The last ship to escape Singapore
Updated: Apr 18, 2021
Last night’s episode of The Singapore Grip showed the luckier protagonists boarding the Felix Roussel, Bombay-bound, in a bid to escape the Japanese bombardment and imminent invasion of Singapore. The Felix Roussel is the very ship my mother took, three years old, with her family, on their way to a refugee camp in Bombay.
The Felix Roussel was the very last ship to make it out of Singapore, and it only just did so. The story is remarkable not only for how the Felix Roussel managed to get out, but also for who managed to get on it.
Launched for the Free French Navy, the Felix Roussel had been requisitioned by the British as a troop ship. She arrived in Singapore on 5 February 1942, bringing fresh reinforcements for the defence of the now very shaky ‘Fortress’ Singapore. As she was coming into dock, the ship was bombed relentlessly. Several troops and gunners aboard – the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers -- were killed. A second wave of bombs exploded between the ship’s chimneys. One bomb set the ship on fire; the next, in a lucky strike, hit the water tank, which promptly put the fire out.
The Felix Roussel attempted to load up with refugees on the night of 6 February. But boarding had to be stalled as she sustained three further hits. The Japanese fighter planes strafed even the lines of evacuees streaming to the port. Tom Vaughan’s production of The Singapore Grip effectively recreates the sheer panic and chaos surrounding evacuation, including the long lines of traffic blocking the way to the docks.
The officious stonewalling of the British colonials stands out. Yet 1100 people did manage to cram on board the Felix Roussel, into a space meant for under 400. My mother was among them. Who else?
Not foreseeing the need for evacuation, Churchill had only put plans in place in mid-January, a month after Japanese bombs began raining down on Singapore. British nationals and other Europeans were catered for. Military and colonial service men were to stay in their post; their women and children to be taken to safety. There were no plans for evacuating locals: Singapore's many ethnicities whom the British grouped together as ‘Asiatics.’
This classification included my mother’s family as Singapore Jews, being Jews from the East, not European Jews. The Eliases also had the additional problem of my grandmother being Chinese; and I can find no cases of Singapore Chinese women being successfully evacuated. Instead, there are numerous cases of colonial officials refusing permits and visas based on race, even splitting apart Singapore Jewish families based on variations in skin tone. The struggles of Vera Chiang against British colonial racism are very real.
Vera Chiang (Elizabeth Tan) facing British stonewalling in her attempt to board the Felix Roussel in ITV's The Singapore Grip.
While the official records will tell you that ‘1000 women and children,’ meaning white women and children, were on the Felix Roussel, in fact, as some 250 Singapore Jews found refuge in Bombay, including last minute, a goodly number of these seemed to have scrabbled aboard the Felix Roussel. Several families whom my mother grew up with made it on. And there were certainly enough Jewish women for the ship’s captain to thank them for their constant praying in Hebrew when they reached Bombay. He credited them for the ship’s safe arrival.
The Felix Roussel was bombed at least a further nine times as it left burning, exploding, falling Singapore. It zigzagged all the way to Bombay.
On 7 February, the day after my mother sailed away, the Japanese occupied Pulau Ubin, the stepping-stone island to the northeast of Singapore. On 8 February, the Japanese began invading Singapore itself. On 15 February, Chinese New Year’s Day, British command General Arthur Percival capitulated, and Singapore fell.