Index of chapters

With the last piece written about Silvestr’s childhood, I have reached an end of the story – at least for the moment.

While I continue to pursue some additional leads, I am refocusing my efforts to finalization of the work (expanding some sections, adding and checking facts) and  preparation of a book version that I would like to get published in the autumn 2019, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Silvestr’s birth.

To make it easier for visitors of my blog, here is a chronological index of the chapters published so far:

  1. Start of the journey
  2. Hopes after the war
  3. 1946, A Year of Uncertainty
  4. 1947: When the Hope Ends
  5. Visiting Bata Villa, and finding the first treasures of the Batanagar News
  6. Discoveries in the Czech State Archives in Klecuvka
  7. Visiting Silvestr’s family and his home in Vemyslice
  8. Three Prague encounters
  9. The Australian Miracle of Silvestr Nemec
  10. Silvestr in the Singapore press
  11. The Life of Batamen and Silvestr in Singapore
  12. Troubles among the Singapore Czechoslovaks
  13. Being Bata’s pedicurist
  14. Searching for Silvestr Continues
  15. Silvestr’s voyage to Singapore
  16. From Sandokan to Bata’s Intelligence Report: Learning about old Malaya and Singapore
  17. Being a Singapore volunteer
  18. The Japanese invasion to Malaya: Batamen at war
  19. The Fall of Singapore: Silvestr gone missing
  20. Silvestr’s Death, Scenario One: Massacre at the Alexandra Hospital
  21. Silvestr’s death, scenario two: Battle of the Pasir Panjang
  22. Silvestr’s death, scenario three: Prisoner of war
  23. Silvestr’s Death, Scenario Four: Evacuation from Singapore
  24. Silvestr’s childhood at Vemyslice

 

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Silvestr’s childhood at Vemyslice

In the previous several chapters, we were looking at four detailed scenarios how Silvestr might have died during the Battle of Singapore. It was most likely in February 1942, shortly after he celebrated his 22nd birthday.

At the end of my research and writing I would like to come back to Silvestr’s home place, a Czech village of Vemyslice in southern Moravia.

In this village, I have myself enjoyed a wonderful childhood, spending almost every weekend and school holidays at my grandfather’s and grandmother’s house there. It’s been the place of the best adventures one can imagine: climbing up the trees, playing battles by building straw fortresses and throwing apples at each other in the autumn fields, catching the fish from the local river on a home made fishhook (and then running away when an official found us), jumping to the several meters high piles of grain at the local cooperative farm, reading old magazines at the corner of a mysterious attic, as well as picking grapes at our small vineyard, and other types of work around the farm which – perhaps surprisingly to many – I really enjoyed doing.

How did the village look like at the time of Silvestr’s childhood? What do we know about Silvestr’s family and his ancestors?

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Photo: A group photo of the 2nd class of the secondary school in Vemyslice from the school year 1931/1932 when Silvestr attended it. We can find his name on the backside, first in the left upper corner. On the picture, Silvestr is sitting in the front row, to the right of the boy holding the sign.

In my quest for such information, I was mostly relying upon historical document stored at the State Archives in Znojmo – the former regional capital. It maintains an impressive collection of documentation about Vemyslice – stacked upon each other, they would make more than a pile higher than eight meters! These include a number of medieval parchments that relate to the extraordinary history of Vemyslice (you can learn more in a chapter about my visit to Vemyslice I published earlier). I would like to thank to Ms Pekarkova from the archive who was very kind and helped me to orient myself in their large collection.

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Photo: State Archives at Znojmo. Picture taken during my visit there in October 2017.

Most of the information bellow comes from several chronicles, written at the municipality as well as its several schools. The school chronicles also contain  information about contemporary events in the village, and therefore nicely complement the official municipal chronicles.

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Photo: Chronicles of the school and municipality of Vemyslice.

Silvestr was born on 20th October 1919 as a fourth and last child in the family of Silvestr Nemec. I succeeded in tracing his direct ancestors seven generations back, down to Vaclav Nemec who was born around 1655 in Horni Kounice, a small town several kilometers distant from Vemyslice. Silvestr’s grandmother Marie Sklensky was a descendant of an old local family. Her oldest known direct ancestor was Pavel Ripl born around 1580, who back in his times even served as a mayor of Vemyslice.

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Photo: Parents of my great-uncle and my grandmother, Silvestr Nemec (here pictured in an old Austrian military uniform) was born in Vemyslice in 1880. His wife Frantiska Netouskova was six years younger.

The school chronicle mentions that in 1919 – a year in which Silvestr was born – seven legionaries returned home to Vemyslice from Vladivostok in the Russian Far East. It’s nice to see a reference like this, reminding us one of the most heroic achievements and roles of Czechoslovakian army in the Great War.

Just a week after Silvestr was born, the village was celebrating first year of independent Czechoslovakia.

A local head teacher, Mr Orlicek who apparently had a very progressive yet idealistic vision of the society, shared his grievance in the school chronicles in early 1920: “I can’t omit the sad fact that there is a lot of gambling going on in the two local pubs. There is not a single table where cards would not be played. As a result, it is entirely impossible to have a useful conversation about important matters or historical events in the pub.” This was not his only complaint captured, as we can see in yet another record from August 1922 that reads “It’s a hard work here, when everyone blindly believes in the Vatican’s delusions.”

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Photo: One of the laments that Vemyslice’s head teacher Orlicek written into the school chronicles – this one is about religious backwardness of the villagers.

 

Land Reform – Vemyslice’s Manor and meadow named “Envy”

An important event that significantly reshaped modern Vemyslice – and with it, also Silvestr’s childhood – had been the state Land Reform conducted in 1924. In February, Earl Kinsky received a court’s eviction from his Vemyslice’s Manor (the Manor was initially established by the monastery in Tisnov, who in 1740 sold it to the Lichtenstein family; later, Earl Kinsky bought it from them). As a result of the reform, the Manor’s land was divided into smaller allotments that were distributed to new owners.

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Photo: A historical map of Vemyslice made in early 1800’s. You can see the Vemyslice’s Manor as a large square object on the north-west of the village (upper left side on the map). When the land reform took place, the municipality got rights to the large chunk of land to the west/left of the Manor as well as its park (dark green area to the north/up). Source: CUZK.

In total, 90 families applied to get some share of the former Manor’s lands. The municipality also claimed part of it, and eventually was given the meadow and a park attached to the Manor. In the coming years, three new modern buildings were built on this newly acquired public land: new school, local gym hall, and a protestant church. Together, they established a new, modern center of a public life that the village was very proud of. We can be certain that Silvestr spent a lot of his time there during his childhood.

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Photo: Three new public buildings erected during 1920’s on the former meadow that belonged to the Vemyslice’s Manor. In front is the local gym hall (“Sokol” was one of the popular sports national associations); behind it a school, and at the very back a small protestant church. We can be certain that Silvestr was coming to all three of them during his childhood. This photo is dated in 1935, when he was 16 years. Source: personal archive of Arnost Hrdina.

The land reforms were also dealing with another allotment, a large meadow called Zavist (“Envy”). Until then, it could have been used only by some privileged families, according to an old deed by the Tisnov monastery: based on that, the right to use the meadow was granted only to the families whose men provided their services as guards at the monastery’s complex. Therefore, newcomers and settlers who came to Vemyslice in later years had no right to use it. The chronicle mentions that the meadow was traditionally used according to a 10 years’ roster: every year, there were 8 families using it, while 1/10th of it was available to the mayor, and the remaining 1/10th to the municipality itself. The chronicle reads: “This year, in 1924, the old families utilized their privilege for the last time. In the future, the meadow will be accessible to anyone, so that the new settlers won’t have to envy the old families anymore.” There chronicle also provides a a list of 80 families from Vemyslice who had this ancient privilege; we can find that our Nemec family from house number 23 belonged to them.

There is another mention of the Nemec family in reference to the land reforms in Vemyslice. This one relates to a record of a public auction of the vicarage’s land in 1923. In the school chronicles, it states that one of the three auctioned allotments – a 4600 m2 garden – was purchased on March 23rd, 1923, by Silvestr Nemec for 18,100 Czechoslovak crowns.

farska zahrada.jpg Photo: A record in the Vemyslice school’s chronicles that describes the outcomes of the public auction of the vicarage’s lands in March 1923.

 

New School

An idea was born to build a new school on the former Manor’s lands that now became a municipal property. The local council was discussing this matter in August 1924, and by a narrow majority of 8 against 7 votes agreed to take further steps. This decision was quickly challenged by a protest petition signed by 42 citizens – we still know their names as Mr Orlicek wrote their list in the school chronicle, accompanying it with his own comment: “Work and education represent our salvation!”.

The political fight over the new school continued, and Mr Orlicek was keeping a record of it. He quotes one of the members of the local educational board as saying: “What we need are people to clean the dung in our stables – not people with academic education. All the educated people will just run away from the farming work!”

Seven oppositional members in the council filed a complaint that states: “The undersigned can’t support the expensive project of the new school, because the times are tough and not suitable for it. The local farmers struggle financially and the local poorhouse needs also an investment.”

The narrow majority managed to push the project through despite all the obstacles, and the building was finally accomplished in August 1926, allowing the new school year to already begin there. This was much to the delight of the chronicler who comments: “School – the monument of progressive efforts of the Vemyslice citizens – has been finished, radiating an unbreakable will that majority of our people are in favor of education – a fundament of prosperity.”

The old school building was later used as a police office, which was moved to Vemyslice from the neighboring smaller village of Tulesice.

 

Silvestr at school

By the time Silvestr enrolled in the school, the Czechoslovak educational system was unified based on a novel legislation from 1922. The universal and compulsory school attendance was set to last for eight years: five in primary, and three in secondary level. Some of the pupils then continued to the so called “continuation schools”, which were providing already specialized type of education.

From Silvestr’s date of birth (October 1919) and the starting date of his job with Bata (September 1936), it’s easy to deduce that he was attending the primary school from 1925 to mid 1930, and secondary from mid 1930 to 1933. We can also assume that he then went through a business academy for additional three years before joining Bata – the fact that he had graduated a business academy is captured in his record at Bata archives.

In the school year of 1925/1926 when Silvestr began his school education, the first class had 43 pupils in total. The school in Vemyslice had two classes at the primary level, and they were probably divided based on the age: this first class being for 6-8 years old, and the second class for those 9-11 years old. The teacher in the first class, which Silvestr most likely attended, was Mrs Vlasta Musilova. At that time, the construction of the new school building was already ongoing (see above), but – according to the school chronicle – the classes were still taking place in a building of the old school, where the former teacher’s apartment was converted into an improvised classroom.

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Photo: The old school building in Vemyslice, where Silvestr was going during his first year of school, is located behind the local catholic church. The following year though, he and his classmates began to go to the new school building that was finished in the summer of 1926. Photo: archive of Arnost Hrdina

In May 1926, the pupils went for a trip to an old castle of Pernstejn and visited also the famous karst caves at Macocha. In June, they went for a day-trip to the Leskoun Hill above the village of Raksice, which is about ten kilometers from Vemyslice.

Leskoun… as my parents never had a car, I often walked by feet from Vemyslice to Raksice’s train station to get back home to Brno after the weekend spent at my grandmother’s place. It was about 8 km walk, and most of the time, i had Leskoun right in my sight; it was really a nice dominant landmark. It was therefore with some sorrow that I have witnessed the hill being dismantled and eaten up by a large gravel quarry. It was feeding a construction of a nearby Dukovany nuclear power plant, as well as other industrial development. Today, there is not much left of the previously photogenic hill that Silvestr visited on a school trip.

Besides the lectures of his teacher, Silvestr must have witnessed also some naughty behavior of his schoolmates. When I was reading the old school chronicles, there were moments when I had to laugh. Four boys (Hlavka, Ruzicka, Sklensky and Kopecek) got the lowest mark for their conduct, because they were picking birds’ nests and were making fun of beggars. A record of teachers’ conference from 3rd March 1926 reads: “Miss Musilova suggests that Leopold Hejmala from the first class is sent to a reform school because of his regular thievery, lying and disobedience.

As for the contemporary events in the village, it’s worth to mention that three new bells, fabricated by a bell maker in Broumov, were delivered to the local church.

When Silvestr entered his second year at school, i.e. 1926/1927, the number of pupils in his class increased to 55 children. Thank to the new school building being finished in August, the education found a new home there. The school records say that the teachers were soon concerned about the problem that when the lectures were over, the children were rushing out and running home in chaos; thus they agreed that the pupils would be accompanied by a teacher up to the main road, before they would be released.

The behavior continued to be an issue. In September, one of the boys was caught in a pub during the local festival despite an explicit ban by the principal. In December, two girls stole some money from the cloakroom. A number of pupils were reported to talk dirty language, throw stones and break the planks in the fences. At the end of the academic year, the school principal held a speech about proper behavior during the summer holiday time – well I would not hold my breath for how effective it was.

In July 1926, the central section of the main road through the village was paved – another visible step towards modernization of the community.

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Photo: An old postcard from Vemyslice. The photograph is not dated but must have been taken after 1926 when the road in the center of the village was paved with fireclay bricks. The lime tree with a statue of St. John beneath is located just some 30 meters from Silvestr family’s house – it’s would be just to the left from the frame pictured. Source: archive of Arnost Hrdina

Without doubt, one of the big adventures of that summer’s vacations for Silvestr were extensive, 10-day long artillery maneuvers that took place in the area of Vemyslice in August 1927. The army setup a training firing range there. The local chronicle says that: “One of the divisions was based in Vemyslice. They established a makeshift office in the school, with 25 soldiers accommodated at its ground floor. The horses were kept at its backyard. The first training shooting took place on 9th August…”

His third year at school, i.e. 1927/1928, must have been especially exciting for Silvestr. At first, on 22nd September, electricity was brought to the village and first electric lights were turned on. The municipal council had agreed a year earlier, unanimously, to connect Vemyslice with the electric grid, with costs of it being covered by a 30-years loan taken from the local savings bank.

On 8th October, the villagers experienced an earthquake. The chronicle has a record of it: “An earthquake – a natural phenomenon unheard of in our region, took place around 9pm on 8th October. The glasses and plates were clanking, furniture rattling. It was felt most strongly when one was laying in the bed.”

In January 1928 the pupils performed a theater play “Nanynka from Tynice“. Similar performances were done at least twice a year, judging from the local chronicles, however this one was extraordinary because special rococo costumes were borrowed from a city of Brno.

In April 1928 the school organized a charity collection to help the people of Bulgaria who suffered from a major earthquake; in total, 362 Czechoslovak crowns were collected. Also, a first doctor’s office was opened in Vemyslice, serviced by Dr. Weiss, coming from Ivancice.

Perhaps the most exciting moment of that academic year came in June, when Czechoslovak president T. G. Masaryk paid a visit to the region. All pupils from Vemyslice went to Moravsky Krumlov to welcome him upon his arrival.

On the contrary, the next academic year of 1928/1929 appear to had been quite uneventful, except of a very harsh winter that brought massive snowdrifts and temperatures as low as -30 °C. A new principal arrived at the school, and Mr Orlicek  went on to a new mission to Velke Bilovice. Before he left, he wrapped up his era in the school chronicle by – what a paradox in his case! – a quote from Jesus: “Amen I tell you, nobody is a prophet in their own land”.

In July 1929, a new church building for the protestant denomination was finished, and started its service on 1st September 1929. The local protestant community first appeared during the census in 1921, when 170 out of 934 citizens declared to belong to the Czechoslovak Church of Brethren. The chronicler however documented very uneasy beginnings of their faith: “On 8th May 1921, the local branch of Church of Brethren was established in Vemyslice. It is chaired by Mr Jiri Seiner from house No. 56. As a result of continuous harassment (ban on using the bell during funerals, not allowing them to use crosses or have their own church building), the protestant movement weakened a bit, yet as of today (that is 15th August 1921), 136 members of the Catholic church dared to convert to protestants.”

Silvestr’s family declared themselves as Catholic during the 1921 census, yet they soon joined the ranks of the protestants. I remember my grandmother attending Sunday services at the protestant church that has a Hussite symbol of a red calix above its entrance, along with a slogan “The Truth Will Prevail”.

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Photo: The protestant church in Vemyslice, where my grandmother – Silvestr’s sister – was regularly going for Sunday services. I took this photo in 2013. In the background, behind the birch tree, you can see the building of the new school.

Upon departure of Mr Orlicek, the village chronicle was taken care by Mr Dubsik, a teacher from the secondary school. He made a ceremonial record about the completion of the protestant church – the last of the three new community buildings at this end of the village. Next to the school and the protestant church, a local gym was built as well. Mr Dubsik refers to these as the “Three centers of progress, endorsing health (gym), wisdom (school) and devotion (church) – in line with the three noble ideas of humanity: the truth, the beauty, and the goodness.”

The three new community buildings were accompanied by an adjacent old park, which the municipality obtained during the above mentioned Land Reform. The park has been left on its own for several years, and then in 1929 the council decided to put it under custody of the local school and its teachers who did a clean up and restoration.

The academic year of 1929/1930 has been Silvestr’s last year at the primary school. A new principal Mr Placek decided in the autumn of 1929 to establish a new educational facility in Vemyslice – an agricultural school for the graduates of the secondary school. On its first year, 5 boys and 15 girls signed up. At the beginning of the chronicle of this agricultural school, Mr Placek complained: “As a matter of future interest and for the record, I can’t stay silent about the fact that the pupils did not like attending this school.” Few pages later, he glued in a photo that entertained me – because I think it nicely illustrates both the dislike, as well as its reason.

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Photo: Pupils establishing a school compost. From the chronicles of the agricultural school in Vemyslice.

In October 1929, local elections took place in Vemyslice, and were won by the Agrarian Party, followed by the Popular Party. It is interesting to read that the participation at the polling was 92% – something hard to imagine today.

In March 1930, the municipality prepared spectacular celebrations of the 80th birthday of the Czechoslovak president, T. G. Masaryk. Most of the houses and buildings in Vemyslice were decorated with national flags and on 7th March, a full day ceremony began. At the sunset, a parade took place. It was headed by the pupils of the local school (therefore, also Silvestr), followed by a local band, members of the local council, policemen, fire brigade and national gymnastics associations “Sokol” and “Orel”. According to the records, in total 1,400 people marched in the parade. Given that Vemyslice only had 980 citizens at that time, it means that almost half of the participants came from the neighbouring smaller villages of Dobelice, Rybniky, Tulesice, Cermakovice and Dzbanice.

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Photo: A scene from the school festival in 1930. The school chronicle has many photographs glued in it, thanks to Mr Dubsik who was using them to document major events in the village.

When Silvestr was 11 years old, he entered a secondary school in the years 1930/1931 at that moment, it had 28 pupils. In November, the school purchased a new piano and furniture. In the spring of 1931 both primary and secondary schools were united under one management; the primary classes were located on the ground floor, and secondary was upstairs.

Next year, 1931/1932, brought some tragedies. The local chronicle has a big headline “Murder” and a detailed report beneath:

“On 25th November 1931, a local women – Marie Nemcova from house No. 28 in Vemyslice – was murdered as she walked from Moravsky Krumlov back home. The crime happened on a top of the Perk Hill. She was carrying 2,000 Czechoslovak crowns in cash for the sugar beet delivered to the Krumlov sugar factory. She was supposed to have 13,000 crowns on her, but the factory gave her only a first payment. It is speculated that the killer assumed she would carry the full amount, otherwise he would not have killed for only 2,000 crowns. The investigation has been complicated by the fact that initially, based on autopsy by Dr Janicek, it was considered to be a car accident. Only later, they found a shot in the back of her head. The murderer has not been found yet.”

Marie Nemcove was a relative of Silvestr, though not in the small family circle – yet this tragedy must have shaken everyone at his home. There is a small monument of this violent death at the Perk Hill till these days, and its text says that the murderer was never identified. As a boy, I was often walking by it, on my way to catch a bus home from Moravsky Krumlov.

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Photo: A monument of murdered Marie Nemcova next to the road from Vemyslice to Moravsky Krumlov. Source: Google Street View.

Another death that undoubtedly hit Silvestr and his friends came in February 1932, when their school teacher Marie Vaskova died while giving a birth to her child.

In August 1932, Vemyslice – after an long effort, as its first application was submitted back in 1892 – was permitted to establish its own post office. The municipality had to appeal a negative decision of the general directorate of the State Post from a year earlier. It seems that the Vemyslice post office was established despite the will of its neighboring villages that used to – as did Vemyslice – fall under the jurisdiction of the post office in Moravsky Krumlov, but now, to their disliking, they were transferred to Vemyslice. The post office opened on 1st October, and had three employees: a chief officer and two postmen.

That was already the academic year of 1932/1933, when Silvestr reached his 13 years and attended the last class of the secondary school, along with another 24 pupils. In November, another dramatic tragedy occurred in the community:

“In the evening of 15th November 1932, a passenger car driven by Mr Sustacek from Moravsky Krumlov was arriving from Dzbanice. In the turn in the front of Mr Pelaj’s house, it slipped and its left wheel got stuck in a ditch next to the road. As a result of this impulse, a worker Mr Hrubes was ejected out of the car directly towards a plum tree. The frontal hit killed him. Both the tree and its surroundings were covered in blood. Mr Sustacek, who works as an innkeeper and tax collector in Krumlov, managed to survive with only light injuries.”

