The Blackpool Regiment: A Brief History Part 2: The ‘Capitulation’, capture, imprisonment, liberation, recovery, repatriation and reception of the Blackpool Regiment’s survivors.

Background to the Surrender

With the British engaged in a demanding war in Europe and North Africa,  France capitulation, Netherlands overrun,  Japan hungrily eyed the rich resources held by  British, French and Dutch in the Far East. Prior to the invasion, the new Prime Minister Gen Tojo, advise an Imperial Conference that Japan should go to war to preserve its empire and as a response to the embargo placed on oil imports, by the USA.

In spite of a perceived growing threat, the Governor of Singapore, Sir Shenton Thomas had been instructed to continue as ‘normal’, so as to maintain face and stability with the native population, made up of around 120,000 Thais and Chinese along with allied troops charged with the islands defence.

The Imperial Japanese Army (herein referred to as the IJA) 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 and made rapid progress West and South. They crossed the Johore Straits on 7th Feb 1942. Despite fierce resistance by Australian and Indian troops (including the remnants of 137 Regt and 350 Battery), the IJA overran the island within 10 weeks of landing.

Singapore was never seen by Britain’s High Command as being threatened from the North. There was no effective plan for the defence of the island of Singapore. The jungles of the Malay Peninsula were thought to be impregnable, especially by tanks and artillery. Any attack was expected to be repelled at sea and as it landed – in Malaya! Attack via Thailand a neutral country was never envisaged. Defence was dependent on the presence of HMS ‘Repulse’ & HMS ‘Prince of Wales’, along with an allied air force of 335 aircraft, located mainly on the Peninsula. Reinforcement of the forces in Malaya & Singapore would take at least 3 months.

The largely unopposed landings and rapid dispersement from the Beachhead was facilitated by bicycles, using maps taken from school atlases. (Isaacs, 1973)

Island defences were directed seaward. Artillery was armed with Armoured piercing shells for repelling a Naval attack, not high explosives for a land-based attack. In any event, most of the guns were never intended to be turned inland. At the time of the surrender, the island was full of transiting troops; native and migrant civilians; colonial officers; civil servants and administrators, numbering over 100,000.

From the very beginning of the invasion of Malaya, and the collapse of the allied air force bombers were able to strike Singapore and did so with increasing intensity and accuracy. They were guided at night by the city lights that were never turned off, city officials, didn’t know how to! (Isaacs, 1973)

The Commander of Allied Forces in Singapore, General Arthur Percival surrendered the island to a relatively small IJA force on 15 Feb 1942. He did so in a confused meeting with General Yamashita at the Ford Motor Factory in Singapore. Confused because Yamashita didn’t realise Percival was surrendering. He only had 20,000 men on the island, Percival had 100,000. However, constant bombing and bombardment, low supplies and with reservoirs cut off, Percival sought to limit further civilian and military casualties. That day, Churchill declared ‘…It is a British and Imperial defeat. Singapore has fallen..’. He later regarded ‘The Fall of Singapore’ as ‘Shameful’, ‘the worst disaster’ and ‘the largest capitulation in British Military history’. A more detailed background to Japan’s entry into the war is widely available. New books testify to the renewed interest in the Fall of Singapore, its politics, its errors and its hero’s.

Following the Surrender, Japanese Newsreels would report and show Allied troops’ humiliation, by parading these ‘Mongrel Troops’, along the route through Singapore taken by General  Yamashita on his victory tour of the island.

The surviving men of what had been Blackpool Regiment, having been caught up in the events leading to the Surrender, found themselves disconnected from their Regiment, disarmed, bewildered and almost certainly angry that the fight was lost and there was nothing they could do about it. They would also be apprehensive about their treatment at the hands of the IJA. Little did they know!


The IJA military never committed to the 2nd Geneva Convention of 1922, which gave internationally agreed ‘rules’ for the treatment of Prisoners of War, although the Emperor, Hirohito, had agreed to its provisions. However, within the Japanese military, soldiers were treated harshly. Discipline was dispensed at all levels. A superior rank would think nothing of chastising a junior rank with a beating.

