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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

Women_and_dead_child
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.”

Batanagar News October 1945.jpg
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.

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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.

 

Silvestr’s voyage to Singapore

After a longer break, I am back to my research and writing about the traces and fate of Silvestr Nemec, my great-uncle from Czechoslovakia. He moved to Singapore as an employee of the Bata shoe company in early 1939, and joined the Straits Settlement Volunteer Force. Silvestr fought with the B company of SSVF and gone missing during the Japanese invasion of Singapore in February 1942.

As we already know, the Bata shoe company employed Silvestr in September 1936, when he was 17 years old. He then worked as a salesman for two years in some of the company’s shops, although it’s not know to us where exactly – presumably somewhere in Moravia, the region he came from. After that, Bata managers chose him – along with dozens of his other peers – for a mission in the Far East. Bata had been successfully building up his regional branch there since early 1930’s. Shortly before departure to Asia, Silvestr also went through a 10-day long course for pedicurists – a newly created position in the Bata shops.

msilva6
Photo: A portrait of young Silvestr taken in later 1930’s.

According to the “List of Bata Employees Overseas” – a remarkable document stored with the Czech national archives in Zlin – Silvestr set on his journey on 31st December 1938.

His only letter home that has been preserved is dated March 1939, so he must have written it shortly after his arrival. In it, he is describing in details his first impressions of Singapore, however the letter does not mention anything about his voyage there.

We can nevertheless assume that it was very similar to the journey that Josef Vyhnalek – Silvestr’s colleague who later also become his good friend – took some six months earlier. If we are right, then Silvestr’s voyage might had looked like this.

(The following is based on the memories of Josef Vyhnalek, as he wrote them in 1966 and copy of which I obtained from Mr Prochazka when I met him in Prague earlier.)

Setting off from Zlin in Czechoslovakia, Josef – and perhaps also Silvestr – made his way to Vienna in Austria. From there, he took an express train to Venice in Italy. After a short break, he continued via Milan and Turin to Genoa.

“Genoa – a city built in a beautiful bay. What a marvelous view from my hotel across the harbour and the open sea!” notes Vyhnalek in his memoirs.

He did not wait long before boarding a ship Victoria owned and operated by the Lloyd Triestino company. This is Vyhnalek’s first impression of her:

“There she was – all white, waiting in the harbor for the passengers travelling to all parts of the world. These were mostly Italians, several English and French, as well as larger number of Arabs and Germans. After a loud sound of its siren, the ship started moving. For the first time in my life, I was in the middle of a sea.”

Lloyd Triestino Victora.jpgPhoto: A modern ocean liner Victoria aboard of which  Josef Vyhnalek travelled in May 1938 from Genoa to Singapore. It’s quite likely that six months later, Silvestr took the same ship on the same route.

Very much like Silvestr, Josef Vyhnalek came from a poor family in a small Czechoslovak village. Born in May 1917 in Jamne nad Orlici, he was two years older than Silvestr. His father was a shoemaker and had five children. However Josef could not remember his father, because he was killed in the World War 1 somewhere near Trieste. When Josef was five years old, his mother remarried to a seasonal construction worker. The family kept struggling with poverty. Josef Vyhnalek remembers that he, along with his siblings had to work hard to earn some little money. In the summer, they were gathering wild fruits and wood in the forests for sale. In the winter, they were making brushes, as well as buttons from threads. Like a number of other poor village children, he was lucky to find a job with the Bata shoe company. He was hired when he was 14, worked in the shoe factory during the day, and in the evenings attended a school to get better education and learn foreign languages. Three years later, he was sent to work in Bata shops in Melnik, Brno and Mlada Boleslav. He eventually left for Singapore in May 1938 to work there as a salesman-pedicurist – the very same job as Silvestr.

How did it feel for these young village boys when they were leaving for a long journey to a distant, exotic destination? Surely it must have been a great and thrilling adventure, during which they had an opportunity – perhaps their first ever – to also enjoy a bit of luxurious life:

“The Italian dishes were delicious. Pasta and salads made in various ways, mostly with olive oil. Wine was availably daily. We could bath in the pool on the deck, dance in the evenings, go to a cinema – all that was available on board to us during the cruise.”

The Lloyd Triestino’s liner Victoria was a very modern and actually the fastest motorship of its times. Thanks to its speed and elegance, it was nicknamed as “White Arrow” or “The Dove of the Orient”.

victoria1Photo: Victoria getting ready for her maiden voyage.

The maiden voyage of Victoria took place in 1931. It’s been powered by four large diesel motors, allowing it to cruise at 20 knots (about 36 km/h). It’s international fame was further built due to its modern and luxurious interior.

Victoria 1st class jidelnaPhoto: A first class dining room on Victoria.

Victoria poolPhoto: Open pool on the deck of Victoria.

The destructive swirl of the Second World War eventually also brought an end to Victoria. It was converted to a military transport ship In November 1939, with its first mission being a part of convoy heading to Libya. In January 1942, it was sunk by two British torpedoes in the gulf of Sidrea close to the Libyan coast.

Let’s however go back to 1938, when Victoria was still a proud and famous passenger ship. After departure from Genoa, its next call was in Naples, where Vyhnalek enjoyed watching Vesuv with its typical column of smoke. In his memoirs, Vyhnalek also recalls that it was here that “a number of Italian colonizers and soldiers boarded, including general Balbo. They were all heading to the Italian Somalia in Africa.”

General Italo Balbo was a legendary figure of the fascist Italy and one of the closest friends of Benito Mussolini. In 1930’s he was a governor of the Italian colonies in North Africa – today’s Libya, Etiopia, Somalia and Eritrea. Balbo died in 1940 when his airplane was downed by a friendly fire above the airport in Tobruk.

After Naples, the next stop mentioned by Vyhnalek is Port Said in Egypt, where “many Egyptians with their boats surrounded our ship, while we were still few kilometers from the harbor. They were offering us all sorts of things for sale”.

Next was passage through the Canal of Suez:

“On the left lays endless arab desert, its sand everywhere. On the right is Egypt with a railway and a road running along the canal. Occasionally we spot groups of palm trees. It took us whole night to pass through the Canal, arriving to the city of Suez in the morning.”

After a one day stop, the ship continued to the Red Sea:

“That was the hardest part of the voyage due to an unbearable heat. We stopped in Massawa, where the Italians disembarked. The fascist army was welcoming them with music, but we were not allowed to enter the harbor and had to stay on the ship.”

The next stop was Yemen’s Aden, after which Victoria sailed for five days before reaching Bombay/Mumbai:

“It was announced that the ship will stay in the harbor for the whole day, resupplying fuel and food for the passengers, and we were encouraged to visit the city. We visited a poor Indian neighbourhood, seen the shambled shelters of these miserable people. It was also here that I had my first encounted with a real riksha: barefoot, legs full of muscles, riksha keeps running to make living for his family.”