March 1933 brought a telephone and telegraph connection to Vemyslice, as the village got hooked to a communication line between Moravsky Krumlov and Tulesice.

We also learn that the municipality council collapsed as a result of harsh political disputes, and new elections were held in March 1933. Its outcomes were tight again, with a majority of 8 votes against 7 in two main blocks in the council. So the disputes continued, as the chronicle documents. Apparently, the political life in Vemyslice was quite lively in these years!

There is also an interesting chapter in the chronicles that describes the local winter sports in Vemyslice – a fun that surely Silvestr participated in.

“A lot of modern winter sports became popular recently among the local youth. People are ice-skating above the Steinmetz weir, and on the section of the [Rokytna] river towards Rybniky. The boys are passionate about ‘hockey’, which substitutes football during the winter season. A lot of influence came from the radio and its reports from various sports events including the Winter Olympic Games. Sledges got a lot of use on the slopes of Kopec and Sibenicnik. Adults are joining the children, mostly during the weekends and holidays. In the evening hours, things are very lively even downtown, where boys and girls ride their sledges on the main road from the fire squad’s warehouse down to the pub – as long as the police is not expelling them.

Most recently, a new phenomenon called ‘skiing’ arrived to our village. In the former years, this beautiful winter sport was unknown to us. I started promoting it myself back in 1928, especially amongst the students and members of the local gymnastics associations. The number of young skiers have been growing since. I was teaching them the first steps on the skis made at home from wooden planks, or for little money at the local warehouse. This winter, skiing became popular here, and many kids and teenagers dare to ski down from bigger slopes of Kopec, at the Brick Factory, trying to perform acrobatic turns,” recorded Mr Dubsik in the municipal chronicle.

At the end of the academic year, all pupils went for a trip to a castle ruins at Rabstejn, to Babylon and Vlci kopce. The chronicler is pleased that “the children learnt about beautiful and so far unknown to them valley of the Jihlava river, and discovered that there is enough natural beauties in our homeland.”

The upcoming summer entertained Silvestr with another artillery training in the village, as captured in the chronicle: “An observation point was set at the hill above Vemyslice. From there, the soldiers as well as Vemyslice citizens had an opportunity to watch the explosions of the fired shells. The shells that failed to explode were recovered immediately based on the spotting and destroyed with small charges. Yet, many farmers were afraid to plow the fields in the autumn, scared that they may run into a forgotten shell.”

We don’t know where Silvestr attended the business academy that he went to after graduating from the secondary school, but quite likely it was in Moravsky Krumlov, the nearest city. In such case, he was probably still living at home and commuted daily.

Then in September 1936, he left to work for Bata in Zlin.

I have found three other documents in the Znojmo archives that directly relate to the Nemec family in Vemyslice.

The oldest record I found is in the “Book of punishments” that documents the penalties and sentences of local citizens. This one covers a historical period from 1871, i.e. the old times of the Habsburg Austrian empire, to 1930. These are mostly smaller offenses such as cheating, vagrancy, beggary, loansharking or assault. The penalties are sometimes financial, sometimes in the form of several days spent in the local jail.

Silvestr Nemec senior – Silvestr’s father – was in July 1903, at the age of 23, sentenced by a court in Moravsky Krumlov because of an offence according to the article 335 of penal law. The sentence was 5 crowns or 2 days in jail. However, according to the record, his sentence was pardoned by an amnesty. I was trying to find what the article 335 of the old Austrian penal code means – apparently it’s covering “misdemeanors and offenses against safety of life”. In today’s terminology, probably something like endangerment due to negligence.

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Photo: Record of Silvestr father’s sentence and its amnesty.

Another document kept at Znojmo archives is a plan for reconstruction of a barn that Nemec – Silvestr’s father – proposed in 1910:

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And finally, a record sheet from the 1921 census conducted in the house Vemyslice No 23:

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This is an interesting one. It indicates that apart from Silvestr, his two siblings and parents, there were several other people living in their house: Silvestr’s grandmother and grandfather (of Netousek family), grandmother Nemcova and uncle Jan.

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Photo: Silvestr’s mother with his three older siblings: oldest Frantisek (born in 1908), Julie (she died around age of ten as a result of tragic accident she suffered when she was a baby); the youngest is Frantiska (born in 1914) – my grandmother.

This is how far I have managed to get in my research about the unknown life and fate of my great-uncle Silvestr Nemec.

In the coming weeks and months, I plan to once more go through all the documents and information gathered, and add things and edit in the text whatever necessary.

Next step will be preparation of a book to get the whole story ready for the 100th anniversary of the birth of Silvestr, in October 2019. Stay tuned!

 

Silvestr’s Death, Scenario Four: Evacuation from Singapore

The fourth possible option of how my great-uncle Silvestr Nemec could have died during the siege of Singapore is that he had perished on one of the ships that were evacuating the civilians and soldiers from the island shortly before its capitulation. Unlike the previous three possibilities, this is a purely speculative scenario: there is no evidence or a witness account suggesting such possibility. Nevertheless, it can’t be entirely ruled out either. I would like to look into this in a bit more into detail also because the evacuation scenario applied to a number of Czechoslovaks living in Singapore at that time.

Even after the Japanese launched their attack on Malaya on 8th December 1941, the British officials kept underestimating the situation. We have already seen how Viktor Kos remembers in his diary the repeated occasions when the evacuation and retreat from Malaya were delayed until it was too late. That explains why during December 1941, only a limited number of civilians fled from Singapore: the government was not recommending that, also in fear that it would create panic, arguing it was not necessary because Singapore would hold. On the contrary, the number of people on the island was in fact increasing, as the Europeans and Eurasians, as well as allied soldiers, fleeing from Malaya were pouring in – especially when Kuala Lumpur was finally evacuated.

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Photo: Women evacuated from the Malayan island of Penang are refreshing themselves with tea at one of the train stations along the way. December 1941. Source and link:
IWM

Only in January 1942, as the battlefront was quickly approaching Singapore, the officials rushed to evacuate some of the civilians. The evacuation effort was focusing on the thousands of Europeans living there, and was never meant for more than a million of local people.

Dozens of ships of all kinds were now leaving Singapore: old merchant ships, liners as well as auxiliary military vessels (after the British Pacific fleet, the infamous Z Force, was destroyed at the very start of the war with Japan). Most were heading to British India or Australia, some also to South Africa.

The colonial administration created a special evacuation commission and tasked it with organizing the available ships, as well as paperwork around permissions required to leave Singapore. Women and children had a priority in the evacuation.

singapore residents show visa to flee1
Photo: Singapore women and children show their visa before boarding an evacuation ship. Source: The Atlantic/AP

 

Evacuation of Women and Children

Most wifes and children of the Batamen managed to escape in the first evacuation wave. Zdenek Plhon describes this in his memoirs:

“The management of Bata – after overcoming a lot of bureaucratic obstacles – arranged places on the evacuation ships heading to Australia and to England (with a stop in India) for most family members of the Singapore based staff. Considering the daily bombing and shelling of the city, all the chaos and difficulties, this act deserves utmost respect.

Finally, a group of 18 Czechoslovak women and a comparable number of children boarded an evacuation ship ‘Empress of Japan’ (how ironic!) on 31st January. In total, the ship took about 3,000 women and children, mostly of English citizenship. A neighboring, smaller ship took additional 1,500.

Both ships left under the darkness of the night. Because the strait to the north of Singapore was already under control of the Japanese, there was only one option left: sail south, towards the Java island, and then turn around the southern tip of Sumatra westward, into the Indian ocean. During the daytime, both ships were bombarded by the Japanese airplanes near the Bangka islands. The second, smaller ship was hit and damaged – it had to be taken to Jakarta’s dry dock for repairs. Its 1,500 passengers were eventually captured by the Japanese, because the repair was not finished before the Japanese took over Java.

A group of the 18 Czechoslovak women with kids finally arrived at the Colombo harbor on Sri Lanka, and from there continued on another ship to Bombay. Here, the Bata company’s Indian branch took care of them.”

zeny a deti
Photo: A group of Bata families from Singapore who managed to escape from Singapore in late January 1942 and reached India, where they stormed out the war. Source: personal archive of Oldrich Plesek

A much more detailed account is provided in the diary of Viktor Kos, a senior member of the Bata management in Singapore:

“The events were unfolding quickly and the bombing continued days and nights. That’s why in early January I suggested to my wife that she leaves Singapore with our kids. The kids were very scared. But my wife kept refusing, saying she would stay with me no matter what. If something bad would happen, it should happen to all of us together. One day however she changed her view. It was around the middle of January, on Sunday when my wife was with Mrs Jugas in the garden next to the tennis court, and the children were playing in the corner of the garden, near the road. Suddenly an alarm sounded. Our son Palos yelled: ‘The Japs, the Japs!’, and started to run home, Jarka [wife] went after him. I was shouting at him from the tennis court not to be afraid, that the Japs are not here yet, but he did not stop and continued running. Because I was behind the fence that surrounded the court, I was not able to stop him and comfort him. […] Right on Monday I started to inquire about the options for my family to evacuate. The immigration office told me that they can’t grant me a visa for Australia, neither a permission to leave Singapore unless I first get an official statement of another country that would agree to accept me and my family. At that moment, a massive evacuation of women and children from Singapore was not considered, yet a number of them were leaving on their own. However, many obstacles were created for people to leave, especially for the foreigners like us.”

It was indeed not easy to flee from the upcoming war. One of the reasons was that particularly Australia was hesitant to accept refugees from Singapore. In his quest, Kos approached the colonial officer who was in charge of overseeing the operation of Bata company, and with whom he had good personal relations. From him, Kos learnt that:

“[…] as far as he knows, there are considerable difficulties in obtaining the permissions to leave the island, but that possibly women with small children could still be prioritized. On the following day, he also told me in confidentiality that neither Australia nor India want to accept the Singapore refugees because these would include a larger number of Chinese and Asiatics. This can’t be communicated publicly though, otherwise they would riot. As a result, the permissions are considered on an individual basis and there are certain criteria that an applicant has to meet.”

Eventually, all wives of the Batamen applied for Australian visa, but the Australian government kept hesitating in granting it. Let’s just imagine how unnerving the uncertainty must have been for the civilians, who – despite daily bombings and battlefront approaching quickly – were left in limbo and were not allowed to evacuate even if they took their own initiative. The atmosphere of despair was further aggravated because of the reports of Japanese brutality with which they handle both captives and civilians.

Finally, the families of Czechoslovak Bata employees were rescued thanks to an intervention of the company’s director in British India. He managed to arrange the necessary visa for India in exchange with his guarantee that the company would take care of its people there. Based on these visa, the Singapore colonial government finally granted permissions to leave.

Let’s get back to the diary of Viktor Kos:

“For many days, our wives had their suitcases packed, but a new problem emerged – there were no ship available. As soon as the women and children got their Indian visa, we requested tickets to get them onboard of one of the ships heading for India. However, they told us that nobody can guarantee whether and when there may be a suitable ship. The telegram sent from Batanagar to the Immigration office was guaranteeing visa for 20 people. The plan was to send 19 wives plus Zdenek Plhon who was under 18 years and could traveled along with his mother. No man above 18 years was allowed to leave Singapore. All these permissions were arranged by Mr Jugas, who dedicated a lot of effort to gather them.

Finally, one day Mr Jugas was informed that a suitable ship may be leaving in few days. I can’t tell how he learnt, but it must have been unofficial – such news were not released publicly due to security reasons, but also in order to prevent vast masses of people coming to the harbor and trying to board it. It was on 28th or 29th January 1942. Of course, Mr Jugas rushed to reserve the tickets, however there were already many others requesting them, too. He had to wait throughout the night, but finally thanks to his assertiveness, he managed to get them. The departure was set for 30th January afternoon.

The boarding started early after lunch. At about two o’clock, a company car came to pick the luggage of those who were leaving. When we approached the gate to the harbor, we have seen that a number of depots were on fire and heavy smoke was darkening the sky. There were already many cars and people crowded around the gate, but nobody was allowed to pass through. A storage house right next to the ship was burning. Officials standing at the gate were sending everyone back home, saying it’s futile to wait and it’s better to come back in the evening when the fire would hopefully be put down. They said that there was no other access to the boat […]. After a while, someone suggested that we try another gate on the opposite side of the harbor. When we got there, again there was a traffic jam and too many people in chaos. Military vehicles were being repaired on this side of the harbor, and the soldiers did not like to see the civilians around, so they were pushing us out. However, when they spotted my uniform and helmet, they allowed our car to pass through – and some other cars used that opportunity and followed behind.”

malayaevacuation
Photo: Civilians are boarding one of the evacuation ships in Singapore. Source and link: http://ww2throughthelens.blogspot.com/2009/06/japanese-invasion-of-singapore.html

 

Kos continues:

It was dangerous to be in the middle of the melee at the harbor. There were thousands of people crowded there, and we were scared of what might happen if the Japanese airplanes come to bomb us. Around four o’clock, indeed an air raid alarm was sounded, and people began to panic, as there was no shelter at sight. There was an anti-aircraft battery nearby, and its crew was carefully observing the sky. Suddenly, several airplanes appeared approaching. The anti-aircraft gun was getting ready to get them in its sights, when the alarm stopped. What a relief, as it turned out that these were ours! The front was already so close that nobody could be certain if the airplanes belong to us or to the enemy, therefore air raid alert was announced even when our own pilots were returning.

[My son] Palos was asking whether I would go together with them. When I replied that I would follow later, he said: ‘I see, you will stay here and shoot the Japanese, right?’ However, when I went to give him my farewell, he bursted in tears and wanted me to take him back home: ‘I want to go home, I won’t stay on this ship, I want to go back to our beautiful house’. I was not able to calm him down, and as I bent towards him, he grabbed me around by neck and locked his knees around my body. At the end, I had to use force to push him away. When Jaruska, who had been playing with other kids around, saw this, she also began to cry. At the end, all of us were crying like kids until finally, I said goodbye and run away.”

 

iwm_205079551
Photo: A scene from the Singapore harbor. Soldiers are pushing one of the passenger cars left behind by the evacuees off to the sea, in an effort to destroy all functional vehicles before the enemy seizes them. This was part of the ‘scorched earth’ policy practices by the British. Source and link: IWM

 

The last convoy from Singapore

The last wave of evacuation ships departed from the island between 11th and 13th February. About 46 vessels went out to the sea – this is however only an estimation, the exact figure is not known because the official documentation did not survive the war. By that time, the Japanese gained a full control of the air as well as the sea surrounding Singapore, therefore the journey on these boats came was very risky.

The Japanese issued an official warning that they would sink all evacuation vessels, determined “not to allow another Dunkirk”. Indeed, most of the vessels from the last convoy were destroyed, only six of them eventually managed to escape and reach safety. The British command then suspended all evacuations on 14th February.

awm_c203942
Photo: Crew of the SS Empire Star is examining the damage to the deck caused by Japanese bombing as it was sailing away from Singapore. Empire Star was among the 6 out of total of 46 evacuation ships of the last convoy that managed to reach safety. It was carrying 2,500 people onboard. Source and link: AWM.

The lists of passengers onboard began to be compiled only after departure, and because most of the ships were eventually sank, these documents have been lost. Therefore we will never learn the names of the thousands who boarded those ships and later perished at sea. The survivors who managed to escape from the sinking ships and rescue themselves were later captured by the Japanese and interned, mostly at camps on Sumatra.

This was also the fate of Viktor Kos who remembers:

“On Sunday 1st February we all gathered in the apartment of Mr Jugas to discuss our situation. Also our consul attended. It all looked that Singapore will be captured soon – also our employees in the office felt that. At the meeting with consul we wanted to agree our next steps. He was assuring us that there was nothing to worry about, because it would take months before Singapore might fall; also, that it would be transformed into a military fortress and because of that, the British will minimize the amount of civilians in consideration of their safety as well as to reduce the supply needs. His speech reminded me of a talk that our consult held at Calcutta in October 1938 [i.e. after the Munich Treaty]. He, too, was trying to console us by making various promises about what the army will do […] It did not take long and our consul himself abandoned Singapore on 6th February.

During the morning of 9th February, Mr Jugas took our passports and using French visa, he obtained transition permits via India for us. Although he arranged these papers for everyone, including himself, a day later (10th February) evening he and couple others decided to stay in Singapore no matter what.”

In the chaos of the last days before the fall of Singapore on 15th February, it became impossible to keep track of who managed to get onboard of which evacuation ship – and obviously, some were lucky to get there even without necessary permits and papers:

“On the evening of 10th February someone brought us our passports with French visa attached to it. Mr Wodak was not seen around, and someone mentioned that he had managed to get onboard some ship that very evening, along with one or two other Czechoslovaks who were not our [Bata’s] employees. A rumor went around that also yesterday, several Czechoslovak people left on another ship. Mr Strangfeld got very angry that while others already left, we were not told anything.

When I arrived to our office on 11th February, Mr Varmuza was just reporting that several of our boys managed to get on board of a ship that was leaving just an hour ago. The passengers on that ship were picking up some soldiers even after it already left from the harbor.”

The diary of Mr Kos contains a list of 18 Batamen who, according to his knowledge, used the chance to leave Singapore in the last evacuation convoy: along with Mr Kos himself, that would make 19 men. But again, given the chaos described above, there could have been more.

At least five Czechoslovaks made it to SS Redang – an obsolete boat built in Denmark in 1901. It was about 50 meters long and had a carrying capacity of 500 tons; its maximum speed was 9 knots (about 16 km/h). The British authorities confiscated it on 9th December 1941 upon its arrival to Singapore.

redang
Photo: Danish boat SS Redang was carying about hundred evacuees, including several Batamen. Source: Archive of Michael Pether

SS Redang and its passengers were among the unlucky ones. It left Singapore on 12th February around 7am, and carried about hundred people on board. This figure and a partial list of names has been researched by Michael Pether, a historian from New Zealand who spent years discovering archives and information about the evacuation ships from Singapore. His work about SS Redang is available online at the website of the Malayan Volunteer Group.

About 100 kilometers south of Singapore, halfway to the Bangka islands, the ship was  attacked, probably by a Japanese destroyer Asagiri. As it was shelled, most passengers were killed; the ship caught fire and eventually sunk. One of the shells hit a cabin right in the moment when two women in it were typing up a passenger list.

Among the victims were Klement Plhon, Oldrich Smrzak and probably also Eugen Straussler and Bedrich Heim, who too were probably onboard. Three other Batamen who were at the fore-deck at the time of attack managed to get into a lifeboat: Hynek Cervinka, Vladimir Zelnicek and Josef Strangfeld. However, Strangfeld suffered a heavy injury in his leg and died shortly in the lifeboat. One of the interesting aspects of this story is that Straussler’s widowed wife later remarried to a British officer Ken Stoppard. Her son from the first marriage – Tomas Straussler – later became a famous author, known under his adapted name Tom Stoppard.

Only about 30 passengers of SS Redang survived on one of the three lifeboats that the ship was carrying. In the afternoon of 14th February, they reached a coast of Sumatra, and a British ship HMS Tapah picked them up from there two days later. However, soon after that HMS Tapah got captured by the Japanese. The survivors from SS Redang then had to spend 3.5 years at an internment camp on the Sumatra Island.

Kos himself got onboard of another ship, named Mata Hari, which too was captured by the Japanese near the Bangka islands. Thanks to that, he soon encountered Zelnicek and Cervenka who told him their story of SS Redang. Here is how Kos described his own departure from Singapore:

“We approached one of the transport ships, but it refused to take us onboard, arguing that they don’t have capacity to take any more people and that already many passengers don’t have life vests available. So we went to another ship, but it was the same story. Eventually, we were allowed to board a third ship. People were brought in on small boats, and then they scrambled in all possible ways to get onboard of the bigger ship. It was crowded everywhere. There were no cabins on that ship, because it was a freighter. I have learnt later that all three ships had been out of order for several years, being used just for training of the Malayan navy. Once the anchor was lifted, we slowly sailed out. About half hour later, it stopped for a reason unknown to me. It was already dark. When we looked back at Singapore, what a view it was in the night: big fires all around the city, and also on the small island nearby, as the depots of oil and gasoline were ablaze.”

The chances are slim that Silvestr might have been among those who managed to get onboard of one of these ships. As a volunteer with SSVF, he would have never received the required permit, although it was not impossible to sneak in during the chaos. Also, he certainly was not leaving in a group with other Bata people, as otherwise they would remember him.

According to an official list of Czechoslovak citizens, compiled in May 1942 by the consulate in India, Silvestr stayed in Singapore. There, he could have been either murdered during the Alexandra Hospital massacre, killed in action at Pasir Panjang, or died in the early days of captivity.

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Photo: A page from the list of whereabouts of Czechoslovak citizens based in Singapore, as it was made in May 1942 by the consulate in India. According to this record, unlike many others who left on evacuation ships, Silvestr stayed in Singapore.

That’s all I have managed to discover.

I will finish my writing next time, when we will explore Silvestr’s childhood in Vemyslice – a Moravian village near city of Brno where he was born and grew up.

