The MONAB Story

A history of the mobile airfields of the Royal Navy



Mobile Naval Air Base No. IX

 

Assembly and commissioning in the UK

Personnel and equipment for Mobile Naval Air Base IXI began to assemble on June 1st 1945 at RNAS Middle Wallop, Hampshire. It was to assemble as the second Fighter Support MONAB, essentially no different from a standard MONAB which would support both fighters and torpedo bombers, its scale of issue excluded tools and spares for non-fighter aircraft types.

The unit was allocated the following components which were to cater for all fighter types in use by the RN in the Pacific theatre:

Mobile Maintenance unit (MM) No. 8 supporting Corsair Mk. II & IV, Seafire Mk. L.III & XV
Maintenance Servicing unit (MS) No. 15 supporting Hellcat Mk. II
Maintenance Servicing unit (MS) No. 16 supporting Firefly Mk.I ?I
Maintenance, Storage & Reserve (MSR) No. 10 supporting - believed to be Corsair Mk. II & IV, Firefly Mk. I, Hellcat Mk. II, Seafire Mk. III & L.III  (it is believed that this unit did sail with, and was attached to MONAB IX)

Like the two units before it, MONAB IX storing was done under the new system for the handling of unit stores; instead of all stores being delivered to the formation base to be checked, repacked and labelled ready for despatch overseas, everything was consigned directly to the port of embarkation from the store depots saving unnecessary transport and handling of store cases. It is not known if a trial installation was undertaken by this unit. The transport and specialist vehicles for both MONAB IX and MSR 10 were despatched to Liverpool Docks on July 20th.

MONAB IXI Commissioned as an independent command bearing the ship's name HMS NABROCK on August 1st 1945, Captain J.S.C. Salter D.S.C, O.B.E, in command. Under normal circumstances a MONAB would sail three weeks after commissioning, but the surrender of Japan on August 15th caused the Admiralty to take stock of MONAB operations; as a result, the departure of MONAB IX and MSR 10 was delayed by one week. During this time many personnel were sent on short home leave beginning on VJ Day. 

Despatch overseas

The personnel of MONAB IX & MSR 10 arrived at Prince's Dock, Liverpool by train and embarked in the Troopship DOMINION MONARCH, she sailed the following day for Sydney, Australia via the Suez Canal. The DOMINION MONARCH made a fast passage, calling only at Port Said on September 8th to enter the Canal, and at Port Suez, on exiting the canal on the 9th, she them proceeded directly to Sydney arriving there on September 27th. However, only a small percentage of the MONAB IX complement, an advance party, was disembarked, the remainder stayed onboard and the ship sailed the next day for New Zealand. She arrived at Wellington on the 30th to disembark her main passengers, Maori POW's, who had been taken prisoner on Crete and interned in Germany, with their escort of New Zealand nurses who accompanied them. She called at Christchurch on October 2nd to disembark further ex-POWs before sailing for Sydney, arriving there on October 4th. Details of the Sea Transport vessel carrying the unit’s stores and equipment are not known, however sailing records august this was the SS SAMALNESS (7,176 GRT) which sailed from Liverpool on September 22nd 1945 taking passage via the Suez Canal for Sydney, she was redirected to Singapore while on passage and arrived at Singapore on November 8th 1945.

HMT DOMINION MONARCH

The Troopship DOMINION MONARCH docked at Dalgety's wharf, Millers Point, Sydney, New South Wales c.early Oct 1945.

The remaining personnel of HMS NABROCK were to remain onboard the DOMINION MONARCH which docked at Dalgety's wharf, Millers Point. They were to spend the next two weeks with no duties to perform, only a skeleton watch was kept aboard ship, the rest of the personnel had leave to spend their time ashore.

The decision had been taken that the unit should be deployed in the same manner as MONAB VIII and would re-open the airfield at Sembawang on the Island of Singapore. The unit personnel had been divided into four groups for the move to Singapore; The personnel that had disembarked on September 27th had formed three advance parties which were to travel by RAF Dakota transport planes via Moratai, in the Dutch East Indies in three phases. The remaining group, comprising of the main body of the unit was to travel by sea; they were to leave the DOMINION MONARCH and embarked in the Australian Troopship LARGS BAY for passage, embarking on October 17th.

The LARGS BAY was a vintage trooper, having been in service during World War 1, and the years had not been kind to her. Her last voyage been had to transport former POWs from Singapore, home to Australia and the ship had not been checked for infestations before MONAB IX embarked; The members of the main party were plagued by vermin from the moment they embarked. This was so bad fumigation was ordered when she docked at Port Darwin on the 24th before resuming passage for Singapore on the 26th.