Victoria_Asian_routePhoto: Cruising route from Genoa to Singapore (and later to Shanghai) shown on a contemporary leaflet. It matches exactly the route described by Josef Vyhnalek in his memoirs – except that according to him, the whole trip took longer.

By nightfall, Victoria was steaming out to the sea again.

“This time, the ocean was not calm and a big storm was coming. The ship was rocking from side to side, waves bigger than the ship itself. She however managed to slowly push its way ahead and in the morning, when we woke up, the sky was clear again.”

Several days later it reached Colombo on Ceylon.

“Ceylon is a rich island, famous for its quality tea. Now they also have rubber tree plantations, which are source of a lot of wealth. Ceylon is also an island of elephants – you can see them everywhere you go.”

Another couple of days of sailing, and Victoria was finally reaching Singapore. This is how Vyhnalek described his arrival.

“As we were approaching, it was hard to spot any building, the coast was all green, resembling a huge orchard or park. Only when we got closer, we could see the silhouettes of buildings hidden under the trees. Then a city emerged and one of the largest ports in the world – Singapore. There was a big number of boats and ships of all sizes in the harbor.”

Next was the immigration procedure:

“Those disembarking in Singapore were given back their passports and were getting off the ship. At the customs office, we were asked if we had any goods to declare, and after that we are taken in cars to the immigration office where we have to fill several papers. When these formalities are finished, we are taken to our new home in Chancerally Lane. These were European bungalows, but the Chinese quarter is not far, just few hundred meters.”

singapore harbour and waterfront 1950a_smPhoto: Areal view of the Singapore harbor in 1930’s.

We have already documented and covered some aspects of life that Silvestr, Josef and other Czechoslovak Batamen lived in Singapore in the time before the war.

I keep thinking about how Silvestr must have felt – apart from the daily joys and disturbing troubles – when he suddenly found himself alone and free in a strange and distant place like that. By the time he was leaving Europe, the times there were already very dark and brooding: Three months had passed since big parts of Czechoslovakia were annexed by the Nazi Germany; the country was quickly loosing its democratic institutions, hard censorship was applied, its government was adopting fascist principles. In mid November, the Crystal Night launched open physical assaults on the Jews in Germany and elsewhere.

The annexation of parts of Czechoslovakia, called “Suddetenland”, directly impacted life even in Silvestr’s home village of Vemyslice. Its contemporary chronicles write:

Already the events of late 1938 impacted Vemyslice very badly. The Munich Agreement  meant that our state borders were redrawn and moved very close to our town. As a result, we had lost contact with our regional capital of Moravsky Krumlov. Krumlov, despite that a Czech majority was living there, was annexed to the Nazi Germany. Vemyslice then had to be administrativelly attached to Moravske Budejovice, although that regional capital was very far away. Another complication resulted from the fact that our citizens were not able to use the railway anymore – the nearest station in Raksice now belonged to Germany, and only those with special permits were able to access it. Our Vemyslice parish then also had to take care of the church in the neighbouring village of Rybniky, which was left up in the air after the Moravsky Krumlov parish suddenly became a Germany’s territory. The persecution came upon Vemyslice in the same way as to all other cities. Two local families, the Vybiral’s and the Neruda’s, declared themselves German.”

These dark clouds over Europe were something that Silvestr could not have missed even on his voyage – remember the notes Vyhnalek made about Italian fascists on board of Victoria. At that time, Italy had already proclaimed its alliance with the Hitler’s Germany.

Did Silvestr see his departure from Europe as a way to escape the approaching conflicts and looming disasters? Possibly. But we can be almost certain that his parents did think about it this way, and although it must have not been easy for them to let their youngest child go, in their minds it was perhaps the best he could had done in that moment.

None of them envisaged that the brutal events of war will soon overwhelm even the distant Singapore, and that it will be here where the death will abruptly finish Silvestr’s young life.

We will follow the upcoming war and Silvestr’s last moments in the chapters to come.

 


Addenda Monday 18th June, 2018:

During the last weekend, as I was digging more into various records, I found several additions and corrections:

  • First, Josef Vyhnalek seem to have taken his trip in May 1939, not in May 1938. That would mean that he actually travelled after Silvestr, not before him. Still trying to get a confirmation of the year of travel of Mr Vyhnalek.
  • Second, comparing the recorded departure dates of Batamen going overseas and heading for Singapore, I have realized that Silvestr probably did not travel alone. There are four, possibly five additional Bata employees, next to Silvestr, who departed from Zlin to Singapore on the very same date of 31st December 1938. These are:
    • F. Rehor, pedicurist
    • F. Wakerman, pedicurist
    • J. Zapalac, supply organizer
    • J. Zuna, pedicurist

The sixth potential person to be in this group is A. Goldmann, controller of samples, whose recorded departure date is 30th December 1938 – a day earlier than the other five. It may be that Goldmann left earlier for Italy and then they boarded a ship alltogether.

  • Obviously, neither Josef Vyhnalek nor Silvestr, nor other regular Bata employees, traveled in the 1st class on the ship. Assuming the company bought 3rd class tickets for them, this is how the cabin looked like:

Victoria 3rd class cabin.jpg

Still, interesting that Vyhnalek mentions the accessibility of the open pool on the deck of Victoria to him. The webpage that details a lot about Victoria mentions that this pool was for 1st class passangers. If Vyhnalek is right, it may be that there was another pool for lower class travellers, or that the pool was made accessible at certain hours for other passengers as well.

 

Searching for Silvestr Continues

I have had a bit of a pause in my writing about the search for Silvestr Nemec, my great-uncle who got missing during the Japanese invasion to Singapore in 1942. And no, it’s not because my interest would vanish, or because I would hit a wall in my research due to lack of clues and information. The reason for the break has simply been a lack of time due to my demanding occupation.

msilva6
Photo: Young Silvestr on a photograph retrieved from the family archive in his native town of Vemyslice. The photograph is not dated, but must have been taken in the second half of 1930’s.

To be more precise, the lack of time I most struggle with relates to the processing of new documents and facts. In fact, I kept gathering them since the last summer, collecting enough interesting materials for at least a dozen more chapters of the story. I will be sharing them gradually, but to give you a taste, here is an outline of what I have got.