 

 

Silvestr’s death, scenario three: Prisoner of war

We have already covered two of the possibilities of how my great-uncle Silvestr Nemec might have perished during the Battle of Singapore: He could have become a victim of the infamous Alexandra Hospital massacre; or might have died in battle somewhere in the Pasir Panjang area.

The third possible scenario is that Silvestr had survived the fights and was captured as a prisoner of war (POW).

It is less likely than the previous options we had already discussed, because unlike for those two, there is almost no evidence or reference to support the third scenario we will analyze today. However, in the absence of a solid proof for any of the versions, we can’t entirely rule out a possibility that he had died only several days – perhaps weeks or even months – after the surrender of Singapore. It surely must had been before the Japanese finished identification and registration of all their prisoners, because Silvestr’s name can’t be found in any of the known lists. On contrary, it’s been quite easy to find a POW registration card of Josef Vyhnalek:

Vyhnalek POW.jpg
Photo: Record of Josef Vyhalek from the Japanese registry of their prisoners of war.

Vyhnalek’s card was written on 15th August of the 17th year of the Hirohito’s era, which corresponds with the year 1942 of the Christian calendar – exactly six months after the capitulation. It’s recorded that Vyhnalek was captured on 17th February.

The fact that there is no trace of Silvestr in the POW lists suggests that had he been captured, did not survive long enough to be properly registered. Significantly, we have not seen any witness account of seeing Silvestr in captivity: in case he became POW, he must had ended up in separation from the rest of the Czechoslovaks. Within the Czechoslovak community, a story of Silvestr’ death in the Alexandra hospital clearly prevailed.

There however is one historical document according to which Silvestr was not considered as a person missing, but as a prisoner of war. This document is unique not only due to this information, but also because of its own story.

It’s a so called Jeyes List – a nominal roll secretly written up sometime in 1942 by Jack Bennett – a salesman from an export company based in Borneo, who was kept in the Singapore’s internment camp at Changi. It was here that Bennett compiled a list of all known Europeans from Malaya and Singapore that were not interned at Changi, and therefore were either known to be prisoners of war, or were considered as missing. Bennett and his team were collecting and verifying their information from other people captured in the camp, or from those who were transiting through it.

Bennett’s unique list is written in microscopic letters on 18 sheets of toilet paper – the only piece of paper accessible in the camp, where it was forbidden to keep any documents or records. He attached a code to every name, indicating his fate: “M” was for missing, “POW” indicated those who became prisoners of war.

Like many other invaluable documents, I have received a copy of the Jeyes List from Jonathan Moffatt from the Malayan Volunteer Group. Here is how one of the sheets looks like, to give you an idea:

JeyesList
Photo: One of the 18 sheets of toilet paper on which Jack Bennett wrote in 1942 his incredible record of the whereabouts of the European citizens living in Malaya and Singapore. Source: archive of Jonathan Moffatt

And here is a detail: although on the verge of readibility, yet it’s an unmistakable record of Silvestr Nemec. It reads as: “NEMEC – CZECH – BATA – POW”.

JeyesNemecDetail
Photo: Detail of the Jeyes list with a record of Silvestr.

So indeed, Silvestr might had been captured alive, maybe wounded. According to the historians with whom i have been consulting my research, the Jeyes List is considered to be highly reliable, with some 95% accuracy. Of course, Silvestr may belong to the 5% of cases where Bennett’s information was incorrect.

 

Czechoslovaks in the Japanese captivity

We already know that there were about hundred Czechoslovaks living in Singapore before the WW2. Some of them managed to escape the approaching Japanese in time – mostly the wifes and children of the Bata employees, who evacuated to India or Australia. Some of them however also died as the evacuation ships were bombed at sea. (A hypothesis that Silvestr could have died during evacuation is the least likely option, yet it’s worth looking into as well – i will revisit it next time.)

The older or married Batamen, who did not join the Straits Settlement Volunteer Forces, served as home guards and were lucky that at the time of capitulation, their commander suggested them to discard their uniforms and dress up in their civilian cloths. As civilians, they had a chance to live in better conditions under the Japanese.

This moment is captured in the previously already quoted article published in Bata’s weekly, Batanagar News in October 1945:

“On 15th February the battle seemed lost. Surrender was in progress. The Commander of the Volunteer Corps called the Czechoslovaks and told them: There is no certainty whether with the Japanese there are no German officers, or at least German controlled intelligence personnel. If they caught you with arms, you would be treated as traitors, considering your country is occupied by the Germans, and as such mercilessly hanged, not to think of worse. Keep your soldiers’ books and better leave the lines, go home and change into civilian cloths. It will be safer.”

The story published in Batanagar News is based on witness account of the first two Batamen who arrived in India after the internment camp in Singapore was liberated. They also describe some of the horrors and atrocities that followed the surrender of Singapore:

“Singapore was a devastated town. Both Allied and Japanese dead were lying in hundreds on the streets, fires were fiercely burning, there was no electricity, the canals were smashed and rubbish found their way on the streets. It was an indescribable scene. The Japanese New Order came into force […] Scores of heads severed from the body – of Europeans, Malayans and Chinese – hung on public buildings, on the streets and halls served as warning against the slightest disobedience. On the street corners were dying the roped men of thirst and hunger and spat by the passing Japanese.”

Here is also Vyhnalek’s recollection of the chaos and brutality that followed the fall of Singapore, and in which Silvestr may had found his end. Vyhnalek himself was captured during the battle at Pasir Panjang.

“For those of us who became prisoners of war, a death march followed to the concentration camp at Changi Barracks. Why do i refer to it as a death march? As we were walking through the city in inless columns, at every street crossing, a Japanese officer puled one prisoner out. That unfortunate was then tied to a pole or chair and bayoneted to death on the eyes of his fellows. It was argued later that the Japanese did this as a warning to the other prisoners, and also to show to the natives that the white men are not anymore in charge of the island.”

Although historians question the reference to the “death march”, because there are no other records of this particular brutality committed by Japanese at Singapore (in contrast, for example, with Philippines), its apparent that there was plenty of chaos and violence in the days and weeks that followed the surrender, during which the wounded were dying and more killings were taking place.

There is another small indication that Silvestr might had survived the surrender: the date of his death in the online record of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) says he died on 17th February – that would be two days after the capitulation. As we know, Silvestr’s official death certificate states that he died “on or around 15th February 1942”. It would be interesting to understand where the discrepancy comes from, and what is the original reference of the CWGC record. Unfortunately, my inquiries with CWGC on this matter so far had failed.

What used to be a British colonial prison at Singapore’s Changi, became an internment camp in which about 3,000 European civilians were held by the Japanese occupants.

Although the name “Changi” also became a synonym for a POW camp in Singapore, the prisoners of war were in fact kept in the British Selarang barracks in its vicinity. From there, many were later transferred to labor camps as a forced labor. Their first tasks were however clean up of Singapore. This is how Vyhnalek described his experience:

“Our first job was cleaning up the rubble and burying the corpses of the dead. The decay was very fast in the tropical weather, so there was a terrible stench spreading to a perimeter of one kilometer, and when we approached the dead body, swarms of flies […] Rice and rice only for food. The rations were small, completely inadequate. We were making salt out of the sea water. We boiled soup from the grass, it was hardly digestible […] When we worked outside the camp, we sometimes managed to collect wild green limes or coconuts, because they are plentiful in Malaya. Sometimes we managed to find snails – we boiled them together with rice, but again, not everybody was able to eat them.”

The conditions in the Selarang POW camp were hard. They are pictured, among others, in a famous movie King Rat, filmed in 1965 – it’s a story of a corrupt corporal who informally becomes the boss of the camp and enjoys relatively luxurious life, while his comrades are starving and living in tatters.

 king-rat
Photo: Poster of the King Rat movie – a story taking place in the Changi POW camp in Singapore.

Although the camps at Changi were tough, they were still a friendly place in comparison with the working camps at Barma and Borneo, to where many of the POWs were later transferred. While only about a thousand prisoners out of 50,000 died during captivity at Changi, the death rate in the other working camps averaged about a third.

Most likely, all eleven Batamen who fought with SSVF and FMSVF were taken as Japanese prisoners (and possibly also Silvestr as twelfth). Since May 1943, they were sent to the labor camps outside of Singapore.

This is as well captured in Vyhnalek’s account:

“About a year later [after being at the Changi concentration camp], we were divided into three groups. The first one went to Burma to build a railway and road there, another one to Labuan on Borneo to build an airport, and third to Japan.

We as Czechoslovaks wanted to stay together. I was therefore very unhappy when a Japanese officer pulled me out of our group that was heading for Borneo, and assigned me to Burma.

Soon we realized what kind of a hell we arrived to. Tropical ulcers, skin diseases, malaria and the worst – cholera – were haunting us all the time. Some camps perished to the last men due to cholera, in some others only a third of the men survived. The dead infected bodies were often left in open without burrials, so when the rains came, the water got contaminated.

In early 1944, the railway and road across the jungle in Barma were nearly finished. Hundreds of allied bombers attacked and destroyed a project that cost 150,000 human lives. The Japanese invasion to India was stopped.”

The Burma Railway – often also referred to as a Death Railway – was designed by the Japanese and stretched from Bangkok in Thailand to the western coast of Burma. Its main purpose was to enable the supply to the Japanese army during their operation in Burma, and to support the planned invasion to the British India (as it included today’s Bangladesh, it was directly neighboring Burma). Without the railway crossing the inland, the Japanese would have to rely on transport ship that would have to go around the whole Malayan peninsula, and would be quite vulnerable during this several thousand kilometers long journey.

In contrast, the railway supply route was only 400 km long, but it had to cut through mountainous and wild inland. Therefore, its construction was a very challenging task, and it required more than 600 bridges to be built.

 BurmaRailway
Photo: Japanese prisoners carry railway sleepers during the Burma railway construction. This photograph was taken sometime in 1943.

Another legendary movie, The Bridge on the River Kwai is depicting a story of one of these bridges. It’s however told in a very patriotic and romanticizing way: the British pride and virtuosity make the main hero to advice the supposedly inferior Japanese engineers how to construct a bridge, which – as it became a monument to the British genius – he then sets to protect from the allied air raid. In reality however, the Japanese managed to design and construct this extremely challenging project in a record time of just several months in the autumn of 1943.

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Photo: Tents set for the prisoners infected with cholera, built aside from the main labor camp in Barma.

The price for such a success was however paid in the horrible conditions under which the extremely hard work was performed by the local natives and the prisoners of war. The Japanese concentrated about 250,000 workers along the railway, and they were forced to work in the hostile jungle with just minimum supply of food and medicine, and no real infrastructure. The railway was built largely manually, using simple shovels and pickers, practically without any mechanized machinery.

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Photo: Three Australian prisoners of war in one of the labor camps along the Burma railway. Source: AWM.

About 20% of the British prisoners who were sent to work on the Barma railway had not survived. Overall, approximately 100,000 people died here as a result of malnutrition, mistreatment and diseases.

After it was finished in late 1943, the railway served until the end of war, except of several short interruptions due to allied attacks. When the work was done, most of the prisoners were relocated again, and the Japanese only maintained several small camps there in order to maintain and repair the railway as needed.

Let’s quote again from Vyhnalek’s memoirs:

“The Japanese then decided to focus on defense and to build an air base at Singapore’s Changi Point. The remaining prisoners from Burma were assigned to it. Therefore, we were going back to Singapore – that was in the middle of 1944. After two months there, we realized that all the skin diseases that infected us in Burma were gone – a miraculous Singapore climate!

But as we got rid of one disease, another hit us badly. Epidemy of beri-beri spread quickly among us, and many prisoners died of it. Our legs first got swollen and painful. When the swelling and pain extended to our stomachs, we knew it was bad: the patient was not able to eat anymore and died within two weeks.”

It was because of beriberi that two of Silvestr’s friends and colleagues died in the spring of 1945: Karel Vitek and Rudolf Janecek.

vitek_register.jpg

Photo: Registry of death of the British Colonial Office. On the second line, there is a record of Karel Vitek. He died in a camp at Brunei on 18th March 1945 as a result of malaria and beriberi.

Karel Vitek and Rudolf Janecek were transferred from Changi in March 1943 as a part of the “Force E” to Borneo. It was there, in Batu Litang/Kuching camp that Vitek died on 18th March because of malaria and beriberi. Rudolf Janecek was in the same group of prisoners and died in the same camp as a result of the same diseases a month earlier.

The other Czechoslovak volunteers who became prisoners of war managed to survive and see their liberation.

The fate of the civilian interns was still hard, but a bit lighter than that of the POWs. Bohman and Jedovnicky told the Batanagar News that immediately after the Japanese occupation began, they had to wear a visible red start symbol – marking the “enemies of Japan” – and also their apartments were marked in a similar way. Unlike many other European civilians that were soon interned at Changi, the Bata employees were allowed to stay in the city – but they were requested to renew the production of shoes, which were in high demand by the Japanese army.

“A Jap office daily came with more and more threatening promises, supplemented with kicks and slaps if the Batamen did not bow to him right down to the earth. The deep humiliating bow to every Jap-soldier, officer, even civilian. It was almost a miracle that they got together some tools and in the chaos of Japanese occupied Singapore they got material at least for few hundred pairs of shoes […] Placed as they were in such danger – surrounded, guarded, watched and controlled – the Singapore Batamen refused to give in, refused to work for the Japs. Had they done it openly, there would not be any Batamen to tell the story today, so they found their way: for each pair of shoes supplied to the Japanese authority, they made four pairs of footwear and secretly gave them to the Chinese, Indian and Malayan population whose plight cannot be described. In reward, the Singapore people helped them with foodstuffs and materials. And the shoes for the Japs were specially marked which indicated – Make them specially for Japs! They were made so specially that complaints were received after every despatch.”

The Batamen also delivered hundreds of pairs of shoes to the camp, especially for the interned women and children. Besides shoes, they also secretly supplied the camp from outside with quinine and other badly needed medicine. The Batanagar News article continues:

“Such activity could not be hidden for long, even with the best precautions. A military police once came to the Bata house and took away the Manager, Mr Jugas, along with Mr Chudarek and Mr Ambroz, for interrogation to the Military Police headquarters – some sort of Japanese Gestapo. This office was a prison and torture chamber, situated in the former YMCA building in Singapore. These three came out after one week, all at the point of collapsing. Only after the victory day it was possible to get out of them piece by piece what had really happened […] Appart from brutal interrogation they had to suffer themselves, they had to witness the terrible and indescribable torture of other prisoners, including women and young boys and girls.”

Finally, the Japanese lost their patience and took over the shoe production themselves. All the remaining Batamen were then also put into the Changi internment camp.

“On the 6th December 1943, the Jap police surrounded the premises and gave thirty minutes for dressing and taking some belongings. Then they threw all the Czechoslovaks into a van and took them to the Malayan prison in Changi […]

Bohman and Jedovnicky have given me an instance of the life in the Camp: The shortage of food there is known by now to the world. In the grass and evergrowing bushes around, there were plenty of slimy slugs. Some of the inmates tried to cook and eat them – they proved to be eatable and promised at least partly to still the hungry stomach. Joining collection of the slugs was then organized, and they were primarily given to the sick ones.

Death was stalking in the camp. There were deaths from torture, deaths from exhaustion, malnutrition and diseases. There were nervous breakdowns, illnesses, sufferings. How the Batamen withstood them all?

They were to work hard, day in and day out, from morning till evening, performing the most humble and humiliating tasks one can think of. When in the evenings, the tired body wants rest and hungry stomach pains, the most gloomy thoughts come in one’s mind: Can I stand all through? How about my wife and child in India? Are they all right? How abut the family under Germans? What will come of me when it is over? What new tricks the Japs will try tomorrow?

It was Mr Jugas who arranged the filling up of such moments […] Coming back from work, they set up to learn thoroughly the King’s English; others went with Malayans; Then Matus was cooking, Mizia with Varmuza were hospital orderlies; Jugas himself, Pospisil and Martinec were cultivating the allotment of earth and so on.”

Several years spent in the camp caused a deep trauma to most of the Bata people. Several of their descendants, currently living in Australia and elsewhere, wrote me about how their parents kept meeting and socializing after the war – gathering for Sunday afternoon tea, card games – but they never talked about the gloomy experiences they had to go through during the internment; not among themselves, not to their children.

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Photo: Liberated British citizens are leaving the gates of the Changi prison, which was used by the Japanese as an internment camp during the occupation of Singapore.

Some other Batamen, such as Viktor Kos, who was captured on sea during an unsuccessful attempt to evacuate Singapore, went through somewhat different experiences. Kos, along with several other colleagues, ended up in an internment camp on Sumatra. He captured his story with a lot of detail in his diary that he wrote in 1943 – but that alone would be enough for a separate story.

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Photo: Leaflets dropped above the prisoner camps by the Allies following the capitulation of Japan.

All the individual stories of the Batamen living in Singapore were researched and mapped over the last couple years by Oldrich Plesek – an Australian citizen and descendant of one of the Bata families. For those interested, here is a link to the most recent version of Mr Plesek’s document (one copy had been already deposited in the Czech State Archives in Zlin).

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Photo: Liberation questionnaire of Josef Vyhnalek that I found in the National Archives in London. Source: National Archives Kew, London

 

Captain Nelson’s lists and the mystery of his box

Finally, I am coming back to the question of lists of war prisoners from Singapore. Besides the above mentioned phenomenal Jeyes List, there were many others.

Perhaps the most famous author and collectors of such lists was captain David Nelson, who lead an administrative team in Changi in charge of evidence of the prisoners. Among others, he had managed to bring along with him a Malayan Directory – directory of the British citizens living in Malaya, into which he was then writing updates and information about their whereabouts during the occupation.

We can find Silvestr’s name also in this Nelson’s list. However, unlike in the Jeyes List, Silvestr is recorded as missing. His record was added by a pencil, and says “M/V NEMEC S 1/SSVF”. The letter “M” stands for “missing”, and “V” indicates he was a volunteer; there is also additional information that he was with the 1st of battalion of the SSVF.

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Photo: Handwritten record of Silvestr in the Malayan Directory of captain Nelson. Source: Imperial War Museum, London

As the war ended, captain Nelson collected several hundred kilograms of documents at Changi – mostly nominal rolls and lists of people who were kept in, or transited through, the camp. These papers were stored into two large boxes, which in September 1945 captain Nelson loaded on board of a plane heading to Ceylon. This was the last time had seen them, as they disappeared from public eye for several decades – the British government appears to have classified them in their secret archives. It was only in May 2011 when part of them resurfaced in a batch of de-classified documents released to the British National Archive. The whole mysterious story has been summarized in an interesting article in The Times. As I have learnt, the historians generally refer to the Nelson’s collection as Nelson’s Box.

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Photo: Article from The Times, July 2011, tells the fascinating and mysterious story of captain David Nelson’s documents.

I have decided to get access the original of the Jeyes List: because I both wanted to get a better copy, but also just see that artifact with my own eyes. However when I requested the collection of captain Nelson’s documents from the archives of the Imperial War Museum, all that I was eventually provided with was one large cardboard box with documents – all that they presumably keep of the much larger collection of the Nelson’s Box.

Yet, going through that small box was still very interesting. There were a number of lists, of various shapes, sizes and colors. However, there was no trace of the Jeyes List I was most after.

 

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Photo: Cardboard with documents from captain Nelson’s collection, as it was presented to me by the IWM archive.

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Photo: An example of the content of the collection of lists from Singapore POW camp kept at the archives of IWM.

From my correspondence with several historians as well as the curator of the IWM archives, it eventually became clear that nobody knows exactly where the original of the Jeyes List could be found. It appears that bigger part of the Nelson’s collection is impossible to find again.

The curator of the IWM archives who was in particular expert in the history of Singapore occupation and that had the best overview of existing documentation, had unfortunately passed several years ago – and with him went also his immense knowledge.

And so the Nelson’s documents and lists that might bring more light into the unknowns about Silvestr’s fate, seem to be lost again, somewhere in the basements of the British archives.

 

Silvestr’s death, scenario two: Battle of the Pasir Panjang

Last time, we were diving deep into the first and most likely scenario of how my great-uncle Silvestr Nemec died: that he was massacred by the Japanese in the Singapore’s Alexandra hospital.

Within few days after publishing that story, I received an email from Australia responding to it. It is written by Helena Staroba, whose father Frantisek was one of the Batamen stationed in the Far East before the WW2. He was then dispatched from Batanagar in India to Java. When the Japanese attacked, they managed to escape on one of the evacuation ships named Deucalion – they were hit and pursued by a Japanese submarine, but luckily managed to reach Australia. Helena’s sister Liba got later married to Antonin Jugas, director of the Bata company in Singapore (Jugas wrote our family a letter about Silvestr in 1946). Her parents kept a close relation with Jaroslav Kvapil, another Singapore Batamen who also escaped to Australia. Helena was often taking care of him when he retired, and was hearing a lot of stories from him – one of them was about an unfortunate young boy from Bata company who was bayoneted to death in the hospital. While Helena can’t recall his name, it’s obviously another reference to Silvestr, further confirming the recollection by Jaroslav Kvapil that was also captured in an unpublished section of memoirs by Marie Bohman.

