Recollections 50 years on of Malcolm (Henry) Hirst
This is a most appropriate time for me to do this as it is exactly 50 years in June (2017) since I left Singapore. They say about the Sixties that if you remember them you weren’t there, the same could be said about a tour to Singapore, believe me I was there and I am amazed how much I do remember.
It was a cold , wet, miserable, December day when we left Catterick on the train to London. The British Eagle Brittania (No VC10s in those days) was 6 hours late taking off but everything was well with the world as we were going to a 2½ year posting on the other side of the world in Singapore, With a flying time of 7 hours to Istanbul, 8 hours to Bombay, then a final 8 hours to Singapore, plus refuelling time, no wonder we were cream crackered when we arrived. The first things to hit you on landing were heat, humidity, and the smell. The funny thing was that when newbies arrived later and commented on the smell we all replied “What Smell” it is amazing what you get used to.
From Paya Lebar, the old airport, we were whisked to Changi and block 139 followed by a trip to RHQ to get our assignments, mine was RAF Seletar. I therefore didn’t spend much time in Changi but from then and later visits I got to know the following members of Changi troop; Pete Smith who I later met at 3Div, Bugsy Bourgoise, sportsman supreme who later transferred to the APTC, Fred Stricket who I remember not as 6ft tall but 6ft wide, a very strong guy, it is said of him that he once held someone with one hand over the balcony of block139, considering that the accommodation was on the 1st floor I bet it is the best laxative he ever had. There were also two of my T3 mates, Paul Brazil a great long distance runner and Bob Lee who ran middle distance and played football for the Army. Frank Rumble whose wedding I attended when I was at Tengah. I also met other members of Changi troop but please forgive me my lousy memory if I have forgotten your names.
So on to Seletar. The OC was Captain Gerry Funnel and the FOS was Ron Stringer,a great guy who I got to know better through playing for the Regimental rugby team, all the others called him Ron on the field but because I was in his troop I got to call him SIR. Jim Buzzard was the troop Sgt who was replaced by Bob Townsend fresh from 11 Sigs. Jim used to putt the shot and with Jock Mckeitch one of the techs used to throw the hammer during the athletics season. We were joined by Pete Pellegrini??? As line corporal and he was assisted by Bob Hawkins who always looked as if he had the worries of the world on his shoulders and when asked why he replied that someone had to. I met Bob later at RAF Akrotiri and he had passed the burden on to someone else.
To the techs now; Geordie Rigby was a Cpl tech coming to the end of his tour and he was to be replaced by Pete Osborne who was due for demob before Geordie was posted! The wonderful ways of Records!!! The rest of the techs were L/Cpls Reg Taylor and Jock Mckeitch and we worked in the telephone exchange conveniently situated behind Lims coffee shop. We were also joined by Sgt Ahmad, Cpl Willy Mollett, L/Cpl Chee and Sig Len Soh all excellent techs and great guys. Sgt Ahmad went on to be commissioned and returned to the regiment as a captain. The most essential part of Fault Control was Mr Abdullah, he kept immaculate records of all the cables and is rumoured to have installed most of them under the Japanese. Whilst I was there he also won an international Koran reading competition representing Singapore. The Fault Control was part of the Exchange building which also housed the exchange equipment and the manual telephone exchange. This was under the watchful eye of Ivan Maxwell the GPO engineer who educated us in the maintenance of his equipment and to locate faults in the cable system. It wasn’t until I did my T2 that I actually found out how it all worked. The last part of the building was the manual exchange run by RAF Cpl Chris Brown and his merry men. On night shifts we used to join the operator for coffees and to talk to the girls on the Singapore International switchboard. Yes we did get the occasional freebies back home and two of the RAF married two of the girls Dick to Barbara and Ken to Noh. We worked a 3 shift system with 4 people which meant that we got 2½ days off every 4 days, Heaven!!! Occasionaly we would get a call from Chai Keng 2 to go and adjust their telegraph Relays in their 1+1 a job that sent everybody heading for the hills. The place was populated by mysterious Australians but they were very friendly and the food was good. I once asked for something to measure the frequency of the signal, thinking I was being ridiculous, so you can imagine my surprise when they brought me a Frequency Counter (it was 1965 and I hadn’t seen one before)
Life in Seletar and on an RAF camp was something of an eye opener to a fresh faced Pongo straight out of Catterick. We didn’t need to take our “Gobbling Rods and tin mug” every time we wanted to eat. Cutlery and glasses were laid out on the tables, the food was edible and on a flying station available nearly 24/7. We were royally looked after by Pop who was bed maker, boot boy and dhobi wallah, it was a shock when I went to 22 Sigs and had to start doing my own; he also used to see us through till payday for a reasonable fee too. Rumour had it that he had educated three sons through British universities on his earnings, quite believable. Considering the climate I was amazed to find that the only air conditioning was the one that whizzed round in the ceiling and in the Monsoon season the flying ants used to cover every surface in the billets. In the first billet we had there was the constant noise of tiles clacking all night as we shared with the Chinese LEPs and they were into playing Mah Jong all night, which stopped when we moved to a new block later. Seletar had all the usual facilities, NAAFI, Malcolm Club (Whist drives once a week, it wasn’t all drinking), Cpls Club, a great Swimming pool if you could get past a troop of homicidal Baboons, they were dangerous fiends as more than one person found out to their cost. There was also a great darts league on the station and I played for the Comms team I even returned to play when I moved to Tengah. After a good night in the NAAFI the two choices were to go to the local village Jalan Kayu or carry on to Bugis St, going to bed wasn’t an option.
