The Fall of Singapore – 1942

Posted on Monday 23rd April 2012

Conjuror on the kwai
When the Second World War broke out, Gus Anckorn joined the 118th Royal Artillery Field regiment and trained as a gun lorry driver. Being a member of the Magic Circle from a young age, Gus became well-known as he entertained fellow soldiers across the country with his tricks throughout the war. In 1942, his unit was sent to Singapore to fight the Japanese where he narrowly escaped death before being taken prisoner.
In the early hours of 13 February 1942, I was detailed to take a message to our battery commander in the command post, which was far across the other side of a field behind us. To get to his position I had to cross the field under fire with shells landing all around. The field had become pitted with shell holes already and it was a matter of darting from one indent to another in haphazard fashion, making progress broadly in the right direction. The last run was the longest and as I ran, the sound of an incoming shell prompted me to run my guts out until at last, a trench around the command post opened up before me and I dived headlong into it. My momentum was so great that my body went head over heels into the trench, ending with me upside down with legs and torso up over the opposite side. Gathering myself quickly, I scrambled out of the trench and addressed the battery commander. I knew him as a most charming man who was a bank manager in civilian life and now he had become a good soldier too, but when I got to him, his nerve was faltering. He had his pistol in hand and appeared wide-eyed with terror. Beside him, I recognised Sergeant Ludgater holding a Bren gun.
Moments later, the Battery Commander was startled by what he thought was something moving in a nearby tree. He started firing his pistol into it and Sergeant Ludgater turned and emptied his Bren gun into it too. The leafy branches of the tree were shredded, but no Jap fell out of it. It was then that I noticed Sergeant Ludgater was fully spruced up in uniform, which was odd, given the battle going on around us. It turned out that he had been detailed for evacuation later that day. We didn’t know it at the time but our High Command had issued orders for parties of men, selected for their specialism and likely future contribution to the war, to be sent to HQ for a ‘special mission’. That special mission was to escape from the island by whatever means possible, before Singapore was lost.
Later that morning, my gun took a near miss and was put out of action. I was detailed to go to the ordnance depot back at the polo ground to get a replacement. As we were now fairly close to Singapore town itself, it wasn’t far to go, but how I did it without a map, I’ll never know. The odd thing too was that I had no fear, despite the intensity of the battle going on and the likelihood of running into the advancing Japs. It really was the case that, in action, as long as there was something to do, there was no fear. Concentration took over. But was I, in General Wavell’s view, ‘Willing to die’? No, absolutely not! I was determined to fight and to live!
Gun, timber and lorry. Training in 1941.

