Little has been written about the untimely end of the Regiment and the events, casualties and memorials that immortalise it. Whilst I have written about its legacy and remembrance, there is still sufficient curiosity as to its origins and history.
This Blog posting coincides with the anniversary of the dramatic events of Christmas and New Year of 1942.
The story of the ‘Blackpool Regiment’ is a tragic one; formed and virtually destroyed within three and a half years. Indeed, they were shipped into a theatre of war in November 1941 and eliminated over Christmas and the New Year of 1942. The Regiment was never reformed.
The Regiment was instigated locally by local people, local people enlisted, trained, fought and died in their hundreds; some in action and some at the hands of a ruthless enemy, in deplorable conditions in the ‘Death Camps’ of the Far East. Some died simply with the strain of the journey home. In this story there is little to celebrate other than the courage of those who fought and died or returned home.
Although there was a longer history of the ‘Kirkham Battery’ of the Royal Artillery, the ‘Blackpool Battery’ had is beginnings in the Victorian era, its forebear units were and remained ‘Territorial’ Units. In 1938, with the threat of war, the ‘Field Brigades’ that had served so well in World War 1 and later, were re-designated ‘Field Regiments’ and reorganised; 88 Regiment’s 349 & 351 Batteries were merged to form a larger 351 Blackpool Battery.
In April 1939 the local Royal Artillery Battery, the 351st (11 West Lancs) Battery (Blackpool), of the 88th (2nd West Lancs) Field Regiment RA (TA), had its Headquarters in Preston. As such, in October 1939, this Battery was quickly mobilised to France with the British Expeditionary Force, being finally withdrawn from Dunkirk in June 1940. Like the Blackpool Regiment would go on to serve in Malaya and be captured at Singapore.
From early 1939, proposals were being made to the West Lancashire Territorial Army Association, drawn up by Major Eric Read, to move the Unit Annual Camp to later in the year, so as to enable its troops to maximise their earnings during the Summer Season. The same proposals suggested a dedicated Headquarters in Blackpool to accommodate the particular nature of employment in the Resort.
The outcome was an agreement, dependent on recruitment, to establish what we now know as the ‘Blackpool Regiment’, with a strength of 548 Men with 32 Officers, with its Headquarters in Blackpool. The Mayor Cllr Duckworth, declared that Blackpool was an ideal centre for the Regiment because of its position as an administrative centre.
Recruitment for the Battery
In April 1939, the Gazette included a piece on a major recruiting drive for the Territorial Field Army, which by decree of the Minister of War, was to be doubled in size. It reported that the present strength of the Blackpool Battery (351) was just 100 men with seven Officers. It promised rapid promotion from the Ranks. The article goes on to raise the prospect of a regiment being formed. In the event 351 was to become the nucleus of the new Regiment, which was initially to be known as 2nd 88th Field Regiment RA.
Another article refers to the ‘honour’ of the Town having its own ‘Pals’ Regiment and of the efforts to secure the prospect. All Council energy was directed at lobbying Lord Derby and Col CT Brown, Chairman of the West Lancs TA Association, for the Regiment. They refer to the ‘wholehearted’ support from the people of Blackpool. However, the key element in getting the Regiment would be the number of recruits that come forward. A major recruiting drive would start with a parade of the Battery and an open day at the Yorkshire Street Headquarters. There was also a call to arms by the Chief Constable, EH Holmes at Bloomfield Road.
At the same time there were grumbles in St Annes that recruitment wasn’t going so well for 436 Regiment of the 62nd Searchlight Unit. Its own TA Unit.
By the end of April, recruitment for the Blackpool Regiment was complete with an estimated 580 men signed on in 13 Days and a waiting list was being prepared. The Recruiting Station at the Town Hall was operating from 07.00 until Midnight. The Gazette reported that if recruitment at the same rate continued, there would be sufficient to establish an additional Infantry Regiment too.
With sufficient numbers 137 (Army) Field Regiment, RA (TA) colloquially known as the Blackpool Regiment, was formed up on 17 June 1939.
Training routines in the new Regiment that had been designed for 100 men and just four 1918 pattern artillery pieces had to quickly develop to accommodate almost six times the number and new Artillery pieces.
