(A YOUNG SCHOOLBOY’S PERSPECTIVE)
Son of (then) Flt Lt. “Pux” Puxley, RAF.
Passage to Singapore
The year was 1953. My dad was at that time a Flt Lt. Engineer and had been posted to the Engine Repair Section, 390 Maintenance Unit, RAF Seletar, flying out there on 9th January 1953, although I have no memory of his departure.
For my mum and I to follow later must have been quite an ordeal for her. Having to let the house, to think of all the things we would need for our sea passage and to also pack for two and a half years away in a hot and distant land. Did service wives get some sort of briefing in order to be able to prepare them for what was to come?
I am sure that in those days, apart from the affluent few, people were not generally so well informed, or even used to travelling abroad or aware of foreign lifestyles, as we are in today’s world of routine intercontinental holiday travel.
Mum’s ordeal started with a train journey from Hastings to Southampton, probably with loads of baggage and an excited and lively young boy, who was also looking forward to his birthday in a few of days time!
On top of all that, my mum was pregnant with my sister Pat, who would be born 6 months later at the Alexandra BMH (British Military Hospital).
Having reached Southampton docks, we embarked on the Troopship “ASTURIAS” on 21st April 1953 and sailed at noon on 22nd April 1953.
I have in my “Seletar” file, a postcard of the “Asturias”, postmarked Southampton 22nd April 1953, on which my mother has written serenely to her own mother in Sheffield:
“Just a card to tell you that we are safely on board. We are sailing at 12 mid-day today, (presumably 22nd April). She’s a lovely boat and food so far very good. We had a very comfy journey down here, not a bit crowded. I am sitting on deck. The “Queen Mary” is in dock and I can see her as I am sitting here. Chris is very fit and has already found some boys to play with. Fondest love, Jean”.
My short list of recollections of that voyage are as follows;
This huge ship to explore, carrying lots of service people and families, including many kids of my age.
It was my 7th birthday after we sailed and I remember my birthday tea, sitting at a big round table with other children in the huge dining area and getting my own special birthday cake.
One of my presents was a Dinky toy model of the Coronation coach and horses (Coronation Year). Where is that toy now? It would be worth a few quid!
I remember bright sunny days, the deep blue sea and the brilliant white wash from the ship as we steamed ever eastwards. Not a bit like the colour of the sea I was familiar with at home in Hastings, which was a shade of greenish grey.
I think we shared a cabin with another woman and child and in the bathroom down the alleyway we had salt-water baths and showers, followed by a quick rinse in fresh water.
There was the salty clean smell of freshly scrubbed wooden decks in the morning.
Musical requests played on the tannoy, including “The Happy Wanderer” and “Never do a tango with an Eskimo” possibly by Alma Cogan (My first childhood sweetheart)!
Our first stop on 29th April was at Port Said at the north end of the Suez Canal, followed by the canal passage and I have a vague memory of looking through our cabin porthole at the passing desert landscape.
Our next stop on 3rd May was at Aden, for bunkers. I remember all the shouting and bartering with the bumboat-men – in their flimsy craft brim full of all manner of goods – from binoculars and alarm clocks – to carpets and stuffed camels! Cash and purchases were transferred between the small boat and the purchaser, who was standing perhaps twenty or thirty feet above the water on the promenade deck, by a small open straw basket on long lengths of string. Small kids would dive into the sea from their boats to retrieve coins thrown down from the ship. A few Gully-Gully men were allowed on board to amaze passengers with their magic tricks and sleight of hand.
Whilst at sea I recall servicemen making a few bob from their fellow travellers by carefully etching elaborate designs and pictures on the back of empty, flat, dark blue tins of Players cigarettes. I also remember those round tins of Capstan cigarettes, with the clever little spike on the rim for cutting the hermetic foil seal as you twisted the lid. Those tins later made great little storage containers for bits of my Meccano set and the associated tiny nuts, washers and bolts.
Following a brief stop at Colombo on 9th May, we finally arrived at Singapore on 13th May 1953.
Dad met and collected Mum and I when we docked at Keppel Harbour – after our three and a half week passage.
He had purchased a light blue Morris Minor soft-top Reg. SC 6182. (It’s a boy thing, to remember those important details)!
For a while we lived at a large colonial style house called “The Grove”, which was divided into smaller apartment, situated at 109 Mayer Road (on the seaward side) at Tanjong Katong. This was on the south coast of Singapore island, about a mile east of the old Kalang airport and very close to the “Seaview” hotel. Our apartment at the “Grove” was on the first floor, eastern side and I think my bedroom was actually on the verandah.
One night whilst we lived there I recall that we were burgled. The thief had climbed up to our veranda and got into the apartment by passing straight by me as I slept. The only thing I remember being stolen was my Mum’s brand new sewing machine – which was eventually recovered when the culprit was later arrested.
I think I was quite badly affected by eczema for a while after arrival in the far-east and spent a short while at the Alexandra British Military Hospital. I remember being bathed in a diluted potassium permanganate solution (purple water), with a distinctive smell, just to try and ease the itching.
