This web page presents what happened to members of two families, Stubbs and Paton, who were evacuated from Singapore when the Japanese invaded and occupied it in February 1942. A family tree on this page will help the reader navigate among the family relationships.
It is said that 44 ships carrying about four to five thousand evacuees left Singapore between February 12th to 14th, 1942 and that of these vessels, all but 4 were bombed and sunk as they passed down the Bangka Straits toward Java. Among those ships that left on February 12th were the Vyner Brooke and the Mata Hari which were to experience two very different fates. The Vyner Brooke was bombed and sank while the Mata Hari was captured and boarded by the Japanese, relatively unscathed. As a result, there was an awful loss of life among the passengers aboard the Vyner Brooke whereas those on the Mata Hari survived intact only to be held captive in various internment camps.
The Stubbs and Paton family members were spread across both ships as follows:
Those on the Mata Hari were:
- Arabella Augusta (Vanderbeck) Stubbs (wife of Thomas William Stubbs, Dec’d., mother of Hugh Conrad Stubbs, and grandmother of Vilma and Reginald Stubbs)
- Theresa Lily (Wyse) Stubbs (wife of Dr. Hugh Conrad Stubbs, (son of Arabella Stubbs (Vanderbeck) & Thomas William Stubbs))
- Vilma Marion Stubbs (daughter of Theresa & Hugh Stubbs)
- Reginald Gordon Stubbs (son of Theresa & Hugh Stubbs)
A fifth member of the family, Maria Pamela Fay Stubbs, was born later at the Enemy Alien Hospital at Palembang, in October, 1942.
Those on the Vyner Brooke were:
- Grace Lydia (Stubbs) Paton (wife of Samuel Colins Patton & mother of Florence (Paton) Stubbs)
- Florrie (Florence) (Paton) Stubbs (wife of Cyril Edgar Stubbs, son of Thomas William & Arabella (Vanderbeck) Stubbs). Florrie was pregnant when the Vyner Brooke was bombed. She was the mother of:
- Malcolm Stubbs
- Maureen Stubbs
The family tree below shows those members of the Stubbs family whom we know were evacuated from Singapore in February 1942 aboard the Mata Hari and the Vyner Brooke. The family, which had been long established in Singapore, was much more extensive than the one here but other family members are not included as they were not, as far as we know, involved in the evacuation from Singapore. The time period is also confined to the state of the family immediately post war, and so subsequent marriages and children are not indicated.
One of the Stubbs children who was on the Mata Hari, Vilma, was asked by the Malayan Volunteers Group (MVG) to record her experience for the organization’s newsletter Apa Khabar and this account is reproduced below, with permission.
The fate of the family members on board the Vyner Brooke has never been fully known and even to this day we are left much in the dark. However, painstaking research conducted by Michael Pether at the National Archives at Kew in London has revealed a few pages from interviews of those who had survived the sinking of the ships, including the Vyner Brooke, and which were conducted by the Netherlands Red Cross in 1942 at Palembang.
These notes Michael describes as: “… difficult to read as they were written quite roughly with pencil …”, but he continues, “I have found some new references in the latest reading amongst which on one page, sadly, [ … ] is the note:
“… Mrs. Stubbs & 2 children, Vyner Brooke, reported died on raft after giving birth to infant. Source E.C./E.M. Papineau, Confirmation Zimmermann…”. The original reference to the Stubbs family can be seen below:
Michael notes that the witness, Emile Michael Papineau, was a 22-year-old tin miner who survived the sinking of the Vyner Brooke and, though captured, survived the war. Herbert Zimmerman was an Accountant with the Singapore Harbour Board and was also a Vyner Brooke survivor but he died in internment at Muntok in 1944.
Michael goes on to say that both these men were credible witnesses – Papineau had been floating around in the sea for many hours after the sinking as had Zimmerman so they had plenty of opportunity to come across the many survivors. Presumably both Papineau and Zimmermann were first hand witnesses of what happened to Florrie Stubbs and her infant as they both report that mother and child had died. What happened to the two children we do not know but the report suggests that they at least survived the sinking.