I have managed to get in touch with several experts, military history enthusiasts and associations in UK, Australia, and elsewhere. They were kind and very helpful in sharing their own archives, providing advice and helping with the research from their end. Several of the documents they had provided even include Silvestr’s name! I have also established relations with several compatriots in Singapore, who are helping me in finding documents and information on the ground there. In addition, I had paid a visit to the British National Archives in Kew and copied several relevant files there, mostly first-hand witness accords from the fights during the last several days before the fall of Singapore. This includes a detailed despatch by Arthur Percival, General Commander in Malaya, and also it’s critique from the point of view of the Chinese population written by Tan Kah Kee, Chairman of the South East Asia Federation of China Relief Fund. I have purchased an excellently written, extensively researched book by Francis Pike, called “Hirohito’s War”.

FrancisPike
Photo: Reproduction of the cover page of the book by Francis Pike “Hirohito’s War”

Last but not least, I visited again the Bata Villa and the Czech State Archives in Zlin, where I gathered couple of more documents and also copied some personal files relevant to several people, Far East Batamen’s descendants who live overseas and whom I got to know during the past months. As a part of the same trip to my motherland, I also travelled to Znojmo to search in another regional branch of the State Archives; they host a wealth of documents, including the chronicles and school registers, from the village of Vemyslice where Silvestr was born and raised.

All in all, I now have a wealth of materials that I am slowly reading through. And as if that was not enough, I also collected several great tips and clues where to search further.

That’s why the writing up of things will likely take me a bit longer now. On the other hand, my readers can look forward to plenty of new information and interesting facts, although none of them so far indicates a dramatic revision of our current understanding of Silvestr’s tragic end.

The primary limitation I am now facing therefore is not a lack of materials, but quite the contrary – their somewhat overwhelming volume. I can think of dozen directions to go and further explore and build Silvestr’s story. That forces me to think and make choices carefully, because now I can imagine that it could take years and perhaps even decades to explore in detail all the possibilities and aspects. However given that it’s not my intention, I need to take difficult choices as to where to invest my limited time and resources.

Anyway, this is just to indicate and confirm that the story is not finished and I continue working on it. My hope is to reach some closure during 2018, and then prepare the whole story in some comprehensive form for the 100th anniversary of Silvestr’s birth, which will be coming in October 2019.

 

 

 

Being Bata’s pedicurist

Before our story gets onto the battle of Singapore, which – as we today already know – brought a tragic death to Silvestr – let’s dwell some more upon his life. As I am still searching for more information and documents about his childhood, let’s also leave that era for some time later.

At the moment, we don’t even know where Silvestr – after graduating the secondary school in Vemyslice – finished his education. According to the preserved records of the Bata company, he had studied a business academy somewhere; it was not the Bata School in Zlin though, as he is not listed among its alumni.

Silvestr Nemec began to work for Bata on 21st September 1936, exactly a month before his seventeenth birthday. He was employed on a position of a salesman. At that time, the company was already among the biggest shoemaking brands in the world. In 1936, it had produced over 58 million pairs of shoes, of which 28 million were made directly in Czechoslovakia. Thanks to that, the country ranked globally number one in terms of lather shoe exports, and number three in terms of rubber shoe exports. At that time, Bata corporation was running several thousand of its own brand shops. It’s now known in which of these Silvestr worked.

The global success of Bata was, among other factors, building on a fast modernization of production (its founder Tomas Bata visited US in 1919, including Detroit, and was very inspired by Henry Ford at that time) as well as on a visionary expansion of its activities well beyond shoemaking itself. While at its very start, back in 1894, the company was nothing more than a tiny workshop making shoes manually, in 1930’s it has already been an established brand in dozens of diverse areas and industries, including aviation, publishing, insurance, chemical production, tyre production, education and health care. The genius of Bata entrepreneurship managed to create synergies across all these activities, allowing the company to provide unique, complex care and services not only to its customers, but also to his own employees (to whom Bata always referred to as his “co-workers”, stressing the importance of each and every person, regardless of her or his ranking within the company’s hierarchy).

Apart from the affordable prices and an attractive variety of shoes, the customers who entered the Bata shops could read a slogan “Our Customer – Our Master” on its wall and find a personnel offering them a variety of additional services.

reklama pediker.jpg
Photo: Advertisement of the newly introduced chiropodist services at Bata shops. The headline says “Fresh feet for the springtime”

Seen from the perspective of Silvestr’s story, one of the important milestones in Bata’s history was the introduction of the pedicurist/chiropodist care. According to the historical timeline published by the Bata Villa Foundation, it happened in 1929. It appears that Bata began to develop this domain while utilizing the doctors and experts who were hired to work in his Bata Hospital in Zlin that opened two years earlier.

A publication by the Bata Hospital says:

“The highest salary went to the chief physician, doctor F. Racansky, who was in charge of training of the workers in chiropody. At that time, every Bata shop in Czechoslovakia was already offering a chiropody care.”

When searching on internet, i came across a dissertation paper written by Barbora Mikoskova in 2009 at the Bata University in Zlin. She included some information about the history of foot care in the Bata company. This is how she described its beginnings:

“With the increasing experience in the area of anatomically designed shoes, the company was facing the need to better educate its workers. A special training was designed for designers, shoemakers, salesmen and everyone who had something to do with orthopedic aspects. Initially this was being organized by doctor Albert, however later doctor Racansky took over. He was regularly publishing educational articles in the weekly magazine for Bata employees.”

Bata maj 1928.jpg
Photo: The “fathers” of chiropody in Bata company. On the left is the director of the Bata Hospital Dr. Albert, in the middle Dr. Racansky, and on the right Tomas Bata. From the May Day celebration in 1928 in Zlin.

Barbora Mikosova outlines the initiative of doctor Racansky:

“An important step in setting up the educational activities was taken by Dr. Racansky when he established a cooperation with the Orthopedic Clinic of the Charles University in Prague, namely its chief Dr. Tobiasek. Dr. Tobiasek opened a course from 21st to 30th March 1929, and Dr. Racansky attended, along with ten other Bata employees.”

pediker1.png
Photo: Another advertisement of the chiropody services at Bata shops. The text reads: “This woman could serve as an example to all women in our towns and villages! She really knows what her feet need most. She is a regular at Bata chiropody care, and she is happy.” Reproduced with a kind permission of http://www.batuvodkaz.cz/

In order to increase the qualification of their salesmen and specialists in the area of chiropody, Bata was not only offering them trainings, but also published a special textbook written by Dr. Racansky. Given that this later became part of Silvestr’s job description, we can assume that he had one of its copies. That’s a good reason to learn more about it, again based on the paper by Ms Mikosova.

“The handbook contained facts about anatomy and healthcare of human feet, along with recommendations of procedures and suggestions to salesmen how to use it in order to rise regular clients who would then also keep buying Bata products. The shoe shops thus began to offer a wide range of services. The salesmen were trained to offer assistance and if necessary, facilitate a health check of customer’s feet by a proper doctor, who was also available at the shop. A chiropodist provided a consultation and a treatment, if necessary also advising on appropriate orthopedic shoe adjustments and aids. One of the services on offer was a foot massage – an enjoyable and relaxing experience for the customer.

