HMS Giang Bee
Sunk by Japanese destroyer on 13th February 1942
[Version 1.4.2; May 2011]
The “HMS Giang Bee”, a Chinese-owned coastal steamer requisitioned and used as a patrol vessel, left Singapore Harbour – according to a statement made by a number of those who were on board – at either 9 p.m. (ASD) or 10 p.m. on Thursday 12th February 1942. Although Captain Lancaster, in command of the ship, initially refused to take civilian passengers because he saw the dangers attached to a ship designated as a warship, she was loaded with up to 300 refugees ( one survivor, Gordon Reis believed there to be 350 people on board) who were mostly women, children and the elderly. All her Malay crew had been ordered ashore in Singapore before she left, so that the crew consisted of a few Chinese crew members, a handful of RNVR personnel and some passengers who volunteered to be stokers etc.
She was bombed and suffered damage during the day of 13th February, and in the evening, after a long stand-off with a Japanese destroyer, she was shelled and sunk in the Banka Strait. There had never been enough lifeboats for all those on board, and two of the four lifeboats had been seriously damaged by the day’s bombing. Due to this and the speed with which the ship sank, a large number of lives were lost.
Whilst there appears to have initially been an attempt by the Japanese to handle the surrender of the ship in a somewhat civilised manner, in the final event the Japanese warships showed no humanity or decency when they were in full knowledge that the ship contained civilians and a huge number of women and children. In a wartime situation at sea it may be understandable they did not stop and pick up survivors, but to leave without even jettisoning flotation devices for the women and children shows a complete lack of human values.
The “Giang Bee” (1646 tonnes) had been built in Rotterdam in 1908 and was originally named the “Reijnierz”. In 1939 she had been sold to the Heap Eng Moh SS Co and renamed “Giang Bee”. Having been a cargo ship there were no passenger cabins, little deck space, but plenty of room in the holds (ASD).She had four lifeboats – each could carry 32 people. Throughout this document she will be noted as the “GB”. In April 1941 the she was requisitioned into naval service. She carried a four inch gun and depth charges (ST).
The Giang Bee had been busy in the few weeks before her final departure from Singapore. On the 29th January she rescued eight survivors form the H.M.S. Thanet, a destroyer which had been sunk three days previously when attacked by a Japanese light cruiser, three destroyers and a minesweeper. The following day, she picked up a mixed party of 56 British troops: fifty-four from the Thanet and two R.A.F. pilots who had been picked up by the Thanet’s boat.
Whilst many of the people who boarded the ship on that night of the 12 th February were simply individuals desperate to leave a bombed, burning and shattered Singapore, there were strong social dynamics at work amongst the flood of people who had crowded into Singapore in the previous month. This had resulted in groups of friends, extended families and company employees working together to survive and escape by means of staying in groups they trusted and loved.
Amongst those on the “GB’ were several large extended family groups, most notably the Boswells, Schoolings, Dumbletons, Collins, van Burens and van Geysels; senior women from the Malaya YWCA and the Singapore YWCA; people who knew each other through the Singapore Recreation Club; a group of professional jockeys and trainers from the Singapore Turf Club and Malayan racecourses, ten employees of the Ministry of Information and the remaining ‘skeleton’ staff of the Malayan Broadcasting Corporation and a number of newspaper men. Staff from William Jacks & Co. (Malaya) Ltd. and several partners from the Penang law firm Lean & Co. Many planters and miners were aboard.
For reasons yet to be answered in this research, it is noticeable that several the very last few ships to leave Singapore had a very large proportion of Eurasians amongst their civilian passengers. The question has to be asked whether Eurasians were having even more trouble than the British families during January and February 1942 getting the elusive ‘tickets’ from the P & O representative or the few thousand official passes issued by the military/government authorities in the last few days.
The “GB” was one of approximately 44 – 47 ships that left Singapore in loose convoy formation during the 12th and 13th of February – tragically the “GB” was to be one of the 40 or so of these little ships which never made it to safety. It seems that only three of four ships successfully made port in Batavia a few days later.
The excellent books “Sinister Twilight” by Noel Barber and “Singapore’s Dunkirk” by Geoffrey Brooke give good accounts of the last hours of the GB and they have been used to create much of the following summary.
