A Wartime Escape: Another Arnold Kemp

This is an excerpt from Arnold Kemp's family memoir: "The Sentimental Tourist". It is his account of the wartime escape of another Arnold Kemp, his uncle, and the younger son of the minister in Birse who is also mentioned here, Rev Arnold Low Kemp

Uncle Arnold’s escape

A REMARKABLE TALE of the war comes to us from my Uncle Arnold (Addie).   Uncle Addie was also able, if less literary than his older brother (my father Robert Kemp), and an active and adventurous boy.   His informal education was to prove of at least as much value as his studies in the classroom.   Indeed, his childhood ploys on the Dee probably helped to save his life later.  He was dux of Aboyne intermediate school and then followed my father to Robert Gordon’s.  He took a diploma in tropical agriculture at Marischal College (the other wing of the university) and was appointed an assistant manager of a rubber estate in the state of Kedah, North Malaya.   He left in 1937 on the PO steamship Corfu and immediately joined the local volunteer force.   In 1940 he moved to Perak, transferred to the Federated Malay States Volunteer Forces and began extended wartime training.

In December 1941, while he was on long leave in Sydney, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and northern Malaya.   He joined the Australian Imperial Forces but on his urgent recall to Malaya by the volunteer forces was granted an immediate discharge to enable him to return.   He arrived in Singapore in January 1942 in the midst of a severe air raid.   He was sent by train to Kuala Lumpur but it was overrun by the Japanese and he had to withdraw by stages to Singapore.

The Japanese assault forces penetrated the Singapore’s island defences about the 6th or 7th of February.   Their gunfire turned night into day.   Addie was in charge of a section of about 10 men with two machine guns, deployed in pill boxes on the tiny island of Berhala Repin, straight across from Admiralty Steps on the Singapore sea front.   Fires raged throughout the city and the harbour area.  Some members of the company were killed as the Japanese strafed and bombed at will:  they had total control of air space.

On Friday, February 13, two days before the fall, a party of Allied soldiers was spotted on a pier half a mile from Addie’s pill box.   Their company commander, Eric ‘Whisky’ Bruce, ordered him to take a couple of men and guide the party back to company headquarters.   It was a hairy journey as Japanese planes searched for victims.    Addie and his men ducked and dived, cowering in the craters with which the road was pitted.   But when they reached the pier they found that the party had been cut to pieces.   Bodies were spread about everywhere.  They found no survivors but as they were about to leave noticed a man, half buried, who still seemed to be alive.   When they pulled him free, they found that his body had been severed;  ‘he came away with no lower part attached’.   Convulsed with nausea, they covered him as best they could and left.   Later that night their nerves were again shaken when a Japanese bomb fell on a rock near Addie’s pill box.   A jagged boulder crashed through its concrete roof and came to rest on the lid of a full box of hand grenades.

During this week many ships were sunk in the harbour roads.  Early one morning Addie saw an empty lifeboat gliding towards the pill box.   He swam out to it and, grabbing its trailing painter, beached it, and secured it to an overhanging tree.

By Sunday, it was quiet, apart from the odd explosion, but fires burned everywhere.  News reached them that the Japanese had captured the water supply;  The city and the troops were to be surrendered at 4 p.m.   ‘Whisky’ Bruce told them to destroy their guns and ammunition.  Then it would be every man for himself though a general order had gone out that the troops were to surrender in an orderly fashion.   When Addie and his men blew up their guns and the post, he was hit in the legs by three tiny fragments of concrete, but thought little of it at the time.

After dark men began to gather in an old harbour tug.   Its gearbox had jammed but their engineers thought it could be freed.   As troops crowded on to the jetty, it collapsed and they were all thrown into the harbour.   Somehow they managed to clamber aboard and when the gears were at last unjammed they headed for the broom entrance.   They were well under way when they came to a sudden jolting halt.   They were stuck fast on a sand bank.  When the engine was thrown into reverse, the gears stuck again.   Utterly exhausted, Addie lay down on the deck and fell into a deep sleep.