A common standard at every larger Bata shop was a pedicure treatment. The salesmen were encouraged to convince their customers about the benefits of a preventive regular foot care. The first step was not easy, however once the clients became less shy, they often became regular visitors.”

And in a direct quote from the textbook by Dr. Racansky:

“Give a good massage to the customers with flatfoot, even if the first one is for free. Provide these clients with a lot of care, as they are your future regulars and subscribers to your weekly treatments. Also, keep good records about them, note down your every conversation and recommendation, and during their next visit, ask about improvements observed.”

If we take his textbook as a guideline, then the standard procedure offered at Bata shops looked like this:

“1) Wash clean and dry customer’s feet.
2) Painlessly and with no blood remove the hardened skin, calluses and corns. Prior to the intervention, ensure that a proper disinfection is applied.
3) Disinfect the nails all around.
4) Irradiate the feet with a blue-filter lamp for 5-10 minutes.
5) Provide a thorough massage of the feet, perhaps add a bit of physio-therapeutic movements, and refresh with a massage rub.”

Should the chiropodist accidentally cause an injury to the client, the shop manager was obliged to arrange a doctor check and write down a protocol about the incident.

The chiropody trainings were initially given by Dr. Racansky in a classroom of the Bata Hospital in Zlin. During the first year of the new service, i.e. 1929, Bata had trained 81 staff, however four years later, in 1933, it already had more than two thousand trained specialists. Starting in 1932, Bata began to introduce this service also at it shops overseas.

Silvestr might had undergone such training during his first years at Bata, though we only know for certain that he was assigned the new job of a salesman-pedicurist once he was transferred to Singapore at the end of 1938.

It must have been exactly around that time when Bata was introducing chiropody to its branches in the Far East, as we can observe from the front page article of the Batanagar News published in mid November 1938 (that is just two or three months prior to Silvestr’s arrival to Singapore). The headline speaks for itself: “Creation Of a New Profession: An Opportunity For Hundreds Of Surgeons And Experts”.

Batanagar News 19381119.jpgPhoto: Front page of The Batanagar News, 19th November 1938.

In that article, the Bata management appeals on their employees to sign up for a training in this new qualification:

“Every Pedicurist, our best salesman, will be a specialist, expert in the profession. Therefore he will receive also wages suited to his responsible work. Their high wages, possibility of earning and bettering their positions are seen even today through we are now in the beginning of the line of Chiropody. For instance, in the Bata Shop in Chowringhee, Calcutta, the Chiropodist is getting average weekly salary of Rs. 22 to 28. To reach this and even higher income is not a problem for any Pedicurist in any place, when he sees in his work the best fillip to his life and when his work will have the spirit of SERVICE TO PUBLIC.”

On page number 6 of the same edition of the Batanagar News, there is an English translation of a speech by Jan Antonin Bata delivered to the company’s staff. Part of the original speech, which was delivered in Czech in early 1930’s, was even recorded on a film that you can watch on Youtube here (note: please click on the link, my blog does not provide an option to directly embed a Youtube video).

bata-pedikura-film.png

Here is an excerpt of the motivating speech by Jan Antonin Bata:

“This new service will prove to be the most profitable business for yourselves. The proceeds from the practice of pedicure are left, for the most part, to yourselves. In addition, it helps you to increase the sale of shoes, stockings and small necessities. Start this work with courage and enthusiasm! Do not be afraid of treating people whose feet are in a very neglected conditions. Your service must be somewhat similar to that of a true physician, who treats with sacrifices, and truly, patients who are seriously ill, even when contact with them is, very often, not only disagreeable but possibly dangerous. The customer will be thankful to you for this service and leave the store as your most sincere friend and enthusiastic client. You will learn this service of foot-care by carrying it out every day. Like a priest starting his daily work with Service to God, you must also perform daily, personally, the service of foot care Service to the customer. You will become masters only by regular work, done methodically every day.”

Salesmen Pedicurists.jpg
Photo: The English translation of transcript of a speech by Jan Antonin Bata about the new profession of company’s pedicurist.

One of the doctors working in hte Bata Hospital was Dr. Evzen Straussler – a name we are already familiar with. He was hired by Bata in 1932 and seven years later moved on to work for the company in Singapore. While there is unfortunatelly not much to be found about Silvestr in the company’s archives, we can at least read some more information about Dr. Straussler and his final training before departure – here is the record:

“Induction of Dr. E. Straussler before going to Singapore.
1 week in the shoe-making school
1 week in the rubber processing school
1 week in the sales department (1/2 week in the main Zlin shop, 1/2 week in the chiropody section of the shop)
1 week assisting the personnel manager in the social department
Altogether 4 weeks of training. Accomplished on 1st March 1939.”

I found one group photograph from the Bata pedicurist course in the State Archives in Zlin-Klecuvka. It depicts about two dozens of Bata saleswomen and salesmen who graduated from a 10 day long training in January 1940. It’s quite likely that Silvestr attended a similar “crash” course, as opposed to the broader induction of Dr. Straussler who went for a more senior position and was therefore probably expected to learn about various other departments and functions of the Bata operation.

pedikeri 1940Photo: Participants of the pedicurist training by Bata company in January 1940. Reproduced with a kind permission of the State archive in Zlin.

A second photograph related to this issue pictures the company director Jan Antonin Bata undergoing a chiropody treatment during his visit of the main Bata shop in Zlin. It was taken in 1938, i.e. about the same time when Silvestr was most likely being introduced to this profession.

Bata.jpg
Photo: Visit of Jan Antonin Bata at the chiropody section of their main shop in Zlin. Reproduced with a kind permission of the State archive in Zlin.

The job based on taking care of the customers’ (often neglected and dirty) feet certainly does not sound like an attractive nor prestige occupation. I must admit that when I first learnt that this is what my great uncle was doing, I had mixed feelings about it. But, as one of my friends says, ” someone has to do even the worst kind of job”. And now, after learning some more details, also about the way Bata was approaching this profession, I came to peace with it as well.

 

 

Troubles among the Singapore Czechoslovaks

Ever since I launched this blog about my search for the traces of my great-uncle Silvestr, I have been receiving comments and messages from its readers. Putting the nonsensical ones aside, there has been roughly three types of responses. First are the words expressing interest, support and sympathy. Second, cynical comments and speculations as to what are the real interests behind my research, suggesting there must be some hidden, profit seeking motives. And the third category are doubts whether it makes any sense to come back to all that history and that perhaps it’s better to leave the past alone – otherwise, they say, I may perhaps even regret what I eventually find.