Jalan Kayu was only a small village but it had everything a squaddie wanted after a night in the NAAFI. There was the Highway Bar with fish and chip shop attached, which was next to Doris’s Fish and chip shop so we usually got our fish and chips from Doris and washed them down in the Highway Bar. For the more adventurous there was Pops Indian Curry shop where you could blow your brains out on either a Chicken Souse or several Keemas and a Roti. There was much discussion about the origin of the meat in Pops keemas but it was decided that what you didn’t know wouldn’t hurt you. The test of whether you were brave was to go back and eat at Pops in daylight, a feat I managed several times. When I was at Tengah I would often make the pilgrimage back to Jalan Kayu just to pig out on Keemas and to keep my immune system working. Just outside the camp gates there was a DOE accommodation compound and we used to go there on Fridays for a Whist Drive, how much culture can you take? The highlight of the week though was the Amahs Market where just about everything was available and after some serious haggling we would come away convinced we had a great deal and the vendor no doubt thinking “MUG”. It was all good fun though trying to outdo each other to get the cheapest deal.
The second choice was to go to Singapore where every desire could be satisfied by someone or other. The choice of eating establishments was legendary and varied. The following are the ones I used most frequently, other establishments were available. At the top end there was Fosters Steak house where the fillets were extraordinary and only matched by those at the other end of Orchard Road at the Tangle Inn which was owned by an English Lady I think. Working down the food chain came the Beef stew stalls, the #1 choice was always Bobbies on Albert Street followed by Bismallahwallis on the same street. There was also Abduls behind the Cold Storage on Orchard Rd which was only visited occasionally. For the Curry connoisseur there was only one place to go and that was Zam Zams a restaurant of international repute, his Chicken Blue was out of this world and served with Chapattis a meal fit for a squaddie. The final choice was to go to Bugis St where oddly enough there was some pretty good food to be had amongst other things. William and Henry had a stall opposite the famous Bugis St bogs which didn’t do much for the smell but it tasted good. Many is the time I had an early breakfast with them and their family. I can’t remember whether it was one of our guys but someone was down there with his wife when something kicked off so he legged it sharply for a taxi and was halfway home when he realized that he had forgotten his wife I wonder if she has started talking to him yet. The good thing about Bugis St was that when the sun came up over the roofs you just had time to get back to camp and get ready for work, convenient what.