In today’s piece of writing, I am going to focus on another, albeit less likely, possibility:  that Silvestr died in battle shortly before the surrender of Singapore. It would had happened during the fights around the Pasir Panjang ridge, an area close to the south-west coast of the island. (Alternatively, he might have been captured here alive – which is yet another possibility that i will analyze next time).

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Photo: Memorial to the victims of the WW2 at Singapore’s Kranji cemetery. Courtesy of Tomas Maleninsky

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Photo: Silvestr Nemec’s name carved at the memorial wall in Krajni. Courtesy of Tomas Maleninsky

The main piece of evidence supporting  today’s scenario is a letter by Josef Vyhnalek to the family, dated on 21st August 1947:

He [Silvestr] was very pale, so it seemed to me that he might have felt that something would happen. It was when we were attacking the hill CAP [correct reference is Gap Hill – note by JB] near Pasir Panjang in Singapore, when we reached about half [of the slope], thousands of airplanes spotted us and what followed was that we were heavily bombed and fired upon from the machine guns. During that bombing we ran and scattered into the rubber plantations – and that was the last time I have seen your Silva.”

From the memoirs of Viktor Kos we know that out of all the Batamen in Singapore, eleven were on active duty during the siege as Singapore volunteers: Pavel Ambroz, Matej Bohman, Alois Cepka, Rudolf Janecek, Stanislav Jedovnicky, Rudolf Kozusnicek, Emil Matus, Jan Mraz, Silvestr Nemec, Josef Vyhnalek and Vojtech Zamara. We can for certain add Karel Vitek to this list as well – he was one of the unfortunate trio Nemec-Janecek-Vitek that together joined the SSVF volunteers about a year earlier, and none of them survived till the end of the war.

According to the first post-war account, published in the company’s weekly Batangar News in October 1945, these twelve volunteers eventually saw the battle in the following functions:

  • Ambroz, Bohman, Kuzusnicek, Matus and Jedovnicky with machine gun unit
  • Cepka and Mraz with bomb disposal unit
  • Nemec, Janecek, Vitek and Vyhnalek at the rifle unit
  • Zamara at the heavy infantry unit

The information that Silvestr, who initially joined the SSVF with the armored car unit, ended up fighting with infantry, can be easily explained. When the armored car unit was disbanded in December 1941, he was either merged with a rifle company, or first went to the carrier company; and as the number of operational vehicles was declining during the war, their redundant crews were sent to reinforce infantry.

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Photo: A scheme of Japanese advance during the battle of Singapore, as is displayed at the Kranji cemetery. You can spot Pasir Panjang at the bottom left, along the southern coastline. This is where the Malayan troops were positioned. Courtesy of Tomas Maleninsky.

We know for certain that Josef Vyhnalek participated in the fights over Gap in Pasir Panjang, which means that at least some volunteer units from SSVF were moved there in order to reinforce the Malayan troops.

In this sector, the defense against an advancing Japanese army division of general Mutaguchi was laying on the shoulders of just two battalions of the Malayan regiment combined with Malayan volunteer and parts of the 44th Indian brigade. In total some 1,400 defenders. Against them was a big part of the 13,000 strong Japanese division.

The defense of Pasir Panjang sector was suffering from the same problems as the whole Singapore allied operation: atmosphere of uncertainty and disarray, indecisiveness or chaotic orders from the main command, as well as intermittent communication as the lines were often cut off by bombing or even sabotage. The defenders were also demoralized by a flow of deserters and stragglers across their positions. In one of the war diaries that I read, colonel MacKenzie remembers that as he was moving to his position, some soldiers he was passing were shouting at him that “to continue forward is a mere suicide”.

The advanced units of the defenders got in contact with an enemy at the dawn of 10th February 1942, however the main fights over Pasir Panjang took place between 12th and 14th February.

For the whole night from 11th to 12th February, the allied positions there were under intensive artillery shelling and bombardment. This is also when Silvestr might have suffered shell-shock and possibly other injury, for which he was treated on 11th as we had documented last time.

Some of the defenders also remember that the sky was dark because of the black smoke rising from the nearby huge oil tanks that caught fire. They were hit on 10th February and were ablaze since. I can easily imagine how such scenery contributed to the atmosphere of a doom and despair.

Yet, Pasir Panjang was one of the battlefields where the Singapore defenders managed to mount quite strong and heroic resistance. On the following day, on 12th February, they succeeded in repelling several enemy attacks. After the dark, following an order from the command, they fell back to a new line which was going through the Gap – a strategic opening in the middle of the ridge, which was giving access to the Singapore suburbs from the south, including to the Alexandra hospital area.

The Gap had seen fierce fighting on the next day, 13th February. It was again preceded by concentrated bombing and shelling. The accurate artillery firing was guided from an observation balloon released by the Japanese near the western coast a day earlier. MacKenzie recalls that “the mortar barrage was so thick and fast that it was more like heavy machine-gun fire than mortar shelling”.

After a highly concentrated Japanese fire, a main frontal attack supported by light tanks and airforce followed at 2pm. Despite fierce resistance, the Japanese managed to break through the line about two hours later, and the defenders had to engage in hand-to-hand combat. Most of the B company was then captured, including possibly Vyhnalek himself, as we will see further bellow.

In the evening of 13th February, the defense line moved closer towards the city again, reaching the immediate vicinity of the Alexandra hospital – this is where the infamous massacre followed next day.

PasirPanjangMapAnnotatedENG
Map: The ridge of Pasir Panjang and the position of the defense line during the critical days. A winding road is crossing through the Gap in the middle. I have also marked the location of the Alexandra Hospital. Source: „History of the Malay Regiment 1933-1942“, Dol Ramli, 1965

Seen from the military perspective, the fights in Pasir Panjang were insignificant. Even if the defenders succeeded, it would not have changed the course of the battle of Singapore, neither prevented its fall. That’s probably why these events never made it into the bigger history.

However, for the local Malayan people, it became a legendary story – especially the tragic and heroic fight on Bukit Chandu on 14th February (it means Opium Hill in Malayan – called after a British opium factory that was located there during the colonial times). The C company, composed of about fifty soldiers led by a charismatic and brave lieutenant Adnan Bin Saidi, found itself cut away from an escape route and decided to fight to the last man. Shortly before the fight, Adnan adopted a motto for his company “Biar putih tulang, jangan putih mata” – meaning “Rather death than disgrage”.

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Photo: Malayan hero, lieutenant Adnan Bin Saidi, who on the Opium Hill lead the defense to the last man. Source: https://mothership.sg/2018/02/lieutenant-adnan-battle-of-bukit-chandu

At first, the Japanese first tried to fool the defenders. A group of their soldiers put on themselves some Indian uniforms and marched towards the hill, pretending they are coming to help. However, the Malayans noticed it was a trap: the undercover Japanese were marching in the columns of three, as the British would do, but the Indians/Punjabis were actually marching in four columns. After they let them come close, the defenders opened fire from Lewis machine guns, and killed at least 22 of the Japanese; the remaining ones crawled back to safety.

Two hours later, the outraged Japanese stormed the hill with a frontal “banzai charge” supported by several tanks. The defenders, severely outnumbered, fought fierce fully in a hand-to-hand combat that followed, but had no chance. The Japanese captured their leader Adnan, who had been injured in the battle; they brutally beated him and finally stabbed him with bayonets. After that, they put his body into a sack and hanged it upside down from a tree. (Some versions of the story say that he was hanged from the tree alive and was only bayonetted later.). In the following days, nobody was allowed to cut his body down and give him a proper burial. Only five of the Malayan soldiers managed to escape, jumping across the wall of fire from the burning oil – two of them got badly burned.

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Foto: Museum and memorial of the battle at Bukit Chandu, which became legendary in Malaya. Source and link: http://untouristsingapore.wordpress.com/2013/06/18/reflections-at-bukit-chandu

Another hero of the Pasir Panjang battle was the alredy mentioned colonel MacKenzie, whose war diary became one of the great sources for my today’s work. On 14th February, he had shown an exemplary bravery as he set out to help major Richards, whose carrier got into a Japanese cross-fire in one of the turns of the road across the hills. MacKenzie climbed walls and crawled across the gardens on the slopes to reach the point, and using Thomson submachine gun single-handidly silenced a Japanese machine gun post; his gun eventually jammed, but he managed to get back along with major Richards.

One of the last successful actions of the defenders – and undoubtedly also a little sweet revenge – took place at the dusk of 14th February. Shortly after six o’clock, two Japanese companies were spotted approaching in columns to the crossing of the Alexandra Road and Pasir Panjang Road, where the Malyan D company was hiding in a defense position.

This is how MacKenzie captured the event in his diary:

“Imagine our surprise and delight when the Nips appeared marching straight down the Pasir Panjang Road – in fours! We let them get to within 100-150 yards of ‘D’ Headquarters and let them have it with machine-guns first and then mortars. Almost every man of their first company was slaughtered and a lot further back too. An officer up on the right counted 94 bodies on that part of the road that he could see alone.”

(This incident took place in a close vicinity of the Alexandra Hospital, and thus might have fueled the anger of the Japanese to massacre their captives from the hospital next morning.)

During my research, I have managed to collect a number of war diaries, written by soldiers who personally participated in the battle of Singapore. I photographed several of them during my visit to the British National Archives in London, based on recommendation of Jonathan Moffatt from the Malayan Volunteers Group).

NAKewPhoto: The complex of the British National Archives in Kew, London. Source: Wikicommons

These diaries are quite fascinating reading. Not only that the abstract battles suddenly take a new shape of individual dramas, but there is also a wealth of details that help us to understand the situation of the defenders much better. Last but not least, I am also entertained by occasional ironic comments or observations, which add yet another personal layer.

It reminded me of the experience when I was reading a diary of a captain of US army Joseph Sladen, written in 1872. That has been later published as a book titled “Making Peace with Cochise” – which also, besides unique historical value, impressed me by its fresh language and fine sense of humor that precipitates through this 150 years old, authentic diary.

Let me share with you one other direct account that illustrates a situation in which Silvestr might as well found himself – including the paralyzing intensity of the enemy shelling. It’s been written by Hugo Hughes from the Malayan regiment. He was seriously wounded on 13th February at the battle of Pasir Panjang: he lost his leg and was rushed to the Alexandra hospital. There, he belonged to the lucky ones who survived the massacre a day later. Hughes writes:

“The last of the overwhelmed R.A.F. had packed up about the time the Japs landed, and Jap planes in the past few days had become appreciably bolder. In fact they appeared quite indifferent to the seemingly point blank fire of our Bofors. Outside the village I skirted amongst the scrub as one damned plane flying at well under two thousand feet almost appeared to be stalking me. Having reached our right flank platoon I lay on the ground and chatted to the Malay officer. […] A tense atmosphere – mortars and shells bursting on the ridge behind us, that infernal aeroplane prying around lower than ever, a jumble of battle noises in the distance. Everything became suddenly intensified. Shell and mortar explosions came nearer – so near that I was screwing my eyes closed and gasping as one would from a solid punch on the body, with each successive burst. I am in no position to compare that barrage with the devastating artillery hates of the last war or with any other kind of war. Knowing fellows declare that the Jap missiles are noisy but barely lethal. To me the concentration and frequency of explosions was terrific – perhaps fifty shell bursts within two hundred yards of me in a few minutes.

[…] I cannot say which one of those bursts hit me; I can’t describe the sensation. It was not painful – feeling was a passive thing. Blood was gushing from a gaping wound in my leg, the torn flesh and muscles hung outside my trousers. Horrible to look at, and I had the sickening realization that I would soon bleed to death at this rate, and called to the Malays crouching face to the ground for some string and tied a lanyard after the fashion of a tourniquet. A Malay clung to my foot – from terror or from blank mindedness. Hell on Earth! One of these crumps would be the end.

A short let up and Rix appeared and I asked him to get me out. […] It could not have been many minutes later when a Eurasian orderly came over. He immediately improved the tourniquet and staunched the blood considerably. A racing carrier disregarded his shouts to stop. He cursed and bullied some Malays on to their feet, and between them I hobbled to the road trailing my shattered leg. A car, the C.Os, came along and I got piled into the back. Directed by the orderly, the driver shot up Reformatory road and into Ayer Rajah Road at break neck speed, and pulled up in front of Alexandra Hospital . We must have come very close to, if not through the Jap lines.”

Finally, we also learn some details about the Pasir Panjang fights directly fro Josef Vyhnalek – Silvestr’s colleague, friend and co-fighter.

“The section assigned to our unit to defend was Gap Hill, quite a strategic section [of Pasir Panjang]. During the night of 12th February, we heard a great deal of noises from airplanes above our heads. The spotlights became to light up the sky and we realized that it was a massive Japanese paratrooper operation. Our artillery shot several airplanes down. The fightings began at the dawn. We soon found ourselves surrounded by the Japanese on all sides. After four hours of heavy fighting, when the rest of our unit was driven into the rubber tree plantation, we concluded that further resistance is futile. Our losses were about 50%, and we were running out of ammunition. Therefore Hunter Grey, the commander of our company, decided and ordered to surrender. Japanese immediately disarmed us and tied us, one by one, with ropes to the rubber trees. They left us like this, without food or water, for three days, till the capitulation of Singapore on 15th February. Several Japanese soldiers with machine guns were on guard. Perhaps the capitulation saved us. We learnt only later the horrible destiny of those who were captured by the Japanese earlier. They were suffering from hunger and thirst, and at the end, were bayonetted to death so that the Japanese units can advance forward with the rest of their army.”

Experienced historians warned me at multiple occasions that individual personal war accounts are often confused and inaccurate, especially in details – therefore they should not be taken as a reliable source unless they are confirmed by additional evidence.

In this particular case, Vyhnalek is apparently wrong when he describes an enemy paratrooper operation – the Japanese in fact did not use parachutist operations in Malaya nor Singapore. Vyhnalek however seems to be quite accurate in other details, including the correct dating of the main fight at Gap Hill (13th February) and the name of the commander Hunter-Gray (except of the understandable spelling mistake). Hunter-Gray originated from London’s Woolwich, later in Singapore he worked as a high-ranking police inspector, got married (and later divorced) to a car racer, and during 1930’s also lead a local police band. It’s therefore quite plausible that, being a senior police officer knowledgeable of Singapore area, he was at some point made in charge of commanding a volunteer unit. Vyhnalek is also correct in his reference to the Japanese brutality with which they handled their captives in the battle – including that many were killed with bayonet. Indeed, he and his companions were probably lucky, because the capitulation took place only two days after their capture.

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Photo: Japanese soldiers are training a bayonet charge on a tied captive. This was their proven and awful practice. Source: http://imgur.com/nf13sfE

In his above quoted letter to the family in Vemyslice, Vyhnalek recalls that the last time he had seen Silvestr was at the battle of Gap Hill. If he is right, it would mean that Silvestr returned to his unit after being treated on 11th February – because the Gap Hill battle took only two days later, on 13th February. In fact, this is not likely as if indeed he had been admitted with a shell-shock – a post-traumatic stress disorder caused by a nearby explosion of artillery shell or a bomb, he would hardly be fit to fight in just two days, nevertheless this is what Vyhnalek’s account suggests. When Vyhnalek mentioned that Silvestr was “very pale”, it might have been due to the shell shock.

In case Silvestr indeed participated in the battle of Pasir Panjang, he might have been injured here, killed or captured. In case he was injured, just like Hughes, he was almost certainly taken to the nearby Alexandra Hospital, where the Japanese would have killed him the following day.

Next time, we will analyze a the scenario in which Silvestr was captured alive.

 

Silvestr’s Death, Scenario One: Massacre at the Alexandra Hospital

Today’s piece is going into details of the first and most likely scenario of the death of my great-uncle Silvestr Nemec: That he became one of the roughly 250 victims of the massacre committed by the Japanese soldiers at the Alexandra Hospital in Singapore just before its capitulation.

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Photo: Silvestr’s portrait from February 1938, ten months before his departure for Singapore.

This possibility is being mentioned most frequently in the documents I have seen, in total at six occasions. Here is their overview, ordered by the time they were written:

1) The long piece titled The story of Batamen in Malaya published in October 1945 in the weekly Batanagar News. It says:

“It cannot be ascertained now who and how many were wounded, so far as we know, Kozisnicek, Vitek and Nemec were wounded. Nemec was sent to the military hospital; when later the Japanese captured it, in the rage of animal brutality they mercilessly killed all the wounded soldiers lying in beds. Here Nemec met his end.”

This text was written by a journalist and editor-in-chief of the Batanagar News, Mr Jan Baros. He acknowledges that it’s based on stories told to him by the first two Singapore Batamen who reached Batanagar after their liberation from the Japanese internment camp at Changi, Mr Bohman and Mr Jedovnicky.

2) Letter by Pavel Ambroz, Silvestr’s colleague, to the Nemec family. It’s dated 21st December 1945 and states that:

“Some three days before the Japanese occupation of Singapore, [Silvestr] was wounded and transported to a field hospital. After the fall of Singapore, I was looking for him in all local hospitals, but did not find him. Now that the British control Singapore again, I discovered in the military lists that he is recorded as ‘mising'”.

3) Letter by Antonin Jugas, written on 22nd January 1946, informs the Nemec family that:

“Following the capitulation, we have only learnt from our other employees that your son was wounded and moved to a hospital. Nobody had heard about him ever since; at that time, hell broke out in Singapore.”

4) Josef Vyhnalek, Silvestr’s colleague and friend, recalls in his memoirs written long after the war, in October 1966, that:

“Silva Nemec, originating from the Brno region, was wounded when our positions were bombed at the beginning of the siege. He was taken to the hospital on Alexandra Road. This hospital was stormed by the Japanese several days later. All its personnel, doctors, nurses as well as patients were killed. Silva being one them.”

5) Marie Bohman, a daugher of Matej Bohman (one of the Singapore Batamen), wrote in an unpublished section of her memoirs Sakra saheb that:

“Mr Larry Kent [his original name was Ladislav Kvapil – note by JB], former Singapore resident, recalled that a Czech boy was among those cold-bloodedly bayoneted in their hospital beds.”

6) Mr Ivan Prochazka, in his historical essay Compatriots in the Far East that was published in the Military History magazine in 1996, says that:

“During the first fights, under constant shelling by the Japanese artillery, some of them were wounded: Kozisnicek, Vitek, Nemec. Lightly wounded were also Vyhnalek, Jedovnicky and some others […] During the siege of Singapore, a private Silvestr Nemec died, as he was clubbed along with other wounded patients and medical personnel in the Alexandra Hospital.”

Mr Prochazka based his essay on a number of historical documents, which include the above mentioned memoirs of Josef Vyhnalek and article by Baros in the Batanagar News – therefore, this information is already secondary, adapted from the earlier sources. I have actually came across more articles that mention this same story, notably those written by Mr Emil Macel in 1990s for local newspapers in Zlin. Similarly to Prochazka, also Macel used the already known documents – and thus, despite the frequency of, these additional reports does not add to the weight of this possibility of Silvestr’s death.

However, there is another break-through document that I have discovered. It was initially shared with me by Jonathan Moffatt, the historian of the Malaya Volutneers Group association. It is this sheet from a list of missing Singapore soliders:

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Photo: Page from a list of soldiers in  Singapore who got classified as missing. I have highlighted the record of Silvestr Nemec. The document is held at the UK National Archives (ref. WO 316/2192) and can be also reached online for example on findmypast.co.uk, however it requires a paid access.

As you can see, there is Silvestr’s name on it! We learn that Silvestr was treated or hospitalized on 11th February 1942 as a result of a shell-shock, and that he had gone missing before 15th February.

Shell-shock is not a direct physical wound, but a post-traumatic stress disorder caused by a nearby explosion of an artillery shell. Poor Silvestr, who left his country for Singapore at the age of 19, probably did not have a chance to go through a regular military training in Czechoslovakia before departure. Thus, his only preparation for the war were the trainings of the volunteers corps in Singapore. The concentrated artillery shelling, targeting the positions of defenders, must have been a horrifying experience for him.

The information from this record also perfectly fits with the other historical documents quoted above – i.e. that Silvestr was wounded several days before the fall of Singapore (which came on 15th February) when the volunteer units were exposed to heavy bombing and shelling.

It’s now known whether Silvestr suffered some other injury. Following a treatment given to him on 11th February, he might have returned to his unit – it’s not very likely in a case of shell-shock, but it can’t be entirely ruled out, notably as Vyhnalek remembers in his letter from August 1947 that last time he had seen Silvestr alive was when they were both attacking a Gap hill in the Pasir Panjang ridge. The fierce battles there only took place on 12th and 13th of February. Should he had suffered an another injury there, it’s certain that he was taken to the Alexandra hospital, which was closest to that battlefield.

 BMH Singapore
Photo: Aerial view on the Alexandra Hospital and its surroundings in Singapore. This picture was taken in 1970. Source and link: Flickr

 

Alexandra Hospital

No matter what injury and on what day exactly, it’s most likely that Silvestr ended up in the Alexandra Hospital in any case. At that time, it was called British Military Hospital and was dedicated for the troops from British units (there were also Australian, Indian and other hospitals in Singapore at that time).

