By Les Hooper
Special Investigation Branch, Singapore, 1956
‘Supposing I’m shot?’ Phil asked and it wasn’t just the belting furnace of the Singapore sun that brought beads of moisture to his temples.
Les Hooper grimaced, knuckles white on the steering wheel. ‘I’ll personally arrange a whip-round,’ he promised.
‘What are we supposed to do?’ Tommo asked in a voice of doom.￼
‘Shall I repeat it?’ Les said. ‘We’re going to pick up an armed squaddie, who’s been absent since he skipped guard duty early this morning. Clear?’
The Lion City was in a state of high tension. The 1956 riots headed the agenda and demands on the British army’s Special Investigation Branch were more intense than one missing soldier, except this time it was serious . . . deadly serious. The soldier, a Private Willis of the Veterinary Corps, armed with a loaded Smith & Wesson .38 revolver, warned another member of the guard he would shoot anyone who tried to stop him. At two o’clock in the afternoon, when the heat of the midday sun was thankfully waning a few degrees, a Malayan spotted a lone British soldier on a building site in the Serangoon district of the island.
Captain Robert Metcalfe, known to his men affectionately as “Big Brave Bob”, summoned Les Hooper, who was in the middle of a heated debate with Bill over the Suez crisis. The result was left in the air. In the Captain’s office the ceiling fan hummed, swirling the smoke drifting from a glowing cigarette in a tin ashtray advertising Anchor beer. A hungry gecko on the ceiling hesitated in its continual hunt for insects. Les waited with a half-smile on his face as Bob made notes with the broken fountain pen he carried. The top was cracked and wobbled dangerously as he wrote. He kept dipping the nib in a bottle of Quink. He looked up, wide mouth set in a grim line, and ran thick fingers through his black, wavy hair whose colour owed more to a bottle than accident of birth. ‘You know Willis has been sighted on a new estate near his unit. Grab a couple of men and bring him in.’
Les thought, Just like that, easy! He asked, ‘Are we sure it’s him?’
The captain sniffed. ‘Does it matter? It could be, so get your skates on.’ He hesitated. ‘And don’t do anything stupid. He’s got a gun.’
‘Me, I’m only the staff sergeant . . . what about the RSM?’
‘Never mind the RSM, you’ll do it,’ the captain spat, dark eyes flashing. His tone softened. ‘Don’t worry, I’ll be here coordinating with the DAPM.’
The Deputy Assistant Provost Marshal, SIB, Far East Land Forces, was Major Dickie Sexton. He also had an office in the same building, the Black Hut, which was a large Nissen hut at the top end of Bras Basah Road. Les shrugged. Arguing would be like trying to convince a Chinaman that crispy duck was a health hazard. Yet, how were the captain and the major going to direct the search? Mobile phones were unheard of, SIB owned no radios. Nor pigeons. He rounded up four sergeants who were slow to hide or not agile-minded enough with an excuse.
They climbed into a Landrover and drove past the imposing Cathedral of the Good Shepherd, northbound out of the city. The early afternoon traffic was fairly light along Orchard Road, the bustle of the Chinese baroque shophouses, pavement cafes and markets less raucous in the heat. Les’s blood tingled in anticipation of the unknown.
As they turned right into Serangoon Road, Tommo sighed. ‘I could do with a beer. I’m parched,’ he said, red cheeks glowing.‘Who’s paying?’ Phil wanted to know.
‘As he’s in charge, the staff sergeant should pay.’ Bill wore a wide grin on his ample features.
Les nodded. ‘Okay, but I’m not Rothschild. Tommo, as it’s your idea, you can dig deep into your own pocket. And we’re not stopping long.’
A mouth-watering smell of spicy chicken drifted from the wide entrance of Zam Zam’s ramshackle Indian curry house. The interior was cool and the Tiger beer cold. ‘D’you know,’ Bill ventured, ‘I can suffer this.’ A drink vanished in double-quick time. ‘A pity we haven’t time for a scoff. I’m starving.’
‘You make a horse look anorexic,’ Phil observed.
‘Should we be doing this on duty?’ Hutch, a young sergeant new to the Branch, posed the question.
Phil threw up his arms, and nearly knocked his glass over. ‘Strewth!’ he cried. ‘A bloke with a guilty conscience.’ He vigorously brushed the top of his shaven head as if despatching dandruff.
‘Two of the things you can’t have in the SIB,’ Tommo preached with false gravity, ‘are time off and scruples.’ He noisily swallowed a gulp of Tiger as if to emphasise the point.
Bill spoke up. ‘What’s the RSM doing? He’ll feel unwanted—again!’
