Escape from Singapore

Author: Brig Jasbir Singh, SM,

Lancer Publishers & Distributors, New Delhi,149 pages; Rs 295.00, ISBN 1-935501-20-8.

Brig Jasbir Singh, SM - Jas to his family and friends, is the second generation officer of the erstwhile 4/19 Hyderabad Regiment now 4 KUMAON that has over 222 years of chequered history. It’s a matter of pride, that both late Brig Balbir Singh, MC and his son Brig Jasbir Singh, SM have been illustrious, war veterans and decorated officers of this ‘GREAT PALTAN of the Indian Army.

The sketch on the cover jacket of the book drawn by Jasbir, like other similar illustrations in his book(s), highlights the story of escape of his father Capt Balbir Singh (later Brig), Capt GR Parab (later Col) and Capt Prtiam Singh (later Brig) from POW Camp in Singapore on 4 May 1942. While the Author’s Note and Prologue  vividly describe 4/19 Hyderabad Regiment’s valiant history, in the Chapter Operations in Malaya and Singapore, the author has described the terrain and various rear guard actions that were fought in adverse weather conditions by 4/19 Hyderabad Regiment till the fall of Singapore. The book lucidly unfolds the untold story of escape of these three officers - his father Capt Balbir Singh, Capt GS Parab (both of 4/19 Hyderabad Regiment) and Capt Pritam Singh (commissioned in 4/19 Hyderabad Regiment but in 3/16 Punjab Regiment at the time of escape) as Japanese prisoners of war (PsOW) after the unconditional surrender on 15 February 1942 of the Allied forces Singapore garrison of 70,000 men with remnants of 4/19 Hyderabad Regiment. The book is based on sketchy details about their escape as Balbir rarely spoke about their escape to family or friends, the lecture ‘Escape from Singapore’ that he delivered in the Staff College, Quetta in 1944, some articles written by him in the Regimental journal and 35 years later in 1977, Jasbir’s trip to Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand generally following the route the three escapees took in 1942 and piecing together valuable details 58 years later in the form of this book. It must be a rare feat in the military history that in 1988, nearly half a century after his venture, Brig Balbir Singh, MC retraced his footsteps along the route followed in 1942, thanks giving all those living or dead who helped them generously in their escape mission. That speaks in volume the immense human head and heart qualities of Brig Balbir Singh, MC as an officer and a gentleman. It is also a rare feat that his son Jasbir commissioned in his unit also under took visits to all those important places 37 years later to understand the type of adventure undertaken by his father and his two colleagues. This perhaps is one of the reasons that highlights Jasbir’s adventurous spirit coupled with creativity to draw numerous sketches and write such an absorbing book that any reader would like to finish in just one go.

4/19 Hyderabad Regiment as part of the 12 Indian Infantry Brigade had on 12 February 1942   fallen back to the outskirts of Singapore that fell after 3 days of bitter fighting and severe casualties. The surrendered Singapore garrison was taken as prisoners of war (PsOW) and lodged in various  PsOW camps in the island. The Japanese guards ill treated Indian prisoners often  beating, bayoneting, flogging, humiliating or beheading them. Due to paucity of food, medical facilities, clean drinking water and congested unhealthy living conditions in  these Japanese camps in occupied territories, mortality rate amongst the prisoners from malaria and dysentery was alarmingly high. But all these did not dampen their spirits and longing to return to their homeland  and  Balbir, Parab and Pritam constantly kept planning their escape from the Japanese prisoners of war camp in Singapore. Interestingly, covered in his other book, Combat Diary, Jasbir describes the valiant effort of Parab during the Battle of Slim River during the night 6/7 January 1942 when he got separated from his Unit and eventually joined it after several days, riding a stolen Japanese bicycle. While in captivity, these officers had chance meetings with numerous officers of the Indian National Army (INA) including Col Niranjan Singh Gill, commissioned in 4/19 Hyderabad Regiment but joined the INA and was later India’s Ambassador to Panama, who helped them in their escape mission.

Since there was acute shortage of food and shelter in Singapore Island, civilians were given permits by the Japanese to return to their homes in Malaya. Being aware that their capture would mean brutal torture and certain death, while on fatigue duties in Singapore city, the trio in preparation for their escape, changed their names and posing as clerks from a Rubber Estate managed to get permits for going to Malaya. To speed up their escape, they collected clothes, rations, medicines, money and an old piece of map secretly. A  hole was surreptitiously made in the Camp’s perimeter fence and on 4 May 1942 after the dusk, all three crawled through it one by one for their dreamed freedom from the Japanese captivity.

Their journeys through enemy held areas covering over 2000 miles were undertaken on foot, rail, bus, boat and finally by air to India in the most inhospitable weather conditions and logistics support. They suffered from the bouts of dysentery, malaria, swollen feet, malnutrition that made them delirious but all these hardships were borne by them with a smile, humour, courage, fortitude and sheer will power. During their journey through thick jungles in rain, heat and humidity, while many in the remote villages and Gurudwaras helped, yet incidents of treachery, deceit, dacoits and enemy were nerve wrecking. They were captured twice by the Japanese but managed to escape with sheer will power, wit and presence of mind. Their die hard physical and mental courage helped them in overcoming fortnight’s Japanese torture in Monywa from where they split in two groups as they did not want to be hounded by withdrawing Japanese. While Balbir and Parab moved as per plan to North, Pritam decided to proceed to India on his own and with the help of INA officer reached India.

Around mid-day on 5 October, Balbir and Parab could hear thuds of familiar allied Bren gun firing and were face to face with a patrol of Kachin Scouts, thus ending their six month escape ordeal. From there after, they were flown out to Fort Hertz, subsequently driven to Johrat to meet General (later Field Marshal) Wavell, the Overall Commander of the Allied Forces in Burma and sent to Military Hospital Calcutta for medical treatment as they were riddled with malaria, dysentery and mal-nourishment. After fortnight in the hospital, they were interrogated in Red Fort in Delhi to ensure that they were not subverted by the Japanese as members of the INA to sneak into India. For their six month long daring escape from Singapore through Malaya, Thailand and Burma, Capt Balbir Singh, Capt GS Parab and Capt Pritam Singh were awarded well deserved gallantry award of the Military Cross.

Though there are some cryptographic errors, yet ‘Escape from Singapore’ is fascinating, well researched and presented saga of indomitable human spirit of three officers’ escape from the Japanese captivity during World War II that must be read by soldiers and civilians alike. The sketches drawn by the author in the book make reading interestingly absorbing. The book should be translated in Hindi and other regional languages that our troops speak for wider readership and inspiration to escape if  ever one is captured or kidnapped by the enemy or hostile elements.