In late Summer 1939, 137 went through a somewhat unsettling time when 88 Regt, it’s parent Regular Unit, preparing to move to active service with the BEF to France, exchanged some of its own younger soldiers, for older members of 137. Whilst made in good faith, this left 137 with more young men, some needing to travel to Blackpool for training.
The War Diaries
The available War Diaries make interesting reading. More properly they record the Daily Orders and principal activities of the Regiment. At that time Headquarters are in Buchanan Street Drill Hall. The men are billeted in Talbot Road Bus Station, until there were complaints by the Medical Officer. Rawlings (1972) reports that ‘many of us were billeted in our own home, because of a shortage of accommodation in Blackpool’. He reports a move to accommodation in ‘Brook Mill’ in Kirkham
The Diaries begin in early September 1939, indeed on the 1st page, the Diary records the declaration of War, in a matter of fact way: ‘..a state of War exists between us and Germany’. Later in the day a telegram was received by 137 Regiment, from Headquarters RA , via 88 Field Regiment ‘War has broken out with Germany’.
These daily records shed light on the establishment of the two initial Batteries in Lancaster (350 Bty, based in Dallas Rd) and Preston (349 Bty). A third Battery (501 Bty) would be added in early March 1941, in preparation for deployment to the Far East. Otherwise they describe the usual military and the routine diet of Drill, Parades, Inspections, Battery training. Of interest are the names of the key characters in the Regiment, their movement, courses and postings; Attachments and Detachments. The men rarely feature, except in respect of the frequent Courts Marshall, interviews with the Commanding Officer, charges and penalties. Of special interest in these early days are the mentions of ‘Desertion’, ‘Absences without Leave’, ‘Immature’ (under age) Gunners and one young Gunner charged by the Civil Police for ‘Housebreaking’.
Perhaps as portents, on 22 November 1939, a talk was given to 349 Bty & RHQ by a Lt Col Davson on ‘Burma’.
It is also clear that the local entertainment centres and theatres regularly made the shows and dances available to the whole Regiment. The ‘Civil’ role for the Gunners of 137 also features Guards of Honour, help with snow clearing and the Harvest, as well as the routine patrols and Guard Duties.
In these early days there are references to equipment (including Steel Helmets), weapons and vehicle shortages and the impact on Regimental and Battery training. There are Orders and Signals from the parent units 42 Div, 88 Fd Regt RA and between Regimental HQ and the three Batteries; there are arrangements, competitions and sports between other Region based units and visits and inspections by Brigade staff. Signals and Orders include items on behaviour in uniform, dress standards, driving accidents, carrying Gas Masks at all times and not discussing military topics when out and about.
3 March 1941 saw the raising of a new Battery, 501, while the Regiment was under Artillery training at Larkhill, the Royal School of Artillery.
The first mention of a move away from Blackpool is recorded on 22 April 1940 when details are given for the Advance Party move to Oulton Park Camp, near Tarporley in Cheshire. They move on 25 April a Section by Road and the rest by rail from Blackpool North Station. Packing and movement of equipment and kit goes on through April. The main party is to parade, in full kit, in Greatcoats, with Respirators and Steel Helmets for embarkation by rail at Blackpool North at 08.30 on 1 May. They will detrain at Winsford Station and march by road to the tented Oulton Park Camp, about 6 miles.
After the routine inspections and parades the Regiment settled into a pattern of Troop and Battery training, Drills and Lectures.
On June 5 1940 the Regiment is informed ‘Ready to Move’ within 24 hours, to Liverpool, without tentage and accommodation stores and on arrival without Billets. Searches for Billets yielded the Old College and a School in Nile Street, Liverpool. The Unit is ordered to ‘Stand To’, with a Mobile Section moved to assist cover of Speke Aerodrome, with orders to ‘Fire’ if required. Following a Recce of the City plans are made to move the Regiment to Knowsley Park. The diary reports still shortages of equipment, including 1/25000 maps, essential for detailed ranging of Artillery fire.
Throughout August the Regiment is training and field exercises. During the night of 28 August there was a heavy Air Raid during which 2 heavy calibre , High Explosive bombs were dropped on the Camp. There were no casualties and no damage. The Raids lasted throughout September and reports of a paratrooper landing in the Park caused searches throughout the night.