‘Brushing fag ash off his belly,’ Phil explained.
‘Regimental Sergeant Majors are put on earth only to cause us grief,’ said Hutch.’
‘He’s okay sometimes,’ said Bill.
‘So was Adolf Hitler,’ snapped Phil.
‘What about Brave Bob?’ Bill asked.
‘Coordinating,’ Les answered.
‘What that means is, he’s keeping his head down,’ Phil observed caustically.
‘Pack it in,’ Les snarled. ‘No point in quibbling. We should be thankful he and the DAPM aren’t here. Too many chiefs spoil the broth.’
‘Don’t you mean cooks?’ countered Bill. They drained their glasses, Tommo reluctantly handed a few dollars to a turbaned Indian flashing teeth a gold prospector would die for and they clambered back into the Landrover.
‘You can’t beat a cold beer,’ Tommo concluded. ‘I feel great.’
‘It’s called Dutch courage,’ Phil muttered.
‘We can all do with some of that at times,’ said Bill.
‘A thought’s just struck me. . .’ Phil said, and before he could continue, Tommo jumped in.
‘Amazing! Normally you wouldn’t even notice a coconut if it fell on your bonce.’
‘How would you like a large fist in your ugly mug?’ Phil protested. ‘What I’m getting at is, if we’re after a desperate squaddie with a gun, why aren’t we armed?’
Hutch screwed up his thin face, puzzled. ‘Weren’t guns mentioned at the briefing?’
Les choked behind the wheel and almost mounted the pavement. A Tamil behind a gaudy souvenir stall ducked for safety. A F1 Chinese taxi driver braked sharply and vented his irritation on the horn.
‘Briefing, what flamin’ briefing? I got told to collect you lot and get on with it.’ Les snorted. ‘Only RAF pilots get briefings.’
At this point Phil mentioned getting shot.
‘We’ll ask him nicely not to shoot,’ said Bill, hi eyes sparkling with amusement.
‘Let’s have another beer,’ Tommo suggested.
‘And arrive half-slewed,’ Les growled.
Phil belched. ‘Is it worth risking our lives for a few pounds a week?’
The remainder of the short trip was made in virtual silence, each man nursing his own private fears. Even the sight of a slim Chinese beauty in a cheongsam revealing yards of ivory flesh failed to spark interest. The estate consisted of some 20 bungalow-style homes in various stages of completion, set amongst neglected date palms. Provost boys were already on site, looking terribly efficient in their starched olive greens and bright red-covered caps. They carried pistols. The daily tropical storm began as the SIB party spilled out of the Landrover. They raced for shelter to the covered veranda of the nearest bungalow.
‘If he’s here, he must be in one of these buildings,’ Phil announced.
‘You should be a detective,’ Hutch groaned, shaking water from his hair.
Captain Kenning of the Provost Company squelched round the corner, hidden under a oiled paper umbrella, sticky mud marring his highly polished shoes. ‘Hello, chaps,’ he greeted them. ‘Not much doing, I’m afraid. We’ve had a look round. Found nothing.’
‘Have you searched the buildings?’ Les asked.
‘Not properly. Thought you chaps might like to.’
‘We’d love to,’ Phil hissed under his breath, rubbing his bristled head.
Les glared at him. ‘We’ll wait till the rain stops.’
The heavens opened. Rain fell like Niagara Falls, lashing the palm trees as they swayed in the squall. Low, dark clouds scudded across the sky, accompanied by blinding flashes and thunder. Muddy brown water churned gullies in the fresh ground. Tommo lit a cigarette. Bill waved the smoke away and moved to the far end of the veranda, cursing and feigning a cough. Twenty minutes later the sun reappeared, steam rose from the green earth. The five men searched the buildings and found no one.
‘A false alarm.’ Tommo puffed on a cigarette. ‘We’d be better employed elsewhere.’
‘You mean boozing in Zam Zam’s,’ Phil suggested.
Tommo gave him a weary smile. ‘You’re so sharp, one day you’ll cut yourself.’
‘And one day you’ll be original,’ Phil retorted.
Les sucked in his breath. ‘Okay, Laurel and Hardy. That’s enough.’
Bill cocked his head. ‘Did you hear that?’
‘What?’ Les asked. On the eastern side of the area a gentle slope led down to a thicker section of semi-jungle. Although the original, real deep rain forest had long since vanished, patches of wild ginger, bamboo and creepers grew in confusion.
‘Listen!’ Bill pointed down the shallow hill. Drifting on the simmering heat came the chatter of voices.
‘Some sort of commotion,’ said Les. ‘We’ll take a look.’
