Memories of Singapore – by Richard Walker.

General News


SINGAPORE 1966 TO 1968

By Richard Walker with help from Mike Farley on the Fort Rosalie and considerable input from David Cameron on the Gold Ranger.

I flew to Singapore on about the 3rd November on British Eagle Britannia trooping flight from Gatwick which was five hours late leaving and seemed to take forever to get there with a night stop somewhere in India. I was put in a hotel in Singapore and was enjoying a well-deserved sleep in the afternoon when the Agent arrived to tell me that the Fort Rosalie, which I was joining, was not in Singapore and that that I was to fly to Hong Kong next day to join the ships as junior Second Officer. I flew up in a Comet, which was sheer luxury, after the Prop aircraft I had flown in previously. On the way from the airport to the Naval Base to catch the boat out to the ship, which was anchored off Stone Cutters Island, I was really enthralled with the city and thought I must explore the place as it seemed so teaming and vibrant but I had to wait, as I joined on the evening of the 5th and we sailed first thing next morning for Singapore.

There were eight “Fort” class in the RFA, the Fort Rosalie (ex Waverley Park) being one of the three which were Ammunition ships.  They were built in Montreal during the war as Standard Design Cargo Freighters by the Canadian Government and were initially under the Management of Park Steam Ship Co. She was transferred to the RFA on the 20th November 1947 and converted at Portsmouth Dockyard as an Armament stores issuing ship. They were the first block of dry cargo ships to come onto the inventory of the RFA. She had a Steam 3-cylinder Triple expansion engine which gave a speed of 11 knots and 7,508tons of cargo.

The passage took about 10 days as the old Rosalie only did about 9 knots downhill with the wind behind. She was a five hatch Ammunition Fort boat with the number three hatch on the boat deck as opposed to the Stores Forts who had number three hatch on the main deck. This was a much better arrangement for living as there was a large boat deck where we had a very pleasant bar and films were shown on a large screen at the back of the bridge so all the ships company, which were Chinese, and the officers could watch the films together.

The Captain was R.J Lockwood whom I don’t really remember at all, and the name of the Chief Officer was Bob Miller whom I remember had been in the RN in the war and lived in Aldershot. The First Officer was Mike Farley, who was not with us for long as when we returned to Singapore he transferred to the Reliant and was not replaced, about which we were all very envious as she was considered the yacht of the Far East Fleet. I relived Neville Wright, who had left the ship before I had joined and had a bit of a reputation on the ship for wrecking things. The Chief Engineer was J. Ross and the Second Engineer was R.S. Edwards. The ships writer was the late Archie Scott who spent a lot of his time ashore as he was married to a local girl. I also remember the Assistant Forman of Stores who was a large gentleman called Bird. The STO(N) was a fairly young and up and coming chap who’s name I can’t remember but I do remember that he introduced me to the Canadian Forces 5BX exercise system which I used for years after to keep myself fit.

I was not at first keen on the idea that we were going to be anchored in the Eastern Explosives Anchorage, above the Naval Base, but I soon realised that this was an ideal location. We had our own 32’ cutter which was run by the crew and ran on a regular basis into Red House Sailing Club jetty which was only two minutes walk from the Terror club with its very pleasant swimming pool and restaurant, were we used to eat steaks on sizzling cast iron platters and drink Tiger beer.  There was also a golf course next to the club which is where I first learnt to play golf badly. The anchorage was much better than being alongside the Armament Depot which was a taxi ride from the club and we also had the in-convenience of having to put our cigarettes and matches in a locked box to walk through the depot to get to the gate.

It was about this time or maybe just before I joined the ship that there was the incident of the Rodent Control Officer. All ships in Singapore received a letter from Far East Command saying that they should appoint a Rodent Control Officer to control and account for all rodents caught onboard and there were instructions about his duties and reporting forms to be completed. There was also a date and time for a meeting in the Naval Base to which ships were to send representatives. Anyway, when people turned up for the meeting it became clear that this had been a hoax which was reputed to have been perpetrated by a certain RFA First Officer who eventually rose to Command. He was also reputed to have been behind the letter about changing RFA ships funnels to stripes.