In any event, there was no trouble with Japs or Jap shelling on the way down to the depot and picking up the gun was straightforward. In no time at all, I was ready for the return but, as none of us had eaten much for two days and nights, I made a beeline for the canteen before leaving to see what I could find to take back. The cooks had a large dixie tin full of chopped beetroot sitting on a table in preparation for the day’s lunch. It was the only thing handy so I persuaded them to let me run it back to the battery, where our need was greater than theirs, I assured them – although beetroot was probably not what everybody was longing for.
‘You’re from the 118th, aren’t you?’ he asked.
‘Yes,’ I said.
‘Well, you’re taking this back with you,’ he said, as he carelessly hefted the shell and complained that gun loaders should do their job better in our battery. The shell had been jammed in the breech of the gun that I was now taking back and of course, removing it was no laughing matter as it could explode in the process. Normally, they would have carefully followed a set procedure for removing the shell and then the cartridge would have been separated off so that the bags of cordite could be extracted and the shell made safe. But he was about to hand me the complete shell, cartridge and all, and as he hefted it, I could see from the nose cone that it was primed to go off on impact, too.
‘I’m not!’ I said. ‘That thing’s fused for impact – you don’t expect me to drive with that?’
‘You’re taking it, and that’s an order!’ he bawled, adding in his bloody-mindedness that it would teach us to be more careful.
‘I’m not, and that’s a fact!’ was my insolent reply, and I started to drive to the gate. Somehow, when you’re in action and your life is at stake, instinct takes over and rank doesn’t come into it any more.
When I stopped at the gate the sergeant appeared again, cradling the shell in his left arm. He simply came up to the lorry, opened my door with his free hand and dumped the shell in my lap. Slamming the door shut, he walked off without a word.
Dumbfounded and not wanting to disturb the damn thing, it seemed the best thing to do was just drive. So off I went – gingerly, carrying the live shell in my lap and chopped beetroot on the seat beside me.
On the way back I spotted bombers in the sky – but not heading in my direction. I kept my eye on them. A neat formation of twenty-seven – did they always come in twenty-sevens? Further up the road there was one of our anti-aircraft guns, which fired a single shot as I passed. I presumed it was a ranging shot because nothing happened and the aircraft continued. Then suddenly, the lead bomber exploded and every kind of coloured light came out of it, as if it had been packed with Verey lights or something. It was like a firework display. The plane then went straight up, vertical, before flipping over onto its back and starting to fall, head-first, like a stone – flat-out – must have been 200 miles an hour when it hit the ground. Wham! As he was coming down, all the other bombers appeared to turn around and go home. I’d heard that the lead bomber in a Jap formation was always the master bomber who gave the orders to the others in ‘follow the leader’ fashion, so without him, presumably, that was it, they’d have to go home. I cheered out loud in my cab at such good shooting by our lot.
I’d gone another couple of miles and was nearly back to our gun position when I became aware of people diving into ditches along my route. I’d decided before this trip that if I saw men diving into ditches like that, I’d stop the lorry and do the same. But I couldn’t see any more aircraft around so I just carried on. The fact was, the bombers were behind me and I was their target! Whether it was the same formation of bombers I’d seen earlier or not, I’ll never know, but with complete mastery of the skies the Japs could probably just look around for their targets at will. I was a sitting duck, still in desert camouflage, wandering along the road, trailing a gun. When the bombs started falling and exploding behind me, my foot went to the floor on the accelerator but it was no good – I got the lot!
The noise was deafening and absolutely terrifying. The lorry was lurching about and metal was flying around my cabin. I had thought the cabin of the lorry might give me some protection but now it was more like a biscuit tin, tossed around on the road by the erupting earth and skewered in a thousand places by shrapnel. Suddenly there was a voice and it was shouting, ‘Stop! Stop the lorry! Stop the lorry!’ It was my own voice. After kangarooing down the road like some demented victim of prey, the lorry juddered to a stop on its own, arrested by the weight of the gun behind it. Instinctively, I thought to get out and away from the lorry and as I moved to do so, I saw through my side window an image that has indelibly planted itself on my memory ever since. In a strange, mystical slow motion, I was looking at a bomb coming down less than 10 feet away – so close, I could have put my hand out and caught it. The rivets on it were plain to see and Japanese lettering, too. I saw the tailfins and a long spike on the front of the bomb as it went into the ground. I saw the bomb begin to explode as flames shot out the back of it. Unbelievably, I saw all this and in that instant, thought, ‘I’m dead!’
There was a deafening blast as the lorry lurched violently again and I was engulfed in what sounded like metal hailstones from what must have been an anti-personnel bomb. I knew I was getting wounded but it didn’t seem to hurt. The bombardment went on and on and on and I began to pray that something would get me straight in the head and make it quick. Then the mayhem stopped and instead of wanting to die, I wanted to live again!