They carefully made their way down a narrow track between tangled jungle growths. Pale butterflies flitted amongst the vegetation. Bill shook one off his arm.
‘They like the salt,’ Tommo told him.
‘And Tiger beer sweat,’ Phil chuckled.
Several uncultivated banana plants lined the pathway, their large leaves casting gigantic shadows. The fruit they produced were green and small. Nothing like large West Indies’ bananas.
‘Mind the cobras,’ Tommo advised.
‘If you mean snakes, I’ve got my eye on you,’ Phil replied.
At the end of the track a collection of stilted native huts surrounded a small clearing where a group of Malays milled around. Les held up a hand for silence. He caught a glimpse of olive green amongst the throng – Willis?
Les’s look of concentration was absolute. He whispered, ‘I think he’s here. They’re certainly excited about something. Bill, you and Hutch creep round to the other side and move in when I do.’ When Les decided Bill and Hutch were ready, he beckoned the other two and they rushed headlong into the kampong with loud cries. Les jerked to a stop. Something was wrong. The Malayans stared at the unexpected intruders, perplexed. A man in a loose baju melayu and velvet songkok headdress and a younger girl dressed in a traditional baju kurung tunic and skirt, with white orchids clipped to her glistening black hair, held hands and beamed at each other. Phil’s eyes almost popped out of their sockets as he stared at a smiling young girl wearing a tight-fitting sarong kebaye.
Tommo tugged the back of his shirt. ‘Whoa boy! You’re not thinking about getting shot now, are you?’
A bow-legged old Malay with a wispy beard used his fingers to eat from a bowl of yellow rice and shrimps. He grabbed Les’s arm with a sticky hand and revealed toothless gums as he mumbled something.
Bill smacked his lips. ‘That stuff’s nasi minyak and belacan. Makes me feel hungry.’
‘The only Malay words you know are for food,’ Phil sneered.
‘What’s the old man gabbling about?’ asked Les, tight lipped.
Hutch’s mouth split in a grin. He married a local Chinese girl and picked up a bit of Malay. ‘I heard the word “kahwin”, which means marriage, I think.’
‘Bloody heroes!’ Phil’s lips curled in scorn. ‘We’ve gate-crashed a wedding.’ There was no British soldier. The only green clothes were tattered jackets worn by a few of the men. For a several long seconds only a baby’s cry from one of the palm-thatched pondoks and a garrulous minah bird broke the silence.
Bill found his voice. ‘Well, do we nick ‘em for disturbing the peace or making our staff sergeant look a twerp?’ No one laughed. Les uttered, ‘Damn!’ as he grasped the truth and wished someone would shoot him.
In the Black Hut, Warrant Officer Peach sat hunched behind his desk, a hazy figure in a fog of smoke. He flicked ash from his jacket. His small, red-rimmed eyes glinted. ‘You achieved nothing!’
‘We didn’t find him, no,’ Les confessed.
Captain Bob’s reaction almost caused the ceiling fan to spin out of control. The crippled pen reached its death throes in his shaking hand. Fly-hunting geckos on the walls scuttled away in terror. At dusk a repentant Willis surrendered to a provost patrol without a struggle after spending the day skulking in the attic of one of the half-finished bungalows.
The outcome did nothing to placate Les Hooper. No one got hurt and the only shot fired was through his pride. But much time would pass before he lived down the humiliation of bursting into that celebrating wedding party like stampeding elephants. He vowed he would never rush into anything again.
And do you know, he never did!
You recall Hutch, the SIB man who married a Chinese girl? Well, the family into which he married was a few rungs up the Singapore social ladder. This photograph was taken at his wedding reception and shows l-r: Les Hooper (note the Ronald Coleman fuzz); Mrs Parminter; John Parminter; Douglas (Jock) Marnoch; Mrs Marnoch (Who dropped the pancake on her head?). The kids are l-r: Michael Hooper and the Marnochs’ boy and girl. Anyway, when the SIB guests arrived they were only served lemonades and other soft drinks. Naturally puzzled and being good detectives, their enquiries elicited the information that the bride’s family, being extremely knowledgeable about British soldiers, knew they behaved unsociably when fuelled with alcohol, therefore no alcoholic drinks were to be given to them. Flabbergasted is a good interpretation of their feelings and their words cannot be repeated. As if they would get tipsy! Needless to say, they scarpered as soon as seemed polite to do so.
In 1914 the Headmistresses’ Association suggested the formation of a female police force to control the behaviour of young women. As a result, over 2,000 women’s patrols were formed and every night would tour public parks and visit cinemas in an attempt to prevent acts of immorality.