After a short period we left for Kuala Lumpur, leaving Ah King and family to remain in Singapore until we found a house. At first we stayed at the Station Hotel, and while Budge house hunted, I went daily by train to Port Swettenham to make preparations to get the work started. Port Swettenham was then a small village on a creek surrounded by mangrove swamps, and the tidal range of the creek was about 16 feet, so that a lot of the village houses were wooden, and built on “bakau” piles a tree with the peculiar property of being practically everlasting when under water, but rotting within a few weeks if dry . There were no shops, except the Malay and Chinese stalls, and the nearest town was Klang, and a pretty miserable town it was. We had decided therefore to remain in Kuala Lumpur, where we had some friends, and where Budge could occupy herself while I was at work. With the help of these friends she found a Chinese owned wooden house on the Ampang Road, backing on to a tin mine on the outskirts of the town, and we decided to rent it until we could find something better. It was reasonably comfortable, had a garden, and although not as modern as our Singapore house, was bearable, and the climate in K.L. was much more agreeable.
We spent some months in K.L.and I went to the work most days by train, sometimes by car. The work was fairly straightforward with very long, reinforced concrete piles being driven into the deep mud of the river estuary until the required set was achieved; that is to say that the pile would not penetrate more than a predetermined distance in 10 blows of the three ton steam hammer. The main difficulty, as far as I can recall was dealing with the railway representative on site, who, while he knew nothing of civil engineering, felt it necessary to justify his position on the work. His normal job on the railway, I learned was a traffic superintendent, and he was a most difficult man to deal with, the reason I suspect, for banishing him to Port Swettenham.
After a few months of this work, a lot of it was getting repetitious, and a visit from me once or twice a week, was usually sufficient to keep it going smoothly, so, on one of my visits to Singapore, I asked for additional work to keep me busy, and in due course an enormous bundle of specifications and drawings arrived for a tender to be made for underground fuel storage tanks at Port Dickson for the R.A.F. The war had been going on for a year or so by this time, and, although in Malaya we were comparatively unaffected by it, it meant that works for defence purposes got top priority, and were wanted as soon as possible. With the drawings was a letter from Gammons asking me to draw up a tender and submit it as soon as possible. We did not employ Quantity Surveyors, so that I had to do all this myself, before I could begin to calculate costs, and so I had a few weeks of concentrated desk work before I was able to send the draft tender to our head office for checking and submission to R.A.F. Works Dept. In due course we were awarded the contract; I cannot recall the exact figure it would cost but it was for several million Singapore dollars and the work was estimated to last about two years.
I was to be in charge of the contract, so once again this meant moving house to Port Dickson. We were delighted, as P.D. was a delightful little seaside village, a favoured holiday place, as one or two firms , the railways,and the government had rest houses there, and there were miles of unspoilt beaches. It was also the site of the headquarters of the Malay Regiment which had British officers. By this time Budge was pregnant again, but not advanced enough to make it unwise to move, and we knew that there was a very good English woman doctor living there,by name of Dr. Kibble.
We moved as soon as we could, and to begin with lived in a bungalow over- looking the sea about seven miles south of P.D. while I started preparations for the work, and also applied for planning permission to build a bungalow, in Gammon’s name, for us to live in. This stirred up a hornets nest of petty bureaucrats,who for no valid reason, did not wish to give us a licence to build, and it took many months of arguing, until finally we got the R.A.F.to intercede using emergency regulations, and we got the licence. Bureaucrats of this kind permeated the Singapore and Malayan Civil Service and continued with their obstructive tactics in every way, completely oblivious of the fact that there was a war on.
The first job to do, before the work could commence, was to clear the site, and we did this by stretching a heavy steel cable between two large D8 Caterpillar tractors and driving them along about twenty yards apart, so that the rubber trees were pulled over, and left to be cut up by hand. It was a most satisfying occupation, and I, and even Budge, occasionally took the place of the tractor drivers.