Were my motivation to idealize the past and uncritically celebrate the heroism of the dead, then I just reached a point – for the first time – that would make me wonder that indeed I went a bit too far on my journey of discovery. This is because I came to learn  some quite disturbing information about the contemporary Czechoslovak community in Singapore, as well as about some practices of the Bata company there during 1930’s and 1940’s.

batovciPhoto from the archives of Dr Emil Macel: A party for the occasion of opening of the new Bata Building in Singapore [it was opened in 1939, not in 1940 as the captions mistakenly says]. Sitting from the left: V. Rojt, Ms Cervinka, H. Cervinka, A. Dufek, M. Bohman, Ms Dufek, K. Vitek, Mr Vasica, K. Plhon. Standing from the left: Mr Gromnica, B. Martinec, S. Jedovnicky, B. Sokol, V. Kos.

However, I have set onto this road with a desire to discover and document the past events as accurately as possible, and that’s why I can’t just remain silent or even stop right here.

My biggest concern at the moment relates to a number of very lovely people that I had met while I was working on this project and who have a deep admiration of the Bata company – in case of many of them, their ancestors worked for Bata in its first years with remarkable loyalty and dedication in order to build up its success. I do not want to disappoint them, neither to loose their friendship. I therefore hope that they will understand that it is because of my deep respect to the people of the history and to the truth, why I can’t censor the inconvenient information. Nobody should take this personally; after all, I am not publishing the parts of documents and information that are most sensitive personally, I only pick what is necessary for the description of Silvestr’s story and what seems reasonably substantiated.

Let’s begin with something that should not come as a big surprise, because we can see these things happening around us today as well. After all, we, the Czech nation, haven’t changed much since the last century, have we? Apart from the friendships and enjoyable moments of life, about which I was writing last time, there was also quite some rivalry, jealousy and mutual denunciation within the community of several dozens of Czechoslovaks based in Singapore.

Sometimes, our compatriots were also stealing from others, as far as we can judge from the news published in The Straits Times in December 1938. According to it, a certain Czechoslovak citizen was prosecuted for a theft of 30 dollars.

czechs 19381218.pngPhoto: Newspaper clip from The Straits Times about the alleged thievery by a Czechoslovak citizen.

The archives of the Czechoslovak government exiled to London contain several items showing that the Czechoslovak community in Singapore was split into two fierce-fully confrontational groups.

The first and larger faction was represented by the Bata people, and was lead by their general manager Mr Rojt. The second faction was composed of those Czechoslovaks who came to Singapore for other reasons – they were independent merchants or representatives of other businesses, such as Skoda or Ceskoslovenska zbrojovka (Czechoslovak Arms Production Factory). This second group was lead by Mr Richard Reiser, a former co-owner of the Prvni Prazka Sladovna (The First Prague Malt Factory) and was sent to Singapore in 1935 by the Czechoslovak Export Institute. He later became independent and worked as an agent of a number of other companies.

The tensions grew even bigger when the Czechoslovak Consulate in Singapore was closed at the end of February 1939. As we can read in the article from The Straits Times from 27th November 1938 (see bellow), the consulate was established on 1st January 1935 and the first consul was Dr Pavel Stransky. He was later replaced by Mr Vladimir Polodna, whose mission was then canceled in March 1939. Whether or not was Mr Polodna transferred to the United States, as the newspaper suggests, is unknown to me. But I found a record of him heading the diplomatic mission in Peru, starting from October 1942. While being there, in 1943, he had also inaugurated a memorial of the annihilation of the village of Lidice (the massacre of all its citizens and total demolition of Lidice village was part of a retribution by the Nazis for the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich by the Czechoslovak paratroopers). According to The Straits Times, there were some 65 Czechoslovak citizens in Singapore and Malaya in November 1938. From the later reports of the diplomatic mission, we know that in early 1940’s this number reached about a hundred, two thirds of which were people from the Bata company.

konzul
Photo: Newspaper clipping about the upcoming closure of the Czechoslovak consulate in Singapore.

It seems that after the consulate was closed, Mr Rojt often liaised with the Singapore government on behalf of the Czechoslovak community. This was disliked by the non-Bata compatriots who were then filing several complaints against him. A report by the Czechoslovak consul in Bombay, Mr Urban, informs the London based government in November 1940 that “Reiser, together with some other Czechoslovaks, submitted a grievance petition addressing the Czechoslovak government via the British secretary in Singapore. They request that an official representative of the government carries out a formal investigation of their complaints against Mr Rojt.”

The London exiled Czechoslovak Ministry of Foreign Affairs received at least several pieces of correspondence and submissions as a result of the disputes within the Czechoslovak community in Singapore. Its document from February 1941 reads that:
“The consulate holds an opinion that it cannot step into the affairs that fall formally under the British jurisdiction – a position we fully support. The Bata company is employing Czechoslovak citizens who, according to the consulate, joined or support the resistance, all enrolled [to the military service], and make financial contributions to our war efforts, therefore there is no reason to act against them.”

In February 1941, the Ministry sent instructions to the consulate in Bombay saying:
“The Czechoslovak government has no intentions to deal with the affairs of the Bata Company, because we have no authorization to deal with matters under the British jurisdiction. As for the personal conflicts within the Czechoslovak community, it is up to the consulate to use its influence to reconcile those.”

depese.jpgPhoto: The instructions of the exiled Czechoslovak government to the consulate in Bombay regarding the disputes within Bata and the Czechoslovak community

The consulate in Bombay subsequently decided to dispatch Mr Josef Luley to Singapore to act there as its official agent. Mr Luley reached Singapore in March 1941 and remained there till early February 1942. As he we can read in his own report:
“By the time the Japanese army started to attack only 11 miles away, south of the Johore Strait, I had already lost my hopes to be able to evacuate. However I was lucky and managed to get on board of a military ship transport in the night from 6th to 7th of February.”

Today we know that unfortunately, the reconciliation mission of Mr Luley entirely failed. One of the reasons of its failure could be the fact that he did not arrive to act as a genuine independent mediator, but in fact, at least partly on behalf of the Bata company and its interests. The records have it that it was initially Bata’s directors who requested that the Bombay consulate dispatches Mr Luley to Singapore. The company was even paying for all of his costs from the very start. As consul Urban reported back to London:

“For the start, I have used the 5,000 Indian rupees that were confidentially provided by Jan Bartos, the director of Bata Shoe Company in Batanagar […] The whole amount was given to our consular agent Luley as cash advance. He had already used part of it to pay for the travel of himself as well as his family.”