Back at the “Grove”, local Chinese staff must have cooked our food, because I remember frequently being served omelettes for tea, which I then hated with a passion. Instead of eating them and when I was left on my own, I would get down from the table and hide them behind a large dresser in the corner of the room. It wasn’t too many days before everyone was wondering why we were becoming over-run with ants! No one ever rumbled that it was my doing and it is only here and now that I am confessing to the deed for the first time!
Other foul tasting stuff that we kids had to endure in those days were regular spoonfuls of malt from a big brown jar and daily doses of cod liver oil.
In the evenings, and it got dark there quite early, I remember building little Airfix model cars and galleons with dad before going off to bed.
My sister, Pat, was born in 1953 at the Alexandra British Military Hospital. She was later christened at the RAF Seletar church. The reception was held back at our apartment at Tanjong Katong, on the large lawn that ran down to the sea wall. Several miles away across the sparkling water of the Singapore Straits you could see shiny silver oil storage tanks on a distant island.
At the bottom of this large grassy area was an old ‘pill-box’ gun emplacement built on stilts over the sea. The small bridge to this structure was an ideal fishing spot for me, where I used to catch tiddlers, including little puffball fish that swelled up as they were caught. This was apparently so that they could not then be swallowed by larger fish.
Just along the coast to the west and a short drive away was the wonderful Singapore Swimming Club, where I really got into swimming and the joys of the lovely warm clear water. It must have been a great place for mum and dad to relax. I remember the high diving boards, watching water polo matches and seeing films some evenings outside on a big screen across the other side of the large pool.
On other days out we would go to the Botanical Gardens or more fascinatingly, that is to a small boy, to the Tiger Balm Gardens where I remember walking amongst many montages of all kinds of horrible Chinese methods of torture, all intended to warn you of the consequences of sin!
From our arrival in Singapore, I went to the school at RAF Seletar. I was picked up in the morning, along with several other children dotted all over our area, either by a “garry”, which as many will remember was an ordinary and flat nosed 3 ton Bedford lorry, fitted with hard wooden benches in the back under a canvas roof. You had to climb the tailgate to get on board. What a hard, bumpy journey across the island that was!
Or on some days we rode in rather nice RAF coaches. These were very modern looking for the time, with a sort of upper deck just at the back half of the vehicle.
These same vehicles then took us all home again after school. I don’t recall much of the journey each day, except that I think the approach to Seletar base involved a turn off to the right from the main road from Singapore city – then a drive through a rubber plantation or a densely wooded area, before passing through the little village, (Jalan Kayu), near the main gate.
I think school hours were from about 8.30 in the morning – finishing at lunchtime or very early afternoon. Each day we got a bottle of milk – as all school kids did in the UK in those days. The difference was that Singapore milk was possibly not quite as tasty – because it was flavoured and coloured pink or chocolate.
School uniform for boys was a short-sleeved white shirt and khaki shorts, whilst girls wore green and white gingham pattern dresses. All children were given a small enamelled RAF Seletar school badge to pin on their uniform. I’ve still got mine.
During our time at the “Grove”, my older step-sister Betty came out to join us during her school holidays. She flew aboard a “York” aircraft into RAF Changi. I don’t know how long that flight took, (several days?), or how many stops were involved, but apparently it was not a pleasant flight and she suffered quite a bit from air-sickness en-route.
The Move to RAF Seletar Base
Im not sure when – but I guess perhaps a year or so after arrival – we moved into married accommodation on the base. Our new home was a small bungalow, at No 6, Hyde Park Gate.
I seem to recall that these were nice airy little houses, with a couple of rooms and a kitchen at the back for an armah, who looked after me a lot and helped Mum around the house and with cleaning and meals. Our amah was called Ah Chu – easily remembered to me as a child because it sounded like a sneeze!
The garden was a nice size, room to kick a ball about and contained some strange plants. Apart from the brilliantly colourful bougainvillaea and fragrant frangipani, there were pineapples, bananas and a small plant that grew in amongst the grass on the lawn, which closed up its frondy leaves if you touched it. Some keen gardener here will be able to put an official name to it but we knew it as “Touch-me-not” grass.
Rubber trees were everywhere in those days and a small rubber tree plantation was situated just across the road, where I remember watching the rubber tappers at work, cutting another thin diagonal groove in the bark, after which the white sap (latex) would slowly dribble down into a small cup, attached to the trunk of the tree.
One day when out playing, I must have wandered a bit too near the main runway because when my father got home he gave me a right lathering and I was grounded for a while. All of which I thought was a bit unfair as I only wanted to watch the aircraft doing their stuff.
Other RAF families that I recall were the Bains, who lived across the road from us and had a daughter called Anita. Also a couple called Sandy & Margaret Gears. They were both short jovial people and he sported a wide ginger moustache. Sandy now a widower, lives in Poole and we have been in touch.
The Seletar base had a great swimming pool, which I thoroughly enjoyed, gaining a couple of swimming certificates of which I was very proud.
I also joined the RAF base Wolf Cub pack. Didn’t have much choice as Dad had been a very keen Scout as a boy and this would therefore be a good introduction for me. He probably wasn’t best pleased when several years later I was thrown out of the Scouts for getting caught playing “splits” with knives with another boy!