The Regiment moved to Larkhill in Wiltshire, in November 1940. 349 Bty was first, with RHQ and 350 Bty by the 3rd week. December is recorded as ‘Nothing of any importance to relate’. The unwritten objective of the move according to Rawlings, was to provide ‘experience’ in the training of young Officers.
April 1941 saw a visit to the Regiment by the King and Queen. More especially a demonstration by ‘B’ Troop of 349 Battery. By August 12th notice had been received for Mobilisation to ‘Service Overseas (Tropical Climate)’.
On 27 September 1941, the whole Regiment entrained, in 3 trains for a 12 hour journey to the ‘Port of Embarkation’, Liverpool. On 30 September the Unit sailed by convoy on the HMT B19, the 27,000 ton ex-luxury liner ‘Dominion Monarch’. She had been requisitioned and converted to accommodate 1500 Troops from a 525 First Class passenger vessel. Although armed for Troop carrying, she had only 2 Guns, one salvaged from an 1899 Frigate, HMS Venerable and an Anti-Aircraft gun who’s arc of fire had to be limited, lest she shot at her own funnels.
In to the ‘Bear Pit’.
Before the story describes the involvement of 137, it’s important to understand the strategic machinations in the region prior to and just after the arrival of 137 in Singapore.
Since the beginning of the War, Japan had an envious eye on the rich resources of the British controlled Malay Peninsula. Especially since the United States imposed ‘Containment’ policies, in order to cut vital exports of oil, coal, iron & steel to Japan, in a bid to constrain its militaristic expansion plans. Encouraged by Germany’s early successes, particularly against the British, together with America’s absence from the War, plans were finalised for continued expansion in South East Asia.
The Japanese had invaded the Malay Peninsula on 7 December 1941 just a couple of hours before the attack on Pearl Harbour. They landed at Pantai Sabak, 10 miles from the RAF Airfield at Khota Baru, British Malaya, close to the Eastern border with Thailand. They made rapid progress West and South. To the West, the Gurkhas put up a spirited fight between Changlun and Asun but were soon overpowered with the capture and loss of 350 men. At about the same time the Japanese had reached Jitra to the South. The next day, the 11th Indian Div was ordered to withdraw from Jitra towards Gurun in the South, just North of Sungai Petani.
137 Regt disembarked at Singapore at 18.30 on Nov 28th and immediately entrained for Kajang, South East of Kuala Lumpur, reaching there at 06.30 the following day and marched directly to Kajang Camp to join 11 Indian Division. 88 Regt, (which included Blackpool men) landed at the same time to join 9 Div.
The Diary shows somewhat casually, that ‘Japan declared War on Great Britain’ on 7 December 1941.
137 had been detailed to defend the RAF Airfield at Alor Star. On 9 December, RHQ and the 2 Batteries, (349 & 350) moved by road to Ipoe, North of Kuala Lumpur, a journey of 145 miles, then on to Sungei Patani, a further 110 miles North on the West Coast of the Malay Peninsula and almost due west of the Japanese landing site. Immediately, 350 Bty was in action.
The Japanese had launched a full-frontal attack on Jitra. 501 Bty joined the fight on the night of 10/11 December. The Diary for the 12th December describes in detail, the attack and the response from all three Batteries, now located on the Tanjon Pau Rubber Estate. 349 & 350 Btys were in action in the defence of Jitra, in Monsoon conditions, with 501 located at RAF Alor Star close by. On 14 December, 137, less 349 Bty withdrew to a position west of Pendang via the Jitra Road, now congested with retreating Troops and civilians. Within hours, they were ordered to withdraw south beyond the River Muda, leaving 501 Bty in position at Lalang, who would rejoin the Regiment safely the following day, the 16th.
Over the next 5 days, the 137 withdrawal continues via Bagan Sarai, Sungai Siput and Chemor. A further move South to Tasek on the 23rd incurred casualties among 501 Bty: 4 Dead and 6 wounded and the loss of 2 vehicles, when they were dive-bombed by a Japanese Fighter.
The quiet of 24/25th December was shattered on the 26th when the enemy was spotted and for the next 5 hours concentrated fire on the Japanese positions. The action continued on 27th and the Regiment moved again to hides in Dipang. 501 Bty moved to Bidor via Kampar, followed by the rest of 137. Action continued throughout New Year.