HE AWOKE refreshed, clear-minded, and full of renewed determination to escape.   He remembered the lifeboat he had beached.   With a few of his closer associates, he dived overboard and swam to it.   Among those with him were ‘Whisky Bruce’ and two tin miners.   Rag Make and Jack Hallam.   They launched the boat and all but Bruce decided to make the attempt to except in it.   ‘Whisky’ was a close friend and Addie spent some time trying to persuade him to come but found him overwrought and unable to make a decision.   His wife had left Singapore a couple of days before in a ship that had been sunk off Banka Island.  He thought she was dead; and anxiety and grief had overcome him.   ‘And se we left him on the beach and headed for the narrow gap between the end of the boom and the rocky shore, and passed out into the open water of the roads’.

Rag and Addie took the oars.   Suddenly a frigate came steaming towards them and soon they could see that it flew the Rising Sun.   By now they were all very ragged and dirty, begrimed by the fine slick of oil and soot which covered the water in the harbour.   Even at a short distance they might easily be taken for Malays or Indians.  Rag and he had their backs to the approaching warship.   ‘Even if we were to be machine-gunned, there didn’t seem much advantage in stopping rowing:  in fact it kept us occupied.   In a flash, the frigate streaked past some hundred yards to the east of us.   I had time to see a few Japanese sailors giving us a wave to which one or two of us responded’.   

The made landfall on a small island.   The villagers sold them water containers and directed them to a spring about a quarter of a mile along the rugged share but warned them to make haste as the tide would soon cut it off.   Rag and Addie hurried round and found the spring rising amid a small clump of trees.   Here two English subalterns were seated.   Waited upon by a private, they were consuming a tin of bully beef.   They seemed confused.   They were in a party escaping in a boat which had landed on the other side of the island.   Addie and Rag quickly filled the cans and left;  but the tide now barred their way and they were obliged to turn back and prolong their acquaintance with the English soldiers.  They quickly assessed the two young officers as ‘nincompoopish’ greenhorns.   They had little idea of what to do or where to go.   ‘The poor private who was with them had been their batman and even in these dire circumstances was treated very much as such’.

A couple of hours later the shore again became passable.   Addie and Reg were shattered to find that their companions had gone.   Local fishermen had reported that the Japanese had landed on the other side of the island and already captured a boatload of soldiers (presumably the group from which the two subalterns and their batman belonged).   They tried to buy or borrow a boat but the villagers had none to spare.   Two young men, however, offered to taken them on to another island about three miles to the south, where there were Chinese shops.   They set off in a small sailing prahu.

When they were about half way, a Japanese Zero fighter appeared in the sky.   At the urging of the two Malays, Addie and Reg crawled under the long sarongs stretched between their legs as they sat on the gunwales.   The fighter came in low and slowly circled.   Addie sneaked a look and could see the Japanese pilot very clearly.   ‘The picture has remained stamped on my mind for the last 45 years.   The pilot had the cowling back and I could see his face, black helmeted and goggled with a white scarf round his neck, peering down over the side of the cockpit’.   After another slow turn, he made off, picking up speed.   The Malays gave him a friendly wave and he waved back.

When they reached the island known as Belakang Padant, they gave the lads five dollars between them and waved them goodbye.   A Chinese storekeeper, a kindly and clearly influential man, invited them to his living quarters where food was laid in minutes.   He then took them to see a local official who was also the postmaster.   Addie’s clothes had been ruined by oil and he was now given postman’s standard-issue shorts and a shirt.   A short distance away, on the other side of the promontory, the official told them, was Bulan Strait where boats often passed.   Addie and Reg went to the shore and concealed themselves in the trees.   A rowing boat passed, crowded with escaping soldiers.   They showed themselves and hailed them;  they waved back – and went on their way.

Amid the gathering dusk they returned to the village where the storekeeper introduced them to an ancient Chinese fisherman who had a spare boat, though it was in dubious condition.   The small inboard engine was broken but there were a couple of oars, an old sail, a pole for a mast, and a length of rope.   Addie and Reg scratched together 20 dollars which after some hesitation he accepted.   He gave them water, a bundle of cold rice and some pieces of salt fish.  They were advised first to row towards the blazing Pulau Sambu, against a slight current, and then to round promontory.   If they kept in the middle of the strait, the current would carry them along for a few hours while they slept.  It took them a couple of hours of stiff rowing to enter the strait but the current then began to do its helpful work.  In the dim light they glimpsed Batam Island on the port side and a string of smaller islands to starboard.  They tied the tiller and settled to sleep.