In case that also Kozusnicek and Vitek were injured around the same time as Silvestr – which is what several accounts tell us – then they would have been also placed to Alexandra/British Military Hospital. This fits very well the scenario, because in such a case, they would become witnesses of Silvestr’s murder, and later on they told about it  the other Bata people and Czechoslovaks.

 Alexandra1
Photo: Panoramatic view on the main building of Alexandra Hospital in Singapore, dated December 1941. Source and link: IWM

The construction of the British Military Hospital was completed in 1938, shortly before the war, and it’s standing and serving the purpose till these days. It’s a generous and spacious complex, built in the colonial style. At its time, it was providing modern interiors and facilities. It’s located on an elevated area, surrounded by a garden and auxiliary buildings.

Alexandra Hospital
Photo: The complex of Alendra Hospital today. Source: Google Earth

 

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Photo: Modern interior and beds in the British Military Hospital. Picture dated around 1st December 1941. Source and link: IWM

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Photo: Light and generous space in one of the wards of the British Military Hospital. Picture dated around 1st December 1941. Source and link: IWM

 

Massacre according to Peter Bruton

I have to confess that this chapter has been one of the most difficult for me to prepare and write. In this case, it took me a long time to cope with the horrors I was imagining after reading a detailed reconstruction of the massacre, as it was written by Peter Burton in 1989.

His work is not much available, but again, Jonathan Moffatt was kind enough to provide me with his electronic copy. It appears to be the most detailed account of the massacre published so far.

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Photo: Front page of the publication by Peter Bruton from 1989.

Bruton is building his story based on about twenty individual accounts of some of the survivors. But he also acknowledges that there are still many gaps and uncertainties. One of the challenges he was facing was that what people recalled or wrote down after 3.5 years of hard imprisonment and forced labor, is often contradicting the other accounts.

What follows is a summary of the events how Bruton had reconstructed them:

The civilian staff was disappearing during the last days of the fights. On Friday 13th February, the command of the hospital ordered remaining eight local nurses to leave as well. They were concerned that following the capture by Japanese, a similar violence towards the medical staff could occur as it just did recently in a hospital in Hong Kong.

There were about 900 patients in the hospital at this moment – mostly British, but also some other nationals. New wounded soldiers were still arriving, mostly during the night when the risk of bombing was limited. The number of hospital staff was 180 people.

It was very crowded. To accommodate so many patients, the wards originally designed for 24 beds each were hosting 72 injured who were lying on stretchers between the beds. A number of patients were also outside of the rooms, along the corridors.

The hospital was well marked with red crosses: there was a red cross flag on the pole, additional flags dropped from the windows and spread on its roof. On the lawn outside, a big cross was made of the white and red bed sheets.

On the evening of 13th, the Japanese managed to penetrate the front and reach near the hospital, which thus became surrounded by no man’s land. Next morning, it found itself in the middle of fire, as artillery of both sides were firing above and across it.

Around 1pm, a line of Japanese soldiers was spotted passing by. Suddenly one of these soldiers appeared in a gap between the overlapping blast walls near the hospital entrance. A British medical captain approached him, pointing to his Red Cross armband and saying “hospital”. They stared at each other for a moment, then the Japanese soldier fired from his rifle on him, possibly considering his camouflaged helmet as a threat. He luckily missed and the captain ran back to hospital; the soldier did not pursue him inside.

Then around 2pm, a group of Indian soldiers was passing through the hospital. They took an advantage of its roof and were firing from it on some Japanese soldiers around. Some of the patients later recalled that they even heard a firing sound of a light machine gun from somewhere within the building.

It does not matter whether the Indians ignored the neutrality of the hospital because fear and panic, or just stupidity. What they did had soon proven fatal to the hospital.

Shortly after the Indians rushed out of the hospital, around 2.30pm, Japanese soldiers stormed in in their pursue. They were coming in three separate companies, each approaching the hospital from a different direction. The Japanese soldiers seemed to had spent quite some time on the battlefront: unshaven, dirty, in full gear, armed with rifles and bayonets, and heavy camouflage made of grass and twigs.

First group, approaching from the railway, scared hospital staff that was in a nearby laboratory building. As they started to run towards the hospital, Japanese opened fire. Two were killed and one, wounded, crawled towards the main entrance, calling for help.

Another group entered the building in the direction from which the Indian troops initially came. As they got to the corridor, the first place they have seen was an improvised intake room that was crowded with about hundred wounded soldiers. One Japanese soldier took a broom and used its stick to beat them on their heads. Lieutenant Weston who was in charge of this room took a white bed sheet as a sign of capitulation and held it next to the door. Another of the Japanese soldiers stabbed him with a bayonet and killed him. It might have been this moment that triggered the outburst of atrocities that lasted for the next half an hour.

More Japanese soldiers rushed to the intake room and began to shoot and stab the patients there. Some of them tried to escape out of the room, gimping to the corridor and towards the main entrance, but there they got shot down by a machine gun. Some others were rushing through the corridor to the back of the building, where they eventually ran into another Japanese unit that also began to shoot or bayonet them. Several Japanese soldiers entered two of the wards, where they killed several patients and forced the others, who were able to walk, to stand up and move to the corridor.

A third Japanese company climbed up the verandas between two surgery sections. Here, six medics and doctors started a surgery around 2.30pm despite the fact that the building was under fire – in order to get a better cover, they were performing it outside of the operating theater, in an adjacent corridor. At the moment the Japanese reached them, they just finished one surgery and were waiting for the next patient. The Japanese started to shoot, and the medical team run into the operation theater where they stopped, standing with hands raised above their heads. The Japanese ordered them to go out again, and as they did, they were stabbed and most of them got killed. Also the patient, still lying in anesthesia following the surgery, was bayoneted to death.

In the meantime, some other soldiers from this company went to the two surgical wards and were having sadistic fun torturing the patients there: twisting their bandaged arms and legs, beating them with rifle buts, and slinging the weights that were holding some patient’s arms or legs in fixated positions. Later they went out to the main corridor, where they were randomly shooting or bayoneting the patients there.

In another room, two Japanese soldiers were robbing the patients of watches and other valuables, stabbing several of them along the way. Suddenly a Japanese officer came in, kicked them out and apologized in English: ‘I am sorry but my men are tired and hungry – they have been fighting without rest for many days’.

The frantic slaughter lasted for about half an hour. Fifty people were killed, both patients and staff. Many more were wounded, left lying on the floor, bleeding.

Yet, the worst was still to come.

The soldiers rounded up about two hundred people, mostly staff, but also patients from the ground floor – the intake room as well as the corridor – who were capable of walking. Their hands were first tied behind their backs, and then they were tied together in small groups. After that, they were ordered to march out of the hospital – patients in their pyjamas and bandages. 

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Photo: A schematic map from Peter Burton’s publication, illustrating his reconstruction of the event (the scale is in yards). Another historian, Ian Richardson, however believes that the massacre took place at another spot, closer to the hospital.

 

The captives were then walked away, guarded by the Japanese soldiers. They had to duck for cover several times as the artillery fire was going on around them. After walking about a kilometer, they were crammed into an old building of the Sisters Quarter, which the nurses used for accommodation. The building was divided into three small compartments. The biggest one, 10′ x 12′ large, holded about 70 captives. One of the smaller ones, 9′ x 9′ in size, had 57 people in it. The Japanese then blocked the windows and doors from outside with wooden planks. Two machine guns were placed next to it, guarding the building.

The poor captives had to stand on their feet all the time, as there was not enough space for most of them even to sit inside the tiny rooms. As the time passed and they had to relief themselves, they were urinating on each other. The Japanese did not loosen the ropes with which they were tied, nor did they provide them with any water. Everyone was terribly thirsty, because after the water supply was cut on 11th February, the hospital was rationing water at stricly limited amount of one pint per person per day. In the suffocating heat and stench, and with no fresh air or any water, people began to break and collapse, screaming out of desperation and calling for water. The moaning and screaming continued throughout the whole night. Several patients reached a state of delirium, and in one of the roooms, seven people were reported to have died overnight.

 Bruton map2

Photo: A schematic drawing of the site of the massacre, according to Peter Bruton. The dashed line shows the direction of escape of the lucky few surivors.

 

Next day shortly before noon, the doors had finally opened and one Japanese officer told the captives that they will be moving to a different location, further away from the battlefront, and he promised them to get some water along the way. The Japanese then started to take the captives out in small groups of two or three, and they were seen going out and around the building. There was lot of shooting and shelling going on outside continuously, so for a while, nobody suspected anything wrong. At some moment, however, the captives recognized distant screams such as “Oh God!”, “Mother!” and “No, no!” from the outside. Their suspicion that the Japanese were actually killing them one by one got confirmed when one of the soldiers came in, wiping blood out from his bayonet. In the horror, couple of the captives tried to kill themselves, one cutting by his wrist and another hanging himself. Several others seized an opportunity at the moment when one of the shells hit a corner of the building and created an opening in the wall. They climbed out and started to run for life. Most were mowed by a machine gun outside, but five to escape and hide, ultimately reaching the British troops for help.”

Thanks to those five survivors, we have several witness accounts today about the slaughter that happened remotely, outside of the hospital, on the second day.

Out of the approximately fifty killed in the hospital, Bruton managed to identify names of twenty eight. From the two hundred murdered day later, he was able to reconstruct names of ninety. Thus, a big part of the victims are still not known by name – Silvestr likely being one of them.

The following day, on Monday 16th February 1942, a commander of these Japanese units involved, general Mutaguchi, paid a visit to the hospital. He apologized for what happened and as a symbolic gesture, he was feeding some of the patients with peach compote himself by a spoon.

According to one later account, a lower ranking officer who instigated the massacre was exemplarily executed by the Japanese command. This however was not confirmed.

After the end of the war, the Alexandra Hospital massacre was investigated by the War Crimes Tribunal. Its Seventh Investigation Team issued a verdict in April 1946 that there was no evidence pinpointing who exactly conducted the killings, although it was established that people were indeed massacred on 15 February 1942. The overall responsibility was assigned to the commander of the 18th Division of the Japanese army, however it was also concluded that in the light of a clear evidence about the Indian troops firing from the hospital towards the Japanese positions, the massacre was committed in the heat of battle and therefore nobody was ultimately responsible in a way that could substantiate a charge and sentence. The fact that general Mutaguchi visited the scene and apologized was also taken into consideration.

 

New Information from Ian Richardson

Another historian I managed to get in touch with is Ian Richardson – the most knowledgeable expert on Alexandra Hospital massacre known to me. Similar to Silvestr, Ian’s father also joined the volunteer service – he was with the Malayan volunteer troops (FMSVF) and happened as well to be hospitalized at Alexandra during the time of the massacre. Luckily, he was among those who survived.

Ian was following up on the work by Peter Bruton, who abandoned the subject shortly after publishing his document in 1989. Perhaps the whole issue was too emotionally charged for him; he was also struggling with the confusion and how much the individual accounts were actually contradicting each other. Ian managed to gather a wealth of new information since, and is preparing his own publication, tentatively to be ready in 2019.

He also expanded the list of identified people so far: nailing down 342 names of those who were in the hospital on 14th February, which is about a third of the total. There is no mention of Silvestr on Ian’s list either, but again, given how many of the victims still remain anonymous, that does not indicate anything. The original files that the hospital had were ordered to be destroyed by its own management few days before the fall of Singapore, and whatever might have been preserved did not survive the Japanese occupation.

Ian believes that a more precise estimate of the numbers of victims is 56 people from 14th February, and 160 to 170 people – mostly staff – at the off-site killings on 15th February.

When I was sharing the information available about Silvestr with Ian, he also made a judgment that Silvestr was very likely among the victims. His line of thinking is that should Silvestr been admitted on 11th February with a shell-shock, he would presumably be sedated and as a patient with comparatively light injury, placed among those in the main corridor, because the wards were overcrowded. This would also make him directly exposed to the first wave of brutality, as the Japanese soldiers were storming through the ground floor of the hospital building.

Also, as the Japanese likely ordered the patients to raise their hands up, Silvestr might have been either confused by the drugs and did not follow the order quickly enough, or he might have got agitated in panic (let’s remember he was shell-shocked) – and either way, attracted attention and provoked the Japanese to kill him.

Of course he might also have been among those patients capable of walking, who were taken out and massacred the next day – though I want to wish that he was spared of the inferno of the all-night suffering in the crammed rooms.

 

* * *

 

So indeed, it was the Alexandra Hospital massacre where Silvestr’s life most probably ended. I am looking forward to the upcoming research by Ian Richardson – based on that, I might be able to further elaborate and correct the narrative of this scenario.

Next time, we will be looking at the details of the fights at Pasir Panjang – another possibility where Silvestr might have died.

 

The Fall of Singapore: Silvestr gone missing

After the retreat of all the British troop from Malaya on 31st January 1942, the Japanese army took time-out to rest and to finalize preparations for its final attack: the siege of Singapore.

Viktor Kos, who was one of the Bata employees there and who wrote a very detailed account of the events, remembers the day that the British destroyed the Johore causeway behind them:

“Once we have heard strong detonations. The next day’s newspaper brought a report that the road between Singapore and the Malayan mainland was blown up. This artificial dike, build at a considerable cost few years ago, was about one kilometer long. It included a road, a railway, and a water conduit. Obviously, it was not possible to demolish it all, therefore they blew up just two sections.”

At that time, it became clear to Churchill that a disaster was looming. After receiving a situational report from general Wawell, the who was the allied commander-in-chief for Far East (so called ABDACOM – American-British-Dutch-Australian Command) and superior of general Pervical, Churchill was astonished. He wrote in a memorandum: “I must confess to being staggered by Wavell’s telegram. It never occurred to me for a moment that … Singapore … was not entirely fortified against an attack from the Northwards …”.

In his reply to Wawell, Churchill stressed: “I was greatly distressed by your telegrams, and I want to make it absolutely clear that I expect every inch of ground to be defended, every scrap of material or defenses to be blown to pieces to prevent capture by the enemy, and no question of surrender to be entertained until after protracted fighting among the ruins of Singapore City.”

The Japanese soldiers were tired after two months of fast advance through Malaya. They also had only very limited stock of food and ammunition – yet on the other side of the Johore strait, there was a demoralized allied army. It counted in total 85,000 men and was composed of various elements that did not go always along well and whose commanders found it challenging to cooperate with each other (out of the allied 45 battalions in Singapore, 21 were Indian, 13 British, 6 Australian, 2 Malayan and 3 composed of the Malayan and Singapore volunteers).

Australian gunners Johore
Photo: Australian gunners with an anti-tank gun overlooking the Johore causeway. Source and link: AWM

General Yamashita decided to send 30,000 of his troops to the attack on Singapore. Given that the military textbooks for amphibious assault recommend that attacker’s advantage is at least 2:1, the success of the Japanese was by far not given – the actual balance was 1:3 to their disadvantage.

General Percival, the chief of the Singapore defence, was however facing the very same problems as previously in Malaya: he lacked tanks and airplanes, his infantry was made of homogenous troops of dubious training, and he did not get well along particularly with the Australians and their general Bennett. Crucially, Percival was also unable to predict his enemy’s movement. Because of the large area his troops had to cover, he was forced to spread his forces too thin: the Singapore Island is not huge, yet its coastline measures some 200 kilometers. This gave a big advantage to the attacker who then could choose a section to which he could concentrate all his power and break through the thin defense line.

singapore1942map.jpg
Map: The Singapore Island and initial disposition of the allied units. I have marked in orange the strongest British force; red marks the initial position of the volunteer SSVF units and their later move to the area of Pasir Panjang. The blue arrow marks the direction of attack by the Japanese.

Percival believed that the Japanese will attempt to invade Singapore from north-east, where its coast was easily approachable. That’s why he concentrated his best units and equipment here. The Japanese were indeed organizing some maneuvers over there, transporting several hundred men to the small island of Pulau Ubin. It was however just a classic decoy. In reality, they were getting ready to invade from north-west, where the strait was narrowest and where the Singapore shore was formed by mangroves, swamps and estuaries of several rivers – especially the mangroves offered a good cover for their amphibious attack.

For these very same reasons, this part of island had been least explored by the British:  who would want to wander through the thick mangroves and muddy swamps! The Japanese invasion was also taking place during the period of the monsoon rains, which – according to the British doctrine – was the least suitable and likely for an attack or, as a matter of fact, any military ground operation in such environment. This was another reasons why the defendes – or at least their command – did not take the option of invasion in this sector seriously. Percival allocated this “unimportant” section of island to the Australian division whom he did not really trust and thought it was one of the weakest.

During my visit to the UK National Archives in Kew, based on advice by Jonathan Moffatt, I got hold of a very interesting report by brigadier Ballentine, who was commanding with the Indian brigade on the left (southern) flank of the Australians. Among many other interesting things, he recalls that “Some 250 Chinese irregulars, armed with anything from a rifle to knife, were sent into the area. They were used to patrol and watch the mangrove under the quite false impression they would be quite at home in such primeval surroundings. Actually they were City-bred folks, who had never been nearer swamp than a bus might take them”. He makes another ironic but telling note about the incompetence of the allied command: “From the commencement of the Japanese offensive on 8 February all supply arrangements broke down and completely ceased, nor was any alternative method substituted despite strong demands by headquarters of the 44th Indian Infantry brigade who […] depended solely on their own skill of scrounging. It is apposite to observe that the whole brigade was supplied by Australian division”.

The British command even kept ignoring reports from Australian scouts that there was an increasing movement of the Japanese on the opposite bank of the strait. And if all this was not enough, the Australian division was refused access to the barbed wire that was abundant in the stores and which would help them to build at least improvised defenses along the shoreline.

As opposed to Percival who fell too easily for the trap, Yamashita had very good intelligence about the positions and strength of the defenders. This was thanks to an aerial reconnaissance as well as his local spies.

After intensive shelling and bombing that, among other things, severely disrupted communication lines between the command and advanced units as well as destroyed some of the spotlights positioned along the coast, the Japanese launched their invasion on the evening of 8th February. They used some 150 small boats and crossed the strait under the cover of the night. In the darkness, it was not difficult for them to penetrate through the thin defense lines – the Australian brigade of 3,000 men was covering a coastal area more than 30 kilometers long – and to attack the Australian units from behind, surround their small pockets and wiping them out. Despite calls for enforcements, Percival refused to dispatch more soldiers there because he was still believing that the main attack would come elsewhere. No wonder the Australian who stood for their hopeless fight felt betrayed by their command.

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Photo: View of the Singapore city in January 1942. The black smoke in the back is from the burning naval base on the northern coast. Source and link: AWM

Already during the first night, over 13,000 Japanese landed in the Australian sector, and 10,000 more followed with the break of the dawn. After the first day of fightings, they managed to push the defenders back and establish strong foothold in the north-west part of the island. They started to land their light tanks here, and without being much hassled by the defenders, regrouped for further advance.

Churchill was furious – he was not able to comprehend how a relativelly small Japanese army can score such a quick success against the British defenders. On 9th February, he sent a telegram to Wawell:

“I think you ought to realize the way we view the situation in Singapore. It was reported to the Cabinet by the Chiefs of Staff of the Imperial General Staff that Percival has over 100,000 men. It is doubtful whether the Japanese have as many in the whole Malay Peninsula. In the circumstances, the defenders must greatly outnumber Japanese forces who have crossed the Straits, and in a well-contested battle they should destroy them. There must at this stage be no thought of saving the troops or sparing the civilian population. The battle must be fought to the bitter end at all costs. Commanders and senior officers should die with their troops. The honor of the British Empire and of the British Army is at stake. With the Russians fighting as they are and the Americans so stubborn at Luzon, the whole reputation of our country and our race is involved.”

During the first few days of the Japanese attack on Singapore, the allies managed to mount some resistance in the air. This was also thanks to the fact that they received a cargo of 50 new, modern Mustang fighters in mid January. Their performance however disappointed, largely due to lack of experience of pilots with the new type of aircraft – several were destroyed in accidents. Soon, the Japanese air force – as they did previously over Malaya – destroyed most of the British airplanes. Massive attacks counting up to 130 bombers at a time destroyed the main RAF Singapore airbase at Tengah. Already on 3rd of February, the allied command decided to pull out the remaining pilots from the hopeless situation, saving (at least for the moment) the remainder of their air force by moving it to Sumatra.

Contrary to many stories that the iconic, massive 15-inch naval guns that were protecting Singapore from the sea could not be turned around, they also found a role in shelling of the Japanese positions. Their support was however rather symbolic, because they were equipped with armor-piercing ammunition intended against the warships, and did not have enough high-explosive shells that would cause massive damage to infantry and other land based targets. These guns fired several hundred times, mostly between 10th and 12th February, after which the British destroyed them so that they don’t fall to the hands of the Japanese.

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Photo: The 15 inch gun firing. It had a range of 20 miles, but due to unsuitable type of ammunition, it did not cause much damage to the Japanese infantry. Source: https://thelongnwindingroad.wordpress.com/tag/changi-fire-command

I will leave out many of the details I have learnt, though to those of you interested, I can highly recommend additional reading in form of historical documents and published books. The overall picture in short was that despite occasional heroic stands of the soldiers who scrambled enough morale and determination to face the enemy, the front was moving fast towards the city located in the south-east corner of the Singapore island.