There were repeated air attacks during the day of the 13th February 1942 – one passenger (ASD) records “…the Japanese planes came over in waves. We were fortunate the first time they unloaded their bombs but when the came back again after 1 p.m. they made a direct hit and caused damage to the engine room. There were several fatalities. I did not even realise that I had been hit in the back by shrapnel in six places. These incidentally were removed a few weeks later…” (ASD) . At about 6 p.m. on that day and when about 170 miles south of Singapore Japanese warships suddenly appeared over the horizon and fired a warning shot across the bows (ASD) ; Captain Lancaster (most sensibly in the eyes of this researcher) ordered the White Ensign to be lowered and also that all women and children should show themselves on deck. He also ordered the crew to throw their weapons into the sea (WFTD p 42)
Two Japanese destroyers approached the GB at high speed, one of them signalling in incomprehensible Morse code, and stopped within half a mile of the GB when one of them sent a launch towards the GB. It was within a hundred and fifty yards of the GB when an RAF or Dutch bomber (Anna Silberman and Gordon Reis in their diaries state there were two bombers) from Sumatra suddenly appeared and began circling overhead; the Japanese destroyers opened fire, the bomber (s) flew off, and the Japanese recalled their launch.
Then followed a long uneasy wait that continued as (is the case in the Tropics) dusk quickly turned into the pitch black of night, when the destroyers then trained their searchlights on the GB. Note: sunset in that area is about 7.20pm at which time it would have been dark.
At about 7.30pm Captain Lancaster ( it appears after an instruction signalled by the Japanese for the ship to be abandoned) ordered all women and children to take to the lifeboats – 50 or so in each boat – and a strong tidal current soon swept the lifeboats astern of the GB. It was during this part of the events that earlier air raid damage was revealed – damaged lowering ropes on one lifeboat parted as it was being lowered into the sea and it spilled its passengers into the darkness of the ocean; the second lifeboat was lowered into the sea but it had been holed by bomb splinters and soon began taking water and sank.
This was where it appears that at least half of the women, children and men missing from the “Giang Bee” lost their lives and two survivors recorded in anguish the moment as one of horror – firstly Mr. M. J. V. Miller in his diary ( IWM 88/62/1 ) recalled “…I shall never forget that as long as I live, and the sound of little children calling out for their mothers will be forever in my ears, it was simply heartrending…” and also in the diary of Gordon Reis “…when I got into our lifeboat the screams for help were appalling – mostly women’s voices – obviously from the damaged lifeboats and now struggling in the sea…”. When researching this document it became apparent that the vast majority of the women and children listed in the following pages as lost in this awful attack on the “GB” would have been the first people ordered onto the first two lifeboats and would have drowned that night in the sea. Some other women refused to leave their wounded husbands behind on board the ship and would have lost their lives in the sinking.
Two further lifeboats successfully launched with about 100 people in them combined.
When the last lifeboat had been cast off there were still about 100 people on board, so the Captain sent the 13 foot harbour dinghy with Rob Scott and three others to try and make contact with the destroyers.
Regrettably the destroyers kept manoeuvring away from the dinghy so this effort failed.
One of the destroyers then apparently signalled for the ‘GB’ to be abandoned because they were intending to sink her.
At about this point many of those still on board took to the sea (GBIR).
Then about 21.30 pm one destroyer fired six shells into the GB which caught fire, glowed red from stem to stern and sank within a few minutes. “…Terrified figures could be seen jumping from the target’s deck, soon ablaze from end to end…” (SDGB).
The destroyers then left with several hundred women, children and men struggling and drowning in the sea.
It seems that most the officers and crew died either on board as the ship went down or after taking to the sea in the darkness without a boat or raft. With them went a number of wounded men on the decks or sheltering in the cabins and bunkers.
“…In one lifeboat [that successfully launched] 56 persons reached land at Djaboes, Bangka Island, whilst the second lifeboat with 42 persons reached the coast of Sumatra. Fifteen occupants of the latter boat were brought to Muntok in “HMS Tapah”, seven made their way to Palembang, and five Chinese whose names are not known…” (NIRC).”;
In the book “Waiting for the Durian” it is recorded that there were about seventy people in the second lifeboat including stowaways under the floorboards. They were galley staff from the ship (p. 58) who left the passengers once the lifeboat made landfall (p. 63).