Just after dawn, Addie awoke with a start and realised that they had begun to drift back the way they had come.   They discovered that if they rigged the sail they could catch the breeze and head for the large island of Pulau Bulat to the south-east.   After a bit of experimentation the y managed a fair speed, and around nine o’clock landed at a small jetty.   Up the hill were the living quarters and offices of a rubber estate and here they found a group of Chinese tappers, men and women.   The toukay, a bespectacled Chinese wearing the contractor’s trademark, a khaki-coloured flat-topped solar topee, greeted them with a wide grin.   In the kongsi they sat with the tappers and ate from bowls heaped with rice, fish, and vegetables, with soy sauce and chilli.  The Chinese contractors and his workers expressed polite interest in their adventure but obviously looked on it as a thing apart.   ‘I suppose’, reflected Addie, ‘it was really something like the disruptions caused by warlords in their ancestral China’.

They thanked their hosts and set sail in the direction of Chombol Island, whence they planned to travel down the island chain to Sumatra.   With favourable winds they made good time.  At length they found themselves approaching a small Malay village with a long jetty.   But for the shout of a little Malay boy they would have landed.

‘Orang Japoon suda mari’, he yelled.   (‘The Japanese have come’).

A party of Japanese soldiers came racing down the jetty and opened fire.   Bullets began hitting the water around them.   They rowed with desperate haste.   Chinese-style, standing up, pushing forward, for the sake of speed.   Completely exhausted, with sweat streaming from every pore, they at last head the rifle fire dwindle behind them.  A sudden and merciful scud of rain appeared out of the south, covering their escape, washing them down, cooling them off.   Luck had favoured them again;  the Japanese had no craft in which to pursue them.

Shaken, they pushed on towards the south-west in a long strait between the chains of islands, mostly covered with jungle but with small rubber or coconut plantations and occasional dwellings.   The weather began to deteriorate.  Blustery rain storms arose but in these enclosed waters the sea did not get up much.  The current backed in their favour and pushed them towards a small tree-covered island standing well out in the straits from larger islands north; these, they thought, must by now be occupied.   With some nervousness, they ran into an inlet overhung by massive trees and there, to their amazement, found a figure clad in faded khaki sitting on a large motorboat and waving an old solar topee.   Still apprehensive, they were on the point of putting about when Reg noticed that he was clearly European, with red hair.  They approached; to their inquiries the man replied in a high squeaky voice, in the accents of the English Midlands.

‘I was with the RAs in Singapore and am on my way to the next big town.  Can I come with you?’ he asked plaintively.

This was Bert Longbottom, a dopey, skinny, and anaemic-looking corporal in the Royal Artillery whose unit had been overrun.   With others he had escaped in an old rowing boat, unseaworthy and overloaded.  Addie and Reg fancied it might have been the one they had seen at Belakiang Padang.   If so, they were fortunate that it had passed by.   According to Bert, it was in grave danger of sinking, nobody on board had the slightest idea where they were heading, and nobody spoke any local language.   After continuous bailing and wrangling, they had come to this island about 12 hours previously.   The others had set off again but Bert, reckoning that sooner or later somebody would return to the stranded torpedo boat and try to float it, had decided to stay behind.   His faith in providence must have been great or his fear of drowning greater.  Addie commented:  ‘So much for the ordinary Other Ranks in those days of the permanent army:  without their sergeants, sergeant-majors and officers, they were truly gun fodder’.

First Addie and Reg examined the torpedo boat.  Its propeller had been damaged beyond repair but on board they found a tank half full of fresh water, some boxes of hard tack, cases of herrings in tomato sauce, planks, tools, empty four-gallon drums, and plenty of petrol.   They therefore tried to restart the inboard engine on their own boat.   The found that its propeller was intact but the shearing pin short.   They slung a rope over an overhanging tree, hoisted the stern, and replaced the pin with a nail from the old toolbox.   But when they tried the engine it stuttered and failed to start.   Now they discovered that there was a hole in the carburettor float, and search as they might they could find no way of sealing it.   They settled down to sleep in the torpedo boat.
TWICE DURING THE NIGHT Addie was awakened by the noise of a marine engine in the distance and became apprehensive.  The eastern sky was lightening;  he roused the others and they cleared out against a current.   Their new mate Bert seemed to have no aptitude for rowing and they appointed him steersman on the tiller, giving him a point at which to aim.   They calculated that this course would take them south to the coast of Sumatra, maybe 60 or 80 miles away;  it was a long way to row but, with a little help from the sail and the currents, not impossible.