We shared RAF Seletar with The Regiments 2 Sqn which comprised Malaysia and Ops Troops as they outnumbered us there are more of them mentioned than the Seletar troop guys. Where to start there were many happy evenings spent in the company of Tam Coyle, a real character, Bert Wright his best mate, George Long, Danny Evans who got demobbed in Singapore and went to live in Australia, Danny had a penchant for sleeping in the bath when he returned from downtown and caused much consternation when he was missing in the morning until we got used to it. Flo Lowery sportsman, the fragrant Spider Webb another runner who tried to introduce Ops Troop to male Cosmetics, nice try Spider. Amongst the many others Dave Moorhouse, Bill Goss, Scouse Hughes, Dave Lyons, and Hutch fine figure of a man who retrained as a PTI and who when I met him at RAF Laarbruch complained that he was bored with just PTI work. Last but by no means least was Dick Batey the Squadron clerk we shared some adventures together like the time we went to see Matt Monroe at the Goodwood Hotel I was dressed to the nines in a borrowed sharkskin tuxedo, courtesy of Paddy Flynn exchange operator, on the way back to camp we stopped off for a beer and the evening was totally spoiled by MPs crashing in through the doors and windows claiming we were in a brothel. I don’t know whether they could recognise a bar when they saw one or we couldn’t recognise a brothel, I suspect the latter with tongue firmly in cheek. Another time we were returning from a trip to Changi and as we were driving through Paya Lebar village someone stepped out in front of Dicks car. It turned over and I went to hospital for attention to cuts and bruises but the unfortunate pedestrian died. Dick was cleared of any blame at the subsequent inquest but it did put a damper on things for a while. Once again I beg forgiveness from those not mentioned but thanks to you all for a great time and some unforgettable memories. Alas all things come to an end and I was posted from Seletar to Tengah in the middle of 1966 where a whole new chapter was written. Before leaving Seletar I had done some courses to improve my military and technical qualifications, a MPC 2 in 18 Sigs under the command of the splendidly named S/Sgt Royston. T. Mallabone BEM, who had invented a cable laying trailer apparently. This was followed by a T2 at the same place in Dover rd 263 Sqn, the only instructor I remember was Ray (Scouse) Steen as I met him later at 3 Div. I also did a Jungle survival course at Tiger Bay in Mersing under the command of Captain Rassim and SQMS Chalky White, the best part of which was coming out of the jungle behind a company of Ghurkas and watching them do ambush drills, very impressive and very frightening if you were on the wrong side. After this I spent a week in the hospital in Seletar as my jungle boots had dried hard and rubbed away my ankles.
Leave was usually taken in Singapore but in 1966 I did manage 10 days in Penang at the Sandycroft Leave Centre. It took 24 hours to get there on the train for 400 miles, nearly as long as it took to fly from UK. It is a very interesting Island and I had a thoroughly good time. I met a matelot who had had his appendix out on HMS Ark Royal and his doctor recommended a glass of Guinness per day to help his recovery, by my reckoning he was somewhere in the middle of 1970 by the time we left Penang
And on to Tengah for assignment to Bukit Gombak. The first thing that struck me about Tengah was that the accommodation was air-conditioned, absolute heaven!!! This was all well and good until one fine, actually one very rainy day which coincided with a Spring Tide. The significance of this is that the Bukit Gombak accommodation was at the lowest point in the camp and next to a small creek, at least it was a small creek until that afternoon. When it had stopped raining the water was about 1 inch below the bedsprings. The worst was that it knocked out the A/C for about 6 weeks and we had to go back to those revolving thingies, we were not happy campers. For a while we had snakes and all kinds of creatures sharing our accommodation and some people lost a lot of very expensive Hi-Fi equipment.
To the important stuff the O.C. was Capt Atkinson who transferred to the ACC as he had been chatting to some of his buddies who had a session of” what would you do in a disaster situation” and he felt he would have more to offer if he was a caterer. He was replaced by Capt Doug Genders who was an Army shot so he spent a fair amount of time in the UK doing shooting things. The troop S/Sgt was Bill Scott who was a real gentleman and who looked after the young hooligans in his care as if they were his own. On the technical side we had FOS Pete Gill and the Sgt I/C Bukit Gombak Cliff Coverley.The technicians there during my time were; Willy Henderson a fanatical Glasgow Rangers Supporter who went to bed in his football kit (only joking Willy), Bob Yeomans who was the sensible one, very fit and always the voice of moderation, he went on to greater things and is still alive and well I am led to believe, John (Arnold) Palmer who was so laid back he never reached the horizontal, John was our transport manager as he bought an old Vauxhall, a very brave man considering the driving standards in Singapore. Dave Binstead a cool dude, and later Bernie Poulden at the start of his career and Fred Hinxman at the end of his. This was a wonderful bunch of guys both to work with and to live with we had some great times. John Palmer along with Paul Brazil, Bob Lee and I think A.N. Other took a cruise around the Far East at this time so I went to see them off down in the port. It was a French ship and I ended up talking to the Purser into the small hours (as you do) and because I spoke in my schoolboy French he offered me a job. I hate to think what the repercussions of that would have been.