The author of the War Diary, finished the Month of December by recalling three ‘Humorous Incidents’. Coombes (1948), himself a Battery Commander (350 Btty) in 137, gives a graphic and forensic account of the fighting withdrawal of 11 Div down the Malay Peninsula. He does so, Day by day; Battery by Battery; Troop by Troop, supplementing those recorded in the Regiment’s War Diary.
Death of the C.O.
The Brigade Commander, Brig Stewart deployed 137 just north of the Slim River, 350 Battery detailed to provide a 3rd Line of defence and ‘Harrassing Fire’, a few miles north at Trolak.
349 & 501 Batteries were resting in the midst of The Cluny Rubber plantation, a few miles south, they had been in action for a month, non-stop! Regimental Headquarters were located a few miles further south. The relative peace was shattered by an artillery barrage approximately from the position of the Batteries. First the 2IC, Major Owtram, leapt onto a motorbike to see what was going on. He was stopped in time not to encounter eighteen Japanese Tanks on the road, returning to HQ. The Commanding Officer, Lt Col George Holme, immediately wanted to know the situation and insisted he look for himself. He grabbed the motorbike and set off in the direction of the barrage. He ran into the patrolling Tanks and was shot dead. Major Owtram describes him as ‘A very brave and able Soldier’.
At 03.30 on the 7th, the forward positions including a Field Hospital and Brigade Headquarters at, and around, Trolak Bridge, including 350, came under heavy and sustained fire.
350 Battery Commander heard from locals that tanks had broken through the 1st and 2nd Lines of Defence. He ordered men and guns to retreat towards Slim River. Japs drove past their position, leaving infantry to mop up. Although two Gurkha Battalions had been sent to support, there were no Anti Tank guns. The Battery withdrew at speed, along the road past the Cluny Estate, 349 and 501 completely unaware. In pursuit of the withdrawing troops and Artillery came Jap Light Tanks. On discovering the two batteries of 137 in the Rubber Plantation, opened fire, scattering the men, causing confusion and according to Rawlings, killing 273.
The Gunners put up a fight as best they could. Eventually bombed and strafed into submission, Owtram, organised the remains of 349 & 501 Batteries (about 200) into two groups, to go south across the Slim River. One group was led by himself and one by Jim Stoker, the Planter accompanying them. This group was quickly captured. Owtram’s group managed to get across the river, via the damaged Railway bridge (it had been blown up by allied Engineers), swimming and a rope bridge. Many of those making the crossing were without weapons, food or medical supplies, many hurt, some badly injured. Once over the bridge, Owtram was asked to take five volunteers to stay back to ‘discourage’ Japs from crossing. He did so with volunteers from 137.
(Note: The Official History reports: In 5 hrs, 30 tanks + 1000 infantry advanced over 3 bridges, 35 km, through 2 Bdes. 2 Bns destroyed before firing a shot, 3 Bns dispersed/scattered into countryside to the point of complete collapse, 2 Bns still intact. Overall, 500 Casualties + 3000 taken Prisoner. 1 month’s supply for 2 Bdes; 50 Bren Carriers; dozens of trucks.)
Perhaps somewhat pointedly, the War Diary entries for 137 Fd Regt end at this point. The file closes with copies of the Operational Orders and Manning and Casualty States. However, this is not the end of the story.
Rawlings goes on to record the ‘tactical withdrawal’ of the Batteries towards Singapore. Retreating and fighting with great ferocity as they went. He tells of the dead and those left behind and of the attempts to remain a coherent force and of the attempts to reach ‘safety’ in Singapore.
350 Battery had managed to escape the events at Cluny and made it back to British Lines at Kuala Lumpur, via Batu Caves, then on to Malacca, were re-equipped and attached to 155 Fd Regt RA and fought on, guarding the retreating Indian Australian and British Troops heading for Singapore. At this point, the Japs were temporarily stopped.
Those of the second group of 137 who escaped, that managed to get beck to Singapore were transferred to their sister Regiment, 88 Fd Regt RA whose numbers included Blackpool lads. They continued to fight, initially at crossing points on the Johore Straits, moving south with the Artillery they could find, in places we can recognise today, The ‘Vicarage’ and ‘Raffles Hotel’, eventually, fighting with their backs to the sea on the Southern coast of Singapore.