The ship did surprisingly little as I think we remained in Singapore until after the New Year except for a couple of short trips up the east coast of Malaya. So, we did our duty days and generally enjoyed ourselves in a very pleasant manner. We often took a taxi into Sembawang village to have a beer and order uniform and clothing from “Toothy Wong”, the favoured Taylor whose son Alan also ran an electrical shop at which later on I bought an enormous reel to reel tape recorder, camera and other electrical gadgets. As I remember we seldom if ever went into Singapore which was quite a way away, but we did occasionally go to Johore Barho across the causeway in Malaya.

In the New Year we left for an exercise with the fleet in the South China Sea and then to Hong Kong but we never caught up with the fleet as the North East Monsoons meant that we made very slow progress. If I remember rightly a couple of ships came back and replenished from us and then headed off and left us to struggle our way through the seas at about 5 knots to arrival many days after everyone else in Hong Kong.

The ship had four heavy jackstays, two Port and Stbd on the foremast and two on the after mast with light jackstay positions on the boat deck. The two for’d and after hatches were fitted with early lifts which were raised and lowered by the derrick runners and the loads were then lifted of the lift at the wooden hatch by a fork lift truck. There was not much room on deck for the loads to be dumped so they had to be brought up during the RAS. Any loads which had to be transferred to for’d or aft had to be broken down and trundled along the narrow side alleyways on special narrow pallets on electric pallet trucks and then re- palletised. The heavy jackstays did not have any auto tensioning winches they were run onto the ordinary cargo winches and expertly handled by the Chinese sailors who were very adept at replenishment.

I very much enjoyed my visit to Hong Kong and got around to explore the place. I think it was during this time that I met my brother David, who was a Second officer with China Navigation and also a friend of ours who worked for Blue Flue so we had a really good run ashore and the next day my brother’s cargo ship had a copra fire in No 2 hold and she had to be put into drydock and the hold flooded to put the fire out so I did not see much of him after that.

We returned to Singapore in early February and went alongside the Armament Depot to discharge all cargo as we were going to drydock which I was very much looking forward to as we would live ashore in the Naval Base and I thought this would give me a chance to have some time off and explore Singapore. Unfortunately, this was not to be, for as we entered drydock the Captain informed me that I was going to have an immediate transfer to the Tidesurge which was lying alongside in Stores Basin. This was a very rude shock as I have very much got used to the pleasant and relaxed life on the Fort Rosalie with the Chinese crew looking after us so well and anyway, I wanted to have a long spell in Singapore and the Tidesurge was heading back to the UK after three months in the Far East.

I joined the Tidesurge as junior Second Officer on the 25th February 1967 to be welcomed by Captain Don Averill whom I had served with previously on the Wave Ruler, but that is another story.  The Chief Officer was John Armstrong who came from Cumbria and I think married after this trip, but he was only married for a couple of years when his wife was killed in a road accident when she was coming to the station to pick him up for weekend leave. The Chief Engineer was E. (Bow) Burke and the Second engineer was G.M. Ogilvie.

I did not like anything about the Tidesurge, the air-conditioning, which I had not experienced before except on the Bayleaf were it was next to useless, was far too cold and the Maltese crew left a lot to be desired after the way the Chinese crew had looked after me. From the moment I arrived on the ship I was desperately engineering a transfer to a ship which was remaining on Far East station as the last thing I wanted to do was return to the UK.

The only trip I remember in the Tidesurge was to Japan where we went to Osaka and the American naval base at Yokosuka in Tokyo Bay. I particularly remember Osaka because we caught a train to another city nearby to see the traditional Japanese all girl theatre. Japan was a fascinating place and I found the food interesting, especially the seaweed.  We also playing golf a couple of times on a course which was near the American Naval Base which was built on these steep hills so you were playing from the top of hill into the valley below and then back up the hill again.