Commissioned at RNAS Sembawang, Singapore

Following the Japanese surrender in the former British colony of Singapore on September 4th (Operation TIDERACE) The Admiralty planned to take control of the airfield at Sembawang. An advance party, under the command of Captain H.A. Traill OBE., RN, (formerly commanding Officer of the escort carrier HMS EMPRESS) arrived soon after to take control of the airfield and prepare it for reopening. They found about 90 Zero fighters on the airfield and some 700 Japanese officers and men. The station was honeycombed with tunnels and foxholes and in a state of considerable disorder. The Japanese had been working to establish a north/south runway, using British prisoners of war, and there were at least a dozen Public Works Department steam rollers abandoned on what came to be called the Jap runway.

RNAS Schofields aerial photo

RNAS Sembawang C. early1946.

Work on restoring the station to working order was started immediately and Japanese prisoners of war were employed filling in foxholes and tunnels as well as the laying of a 1,400 x 50-yard pierced steel planking runway. Mobile Naval Air Base No. IX had been allocated to provide the necessary equipment and infrastructure to operate the station and initiate naval flying and aviation support facilities for the region. The advance party of MONAB IX commissioned Royal Naval Air Station Sembawang as HMS NABROCK, on October 5th 1945. At this time the airfield was still littered with derelict aircraft and other debris left by the Japanese and clean up and repair work was still ongoing. The first aircraft arrived on the station on October 8th, these were the (3?) Sea Otters of 1700 squadron 'C' flight which had flown from RNAS Katukurunda in Ceylon for a brief detachment; they returned to Katukurunda on the 20th. The main body of personnel onboard the LARGS BAY docked in Singapore on November 1st, exactly 9 weeks to the day since the DOMINION MONARCH had left Liverpool.

One big problem that faced the men of HMS NABROCK was they were unarmed: their weapons, as well as their equipment was still at sea and they found themselves guarding large numbers of Japanese prisoners who were employed as labour on the airfield. The weapons in the Japanese armoury were found to be sabotaged, the firing pins had been broken, but they were still issued to RN sentries guarding the work parties, there was no running water and the sabotaged sanitation system was still not repaired. .

Once the unit’s equipment and stores arrived, sometime in late November, work commenced assembling crated American aircraft, many of which were Hellcats. Once assembled these new aircraft were towed by road to the nearby dockyard and embarked in aircraft carriers to be ferried out to sea and dumped overboard. This strange practice was done to comply with the terms of the Lend-Lease agreement with the United States, under which these machines were supplied. Once the war was over Britain was required to return any surviving equipment or payment was to be made for them. The Americans did not want them back as there was now a huge surplus of warplanes and Britain could not afford to pay for then, so destroying them was the solution employed. It is assumed that MSR 10 undertook this aircraft erection work since MONAB IX was not outfitted for the task.

 

Paying Off

On December 15th 1945 HMS NABROCK was paid off at RNAS Sembawang, the station re-commissioning the same day as HMS SIMBANG. Effectively the MONAB ceased to exist, however the ship's company remained unchanged and work on erecting airframes for disposal continued. The Sea otters of 1700 squadron 'C' flight arrived back on the station on this date for a second period of detached operations.

A reserve MONAB The now decommissioned MONAB IX was to be retained at Sembawang as an enhanced reserve MONAB, its name and number being deleted; however much of the specialist equipment, such as the air radio and radar workshops remained in use for several years until purpose-built facilities were established. The bulk of the MONAB equipment was held in storage on a care & maintenance basis for reactivation should it be required. Its existing components were supplemented by extra equipment and vehicles recovered from the recently paid off units in Australia. It is believed that this reserve unit was maintained in storage at Sembawang until at least the mid nineteen fifties.


 

 

HMS 'NABROCK'

Blank ship’s badge
No badge issued for this ship

 

 

Function

Fighter support MONAB providing support for disembarked front line Squadrons.

Aviation support Components

Mobile Maintenance (MM) 8

Maintenance Servicing (MS) 15 & 16

Maintenance, Storage & Resave (MSR) 10

 

Aircraft type supported

Corsair Mk. II & IV
Firefly Mk. FR.
Hellcat Mk. I & II
Seafire Mk. III, L.III & XV

Commanding Officers

Captain J.S.C. Salter DSC, OBE 01 August 1945 to 15 December 1945

 

 

 

 

Related items

R.N.A.S. Sembawang History of the airfield and other information - part of the Fleet Air Arm Bases web site

 

 

 

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Search RN Research Archive materials on-line

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The recollections of RAF Sergeant Bill Rees suggest that the ship’s company may have embarked in the Dominion Monarch before August 15th; the ship had arrived in Liverpool on August 2nd and did not sail until the 31st.

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The SAMALNESS arrived at Liverpool on August 1st 1945 from Naples, she is recorded as remaining in port until sailing for Singapore on September 22nd. The unit’s equipment was received at a marshalling yard outside Liverpool on July 21st.

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Sturtivant, R & Balance, T. (1994) 'Squadrons of the Fleet Air Arm’ list 899 squadron as conducting DLT on the Escort Carrier ARBITER on August 15th. It is possible that the usual three-day evolution was cancelled due to the announcement of the Japanese surrender on this date and was postponed for a month.

