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 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such, in October 1939, this Battery was quickly mobilised to France with the British Expeditionary Force, being finally withdrawn from Dunkirk in June 1940.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 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.
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.
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), weapon 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 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’.
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 Khota Baru. 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 Setar 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’.
Death of the C.O.
Just north of the Slim River, 349 & 501 Batteries were resting after another exhausting ‘Tactical Withdrawal’, in the midst of a rubber plantation. Regimental Headquarters were located about 10 miles further south. The relative peace was shattered by an artillery barrage approximately from the position of the front line 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, and returned to HQ. The Commanding Officer, Lt Col George Holme, immediately wanted to know the situation and insisted he look for himself. He grabbed a motorbike and set off in the direction of the barrage. He ran into the patrolling Tanks and was shot. Major Owtram described him as ‘A very brave and able Soldier’.
Perhaps somewhat pointedly, these conclude the War Diary entries for 137 Fd Regt. The file closes with copies of the Operational Orders and Manning and Casualty States. However, this is not the end of the story.
Rawlings records 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. He tells of the remains of the Regiment’s 349 and 501 Batteries (about 200 strong) breaking into two groups. One was soon captured, the other managed to get back to British Lines.
Those that managed to get beck to Singapore were transferred to their sister Regiment 88 Fd Regt RA who’s numbers included Blackpool lads. They continued to fight as best they could with the Artillery they could find in places we can recognise today, The ‘Vicarage’ and ‘Raffles Hotel’.
In another account, Taylor, (2003) recounts 2Lt Richard Hartley’s, (of 501 Bty) 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 Lt 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 Lumur, some 50 miles south of their position. They split into two groups, in the hope that one would get through. Hartleys 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. An Australian Transport Unit found them and took them as far South as they were able – Batu Caves on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur. The Group never found the ‘British Lines’, however, 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 aircraft and Hartley had been killed. He was buried there by ‘the other lads from Blackpool’.
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.
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 a two thirds 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 were sunk 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.
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.
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.
Rawlins, L., 1972, And The Dawn came like thunder, Chapman.
Gillies, M., 2011, The Barbed Wire University: The Real Lives of Prisoners of War in the Second World War, Aurum.
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.