The wind began to build up from the south and scudding clouds formed on the horizon.  As the day got up they tried the sail again, but the current was against them and they made no headway.  Amid scurries of rain they buckled down again to the tough work of rowing and Bert regaled them with talk of the barrack room.   His tales were from Catterick and Salisbury Plains, and from the troopship which had brought him to Singapore, by way of Halifax, Nova Scotia, the West Indies, and Capetown.   Bert had formed the impression that the world was made up of a series of ‘big towns’ where soldiers visited beer halls, dance halls, and brothels.   Service duties were incidental.   He continued to insist that just over the horizon must be some ‘big town’.

Gradually the stream of anecdotes ceased.   Addie and Reg rowed dourly on, in a fatigued trance.   Addie became aware  that they were making better speed.  ‘Then I saw that our tiller man, with his solar topee over his eyes, had fallen fast asleep.   We had turned a full 180 degrees and were gaily being carried back the way we had come.   I yelled at Reg, now rowing like an automaton, and our slumbering helmsman.   Soon we were back on course.   We forcefully reminded Bert that no one knew he was with us and that he should not discount the possibility of finding himself lost at sea’.

Their luck now started to improve.  The current slackened and the wind veered.   They rigged the felucca-style sail and gradually made way towards the south-west.   By mid-afternoon they sighted the tip of an island dead ahead but then the wind faded and heavy thunder clouds formed.   They stowed the sail and rowed for the island.  It was soul-destroying labour.   Seven thunderstorms soaked them and progress was barely perceptible.  But as dusk fell they at last landed on a gently shelving beach where a fishing sampan was pulled up.   A small atap-thatched house surrounded by coconut palms, with hibiscus behind, lay beneath steep jungle.

A Chinese fisherman and a boy were working on a net strung out between coconut trees.   The man introduced himself as Cheong Tan Wu and his son as Cheong Li Kwan.   His wife, Kwan Mei Chu, was up in the house cooking supper.   They helped Addie and Reg pull the boat well up the beach and then threw a bundle of old nets over it for concealment.  They led them to the house through a maze of chicken and duck pens, and past a pigsty with two big sows and a clutter of piglets.  The fisherman gave a shout and out popped his brisk and busy wife.  The boy was sent to kill a chicken and in the kitchen they were given tea and a smoke of home-grown tobacco.  This was the only family on the island, growing most of their own food and selling the surplus throughout the archipelago.

The visitors washed in the bathing well, lighting their way with the fisherman’s lantern;  then the lady, now smart in white cotton top and black pants, served them a generous meal of chicken, fish, rise, and vegetables.   Her husband told them they were on Durian Island.  He advised them to  head west to an island where the British had established a secret observation post.  Then it was off to bed’  the family gave up their family kong to the visitors, a large clean platform with a fine mosquito net, and swept aside all their protestations.   In the morning, after a breakfast of rice and fish, they tried to persuade the fisherman’s wife to accept some dollars but she would not hear of it.  The fisherman and his son helped them put the boat back into the water.   Addie wrote:  ‘As we shook hands I managed to pass a five-dollar note to the lad and closed his hand on it.  I often wondered what happened to these very fine hospitable people’.

THEY CAUGHT a strengthening easterly and made good time.  By mid-afternoon they sighted a small island.   By now they were becoming concerned about Bert, who was increasingly confused.  Addie wrote:  ‘I believed that his experience in Singapore had been too much for him and that he was suffering from what was known then as “bomb happiness”.  To the last, every bit of desultory conversation was punctuated with the query of when did we think we would get to the “next big town”.’  