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The reminiscences of Leading Air Mechanic (Engines) Douglas 'Shorty' Heath

Douglas was drafted to RNAS Middle Wallop to join MONAB IX and recalls the passage out to Australia and on to Singapore.

Drafted to MONAB IX

I was drafted to MONAB IX from Eglinton at the end of June 1945. Off I went with my hammock, kit bag and toolbox. On to the ferry and across the Irish Sea to Stranraer. On arrival in port I found my hammock was missing from my luggage being transferred from Ferry to train. I went back to search but the train pulled away with my kitbag and toolbox. Panic stations. All I could do was head for home on the next train. As we pulled into Crewe I was amazed to see my kit on a platform trolley with a big notice on it saying, “SHORTY’S KIT”. They were a grand crowd of mates. I threw my kit into the nearest guard’s van just as the train was moving out and dived in after it. I froze. I had jumped in just out of reach of two Alsatian guard dogs. Thank God I was able to get past them when their handlers came in to collect them. They told me I was very lucky to get past them. I must have taken them by surprise. As they walked down the platform they suddenly started going mad. They had cornered a Polish Officer. He was dressed all in grey with a square topped hat and must have looked like a German to them.

After my leave I reported to RNAS Ayr north of Glasgow. They looked puzzled and sent me for some food while they sorted me out. When I returned to the guardhouse they told me I should be in Middle Wallop in Dorset. He showed me the draft chit, which stated “Circulation RNAS Ayr.” Very efficient, they had circulated me with the memo. Back on the train at Glasgow and a few hours later I am passing back through Tamworth at about 80 miles per hour. Off at Euston, on at Waterloo, and then down to Andover to finally arrive at Middle Wallop. I had joined MONAB 9.

It was explained to us that, as a MONAB, a Mobile Operational Air Base, we would be trained to take over, or create, airstrips and then to defend them. We were then to set up a base for receiving, servicing and replacing aircraft from operational units. To this end we would be generally self-sufficient. We were issued with Khaki uniform, combined ops shoulder flashes, full webbing, boots and gaiters, trained on sten guns, cooking in oil drums, boring latrines with a large auger, purifying water and surviving in a hostile environment. Crews were trained to lay emergency runways using rolled steel mesh. What with carrying a hammock, a large and a small kit bag, full webbing and packs, and a toolbox, no wonder they called me “Shorty”.

Rumours were continuously doing the rounds but all suggested that we were off to the Far East to meet the Japanese. The strongest rumour was that we were headed for Malaysia or one of the Philippine Islands. One night we were confined to camp waiting for our embarkment orders when someone suggested that we run a séance. We took the large mirror from the mess wall and placed it face up on the table with the alphabet and a set of numbers marked on. Taking a drinking glass, we all breathed in to it and put it upside down on the mirror. We all put one finger on the glass and the shipmate in charge asked it where we were going and when? The glass jerked and started moving. I tried to resist it but it continued with a mind of its own. It told us, September, and Singapore. It was weird as we were tooled up ready to go.

The next day the Atom Bomb was dropped and the Japanese were surrendering. Our draft was put on hold and we decided that we should find ways of doing a run ashore. A party of us formed up and marched through the gates as Officers Mess cleaning party. The Mess was over the road. We then doubled back towards Andover. A large Coles Crane pulled up alongside us. “Going to a breakdown Chief.” It was soon loaded with hell-bent matelots and headed for Andover. What a night. On the way back we headed out for a pub in Nether Wallop where we finished up broke and very much the worse for wear. We were all stony broke having spent all our English money as we thought we were embarking.

The following day we were told that we were being sent home pending re-planning of our schedule. Fortunately, we were given a special pay issue and while we were on leave peace was declared. Another legless celebration. By this time most of our transport, weapons and equipment had been sent to Liverpool. We duly packed and were on our way to join the Dominion Monarch at Liverpool for transit to Australia. We arrived at the docks and disembarked from the train. Walking through a building I looked for the ship but could see nothing but a massive grey wall. Then I saw a gangplank and realised that I was looking at the side of the biggest ship I had ever seen. She was the Dominion Monarch.

Passage overseas

We were allocated our mess decks and given somewhere to sling our hammocks. As we sailed down the coast, I decided that I would rather sleep on deck. It was a bit hard for the first few nights but I soon got used to it and the sea air was marvellous. I always bunked forward of the funnel but I didn’t realise that we were below the foghorns. Very early one morning we hit fog in the Bay of Biscay and the horns blasted. The sound and the vibration lifted me off the deck and I hit panic stations. I was certainly wide-awake.

We proceeded round the Rock and into the Med. It was a real luxury cruise. No fear of attack, beautiful hot weather and a swimming pool. It was heaven standing on the bows and watching the bow waves with the dolphins and flying fish racing us. Next stop the Suez Canal, where we picked up a couple of “Bumboats” one on the forward deck and one on the stern. They had soon set up their stalls and were flogging handbags and leather goods When we had to tie up alongside the bank they were swung overboard and tied us up while another ship passed. Then they were swung back on-board to continue down through the Bitter Lakes to the Red Sea.