In another account, Taylor, (2003) recounts 501 Battery’s 2Lt Richard Hartley’s, story.
‘….by 2nd January they were outflanked and the road to Singapore was cut off behind them. Under cover of intense artillery fire, in which presumably 501 Battery was engaged, they fell back along the main road to prepared positions at Trolak, about five miles in front of the Slim River.
On 7th January at 0330 the Japanese overran the roadblocks and defences at Trolak, five miles north of the Slim River.
Half a dozen small Japanese tanks and a company of about 100 infantry in trucks then raced to the river, where the exhausted defenders, including 2Lt R Hartley and 501 Battery, were caught completely off guard. They had not expected Trolak to fall so quickly and were given no warning that the Japanese were through.
The tanks caught three battalions of 12 Brigade – two Gurkha and one of the 5/14 Punjab Regt – marching along the road and machine-gunned them. They caught 501 and 349 Batteries breakfasting by the roadside in the Cluny rubber estate, and shelled and machine-gunned them before they could get their artillery into position.’
Taylor goes on to describe the retreat to Singapore by the remaining 200 men left of 137 Regt. The Party decided not to surrender but to rejoin the British Lines at Kuala Lumpur, some 50 miles south of their position. They split into two groups, in the hope that one would get through. Hartley’s group made it but the other was quickly captured. The surviving group, although exhausted moved through the Jungle by day and the railway by night to Tan Jong Malim. An Australian Transport Unit found them and took them as far South as they were able – Batu Caves on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur on the 9th January. The Group never found the ‘British Lines’, however on the 10th, in Kuala Lumpur, they found a train for Singapore and ‘Fell into it exhausted’. At Tebong, about 80 or so miles down the track, the train was attacked by three aircraft and Hartley and seven others were killed. He was buried there by ‘the other lads from Blackpool’. The rear of the train was wrecked, the front half was detached and carried on to Singapore, where the remnants were formed into 3 Troops to carry out Aerodrome repairs and defences for the next 2 weeks without a break, pending the issue of 75mm guns.
The Progress of 350 Battery.
Coombes (1948) gives details of the positions held by all 137 Batteries. On the 5th January the CO of 137, Col Holmes, had received a letter from the Corps Commander, General Heath, saying how pleased he was with the ‘excellent work of the Regiment throughout the campaign’. In the small hours of the 7th, 350 Battery withdrew to pre-set positions at Tan Jong Malim. Their withdrawal from their fighting positions a few miles north of Trolak was made in rapid order, racing past the other Battery positions just a few miles from Tan Jong Malim about 10 miles south, at Slim Village, by the Slim River.
350 Battery was to come under command of 155 Field Regiment RA and move back to Kuala Kubu Bahru. Here they were joined by Lt Hartley & Capt Hilton arrived with 8 men from 501 Battery, having escaped from the bombardment at the positions at Slim Village. They were supplanted into 350 Battery and then on to Rasa, in a tropical rainstorm, where they were to ‘take on the battle!‘. Here they came across more of the remnants of the Regiment from Slim Village, who were integrated into 350 Battery. Even at that point, it was hope that the Blackpool Regiment could be reformed.
On the 12th January, 350 was ordered South to Malacca, and they moved into a Rubber Estate 5 miles north of there. Respite was brief. On the 14th, the next destination was Kluang, 110 miles further south, again in torrential rain.
On the 16th, the Battery was ordered to support an infantry counter attack by the Australians at Bakri. After a short action, they were withdrawn to Yong Peng. While there there were attacked by air and were in action continually.
Bull (1999) gives as detailed account of the ‘withdrawal’ as can be made, from testimonies and the few facts from 88 Regiments War Diaries. He quotes Leo Rawlings of 137:
‘Yong Peng, where Captain Alan Grime, of 137.. bravely distinguished himself in action, was probably the last main stand by Allied troops of any account before withdrawal to Johore and finally Singapore. My own Unit ‘C’ Troop of 350 Batt 137, held a gun position for four days. Partly hidden by Banana trees, our Command Post in a small Planters house, we fired an almost continuous barrage on a variety of targets. Heavy supplies of ammo were piled high behind the guns and the intentions was, we were told, to make a big last stand. At dawn on the fourth day, heavy attacks by Dive Bombers blasted us out of our position’.