Consul Urban was aware that such arrangement is quite dodgy, and came up with a proposal to the government how to cover it up:
“In order to diminish the controversy of the financial dependency of Luley on Bata company, I propose that Luley will continue to be paid through the general consulate in Bombay, while we agree with Bata company that it will be sending contributions to a war fund that will be at least equal to the cost of Luley and his operation”.
A copy of this proposal is kept in the archives with an additional note: “Passed on to the minister who agreed”.

Seen from today’s perspective, this is a clear example of a corruption of the state institutions by the corporate money. It’s however quite likely that the exiled government did not have enough resources to afford Luley’s mission. I think that the war circumstances put this into a bit different perspective: the official Czechoslovak representation in Singapore was clearly beneficial to all our citizens there, although there is little doubt that it was also working for the particular interests of the Bata company.

And so, the conflicts continued. The Czechoslovak community went through several attempts to found an association, however all failed due to disagreements over its bylaws and over the proposed people who were to chair it. At the end, Mr Reiser went ahead and established a Czechoslovak Association with his own followers. According to the reports collected by the ministry, it eventually had 33 members. The creation of the association was also one of the events that the local press covered in April 1941:

asociace.jpg

The Bata management responded by issuing an order to its employees that was forbidding them to join the association, which they dismissed as “a bunch of Jews”. (When I came across several names of its members in the reports, it indeed appeared from the family names that these were likely Jewish people.) Mr Reiser then reportedly continued his relentless efforts to recruit association members among those Bata employees who had conflicts with their management, or who were even fired from their jobs.

According to the files, several Batamen also became secret members of the association. Among the names mentioned, I have spotted also Rudolf Janecek and Karel Vitek. I am making an exception from the rule here and mention their names – it is because their presence suggests a potential involvement of Silvestr.

My hypothesis that Silvestr might also have been part of this, is building on two assumptions. First, it was exactly this trio that apparently signed up jointly for the Straits Settlement Volunteer Forces (Vitek was registered as private No. 13777, Janecek as 13778 and Silvestr as 13779, i.e. they got three consecutive numbers). And second, I have further learnt that Silvestr was among those who had conflicts with the management of Bata in Singapore.

Two independent witnesses filed their statements with the exiled Ministry in which they talk about a dubious practice of the Bata company in Singapore to withhold part of the salaries of their staff:

“The employees of Bata arrived to Singapore before the occupation of Czechoslovakia [by Nazi Germany] and based on their contracts made in Zlin headquarters. But the local Singapore management refused to acknowledge these and was forcing them to sign local contracts with lower salaries. They were being threatened by statements like “we will send you back to Hitler” to force them to sign. The new arrivals, mostly single young man, then filed a complaint at the British Immigration Office. The British government had set a regulation that required Bata to pay a minimal wage of 60 dollars weekly. However, Bata management was bypassing it via a sophisticated scheme that left its employees with 30-35 dollars only. This was arranged by transferring the salaries to their private accounts, and when the balance reached 1000 dollars, the employee was requested to either return 500 dollars back to the company, or to donate it to the Czechoslovakian war fund. This was justified by statements that the staff does not have right to these money and that the company had to pay it to them ‘only because of the stupid English regulation’. Several employees refused to give their money back and were subsequently fired (Zuna, Rehor, Vackerman, Ambroz, Janecek, Nemec, Sedlackova and others).”

Another well-documented conflict between some of the employees and the company management relates to the enrollment to the volunteer forces. We can imagine that the Bata company was motivating its people to apply, either driven by patriotic interests, or because it wanted to shape a positive perception in the eyes of the British government – possibly for a combination of both of these reasons. It appears however that Bata was later caught by surprise when the single Batamen, who were assigned to the Straits Settlement Volunteer Forces (SSVF), had to join a two months long retreat at a training camp in the spring of 1941 and the company was obliged to refund them their salaries for the entire period.

It happened that the company refused to pay their full salaries, and again, the Bata volunteers were complaining at the Colonial Secretary. We can again assume that Silvestr, who had joint SSVF along with Vitek and Janecek in the beginning of 1941, was also part of this dispute. The management of Bata responded by firing those ‘troublemakers’. The staff was then seeking support with the Czechoslovak Association (here come another indication that Silvestr might have been affiliated with it). It’s reported that after some time, certain Mr Bartos arrived from abroad to settle the dispute. Although it is not explicitly written, it’s most likely reference to Jan Bartos, the director of Bata in Batanagar, India. Finally they reached an agreement and the employees were then taken back to their jobs.

The last Bata trouble I would like to mention has also been well documented, because it resulted in a formal prosecution and court verdict. The management of Bata apparently bribed one of the colonial censors/confidants who were checking the incoming and outgoing mail for the British colonial government. He was of Polish origin and was in charge of the correspondence in Slavic languages. This censor then unlawfully began to read all the letters of the Bata employees, and was reporting their content to Bata directors. This malpractice was exposed when one day, the censor and the management withheld some official documents related to a court case lead by Mr Vanicek, one of the ex-Bata employees from Hong Kong. At the court hearing, the Bata managers pleaded guilty and the censor was sentenced to 3 months of jail.

There is actually many more stories and accusations captured in the archives, but I don’t think it’s right to publish them all. My reasoning is that these are getting increasingly  personal and it’s hard to judge to what extent the criticism and complaints were factual, or were just made up in personal vendettas. Also, the people involved have no means to defend themselves, having had passed away by now. I am also fully aware that picture reconstructed on random fragments can be very distorted and unfair. Finally, I also hold a healthy dose of skepticism towards some of these personal accusations – i.e. someone being blamed for being authoritarian, manipulative, fanatic or inhuman, machine-like person – based on my own personal experience, especially from the Green Party politics in which I was involved some years ago.

Last but not least, we should also look at all these events within their contemporary context. There are limits to which we are today positioned to judge them.

It is out of question a very sad and embarrassing to realize how our compatriots went into squabbling and used dirty tricks against each other. The scale of the problem – mind that we talk about a tiny community of a hundred people – still seem to be a bit extraordinary, given that even the government had to be dealing with it, despite its undoubtedly very different priorities during the times of war. On the other hand, we can try to appreciate the psychology of the situation when few dozens of mostly young, inexperienced people suddenly find themselves in a totally unknown and strange environment. They must have also been challenged with a language barrier, at least to some extent. The cohesion of the small community was further tested by the horrible developments taking place in their homes in Europe. The ever present escalation of hatred against the Jews, the rise of the Nazi Germany, the breakdown of their motherland Czechoslovakia, fear for their families living back in the war, and the overall uncertainty – it all must have catalyzed many tensions and divides in the community of people coming from very diverse backgrounds. (We know for example that several Czechoslovaks living in the Far East opted to apply for German passports as soon as Czechoslovakia got occupied – effectively they have decided to join the enemy.) The closure of the local Czechoslovak consulate was probably also one of the factors increasing their anxiety.