Passing through the Red Sea we were detailed to work down in the galley where we collected boxes of frozen apples for distribution. Out of the Red Sea and round into the Indian Ocean where we were heading for the Equator and a crossing the line Ceremony. Also, on board the Monarch were a number of ex POWs on their way home for demob. Many of them were Maoris who had been classed as Neger (niggers) by the Germans and treated very badly They had been paid quite a bit of back pay and delighted in gambling. The favourite was “Tailies”. They were always looking for “bun pennies” old Queen Victoria pennies where she had her hair in a bun and her trident between her legs. These were called “Honolulu” Pennies because the Aussies said it was resting “on her lulu” These were supposed to be perfectly balanced. The Troop Commander on board was not very happy with all the gambling and tried to discipline the ANZACS. They had been through enough and were effectively demobbed. The Maoris answer was to throw him in the swimming pool. He was very quiet after that.

When it came to crossing the line Old Davey Jones held his Court and new Crossers were duly lathered, shaved and dumped in the pool.

Our mess-deck was alongside the engine room and we were used to the throbbing of the Diesels. Suddenly all was silent and we lost way. Finally, we were hove to and rolling gently. We heard banging from the engine room and were told that the Engineers were changing a piston. Suddenly the ship rolled over at an alarming angle and the crockery shot across the mess deck. We heard a loud clang and then silence. We were told later that the piston had swung and severely injured one of the Crew. We had been caught beam on by the wash of a passing ship. We sailed on across the Indian Ocean and down towards Australia, then, to the annoyance of the Aussies on board we were diverted direct to New Zealand.

We went straight up to Wellington where we had a riotous welcome escorted by what seemed to be every boat in the area. When we docked it was a Sunday and everywhere was closed. As if by magic the beer shops and dance halls were thrown open and dancing partners appeared from nowhere. We could find no Pubs but could buy as much beer as we could carry to drink off the premises. The lads were getting crates of beer and sitting on them while they supped up. In the morning the sight of such a beautiful harbour will live in my memories forever.

As we departed for the dock to head for Christchurch, we were given a “ticker tape” send off and we replied by streaming toilet rolls over the side. We were shown the picture from the local paper of the Monarch entering Wellington Harbour and the side of the vessel was covered with streams of cocoa stain where we had ditched the horrible “Kye” through the scuttles.

The Monarch headed through the straights between north and South Islands. This passage is notorious for wild weather and high seas. It certainly lived up to its reputation. Two of us were the only ones on deck holding on to a handrail and it was quite an experience watching the prow dive into the troughs between the waves with the screws out of the water. At times it was as if she would descend into the depths but she always gave a huge shudder and pointed her nose at the sky. Talk about “Ride her Cowboy” it beat any fairground ride. Once through the Straits the trip down to Christchurch was a smooth run and we disembarked the South Island ex POWs and once all had gone ashore, we sailed straightaway for Sydney.

Back at Sydney we tied up alongside in the harbour, within sight of the famous Harbour Bridge. The next day we were all mustered in the amidships area where a series of photographs were on display. They were all horror pictures about venereal decease. The one I recall most clearly was the photo inside a beautiful girl’s throat where she had a large syphilis sore. We were then mustered for a lecture by the Port Medical Officer and advised to keep away from Hyde Park and Kings Cross after dark because of all the naughty men and girls in those areas. Needless to say everyone who went ashore asked the way to these two places. Our first shore leave was at 16.00 hrs and we headed for the first pub. Imagine our surprise to find that they closed at 17.30 and the “Pub” consisted of a massive curved bar stacked with drinks. Big ones were “Schooners” and small ones “Middis”. Everyone stacked glasses for the mad half hour between finishing work and the pub closing. After sinking a couple of Schooners we headed for Hyde Park where there was the most wonderful Forces Canteen with some of the best grub we had tasted for a long time at giveaway prices.

After a few days of touring all the beautiful beaches around Sydney, we arrived on board to be told that we were being moved to another ship, the SS Largs Bay. What a shock! She had just come down from Malaya with a load of ex POWs. She was infested with fleas, cockroaches and weevils, which managed to get into most of the food. We had one veteran three badger who showed how to get rid of the roaches by putting them in his mouth and blowing them out against the bulkhead much to the disgust of some of the weaker stomached shipmates.

On this ship we worked on the traditional RN mess-deck system, with a duty cook of the Mess who prepared the food and delivered it to the galley, he then collected the food and served it at the end of the mess table. When it came to the cheese, which was always ripe, we used to all sit at the mess table with knives at the ready and jokingly shout, “unchain the cheese. If you can catch it you can have it”. I was usually finished first and ran up to the Galley for seconds. This earned me the nickname of “Shorty the mess deck runner”.