The island they now approached was steep and covered with jungle.  In a narrow inlet they found an array of ill-assorted craft.  A few European stragglers were hanging about.  They were waiting to make a break for Sumatra in the night and they said that the Japanese were patrolling the next stretch of water.  To the considerable relief of his companions, Bert decided to take a place on a bigger boat but in exchange Addie and Reg were joined by two of the others.  In the old observation post, now abandoned, they found some Indian Army biscuits., cigarettes, and tins of fish, together with some cans of petrol.  They patched up the carburettor with tree resin and found they could keep the engine running fairly well.   After sunset they set off with a fair wind astern and made good time for the first few miles.  Then the carburettor gave trouble again and the sea began to get really rough.   They shortened sail, stripped the carburettor, repatched the float, and got the engine started.  When the trouble recurred they tried feeding petrol through a mug, but it was not at all easy in the rough sea.  Eventually one of the newcomers made a successful patch with sticking plaster and the engine began to work reasonably well.   By now the moon was getting up.   Away out to the west they could see a line of surf breaking along a low coastline which they thought must be Sumatra.   They headed straight for it.

In the moonlight they could see a long silvery beach and an unbroken line of forest behind it.   Given the strength of the wind, the surf seemed mild.   The breakers dissipated quietly, something Addie could not connect with any previous experience.  As the bow gently grounded, he jumped out on to what he thought was sand, and just kept on going down.   He gradually slowed and halted with the mud at about chest height.  But there was still no solid bottom.   He had jumped into a great coastal belt of mangrove mud which absorbed and deadened the power of the surf. By his resourcefulness and courage.   Addie saved his life, but describes how he did so with characteristic modesty:

I was in real trouble.   I managed to reach up and grab the gunwale, near the bow, and shouted to Reg to put the engine into reverse.  This he did at once, but in that sea it didn’t have enough power to pull me free.   Luckily, I remembered the planks we had stowed in the bottom of the boat.   I passed a rope under my arms.  Reg secured it to the boat.   He passed me the planks one by one.   These submerged gradually, with their flats to the mud, and I managed to get a purchase on the unstable steps they formed.   It took about four planks and an quarter of an hour, with the engine in reverse, to free me.   My body was very gradually extracted from the mud’s grip and eventually I clambered aboard.

Once free, they cleared away to the south-east.   Their course put them beam on to the seas.   The boat tossed about and there seemed every chance of capsizing.  On sore there was no break in the line of forest but out to sea they came upon the first in a line of great shallow sea fishing traps of traditional design.  Piles made from palm trees are driven into the muddy bottom and tides trap the fish in great funnels.   On a high platform above, a strong thatched house is built as a refuge for fishermen and for storing nets and ropes, often with a supply of fresh water and dried fish.   They pressed on past the first trap, hoping to find some change in the coastline.  It was about three o’clock;  the moonlight was still bright and the wind still strong.   Their passage remained precarious, but they were becoming used to the lurches of the boat in the heavy beam seas.   They passed three traps and, after an hour or so, made out two more away to the south.  The flat mangrove coast and its treacherous silver strand merged into a higher mass of land which Addie thought must be the high ground leading down to the cape on the Sumatran coast called Tandjong Dato or Batu.

The engine gave up the ghost again and they made for the nearest trap.  By this time they were bitterly cold.  Addie had been particularly chilled and shocked by his ordeal.  They tied up the boat to the landing platform.   Their new companions decided they would bunk in it but Addie and Reg climbed up the ladder into the shack.  It contained nothing but a container half full of water.  The wind was blowing through it, making it very cold.  They improvised mattress and quilt with atap sheets from the roof’s leeward side, and fell asleep as soon as they lay down.

WHEN THEY AWOKE at about nine o’clock, they were horrified to find that the boat had gone.   In some despair they reflected on their position, marooned at sea with only a couple of gallons of drinking water.   To the south-west, where the mangroves merged into the higher land, there was a kink in the coastline which suggested an estuary, perhaps with a village.   The wind was still blowing from the east, and they resoled to build a raft from the materials to hand, bamboo for flooring, rattan for binding, and atap sheets for a sail.  They had made a start when, in the early afternoon, Addie noticed an outrigger canoe in the distance.   They took up high vantage points to attract its attention.   They yelled and waved and, after an age, it changed course towards them.  One of its occupants was a Malay and the other, wearing only a pair of shorts, was European.