There is no mention of the children’s grandmother, Mrs. Grace Lydia (Stubbs) Paton, in any of the documents seen by Michael which he says is no surprise as many of the people who would have been on the Vyner Brooke remain unidentified. Also, there were very few mentions by survivors of children.
Most accounts of what happened after the Vyner Brooke was sunk were told by Australian Army Nurses (AANs) who were naturally concerned with what befell other members of their group, with fewer references to civilians and even fewer to children.
Below is the account by Vilma (Stubbs) Howe of the Mata Hari from Apa Khabar.
MEMORIES OF EVACUATION & CAPTURE OF THE “MATA HARI”
By Vilma Howe (nee Stubbs)
AN EYE WITNESS ACCOUNT OF THE CAPTURE OF THE “MATA HARI“
We were the frantic last-minute batch of “women & children” advised to leave Singapore, as the island, now on the verge of capitulation, was desperately struggling against merciless air and ground attacks from the Japanese invaders.
FEBRUARY 11th 1942
After our horrific night of assembled terrified evacuees cowering within the protected walls of Clifford’s Pier, the trucks were now rumbling in, piling us on hurriedly, carrying only essential hand luggage, then lurching their way towards Keppel Harbour through distressing sights of disintegrated buildings, mangled bodies and wailing survivors of air attacks … transporting us to waiting ships that would, presumably, take us away from this destruction and, hopefully, to freedom …
The scene greeting us on arrival at the wharf was one of utter pandemonium … luggage scattered everywhere in total disarray, panic-stricken crowds frantically taking shelter up against dusty smoke-filled buildings as enemy aircraft targeted the docks, intermittently bombing & machine-gunning the area. Meanwhile, launches were lining up, shuttling evacuees as speedily as they could towards the ships that, hopefully, would remove everyone from all this. An aunt of mine, her children & her mother waved goodbye as their boat sped off. All of them were never seen or heard of again as they had boarded one of the ill-fated ships (the Vyner Brooke) that was later bombed & sunk.
My mother was wharf-side, searching through the scattered luggage, determined to make sure her heavy baggage had arrived at the docks before she boarded, thus delaying our descent into a boat, much to the dismay of an impatient cousin and her 3 young children, and she was very relieved when mother joined us and we were finally able to leave.
Down the narrow flight of wet, slippery steps we descended and into the waiting craft. Because of our tardiness, we had to squeeze in among the already-boarded impatient bodies … nowhere to sit, forced to use our hand luggage as “cushions”. Stacked full, the launch moved off heading towards the waiting ships … speeding over choppy waves, the turbulence already affecting my mother as she was showing signs of seasickness. We began our approach to the “Mata Hari”hoping we would be able to hastily exit the crammed launch, but some uniformed personnel aboard shouted, “We can’t take them, this is a military ship” … disheartened at being refused, we ventured on to the next vessel, this one a much larger ship, “Vyner Brooke“??- I cannot quite remember. Another refusal to accept us, it was already full and the evacuees already safely on board waved goodbye to us. Little did they know it would probably be one of the fateful ships to experience tragedy & sinking in the next few days. And so, our ’rounds’ of anchored vessels continued, with varied refusals each time. Despondent and defeated, we were told we had no alternative but to return to the docks as the enemy planes were now wreaking havoc on us, peppering the water surrounding us with machine-gun fire, sending some in the boat into near hysteria. My mother was really seasick now … Our launch began its return to Keppel Harbour over the turbulent sea, as we witnessed the scene of destruction at the docks on fire before us. It was then we heard the reprieving cry across the water from the “Mata Hari”… they would take us on! Hastily, we turned back towards the ship … Alongside the boat now, everyone was set to grab their bags and make a dash for our lives into the ship. I crossed over what seemed like a narrow plank and found myself on board, my brother Regand grandmother followed me. My mother, in bad shape now, had somehow been carried aboard but we had no idea where she was. We consoled ourselves that she was on the ship and we would find her later. Boarded, I am not sure if it was the lower engine room we entered, but I could hear the clang of machines and the heat was suffocating. The perspiration began to trickle off me … and searching for some respite from the stifling humidity I noticed some people going up a narrow stairway, so Reg and I decided to follow it up.