Leaving Sydney we headed for Singapore up the east coast of Australia, but first calling at Port Darwin. Unfortunately, I was on duty watch and unable to visit the port. From the reports of the shipmates who had gone ashore I didn’t miss much. It was described as a “one horse town with one dusty street and a hitching rail”. The tide rose and fell over 18 ft and when it was out, we could see the masts of a large number of wrecks sunk by the Japanese Finally we arrived in Singapore at Seletar Docks on the causeway side of the island and disembarked for Sembawang aerodrome.

Life at RNAS Sembawang

We arrived to find that there was no running water, the toilets were solid and the camp generally was in a sorry state. As we were equipped as a Mobile Naval Air Base our training came into play and our teams soon had the water flowing. (See Memoirs of RAF Sergeant Bill Rees). We also had a very good work force in the captured Japanese prisoners of war who were kept in a compound under armed guard. They were always laughing at us as our guns had not arrived and we had taken over their armoury, using their .22 rifles. We didn’t know that they had been ordered to take out all the firing pins and the rifles were useless.

When we arrived at Sembawang the advance party was already established and had taken over all the cars left by the Japanese. These had been confiscated from the local population and it wasn’t long before the original owners were establishing claims and taking them back. Finally, the only car left was a little Fiat with no engine. The marines arranged to sell this to a local contact and arranged for him to pick it up out of site of the camp at the bottom of a sloping road. They coasted it down and it was handed over for a small sum of money and a few bottles of “Cherry Brandy” and they then took off at a high rate of knots. Arriving back in camp they stored the bottles in their locker and went on duty. Unfortunately, some of the watch coming off duty found the booze and sampled it. It was pure wood alcohol and they were made very ill to the point of dying. There were rumours that one marine had died but this was never confirmed. WE were all warned NOT to drink the local booze. We were also warned not to touch the local pineapples, which looked and tasted so good. It seemed that they were grown over a moving toilet pit. A hole was dug, used as a toilet, then the toilet moved on and a pineapple planted in the hole. Our tender stomachs were soon in spasms with the “trots”.

During the attacks on Sembawang by the American Air force the hangers had been strafed and aircraft damaged. The Japanese moved our POWs into the hangers and the next time the hangers were attacked our men were in there. I was in charge of a Japanese working party on the metal roof in the middle of the day while they worked over the roof with a pot of aircraft dope and squares of aircraft fabric covering bullet holes to stop the rain coming through. I couldn’t stand the reflected heat but they carried on until the job was finished. On another occasion we had to shift some very heavy crates and were rigging up inclined planks. The Officer put six men round the crate and they all shouted something like “Sey noo” and the crate flew up onto the truck.

The Japanese aircraft left on the airfield had all been lined up, painted white and with their propellers removed. We all had souvenirs from the cockpit such as instructions in Japanese on the small brass plates. The Japanese POWs were very clever with their hands and made souvenirs such as cigarette cases from the Perspex from the aircraft. They were all scratch decorated with Geisha girls and coloured in. They also provided working parties and cleaned out our mess. One day I returned to the mess to see one POW stealing a biscuit from a mate’s locker. I shouted at him and a Japanese Officer heard. He stood the man in front of him who admitted taking the biscuit. The Officer bent right down and shot up with his elbow hitting the man under the chin and flooring him. The man bowed and stood up to attention only to be hit again. The Officer told me that this was the normal procedure and he was lucky to only take two blows.

The main duties of the ground crews were the assembly of Hellcats from boxed components. These were then flown off to aircraft carriers in the Pacific. The terms of the American Lease Lend were that all equipment must be destroyed on the cessation of hostilities. When we found later that the kites were being ditched off Australia, all of the accompanying cases were ‘liberated’ - In the these were packages containing gramophone, records and emergency rations, pilot’s watches etc. We managed to get a gramophone with a pile of 12” classical records and tins of greasy bacon, fruit and puddings that we enjoyed. but the watches always vanished long before we had a chance.

Our accommodation was in brick and concrete two story barracks with about 20 ratings to a mess. The communal heads were without a reliable water supply and were often blocked up. One day I was sitting on the “throne” when I felt something crawling up my back. I shot up and knocked a large green stick like insect to the floor. I was just about to stamp on it when an old hand told me it was a praying mantis and would make a good pet. It resided above my bunk on my mosquito net and was fed flies, which it took in its long arms and tore them down the middle. At dusk it would sit there and watch for insects such as mosquitoes, its arms would shoot out like lightning and tear the catch apart.

Although our trade was air mechanics three of us were detailed to be Chief Petty Officers messmen. This involved keeping the chiefs mess clean and fetching and serving meals from the galley, and also fetching the rum ration. This was neat rum (neaters) and we had to measure it out for the Chiefs. On the first day we issued the rum the Chief Bosun accused us of watering the rum down. We hadn’t thought of doing this so the next day we removed half a tot and topped the bottle up with water. No one noticed so we saved up till we had a half bottle of “neaters” by Christmas.