The ancient cultural code of Bushido (The Way of The Warrior), was a chivalrous code of behaviour for Samurai, the Japanese Warrior class. One of the code’s precepts included ‘mercy and benevolence’, which for PoWs, conflicted with another precept, that of ‘Honour’. The irrational fear of ‘disgrace’ in the face of the enemy was all consuming. Disgrace in surrender provided a fanatical driving force for Japanese soldiering.  These two features of Military life, disgrace and chastisement were to provide the framework for the treatment of PoWs under their control, throughout the war.

Having surrendered to a much smaller and inferior force (in terms of numbers, firepower and equipment), the allied armies captured in Singapore and Burma were regarded as detestable, disgraced and unworthy to be regarded as real soldiers. From the first day of the occupation the allies were reviled and consequently subject to humiliation, ridicule and poor treatment.  Following the Fall of Singapore, and the dishonour of lining the route of the IJA victory parade, the now captives were marched off to makeshift prison camps.

Round-Up & Incarceration

Since the collapse of the Blackpool Regiment  at Trolak, no records of 137 as a Unit exist, the rest of the story relies on experience of Coombes (1948) and ‘Chuck’ Jackson of 88 Regiment, the Blackpool man caught up in the next stage of the story. His diaries and documentary evidence provide valuable insights into the capture and treatment of our Blackpool boys; Cary Owtram’s account and  Leo Rawlings’ descriptions and drawings add authenticity and credibility.

The first instruction, when odds against the allies mounted on the island, was to destroy anything that might be of value to the enemy – materiel, weapons, equipment, vehicles & ammunition. The IJA surveyed all captured kit, repaired, reconditioned and recommissioned it. Amongst their star finds were 150 Field guns, including some of 137’s beloved ’25 Pounders’.

Some troops refused to accept the surrender and fought on for some days, others including the Australian General Gordon Bennett, attempted (and succeeded) escape. General Wavell had been withdrawn from the Island before the ‘Fall’. Others simply exhausted welcomed the end of hostilities.

On 16 Feb 1942, the IJA issued orders ‘ concentrate all Allied PoWs in  Changi’.  Prior to the ‘Fall’, Changi was a complex of Barracks, Changi Gaol, civilian accommodation, offices and a small hospital. These were set on an area of land with three sides of sea and so easy to confine and contain the 80,000 or so prisoners. Initially, British Officers were left  alone to manage operations. Prior to his transfer to Manchuria, General Percival was keen to re-establish Regimental routine and discipline in Changi, much to the chagrin of many of the Australian and the few American troops. Later this was to become a bone of contention in the conduct of the Camps.

Owtram decribes attempting to gather up the men of 137 following the surrender. He then (along with Rawlings) goes on to decribe in detail the 12/14 mile march to Changi, without much water, some without shoes, but they marched as best they could through devastated villages and large numbers of dead soldiers and civilians, there was no time to clear casualties from where they lay.

The Regiment had managed to send kit and all the food they could muster in a truck allocated for the task. Initially, they were housed by the Allied High Command into Roberts Barracks, which was without light and water because it had been severely damaged by Jap bombers. After a few days they were moved to Changi Gaol. Owtram and other officers were allocated the relative luxury of the Gaol Governors House, affording use of the beach for bathing, until the Japs forbade it. The 330 men of 137 were then moved on to Birdwood Camp. Here they made gardens, played sports and held concerts and even had talks on Infantry Tactics and Jungle Warfare! For the first few months food was provided,on half rations, from that which was rescued at the Surrender, supplements by issues from the vast warehouses of European foods held in Singapore. Soon these were restricted in favour of an issue of rice from their captors. The rapid change in diet having a massive impact not just on physical well-being but on morale. Owtram suggests that a tin ‘Bully’ had to be shared by up to 40 men.

The first duties given to the allied prisoners was building the wire fencing surrounding the camp and clearing the streets and bombed sites of dead.