The air was thick with dust and the lorry was leaning over on the passenger’s side. I looked at myself and it seemed I was still in one piece. Then I realised the shell was no longer in my lap. I looked about franticly and saw at the back of me, a huge hole, going up through the lockers and the roof. Surely the shell couldn’t have gone off and left me in one piece? That sergeant at the depot must have been pulling my leg, it can’t have been live at all. I moved to open my door and get out but found my right hand hanging off. There was no pain but it was completely unresponsive and whatever had done the damage had also gone through my arm as well and opened an artery. Blood was everywhere. I knew I must get out quick and so I lay over on the seat and kicked at the door with my feet until it swung open. Legs first, I dropped out into swirling dust not knowing where I’d be landing. Before I hit the ground, my left leg was jolted up suddenly and a spasm of pain went through me. Something had penetrated the back of my knee and a strange thought came into my head – ‘they’re actually attacking me! They’re trying to kill me!’ A gunner like me is usually some distance away from direct action and so this very personal reality of killing had never dawned on me. The horror of it propelled me onwards, despite my injuries. Somehow, I was up on my feet running at full pelt away from the lorry through thick smoke and dust not knowing where on earth I was going and as I went, it felt as though I had an orange box wrapped round my left foot. It must have been the effect of the bullet or whatever it was. Then, out of nowhere, one of our gun sergeants appeared. He ran alongside me shouting ‘Where are you going?’ and took hold of my arm. ‘I don’t know!’ I shouted back. Then he seemed to veer off and disappear into the smoke, whereupon I fell straight into a monsoon ditch and passed out.
It has never been particularly significant to me but it was pointed out sometime later that I’d been bombed on Friday, 13 February at 1300 hrs! I lay there out cold and during this time, there was all sorts of goings on, apparently.
The whole event had occurred near enough to our gun position for my troop to see what happened. So near, in fact, that once the bombs had stopped falling and the smoke and dust had thinned out a bit, some of the men ran down to the lorry – but not out of concern for me. No. Besides checking the gun itself, which turned out to be useless, they probably just wanted their gear out of the lockers in the back of the cabin. When they got there, they found all the lockers smashed up, blood all over the place and lumps of purple soft mush sliding down what was left of the windscreen. One of them was apparently physically sick and when they returned, they’d said to the others, ‘Poor Gus. He got a right packet! Not much left of him and what there is – well, it’s all over the cabin.’ They couldn’t have known it but what they’d actually seen, of course, was the beetroot that I’d collected from the ordnance yard, mixed with all the blood that had gushed from my arm and wrist. They obviously didn’t see me lying in the ditch.
However, Bombardier Porter, from my battery, did. He wasn’t with the others. He had been nominated for the same ‘special mission’ as Sergeant Ludgater and was on his way to headquarters in Singapore town when he came across me lying in the ditch. Seeing that I was seriously wounded and likely to die, he took my dog tags, both of them, in order to report my status. It was his report that eventually filtered back to my parents almost a year later, when they were notified by the War Office that they had received an unconfirmed report of me being wounded on 13 February 1942. The War Office note went on to say that, whilst endeavours were being made to confirm the report and the nature of my injuries, they would continue to post me as ‘missing in action’.
By some means or another, men from my battery did find me before it was too late. I regained consciousness whilst being dragged back to our gun positions by Bombardier Buck. Once there, he got me strapped up with a tourniquet and a lorry arrived out of nowhere, driven by our gun sergeant. He was going to take me to a field hospital but they couldn’t get me inside the lorry for some reason, so instead, they decided to lay me in the slot between the wing and the engine housing. Gun Sergeant O’Neill, then proceeded to drive off at full speed. The pain was just awful and I kept trying to distract myself from it. It seemed odd that the sergeant was driving – he should be working the guns, I thought – but perhaps more of them were out of action by now. He was crunching the gears and straining the engine as the journey went on and on, during which I drifted in and out of consciousness. Suddenly, machine-gun fire started coming at us from the roadside and something cut my nose and thudded into the engine next to my face. The lorry shuddered to a halt. We were at a standstill in the middle of the road with bullets coming at us from all over the place. None of this seemed to worry me – I was out of it, half dead anyway.
But then I felt myself being manhandled again, off the lorry and into a Red Cross ambulance that had drawn up, despite the mayhem. Inside were four other wounded men. We had an Indian driver who slammed the thing into gear and raced off as fast as he could. Within seconds, it seemed, we were being shelled and then the ambulance swerved violently before coming to a stop. The other four wounded opened the doors and cleared off, leaving me inside, scarcely able to move and looking out on an open field near some housing that we had come to rest in. The shelling had stopped and there was no sign of the driver. Time passed and despite the open doors, the heat inside became intense under the blistering afternoon sun. My breathing was getting faster and my mouth stuck together when I swallowed. It felt like I’d been placed in an oven. I attempted to move and get myself out of it. But then the Indian driver suddenly appeared, thrusting something at me and shouting, ‘Water, sahib, water!’
Alexandra Military Hospital, Singapore.