Seen from today’s perspective, it seems easy to judge the acts and decisions that people took under various pressures and circumstances, and label them as unethical or immoral. It would however be a very simplistic view, similar to today’s black and white perspectives on the problem of the forced removal of the Germans from the inner borders of Czechoslovakia after the war, or on the individual and tragic failures of people who were under the pressure of the communist secret services.

I have a similarly ambiguous perspective on the Bata company and its management. On one hand, it should be fully recognized that the company provided great and unique opportunity to thousands of children from the poor countryside families (particularly during the times of the economic depression), offering them not only a good job, but also decent education and care, as well as almost limitless carrier possibilities; it provided the masses with quality and affordable shoes; it has proven its ability to innovate and compete across all continents; and it was giving its employees even in places like India decent salaries, modern living infrastructure and additional care. On the other hand, it was demanding very hard work and unconditioned loyalty; the one who was not able to keep up was quickly replaced; the management was putting the company’s success and prosperity above all; and if the interests of the company demanded so (or at least its managers thought they do), they were ready to spy on its employees or corrupt the governments. The management, who opted to do so, was in most cases driven not by selfish personal interests, but by the ideology of the greater good of the company. This certainly can’t excuse all the wrongdoings, but it can help us to understand them better.

Lastly, we can find some reconciliation in the fact that once the war arrived in Malaya and Singapore, and especially during the horrible times at the internment camps, the compatriots came together again and had shown many great acts of mutual support. That however is yet another chapter of the bigger story.

 

The Life of Batamen and Silvestr in Singapore

What was life like for Silvestr and other Batamen in Singapore few years before the World War II? That is, besides attending weddings, funerals, observing Czechoslovak national holidays and watching the soccer matches of “Moravians” during the weekends – which we all covered last time based on the clippings from the contemporary Singapore press.

I am trying to imagine that also based on fragments of other information and memories of the Bata employees that were collected by the late Dr Emil Macel; his archives were kindly provided to me by Mr Ivan Prochazka.

Singapur pristav 2Photo from the archive of Emil Macel: Singapore port in 1930’s.

So for example A. Plhon, possibly a brother (?) of Klement Plhon who died tragically when the SS Redang ship was sunk by Japanese during evacuation of the Singapore civilians, captured in his notes:

“Singapore is famous for being one of the most beautiful ports in the South East Asia, located only 130 kilometers north of the equator. It is the world’s fourth largest port and a crucial trading center. It’s main export products are rubber and tin.

The expanding Bata shoe company from Zlin had established it’s presence in Singapore in 1930’s. The company bought a rubber plantation and built a new factory producing cheap rubber shoes for the local people. The higher quality leather shoes were being imported from Zlin to a number of Bata shops located in Malaya and in Singapore. At that time, the company had about 20 employees originating from Zlin, with several families accompanying the leading managers. Shortly before the outbreak of the WW2, i.e. in 1938 and 1939, the company dispatched there additional 20 or 30 of its core staff (part of them single, part of them with families) and also exported machinery for production of high quality leather shoes directly to Singapore. This move was partly driven by concerns that if the war starts in Europe, the shipments from Czechoslovakia could be paralyzed which would negatively impact the sales and market position of Bata in Singapore.

This scenario unfortunately came true. The Bata team quickly opened a new factory for leather shoes directly in Singapore, expanded the production of the rubber shoes, and in 1940 and 1941, when all the supplies from Europe froze, the company was doing well in Singapore and the employees with their families enjoyed life in peace and hope that they can avoid  the horrors of the war that was rampaging across Europe.”

For the Czechs and Slovaks, coming from a landlocked country in continental Europe, the tropical Singapore must have been an entirely different world. We also need to keep in mind that the company was sending overseas mostly young people, of which most – including Silvestr – originated from poor villages in the Moravian countryside. Silvestr himself was only 19 when he arrived in Singapore and as we have concluded from the list of employees overseas, most of the newcomers were between 20 and 30 years old.

This is how Josef Vyhnalek captured Singapore in his short memoirs:

“Singapore looks like a giant garden. It is green all year round, with some leaves falling while some others are budding at the same time. The coconut and oil palms climb high into the sky and offer their harvest during the whole year. The nature is beautiful and this magic corner of the world hosts about million people. Three quarters of these are Chinese, whose ancestors move south, following the trade opportunities. The Malayans were escaping this Chinese expansion by migrating to Java and Sumatra. Some Malayans however decided to stay and are now living in so-called “campongas” – indigenous villages, and make their livelihood from fishing. It is sufficient for a Malayan to have a good catch twice a week and he has enough to buy rice and feed his family, allowing him to just relax for the rest of the week. Some Malayans are also working as taxi drivers, but there is few of them in the trade […] The Indians were also moving into Singapore, in pursue of jobs and trade. Singapore is divided into quarters according to the ethnicity. Thus, before the war, it was possible to take a Sunday walk once in the Chinese quarter, next time in the Malayan, another time in the Indian, or even in the Japanese.”

 Singapur krizovatkaPhoto from the archive of Emil Macel: Center of Singapore in 1930’s. Notice the Bata sign on the corner of the building.

There is only one single letter from Silvestr that has been preserved in our family archive. He wrote it in March 1939, shortly after his arrival to Singapore. His impressions of the exotic country were as follows:

“Dear mother and father, first of all, many wholehearted regards and lovely memories of you. Thank you for your letter which arrived as late as 6th March 1939. I was very pleased to receive it, as I was already getting concerned that you might have forgotten me.

The city of Singapore lies on an island that is separated by a narrow strait from the rest of the country called Malaya. The inhabitants are the Chinese, the Indians, and there is also 8,000 of British people and 30,000 soldiers here. The main occupation is a salesman – these are the Indians, the Chinese are rather carpenters, blacksmiths, tailors etc. The shops here are organized in such a manner that one street is full of shops selling fabric – another street with stationary – and yet another street filled with kitchens. Let me explain you about the kitchens. There is a number of Chinese workers here who do not cook at home, therefore they go to eat out in these kitchens. But it is different than in home, it’s not the women, but the male who are cooking here […]

Every European family has its own cook, a boy-servant, a gardener, and if it has a car, then also a chauffeur. The houses are built either in a Chinese style or a European style, but almost of them have flat roofs. They have a nice airport here, a zoological garden, animals of all kinds, and a beautiful museum. Singapore is heavily fortified and there are many guns here, but they are hidden so that even the locals do not know where they are located. They also have a great port for big ships here. You can see English churches, as well as Chinese temples, even Indian ones – those are the dirtiest of all, because every Indian is spitting here on the ground, outdoors as well as indoors. A European can enter only exceptionally, and has to be barefoot […] The English and the Chinese dress up in a European style, but the women here wear a kind of pyjamas, with trousers and a longer jacket on top. The Indians wrap themselves in cloths similar to a bed sheet, a towel around their head to wipe the sweat, and they wear clogs that make a terrible noise.”