Grandmother, however, staunchly refused to budge, assured us that she was O.K. in the “hold” with other unadventurous souls. Now we would have the task of finding where they had taken mother. Our ascent took us to the ship’s deck, a somewhat narrow one. Hoping to find somewhere to set our bags down, we were shocked to discover every inch of deck space had been taken up with evacuees and their luggage. About to despair, I spied a tiny niche and rushed towards it. Regand I took rapid possession of this spot, sitting on our bags to claim this territory.
Unable to ‘enlist’ a volunteer to mind our bags so we could both search for mother, I had to reluctantly sit forlornly on them as I sent Regto find her. Looking out over the deck railings, I cringed at the sight of Singapore helpless under raging fires that lit up the night sky, the sound of bombs pounding at the remnants of the island. Two tearful young girls stood at the rails. They had left behind a father & brother at the docks. Here they were, alone, with a bag of table games in their hands. Much later, I discovered they were the Liddelow sisters with whom we would share more in internment. I had been sitting on my perch awhile when my seat began feeling unusually warm, so I took my coat off and reseated myself – only to jump up hastily! I discovered I had been resting on some kind of hatch or storage area where, perhaps, pipes ran beneath, and now, with the engines moving, things had heated up! I noticed a few others had apparently made the same discovery as they exclaimed their discomfort. Keeping my baggage in view, I moved gingerly towards the rails to try to inhale some of the cool breeze as the “Mata Hari”sailed slowly away – shedding tears as I recalled my happy childhood in Singapore and wondering if I would ever return there, and if I did, how would I find it?
My reminiscing was interrupted by a shout from Reg.He had found mother. She had been allotted cabin space due to her indisposition, and her condition was slightly improved. Returning to me, Reghad lined up some food, aware that I as “baggage minding.” We settled for 2 biscuits each with some bully beef, which was devoured quickly. He suggested I wait to visit mother until next morning as she was already asleep. We then attempted to settle down for the night on our warm seats. I laid my coat down as a buffer and prepared to sleep. A short while later, Reg found the heat unbearable and, in fetal position, slumbered on the deck floorboards.
FRIDAY FEBRUARY 13th
It must have been dawn when I opened my drowsy eyes and thought I heard some muffled voices and movements close to my head. Investigating, I realised I had been dozing outside some kind of door which felt warm. I was informed I could be outside some sort of kitchen area! I decided then to sit up in case someone came out through that opening with food and tripped over me! One by one, the bodies around me slowly awakened, either by the noise of the ship’s engines, or tormented by worried thoughts racing through their minds about where our destination would be, and if we would get there safely. In the midst of this apprehension, I must recount an amusing incident. An uproar behind me disclosed a rather annoyed lady complaining about “people leaving plates around.” Seems the bewildered soul had laid her head down in the darkness on a used food plate, leaving her hair this morning in a tangle of fat! My smile soon vanished when I discovered the coat I lay on was also partially oiled.
Reg,ever mindful of his stomach, was off to line up for breakfast, grumbling that the queue was almost the length of the boat! I think it was – again – biscuits and a few meagre scraps of bacon. It was now my turn to visit mother. After a short search I found her enjoying a “patient’s” breakfast of peaches / cheese / bread, brought to her by a crew member! She said she was recovering nicely “as long as the boat doesn’t rock too much!” The “Mata Hari”was, as I discovered, sailing very slowly and cautiously through dangerous seas, so we certainly weren’t speeding.