After this was done we scraped out enormous deep holes, using large Le Tourneau scrapers, laid concrete foundations, and then assembled long steel tanks on to the foundations, which we covered with about 500 m/m of concrete. Back went all the excavated material on top then another meter of concrete, all to be completely covered with more earth, on which eventually trees were to be planted. All this was of course a complete waste of time as it turned out, for the Japanese invaded and captured the whole of the Malay Peninsula before the work was finished.
Budge worked as my secretary, unpaid, in the bamboo thatched hut that was my office as long as she was able to, but her pregnancy was progressing well, and soon the time came for Dr.Kibble to take her into her own house for the birth. We had engaged another Chinese young woman to be nurse for the first few weeks, and shortly Caroline Susan was born; September 10th 1941 being the red letter day, and after a bit Budge and the baby returned to our bungalow, which by now had been built.
Three months later the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour, and we in Malaya were in the forefront of the war. To begin with we all thought that Malaya and Singapore were so well defended that any attempted Japanese invasion would easily be repelled, and this sense of security was enhanced when the battleships Prince of Wales and Repulse arrived and sailed up the East coast to repel any attempt by the Japanese to land on the north of the peninsula. This sense of security lasted only a few hours, and I remember turning on the radio one evening and hearing the B.B.C. announce in an unemotional tone that both battleships had been sunk by enemy aircraft. It was devastating and we all suddenly realised that there was no chance at all of stopping an invasion,and that the only hope was that the enemy could be stopped on their way down the peninsula, which was for the most part thick jungle with few roads leading south.
It was not very long before we heard that the Japanese had landed in the north at Kota Baru in spite of resistance, and, as time went on, it was clear that they were coming south, although having to fight all the way. Lack of roads did not bother them as they did not rely on tanks or road transport, but came on down in small parties on foot or bicycle, got behind our defensive positions, and then attacked from all sides, and it seemed that nothing would stop them until they reached the Johore Straits separating Malaya from Singapore. By this time they had complete air superiority, our pre-war planes being no match for their Zeros.
Naturally I was getting very worried about the safety of Budge and Sue, or Piglet as she was then known, and with great difficulty persuaded Budge that they both should go to Singapore which even then we thought was impregnable. It was only Sue’s presence that convinced Budge that this was the sensible thing to do, and so I one day drove them both there, and after a day or so returned to Port Dickson. The new amah decided that she would return to her family. Budge first of all stayed with the Ransomes in their house in the Hospital grounds, and meanwhile arranged for us to get our own house back from the tenants who had taken it.
I remained on in Port Dickson for a further period of some weeks,still getting on with the contract, but gradually the labour force was disappearing, as the Japanese got nearer. There never had been many Europeans near P.D., just a few rubber planters, whom we rarely saw, and who, for the most part had been called up to the Volunteers, the Police Commissioner named Jack Masefield and his wife Veronica, or “Big” as Budge irreverently called her, as she was rather large, and the Customs Official named Darby and his mother. We knew these well and what little social life there was centred on them. Veronica and her baby had already left before Budge, as also had Mrs. Darby who had returned to England, and soon only I and Jack Masefield were left in the area which was looking increasingly deserted. Then one evening, Jack called on me and told me that he had been warned to get ready to leave, and that I too should do so. We could already hear heavy gunfire, and rumours were abounding that the Japs were already infiltrating south of us, so neither of us was insisting on staying. Next morning, when I woke, I saw a large amount of smoke in the direction of Port Dickson village, and, on going in my car to investigate, saw that the Masefield house was ablaze, and of course, realised that Jack had set fire to it and gone. I returned quickly home; loaded up what possessions I could into our works lorry; put Ah King into it with whoever else of our dwindled staff wanted to leave; took Amah and the two small children with me in the Morris 8 and departed at speed. I had been warned that there were robbers on the road south taking advantage of the chaos to stage hold ups, but Darby had given me a revolver, so I felt safe, and in fact we met with no such trouble. However, some way south of Malacca, a flight of Jap planes came over the road, and we all got out and dashed for the ditch, and the bombs fell harmlessly in the jungle. The rest of the journey was without incident, and it was with great relief that we finally rolled over the Johore Causeway to safety as we thought.