on for about four days, travelling up the river to a place called Rengat. There was a railway, rail head there and they put us on an open railway truck with carriages and the train went across the mountains and finally ended up at Padang on the west coast.
“At Padang there were about 240 troops altogether, British, Indian and about 30 Australians. We slept in the jail at Padang and we had nothing – we had no eating utensils, we had nothing really. I had a pair of shorts and a shirt on and the bottom was coming out of my shorts and my belt and a .38 revolver, and a tin hat and water bottles – we held on to our water bottles. We’d rationed our food coming over. We had tins of bully beef and tins of pears and peaches we’d got from the godowns and we’d rationed that all the way across but once you’ve opened your beef in those conditions you had to eat it, you couldn’t keep it. There was no rationing of that. But we could ration the peaches and the pears.
“We were at Padang for about a week and they had a British destroyer in port and it took quite a number of Australians and Brits to Bombay. We went on a little coastal boat and it was a real little tub. We just slept on the deck and I know we had a diet of rice and sardines, very few sardines, mostly rice. We hugged the west cost of Sumatra and we crossed open water at night-time. We could see flashes in the sky like lightning and we could hear what sounded like thunder but it was actually the HMAS Perth being sunk by Japanese. We landed at a little port called Tjilitjap. There was a British Army post there. We arrived just in time – they were cooking a meal. It was stew, I remember – and it was the nicest meal I’ve ever had. We’d been living on nothing for weeks and suddenly we had this stew with carrot and potatoes. It was gorgeous.
“And so we were at Tjilitjap and we didn’t know where we’re going to go. The Japanese had already landed in Java, Batavia at the top side of Java and we thought – oh well, we’ve come this far. Where do we go from here? And there was another British destroyer came into port, evacuated, took women and children and sadly it was sunk about two days out I believe. This big boat came in, big Dutch vessel called the Zandaam and it came into port and it was evacuating mostly women and children and they said they couldn’t take us because they were fully occupied by evacuees and there was no way we could go aboard. At the last minute they said you can come on board if you use the crew toilets and sleep on the deck. We said okay, and that boat zigzagged all over the ocean. We didn’t know where we were going, north, south, west and nobody would tell us where we were going.
“I think it was about five days later we saw the big sandhills off Fremantle and knew that we were back in Australia. I was taken to Hollywood Hospital in Perth – that’s the army hospital there. They put me in a wheelchair and wheeled me into the ward and there’s a full-length mirror at the end of the ward. I saw myself in the mirror and I couldn’t believe it. I hadn’t shaved, no combs, or anything like that and hadn’t cleaned my teeth for weeks and I looked like someone that came out of the hills. It was a very funny sight. After a while they didn’t know what to do with us really because we had Army intelligence talk to us a lot about the situation. they put us on the Maraposa and we sailed to Melbourne and I was taken to Heidelberg Military Hospital.”
After a few days in Melbourne, Jim persuaded the medical officer to allow him to convalesce at the military hospital at Concord, Sydney. He then travelled by train to Sydney. Almost a month after Singapore fell, Jim was finally reunited with his family in Sydney.
“I look back on it now and it’s like a dream – I wonder if it ever happened.”
Jim Iliffe was interviewed by Suzanne Mulligan in May 2002. He died in 2005.