Before the Tidesurge left station I managed to arrange a transfer to the Gold Ranger. I remember going to the Military Hospital in Singapore and persuading another Second Officer, whose name I can’t remember to take my place on the Tidesurge and allow me to take his appointment to the Ranger. He lived in Exeter and had risen from the ranks to become Second Officer, he had been injured in a boating accident, when he was a quartermaster, at Pula Ti Oman when he jumped out of the back of the boat and got his leg caught in the propeller of the Kitchener gear. He subsequently left the RFA and became a Master commercially. We met subsequently and he never forgave me for taking his place on the Gold Ranger.

I left the Tidesurge on the 1st June in Hong Kong and flew down to join the Gold Ranger on the 2nd of June 1967 and was very pleased to be back on a Chinese crewed ship again. The Captain was Charlie Sumner and the Chief Officer was Jerry Brooks. Charlie was a large rotund gentleman who liked the odd glass where as Jerry was very slim but also liked the odd glass. I was Second Officer and I cannot remember the name of the Third Officer who was from the pool. The Chief Engineer was Ronny Putt, the Second Engineer was Brain Seex and the Third engineer was a middle-aged Geordie with very bad teeth called Young and the Forth engineer Mike Fleming who came from Plymouth. If I remember rightly the Radio officer was Malcolm Whitelaw who was later relieved by David Cameron.  She was a lovely ship for the tropics with many doors and ports so the breeze could waft through the accommodation and kept you cool, no air-conditioning of course but we did not worry. We had a bar on the after end of the boat deck with the biggest fridge I have ever seen and I think we also used to take our meals up there as the saloon was a hot and airless room which we did not like using except in cooler weather.

The Gold Ranger was one of 6 “Ranger” class Admiralty designed fleet attendant tankers built to replace the Bergol class and was in service from 1941 to 1973. They carried 3,200 tons of cargo and had astern and port abeam fuelling rigs. She had a 4-cylinder two stroke Doxford engine giving a speed of 13 knots. An unusual feature of their design was the offset of the funnel and the Foremast making it more difficult for attacking aircraft to line up on the centreline of the ship.

Soon after I joined Charlie Sumner had some sort of heart problem and was shipped off to hospital. He was relieved by Ray Gollop, whom I think had been Chief Officer on the Reliant or the Retainer and was made up to Captain. Soon after he joined, we went off to the Philippines with the Manxman, which was leader of the Minesweeper Squadron, and some mine hunters for an exercise. We changed one of the derrick rigs to a three-inch hose which was very successful for fuelling the sweepers with dieso. I remember we carried out the exercise in a large bay south of Manila and I spent half a day on one of the Hunters seeing what they did which was fascinating. When they were not working, they used to lie alongside us or the Manxman at anchor so we got to know them quite well. I maintained good relations with both the staff on the Manxman and the officers of the Minesweepers throughout the time we were on the ship.

After we returned to Singapore Charlie Sumner rejoined after having been sorted out and Ray Gollop left.  I think it was about this time that we went up the Malacca straights and out into the Indian Ocean to refuel the Forth, the depot ship that was based in Singapore, and had not left for some time. For some reason they were going to Mombasa, probably for a jolly, so we met them out in the Indian Ocean for a RAS. I don’t think they had done it for a while as they took quite a time to get alongside and connected up and then a short while into the RAS, they had a steering gear failure. It was in the morning but I was on the bridge as well as the third Officer and Charlie was wandering around to ship somewhere.  I realise what was happening and put the helm over to port as they pulled away from us to prevent the gear breaking. I think we turned about 40 degrees before they steadied up and then I was station keeping on them.  I continued to station keep on them for the rest of the RAS which lasted about three hours, the only problem being that we did not have a revolutions telegraph so I had to keep telephoning the engine room with the change of revs which was not too often, one of my more character forming moments. I was very glad when we complete the RAS and could break off.

As British Forces were pulling out of Aden there were very few tankers available for the Far East Fleet and consequently GOLD RANGER was tasked with fuelling ships from Sri Lanka (Ceylon) to the South China Sea in this period.

In August we set off for an exercise in Tai waters with the Manxman and squadron after which we were going on a visit to Bangkok, which we were all looking forward to as we had not been there before. This visit was unfortunately scuppered by the Fireman’s cook stabbing one of the Firemen, probably over a gambling debt, although David thinks the argument was about who was going to go ashore with the duty-free drink in Bangkok.  This incident took place about the 29th August as I still have a copy of the statement, I wrote for the official log book.