Once the Jap High Command realised they had an additional workforce of 100,000, The Allied Commanders were instructed to establish ‘Work Battalions’ of 500 men. Owtram describes attempting to keep 137 Regiment men together, he did so with the addition of 170 men from 80 Anti-Aircraft Regiment. This Battalion were sent to work, via Singapore in a truck, to Ban Pong in Siam (Thailand), some 1500 miles north, to work on road projects and what became known as the ‘Death Railway’.

The Camps

There are many accounts of life in camps for both civilians and the military controlled by the IJA.  Here we can only outline some of the key features of life for Prisoners, including those of 137 Regiment. The author had access to a detailed timeline of one man’s journey through capture and return from captivity. Although not a member of 137, he was a Blackpool man, a Gunner in 88 Regiment RA, 137’s  ‘Parent’ Regular unit. It records his time in camps throughout Thailand, working on the Death Railway and his return home. It is based on the scrapbooks, diaries and photographs he maintained. It provides a real insight into the life and repatriation of Far East Prisoners of War (FEPOWs).

Films like ‘King Rat’, ‘The Bridge on the River Kwai’ and ‘The Railwayman’ may give us an inkling of life in the camps. Whilst each dealt with the topic sympathetically, some aspects of the ‘Kwai’ film were roundly condemned by Blackpool FEPOW at their 1958 Conference, when it had been implied that Prisoners might have colluded with their captors in the building of the bridge, featured in the film. (Hack & Blackburn, 2007, p159).

Despite privations and deplorable conditions there are many memoirs, artefacts, artworks (including comedic caricatures and poetry) and accounts of resilience, if not resistance. Improvised musical instruments, concert programmes testify to prisoners making do and coping. The Imperial War Museum of the North holds collections of improvised musical instruments, medical equipment, games equipment, etc. as testament to prisoner’s ingenuity and resourcefulness

Medical conditions too, however appalling, were mitigated by ingenuity, courage and imagination. Parkes (2015) reports evidence of improvised equipment, facilities and medication from the meagre resources available.

The conquerors were unprepared for a large population of military and civilian prisoners. Buildings of all types were commandeered to provide secure accommodation: warehouses, schools, factories, Barracks, public buildings. 50,000+ Allied prisoners were crammed into buildings inadequate for the numbers. In one case, at Selerang Barracks, 15,000+ prisoners were forced into accommodation for 1200. Next door, Changi, was built in 1936 to house 600 prisoners, held 3500 Civilians, including women and children. ‘Changi’ remains in the consciousness, although Selerang was the PoW prison.

As time passed, PoWs were moved to provide slave labour throughout the occupied territories, to work in factories, mines, industrial areas, and building airfields and the infamous Burma -Thailand and the lesser known ’Sumatra’ Railways. Many thousands died on the transport to these camps, either from malnutrition, poor treatment or by sinking of ships and air raids by Allied action. It’s estimated that some 18000 prisoners and forced labourers, died in sunken ships alone.

The camps were of distinct types: ‘Branch’, ‘Detached’ or ‘Despatched’.

Branch Camps were established and controlled by the IJA, who provided accommodation, clothing and food.  Detached or Despatched Camps were smaller Branch Camps, located in or close to factories or mines, in these the benefiting Company provided all, with JIA providing prisoners and military staff. Many well-known names feature in the list of those company’s benefiting from slave labour: Mitsubishi, Hitachi, Kawasaki, Nippon Steel, Matsui, etc. Many were pursued for compensation by American ex PoWs in the 1990s.

Camps were not subject to a common regime and local Commanders held great power. Experience of prisoners varied greatly, but none of it good. Rules and regulations were enacted but were routinely ignored. The Japanese Navy insisted on interrogating Allied Pilots prior to internment, to improve military intelligence and consequently established its own camps.

Blackpool Boys in Captivity

At the surrender, the remnants of the Regiment were now divided into three distinct groups: The ‘Casualties’, The ‘Remnants’ and 350 Battery. The Casualties comprised those men who had been lost in the jungle after the Slim River incident; the wounded left behind in the care of the IJA because they were too poorly to move; prisoners of the Japanese captured after Major Owtram as Officer Commanding 137, split the survivors into two groups at Slim River; those killed in action or died of wounds during the fighting and those who died at the hands of the IJAafter capture. The Remnants were those who, with Cary Owtram had made it to Singapore, joined 88 Regiment and as captives were now in Changi, but separated from their colleges in 350 Battery that had fought with 135 Regiment, right up to (and briefly after) the surrender.