As the officer returned to check on mum, I must have appeared very waif-like because he informed me that if I was nervous I could share mum’s space in the cabin! I broke the news to Reg,and fortunately we were able to leave our hand luggage with me. Without “baggage minding”, Reg was free to roam and went below deck to check on Granny or anything that peeked his curiosity. While conversing with mum in the cabin, the ship’s siren suddenly wailed …. into the cabin rushed some crew members, made us don life-jackets, warning us that enemy planes were overhead, perhaps even as many as 30 aircraft! My heart was racing as I heard the drone of those bombers above us. Suddenly a terrific crash shook the ship. Small objects in the cabin toppled off the shelves … we’re sinking, we thought … clinging together. A short time passed, followed by an uneasy quiet … then the all clear sounded! The officers left our cabin, while we remained. On the men’s return, they told us that the “Mata Hari”had not been hit, and the only casualty was a passenger who stayed on deck and received a minor shrapnel wound on his leg. Everyone else was unhurt but Reg,below deck, related how evacuees down there had been rattled and almost hysterical by the raid, imagining water was going to pour in when the explosion shook the ship. With mother’s caution ringing in my ears, I decided to peek out and see what was occurring on deck. A few passengers had emerged, peeking over the rails and peering into the water. Could anyone have drowned, I wondered? A downward glance showed several dead fish floating in the sea … seems some marine life had suffered the bombing so we narrowly escaped. Things seemed to have calmed down somewhat later, and it felt like the ship was moving again – albeit slowly – and there were even instances when it seemed we had stopped momentarily. The drone of enemy bombers, however, could be heard through the day and we experienced several warnings alerts, each time praying they would miss targeting our ship as it slowly crawled on its journey. The rest of the day passed quite rapidly, everyone on edge waiting for the next air- raid.
SATURDAY FEBRUARY 14th
The meals today were a slight improvement. Things began looking up as we were given our disembarkation numbers and were informed we would be issued landing tickets next morning. At last! – some indication we were going to make it to our destination. Our ship seemed, once again, to be crawling on its way, and we would duck for cover each time the warnings sounded, but the bombers seemed to miss our ship. A lady called Mrs. Close and her son David were lucky enough also to have been allotted a bunk in the cabin with us now. Before saying our goodnights, she muttered, “I wonder what the morrow will bring forth” – words I would always remember in the following days – and so the night closed in on us.
SUNDAY FEBRUARY 15th
Somewhere in the early hours of this morning, probably around 3 a.m., I was awakened by blinding flashes of light which penetrated the porthole, missing my face but focusing on Mrs. Closewho abruptly jumped up in terror. Soon the cabin was astir as we all wondered what new peril awaited us. Piercing searchlights seemed to be sweeping the “Mata Hari”,and we thought we detected other strange “whizzing” sounds – were those shells going over us? We could do no more but wait … eventually both the flashes and other noises stopped and, hearing no further alert warnings, we retired nervously to sleep. Morning broke, and there seemed to be much activity outside our cabin. I peeked out cautiously, and was aghast to see the troops on board pitching every defensive weapon possible into the sea … everything, even flashlights! I came to the chilling realisation this was not a good sign, we must have surrendered to our attackers. The “Mata Hari”was not moving now, obviously we’d been captured!
It was then mother decided to “freshen up” in the nearby washroom, so I took her there and we were shocked on the way to pass a fully armed Japanese sentry, rifle with bayonet fixed standing guard. Then, tacked up (perhaps outside the wireless room) I read a note with the chilling message, “Singapore has surrendered unconditionally to the Japanese forces today … ” We learned later that an enemy boarding party had arrived on our ship early, claimed ownership by hoisting the Japanese Rising Sun banner up the “Mata Hari’s”mast, above our white surrender flag. Then they left our ship temporarily but, surrounded by their destroyers, we stayed anchored in defeat.
