70 years today since Churchill’s ‘worst disaster’ – Lest we forget

English: The Battle of Imphal-Kohima March - J...
Image via Wikipedia

On 15 February 1942 the Japanese Imperial Army over ran Singapore – the British Empire’s jewel in its South East Asian crown – and took prisoner over 100,000 British and Commonwealth military personnel in the process. My dad was one of those. What followed was over three years of privation, maltreatment, torture, disease etc.  Almost unimaginable by today’s standards.

My dad served as an officer with the 2nd Battalion The Loyal Regiment and was captured by the Japanese at the fall of Singapore in February 1942. He spent the following three years being moved around from Changi to Keijo in Korea then to Omori and Tokyo in Japan. He survived appalling treatment (although he was relatively lucky compared to those in forced labour camps on the Thailand/Burma railway for example). There were many others throughout SE Asia. He was also lucky enough to be in the first wave of POWs to be liberated.

He embarked on HMS Speaker to Manila. From there he was flown to San Francisco then shipped home. He remained in the Loyals at a holding depot in Preston until late 1946 when he was de-mobbed.

I recently watched a programme on BBC 2 Scotland about the fall of Singapore. If you’re interested you can watch it here. Ever had the feeling that you shouldn’t watch something because you know it’s going to irritate you but you watch it anyway only to discover that you were right.  It isn’t surprising that, as a Scottish/Australian co-production, this programme was going to be biased in favour of the Jocks. And on the whole its big picture was accurate – but the devil is in the detail. Heroic Scots and plucky ‘Diggers’ betrayed by ineffectual British ‘brass’ and traitorous native and Indian army deserters with not an English unit in sight. Not entirely true.

At one point the narrator gleefully points out that the 2nd Battalion Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders were the ‘only jungle trained unit’ to fight in the Malaya campaign. Nonsense. While it is true that their CO Lt Col Ian Stewart insisted they were well-trained in jungle warfare techniques and well acclimatised to the tropics and fought valiant rearguard actions as the British retreated down the Malay peninsula and back to the Island, they were not the ‘only’ unit trained to do so. Lt Col Elrington’s 2nd Battalion The Loyals were also well-trained jungle troops but were frustrated by poor senior staff decisions and retained in ‘Fortress Reserve’. When they were eventually sent into action the retreat had already begun. They were forced back by poor leadership at brigade level and eventually ended up back on Singapore defending their own barracks. They too were let down by allied troops, in this case Australian forces that abandoned positions leaving their lines fatally exposed.

While the Argylls may have been the last across the causeway from Johore to Singapore before it was blown up, the Loyals fired the last shots at the enemy before Percival surrendered. They were all brave men – heroes all – and should never be forgotten. While this episode of WWII might not be as ‘fashionable’ as some they fought and died just as hard.

11 thoughts on “70 years today since Churchill’s ‘worst disaster’ – Lest we forget”

  1. Good to see you are writing again. I can’t imagine what your father had to endure. The heat and humidity alone would have been enough to finish most people off. It is great that you know his story so well and can pass this onto your children. I have visited a few cemeteries in that part of the world whilst living out there, almost as moving as visiting the ones in Normandy – your father was obviously a strong man and very lucky to return!

    1. Thanks Tracey.
      Yes he was. He went through a lot – as they all did.
      Quite apart from leading his men back to Singapore through Japanese lines after being cut off – with nothing but a compass to navigate by and having to live off the land for over a week – he had to deal with the final defence and years of imprisonment.
      I obviously didn’t inherit his level of navigational skills but I hope some of his character has rubbed off.

  2. My husband and I watched this programme with interest as my husbands Uncle died in this conflict. It inspired me to try and delve a little deeper as we only new the fact that he died on the 5th March 1943 and that his name was on the memorial in singapore. As my husband wishes to visit this memorial ( no other family member has), I wanted to try and get some more information. I discovered- through Australian website – that he was one of the Gunners 600. These are the 600 men who were taken from the prison camp and taken to Ballalae Island to construct an airfield for the Japanese. They were taken on a ship – not knowing where they were going – which stopped at New Britain Island to leave 82 sick men then the rest headed for Ballalae Island -enduring some horrible conditions and treatment by the japanese. When the japanese thought the allies were getting close to discovering these men, The order was given to execute every last one of them. This execution took place on 5th March 1943. The families at home new nothing of this and were told that their loved ones were Lost at Sea.
    I cannot find any military records or knowledge of this. The Australians discovered what happened and went back for the bodies, Which now lie in Papua New Gunea in individual graves.
    I hope to discover more of this story

    1. Thank you for sharing your story, it is very interesting. This is a very tragic story and one of many I think to come out of this conflict. The Japanese had I believe issued a general order towards the end of the war to execute all POWs before they surrendered. Thankfully, this was never carried out.