Coombes, Battery Commander of 350 Battery, relates the story of how the remnants were finally linked up with 350 at Roberts Lines, Changi. He describes how Cary Owtram returned from a foraging trip to Singapore, with news that ‘the estranged Battery would be joining them’.  After welcoming cups of tea and a long rest they were now, at least in name, back as 137 Field Regiment RA. The following day, the Regiment was reorganised into just two Batteries, with two Troops each, with a reasonable structure of officers and NCOs.  Jobs details were circulated, to include fixing latrines, cook-houses and accommodation in the bomb damaged buildings.

After 2 days work and as the Boys were getting used to captivity they were ordered to move, along with all the Divisional Artillery units, directly into Changi Gaol, two miles up the road, leaving the good work done.

At that time the Gaol had been cleared of its civilian inmates and although conditions were stark, 137 moved in, established accommodation in the concrete housing blocks, including Sergeant’s and Officers Messes.

Coombes recalls ‘Days began to fall into a relentless parades, inspections, meals and leisure time’. This was until notice was given that another 2400 men were to join them in the same accommodation. They did so and in relatively quick time, normal service was resumed. Work parties were detailed to work inside and outside the confines of the Gaol. One detail was required to bury about 300 Chinese personnel that had been driven down to the sea and machine gunned on the beach, a task undertaken by Blackpool Boys. Another, later job was extracting boxes of gold bullion from a bank in Singapore, loading it onto a succession of lorries bound for the docks, there it was stacked by more of our boys, ready for dispatch to Tokyo. Coombes later discovered from an English Bank worker that the cases of ‘bullion’, were actually coins and bank notes since the bullion had been liberated and sent to Australia before the Surrender.

Initially, life in the camps was fairly leisurely. Generally the Camp was unguarded, with men of the Regiment taking their turn as sentries, mainly to discourage absconders and foragers.  Coombes says that contact with their captors was minimal. Senior allied officers were briefed each morning about work that needed to be undertaken and these instructions were relayed in the Part One Orders to the men and NCOs to carry out, as would be the case in any other circumstances. One such order required Officers to relinquish their badges of rank, displaying only one ‘Pip’ on their left breast pocket. Another demanded that all IJA soldiers (and later the Korean Guards) to be saluted, regardless of rank.

Food was still in reasonable supply but water was rationed to one bottle per man per day for washing, shaving and drinking, the water being collected off site in a water truck that had to be manually pushed by the men, because no fuel was allowed to be used.

Within the next three weeks, another move was to be made, as the numbers of Allied troops were corralled into the Changi area. This time it was to Birdwood Camp, following the move the men were required to ‘Wire themselves in’, to create the wire fence that would constrain them while they were there.  Whilst here, it became necessary to run foraging trips into the surrounding jungle to collect berries, leaves and roots to supplement the ever reducing diet. Eventually, the IJA appointed Sikhs to guard and patrol the compounds to restrict movement. These weren’t just any sikhs, they were recruited by the IJA into the Free Indian Army, by selling the promise of liberation from the shackles of Britain, their homeland of India. Many thousands of Indian Troops fell for the dream and switched sides, even in the midst of battle. They would be disappointed!

During the time at Birdwood, work details were of two sorts: the normal activities of work that may mean working for the day and returning to the camp at night after work and that which required a more long term arrangement; perhaps in Singapore or other parts of the island where prisoners were away from Changi and away longer term, salvaging vehicles left in the rapid departure from the city, building roads, repairing airfields, working on the docks, ant the like. Coombes declares that by mid May upto 10,000 allied prisoners were living in Singapore and its environs. He goes on to say that about half of 137 were working at Kranji 23 miles from Changi, on roads and building a war memorial to the Japanese war dead.