The withdrawal of the 137 Remnants and 350 Battery to Singapore continued, next stop on the 23rd January, was Johore Bahru, the last ‘ditch’ before the move to the island of Singapore. it was here that the story of how Major Owtram and the ‘remnants’ managed get back thus far, by stealth and good fortune.
On the 26th, the decision was taken by the High Command to evacuate the Malayan Peninsula, to be completed between 27th and the 30th of January, and to prepare for a ’12 month Siege’.
On the 27th, 350 were involved in a first ‘rescue’ mission, retrieving stocks from a warehouse before the enemy could get access. Over a couple of days, Coombes records the battery managing to rescue ‘1000 tins of Pineapple; 6 lorry loads of rice, flour, coffee,and sugar; 400 x 4 gallon cans of Paraffin; 2 x 600 gallon bowsers of water; 50 tents; mattresses; beds; nets, Fire Extinguishers; buckets; cooking stoves; 1million Capstan cigarettes’.
By the 1st of February, a further withdrawal on to the Island, initially covering the causeway across the Johore Straits, under command of their ‘Parent’ unit, 88 Field Regiment, from Preston, enabling the recovery of infantry and armour, in advance of the Imperial Japanese Army. The battery fought continually, until the 10th Feb when they were withdrawn to the perimeter of Singapore City and further action, action which involved firing over 10,000 rounds of high explosive.
On the 10th to 12th, there was another ‘rescue’ mission. The Singapore Base Ordnance Depot was heavily bombed and caught fire, exploding valuable shells and ammunition. Coombes tells of his drive to investigate to the Bomb Dump to assess the situation and the subsequent rescue of initially 500 rounds of ammunition for his field guns, by 2pm on the second day, 2 lorries had deposited 2000 rounds with his guns, from the burning, exploding arms dump.
In spite of earlier instruction on 13 February, to be prepared to destroy their guns, at 20.30 on 15 February a ceasefire was declared. All units were to collect in Unit areas and ‘Stand Fast’. ‘All troops were to be disarmed, except for a force of 1000 of all ranks at the disposal of the IJA to support the Police.’ No further details were given. Immediately before the Ceasefire, ‘C’ Troop of 350 fired 160 rounds in rapid fire over Raffles Hotel. Next morning ‘C’ Troop managed ‘to initiate a major and mysterious fire, which devastated the cooking equipment, the Small Arms Store, the 75mm Ammunition Store, the Battery’s vehicles and guns.
Payne (1980), in his recorded interviews for the Imperial War Museum, said that he and some other survivors found some old French 75mm Guns and set them up outside the Raffles Hotel, in Singapore. That was the last recollection, before what is euphemistically referred to as ‘The Fall of Singapore’, when 85000 British and Commonwealth Troops surrendered to the Japanese on 15th February 1942. A further 25000 Troops had been lost in the retreat down the Malay Peninsula.
This was the real end of the Blackpool Regiment as a Fighting Unit. Coombes declares the price of the campaign to the Regiment of 28 killed in action, another 184 would die at the hands of there captors, out of a total complement of 700.
In January of 1942 Churchill had told the CinC India, Gen Wavell that Singapore was to fight, with no question of surrender, ‘until after fighting in the ruins of Singapore’.
Gen Percival realising his limitations, split the defence of the island into 3 Sectors, one of which was the ‘North Sector’ west of Changi, and included the closest coast to the mainland. The Sector was to be defended by III Corps which comprised 18th British Div and 11th Indian Div. The Japanese attack when it came was sudden and vicious, with many enemy infantry simply walking across the Johore Strait when they realised the water was only four feet deep at low tide. With Japanese air superiority, defence was piecemeal. Successes in the North sector were insufficient to stem the inevitable overrun of the Island. The surrender took place on 15 February 1942 just 80 days after 137 had landed.
Prisoners of War
Many of the Regiment who had fought and had to retreat through Malaya to Singapore were then subject to the surrender by General Percival, Chief of the British and Commonwealth forces on the island. The decision to surrender has been a controversial one. On the one hand he did so to save lives of his forces and the civilian population of Singapore. On the other he did so to a smaller force than expected and to the surprise of the Japanese. Far from saving the lives of the inhabitants, many would die at the hands of the occupiers.