      Here a couple of links http://www.cofepow.org.uk/pages/asia_ballale_gunners_600.htm and here http://www.roll-of-honour.org.uk/atrocities/600_Gunners_Party/ that you might find interesting as starting points in your continued background research into your husband’s uncle’s fate.

  3. I agree with your comments about the Australian documentary. The veterans did well but most of the historians were not good and nor was the general tone of the programme. A very distorted & inaccurate picture of British Malaya and many good units overlooked at the expense of the Argylls [incidently much of the Argyll material in part 1 wasn’t in the Australian TV version] and historians repeating themselves. The statement that the Plymouth Argylls at Singapore were a formidable fighting force was nonsense. Some 320 Argylls had been captured on the Malayan mainland and many others were dead or wounded. The Plymouth Argylls lacked experienced officers & senior NCOs.

  4. Like you I was expecting the programme to be biased, and it was, ‘though my feelings were more than irritation. The Scots sounding narrator gleefully recounting British failings, with inevitable references to their colonial rule. There were many many Scots colonialists, and how did the Australians think they came in to being?
    Of course Britain could not properly defend Singapore while fighting for its very existence in Europe. I hope the next programme describes the Japanese massacre of patients, nurses and doctors at The Alexandra Hospital soon after landing in Singapore, followed by the systematic killing of Chinese civilians, mostly young men in the following months and years, and then the appalling treatment of British, Australian and other Commonwealth prisoners of war who suffered torture, forced labour, summary execution and starvation throughout the war. They were some of the bravest men and women of the second world war.The programme – selective, biased, chippy.

  5. I too was looking forward to this programme and found myself shouting at the TV in frutration and anger!
    My dad was a FEPOW who fought against the Japanese all the way down Malaya.
    There were two other British Jungle trained Regiments as well as the Argylls out there, The 2nd East Surreys and The 1st Leicesters, later to amagamate and become the British Battalion. These two Regiments engaged the Japanese at Jitra, Gurun and Kampar losing 75% of their men by the time they reached Singapore. The Surreys had been in Far east since 1939 and were certainly jungle trained. By the time the Surreys came out of the camps they were down to 160 men with 800 dead!
    I was surprised that Che Loong made no mention of them as he has written a definitive book on the BB in Malaya? I just wonder was the programme deliberately biased?

    1. Thanks for your comment. My dad wanted to join the Surreys – coming as he did from Mitcham – but didn’t get the choice and ended up in Preston with the Loyal North Lancashire regiment.

      This programme was first broadcast on BBC Scotland a couple of months ago and it’s a Scotland/Australia co-production. I think it is biased, focussing as it does on the Scots regiments – the Argyls in particular – and the Aussies.

  6. This is a passing comment on the production itself, or rather the dramatisation of the ‘ re-enactments’. Towards the end of Part 1, the Union Flag is being hauled down – perhaps it’s just as well, because it was shown flying upside-down!

  7. In the end though Slim and the Empire forces from India, Australia, New Zealand, as well as Britain previaled with great victories on the Asian mainland. Will this be told in a few years time. If it is biased because of, whatever, it should be remembered the man most responsible for the betrayel of britain to the Japanese, was from Scotland, yet he was establishment and protected by the establishment. Scotland in many cases is at the centre of this era and played it’s part be it for good and bad as well as the rest of the country too. Commonwealth was hardly used for forces, in the movie reels it’s always Empire or Imperial forces, though even India and Malta were regarded as being proud members of the Commonwealth, which itself was a organisation that was in the Empire. This is probably due to the influence by the makers of this programme. Changing history to suit others seems to be the trend nowerdays.

  8. Hi, I’ve been watching this series and find it fascinating, particularly as my Great Uncle was a Royal Engineer stationed in Singapore from late 1941 onwards and managed to escape the invasion by the Japanese. He is still alive and well, aged 95, and a few years ago wrote down an account of his experiences. It goes into fascinating detail… you can read his story on my family history website:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s