Pondering my fate now, I could hear muffled voices praising our captain. Puzzled, I queried an officer who explained that the Jap warships had encircled us the night before, cross-crossing us with their blinding searchlights and firing warning shells over us. With a shipload consisting mainly of defenceless women and children, our captain made the quick decision to surrender, feeling that captivity would be a better solution than passengers being bombed and drowned or lost at sea. Sometime later, our captors returned aboard, this time with some high-ranking officials. We were instructed to “assemble” on the Captain’s deck. A hush fell over us as we tried to hear the translator telling us we were under the rule of Nippon now,” and consequently her captives. They told us the “Mata Hari”had been caught in an “awkward” position in the Banka Straits, between Java and Singapore and, as such, we would have to “wait” here until a “neutral” ship appeared to remove us (???) which could be several weeks! As the official’s speech dragged on, an aerial dogfight took place between what seemed like one of “our” planes and theirs, a welcome distraction for us, but it didn’t affect the speaker who droned on and on as we sweltered in the open sun. Satisfied he had delivered his warning, once again the enemy left our ship, confident we would not move as we were threateningly surrounded by their warships.
The speech left us all puzzled, but the captain warned perhaps we should “ration” food for the next few days until more specific plans were issued by the Japs about our stay on the “Mata Hari”as they had not mentioned supplying us with any food. The day of nervous anxiety didn’t last long. Later that afternoon, several enemy officers boarded and issued the order – ALL men were to evacuate immediately! Soon launches moved alongside our ship, the men were quickly bundled into them and whisked away to some unknown destination, the women aboard becoming alarmed at this gesture, feeling we were left to the mercy of the enemy with no men to support us. A little later that afternoon, another order was barked out, this time Allof us were to prepare to abandon ship. Our considerate quick-thinking captain, once again nursing the welfare of his passengers, then issued the order that we could go down and take all the food supplies we wanted, urging mothers to take milk for their babies and coaxed us to take whatever we could carry. Preparing mother in her cabin to pack and leave curtailed my attempt at “looting” the ship’s stores. When I eventually got down there, I saw tins littered everywhere – some kids had been so hungry, they had opened cans and devoured the contents! I gave my grandmother a can of milk and made her drink it, as we had no idea when we’d eat again. She told me she had witnessed the carnage as people went on a rampage grabbing at food stocks.
Reg and I went back up to fetch mother down. Soon, a few launches pulled alongside the “Mata Hari”.The enemy had emphasised we take only what we could carry, not a scrap more. Mothers with infants, toddlers on their arms, could not manage much more than a wee shoulder bag, which would be a disastrous fact later as we entered internment owning nothing but that which we now carried. We spilled into the launches, crammed awkwardly together as we sped across the water, the crafts badly navigated by our captors inasmuch as we had to endure boat collisions a couple of times. As we pulled away we gazed sadly at the “Mata Hari”stationary now, the Japanese flag claiming her, alone out there in remote defeat. With dusk beginning to fall, we headed towards a mile-long wooden pier. Arriving there, we climbed the wooden stairs of Muntok Pier, the starting point of our lives as civilian internees for the duration of this war … .
[Ed: All that is left of this wooden pier now is a piece of wooden foundation among the large stones on the beach.]
This was my Sumatra internment. Our family was among those later transferred to Singapore sometime in 1943 to end our internment in Changi Gaol and Sime Road where we remained until liberation…
First interned in Muntok in the “coolie lines” building, sleeping on sloping cement slabs. The family were then moved to Bukit Besar in Palembang and then to Irenelaan in Palembang. Later, the Japanese transferred several internees (the Stubbs family included) to Singapore. Upon arrival in Singapore, Arabella decided to join her son Cyril (husband of Florrie, and father of Malcom, Maureen, etc.). Theresa Stubbs and her children were reunited with husband and father Dr. Hugh Conrad Stubbs. The Japanese then ordered Dr. Stubbs to treat sick workers on remote Johore (Malaysia) rubber estates where the family was isolated and sequestered in near jungle surroundings. After 4 months, the Japanese rounded up the entire family and they were interned in Singapore’s Changi Prison and subsequently Sime Road, where they remained until liberation. The birth of the youngest child Nelson in Sime Road camp hospital August 1944, can be accounted for by the time spent before in Johore.