I was enjoying a pre dinner drink on the boat deck, which we called the quarterdeck, whilst the ship was at anchor for the exercise when there was a considerable commotion on the poop deck below and one of the crew shot up and said that someone was injured. I went to the poop and found the fireman aft of the port capstan with a 3” gash below his left shoulder and breathing his last breath as the cook had stabbed him in the heart. We radioed for the Doctor from the Manxman to come who pronounced him dead. It was then decided to put the cook under a naval guard, provided by the Manxman, and proceed immediately to Hong Kong under whose jurisdiction the crime could be investigated. We heave up within two hours and proceed to Hong Kong. One of the Domestic fridge spaces was cleared out and the body was placed in there and frozen so as to preserve it for post mortem.  We arrive in Hong Kong several days later and berthed in the Naval Base where the cook was handed over to the Hong Kong police. The body of the fireman was removed and taken ashore and the crew set of many fire crackers in the fridge flat to ward off evil spirits. I was standing at the top of the hatch to the flat and I did not realise this was going to happen so I jumped out of my skin when they set them off. David remembers doing the crew pay off as the Radio Officer was also the Captains’ clerks on that ship as we only carried a Chinese Chief Steward but no writer.

We enjoyed a few days in Hong Kong during which I went to the Magistrate court to make a statement about the incident and after this we returned to Singapore. I think it was at this time in Hong Kong that I nearly set the chart room on fire. I had been doing chart correction and of course smoking as we all did in those days, non smokers were very rare on ships in those days. Anyway, when I had finished, I emptied the ash tray into the wicker waste basket, but unfortunately, I did not make sure the dog ends were out. When I returned some time later the Chart room was full of smoke, the waist basket was no more and there was a large circular burn mark on chart room wooden deck.

Early November 1967 we were in company with HMS AJAX and another, heading west, when a Shackleton of 205 Squadron came down 120 miles west of Sumatra.  We trailed along at our best speed and when we caught up at the ditching position AJAX had located three survivors.  The remaining eight crew were dead, and the day of the crash was 4th November.

It was also around this time that we went to the aid of a landing craft type vessel which had broken down near the Nicobar Islands.  It had about 12 cattle onboard and a couple of crew. An HM ship was in attendance and had repaired its engine but it broke down again shortly afterwards so as we were heading south, we took it in tow for a few hours to where it was going which was a bay at the Northern tip of Sumatra.  We towed it into the bay and the third officer who was handling the ship turned her short round to starboard and steamed out again. We received a signal a few days later from MOD asking if we had had Lloyds open form signed and it also made it in to the Daily Mirror in the UK.

In early December we went on an exercise up the west coast of Malaya, again with the Manxman, after which we had a visit to Penang which I thought was a very pleasant place with lots of nice hotels and beaches which we took advantage of. At the cocktail party on the Manxman Charlie Sumner collapse with his heart problem and was put in the sick bay on the ship and then sent ashore the next day.  This left Jerry Brooks in Command, to take the ship back to Singapore for Christmas whilst everyone else dashed back ahead of us, especially the Manxman who did full power trials.

The system for pilotage in the Jahore Straits going up to the Dockyard was that once a Captain had done three trips in and out with a pilot, he could do his own pilotage. As Charlie Sumner had had plenty of trips this meant that we did our own pilotage which was usually undertake by myself as Second Officer as Charlie was not really interested. We arrived back of the entrance to the Jahore straits late in the afternoon and were told that the pilot would not be available until the morning and that we were to anchor and wait. But Jerry was having none of that and set off up the Straits in the dark so we could get alongside in the Stores Basin that evening.  The Marine Superintendent, whom I thing was Bonner Roberts, was down first thing the next morning and gave Jerry a right bollocking but it just washed over his head.