Come Christmas day we celebrated and I passed out over my dinner, face down in it. On the way back to the mess there was a wide monsoon ditch and I bet that I could jump over it. Unfortunately, I only made it half way and my hand landed on a broken bottle. I was taken to sickbay and was told I needed a stitch. The sick bay “Tiffy” told me that I was drunk and preceded to stitch, without anaesthetic. I yelled and was suddenly as sober as a Judge. We had a Christmas circus show in one of the hangers and the turn most popular was a belly dancer who was cheered to keep giving encores.

Douglas 'Shorty' Heath

‘Shorty’ later got his ‘hook and was rated Leading Naval Air Mechanic, with this came new responsibilities, he was as Leading Hand on the station swimming pool and concert hall; by this time NABROCK had become SIMBANG. He returned to the UK in 1946 on board the Cruiser HMS SUSSEX to be demobbed.

 

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The reminiscences of Sergeant Bill Rees RAF

Bill was posted to MONAB IX at Middle Wallop and on arrival in Singapore was appointed Senior Non-commissioned Officer in charge of the station workshops.

Remembering MONAB IX

Middle Wallop was a hive of activity as movement orders had already been received and the Unit's personnel were busily transferring vehicles, equipment and other stores to Prince's Dock, Liverpool, to be loaded onto two vessels- the Dominion Monarch and another ship whose name I cannot recall. Within days we were all on the move travelling via the Mid-Wales railway line to Liverpool - this was a bonus for me as we were going through my home territory, a good way to leave the UK. On arrival at Liverpool Docks, the Unit, some 500 officers and other ranks, including about fifty Royal Marines, and three RAF sergeants boarded the Dominion Monarch. We were privileged to have another contingent aboard - recently released Maori POW's, who had been taken prisoner on Crete, with their escort of New Zealand nurses who were to accompany them back home. The other vessel, loaded with our vehicles and other equipment, including most of our weapons, had already left port and was heading for Australia via the Panama Canal. We though that we were to travel the same way but, lo and behold, we were destined to go the other way - through the Suez Canal.

Off to Australia

Suddenly, the whole tone of the "expedition" now changed completely for the war with Japan was over - thank God for the Bomb. The possible threat to life and limb was over and a much happier adventure faced us as we sailed out of the Mersey. Heading eastwards the trip took on another aspect, that of a cruise, and as we made our way through the Med life became very pleasurable indeed - this was certainly the way to end one's wartime service. There were very few duties to be performed so time was mainly spent talking and playing two games that were traditional and firm favourites with the Navy - Tombola (bingo) and the ever faithful Uckers (ludo to the uninitiated). But this was ludo as I had never seen it played before. This was no child's game because it required great skill and cunning and during the course of the next few weeks, I saw many a matelot, including burly three badge stokers, fight over a move on the board - also losing a fortnight's pay along the way. This was also the time and place when firm friendships were formed and where you found your oppos for the remainder of your tour of duty with the unit. When we crossed the Equator the whole of the ship's company assembled for the traditional crossing the Line Ceremony, complete with King Neptune and his barbers. As the ship approached the Southern Hemisphere we were to experience a frightening but, at the same time, exciting occurrence. Travelling eastwards and southwards the weather became warmer and, because of the claustrophobic conditions below, I used to sleep on the weather deck. One night the violent movement of the ship awakened me and by the time I was fully conscious I began to realise that the sea was passing before my eyes. To say the least of it I was scared. Apparently, the ship had hit the tail end of a typhoon and had turned side on to a violent sea causing massive waves to break over it -awesome.

Eventually the Dominion Monarch reached New Zealand, briefly calling at Lyttleton and finally docking at Wellington. A massive flag-waving crowd, accompanied by a military band, was waiting at the quayside to meet the ship, and we learnt later that the Prime Minister of New Zealand, as well as other dignitaries, was also there. We all thought what a welcome. We should have realised that the gathering was there to welcome home the returning Maori heroes, and although it was their day, we were also made to feel welcome. It was Sunday and as was traditional at that time in New Zealand everything in the city was closed. The Prime Minister (I believe his name was Fraser) declared that places of entertainment, including the pubs, should be opened up and he invited us to be guests of the city with everything laid on. Imagine my surprise when I got into a taxi to be addressed by the driver in Welsh. We all spent a wonderful evening being treated like royalty throughout the short time we spent in that beautiful city. The ship set sail early next morning bound for Sydney.

I shall never forget my feelings when we entered the Heads leading into Sydney harbour, it was a sight that took your breath away. We docked at Dalgety's Wharf, just below the Bridge near to Central Quay, and not too far away from the city centre. We were to use the ship as a hotel for the next few weeks and it was to prove the happiest and probably one of the most enjoyable times I have ever spent in my life. With no duties to perform, only a skeleton watch was kept aboard ship whilst the rest of the personnel spent their time ashore. It was paradise as the people treated us wonderfully with warmth and respect - after leaving war-torn Britain behind we were now in heaven.