I then joined the Sea Cadets and started messing about in boats, which later developed into a career at sea with the Royal Fleet Auxiliary or RFA. All the right initials but possibly not in the right order for Seletar Association members! This were the fleet of tankers and store ships that looked after the Navy at sea, providing warship and the crews with their every need. That consisted basically of fuel and lube oil, beer and potatoes!
At some period during our Singapore period, the family had a short holiday in Hong Kong. We sailed there once again on the “ASTURIAS”, staying at a hotel or apartment in Kowloon, on the mainland. I remember trips on the “Star” ferries to and from Hong Kong island. We had a ride up the funicular railway up the steep incline to “The Peak” viewpoint. We also went to a floating restaurant in Aberdeen Harbour and swimming in Repulse Bay with a shark net barrier. (Probably to protect the sharks from my wild antics!).
We returned to Singapore by air, flying facing backwards, (except for the pilot I presume), in a Dakota from Kai Tak airport, stopping overnight in the Philippines.
In September 1954 we had another short holiday, driving up through Malaya in an armed convoy, (because of bandit activity), to the coastal town of Malacca.
Other random boyhood memories of daily Singapore life include the afternoon rain, deep monsoon ditches, “Flit” fly-killer guns and green coils of slow burning “Tiger Balm” mosquito repellent.
I also recall a “Sports Day” on the playing fields. Apart from the sporting activities there were several side-shows and attractions. There was a little train, probably made from a few modified bomb trolleys, pulled around the sports field by a small tractor. My dad’s unit had rigged up a rope slide from one of the trees, under which was suspended a small wooden scratch-built aircraft. Kids, including me, would be lifted into the plane and hauled backwards up to the tree and the top of the slide. On a signal from someone, the rope was released and the plane “flew” several yards back down to the ground, carrying one very happy junior pilot!
I don’t know the date, but towards the end of our time in Singapore, we went to see the grand opening of the brand new commercial airport at Paya Leber. Lots of pomp and ceremony, with marching bands and rows of large airliners parked up by the runway. The Super Constellation was one I particularly remember because of its triple tail fin. I think another was called a Stratocruiser, and had a distinctively large un-streamlined and glassed bulbous profile at the forward end.
The Journey Home.
In September 1957, our time was up and the family came home together on the troopship “EMPIRE ORWELL”. Once again – this was a great adventure as far as I was concerned. The “Orwell” had not just one large buff coloured funnel like the “ASTURIAS”, but two, and seemed higher out of the water.
I was now 9 years old and on the passage home, and against my better judgement, dad thought I was big enough and ugly enough to be entered for the boys boxing competition. With great naivety and absolutely no training I didn’t get very far and found it rather an un-enjoyable experience.
There were the usual events to help pass the time on this three to four weeks of fun. There were fancy dress parties for the so-call grown ups. I remember seeing “The Wild Man of Borneo” in a wooden cage, lots of pirates, (of which my dad was one), and I shook hands with a remarkable likeness of King Farouk.
On 12th September, as we crossed the Indian Ocean, there was a children’s tea party on the open deck, with lots of jelly and mayhem!
And don’t forget the daily wager on guessing the “Day’s Run”, the distance that the ship had travelled during the past 24 hours, from noon to noon.
On the route back we had to divert and call in to Malta on a particularly rough and windy day, apparently to land someone who was very ill. I remember seeing the ship get blown very close to the breakwater at the entrance to Grand Harbour. Anyway, the transfer of the person was achieved safely and we continued our passage home.
Like all good things, it had to come to an end and did so on arrival back at Southampton on 29th September and disembarking on 30th September 1955.
A train journey back to the family home at Hastings probably brought us all back to reality with a bump. I joined the local Junior School, made new friends and the rest, as they say is history.
Singapore was and still is such a magical island, and for those who are privileged to have spent some time there, the memories will linger forever.
I was fortunate enough to revisit the island a few times during my seagoing career with the Royal Fleet Auxiliary in the 1960’s and 70’s. Approaching the Malay peninsular – and the top of the Malacca Straits from across the Indian Ocean, one could detect the distinctive aroma of the tropical vegetation, a long time before land became visible.
To get to the Naval Base via the Jahore Straits you had to sail past RAF Seletar. I was fascinated to see the base then – flying “Lightnings” – and guarded by a battery of “Bloodhound” surface to air missiles lined up in a defensive row along the coastline.
My wife Bev and I have been fortunate to visit Singapore again, with the Seletar Association, both in 2007 and 2009. I also went with the RAFSA group in 2011 and 2013. It was a new and fascinating experience for Bev and for me it was a scintillating trip down memory lane and not to be missed if at all possible.
I realised that nothing these days be as I remember it, but none the less, taking the opportunity of a trip to Singapore was a truly wonderful experience. With Kuan Joo’s local knowledge and his wealth of contacts, we saw and experienced so much that would not be available on the usual tourist trails.
Note :- Chris is the current Chairman of The RAF Seletar Assosiation.