James Iliffe was born in New South Wales in 1922. He served in the Australian Army and the Air Force during World War II. He married Melody Welsh in 1963 and they had three children.
Jim was serving on the Malay Peninsula when the Japanese swept down and defeated the Allied forces. He was in Singapore when the Allies surrendered. His escape from Singapore before the Japanese took control of Singapore is a remarkable adventure story:
Jim was 17 when war was declared and considered it “a pretty exciting prospect.” He enlisted in the 33rd Fortress company, Royal Australian Engineers, putting his age up to 18. Jim transferred to the AIF after it was formed in 1940 and was enrolled in the Ordnance Company of the Eighth Division as a Corporal, later becoming a Sergeant. He did his training at Liverpool near Sydney. “Liverpool was an army camp established in World War I. The old barracks there looked like it too. It was corrugated iron construction and the walls were full of bayonet holes and sadly I was there in the winter time. It was freezing cold.”
Jim left Australia in May 1941 and sailed direct to Singapore. He went up the Malayan peninsula and performed guard duty at the Air Force base at Kluang until the Japanese entered the war.
“On 8th December simultaneously with Pearl Harbour, though there was a difference in the time frame with the International Date Line but simultaneously with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, they bombed Hong Kong and also Singapore and that was the start of the war, the real start of the war and we were on an alert war footing from that point onwards. The Australians were given – half way up the Malay Peninsula, that was the Australian line. Above that, near the Thai border were Indian and British troops. They were there to try and initially stop the Japanese from invading and in theory that was fine, except that while the Japanese did attack from the north, from Thailand, they also came down the coast and got in behind British and Indian troops, forcing them to retire. That virtually was the whole story of the Malay campaign. The Japanese, with unlimited air cover, kept landing their troops further down the coast behind our positions forcing us to retire.
“It was just one stark tragedy after another because Britain sent two of their biggest battle ships, the Repulse and the Prince of Wales as patrols to make sure the Japanese couldn’t do that. Within a week of arriving in the area and they were sunk, lying at the bottom of the ocean. We had no air force by comparison. They had modern Zero fighters which were incredibly efficient. That’s what happened all the way down the Malay Peninsula. They just kept on coming behind, landing in boats and barges behind us. They cut us off and we had to retreat and as we got on to Singapore Island, there was nowhere else to retreat to.
“Morale was still pretty good until we got on to Singapore island and then without sort of “throwing in the towel”, I think we realised that if we couldn’t hold the Malay peninsula, how could we hold this little island and, once we got over the causeway, and the causeway is the distance of water between Singapore and Malaya, the two areas of land is only about the length of the Sydney Harbour Bridge and so the Japanese were just over the water and we’re here on Singapore Island.
“Nothing happened then for about three days after we went over the causeway and blew it up and in that three days, they were building up supplies and positions ready to attack Singapore Island. We were just sitting there waiting to see what happened. We were ready, as ready as we could be and then it happened and they landed and their tactics were much the same as in Malaya. They outmanoeuvred us and came around behind us and it was just pretty hopeless. Within a week they’d cut off and captured the area that contained the water reservoirs for Singapore and so they had control of the water supply. They cut that off to the Singapore City. That didn’t affect us but it affected the thousands of residents of Singapore City. It was from that point on pretty much a shambles. People were being cut off from their units and not being able to get back to them. There was nowhere to go. It was pretty horrible.”
During the retreat back to Singapore City Jim and his fellow troops endured heavy Japanese shelling and he was wounded in the leg by shrapnel which was severe enough to require treatment. The Australian army nurses had been evacuated so an unofficial hospital was set up in the Singapore Town Hall.
“I was driven there in an army utility. I remember on the way, shells were landing. I remember on one occasion a shell landed pretty close behind us. It lifted the ute and put it back on the road again. You think you’re never going to make it and you’re very glad when you get out of range a little bit. They had Chinese and Asian, or Eurasian nurses at the town hall and they bathed my wound. They weren’t capable of removing the shrapnel and there was no one really surgically experienced. So at least they gave me some painkillers, aspirin and stuff and because it was so hot and seeing there were no beds, just some emergency stretchers, I’d suggested I’d go out and sleep out on the front top step of the Singapore Town Hall where there was a little bit of cool air. And so I did and I slept for 22 hours without waking. When I woke up it was 22 hours later. And that’s how exhausted we were because we existed without sleep. It’s very hard to imagine for me now and I’m sure to you or anyone else, with night after night of dozing off out of sheer exhaustion and being awakened, dozing off and being awakened. Any time there was a break at all, we’d snatch a little bit of sleep but it was never for more than half an hour and that goes on week after week and you become mentally deficient. You can’t think straight. You can’t – just terrifying really and that was the position.