Following the ‘Fall of Singapore’ accounts of treatment by the Japanese are limited to personal memoirs, biographies and contributions to official histories. Losses on the Burma Railway alone are estimated at 12,000. Units like 137 Regt lost half of their number to maltreatment and war casualties.
The Imperial War Museum records not only the stories of individuals and Units imprisoned on the Island but also those who lost their lives on transport ships either as a result of appalling conditions on board, or the colossal loss life from sinking by Allied Naval Forces. It’s estimated that around 11,000 died en route to forced labour camps in Japan and Japanese Territories. A total of 23 ships transporting PoWs were sunk by Allied action on those diabolical journeys.
The ‘Death Railway’.
Variously referred to as the Thai-Burma Railway, the Siam–Burma Railway or ultimately, the ‘Death Railway’, the railway was to link Thailand and Burma The route had been surveyed by the British in the 1880s. Plans were never developed because of the thick jungle, lack of contiguous supply routes and the potential for disease.
The Japanese took up the challenge of its building in October 1942, in order to provide logistic support to a planned attack of the British in the Indian sub-continent.
PoWs and Asian work gangs were to be used to build it. It would run for 260 miles.
Some of the 137 men who had escaped the surrender of Singapore had made their way to Sumatra only to be captured there and shipped to the Burma end of the Railway to work.
Those captured in Singapore were rounded up from camps there to work both at the Thailand end and at stages along the route. Some 60,000 allied troops were used and abused, out of the labour force of around 200,000. 12,000 troops died or were killed during its construction. The railway was completed by October 1943 and involved hacking through jungle, constructing deep cuttings and embankments, tunnels and 688 bridges as well as over 60 stations, in the most appalling conditions.
On its completion and in spite of allied bombings, the line carried two complete Divisions of Troops and in excess of 50 000 tonnes of food and ammunition to Burma for the Japanese offensive into India. Allied Troops and Asian Workers were also used to maintain and repair the tracks until the War ended in 1945.
Throughout October 1945 the Gazette was full of reports, stories, photographs and accounts of treatment of returning 137 Gunners.
Amongst the accounts of the ‘Fall of Singapore’, one story recounted by Rawlins & Duncan in their 1972 book ‘And the Dawn Came Like Thunder’ recorded the dreadful experiences, conditions and hellish life of PoWs, including those of 137. It was based in part on the personal experiences of Bill Duncan. Flower (questioned Duncan’s account and dismissed it as unfounded since ‘Duncan was never a PoW in the Far East’).
Others tell of the bayoneting of hospital staff, patients and doctors by Japanese Soldiers. Another makes the case in favour of the dropping of the Atom Bomb on Hiroshima & Nagasaki in August of that year.
Some years later, the Gazette reports that the National FEPOW Conference held their Annual Dinner and Ball at the Norbreck Castle, when the Ballroom entrance was dressed to look like a Japanese Guardhouse, complete with Guards in uniform. I can only hope that the revellers found the idea funny, if ironic.
For many years after the War, two major organisations held the stories of those who survived the retreat and surrender of Singapore, The Burma Star Association and the Far East Prisoners of War Association (FEPOW). Often those stories were only shared between those who had experienced it and the trauma of servitude under a brutal military regime. Certainly the men who returned were mere shadows of themselves pre War, both physically and mentally. A Regiment of fit young men launched into War as a new and inexperienced Regiment, established to fight at home, in defence of Britain. Many would have found the War exciting, challenging, then only to spend 3 years in a hellish prison, to die in squalor, illness and without mercy from their Captors.
The stories of those prisoners have been told and reported, drawn, filmed and recorded, we must never forget what the survivors of the Blackpool Regiment went through, never.
As tourists travel to far away places in what is now Malaysia, visiting the shops and sites of the Modern Far East, will they ever consider what made those sites available to our generation? What might have happened if the Japanese had won the War there? We must also be wary of the ‘Disneyfication’ of the sites of battles and those of significance to the ‘Forgotten Army’ that fought in Malaysia: ‘The Burma Railway’, ‘The Bridge on the Kwai’, ‘Changi Prison’ and the multitude of war grave sites and the rest.