In between these various trips we had long spells in Singapore during which we went to the Terror Club, played golf, and generally enjoyed ourselves. It was about this time that I had been taken flying by a Second Officer on the Fort Dunvegan, he was a man with private means, who I think lived in the Brighton area but anyway he introduced me to flying and I was hooked.   I joined the Singapore Flying Club at Pia Leba and started to learn to fly on a Cessna 172 with a charming Australian Flight lieutenant called Frank Sharp who was on the Air Staff in Singapore and instructed part time at the club.

Jerry Brooks was also a man of independent means and could be incredibly generous. Although he did not drive, he owned two cars one of which the Third Officer used to take him around in and the other I used to use to go over to the Airport for my flying lessons. I remember that it was a bit of an old banger with no rear- view mirror so you had to keep looking behind but I was very glad to do many miles in it. This was in the days before health and safety and hard hats had been invented so Jerry, to smarten up our image, had light blue peaked caps, produced by Toothy Wong, with the Gold Ranger, which was a fishing fly, embroidered on the front. The Officers and crew all wore these caps for RASing and the crew wore them for entering and leaving harbour and I still have mine at home. We also all had light blue ties with the Gold Ranger embroidered on them. Jerry also met his future wife at this time as she was a Teacher in Hong Kong.

In the New Year Archie Merchie joined as Captain, another rotund gentleman who liked the odd glass, I got on very well with him and we worked well together.

It was in January that we then went on a trip to Japan with the Manxman and the sweepers. I cannot remember were we visited but I can remember that it was very cold after being in the Tropics. The ship had its steam radiators on which had not been used for a long time and David remembers that the ship’s cat, which was black and reputed to be a very good ratter, moved from Brian Seexs’ cabin to his as Brian’s radiator did not work.  We went to Yokosuka and probably another port and then went back south through the Inland Sea of Japan.  I remember going in convoy through the Sea of Japan from East to west with the Manxman in the lead with a pilot, then the sweepers and ourselves bringing up the rear, which was an interesting trip. We returned to Hong Kong by ourselves from Japan and were briefly stopped by two Chinese gunboats as we approached Hong Kong from the East, as they claimed we were inside Chinese territorial waters.  I don’t think we were but it was not a pleasant incident and we were all glad to get into Hong Kong that evening.

When we were on passage Captain Merchie used to give me a hard time for not getting up and taking the morning sights at 0900 which was the normal practise. I though, realised that as we were so near to the equator the sun was still bearing nearly East at 1130 in the morning so I could come up then, take the sights and by the time I had worked them out it was time to do the noon meridian passage so we ended up with a very short run between the two sights.

I think it was when we returned to Singapore that I crashed Jerry’s car. I had taken Archie to Terror club in the evening, were we had several beers and then he persuaded me, against my better judgement, to drive him over to Jahore Barho to meet Jed Wright who was staying in a hotel there. The Wrights, Jed, the Father, and Neville the son were both out there at that time and were know a “Dead Wright” and “Never Wright”. Anyway, as we got near the end of the causeway, I lost my bearings and drove left of the road into a monsoon ditch, fortunately at a very slow speed. Neither of us was hurt and there was not much damage to the car but we hailed a taxi and continued our journey to have a drink with Jed.

Archie Merchie left the ship in about April in Singapore and was relieved by Captain R.M. Miller who had been the Chief Officer with me on the Fort Rosalie. I remember that Archie went to a dinner on the Intrepid and was slightly worse for wear when he went to Changi late that evening to board the RAF flight back to the UK. The flight set off from Singapore but had to return because someone was taken ill onboard and for some reason Archie upset the crew so he got bumped off and had to return to the UK a few days later on a commercial flight. I went to see him in his hotel in Singapore whilst he was waiting for a flight and he was not a happy bunny.

David remembers that we were also involved with refuelling Australian warships on their way to Vietnam during the trip.  The main one was HMAS SYDNEY a troop carrier.

I only had about three weeks with the new Captain before I left the ship on the 1st May 1968. I remember that I did not fly straight home but had about 10 day’s local leave to complete my flying after which I flew back for some leave.

This was probably one of the best spells of my career in the RFA. Life in Singapore was very relaxed and laid back. It was also very good career grounding as I got lots of experience in ship handling and navigation and was left a lot on my own to do things that Second Officers did not normally do on the bridge.