It was all over far too soon. The unit was disembarked and transferred to another ship, the Largs Bay that was to transport us to Singapore. I understand that we were intended for another destination, but I cannot vouch as to the truth of that.

Redirected to Singapore

It seems that trouble had broken out in Indonesia and rebels, under the leadership of Sukarno, were harassing the Dutch who had asked the Allies for help. As part of that help, Monab 9 was to be sent to either Java or Sumatra. If this story was true then providence was still on our side for the ship ferrying our vehicles, and particularly our weapons, was still somewhere in the Pacific so we were diverted to Singapore instead. I have always wondered whether this story was true or not. I have a sneaking feeling that it might have been so for not many of the members of the Unit would have even heard of either Java or Sumatra, or even known of their location

After the "luxury" of the Dominion Monarch the Largs Bay was a bit of a let-down - she was much smaller and older and not very clean, with living quarters that were extremely cramped. My undying memory of that ship was the fact that it was infested with bugs and lice and that everyone on board had to be deloused several times during the voyage. We cursed the previous occupants all the way to Singapore. Unfortunately, I was accommodated in the after hold situated just above the propeller shaft and, because of that, the journey along the Great Barrier Reef became a nightmare. We were blessed with a following sea that constantly lifted the propeller out of the water, causing the whole ship, particularly the after end, to vibrate violently. It was most uncomfortable, depriving us of sleep at night, and this was to continue until we turned westward towards Darwin. The ship made a brief stop at Darwin where it anchored in the bay, and we were allowed to go ashore. It was extremely hot and the whole place looked like the back-of- beyond - a real Wild West shantytown - with the harbour showing the results of previous Japanese air raids. We spent the night looking at films in a cinema that consisted solely of four corrugated iron walls with no roof - quite a change from the Odeon, but a pleasure be away from the ship. We set sail once more, I believe it was the next day, and headed for Singapore. The rest our journey was uneventful and we reached our final destination some nine weeks after leaving the UK.

I cannot recall where the ship actually docked in Singapore, but I am almost certain that it must have been at the naval dockyard because the vessel made its way through the Straits of Jahore, passing Seletar on its port side, before tying up

We made our way to the old RAF airfield at Sembawang which, with its new title of HMS Nabrock, was to become our future home base. The whole place was in a sorry state of affairs with rundown buildings and the jungle trying hard to reclaim the destitute site. Amongst it all was a large charred area. This was the site of the huts that had once housed the British POW's, and when our captain had seen the appalling conditions under which our fellow countrymen had been confined, coupled to the terrible stench emanating from them, he immediately gave orders for them to be burnt to the ground. It was now time to find somewhere to live. My four companions, and myself, found a long empty native style hut with a thatched roof, which had been built on concrete stilts and surrounded by monsoon drains. It was very long made up of several very large rooms and, being built off the ground, it allowed the air to circulate in order to keep the building cool. Although filthy dirty it was ideal for our purposes, so we purloined it and grabbed the best end room for ourselves - in time the basha would house most of the Petty Officers belonging to the unit. How were we to keep it clean? We were fortunate for we found a Malayan who had worked for the RAF before the war and who was now willing to come to work for us. His conditions were that we paid him a small wage, fed him and allowed him to sleep on the veranda of the basha - he turned out to be a Godsend.

It was now time for the ship's company to get down to serious work, and try to restore some semblance of order to the existing shambles. To help us in this arduous task was a vast army of Japanese POWs, which was divided into work gangs of approximately 50 to 100 men, each complete with one of their own officers. I was given one of these gangs with a rating to assist me - surprise, surprise we were both unarmed - and then allocated the task of trying to defeat the jungle and win back a large tract of land near the living quarters. A further shock awaited me for all one hundred turned up armed with machetes. Later, I was told that I need not have worried needlessly about being unarmed because once the Emperor had given the order to surrender his troops would become very passive and compliant. All very well in hindsight, but at the time I did not feel too comfortable. I also learned that the POWs lived on a site within the camp boundaries with neither fence nor guards. No one tried to escape because it would have been futile to do so as the local population would have been only too willing to deal with them. I was rather more fortunate than most other gang overseers were inasmuch as the officer assigned to me had lived in London before the war and could speak impeccable English. This was to prove invaluable because all instructions could be passed on immediately and acted upon promptly. All over the camp scores of similar gangs were busy at work repairing the runway and road, moving enemy aircraft that had been painted white for their surrender, and generally cleaning up the ravages of war. With time the place started to look reasonably tidy and fairly presentable, so it was time for me to move on.

All of my service life with the RAF had been spent hands on with aircraft, but it seems the Royal Navy had other ideas concerning my future. I was made NCO i/c Station Workshops, a task about which I hadn't got a clue - it was a case of a square peg in a round hole. Anyway, being young at the time, I would try anything once. I did, and thoroughly enjoyed myself.