Life in the Camps

Accounts of treatment by IJA Guards in the camps are available from sources, including the National Archive, many also reported in the trials of IJA Officers. Local survivors put pen to paper, or at least maintained a record of events at great risk. Among them was Leo Rawlings, who joined 137 at the outbreak of War and was captured at the Surrender, spending three and a half years in jail, some of that in the notorious Changi complex.

More recently in 2017 the diaries were published of Cary Owtram, formally Major in 137, later ‘Promoted in the Field’ to Colonel, commanding the PoW Camp at Chungkai, one of the largest, with over 10,000 prisoners. His account provides a vital insight in to how the now fragmented 137 Regiment merged into an amorphous mass of beleaguered inmates; how he managed both personally and professionally to cope with capture, transportation, imprisonment, eventual release and return home. Others include Ian Mitchell (1996) who settled in Blackpool after the war and the detailed accounts from Col Phil Toosey (in Summers, 2005).

For many, liberation from IJA tyranny was not the end of the story. Physical and mental effects of captivity and deprivation left deep scars

Those prisoners who managed to keep diaries of their imprisonment, risking torture and certain death by doing so. They used scraps of paper, tree bark, charcoal anything to write with and write on. Ink was made from blood, pigment from earth or berries. Leo Rawlings managed it, as did Cary Owtram. An excellent, detailed and personal account of the move to Changi, life in the camp where he was imprisoned, the Surrender and the journey home is given by Brigadier EW Goodman DSO MC, Brigadier Royal Artillery, Malaya Command 1941 – 1942, (See references) although from a senior Officers perspective; Parkes (2002 & 2003) also provide Officers experiences. Some prisoners managed to maintain, large quantities of documentary material: details of payments made and due; planned journeys to be taken when released; play scripts & songs; dishes missed as a prisoner and many, many more.

Life in the camps was hard, especially in those camps made ready at short notice and in times of shortage, even for the IJA. Open latrines, inadequate washing facilities, negligible medical supplies and facilities and food.  Prisoners of all ranks were forced to work. In some more established camps Prisoners were paid for the work they did and were occasionally able to buy minor comforts, at the camp canteens in nearby villages and transported them under close guard. Pay was not in cash but in a sort of Credit account with cash only being given for purchases outside the camp. Most Prisoners were not paid in any form. The Japanese view was that the prisoners had the opportunity to redeem themselves by working for the Divine Emperor.

Those who were paid, were able to enhance their diet, marginally from local purchases. Pay was around 60 Cents a week, paid on the basis of no work, no pay. That left those who were unable to work, without any supplementary food. Officers who were paid had a levy on their pay of around 30% to contribute to hospital drugs and food for the hospitals. Toosey records that officers were paid at the same rate as their  IJA counterparts. The money being paid to him each week and distributed by him and his officers. Rates varied, around 30 Cents (US) a day for NCOs, 25 Cents for ORs, probably enough to buy 20 cigarettes and a couple of duck eggs.

Hospitals too were in short supply of drugs, dressings and equipment, occasionally the ‘Detached’, Company camps had basic medical facilities, although Prisoners in homeland Japan had 2 PoW Hospitals treating seriously ill patients. Alternatively, Army Hospitals were used.  Camps in outlying areas had no facilities other that what Prisoners managed to provide for themselves. Cary Outram i/c 137 Regt., was appointed SBO at Chunkai, which later became a ‘Hospital’ camp. Toosey makes reference to the efficiency and effectiveness of the Chunkai Camp. The highly regarded Major Eddie Gill, also of 137 was running Nong Pladuk Camp, from Autumn of 1942 until Toosey arrived there in December 1943.

In the well established camps, thing were a little more organised, there are reports and artefacts relating to theatre productions, and educational courses and talks. Like PoWs anywhere, the greatest feature was lack of contact with home.


Pre-printed card

Communication with home was at best occasional. In the larger, better organised camps, the IJA provided pre-printed cards to send home with very rudimentary information, but at least it was something. Incoming and outgoing post, via the Red Cross, on the other hand was to say the least sporadic. Prisoner Charles Jackson received four in three and a half years, taking up to 6 months to be delivered either way. Contact, at heavy expense was also available via local population, where that was possible. On liberation, telegrams enabled home contact, although demands on the service were very heavy and infrastructure for sending and receiving somewhat unreliable.