One further turning points happened on 11th February when the Japanese took control of another crucial target: the central food and ammunition stores at Bukit Timah, as well as water reservoirs in that area. Given that they were running out of both, it gave them significant boost – while it was an equally significant loss for the defenders. On that day, Japanese airplanes dropped 29 wooden tubes marked with white-red ribbon behind the British lines, with a message for Percival inviting him to surrender. He did not yet.

During the next two days, 12th and 13th February, fighting continued and the perimeter was getting closer and closer to the city. One of the most famous battles where significant resistance was mounted took place in the southern section, around the Buona Vista village nearby hills of Pasir Panjang. This will become one of the crucial parts of our story, because it’s recorded that some of the SSVF forces – including Silvestr himself – were involved.

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Map: Advance of the Japanese army during the battle of Singapore (blue arrows). The thick green line marks the final defense perimeter at the moment of surrender on 15th February 1942. Source: UK National Archives, photo by Jan Beranek

A day later, on 14th February, the Japanese managed to breakthrough here and invaded an area that included Alexandra military hospital at the outskirts of the city. In the afternoon, their troops entered the hospital and committed one of the infamous massacres, murdering more than 300 patients as well as medical staff. According to a number of accounts, Silvestr was among these victims, although there is no known direct evidence of that.

The position of the defenders was desperate: the water supply was cut, they were running out of ammunition and fuel. The numbers of killed and wounded civilians were rising, as about a million citizens were now pushed into a small area exposed to artillery shelling and bombing.

On the morning of 15th February, Percival at his headquarters outlined two options: immediate counter-attack with an objective to regain control of the water supply and supplies at Bukit Timah, or surrender. His demoralized commanders and staff opted unanimously for surrender. After a short negotiation with Yamashita, the official unconditional capitulation was signed by Percival at 5pm. Subsequently, as was agreed, all fighting ceased by 8pm.

surrender
Photo: General Percival (front, on the right) is signing unconditional surrender at the Japanese headquarters located at the Ford factory in Singapore. General Yamashita sits in front of him across the table (back, left on the picture). Source and link: AWM

Percival did not know that Yamashita was playing a big gamble. On 15th February morning, he had received a report from Tsuji that the soldiers have on average only hundred bullets left, and that the ammunition for heavy machine guns is even at more critical level. Yamashita later noted in his famous quote:

“My attack on Singapore was a bluff – a bluff that worked. I had 30,000 men and was outnumbered more than three to one. I knew that if I had to fight for long for Singapore, I would be beaten. That is why the surrender had to be at once. I was very frightened all the time that the British would discover our numerical weakness and lack of supplies and force me into disastrous street fighting.”

No wonder that Winston Churchill named the fall of Singapore “the worst disaster in British military history”. Combined with Malaya, the Japanese captured here 130,000 allied soldiers. They successfully defeated the boasted “impenetrable fortress” in just one week, and at the loss of just five thousands of man (of this, one third dead, two thirds wounded).

 

Battle of Singapore from the perspective of Batamen

Especially the last two weeks before the fall of Singapore must have been a terrifying experience to all its citizens.

The city was exposed to regular aerial bombing that claimed up to 500 victims a day. The civilian hospitals were overcrowded, and the exhausted doctors did not have time nor capacity for proper surgeries – the patients often got their wounded limbs just amputated.

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Photo: A scene from one of the bombings in Singapore features two Malayan women mourning over a killed child. The photo was taken on 3rd February 1942. Source and link: AWM

The bombings are captured in detail in the memoirs of Viktor Kos, one of the Bata Shoe Co. employees and Silvestr’s colleague:

“One Dutchman had a shelter near his apartment – a simple trench, in which he was hiding with one other woman. Once, the bomb scored a direct hit on that shelter, ripped everything apart, and rooted out a big tree nearby. They later found a head of this poor Dutchman on its branches – that’s all that was left of him and the lady […]

Once, when Zdenek Plhon [teenage son of Klement Plhon, another of the Singapore based Czechoslovak Bata employees – note by JB] was arranging something for us in the bank downtown, an air raid took place. He felt sufficiently safe in the bank, it was a solid building and everyone present went to hide in its basement. The bombs were falling so close that they could hear them loud in the shelter. As soon as the raid was over, while he was rushing home, he had seen many dead bodies and body members scattered along the street. He was so terrified that he never went back to town, and he rather stopped working for us.”

Especially for Bata staff, one of the most traumatizing experiences was when their Singapore factory got bombed on 30th January 1942. This is how Mr Kos recalls it:

“That day, Mr Klement Plhon, who was regularly arriving at noontime, did not come. We actually have not noticed, until when he rushed in around 1pm, all covered in black dirt. He reported to us that our factory was bombed.

When the air raid alarm sounded and they observed that the bombers were heading towards the factory, all employees were requested to go down to the shelter. Only one local worker was playing a hero and kept standing outside. When the bomb exploded, he had lost his arm. One of our boys – I think it was Lebloch – was also playing a hero, but suddenly ran into the shelter. As soon as he jumped in, the bomb detonated. After the bombing was over, we all rushed outside to inspect the factory. The local workers, specially girls, were crying; in tears, they just collected their belonging and ran for home. They never came back to work again.

The building got three direct hits, one in the center and two above the shoe storage. Its roof was made of steel beams, and all three bombs hit those beams as they were falling, exploding above the ground and scattering the roof to pieces. Lots of damage done also beneath them. There were big holes in the roof, so we covered our goods with tarp. The cars of our employees, parked outside, suffered a lot of damage from the splinters. Most of the local workers quit us immediately and never returned. Because nobody wanted to work anymore in the factory, our production was reduced to hand-craft shoemaking in the first floor of our administrative building.”

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Photo: Bombed a scorched Bata factory in Singapore. Source: Batanager News, October 1945

Starting from the 7th of February, the city was exposed also to artillery shelling.

“On 7th February 1942 morning, we have heard several explosions in short intervals nearby my apartment. We went out and as we were looking, we have heard a whistling sound and then ‘boom’!. These were the first artillery shells flying above our heads. The pounding lasted for about half an hour […] On Monday 9th, the shells started to fly above my house already from half past six in the morning. When it was over, they called me from Mr Jugas’ who lived nearby that one of the shells hit them. When I arrived there, I was surprised how much damage could be done by one single shell. There was a tree standing next to their house, the shell hit its branch and exploded; the splinters flew in through the window, damaging lots of furniture and accessories. There was a big hole in the middle of the office desk of Mr Heim. Luckily nobody was harmed because no one was present yet that early.”

A panic broke out among the citizens. The Czechoslovaks were especially scared of the rumor that there are Germans coming along with the Japanese army. Kos noted that “… our local workers kept talking in fear that once the Japanese would enter the city, they will keep shoorting and killing everyone for at least two weeks. Many of the Chinese were digging holes in the gardens to hide their jewelry, because the Japanese soldiers were advancing so fast.” Clearly, the horrors of the Japanese brutality in Nanking, which became known internationally in 1938, were scaring everyone that the same might happen to Singapore as well.

The desperate and hopeless atmosphere was without doubt further exacerbated as the streets of the city were roamed by groups of deserters, often drunk with whatever they found in the shops and bars. According to estimations I have read, almost a third of the allied army deserted in the final days of the battle of Singapore (and also that most of the Indian soldiers, after the surrender, turned against the British and joined their national liberation army). The scale of the desertion is clearly illustrated by another note by brigadeer Ballentine – he recalls that after the surrender and captivity, suddenly 700 soldiers were claiming to belong to a unit that in fact had only seen 200 of its men in battle.

Viktor Kos could not have missed it and wrote this telling account:

“After our wifes were evacuated, we have decided to go to cinema – me, Mr Strangfeld and Mr Plhon. I think it was on 7th February. It was an interesting scene: the cinema was full of soldiers who came there primarily because there was a bar inside. They were all terribly drunk […]

Many soldiers were wandering across the city, alone or in small bands – these were the deserters. They were mostly without their rifles and concentrated around the docks, hoping to sneak onto one of the departing ships. Once, two such individuals came to my apartment, already quite drunk, and were asking me for food and drinks. I offered them some salami, but they were not really interested. Although being drunk already, all they wanted was more alcohol. It was a big trouble for us to get them out of our house eventually […]

Another day, Mr Heim sent his car with his driver to arrange something somewhere, and after a long while, the driver returned back walking on his feet. He said that two soldiers stopped him and requested the car. When he refused, they pulled out and pointed a pistol at him. Of course he then obliged. There were many cases like that. It was done by the deserters – all they wanted was to enjoy the last days like that, driving and drinking around […]. Once I have witnessed a soldier who shot through his own arm in order to avoid being sent to the battle.”

Almost everyone was desperately trying to flee Singapore in these horrible two February weeks. The evacuation was taking place on all kinds of vessels available. But even such departure was coming at a great risks. The Japanese radio from Penang kept warning people that all ships leaving Singapore will be sunk – and it was not an empty threat as indeed, many were destroyed attempting to sail away.

The last wave of refugees got their chance in the night from 13th to 14th February, when a fleet of 44 vessels left Singapore, trying to reach Java. Half of them did not make it and were sunk after being torpedoed or bombed by the Japanese navy and air force. The survivors were collected by the Japanese and interned for the rest of the war. It was a fate of a number of Czechoslovaks, including the above quoted Viktor Kos himself.

evacuation ship.JPG
Photo: Soldiers aboard of Empire Star, trying to escape from Singapore. There were 2,500 people on that ship. Despite of being damaged by bombing on its way, they were the lucky ones and finally made it to Batavia (today’s Jakarta). This photo is dated 12th February 1942. Source and link: AWM

 

Four hypotheses about Silvestr’s death

In the next couple of chapters, I will be documenting and analyzing in detail everything that I managed to find about the fate of my great-uncle, Silvestr Nemec. He was with the SSVF volunteer unit and had gone missing during the last days of the fight for Singapore. After the war, he was officially declared dead by the authorities who established that he had died “on or around 15th February 1942”.

It seems that there are in principle four possible options how Silvestr, aged just over 22 years, lost his life. Here is my list, ordered by how I see their probability:

  1. Silvestr died during the Alexandra hospital massacre that began on 14th and lasted into 15th February.
  2. Silvestr died in combat during the battle on Pasir Panjang ridge.
  3. Silvestr got captured, became a prisoner of war and died on the walk to the POW camp or there shortly afterwards, before the full lists of prisoners were organized.
  4. Silvestr managed, at the last moment, to get onto one of the evacuation ships and died when it got sunk outside of Singapore.

In the coming weeks, you can expect me to elaborate on each of these four options. With that, our story will be almost coming to its end.

 

The Japanese invasion to Malaya: Batamen at war

At the beginning of 1940’s, Japan was already determined to strike south, with a strategic objective to control the oil reserves in Dutch colonies on Borneo and Sumatra. The key to their success was Singapore – a fortress island, from where the British were controlling both neighboring Borneo and Sumatra, as well as the Malaca strait that was giving access to Burma and India.

The British were well aware of the deficiencies in their preparation for war in Asia and weaknesses in the Singapore defense plans – several reports were produced about it in late 1930’s. One of these top secret reports unfortunately found its way to the hands of the Japanese: This was when a German cruiser Atlantis seized a British transport ship Automedon that carried 15 post bags onboard, including secret military plans and reports. From these, the Japanese learnt that the British airforce in Malaya is much weaker than it appeared, as well as that in case of an attack on Singapore, no major fleet would come to its rescue (because there is no major fleet that the British could spare). These findings both surprised and encouraged Japanese who, until then, thought that the British positions were significantly stronger in Malaya and Singapore.

AutomedonPhoto: The British transport ship Automedon. The top secret reports about weaknesses in Singapore and Malaya defences that it was carrying fell to the hands of the Germans who passed them onto their Japanese allies in November 1940.

The British propaganda, not surprisingly, was boasting the opposite. Under its influence, the British themselves became complacent and belived that the Japanese are not an enemy to be afraid of. Mr Viktor Kos, one of the Bata employees living in Singapore, wrote in his memoirs:

“As I remember, the risk of war with Japan surfaced about twice in 1940 and 1941. That is, as far as we could have learnt from the newspapers. It however appears that seeing from outside, the situation looked different. I remember that one of our employees got a letter from his US friend who was asking ‘whether the Japanese will leave us alone’. None of us had ever thought about a possibility that Japan could dare to attack England.”

Even the soldiers themselves believed in many bizarre myths, including that “the Japanese with their slanted eyes don’t see well enough to pilot an airplane or operate at  night” (during the first days of the fights, as the Japanese air force was beating RAF badly, the British consequently thought that the airplanes must be piloted by Germans). The allies had observed that that the Japanese soldiers could not beat even an inferior Chinese army in four years’ time, and that they suffered a humiliating defeat in a clash with the Mongolese-Soviet soldiers in Nohomhan. Thus they believed that Japanese were no match to their western army. Even Winston Churchill declared in January 1938 that “It is quite certain that Japan cannot possibly compete with the productive energies of either branch of the English speaking peoples.”

This conviction of their own superiority was, along with dangerous ossification, one of the reasons why the British army in Malaya badly underestimated its preparedness – after all, for decades, it was dealing with no bigger challenges than the occasional local mutinies. It did not bother to explore the terrain in the countryside that it was supposed to protect, and all its tactics was based on defending key sections or crossings of the roads that ran through Malaya from north to south.

In contrast with the perception that the British propaganda so successfully created, its airforce in the Far East was very weak. According to their own analysis, the Brits needed a minimum of 336 to 600 aircraft for an effective defence of Malaya. However by December 1941, they only had 150 at hand – most of them hopelessly outdated, including even WW1 biplanes. The best airplane available to RAF was the ponderous Brewster Buffalo.

Brewster Buffalo 2Photo: The ponderous Brewster Buffalo was the best aircraft available to RAF in Malaya. Source: AWM.

The requests from the Singapore command in 1940 and 1941 to get better and more aircraft were in vain: by that time, the British were desperately needing their best airplanes for their own defense in Europe. And if anything could had been be spared at all, it was sent to the Eastern front as a priority; it was vital to keep the Russians in game and not let their front against the Germans collapse.

On the opposite side, the Japanese allocated 600 modern aircraft for their operation in Malaya. This included the legendary Zero, whose maneuverability outperformed any western airplane of the time. But because the Japanese only introduced it in 1940, the western allies had little idea about its superb abilities – to the contrary, they believed that the Japanese air force only flies second tier machines.

The command of the British and allied armies in Malaya was assumed by general Arthur Percival in May 1941. He had scored some major achievements in WW1, but apparently was not up to this new assignment. Although unlike many others, he did not underestimate the Japanese, he had proven to be weak and indecisive at key critical moments. He was famous for his refusal of building heavy defenses, arguing that they would lead to an unnecessary defeatism and undermine army’s moral. Percival also failed to respond quickly and effectively to the surprising Japanese tactics, neither he managed to exercise sufficient authority over the Australian troops. These were under the command of an infamous egomaniac, general Gordon Bennett, who had frequent clashes with Percival. The mutual animosity and mistrust between the British and Australians was further escalating later, as their armies suffered humiliating defeats during the Malaya invasion. The fact that the Australian Prime Minister, seeing the inability of the British to stop the Japanese in Malaya, lost his faith in the British promise to defend Australia and approached Americans with a request for help, did not help this dynamics either.

Percival
Photo: Meeting of general Percival (standing in the front) with the Sultan of Johore (standing on the left). Source: AWM

The task to invade and occupy British Malaya was assigned in November 1941 to a Japanese general Tomoyuki Yamashita. He was acknowledged as one of the most capable military leaders in Japan, however because he sympathized with the Kodoha faction in the Japanese army that advocated “strike north” (against Russia), following its purge in 1936 he fell to disgrace and was sent off to Korea as a commander of a local brigade. He thought his career was over, but his knowledge of German brought him back to service in 1940, when he went on a secret mission to Berlin to negotiate exchange of military technologies with Hitler. Yamashita deeply believed that the main enemy of his nation was Russia. However in the light of the looming US sanctions and the threat that Japan might have to give up its hardly won achievements in China, he accepted the need of a preventive attack on the allies, seeing it as an act of self-defense. His chief of staff for the Malayan operation was a brilliant tactician and planner, colonel Tsuji, who however also became infamous from China for his cruelty towards the defeated enemy.

Yamashita sultansPhoto: General Yamashita meeting sultans of the Malayan states. This photo was taken in April 1942, two months after Malaya was taken by the Japanese. Notice the change in attire of the Johore sultan compared to the previous picture. Source: GettyImages.

At the beginning of December 1941, the allies noticed an accumulation of large military force on an island of Hainan in the South China Sea, however the Japanese claimed that it was part of their operation in China. Even after a scouting airplane spotted a large convoy heading to Thailand on 6th December, the British did not take any action. This was despite the fact that they actually had a plan for a pre-emptive invasion to neutral Thailand in order to deny its enemy a landing there. Although being prepared for this eventuality, they were hesitating with an action until it was too late.

 

The launch of the Malayan campaign

Shortly after midnight on 8th December 1941, the local Indian garrison spotted a large number of invasion vessels approaching the beaches in Kota Bharu, at the northeast corner of Malaya. The first invasion wave of 5,000 Japanese soldiers was launched around 1am local time – this was about 40 minutes before the first bomb was dropped on Pearl Harbor, which is generally considered as a start of the war between Japan and the Allies.

Kota BharuPhoto: One of the beaches at Kota Bharu where the the Japanese invasion to Malaya started  on 8th December 1941. Source: AWM.

When general Percival brought the news to the Singapore governor Thomas, he replied calmly “Well, I suppose you’ll shove the little men off!”

The first wave of attack was indeed fended off, but it did not take long for the attackers to break through the relatively weak defense line and by an afternoon of the first day, the defenders were already pushed inland. After securing their foothold and position in the area of Kota Bahru, the Japanese moved southward, along the eastern coast of Malaya. Simultaneously, another part of the Japanese army landed in Thailand and made its way across to the west, from where it invaded the opposite coast Malaya.

In parallel with the amphibious landing attack, Japanese opened a massive air attack targeting the airstrips in Northern Malaya. By the end of the first day, 60 (out of the 150 total) British airplanes were already destroyed – most of them on the ground, not given even a chance to take off. Within a week, the Japanese gained full control of the airspace over Northern Malaya, exposing the British infantry to air raids without any protection.

The launch of the attack on Malaya could not have been missed by the inhabitants of Singapore, because the city was bombed already on the night of 8th December. This is how Viktor Kos captured it:

“In the night from 7th to 8th December, around 4am, I was woken up by some strange sounds and then I heard explosions. We have seen from our window how every explosion was followed by a burst of fire reaching big heights, and we have heard the sounds of airplanes flying above us. Calmly, without any feeling of panic, we have watched a scene that was soon to become so fearful for us on a regular basis. The street lights were on, we could not see the searchlights on the sky, neither any anti-aircraft shooting, the sirens were silent – I could not understand. Only after a long while, when the bombing raid was over, the sirens sounded alarm, but the streetlights were never turned off. Early in the morning, I received a phone call from Mr Jugas, who informed me that these were Japanese airplanes and that some bombs were dropped right into the center of the city. He also said that Ms Cervenkova visited him and demanded the she was relocated, because one of the bombs hit nearby her apartment and she did not want to live there anymore in case there would be more bombing. Unly upon my arrival to office I have learnt that Japan declared war on Britain and on America.”

 

Air raids on Singapore: “The Japs are here!”