The camp's ablutions had been sadly neglected for years and were in a terrible state of affairs so the first task for the Workshop was to get these up and running properly. The staff was a very motley bunch indeed consisting of RN personnel, Malayan tradesmen and a large number of Japanese skilled workers. By this time our equipment had arrived so we were in a better position than we had been before, but it did not include any plumbing material, particularly piping. We had to resort to using anything round and hollow, and instead of jointing them we welded them together - quite unorthodox but very effective. Thank God for the fact that the British serviceman was a past master at the art of improvisation - we had all been doing it throughout the war in order to survive.

We found and renovated, as best we could, all the old baths, toilets and hand wash basins that had been discarded all over the camp and put them back into their original places in the ablution blocks - we even made roses so that we could have the pleasure of showers. Sembawang, a peacetime RAF station, boasted a wonderful swimming pool, a luxury by any standard, but this was in a terribly neglected condition with its water pumps and other mechanical bits and pieces missing. Luckily, amongst our gear were massive mobile water pumps complete with all the necessary ancillary equipment. It did not take much persuading to get the senior officer's permission for us to use one of these to get the pool back into working order. The pump was physically manhandled over a small hillock and put in position alongside the pool which, by this time, had been cleaned out and was speck and span. An independent water supply was found hosepipes run out and connected to the pump and filters and the whole thing was ready for business. We started up the engine. It all worked perfectly, but it took quite a long time for the pool to fill and, as far as I can remember, it was ready for use before Christmas 1945. In everyone's opinion it proved to be an invaluable asset, and possibly the best addition to the station's amenities. Talking of that Christmas, I seem to remember that it was about the best that I had ever spent during those service days. Probably with all the wartime anxieties now well behind us, the good food and ample amounts of alcohol may have helped.

Life had not been all hard graft, for we spent may happy hours on "runs ashore", particularly to the city of Singapore visiting the Happy World and New World. These were indeed other times and other places, and for the majority of us it was the first occasion that we had actually met the Orient face-to-face outside the confines of the camp. We also spent time visiting the Malayan peninsular north of Johore, and from such visits gleaned a little knowledge of what life must have been like surviving in the actual jungle.

Passage home

My time with No.9 MONAB was drawing to a close for the RAF was recalling all its war service only personnel back to the UK for demobilisation. During February 1946, I do not remember the exact date I left HMS Simbang and boarded the Monarch of Bermuda in Singapore harbour. I was homeward bound, but I was leaving with some mixed feelings, for the unit I had joined so reluctantly some months ago had turned out to be an experience I would never have missed for worlds - a time of great memories and great comradeship. On route to the UK the ship made two stops, one at Bombay, India and the other at Colombo, Ceylon, picking up female personnel from all three services, many of who were in urgent need of maternity care. The remainder of the trip home was uneventful and the ship arrived back at Liverpool to tie up at Prince's Dock, the very place we had sailed from at the start of our odyssey.

 

Bill Rees

X

he reminiscences of Stores Assistant, P/MX736065 Jim Davey

Jim was drafted to RNAS Middle Wallop to join MONAB IX and recalls the passage out to Australia and on to Singapore.

Remembering MONAB IX

A was assigned to MONAB IX which commissioned as HMS Nabrock on August 1st 1945.

AWe sailed from Liverpool early November; in fact, I believe it was on 1 November but cannot swear to that now. Our ship was MV Dominion Monarch launched I believe in 1939 and pressed into war service immediately. We lost way in the Indian Ocean due to an engine breakdown. Drifted for about 24 hours before regaining power. Sailed through the Australian Bight to Wellington, North Island, New Zealand. Given shore leave for the one day then sailed to Christchurch, South Island. No shore leave at this port. From Christchurch to Sydney. We experienced some heavy weather as we progressed around NZ, believe we hit the tail end of a typhoon.

AAfter a brief stay in Sydney we were transferred to the Troop ship Largs Bay. This can only be described as a vermin infested tub. My understanding was it was launched in 1913 and it showed every day of its age. Having been used to transport former POWs from Singapore, it was in a ruinous condition. The authorities determined that fumigation was unnecessary. About 600 personnel boarded the ship and within a few hours over 300 requests to see the captain and state a complaint had been filed.

AAustralian Medical Officers came aboard and examined the specimens we had collected and determined there were no dangers organisms and we sailed on schedule. A few days later, delousing procedures were necessary.

AWe proceeded within the Great Barrier Reef to Port Darwin. Given a day ashore we found ourselves surprised by the tides which rose about 20 feet between the time we went ashore and the time we returned to ship. The town had been evacuated because of Japanese bombing and the only civilians I saw were 3 aborigines. From Port Darwin we sailed to Singapore Island. We were apparently the last group to arrive at Sembawang airfield. I found men I had trained with there ahead of me.

AOn December 15th 1945 we recommissioned as HMS Simbang.

 

Jim Davey