“On the Sunday, the day of the surrender, on the Sunday afternoon – I’d been there from Friday afternoon, Saturday afternoon, Sunday – and a couple of fellows from my unit found me and they said the surrender’s been signed and a cease fire declared and it was every man for himself and so they put me in a rickshaw and took me down to the docks and one of them, Barney Hanrahan swam out and brought in to the docks, this little 16 feet sailing boat. It had a little pup motor on it and he started the boat and went chug chug chug and brought it in to the dockside. By that time there were seven of us altogether. The buildings on the wharfs called “godowns” and they were full of supplies that had never been touched including aeroplane engine parts and all sorts of things and a lot of canned fruit, peaches and pears. So we grabbed an armful of those and the other fellows did and we filled our water bottles up and got on this little 16 foot boat and chugged down into the middle of the harbour. And by now it’s nightfall and the surrender was 3.30 in the afternoon and we’re now about 7 o’clock at night.
“The sky was almost daylight because they’d set fire to all the oil installations around the islands in Singapore Harbour and so it was just like a big rosy glow. It was eerie because by now all the fighting had stopped so there was no gun fire or shelling or bombing so it was deathly quiet. And that in itself is a traumatic atmosphere because you – for weeks and weeks you’ve been constantly having this dreadful noise in your ears of gun fire and shells and bombs and suddenly it’s quiet. It’s a little bit hard to adjust to and – we were sitting out in the harbour. It’s a harbour but it’s surrounded by islands, little islands and so you don’t know which way to go. You don’t know which way is out. And we decided that we’d wait till morning – we threw out the anchor. We’d moved away from the shore and so we put the anchor overboard and decided we’d spend the night and wait till daybreak and then get going. But nobody knew anything about sailing a boat – that was the thing and so when we started the little pup motor on the boat – every boat has an auxiliary engine – we didn’t know that you had to turn on the little water cock to keep the engine cool and so by the time we got out and decided to throw the anchor overboard there was this dreadful smell of metal and the engine was just ready to seize because it was red hot – it hadn’t had any cooling and so we decided we had to find out how to put the sails up the next morning to make it go and I don’t recall much of what happened then. I know there were seven of us on this very small boat – unless we stretched out and slept on top of each other or something. I don’t know what we did and the next morning at dawn – we’d drifted all night – and we’d drifted right into near the shore line again and we found out later that Singapore harbour was heavily mined so we probably dragged this anchor through minefields. I don’t know how we missed any. And we started to put the sails up and we saw Japanese running along the shore and they were firing at us but we were out of range and just by some miracle – you don’t know how these things happen – we got the sails up enough to get a strong breeze and sailed out of range. The other amazing thing – the Japanese had no surface craft in Singapore Harbour area at the time of the surrender and didn’t actually enter the city until the early hours of the following (Monday) morning.
“There were all sorts of things that were just wonderful that allowed us to get away and if things had been just slightly different, we’d never have had a chance to get out. So we sailed through the mass of little islands and got out into the open sea and knew the sun rose in the east and sets in the west and put the sun behind us and headed west to Sumatra and we went along at a good pace. The sails were up. I don’t think they were rigged very effectively but it seemed to be enough to carry us along all that first day and second night. It was actually just after dark on the second night and the wind dropped and we were becalmed – but we thought we were far enough away from land now and the next morning we woke up and we were still becalmed and it was something I could never have imagined – the sea was just like – looking at a mirror – not a ripple – completely like a pond –incredible – no breeze – just absolutely still and you sit there and you sweat and it’s hot and of course – we didn’t have any nice big Australian hats. All we had was our tin hats and they’d – you’d perspire in those – pretty horrible.
“Japanese planes were flying over on the way to bomb Sumatra and we saw quite a few of those. One – there was a formation of them – one came down and had a little look at us and went on its way. I don’t know what he thought we were. And the next morning we got a breeze – it came up again and we set sail again and that afternoon, we ran into a storm – it was a violent storm. We saw land and we thought it was Sumatra but it wasn’t it was an island off Sumatra and we saw this land we were heading towards it and this storm got so violent then we just lost control of the little boat and the storm swept us on to the rocks – there was an outcrop of rocks. There was a beach section which we were aiming for that we didn’t make and the boat just hit the rocks and tumbled on its side and we were thrown out on the water and on the rocks and somehow got ashore and we were sitting on the beach wondering where we were going to go from here and around the bend there was, like a little headland came this group of soldiers, all dressed in green, we thought they were Japanese. We were desperately wondering what we should do next – nobody had any rifles but three or four of the others had their bayonets in their belt. I had a .38 revolver and we wondered what we’d do and this voice called out in English – they were Dutch. It was a Dutch army patrol and I remembering him saying “Where the hell did you come from?” Because they had been around the other side of the headland and suddenly came around the corner and saw the wrecked boat with these Australians and I guess they didn’t know who we were but they took us to a little Dutch settlement on the island and gave us provisions and I had the first really good treatment I had for my leg.