Bukit Gombak was different to Seletar as we were a Radar Site and had to provide comms for the scopies, which included taping the radio traffic for the Interceptions and the practice interceptions, as well as the normal comms. In 67 the Javelins and Hunters were replaced by Lightnings and to give the squadrons some practice they set up interceptions as they flew down through Malaya, the Hunters and Javelins requested that the Lightnings slow down as they could not catch them. When they were replaced the RAF had a wonderful way of disposing of the Javelins. Instead of flying them back to UK they flew them into the Straights of Johore to save fuel. They were going in at a rate of one a week at one time. The site was on a hill which was full of caves used to store things during the 2nd World War. They were now disused but a home for Black Cobras so it was no surprise to see these snakes on the way to work. To add to this the draughtsman had a pet Python in a cage in his office; imagine the consternation when he got to work one morning to find an empty cage. There were a lot of very observant and careful squaddies about for a few days; they never did find the snake though. One other event of note was that one of the noddy Height Finders nodded itself off the side of the hill. One thing I learned to do here was to play Bridge as when they weren’t staring into their dustbins the scopies had a permanent Bridge school going on in the canteen 24/7. One of our responsibilities was the maintenance of equipment on Blakang Mati island and whilst on one of these visits I watched the final fly-past of the last Shackleton to leave Singapore. The pilot came in directly overhead before flying along the front of the city, a most nostalgic and impressive sight. Blakang Mati Island was the home of the Ghurkas and when the one who won the VC returned to show his mates they were all over in Borneo.
Tengah village wasn’t the gourmet Mecca that Jalan Kayu was but we did eventually get our own Beef Stew stall so that made up for it. The camp had all the usual facilities with a very good NAAFI that provided Live Entertainment on a regular basis. There was one show that involved lots of leggy girls which certainly raised the blood pressure of the entire camp for weeks. The Malcolm club and swimming pool were next to our accommodation so very convenient and the cookhouse provided splendid food nearly 24 hours a day.
Singapore was a fantastic place (can you believe that some old sweats actually disliked the place, wishing to be back in Germany), no accounting for taste, During my time they were also interesting times. When I arrived Singapore was part of the new State of Malaysia, when I left Lee Kuan Yew (Prime Minister and lord of all he surveyed) had made a passionate speech removing Singapore from the Federation. Lee was great for Singapore but he had some strange ideas, he banned juke-boxes from the island as immoral yet publicly praised the prostitutes for lightening our wallets. He also had a rebuilding project to get the people out of the kampongs and into high rise flats. It is amazing how many kampongs burst into flames as their deadline approached. In 64 there had been riots on Mohammed’s Birthday and wherever we went around the camps there were sangers waiting for the next round. They sorted that out by sending open 3 tonners round the island full of heavily armed Ghurkas, there was no trouble in 65 or after. There were interesting sights too; a day at the Singapore Race Track was to be recommended as was a visit to Haw Par Villa or as it was better known Tiger Balm Gardens, the universal cure all, not to be confused with Tiger Beer the other universal cure all. This golden nectar of the gods fed us, sustained us and gave us the biggest hangovers known to man, but we loved it. I often wonder what the well heeled tourists staying in the Raffles Hotel thought as they looked over the street and saw the antics in the building opposite which as you all know was the Brit Club. Its one saving grace was a makan (food) stall outside which did wonderful Frittatas of Potato, onion, and tomatoes, fried and smothered in beaten eggs and placed in a French stick. There was just time to eat it on the trishaw ride to Bugis street.
As I did so often in the past I will finish in the street and say thank you Singapore, thank you all the people I worked with or met, those whose names I forgot just as much as the ones I remembered. I celebrated my 21st the week after I got home “What an Education Singapore was”. I can truly say that Singapore was the only place I have ever been sorry to leave and I have been to quite a few places in my travels with the Army and as a contractor.
A Soldier of the sixties
One to show the grand children
Bob Hawkins, Jock McKeitch and Henry
Military Proficiency Course
....another Military Proficiency Course
With Bob Lee, Frank Rumble, George Long and Henry Hurst
Henry with Cpl. Yap
Bill Scotts farewell...Tengah Troop
...another party. Can you name them?
Cheers.Hope that LEP is on orange juice!
Regimental Sports day
Jock McKeitch putting the shot
and now Bill Goss (Ops troop Sgt)
…..putting the shot
.........and Dave Lyons
You guessed it…putting the shot
….showing off his trophies
A Seletar Troop tech.
Jim Buzzard ( Seletar Troop Sgt.)
….and the Troop OC Jerry Funnell is on the camera
Jock McKeitch and Jim Buzzard
Henry with Charlesworth (Ops) and his wife and the new Troop Sgt. Bob Townsend. Who is the other chap?
Henry and Reg Taylor
Scalped by the photographer. Top of his head missing !
The China Sea Beach Club
Any names anybody please so that I can update it ?
More of Henry's photos
More photos from Henries vast collection
Impressed with those boots Willy
Reg Taylor and Danny Evans
Any idea who the other two are ?
Reg Taylor at Raffles
Just another party !!!
Surprise Surprise. Pete Osbourne and Bob Hawkins are there with Reg Taylor and Henry