Anna Silberman’s diary records that there were 47 people in the aforementioned second successful lifeboat launch “… 9 women and two children, the rest were men of different nationalities, including 4 Chinese crew members. We had no competent navigator so roamed the seas for 5 days with a meagre ration of a biscuit per person and a little water. We eventually landed on a mangrove swamp, no habitation, nothing but brackish water and a beach infested with sandflies. We did not dare light a fire in case the smoke would be visible by the enemy. On February 20th we saw smoke in the distance and after some frantic waving it turned out to be a British Minesweeper “HMS Tapah”… A boat was sent to pick us up and it was hoped to take us safely to Batavia… Unfortunately about midnight searchlights played on our ship … and until 2 a.m. we were unaware that we were being escorted by the Japanese Navy. Naval guards rushed aboard and we learnt we had been brought to Muntok, the main town of Banka Island… we were herded along a pier to a cinema hall and found it crowded with at least 1,000 male survivors from the various ships that got away too late…” (ASD)
Again insofar as the occupants of the second successful lifeboat launch who did not board the “HMS Tapah”, “…Fifteen survivors tried to reach Java in a ships lifeboat including Hugh Morton, in charge, second engineer “HMS Lipis” , Rae, naval rating ; V. R. Tretchikoff, Warren Publicity Co., Singapore; Miss Hicks(sic) W. YWCA worker; Miss Brickman (sic) YWCA worker… “ (Record compiled by the Netherlands Indies Red Cross).
Rob Scott’s dinghy picked up a few survivors and, after five days at sea, finally reached the coast of Sumatra – he was interned and later sent back to Singapore to be interrogated and tortured. Later to be knighted as Sir Robert Scott and, post war, a Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Defence he wrote a detailed account of this whole ordeal.
Almost all the survivors ended up in either the men’s internment camp or the women’s internment camp at Palembang – one record states 23 men were interned in the men’s camp at Palembang and 47 women and children in the women’s camp. According to the Straits Times of 24.6.45, the death rate for the migratory camp which began in Muntok and moved to Palembang, back to Banka Island and then to Loembok Linggau was astonishingly high: “…55% of the men died and 33% of the women and children.”
From the approximately 300 people on board there were just over 100 survivors of the sinking. The Netherlands-Indies Red Cross in 1943 at the Palembang internment camp compiled a list (with survivors signing as witnesses) of 104 people who were rescued. This list is carefully witnessed and signed by multiple survivors for each entry.
This researched passenger list document that follows has identified some 250 people who were on board leaving at least 50 people to be accounted for – interestingly in this context, because only Gordon Reis (a survivor who later died in Muntok internment camp) has mentioned it in his diary there seem to have been unauthorised Army personnel on board . This may explain some of the unaccounted passengers, because all records seem to have been made by civilians who knew or recognised other residents of Malaya and Singapore. Army personnel would have been unknown to the civilian groups and may have been shunned by them as well. Specifically, Gordon Reis states in his diary “…I think we had a large number of deserters aboard from the Army in particular…”
This record has been prepared with the respectful objective of an honest memorial to the women, children and men who lost their lives that night. Original wording has been left unaltered in the interests of a realistic memorial to their suffering. To sanitise the descriptions of the events would, in the view of the researchers, somehow allow the perpetrators to avoid the dishonour of their callousness - which was unwarranted even in time of War.
If any readers of this document have any corrections, additions or comments of the content such information would be welcomed. Please email either Becca Kenneison in the U.K. (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Michael Pether in Auckland, New Zealand (email@example.com) with your feedback.
- ASD = Diary/ memoir of Anna Silberman
- BPPL = the remarkable document created by a Changi internee , Mr. J. Bennett, by microscopic writing on 18 pages of ‘Jeyes ‘toilet paper which contained the names and last known existence of several thousand men . Now held in the United Kingdom National Archives.
- CWGC = the website database of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
- GBL = handwritten list of names headed “Giang Bee” (p.31) at PRO
- LOPBGB = List of Persons believed to be on “GB” held at the UK National Archives.
- MVDB = database researched and compiled by John Brown of the United Kingdom, comprising the vast majority of men who were in the FMSVF, SSVF, MRNVR, MVAF etc at the time of the invasion of Malaya by the Japanese.
- MVG = list of evacuees researched by author and Malayan researcher, Jonathan Moffatt, available on Malayan Volunteers Group website
- NIRC = typewritten document prepared by the Netherlands – Indies Red Cross at Palembang in February 1943 where people are noted as having been last seen on the “GB” and each entry signed as witnessed by specific survivors; also records a summary of events as known to survivors at that point. Held at IWM.
- SDGB = book “Singapore’s Dunkirk” by Geoffrey Brooke, ISBN 0-85052-051-7, first published 1989 by Leo Cooper.
- ST = book “Sinister Twilight” by Noel Barber , published by Readers Union Collins 1968
- STA = the on line archives of the “Straits Times” and many other newspapers of Singapore and Malaya available on the website newspapers.nl.sg managed by the Singapore National Library
- WBTW = book “Women Beyond the Wire” by Lavinia Warner and John Sandiland
- WFTD = the book “Waiting for the Durian” by Susan McCabe, being the story of the Woodford family during these event