Part 2 of this History of the Blackpool Regiment, deals with the survival of the men of the Regiment, Their repatriation and Homecoming.
This piece is extracted from a more comprehensive history of the Blackpool Regiment, to be lodged with the Local History Dept at Blackpool Central Library.
Note: The collection below provides an outline of the sources used. The fuller history, held at Blackpool Central Library provides more detail.
Bull, S., 1999, Lancashire Gunners at War: The 88th Field Regiment, 1939-1945, Carnegie Publishing
Coombes, J.H.H., 1948, Banpong Express, Self published. Available at: https://sgp1.digitaloceanspaces.com/proletarian-library/singapore-malaysia/Major%20J.%20H.%20H.%20Coombes/Banpong%20Express%20(1423)/Banpong%20Express%20-%20Major%20J.%20H.%20H.%20Coombes.pdf
Farrell, B., 2015, The Defence and Fall of Singapore, Monsoon
Flower, S.J., Prisoners of War and Their Captors, p228, in Moore, B. & Fedorowich, K., 1996, Captors and Captives on the Burma – Thailand Railway, p228, Berg.
Gillies, M., 2011, The Barbed Wire University: The Real Lives of Prisoners of War in the Second World War, Aurum.
Kirby, S.W., 2015, The War Against Japan. Vol 1. The Loss of Singapore (HMSO- Official History of WWII – Military), 232Celsius.
Owtram, C., 2017, 1000 Days on the River Kwai, Pen & Sword Military.
Rawlins, L., 1972, And The Dawn came like thunder, Chapman.
Simpson, A.W., 1955 (approx), ‘288 (2nd West Lancashire) Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment, Royal Artillery, Territorial Army’. Published by Gazette Printers
Thompson, P., 2005, The Battle for Singapore: The True Story of the Greatest Catastrophe of World War II, Hatchette Digital.
TA History at:
Blackpool Chronology at:
A personal account:
Taylor, R., 2003, Written account of 2Lt Robert Hartley at:
Letter with an account of the death of Richard Ekin Cumberbatch of 137 in a Japanese PoW Camp at:
List of Units serving in Malaya and Singapore in 1941 at:
Account of the Invasion of Burma and Singapore including key sites of 137 involvement at:
Account of the Invasion of Burma and Singapore including key sites of 137 involvement at:
Account of the movements of both 137 and 88 Fd Regt in Burma at:
Accounts of the sinking of Japanese ships carrying 137 & 88 Regt’s PoWs and their rescue, with names at:
Articles on the Burma Campaign at:
Articles and accounts of the ‘Fall of Singapore’ at:
Film coverage of the invasion of Thailand and the ‘Fall of Singapore’ from the ‘World at War’ series Episode 6 ‘Banzai!: Japan (1931–1942)’ available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C6pNNAQmbmA
Building of the Thailand-Burma Railway at:
Imperial War Museum article on the Sinking of PoW ships at:
Account of conditions on board PoW ship at:
Prisoners accounts and experience at: www.captivememories.org.uk/
Permanent Exhibition at the National Memorial Arboretum, at: www.thenma.org.uk
Evening Gazettes of October 1945 giving details of returning PoWs and accounts of treatment, available at Central Library Blackpool.
War Diaries of 137 Regt at National Archives at Ref: WO 166/1549
Recorded interview: Payne, Harold Lloyd (IWM interview) Cat No: 4748.
Prisoners of war, Far East: 137th Field Regiment, Royal Artillery 1942 Jan 01 – 1945 Dec 31; at National Archive at Ref: WO 361/2095
A Brief summary of the ‘Fall of Singapore’ with sources and accounts related to tracing Far East PoWs: Gillies, M., 2012, in ‘The Fall of Singapore’ in Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine, March 2012, pp24-29
Royal Artillery Cap Badge: http://www.kentfallen.com/Kent%20Royal%20Artillery.html
Yorkshire Street Drill Hall: Courtesy of http://www.rfca.mod.uk
Blackpool Recruits: Evening Gazette, 29/04/1952
Burma Peninsula Map: Courtesy of and adapted from Taylor, R., 2003 above.