They told them that there was indeed a village on the bank of the river.   The Malay had set out from it on a fishing trip and had found, on a trap further up the coast, an Australian soldier.   Jack Niland told them that he and several others had escaped in a boat from Johore and had been shot up by a Japanese aircraft.  Most of his mates had been killed or drowned.   He had found himself swimming about among the dead and dying and, though dazed and confused, had managed to grab on to some buoyant wreckage.   He drifted in the currents for some hours and had come towards one of the traps further north, where the Malay had found him.   The Malay, for his part, told them that before leaving his village early that morning he had seen a boat stranded up on the bank, with two or three soldiers asleep in it.   He had left them where they were and intended checking on them when he returned.   Addie and Reg assumed it was their boat, and he agreed to take them there.   They grabbed a couple of spare paddles and helped the canoe make good speed.   Soon they were in the estuary and there, caught in the washed-out roots of a great tree, was their boat with their mates still sound asleep in the shade of the sail.   Awakened, they were startled but pleased to see them.   They said that in their state of exhaustion they had not noticed the rope work loose from the platform.   Addie noted drily:  ‘Reg and I would never know whether their story was true or not;  but at least it was credible’.   

The hospitable villagers gave them fish and rice and told them that on their intended route to the south Japanese planes and patrol boats had attacked many small ships.   They advised them to circumvent the Japanese by going over the mountain to the next river where they would find a village of their kinsmen.   They presented the boat to the villagers and a guide was assigned by the headman.  A friendly crowd gave them a dozen hard-boiled duck eggs, a catty of dried sago in a cloth bag, and a bunch of home-grown tobacco.   A couple of miles up river they came to the track over the hill.   Night was falling and the guide and his companions lit their way with resin flare sticks.   They wound their way upwards and about midnight came to a flat clearing.   ‘The sight,’ wrote to Addie, ‘was breath-taking and unforgettable.  In the high canopies of the trees a million fireflies sent pulses of light from their tiny bellies;  the glow made the long narrow clearing seem like a dimly lit cathedral, and I had never seen such a spectacular congregation’.

Here they rested until dawn, and then moved on downhill through cleared and  cultivated areas, with banana, sugar cane, pineapple, and crops.   Addie wolfed a few pineapples and badly scratched his tongue on the little horny hooks embedded in the flower eyes.   Soon they came to a small kampong built on the river bank.   The headman, an outgoing man in his fifties or sixties, advised them not to leave until dark but said they would be in the town of Tembilahan by morning.   They relaxed with coconut juice and home-grown tobacco and in the headman’s house dined on shrimps, vegetables, fish and eggs, a meal that would have been sumptuous even in peacetime.   They slept on mats and when they awoke were given more eggs and tobacco.   For the latter they were particularly grateful, finding amid their anxieties great solace in the weed.   Addie wrote:  ‘Two young men had a prahu ready for us.  With many a terema kasi banya and salamat jalans we set off on the next stage of our Odyssey’.

ADDIE and his companions made it safely to Tembilahan, district headquarters of the Dutch administration.   British officers had established a kitchen for stragglers and were liaising with the authorities there.   Up river they came upon the companions with whom they had lost touch after their first landfall.   Their story was that they had been told by villagers that Addie and Reg had been captured by the Japanese.   To his relief Addie found that Jack Haslam, one of those who first set off to escape, had kept his wallet, paybook, and other papers.

By diverse means Addie made it through Sumatra and then by boat to Ceylon.   By now he was very ill, delirious and exhausted.   The little wounds to his legs which he had suffered in the demolition of the gun post had become huge suppurating sores.   He was treated in the 12th Australian General Hospital in Colombo and from there he was returned to Australia in mid-1942.

After a varied career, in civil engineering and civil administration (in Papua New Guinea), with a spell as a mushroom farmer, he lived in retirement in Central New South Wales.   Addie added this postscript about his commander, ‘Whisky’ Bruce:

In 1945, in the Overseas Club in Edinburgh, we bumped into ‘Whisky’ and his wife.   He had only recently been repatriated from a prison camp on the Siam Railway, where he had spent much of his incarceration, and told me of his regrets at not having had a go at getting out with me, especially after he learned that his wife had survived the sinking and had managed to get back to Australia soon afterwards.

Addie survived not just because he had boldness and good luck.   His good reception by the Malay and Chinese people they met says something about his attitude to them.  He learned their ways and something of their language; he treated them with respect and was repaid in kind.

NB Arnold died some years ago, and his ashes were scattered near the manse in Birse, in Aberdeenshire where he grew up.