“And the next morning they put us in a sampan which is a funny sort of a boat with two eyes painted in front and Chinese fisherman took us up the river and to that part of Sumatra – it’s mostly jungle and the townships are right on the river. Up the river was the first settlement, the first township and they gave us – took us in there and we spent the night there – gave us food, looked after us. The next morning, each village had a little patrol boat and they took that patrol boat and took us up the river about 100 miles to the next village and we spent the night there. This went on about four days, travelling up the river and at the end of the river, to a place called Rengat. There was a railway, rail head there and they put us on an open railway truck with carriages and they were taking the train across the mountains and so we got into these open trucks and went over the mountains and finally ended up at Padang on the west coast. By that time – there was something like 200 troops in Padang who’d arrived there before us.
“I think altogether out of Padang eventually there were about 240 troops altogether, British, Indian and Australian. About 30 Australians and by then – we slept in the jail at Padang and we had nothing – we had no eating utensils, we had nothing, nothing at all really. I had a pair of shorts and a shirt on and the bottom was coming out of my shorts and my belt and a .38 revolver, and a tin hat and water bottles – we held on to our water bottles. We’d rationed our food coming over – we had tins of bully beef and tins of pears and peaches we’d got from the godowns and we’d rationed that all the way across but once you’ve opened them in those conditions, once you opened your beef you had to eat it, you couldn’t keep it. There was no rationing of that. But we could ration the peaches and the pears.
“So we were at Padang for about a week and they had a British destroyer in port and it took quite a few – quite a number of Australians and also Brits and took them to Bombay. We went on a little coastal boat and it was a real little tub. I don’t know what its activity was in normal times but we just slept on the deck and I know we had a diet of rice and sardines. Very few sardines, mostly rice and we hugged the west cost of Sumatra and between Java and Sumatra is the Sunda Straits – open water. And we crossed there and as we crossed there at night time, we could see the flashes in the sky like lightning and we could hear what sounded like thunder but it was actually – we worked it out later – the HMAS Perth being sunk by Japanese as we went past over that particular stretch of water and we landed at a little port called Tjilitjap. It was a little seaside port and I remember landing there on this little boat and there was a British Army post there and we arrived just in time – they were cooking a meal. It was stew, I remember – and it was the nicest meal I’ve ever had. We’d been living on, ugh, nothing for weeks and suddenly we had this stew with carrot and potatoes. It was gorgeous, I remember.
“And so we were at Tjilitjap and we don’t know where we’re going to go. The Japanese had already landed in Java, Batavia at the top side of Java and we thought – oh well, we’ve come this far. Where do we go from here? And there was another British destroyer came into port, evacuated, took women and children and sadly, dramatically it was sunk about two days out I believe. And this big boat came in, big Dutch vessel called the Zandaam and it came into port and it was evacuating mostly women and children and we said can we get aboard but they said they couldn’t take us because they were fully occupied, by evacuees and there was no way we could go aboard and then at the last minute they said you can come on board if you use the crew toilets and sleep on the deck. And we said “Okay we’ll sleep on the deck.” And that boat zigzagged all over the ocean. We didn’t know where we were going, north, south, west and nobody would tell us where we were going.
“And I think it was about five days later we saw the big sandhills off Fremantle and knew that we were back in Australia. So I was taken to Hollywood Hospital in Perth – that’s the army hospital there. When I got there, they put me in a wheel chair and wheeled me into the ward and there’s a full length mirror at the end of the ward as I came to the door and I saw myself in the mirror and couldn’t believe it. I hadn’t shaved, no combs, or anything like that and hadn’t cleaned my teeth for weeks and I looked like, you know, someone that came out of the hills. It was a very funny sight. Anyway so after a while, they didn’t know what to do with us really because we had Army intelligence talk to us a lot about the situation. Then the Mariposa came in to Fremantle from Darwin and coming down the coast and was going to Melbourne and so they put us on the Maraposa and we sailed to Melbourne and we got off at Melbourne and I was taken to Heidelberg Military Hospital in Melbourne. I was there for probably about two or three days and as far as the army was concerned, I was in hospital and I needed attention.”
After a few days in Melbourne, Jim persuaded the medical officer to allow him to convalesce at the military hospital at Concord, Sydney. He then travelled by train to Sydney. Almost a month after Singapore fell, Jim was finally reunited with his family in Sydney.
“I look back on it now and it’s like a dream – I wonder if it ever happened.”
(Jim Iliffe was interviewed in May 2002).
Jim Iliffe has also told his story to the Australian War Memorial and it can be read at this web site: Australian War Memorial – Stories – Jim Iliffe
Jim Iliffe died 25 June 2005.