A Wartime Tale

It’s Summer 1941, on St Anne’s Station. The 15.07 for Blackpool Central was late. The platform, in the past, busy with commuters, visitors and staff from the hotels and attractions of Blackpool, was now full of expectant, hopeful and highly hormonal young and youngish people. All are on a short excursion to all the Blackpool hot spots: Winter Gardens, the Tower, the Palace or any one of the many venues open for business. Men in and out of uniform, those in uniform qualify for free or heavily discounted entry and free drinks. A trip to Blackpool made a change from standing on the Prom at St Annes of an evening, watching the red sky of Blitz fires in Liverpool.

The platform crowd is made up of Brits, Poles, Czecs, Canadians, mainly Air Force. A year later Americans would compete for the Girls too. Those out of uniform are Civil Servants from Ministries, shipped into the Fylde from London, away from the menace of the Blitz. The females on the station are dressed in a variety of colours of ‘Sunday Best’ or just their ‘Best’. My Mum recalls dresses made from Grannies’ hand downs or even curtains, remodelled into fashionable, even desirable outfits in a time of scarce resources.

There were seven in Mum’s group, young men of around 18 years, including eldest brother, his mates and a couple of female friends. The mates included my Dad to be. The plan was to join the crowds on the Prom and then move to dancing and a pint or two. My 16 year old Mum being invited because she was a regarded as a ‘good’ dancer and is chaperoned by her elder Brother.

The group shared their expectations of the evening and their preferences for service in the Forces. The discussion, for that was what it was, rounded on the pro’s and con’s of joining the locally recruiting Unit, with the Royal Artillery.

Shortly after arriving at Central, four of the group virtually made their minds up. My Uncle, being a little more cautious, insisted that he should talk with his dad. He’s an essential member of his Dad’s shop. Sure enough, within days each, and together, they ‘joined up’. The brother did not.

The ‘Blackpool Regiment’ gathered them in. The 137 (Army) Field Regiment, Royal Artillery. A Territorial Army Unit, The Regimental HQ was in Blackpool, it had formed here in June 1939. Problems recruiting had meant that the local boys had been joined by Batteries formed in London, Yorkshire and other parts of Lancashire. In theory and until the War, Territorial Forces were designed and trained for home service, for protection of the Homeland.

RABadge

Royal Artillery Badge

Throughout 1940 and early 1941 the Blackpool Regiment trained in Cheshire, Liverpool and at the Royal Artillery Depot at Larkhill on Salisbury Plain. By Summer 1941 the Regiment was near full strength of around 700 men, and posted into the Order of Battle (Orbat) for protection of Singapore. They would join the 90,000 allied Force holding back the Japanese onslaught down the Burmese Peninsular.(See the Map at Appendix ‘A’). The Japanese at this time were eager to divest Britain of its Empire jewels in the Far East – Hong Kong and Singapore.

In September 1941 the Regiment embarked, via Liverpool, for Singapore on the 27,000 ton, ex-luxury Liner the ‘Dominion Monarch’. The 500+ berth New Zealand based Liner had been stripped out in 1939 to accommodate 3500 troops. She would eventually move 39,000 troops and casualties between the UK, the Far East and Africa through out the War, retiring to be scrapped, ironically, in Osaka, Japan.

137 Regiment arrived some 6 weeks later and immediately entrained for Kajang, near Kuala Lumpur, moving to Jitra Crossroads, on the Thai/Burma border. They were immediately in action. Within the month, in January 1942, the Force was split and cut off at the Slim River, the remnants of which were detached and distributed to other units. The British Forces undertook a ‘tactical withdrawal’ to Singapore from the beleaguered Malay Peninsula. The Japanese attacked the island of Singapore in February 1942, with initially, inferior numbers. Within a few days, General Percival, the General Officer Commanding had surrendered the island in a bid to minimise casualties and anticipating being overrun. (Map HERE Map of Singapore at the ‘Fall’ HERE)

Recriminations and analysis of the surrender has been a feature of the campaign and the role and fate of 137 Regiment and the Blackpool Boys often questioned. Following the surrender, the Japanese Troops were unable to police the island and used 1000 Brits in that role. However, these like the thousands of others found themselves in the hellish conditions in prison camps and jails for the duration. About a third of the Regiment perished in appalling conditions by violence and disease. The four from St Annes survived the War, two died soon after, 2 managed to raise a family and Grandchildren.

The brother joined the Royal Engineers, Bridging units in late 1943. He was to assault the beach on day 5 of the Normandy Landings in June 1944, attached to the Canadian Infantry, fighting in Caen, and later at Arnhem. He survived.

Apart from the personal experiences and memories, the legacy of the adventure for 137 Regt is writ large at St Johns Church, where several memorials testify to their service and sacrifice. (See a Blog Posting of those Memorials).

As a Post Script to the story, The Burma Star Association and the Far East Prisoners of War (FEPOW) draw inevitably to a close as the last surviving members who served, pass away. Indeed, in a last gesture of defiance against time, the Burma Star Association used the last of their assets on a new memorial unveiled and dedicated at the Fylde Memorial Arboretum, in August this year. The memorial includes a section of rail track representing those who died at the hands of Japanese, whilst building the Burma Railway.

MPC
Oct 2015

Acknowledgement

I am grateful to Ron Taylor for permission to use his excellent research, made available for this paper. www.far-eastern-heroes.org.uk

Note: The extraordinary story of the ‘Blackpool Regiment’ is planned and will be published on this site on its completion

Sources and further info:

A first class account of the extraordinary Burma Campaign can be found in
Keane, F., 2011, Road of Bones: the Battle for Kohima 1944, Harper Press.

Websites and Links

137 Regt Formation and equipment:
http://www.ra39-45.pwp.blueyonder.co.uk/field/page137.html

Fall of Singapore:
http://news.bbc.co.uk/onthisday/hi/dates/stories/february/15/newsid_352900/3529447.stm

Forum Discussion:
http://ww2talk.com/forums/topic/42313-137-fd-regt-ra-blackpool-regt/

History of the Regiment:
http://www.far-eastern-heroes.org.uk/2nd_lt_robert_hartl/html/history_of_the_regiment.htm

Far East Prisoners of War (FEPOW):
http://www.far-eastern-heroes.org.uk/index.htm

Burma Star Association:
http://www.burmastar.org.uk/

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