I must have passed out again because the next thing I was aware of was being dragged across a street that was lined with buildings. When we reached the kerb of the pavement, my feet clanged into it and pain shot up my body as the dragging continued until we entered a building that turned out to be a huge post office filled with wounded men. A surgeon was using the post office counter as an operating table and perhaps because I was bleeding so heavily, they lifted me straight onto it.
‘I’m sorry, son,’ I heard the surgeon say, ‘I can’t save your hand, it’s got to come off.’
I mumbled back, ‘Well get on with it and save me.’
An orderly put some gauze over my face and splashed ether on it, at which point I reacted violently, shaking my head to get clear of the suffocating gauze. Then the orderly seemed to recognise me. ‘Aren’t you the conjuror we saw in Liverpool?'
Still spluttering, I said that I was and the orderly immediately appealed to the surgeon. ‘You can’t cut his hand off, Sir, he’s a conjuror!'
Before I blacked out, I heard the surgeon say, ‘Well, I’ll see what I can do.'
Whatever he did I wasn’t to know, as the next time I became properly conscious again, I was in a crowded hospital ward with my arm strapped up and hung from a hook above my bed. On the end of my arm all I could see was a large dressing like a huge boxing glove. I didn’t know if it was an hour, a day or a week later.
It was the morning of the 14 February and I was in the Alexandra Military hospital. The ward was crammed with wounded. So much so that men lay on camp beds either side of me. I was desperate to know if I still had my hand or not, because I couldn’t feel anything on the end of my arm and I couldn’t see anything either with the arm being held up in the air by the hook. I asked the man on my right.
‘Have I still got a right hand – can you see for me?'
He struggled to get himself up and eventually he was able to see.
‘This little piggy went to market...’ he started but he didn’t need to go on. The relief in my mind was sensational!
Time passed with comings and goings of staff in the ward and I drifted in and out of consciousness. There were increasing sounds of gunfire and explosions each time I awoke but nothing seemed to matter anymore and I began to think I must be dying. But with each bout of consciousness, pain was intensifying – as well as my thirst.
A couple of times when I awoke, there didn’t seem to be any staff anymore and then I caught sight of an orderly coming down the ward, hurriedly putting up blackout boards on the windows even though it was daylight. The sound of shelling and gunfire was all about. Someone else was running up the ward. I heard myself making a sort of growling noise and a voice next to my bed was calling out, ‘Doctor, Doctor... do something here... he’s bleeding like hell!’ My blood had apparently been dripping down on the man below me. The running footsteps arrived at my bed and my strapped-up arm was lowered from the hook and the tourniquet was adjusted. Excruciating pain rushed through my upper body as my arm was placed across my chest, and I passed out again.
It must have been around this time that Japanese soldiers made their entry into the hospital grounds and into the hospital itself. It is now well recorded that about 100 soldiers in full battle gear assaulted the hospital, just before 1430 hrs that day, firing at those who came out of the hospital to protest Red Cross immunity and bayoneting staff as they came across them. When they arrived in the theatre block, they set about killing indiscriminately, including a patient under anaesthetic on the operating table. One of the surgeons, Captain Smiley, took a bayonet in his chest but it was deflected from his heart by a cigarette case in his breast pocket. The soldier thrust again but the captain this time deflected it with his arm and it went into his groin. Two more thrusts followed, knocking the captain into an orderly and they both fell to the ground with Captain Smiley on top. He whispered to the orderly to play dead and the soldiers left. After they’d gone, the orderly tended to the surgeon’s wounds and he not only lived but immediately got on with helping others who were still alive.
For my part, I woke to the sound of heavy footsteps and the sight of a military person striding down the ward. Up to this time, I had still never seen a Japanese soldier but this certainly wasn’t one of ours.
I turned to the man beside me.
‘Is that a Jap?’ I asked.
‘Yes,’ he said. ‘They’ve taken over the hospital.'
‘Oh,’ I said, but then drifted off again.
Re-opening my eyes at whatever time it was later, I saw more goings on. This time, a group of wounded were struggling along the ward, bound together with what looked like barbed wire and followed by a soldier with fixed bayonet. I turned again to the man on the floor beside me.
‘What’s going on?'
‘They’re taking them out to shoot them,’ came the reply.
‘Oh,’ I said again, none of it registering properly with me in my delirium.
It was noticeable that the battle noises had diminished, although there was still gunfire now and then. The ward was quiet and I was holding in my pain, listening and trying not to make a sound. Suddenly, I could hear many feet coming into the ward and a kind of thumping noise started.
‘What are they doing?’ I asked the man next to me.
‘Bayoneting. They’re bayoneting everybody,’ he said calmly.
I listened again. There were no cries, no screams, nothing. Just thud... thud... thud.
I didn’t feel fear and I don’t think the man next to me did either. I just thought, ‘I’ll never be twenty-five,’ and then, ‘Poor mum’.
The thuds went on. Thud... thud... thud... I didn’t mind dying, but I didn’t want to see them do it me so I pulled my pillow up with my good hand and got my head under it. Then I must have drifted off again because when I awoke next, there was silence again in the ward. I turned slowly to the fellow on the camp bed next to me but he was dead. Lifting my head, I could see the other beds still had their occupants, but there was no movement, I remember thinking, ‘So this is what death is like... I must be dead.'
Nobody knows why I wasn’t killed like all the others but the assumption is that, when the Japs came to my bed and found blood all over my chest and down on the floor and my face covered – like a corpse – they must have thought me dead already and passed me by. In any event, I was still losing blood and because of it, I must have become unconscious again, staying that way for some time because the next thing I knew, I was lying on the floor of what turned out to be the Chinese High School.
There was a mass of us there on the floor and once again I turned to whoever was next to me.
‘Where are we?’ I said.
‘We’re in the bag,’ came the reply.
I’d never heard that expression before so I tried again.
‘Where’s that?'
‘We’re prisoners. It’s all over,’ came the answer.
My dulled senses scarcely understood the enormity of meaning in these words. It was 15 February. Singapore had fallen. The citadel of the empire ravaged. The proudest of armies brought to its knees.
Fergus Anckorn.
October 1939. Gunner Anckorn
‘F’ Troop, 483rd Field Battery, the 118th Field Regiment RA (TA), Ahmednagar, January 1941.
'Normally, they would have carefully followed a set procedure for removing the shell and then the cartridge would have been separated off so that the bags of cordite could be extracted and the shell made safe. But he was about to hand me the complete shell, cartridge and all, and as he hefted it, I could see from the nose cone that it was primed to go off on impact, too...'