Silva dopisPhoto: First page of the only preserved letter from Silvestr to his parents, written shortly upon his arrival to Singapore.

The Czechoslovak community counted about a hundred people, majority of whom were Bata employees – there was about fifty of them, some accompanied with their families.

It was hard work in the company, but despite that, people found some time for fun. During their leisure time, they most likely stuck together and during Sundays, the colleagues and friends were going on trips outside of Singapore.

Singapur - Strangeldova,prodavacky, Wakerman,Vyhnalek
Photo from the archive of Emil Macel: A group of Bata employees from the sales department in Singapore during their trip. From the left are Ms Stranfgeld, two uknown saleswomen, Mr Wakerman and Mr Vyhnalek.

Vyhnalek also recollects such trips to the seaside:

“The beauty of the sea is impossible to capture. Imagine coral islands covered with greenery, trees and flowers of all kinds of colors. The sea is crystal clear, and along the coastline you can see through to the clean bottom and colorful coral reefs. Through them are swimming a variety of sea fish, jellyfish and other sea creatures. We were often going to these islands to take a swim. One day, a colleague took along his dog, who was full of the joy of swimming as all of us. He swam a bit further and then we heard a loud bark, the dog submerged and some blood appeared on the surface. He was swallowed by a shark! Imagine how quickly we were running out of the water.”

We know that Josef Vyhnalek was not only a colleague, but also a close friend of Silvestr. It’s quite possible that Silvestr was there when this adventure happened.

Vyhnalek remembers that next to the attractive islands, he and friends were sometimes also going inland for their trips:

“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.”

The nature was without doubt magnificent, but it was not a paradise. Don’t forget that Singapore was a colony where the white Europeans represented only a small, highly privileged fragment of the overall population, majority of which was still living in poverty. Especially the British were infamous for their arrogance. At that time, it was also common to have a racial segregation, which did not go unnoticed by Vyhnalek:

“There were only about 7,000 English in Singapore before the war, including several thousand of military officers. The governmental bureaus were usually run by an English men, with the rest of the staff being Chinese or mulattoes. The swimming pool was for white Europeans only, all other races were banned from it. The Chinese however, in revenge to the British, built their own beautiful swimming pool.”

Silvestr also describes the Sunday trips in his letter:

“Every Sunday afternoon, we go out to the islands for swim. We take a small boat to get there. They have very nice sand beaches and swimming pools in the sea here. The sea is fenced off by a wire anchored in the seabed, and the nets reach out about 100 meters from the shore. The water is 6-7 meters deep there. We wear blue shorts, white shirts with red silk scarfs around our necks.” [in a clear reference to the colors on the Czechoslovak national flag]

Singapore Swimming ClubPhoto from the archive of Mr Plhon: The Swimming Club for Europeans in Singapore.

As Mr Plhon mentions in his record quoted above, the Bata company was running one large factory in Klang in Malaya, which was producing canvas shoes with rubber soles. According to a war report by the Czechoslovak consul from 1942, it was employing about 1200 local people and 8 Czechoslovak citizens. Another, smaller factory was in the Singapore port, producing leather shoes and providing 800 local jobs.

Klang BatovciPhoto from the archive of Emil Macel: Batamen visit to Klang, 1940. From the left V. Dvorak, F. Koblizek, A. Jugas, J. Boda, A. Bodova, J. Bartos, F. Hlobil, B. Sokol (chief of the factory), F. Mysak.

The latex for rubber production was initially sourced from the local suppliers, but in few years, the Bata Company established its own rubber plantation in Bukit Tiga, in the Johore kingdom in the southern Malaya.

Mr Stach recalls that:

“We bought about 700 hectars of rainforest in Johore-Malaya in 1935 with a plan to setup a rubber plantation there. The head of the plantation was Mr Raja […] First we had to burn down the rainforest and then on its ashes, we planted pineapple palms as a pioneer plant. At the time of my visit, the harvest of pineapples was so overwhelming that it did not pay off anymore to process them, so we simply dumped them into holes in the ground.”

Sadly, the methods of burning down the rainforest had changed little since. However the picture of plentiful ripe pineapples is fascinating. The following photograph may as well capture that very scene:

Batovci se Singapuru prijeli na ananasyPhoto from the archive of Bata company: “The Batamen from Singapore came for the pineapples”. Reproduced with a kind permission of the State archive in Zlin.

The plantation had later 120,000 rubber trees and a workforce of 200 local people.

Bukit Tiga - SOkA Zlin, sbirka_fotografii_zlin, obalka c. 5655, por. c. 3.jpg
Photo from the archive of Bata company: “Bata’s rubber tree plantation in Bukit Tiga, Malaya”. Reproduced with a kind permission of the State archive in Zlin.

When I was going through the archives in Zlin, I came across this photograph of the above mentioned Mr Raja:

Raj SOkA Zlin, sbirka_fotografii_zlin, obalka c. 5659, por. c. 2.jpg
Photo from the archive of Bata company: “Mr Raja from the procurement department sets off to check the rubber tree plantation near Singapore. He is accompanied by two dogs to protect him from the snakes”. Reproduced with a kind permission of the State archive in Zlin.

The Bata community was certainly coming together during many other occasions, as can be witnessed by the following picture (it seems Silvestr is not captured there, or he is hard to be recognized).

Singapore setkani Batovcu s rodinamiPhoto from the archive of Mr Plhon: The Batamen gather with their families in Singapore.

It is also likely that the social life of the management was quite different from that of the ordinary staff (to which Silvestr belonged being a salesman/pedicurist). Not everything was a rose garden though, and there have been some tensions within the Bata community as well as among the broader Czechoslovak community in Singapore – we will revisit some of these troubles next time.

Another interesting picture I discovered in the archives is from a visit of the Czechoslovak ambassador to Batanagar in India. The second man from the right remarkably resembles Silvestr, as we can see if we compare it with his portrait from late 1930’s (both bellow).

Batanagar navsteva velvyslancePhoto from the archive of Mr Plhon: The visit of Czechoslovak ambassador in Batanagar.

silva3
Photo: Silvestr’s portrait from late 1930’s, before his departure to Singapore. (It is also this photo that was also reproduced on the memorial for WW2 victims in his hometown of Vemyslice.)

It is either just a mistaken resemblance; or the picture was wrongly annotated and was in fact taken at another occasion in Singapore; or perhaps Silvestr might have traveled to Batanagar, not an impossible scenario given that it would had been on the opportunity of a visit of the Czechoslovak ambassador to the company’s regional center.