The first bombing raid on Singapore was rather symbolic. But starting from the middle of January, when the Japanese took control of the airstrips in southern Malaya, Singapore got within a direct range of their bombers and fighters from there. Ever since, regular bombing raids were taking place twice or three times a day, targeting primarily the naval base and airports. This is how the Batamen experienced it, in the words of Viktor Kos:

“The bombings then continued several times a day, sometimes even during night. I have noticed that many companies moved their offices from the city center to private houses and garden villas in the outskirts, where they assumed they would be safer. There was also a rumor going around that in northern Malaya, the Japanese were dropping leaflets calling on local people, in the interest of their own safety, to move further away from public buildings and institutions that would become a target. Because our Bata office in Singapore was in a vicinity of many such potential targets, and also because the quality of the building was not the best, we did not feel very safe there. Once, the bombs were falling to the sea and ships right in front of our building, everything was trembling and we had to run to the basement. I have decided to move the accounting office to my apartment, and all our employees welcomed such decision – everyone was very scared to stay in the city center. Mr Jugas also moved the sales department to his house nearby, and in this way we had most of the administration together again […]

Shortly after 8th of December, the Plhon family moved to live with us, because they were afraid to stay at their place and the risk appeared much smaller in our house that was in the middle of a garden quarter. The Martinec family moved to the Jugases who lived in our street, just few houses away. Some families found a shalter at Anicka’s place etc […]

In the course of few days, a rush began to build shelters. Construction of shelters had been recommended by the government even prior to 8th December, but few people took it seriously. But now, due to the sky rocketing demand, the prices of sand, wood and other building materials were rising, and it was also hard to find experienced building labor. It became compulsory for all companies and employers to construct shelters. Thus we have built one in the basement of our office building, and everyone was trying to make one at home, too. We have originally thought that it would be enough to share one shelter at Anicka’s house that could serve for both ours and Jugas’ families, but it soon became clear this was not practical. The alarms were sounding frequently also during night, and that would require us to stay and sleep in the shelter the whole night – it was not allowed to move around after the sirens, and Anicka’s house was quite far way. We also had to keep in mind our two children […]

The night alarms were taking place so frequently that we slowly became accustomed to them. The Singapore island is quite large, and the airplanes were usually bombing military objects that were remote from the city. But because their target was never know in advance, the alarm was announced everywhere. The first alarm of the day usually came between 8 and 9 in the morning, and they usually continued till 4 o’clock in the afternoon – sometimes with short intervals of silence in between. The alarms were less regular in the nighttime, but also quite frequent. It took one or two hours after the first alarm that the emergency was considered over […]

Also during the night, several alarms sounded. However, we were often first woken up by the sound of bombs and explosions, and the alarm only came after that. At first, we used to run to the shelter when alarm sounded – I grabbed our son, Ms Plhonova our daughter, my wife blankets for kids, while Mr Plhon and his son kept observing where the airplanes were heading to. When this was happening repeatedly throughout a night, we became so tired that we did not feel like going down to the shelter again. Sometimes, when I was carrying my son there several times in a single night, he half-woke up in my arms asking “What’s happening?”, and when I replied “Japs are here!”, he said “Again?” and continued to sleep in the shelter. Therefore, later on, we did not automatically rush to a shelter with each and every alarm – Plhons were awake and kept a guard. Only if the airplanes were coming in our direction, they alarmed us and we all went to the shelter. The night air raids were offering a beautiful view in some ways: a lot of airplanes flying high above, many beams of searchlights from all angles trying to “catch” them, and antiaircraft artillery shooting. Regardless, the airplanes continued their majestic flight.

Once we were watching them again from our doorstep, when suddenly three loud explosions came from the street right in front of our house (there was a big garden between the street and our house). You can’t imagine how scared we were. But as we weren’t blown away immediately, we slowly realized that the sound is moving upwards – it was a mobile antiaircraft gun shooting to the sky, while being positioned on our street! We were able to hear the shot, then the sound of the shrapnel flying up, and eventually seen the light of the explosion high in the sky.”

 

Sinking of the British fleet

The biggest blunder that further shattered the morale of the defenders and the confidence of the civilians in the safety of the “Singapore fortress”, however came to to the British not in air or on land, but on the sea. Because the government was not able to send to Singapore its main fleet, as the war plans required, it decided to at least send a mini-fleet of three capital ships, named as “Z-Force”. It was consisting of HMS Prince of Wales, cruiser HMS Repulse and carrier HMS Indomitable. The HMS Prince of Wales had earlier the year, in May 1941, participated in a successful hunt on Bismarck – the most iconic German battleship. It was also on board of HMS Prince of Wales where the legendary August 1940 summit between Roosevelt and Churchill took place.

ARRIVAL_OF_HMS_PRINCE_OF_WALES_AT_SINGAPORE__4_DECEMBER_1941____Imperial_War_MuseumsPhoto: The legend and pride of British navy, battleship HMS Prince of Wales, is arriving to Singapore on 2nd December 1941. A week later, it will be sunk by the Japanese on its first mission. Source: IWM.

It’s been clear that despite its fame, the Z Force does not constitute any decisive strength, however it was all the British government could afford at the moment. Churchill was even trying to persuade Roosevelt to position the US fleet to Singapore, however his request was also turned down on the grounds that also for Americans, Atlantic and Europe were a critical priority.

The Z Force eventually arrived in Singapore incomplete, as HMS Indomitable – in a twist of irony given her name – run ashore and got stuck on its way in the Carribean. Despite this, the arrival of two famous warships caused a lot of celebration and enthusiasm among people in Singapore. Once again, they felt that the Japanese wouldn’t dare to try anything.

On 8th December, the day that Japan attacked Malaya, Z Force set off for its first Far East mission. It was heading to Kota Bharu with an objective to attack the Japanese transport ships and thus disrupt their invasion. Both warships were accompanied by four destroyers. However, the absence of air cover – which was supposed to come with HMS Indomitable – had soon proven fatal. The ability of the mini-fleet to defend itself against an air attack was further undermined by the fact that the analogue system that was controling fire from the anti-aircraft guns aboard HSM Prince of Wales failed to operate in the hot and humid tropical climate.

When admiral Phillips, who was commanding the Z Force, realized that he won’t be able to intercept the Japanese invasion fleet on time, next evening he ordered to turn around and return to Singapore. Shortly before midnight, however, his ships were spotted by a Japanese submarine who reported the sighting to its command. Next morning, 88 Japanese aircraft were sent from a base near Saigon to intercept and destroy Z Force. After their torpedo attack, both British capital ships were sunk in early afternoon of December 10th. The Japanese pilots reported their surprise that they did not encounter any enemy airplanes; it’s never been clarified why admiral Phillips did not ask for an air cover, at least from the land air bases that British still had available in Malaya at that moment.

The Japanese commander-in-chief, Yamamoto, received the news with a big smile: not only that he had wiped out the entire British Pacific fleet at the cost of only three airplanes lost, but given that part of the American fleet was laying damaged or sunk in Pearl Harbor (and the other part was rushing back to California for safety), the entire Pacific became an exclusively Japanese domain for the next couple of months.

HMS Prince of Wales sinkingPhoto: Last moments of the sinking HMS Prince of Wales. It went down with admiral Phillips who refused to abandon his ship.

 

Japanese blitzkrieg

Sinking of the Z Force was a crushing blow to the British.

After loosing both its naval and air forces, the defence of Malaya and Singapore was now fully in the hands of the land army. It had 90,000 men in Malaya and 50,000 men in Signapore, composed from units of different origin (about half were Indians, quarter British, sixth Australians, rest locals). They were also of very mixed skills, but most of the soldiers had little or no previous experience with real battle, and many were just raw recruits quickly brought in.

Against them was a much smaller Japanese army of 70,000 men, only half of which was actually fighting on the front as the other half made up a reserve. They were inferior in numbers, but superior in experience (many of them were battle-hardened already from China), motivation and determination. The Japanese commands, unlike the British, also took a good care to prepare them for jungle warfare – every soldier got printed instructions to read and get familiar with while they were in transit to south. They also rehearsed their planned landings and tactics several times. The infantry’s support included 200 light tanks – to these, the British armored cars were hardly a serious opponent.

Although the Japanese soldiers were massively outnumbered, they managed to crush the British due to surprise and mastered tactics, as well as efficient coordination among various units. Typically, the roadblocks and defense points on the roads were first bombed by airplanes or artillery, and a fast frontal attack supported by tanks followed. When it was not enough, the Japanese launched a quick flanking move through the jungle, forcing the defenders to withdraw before they would get surrounded. If flanking of the defense positions through jungle was not possible, they used small boats and landed in their back from sea.

The defenders were very frustrated, as they often had to withdraw without fight – it was enough to receive an information that Japanese soldiers were sighted behind them, and they had to pull back. As a result, although the British planned to apply the scorched earth policy, they often left behind ammunition and food storages, as well as weapons that they have not managed to destroy during their rushed retreat. This was to a great advantage to the fast advancing Japanese troops who otherwise would suffer from overstretched and insufficient supply lines; Japanese soldiers nicknamed these British depots “Churchill shops“.

7_3.jpg
Map: The whole conquest of Malaya took the Japanese less then two months. They had crossed a distance over 1000 km between 8th December 1941 and 31st January 1942 – advancing 20 km per day on average. Source: Francis Pike

While the Japanese were motivated and encouraged by their fast wins, on the other side, the morale of the defenders basically collapsed after three weeks of defeats and chaotic retreats. The British soldiers, despite their numerical advantage, began to ascribe the Japanese troops almost supernatural skills. The units moving to the front were encountering terrified retreating solders rushing back – some of them witnessed the Japanese brutality: murdering the wounded and beheading, bayonetting or burning alive their captives. The Japanese, thanks to the speed of their advance, did not allow the allied troop to regroup nor build more robust defense lines.

This is how Viktor Kos remembers the first weeks of the battles:

“Wild news were reaching us from the north of Malaya, and even the newspapers had to acknowledge successful advance of the Japanese army. We could observe it anyway, as new crowds of people were entering Singapore every day, fleeing from the Japanese by cars or by train. Everything alive was rushing south to seek safety in the ‘impenetrable fortress’ of Singapore.”

For Yamashita, the quick advance has been a corner stone of his strategy – he did not have supplies nor capacities for a long, protracted war with the British. In order to maximize his mobility, he chose to attack only with three divisions, although the main command was offering him five – a testament to Yamashita’s military brilliance, as most commanders would rather opt for the bigger force. The Japanese infantry was using bicycles confiscated during the early days of invasion – it allowed the soldiers to move fast both on the roads as well as through the jungle, and also gave them the capacity to carry more food and ammunition than they would manage to carry on their backs walking.

Another remarkable, sad moment that further eroded both the morale and reputation of the British was their evacuation from the Penang island on 17th December. The evacuation ships were reserved only for the white people, while the Chinese and Malayans crowded on the peers were not allowed to board. The British simply  abandoned them, forcing them to face their terrible fate in the hands of the brutal Japanese invaders. This betrayal caused a lot of bitterness and disillusionment among the loyal locals – a number of them then turned against the British and after the war, never accepted their renewed rule.

Also this moment had been shortly captured by Viktor Kos:

“Several days after 10th of December, Mr Zelnicek arrived from Penang along with other escapees. They told us horrible stories about the situation there. There has been no anti-aircraft guns and no airplanes to protect them. The Japanese pilots had a free hand to do whatever they liked: bombing and often machine-gunning people on the streets during low flyovers. The entire Penang police run away and disappeared, with the British officers going first. Chaos, rioting and killing followed.”

On 31st January, less than two months after the Japanese landed in north Malaya, the last of the British troops crossed over the Johore causeway and blew up the bridge behind them.

It is very telling that during the battle of Malaya, the allies suffered 50,000 casualties (killed and wounded), while the outnumbered Japanese only 5,000.

 

Batamen caught in the middle of the war

Zdenek Plhon – a son of Klement Plhon, who worked for Bata in Singapore and unfortunatelly did not survive the war – later wrote:

“The Batamen during 1939 managed to build a new, quality leather shoe factory in Signapore; they also expanded the production of the rubber shoes in Klang. In the years 1940-1941, when the Europe was already consumed by the war and all supplies from Zlin were stopped, the Bata company in Singapore prospered well. So did their employees and their families who lived in peace, comfort and hope that they will wait out the war here.”

This dream vanished in 1941.

Already before the invasion, on 1st December 1941, the British mobilized all their forces including the volunteer units. Kos noted that “Several days before 8th December, the government call into duty all the volunteers, which included 7 of our employees and 4 ex-employees”. Given that Kos was a meticulous accountant and that he wrote down his memories while they were still fresh already in 1943, we can take this as a reliable piece of information. In fact, he even lists their eleven names several pages later: R. Kozusnicek, L. Mraz, E. Matus, H. Bohman, S. Jedovnicky, J. Vyhnalek, A. Cepka, S. Nemec, P. Ambroz, R. Janecek and W. Zamara. (Given what we have learnt about Silvestr’s clashes with the management of Bata, he might have belonged to the category of “ex-employees” that Kos mentions.)

As the British were retreating south through Malaya, the army destroyed the Bata factory in Klang so that it did not fall to the hands of the Japanese as an asset. From the point of view of Viktor Kos, here is the sequence of the events:

“As the battlefront was increasingly getting closer towards Singapore, we started to consider transfering the goods from our shops in Malaya, so that they would not get lost. However, for such a move, we had to obtain a permit from the government. They did not want to release their permit, arguing that such a move would unnecessarily cause panic among the citizens, because it would suggest that the defense line is weak and won’t hold. Several days later, when the front moved, we finally got the permit for what we requested earlier – however by that time, our assets were already on the occupied territory and it was too late.

One of the decisions we had to take was also about our factory in Klang. The initial opinion was that of course our boys need to stay there, while they can send their wives to us in Singapore. One day, however, they received an order from the local authorities to destroy the factory. That meant that they could not stay there anymore, even if the factory would not be destroyed entirely: they would then face a revenge of the Japanese who would hate the fact that the factory was purposefuly damaged and see it as an act of sabotage. In the meantime, we asked the government to at least allow us to take the machinery away from there to Singapore. Again, they refused to give us the permit, insisting that the front will hold […]

One day, Ms Boda and Ms Sokol arrived to Singapore from Klang, I think it was around 10th or 15th of January. They told us that the boys will follow soon, and indeed they did. The Sokols were accommodated with Jugas, Bodas and Mr Hlobil at Anicka’s place, and Dvorak with Koblizek in our house […]

The day that the British troops were to withdraw, they came to Klang and requested our staff to burn it all down. The director of Klang, Mr Sokol, was considering that and eventually he rejected to do it. He said that he was responsible for the factory and he just couldn’t do it. The soldiers then ordered him to go and destroy another shoe factory in the neighborhood, while the army itself would destroy ours. Thus, both factories were set on fire. Immediatelly after that, they got into cars and drove back to Singapore, as the Japanese were already approaching.”

Klang factory bombed & scorched Photo: Pictures of the destroyed factory in Klang. Source: Bata publication ‘Malaya 1931-1951: 20 Years of Progress’

Another Bata employee in Singapore, Mr Josef Varmuza, noted in his memoirs:

“After Pearl Harbor and the fall of Hong Kong to the Japanese, we have fully realized the proximity of the enemy, his rapid advance and victory all over the south-east Asia. Singapore was the impenetrable fortress, the most important harbor. Suddenly in December 1941, the Japanese were standing just across the Johore strait, 16 miles from our city [in fact, the Japanese reached the Johroe shoreline on 31st January 1942 – comment by JB]. The bombs kept falling, airplanes were fighting right above our heads. A panic struck everyone – precipitous evacuation of women, children and men-civilians.”

The Japanese were facing Singapore, just 1 kilometer across the water from it, on the other side of the Johore strait. Here they took a short break to regroup and prepare for their final attack.

Our poor Silvestr had only two weeks of his life left.

Next time, we will focus on the final battle of Singapore and its fall.

 

Being a Singapore volunteer

At the time of Silvestr’s arrival to Singapore – which was in January 1939 – Japan was already fighting an open war in China for nearly two years, and a massive military conflict in Europe was around the corner. The assumption that for the British Empire in Asia, Japan would become the main threat, was confirmed when Japan joined the “Axis” with Germany and Italy in September 1940.

The decision to make Singapore a British stronghold for the Far East was taken in London already shortly after the WW1. The Singapore Island had both suitable and critical position to stand in the way of potential Japanese advance to either Australia or India – two of the most important parts of the British Empire.

mapMap: Strategic location of Singapore, standing in between Japan, India and Australia. Source: Google

The main British strategy for Asia was based on a key principle that in case of an enemy attack, Singapore had to be able to defend itself long enough to allow the main fleet to arrive from Europe to its relief. The fleet could then continue to Hong Kong, should it be occupied or besieged, and eventually launch a naval blockade of Japan, forcing it to surrender sooner or later.

As a part of this plan, the British built heavy defenses in Singapore – particularly on its Eastern and Southern coastline, where it was open to the sea and from where an attack was anticipated. The eventuality of an invasion coming from inland was not considered to be realistic, given that British controlled the Malayan Peninsula; they were also assuming that it’s impossible for any larger army to penetrate through the jungles. The coastal defenses included artillery batteries that operated five massive, 18 inch guns, and a number of smaller cannons. This firing power was very impressive and the British boasted Singapore as an “impenetrable fortress” and “Gibraltar of the East”.

THE_FALL_OF_SINGAPORE___Imperial_War_Museums
Photo: One of the five 18 inch guns stationed Singapore; this one at the Changi battery in the eastern tip of the Singapore Island. Source and link: Imperial War Museum

The second crucial piece of the British plan was to build a major naval base, large enough to host the enitre British fleet if necessary. As a matter of fact, even after WW1, the British did not have any large military naval base, with dry dock capacities, east of Malta. Considering various options including Hong Kong and Sydney, their final choice was Singapore – more specifically, its northern coast at the straits separating the island from the Johore kingdom.

The construction of this naval base cost the treasury a staggering 60 million pounds (about 2.5 billion pounds in today’s value), and required an area of over 50 square kilometers. The base was finished in 1938 and included the largest dry dock in the world of that time, along with large oil deports whose capacity was sufficient to cover the needs of all British Navy for 6 months.

In addition, the British built a chain of oil depots and supply stations along the anticipated route of their fleet from England to Singapore (one of the reasons being that the warships had to pass through the Suez Canal half empty due to their deep draft).

The period of time for which Singapore had to defend itself before the relief arrived was initially established as 42 days. In 1938, when the situation in Europe and in the Mediterranean became complicated, it was revised to 105 days, and a year later further extended to 180 days. This obviously much increased the requirements on its defenses, however by the time this was recognized, the British were running out of time and resources, given that it was just two years before the Japanese attack and that they had to concentrate most of their resources for self-defence in Europe.

Despite that, the British could not afford to let Singapore fall either. This was for a number of reasons, including the pressure from the Australian government that was concerned that while Australia sends its troops to fight in Africa and Middle East, Australia is left vulnerable. The Australian Prime Minister was requesting that the British government guaranteed protection of Australia, for which the Singapore stronghold was vital.

Therefore, the British government was trying to mobilize whatever was available and could be spared for the defense of Singapore. Dozens of thousands of soldiers were heading to Singapore and Malaya, however these were mostly inexperienced troops with barely basic trainings. No wonder that in this situation, also volunteers were in high demand.

 

Singapore volunteers

From the point of view of Silvestr’s story that we are trying to reconstruct, the Singapore volunteer forces that he had joined, along with some other Czechoslovaks, play a crucial role.

Strait Times 19410417A Photo: Public appeal to join the volunteer forces, as it was published in The Straits Times in April 1941. The article mentions that the forces already have more some Czechs. We also learn that fifteen officers were in charge of leading them. Source: Singapore National Library.

Silvestr was registered as a private and received a service number 13779. It seems that he had joined the volunteer forces at the beginning of 1941, along with two of his friends and colleagues from Bata company: Karel Vitek and Rudolf Janecek. I conclude this from the fact that their service numbers are consecutive, 13777 for Vitek and 13778 for Janecek. It is very sad that none of these three friends survived the war. It must have been a really unfortunate trio, given that out of the approximately hundred Czechoslovaks who lived in Singapore before the war, only five others had died during the conflict.

trojicePhoto: Personal records of the unfortunate trio of Czech volunteers in Singapore – Janecek, Nemec and Vitek – hold at the Bata headquarters in Zlin. Source: State Archives in Zlin

Armed volunteer forces had a long history in the British colonies. The Singapore Volunteer Corps (SVC) had been established in 1854, following the riots organized by the secret Chinese societies. The police was not able to handle these on its own, and had to ask for military assistance. The British merchants, government officials and planters armed with rifles thus became a useful organized force. In 1888, the volunteers were reorganized; they also got equipped with Maxim machine guns, and adopted their own badge with a motto In Oriente Primus (“The First Ones in the East”). They had also seen an action during the WW1, as they were playing part in a suppression of the sepoy mutiny in 1915. Finally in 1920’s, they were restructured and formed two battalions of the Straits Settlement Volunteer Forces (SSVF).

capbadge
Photo: Crest of the Singapore Volunteer forces.

As the need to increase the number of volunteers became more urgent towards late 1930’s, the SSVF was expanding and included also non-British citizens, both other European nationals as well as locals (Chinese, Malayans, Indians, Eurasians).

The government was clearly struggling to recruit enough Europeans. This was because their overall number in Singapore was limited (in December 1940, it was estimated that there were 14,000 Europeans out of total Singapore population of 750,000). Many of them were also on the so called strategic duties as a part of their civil employment, and were required to be available full time on these jobs. Intially, the volunteers were signing up mostly due to personal motivation or under social pressure. Then in July 1940, the governor published an ordnance based on which it became a duty for all British single men 19 to 41 years old unless they were assigned to strategically important civil duties or jobs.

Finally, it is evident from the contemporary newspaper articles that potential volunteers were also facing pressure from their employers. The local companies were not always happy that their employees sign up for volunteering, meaning that they had to dedicate part of their time for the military – while the companies were still obliged to pay them full salaries. It seems that Bata was not the only company that had conflicts with their staff over this.

In addition to SSVF, the government also setup Local Defence Corps in October 1940, fulfillig a role of home guard. It was composed of European British men above 41 years old, and after March 1941, also opened to non-British Europeans. We know that some of the older Czechoslovak Batamen were serving in these home guard formation, too.

By the time of the Japanese attack, the SSVF had altogether about 2,800 men. They were divided into four infantry battalions, mostly equipped with rifles and machine guns. They also had some auxiliary volunteer units: artillery, anti-aircraft, engineers, armored vehicles and three medial teams.