Fergus Anckorn, a former gunner with the Royal Artillery during the Second World War, telling his extraordinary story of his time in Singapore when the Japanese invaded. Surviving the massacre at the Alexandra Hospital, he went on to work on the infamous railway crossing Burma and Thailand. (Part 1 of 4)

A memorial plaque in the grounds of Alexandra Hospital.

'I moved to open my door and get out, but found my right hand hanging off. There was no pain, but it was completely unresponsive and whatever had done the damage had also gone through my arm and had opened an artery. Blood was everywhere. I knew I must get out quick an so I lay over the seat and kicked at the door with my feet until it swung open. Legs first, I dropped out into swirling dust not knowing where I'd be landing...'

Getting a message home. Encryption by shorthand.

On the way home, 'fattened up' and re-issued with battledress, Suez, October 1945.

'You can't cut his hand off, Sir, he's a conjuror!'

Gunner Anckorn, proud to have served.

Wampo Viaduct under construction on 'Death Railway'. (Sketch by fellow POW, Bill Wilder)

Gus Anckorn with Dan Jarvis MP, Shadow Culture Minster, on Armistice Day 2011 during a press day to launch Captivity, Slavery and Survival as a Far East POW.

Further Reading

Conjuror on the Kwai
(Hardback - 256 pages)
ISBN: 9781848846227

by Peter Fyans
Only £19.99

The Conjuror on the Kwai is the incredibly moving story of Gus Anckorn, a British soldier who was captured by the Japanese and held for over three and a half years. Before the war, Gus was a magician and throughout the war, entertained both fellow soldiers and Japanese guards with his tricks.

Gus has a brilliant sense of humour and a \'tell it as it is\' attitude which got him into a number of scrapes with both the Japanese and his own side. He has a remarkable…
Read more at Pen & Sword Books...

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