Singaporean World War II veteran: War in Europe was ‘hell’

·Senior Editor

In November 1944, British lieutenant George Creighton was about to experience his first action of World War II (WWII) in the Netherlands. Given an order to storm a German position, he could have been a war casualty just one day after reporting for combat duty.

The then 19-year-old officer was handed a German machine gun and a spare magazine before leading a platoon from the Seaforth Highlanders, a British infantry regiment, in the Dutch city of Eindhoven for the attack, Creighton told Yahoo Singapore in a recent interview at his bungalow in Bukit Timah.

The platoon did not encounter any resistance when it reached the position as the Germans had already fled. Feeling relieved, Creighton test-fired his gun but it didn’t work.

“When I looked at it and took the magazine out, it was full of sand. I checked the spare magazine, it was also full of sand. So my first attack could have been my last,” Creighton, now 91, recalled.

Creighton, who was born in Greenock, Scotland, could be the only surviving Singaporean WW II veteran who fought in Europe. Pointing to his left arm, Creighton showed the area where two bullets tore through his arm muscles during a German attack.

The battles that Creighton participated in the Netherlands and Nazi Germany were part of a massive campaign by the Allies to defeat German dictator Adolf Hitler and bring an end to the Third Reich.

After the war, Creighton was posted to Gillman Barracks in Singapore. He later found love in a swimming pool when he was a coach, got married and became part of the pioneering generation living in pre-independence Singapore.

George Creighton (front row, second from right) in Gillman Barracks in Singapore (Photo: Amritpal Khaira/Yahoo Singapore)
George Creighton (front row, second from right) in Gillman Barracks in Singapore (Photo: Amritpal Khaira/Yahoo Singapore)

From the Netherlands to the Rhine

As the harsh winter of 1944 descended on Europe, Creighton and his company were holed up in an area in the Netherlands for months.

Being the sniper officer for his battalion, Creighton would go out late at night and position himself on a tree or elsewhere to gain a vantage point and observe enemy movements. Given the wintry conditions and low visibility, he and his men lived in constant fear of bullets suddenly whizzing from any direction.

“Everybody was frozen. There was no (direct) fighting. We were just facing each other and shooting and shooting. Too horrible,” Creighton said.

During one skirmish, Creighton was seriously injured as a result of icicles and wire mesh ripping through his legs while his batman, or personal servant, was shot to death, he recounted ruefully.

With the failure of the Allies to capture the Dutch town of Arnhem and other areas after the disastrous Operation Market Garden, the advance towards Germany was delayed. As the Seaforth Highlanders moved closer to the German border, the resistance became fiercer.

Finally, in March 1945, shortly after his 20th birthday, Creighton and his regiment took part in the coordinated Rhine River crossings by the Allies into the heart of Germany. A landing craft was being prepared to bring Creighton over to the east bank of the Rhine and before the crossing, he was given an instruction on avoiding “friendly fire” from the air.

“We were told to put our thumbs into our pants and pull out our orange strips because the British Air Force was coming over, thousands of them. This was to let them know that we were British,” Creighton said.

End of Creighton’s involvement in WWII

The first objective for Seaforth Highlanders after crossing the Rhine was to capture a farmhouse in the German village of Mehr.

Creighton showed this reporter a sketch of the pincer manoeuvre that was carried out by his platoon and the rest of the regiment against a German machine-gun position in the area.

“I blew my whistle, the men knew and they rose up and climbed up the bank of the bund, screaming and shouting their heads off. It was terrifying. And immediately, the German machine gunners stood up and held their hands up in the air. Surrender.” For his role in the successful operation, Creighton was recommended for promotion to captain.

Days after the Seaforth Highlanders took over the farmhouse, the Germans began to advance closer and attack the regiment several times.

During one attack, the Germans killed a number of men from the regiment while Creighton was badly injured. He was sent back to a Dutch city where a group of doctors examined his injury.

“My (left) arm was broken by the bullets. So these guys said, ‘We are just going to reset it but your war is over!’”

Finding love at the Singapore Swimming Club

For the next 18 months, Creighton was recuperating in a military hospital in Scotland and awaiting his next call of duty.

In 1947, Creighton was posted to Singapore, where he was stationed in Gillman Barracks before being released from the army. While most of his comrades returned to the UK, Creighton chose to remain in Singapore.

Creighton then took up a job as the chief inspector with the Singapore Harbour Board Police before going back to his first love: swimming.

George Creighton showing a photo in his scrapbook of him swimming in his younger days. (Photo: Amritpal Khaira/Yahoo Singapore)
George Creighton showing a photo in his scrapbook of him swimming in his younger days. (Photo: Amritpal Khaira/Yahoo Singapore)

Prior to the outbreak of WWII, Creighton was a promising swimmer in Scotland who could have qualified for the Olympics. While he could not realise his Olympic dream, he was to make waves in the Singapore swimming scene as a coach.

“Swimming is not a hobby, it is a way of life for me. I have got the highest qualifications of anybody in Singapore for teaching. The Scottish teacher’s certificate, the English teacher’s certificate, and the Diploma of the Royal Life Saving Society. I have got it all,” Creighton said, with pride beaming in his eyes.

When Singapore Swimming Club (SSC) was looking to set up its first swimming school, it signed Creighton on a four-year contract as its coach in 1948 based partly on the recommendations of many SSC members.

Creighton was to transform SSC into a swimming powerhouse. He trained several swimmers from SSC who went on to represent Singapore including Wieve Wolters and Barry Mitchell.

One student who caught the attention of Creighton was Jill D’Oyly, a top female freestyle swimmer who was born in Southsea, England. The two of them began dating and were married in 1952. After deciding that they wanted to continue living in Singapore, they changed citizenship and became Singaporeans in 1958.

George Creighton met Jill D’Oyly when she was a swimmer in Singapore. They were married in 1952. (Photo: Amritpal Khaira/Yahoo Singapore)
George Creighton met Jill D’Oyly when she was a swimmer in Singapore. They were married in 1952. (Photo: Amritpal Khaira/Yahoo Singapore)

Calling swimming the “history of my life”, Creighton showed a scrapbook containing decades-old news articles of his achievements and that of his students. Defying his age, Creighton said he can swim up to 30 minutes in his private pool every day.

Creighton went on to work in an Anglo-French company and Indonesian cigarette giant Sampoerna before retiring at the age of 67. He and his 85-year-old wife have three children – two sons and a daughter – six grandchildren, and two great grandchildren.

Feelings about the Germans

Having served during WWII with distinction, Creighton is proud of his time as one of the Seaforth Highlanders. Pointing to an old photo of himself and his comrades in Gillman Barracks, Creighton spoke fondly about catching up with a senior commander from the regiment in Singapore.

While he was recuperating in hospital in Scotland, Creighton received news of the surrender of Germany to the Allies in May 1945. When asked about the epochal event, Creighton cried out that he was “delighted” to have survived the war.

Creighton had seen many of his comrades fall on the battlefield, and the devastation in the cities and towns that he helped to liberate from the Nazi regime. But he said that he harboured no ill will towards the German people after the war.

“We all grew up with Hitler. What the Germans were doing, taking country after country after country, and we knew Britain will be in the list as well. So you are fighting for your life, your family and your way of life. Well that’s war. War is hell!”

– Additional reporting by Safhras Khan and Amritpal Khaira

Watch out for Yahoo Singapore’s video interview with George Creighton on Tuesday (7 February)

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