BCoy1SSVF1940.jpg
Photo: A page from the 1939 Annual report of SSVF that describes events within the B company of the 1st battalion – a unit that Silvestr was attached to since early 1941. It also shows a photograph of a bayonet charge exercise. Source: Archive of Jonathan Moffatt

To which of these volunteer units exactly did Silvestr belong? Given that almost no official documentation survived the Japanese occupation, we have to rely on post-war recollections of Silvestr’s colleagues.

According to Pavel Ambroz, who in December 1945 wrote a letter to Silvestr’s family in Vemyslice, Silvestr was attached to armored cars team (Ambroz himself was with the machine gun unit). This information was confirmed in a letter from Antonin Jugas, the director of Bata in Singapore, in his letter from January 1946 – he also mentions  additional information that it was the “B company”.

On the other hand, Silvestr’s close friend Josef Vyhnalek in his letter from August 1947 remembers that three days before the fall of Singapore, him and Silvestr were both part of an infantry counter-attack against the Japanese on the Gap hill at the Pasir Panjang ridge. Finally, an article from the Batanagar News, written by its chief editor Jan Baros and based on a testimony of Mr Bohman and Mr Jedovnicky, says:

Matus, Bohman, Kozusnicek, Ambroz, Jedovnicky were in machine gun units; Vitek, Janacek, Nemec were with the riffle corps; Cepka, Mraz in bomb disposal units; Zamara and others in the some other and so on. These units were posted for beach defense all along the coast.”

The fact that Silvestr Nemec was eventually fighting with the rifle unit is however not necessarily contradicting the information that he was initially attached to the armored cars company. This company was reportedly disbanded in December 1941 and its crew merged with a carrier platoon of the SSVF. It’s plausible that as the fights continued, and the number of operational carriers was decreasing, Silvestred was eventually amalgamated with one of the rifle units. It was a common practice of the British army at that time to merge remainders of various units with others.

 

Silvestr’s trainings

The young men who signed up for the Singapore volunteer units normally continued  their daily civil jobs. Their trainings were organized on the evenings and weekends. The schedule of these drills were regularly published by the local newspapers, here is one example:

vol17
Photo: Announcement in the Malaya Tribune, edition from Friday 30th May 1941. It’s a roaster of trainings of the volunteers for both that Friday and coming Saturday. Silvestr, who was attached to the 1st SSVF battalion, or its armored car B company, had thus one of his trainings on Saturday 31st May 1941. Source: Singapore National Archive.

The trainings were usually taking place at the SSVF headquarters on Beach Road whose facilities included an exercise area. The trainings in shooting were taking place at the range at Bukit Timah, and I also came across a reference that the weekend and other more intensive trainings were happening at Telok Paku.

SSVF HQ.jpgPhoto: The SSVF headquarter building on Beach Road. Source: Flickr.

In the years 1940 and 1941, the SSVF command also organized trainings camps that usually lasted for several weeks. The employers were obliged to let their staff who volunteered to join, while they continued to pay their civilian salaries – this triggered one of the documented conflicts between the management of Bata and some of their staff, Silvestr included.

vol24xPhoto: A full company photo of an infantry and machine gun unit of SSVF at the end of a month-long training camp in November 1940. There is no chance of finding Silvestr here, as the Czech boys only joined SSVF at the beginning of 1941. Source: Singapore national archive.

We can get a bit of sense how these trainings camp looked like if we read one of the articles from 2nd April 1941 – it describes an event that Silvestr may have well attended. The reporter of The Straits Times describes one of the exercises: “In one scheme, the entire Battalion, equipped for the war, marched several miles to an assembly area, fought a three-hour battle amongst pineapple and rubber-covered hills, and then after feeding in the field, marched back to camp.”

Another article from The Straits Times on 9th January 1941 informs us that a training camp was taking place between 15th January and 15th April. The volunteers were joining according to their availability, so their full participation for all the time was not required. What was however compulsory was attendance at the weekend drills and evening parades. The weekend drills were starting on Saturdays at 2pm, and finished on Monday 8am. The evening parades were conducted after 5pm and lasted about an hour.

vol26aPhoto: Newspaper report from April 1941 informs us that the two month long training camp for volunteers had just finished. It’s quite likely that Silvestr was attending, along with his Czech friends. Source: Singapore National Library

 Singapore_Volunteer_Force_training_November_1941
Photo: From the SSVF training in November 1941. Two volunteers are handling the Lewis machine gun. Source and link: Imperial War Museum

 

Armored Cars

Most of the volunteer units were armed only lightly, with rifles. Some were also equipped with machine guns or smaller, old howitzers. One company however was quite special – the armored cars B company of the 1st SSVF battalion. This is where Silvestr began his voluntary military service.

Their main weapon were the Lanchester armored cars. These were agile machines with impressive firepower and had already proven their worth in the battles in Egypt and Libya. They were equipped with two 0.303 machine guns in the turret, and an 0.5 inch cannon at the front of the car. Due to their speed and mobility, they were perfect for taking advanced positions, sometimes also for scouting. Compared to light tanks and carriers, their additional advantage was an ability to operate relatively silently.

Lanchester Armoured Car mini.jpg
Picture: A scheme and technical details of the Lanchester armored car. Source: Archive of Jonathan Moffatt

The Singapore volunteers nicknamed these armored cars as “ovens” – as they were exactly that hot. In the tropical weather, and particularly when operating in open terrain and exposed to sun, the temperature inside easily exceeded 50 degrees C. Their crew had to endure this inside a tight, closed space with limited air circulation – and in addition had to also withstand a lot of rocking and bumping when the car was driving fast on uneven roads. It’s not hard to imagine how tought a several-hour mission like this must have been to anyone!

Lanchester_Malaya.jpgPhoto: Training of the British troops in Malaya. In the background you can see the Lanchester armored car. Source: Imperial War Museum

According to available information, the SSVF armored car company was disbanded on 16th December 1941 due to the age of the cars, and its personnel – 39 men including Silvestr – was attached to the SSVF carrier platoon operating Bren-gun carriers.

THE BRITISH ARMY IN MALAYA 1941Photo: Bren-gun carriers. Same machines were operated by the SSVF carrier platoon when Silvestr joined them. Source: Imperial War Museum.

 

Racial discrimination among the volunteers

As I was browsing through old newspaper archives in search for more information about the Singapore volunteers, I came across a high number of published letters and articles that were dealing with grievances about volunteer payments. The volunteers, when they were attending a training or were at action, were entitled to a pay – just as regular soldiers. However, unlike with soldiers, this pay was not equal and depended on the race of the given volunteer.

A letter by E. T. Huang in an October 1941 edition of the Malaya Tribune mentions a lot of detail. The Indian and Asiatic volunteers were apparently paid several times lower compensation: a white volunteer of a private rank received 1.06 $ per day, which was already more than an Asiatic sergeant was getting; while a white sergeant of an equal rank would be entitled to 3.68 $ per day.

The Singapore governor apparently refused to hear these grievances, arguing that it’s “a terribly complicated issue” for which he does not see a solution. The main challenge, it seems to me, was that introducing an equal pay among volunteers would create a pressure on an equal pay also in their civilian jobs – an explosive issues that the governor could not, od did not want, to open.

Many of the Indian and Asiatic volunteers were not hiding their dissatisfaction and frustration. No wonder: they had the same duties, undergone the same trainings, and would eventually face the same risk at action, yet their pay was several times lower than that of their European peers. I am afraid that unfortunately, the inability of the government to recognize and address this issue was eventually undermining the loyalty and motivation of some of the volunteers.

 

Military parades that weren’t

Another interesting thing I spotted in the newspaper archives was information about some military parades. For example, one of the these was organized in mid June 1940, for the occassion of the king’s birthday. It was supposed to showcase dispatchments of mechanized and infantry units, including a mechanized column with artillery guns, Bren-gun carriers and armored cars. Notably, the amored car company of the Singapore Volunteers was to be the first unit to pass the saluting base. The newspapers were expecting over 50,000 citizens to watch the event. Unfortunately, a heavy storm on the morning of the event forced the authorities to cancel the whole parade.

It seems that it was not the only big parade that got canceled. The Straits Times on 7th December 1941 advertise a “Big March of the Empire Troops” on the next day: promising a three miles long column of infantry, navy, and mechanized vehicles. I did not find any follow up report in the newspapers from the coming days, therefore I suppose that parade was canceled as a result of the surprise Japanese attacks that took place in Pearl Harbor, Philippines and Malaya on that very same day.

prehlidka_vol41a

Photo: Information about the big march of empire troops in Singapore, which most likely did not take place, as on that day, the war with Japan began. Source: Singapore National Library

 

The Malayan Volunteers Group

Already at an early stage of my research, while looking up some initial information on internet, I came across a website of the Malayan Volunteers Group. It’s one of the few websites known to me that has quite detailed and specific information about the volunteer forces in Singapore and Malaya during the WW2.

Soon after I wrote to their contact address, I received replies from both the group’s secretary, Mrs Rosemary Fell, as well as from its main history specialist, Mr Jonathan Moffatt.

I was curious about the offer to become a member, so I filled-in the application form provided by Mrs Fell. In two weeks, I have received an envelope with a touching welcome pack – it also included a long personal, hand written letter – something so rare to see these days!

volunteergroup.jpgPhoto: A lovely welcome pack from the Malayan Volunteers Group. It includes two newsletters, leaflet and a hand-written letter by their secretary, Rosemary Fell.

malayanvolunteergroup.jpg
Photo: My MVG membership card.

Jonathan Moffatt – whom I had the opportunity and honor to meet in person later when I went to search in the National Archives in Kew, London – is in my opinion the most knowledgeable person on the subject that you can ever encounter. Himself being a son of a British officer based in Penang, he was later studying and teaching history. Over years, he had collected an impressive personal archive of information about the fights in Malaya and Singapore, and even more importantly, many personal information about the individual volunteers who fought there.

jonathan_mPhoto: Historian Jonathan Moffatt during our meeting at the National Archives in London, July 2017.

Today, Jonathan is retired which allows him to spend even more time on research and to answer inquiries from relatives of the Singapore volunteers – such as many questions of mine! He is also writing contributions to the MVG quarterly newsletter and authored, or co-authored, several published books. Jonathan gave me one of them, titled “Moon Over Malaya”, as a present when we met (and in exchange, he got a bottle of fine wine from Moravia, the region of Silvestr’s origin).

jonathan_kniha.jpgPhoto: The book by Jonathan Moffatt, “Moon Over Malaya”. It’s building on a detailed research of the fightings and movements of the 2nd Argylls battalion and Plymouth Argyll Royal Marines during the defense of Malaya and Singapore – it also includes stories from their later captivity.

In the coming chapters of my writing, I will be sharing with you some of the information and papers that Jonathan kindly provided to me. This includes several documents that have Silvestr’s name on them – an incredible finding for me! Stay tuned.

 

From Sandokan to Bata’s Intelligence Report: Learning about old Malaya and Singapore

What was the destination of Silvestr’s voyage from Italy like? He had shared his first impressions of Singapore in a letter to his parents. His first sentence reads: “The city if Singapore is positioned on an island, separated by a narrow strait from the mainland called Malaya.”

The Malaya of late 1930’s was however quite something different than today’s Malaysia – and the same applies for Singapore. The Singapore Island, which now has a status of a sovereign country, was a part of a bigger chunk of colonies, states and autonomous sultanates. These were all refered to as the British Malaya. The British Malaya was a part of the British Empire – at that time, sun was literally never going down on it, which is nicely illustrated by this map:

Britisk Empire.jpgPicture: A map of the British Empire of 1937. I find it especially fascinating because it shows the momentary positon of almost 2,500 merchant/transport larger ships (3,000 tons or above), as of 24th November 1937. There is also indication of the main resources that each colony provides, in case of the British Malaya, it’s been a source of 66% of all rubber and of 8% of all tin imported to Britain. You can click to see the map in full resolution here.

I must confess that before I set onto my search for Silvestr, I knew very little about the colonial Malaya. Almost nothing beyond what I have seen as a kid in the TV series called “Sandokan”. The “Tiger of Malaya”, a rebel who fell in love with the beautiful lady Marianna (also called “The Pearl of Labuan”) and was facing his arch-enemy James Brook from Sarawak, was one of my childhood heroes.

sandokan.jpgPicture: Cover from the TV miniseries Sandokan.

However, the romantic story of Sandokan is as far from the realities of the colonial Malaya as the similarly romantic novels of “Vinnetou” (I was eagerly reading them, too!) are from the real Wild West. Therefore, to understand better the conflict that eventually lead to the occupation of Singapore by the Japanese in 1942, we need to learn more.

The British Malay of 1930’s was composed of a larger number of states of three different categories:

  • Straits Settlements – four small colonies governed directly by the British; Singapore was one of them
  • Federated States of Malaya
  • Unfederated States of Malaya

Malaya.jpg
Map: British Malay in 1932. Red color represents the Straits Settlements, yellow stands for the Federated States of Malaya and blue for Unfederated States of Malaya. On its northen border sits Siam (today’s Thailand).

The way the British took control of this region is typical of the colonial tactics of these times. In 1773, the sultan of Kedah offered the East India Company the island of Penang as their base, in exchange for the British protection against his enemies – primarily the Siam kindgom (today’s Thailand). The foxy British first took control of the island, only to inform the sultan that they can’t provide the protection he requests. The sultan then tried to gather forces to take his island back, however the British mobilized and defeated him. He was then forced to sign an agreement under which the island was given to the British in exchange for an annual allowance of six thousand pesos.

The Singapore island that was to become an important stonghold and tradic port for the British to stand up to the Dutch regional dominance, seen a similar story. In 1819, the British took advantage of a conflict between two sons of the deceased sultan of Johore. Using intriques, they helped the older one to gain the throne, but in exchange, he had to provide them the island of Singapore.

The British possessions were later confirmed by a treaty with the Netherlands in 1824; in addition, they also gained control of the Malacca sultantate. (The implications of this two hundred years old treaty are in place to these days, for example the border between Indonesia and Malaysia is derived from it.)

The Federated States of Malaya were governed by the so called Resident Minister. The rulers of the Unfederated States of Malaya were forced to accept a special British Advisor, whose instructioned were however binding. The puppet sultans were still allowed to take decision over the maters of islam and Malayan traditions, retaining at least an illusion of some independence.

One of these sultans is mentioned in the memoirs of Josef Vyhnalek (already quoted earlier):

“About 60 km from Singapore, a landscape of hills and jungles begins. This is also where you can find gorgeous Kota Tingi waterfalls. We have sometimes chosen this place for our Sunday trips. The waterfalls were part of a private reserve of the Johore Sultan. It was only possible to enter with his personal permit. We have therefore been using the opportunities when he came to our shoe shop, and asked him for his permission. He always very kindly agreed.”

After the World War One, the British decided to build a huge navy base in Singapore. It was supposed to become their stronghold in the Far East. It also played a crucial role in the defense plans against Japan, should it try to advance to India or Australia. It’s something we will come back to in more detail later.

I also liked the story about the origin of the name of Singapore. While the historians don’t all agree, the prevailing story has it that it’s coming from a combination of two sanskrit words: “simha” meaning a lion, and “pura” meaning a city. Thus, it could translate into something like “The city of lions” – although its first visitors must have encountered tigers, not lions. I guess one of the ways to fix this mistaken taxonomy is the coats of arms of the city: it shows a tiger on side, and a lion on the other.

singapur znak.jpg
Picture: Coats of Arms of Singapore

The history of Bata in Singapore starts about a century later after the British established its control. The first Bata shop was opened in the Capitol building in 1930, and a year later, the company was officially incorporated in Singapore.

Capitol1Photo: The Capitol building in Singapore. This is where Bata started to sell its first shoes in 1930.

What was known about the exotic Malaya and Singapore to the Bata company when it took a decision to expand its business there?

During my visits to the State Archives in Klecuvka near Zlin, I also came across another very remarkable document. It’s called “Straits Settlements – A Report from the British Malaya, 1935”. The report is typewritten on about 50 thin papers, appended with additional sheets with glued photographs. It has a solid cardboard hardcover.

z0
Photo: Bata’s industrial intelligence on Singapore and Malaya from 1935.

I have been very impressed by the detailed methodology, by which the report was put together by certain Mr. K. Dittrich. You can get an idea just by taking a look at the first page, a kind of index:

z0a.jpgPhoto: First page of the Bata’s report on Malaya.

The first chapter is called “Report about how the mission was carried out”. We learn that the author, K. Dittrich – guessing from his grammar mistakes I think he was of German origin – arrived in Singapore in late 1933 and took over the management of the Bata main shop in Capitol. He left about a year later. His report back mentions many achievements. One of them is of particular relevance to our story, given that Silvestr worked there as a pedicurist:

“The pedicure service had just been launched here, and we started with 2 to 5 clients a week. By the time of my departure, it had already reached 25 to 30 clients,” writes Mr Dittrich.

Another change in which he takes proud is that he changed the salary system, from fixed salaries to remuneration fully based on performance. It’s also interesting that he refers to 50 Bata operating shops across the British Malaya at that time.

The other chapters, focusing mostly on detailed intelligence about economy, society and competition, are for example prescribed as:

  • The last government, including individual ministries, names of the ministers, their mandate and power
  • The composition of the parliament, including numbers of members of every political party
  • The local wages, costs of the basic food and articles of daily use
  • Czechoslovak diplomatic representation, name and contact of the consul, the attitude of the representation towards the Bata company – is it possitive or negative
  • Influential people with either possitive or negative attitude to the Bata company (politicians, journalists, economists or other important people)
  • The leading media outlets (and their attitude to the Bata company)
  • Transportation infrastructure, including possibility of flight connections with Zlin, and the visa requirements
  • The demand of the population for shoes and related articles, as well as their common prices
  • Detailed information about the competition
  • Local holidays (especially those that may impact the demand for our goods)

Thus, we can learn from the Report, that “Political situation in the country is good, all nations (Malayans, Chinese, Indians) follow the rule of the British. There are no political parties. There is no parliament.” I guess we are back to times when a number of people would again decribe such conditions as good…

In relation to Japan – another regional power with growing ambitions – it’s interesting to note that “all goods except of alcohol, tobacco, cars and Japanese products is duty free”. There was 20-30 % tax on all good imported from Japan.

Another fact is quite telling about the state of the society: “Europeans – shop employees have a starting salary of 350 $ and highest salary of 700 $. Asians – shop employees have a starting salary of 40 $ and highest salary of 150 $”.

In 1934, there was about 600,000 people living in Singapore. Of that, only 8,000 were Europeans. Most of the population was Chinese (420,000), followed by Indians (50,000) and Malayans (43,000). There were 8,200 personal cars on the island, 1,300 motorbikes, and 1,500 trucks.

One other detail of our interest is a mention that there are ship liners going between Europe and Singapore once a month.

Finally, I had to smile at the list of the required photodocumentation: “Photographs of the shops of our compentiton”, “Photographs of the barefoot natives” and “Photographs of the natives wearing shoes – our customers”. Here are some of the photos that I would like to share:

z33.jpgPhoto: The main Bata shop in the Capitol building in Singapore. Reproduced from the Bata’s Report from British Malaya, 1935.

z35Photo: The Great World – one of the 50 Bata shops in Malaya. Reproduced from the Bata’s Report from British Malaya, 1935.

z37Photo: Some of the shops of the competition in Singapore. Reproduced from the Bata’s Report from British Malaya, 1935.

There is however only one photograph of the local population. It’s not obvious whether it falls to the category of the barefoot natives, or natives wearing Bata shoes:

z38.jpgPhoto: A group of Malayans. Reproduced from the Bata’s Report from British Malaya, 1935.

So much about the intelligence about British Malaya that Bata headquarters in Zlin had at their hand.

As a part of my own investigation of the Singapore link, I had reached out to the Czech consulate there. My inquiry was whether they have in possession any historical documents about the Czechoslovak citizens from 1930’s. The reply was quick and, as I had expected, unfortunatelly negative. However, Ms Petra Kohn who wrote me back, suggested that I get in touch with another compatriot – Pavla Schneuwly, who had been living in Singapore for eight years and works there as a guide in the National Museum and the Museum of the Malay Culture. The recommended contact came to full fruition, and we have been in regular contact with Pavla ever since. Thanks to her, I have got hold of several excellent documents, including a unique book about an archeological research by Jon Cooper on a site of one of the most fierce fightings during the Battle of Singapore.

tigers.jpgPhoto: A book “Tigers in the Park” by Jona Coopera, a 300-pages long report about an archeological research on one of the battlesites from February 1942.

After I began sharing the story of Silvestr and my search for him in the Facebook group of the Czechoslovaks living in Singapore, I also received several possitive responses. The most remarkable contact I established this way is with Tomas Maleninsky – an employee of the Singapore Airlines, based in Saighon. Tomas travels to Singapore regularly and was quick to send me a batch of photos from the memorial in Kranji, including a close-up photo of Silvestr’s name on a panel there. We are currently trying to get some historical documents from the Singapore office of Bata – keep your fingers crossed!

 

I would like to use this opportunity to express my thanks to Pavla, Tomas (and all other virtual fans) for their support and help. I am in hope that I will have a chance to meet them in person if and when I visit Singapore: to go to the places related to Silvestr’s life and death, lay a flower for him in Kranji, and thus make a final closure to his mysterious story, as well as the story of my search for the traces of his life.