Sid's Story - The Evacuation of Singapore


In the run up to the second world war, my mother's family lived at 28 Dorking Road, Epsom, later to be renumbered 54 Dorking Road, opposite Harbottle's general store. There were 9 children - 5 brothers followed by 4 sisters. The youngest child, mum's sister and later my aunt, was always known as "Babe" but her name was really Marguerite. Taller and shyer than the others she had a serenity and calm which was steady and very attractive, almost Garbo-esque. Babe was born on 10 June 1916.

Babe - Marguerite Gearing
Babe - Marguerite Gearing
Image Courtesy of Daphne Constantine © 2010

As an old woman, she recounted to me how she had gone out of the front door one day when she was 17 and seen a young chap going up the path of the house next door. Their eyes met and she thought "I'm having you!!" and sure enough as the months progressed she got to know Sid White and became his girlfriend. He too was the youngest child of his family and was just 16 years old. He was very handsome in almost a Tom Cruise way, with twinkling blue eyes and straight black hair. He worked for his brother George as a mechanic in White's garage.

Babe and Sid, who was known by the nickname of Diddy White, went out together for years but their plans to marry were thwarted by lack of money and a place to live and by the approach of probable war.

They finally got engaged in 1940 as the Battle of Britain was fought over the skies of south east England. Babe was then 24 and Sid was 23. Shortly afterwards he joined up in the RAF and in due course as the war progressed, set off for his post in Karachi in what is now Pakistan.

Babe and Sid
Babe and Sid taken in 1940
Image Courtesy of Daphne Constantine © 2010

Sid was a terrible correspondent. His writing bore resemblance to a panic stricken insect blundering about and his letters were often illegible, blotted and short. Babe cherished all the gifts Sid had given her over the years. He was a kind hearted, laid back smiling young man, eager to chat, sociable, friendly and with a wonderful laugh. He had wanted to be a maths teacher but he had hated his school and had not done that well there so teaching had not been an option for him.

In Karachi he was fascinated by the insect life there and kept a preying mantis as a pet, called Mabel. In all the time he was in camp he never had any inclination to venture out and see the culture into which he had been precipitated. He was always more interested in the detail around him than the broad picture.

In due course as the war picture worsened he was sent to Singapore. The Japanese came in through the back door and our troops scattered towards the coast. Sid had jumped onto a jeep and he and his companions drove pell mell along the rough roads hoping they were heading for the coast. They stopped to help some Americans who were struggling to change a tyre. "You're going towards the Japs!" the Americans said in astonishment, "Turn round and go back!" Sid and his mates got the tyre back on and they turned and raced back in the opposite direction finally arriving at the beach to see a sight that would remain with Sid all his life.

The beach was a mass of humanity and off shore lay a large ship. It was literally a question of dropping everything and running for the sea and just hoping you got on board. Many did not.

Some time later Sid's mother Mrs White, of Ewell received notification that Sid's body had been found on the beach and that he had died in the evacuation. Sid's brother George had employed Babe as a secretary at the garage and the news hit him and Babe and her family very hard. Everyone had loved Diddy White with his sense of humour and good heart.

Royal Air Force Benevolent Fund Letter
Royal Air Force Benevolent Fund Letter
Image Courtesy of Daphne Constantine © 2010

Weeks passed. Babe burned all the teddies and stuffed toys Sid had given her, and threw away or gave away everything associated with him in order to try and purge the pain of his memory. She kept a couple of mementos hidden away and tried to get on with her life. Many weeks passed and the whole family grieved.

Condolence Letter - click to enlarge
Condolence Letter - click to enlarge
Image Courtesy of Daphne Constantine © 2010

My mother was at the family house in Dorking Road one morning with her hair in curlers, preparing to go out that afternoon when a lettergram arrived through the front door. She picked it up and turned to her mother. "Oh Mum, it's from Diddy! He must have posted it before he died" and then read out: "Safe and well in Australia. Will write later, Sid".

Sid's Lettergram
Sid's Lettergram
Image Courtesy of Daphne Constantine © 2010

Mum stared at the writing and re-read it several times. Then a rush of adrenaline swept through her. "Sid never went to Australia!" she said "Mum! He's alive! He got away! He must have escaped from Singapore and got on a ship for Australia!" and flinging the lettergram to one side she rang straight out down the path in her curlers to the phone box in the Dorking Road. She rang Sid's brother George at White's garage and without preamble blurted out "Sid's alive!! He's alive! We've had a telegram from Australia"!

George dropped the phone without a word and mum could hear the sound of his feet running as spurred by the news, he flew across the garage calling out for Babe. "Sid's alive! He's in Australia! Sid's alive!" he shouted. One may imagine the euphoria, sheer joy and head spinning delight that followed the realisation that Sid had not perished after all. Everyone waited with bated breath for a letter explaining what had happened and in due course it arrived. Sadly, this letter has not come down to me but Sid explained as follows:

He had literally run for the last boat out of Singapore, dumping all his baggage on the beach. Later as the Japs swept in, some other poor man's body was found next to Sid's belongings and wrongly identified as Sid. One has to spare a thought for the dead man's family who had believed him to be safe and now weeks later had to face the truth that he had died and had not left Singapore.

Sid had not known about his "death" for a long time. He had been working in Australia with some lads from Epsom and Ewell that he known before he joined up. They were servicing the engine on a plane when Sid asked for a spanner to be passed to him but no one reacted or replied. After this continuing for some time and Sid getting more and more perplexed and bewildered at the sudden silence from his friends, one of them said to another "Did you hear a voice?" "Yes" said the second "Must be a ghost". "I'm not working with a bloody ghost" said the first and took out from his pocket a newscutting from the Epsom and Ewell local paper, which proved to be Sid's obituary.

Sid read it with surprise and dismay and was galvanised to send the lettergram which my mother had received.

Newspaper article saying Sid was alive
Newspaper article saying Sid was alive
Image Courtesy of Daphne Constantine © 2010

Despite his lucky escape and the continuation of his engagement to Babe, his correspondence skills were still lacking and Babe broke off the engagement and decided to marry someone else. Sid was heartbroken and appealed to her family for support which they all gave, trying to persuade her to give him another chance. Eventually she capitulated.

They were married in 1945 when the war ended. Shortly afterwards both lost their jobs within a day of each other and they moved back into 28 Dorking Road with Babe's recently widowed mother. They were both now approaching their thirties and felt that they were too old to start a family, particularly bearing in mind their precarious financial position.

Sid went on to work for the then Blue Star garage in Ashtead for many years. He and Babe subsequently lived in a wooden bungalow near the Bungalow Stores in Chessington Road, Ewell. As they grew older they moved to Fulford Road, Ewell.

My childhood memories of them were of a kind, glamorous and good-looking young couple that loved each other very much. Even in old age the bond between them was evident and very touching.

When Babe became ill with senile dementia Sid struggled to care for her in the home and the strain took its toll on his own health. In the event he died of cancer at Epsom District Hospital in July 1994, 18 months before Babe died alone in December 1995 in the same hospital, found dead in her bed there during visiting time by her elder sister Dora.

This article was written Daphne Constantine.


If you have enjoyed this page you may also be interested in Dora's War Diary.



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