Jo Tyndall on the family legacy that connects her to Singapore
Her Excellency Jo Tyndall, High Commissioner for New Zealand, shares her personal and moving connection to Singapore.
In February 2019, His Excellency Jo Tyndall began his four-year posting as New Zealand High Commissioner to Singapore.
Shortly after arriving, she found a family heirloom, the diary of her great-uncle, Gordon Burt, who fled Singapore days before the island surrendered to the Japanese in 1942.
Gordon Burt was born in 1899 in Dunedin, New Zealand. He was apprenticed in the family business before moving to the UK to work for Metropolitan Vickers and study engineering at the University of Liverpool. In 1925 he joined the British Arctic Expedition to Svalbard and Franz-Josef Land as chief engineer.
In 1937 he was working in Singapore as an assistant lubrication engineer for Asiatic Petroleum Company at Collyer Quay. A year later, he joined the Singapore Volunteer Armored Car Company and married Maud Rohrbach.
By February 1940, Gordon had attained the rank of Mech. Sgt and in September became the proud father of their daughter, Jocelyn.
A year later, his expertise in fuels and lubricants led him to work closely with the British Navy, Army and Air Force. His diary reveals what happened in Singapore from December 1941 to February 1942.
The following is a excerpt from Gordon Burt’s diary, reprinted by permission of HE Jo Tyndall:
“From December 1941, much of my time was spent at the four airfields, viz. Seletar, Kallang, Sembawang and Tengah. I was present during an air raid on Kallang… I was demonstrating the refueling of a ‘Hurricane’ from drums using the Heil pumping unit, when the alarm sounded. We jumped into trenches and within minutes Kallang received one of his worst “blitzes”, extensive damage was done to hangars, buildings and aircraft on the ground… At the end of January 1942, things were getting rather dark in Singapore…
… All four airfields were in shocking condition. Virtually every aircraft available had been destroyed on the ground or shot down, while there was hardly an intact building or hangar.
The biggest tragedy was the naval base. I was there the day before the Jahore(sic) causeway exploded, and the whole place could only be compared to a graveyard…and as I walked around I saw huge stacked stores with hundreds of new torpedoes, magnetic mines, contact mines, mine-laying devices and vast amounts of other naval stores… my work was pretty much done and I took the opportunity to ask the direction of Singapore a transfer to Sumatra or Java where my specialized knowledge and experience could be of further assistance to the war effort. I also suggested that I might be allowed to join the Royal Air Force as…a technical officer was needed in Sumatra, especially one with knowledge of fuels, lubricants and refueling equipment…Early Monday morning 9th Februaryand (sic) I had the opportunity to visit our aviation depot at Kallang airfield and at 7am saw a number of senior RAF officers boarding a seaplane “Catalina”. Immediately the machine was in the air, five “Hurricane” fighters took off from the airfield — Malaya’s last plane. From this point on the Japanese bombers had all they wanted, our few remaining AA guns having no effect on enemy air formations…there was no point in staying in Singapore which was approaching chaos hour by hour… on Monday afternoon the Japanese troops were in Holland Village, a mile from my home on Holland Road. Besides the shelling, there was fairly constant shelling, while fires raged in many parts of the city. The Services and their organizations had completely collapsed or were non-existent, and it was obvious to any thinking person that Singapore would fall within days. It was very depressing to see hundreds of weary soldiers wandering aimlessly through the streets without knowing where their regiments or commands were — and equally distressing were the open trucks filled with wounded and bloodied men who continually drove past my house… tenand February we left Singapore. Minutes after we left there was an air raid on the docks and the sound of bombs going off on the docks, in the water and among the godowns was terrible… my emotions were poignant as I stared sadly at the city that had given me a home…a city then raped with bombs, guns and fire and all for a stupid object called “co-prosperity”.
Burt’s escape from Singapore was successful and he eventually ended up in Sumatra, sadly, as a civilian internee. He was first imprisoned in Palembang before being transferred to Muntok internment camp. He died of malnutrition and beriberi on the 28thand January 1945 and is buried in the camp’s abandoned cemetery.
His wife, Maud, never remarried, but their only daughter, Jocelyn, had a successful career in Australia as a photographer. Jocelyn left no issue, so with her demise Gordon’s line came to an end.
“Reading my great-uncle Gordon’s diary gave me a much stronger connection to Singapore,” Tyndall said. “It was poignant to have a very direct account of the horrors people faced in 1942 and his diary made me see the place in a different light. I looked at the black and white houses of Holland Road and I wondered if he had lived in one of them. We have a defense support unit in the leafy town of Sembawang and our defense adviser lives in one of the old colonial houses. He So it’s easy for me to imagine what Singapore might have been like in the days of Great Uncle Gordon.I was moved when I visited Seletar, the Battle Box and Changi Chapel and Museum, but it t is the Kranji War Cemetery that is incredibly special to me. Not only is it the final resting place of thousands of British and Commonwealth soldiers, but its tranquility contrasts so much with the ferocity of the battles, which my great-uncle remembered. witnessed.
Our memorial service in Kranji on ANZAC Day is one of the highlights of my year, and I am delighted that it is New Zealand’s turn to host in 2022.”
New Zealand forces came to the aid of Singapore during World War II, and we had a significant military presence in the country for twenty years, from 1969 to 1989. A full battalion was based at Dieppe Barracks, so Thousands of New Zealand servicemen and their families have been stationed here. In addition to strong bilateral relations with Singapore, we are also part of the Five Power Defense Agreements with the UK, Australia, Singapore and Malaysia.
“It’s these servicemen, past and present, that I remember on ANZAC Day,” says Tyndall. “Great Uncle Gordon was buried in a civilian cemetery, so his own contribution to the war effort will never be commemorated. But I still remember it, and the 25and April, I will honor her too, when I lay the wreath at Kranji War Cemetery on behalf of my nation.”
– Asia Media Center