Headlines in the Gazette,  Christmas 1943

Jacksons Diary records the Cards sent home, (probably pre-printed with bare information), as follows,  Cards sent: July ‘42; Nov ‘42; May ‘43; Oct ‘43; Jan ‘44; Jun ‘44
Jan ‘45 (25 Words)

Generally, the regime in the camps was harsh, with frequent beatings and punishments for minor infractions of rules and summary justice for more significant crimes – stealing food or attempting to escape. Very few escapes have been recorded. Prisoners could be relocated without notice, being moved on foot, by train or ship.

It’s estimated that around 10% of the camps population died as a result of neglect, ill treatment, injury, malnutrition and disease, with the number increasing to almost 30% for those working on the Burma Thailand Railway. In addition, many died in Allied air raids and sinking of the prisoner transport ships. Sometimes planes crashed and there were cases of suicide, as well as ill health on the ships home.  Parkes also draws attention to the PoWs working near the sites of the Atom Bomb blasts, particularly at Nagasaki where 350 were based, in work camps and a mine close by. At least 80 were killed by the blast.

Changi Jail

Individuals and remnants of units arrived in Singapore in three distinct ways: those who were captured during the battles in and during the retreat from the Malay Peninsula; those who avoided capture and made their way to ‘safety’ by any means and those who fought a rear-guard action, in formed units, all the way to the island. Some elements of the Blackpool Regiment and 88 Regt were in this latter group, eventually taking up positions close to the famous Raffles Hotel and the Governor’s residence and later right on to the Southern Beaches, with their backs to the sea. They did so as ‘remnants’, with the men, artillery and ammunition they could transport in the ramshackle remains of the Batteries. They fought valiantly but in vain. Parkes and others report the surrender as ‘a shock’, even though inevitable in the face of what was perceived overwhelming force. The reality was the Garrison island housed up to 100,000 allied troops, and it was overwhelmed by 20,000 enemy.

As the IJA tried to manage the administration of so many prisoners, Changi was commandeered to house them. The Changi Garrison complex was the principal location for allied prisoners on the island, providing a heavily fortified, coastal defence base, which included the British Barracks at Selarang, just a mile or so away from Changi. The complex also included Roberts Barracks which housed a hospital.

Selerang was the site of a well-documented incident, in August 1942, when the British and Australian prison population of the Changi complex were assembled in the parade square, where they were held for 5 days with little water and sanitation. Four prisoners had escaped, and the IJA commanders insisted that the prisons population sign non-escape declarations. The 4 recaptures were executed, which only stiffened the resolve of the rest. However, illness, weakness and disease and the threat of adding the patients from the nearby hospital to the numbers in the Square, finally forced the signatures and the men were allowed back to threadbare accommodation.

Rawlings suggests that Changi was regarded as ‘luxurious’, when compared to some of the ‘Up Country’ camps. Abuse, beatings and malnutrition, bad accommodation and facilities were the norm of course. However, attempts to normalise conditions, through team games, concert shows, improvised medical facilities and a sort of Regimental regime tended to justify the term ‘Luxurious’.  Certainly, these luxuries were not afforded in the camps on the mainland and within the Japanese held territories. Indeed, the Regimental regimes there tended to include comprehensive admin and disciplinary arrangements, much to the chagrin of those who had experienced the harsh realities of other camps. After a few months the Changi complex became a sort of clearing house or distribution centre for the allocation of slave labour to the Singapore Docks, Sandakan Airfield and other infrastructure projects throughout the emerging Japanese industrial empire, including the notorious Thai-Burma railway.

Rawlings was in fact scathing in his accounts of the prisoners who were sent to work on the railway and those, mainly Officers, who stayed behind in the relative luxury of Changi and who failed to understand the treatment meted out in the Up-Country camps.

Food and Diet

Initially, Owtram, Coombes, Gill & Co. had managed to secure stocks of food, particularly tinned and dried food from the Godowns and warehouses, during the chaos of the time prior to during and shortly after the surrender. They had also managed to transport as much as they could, ahead of their march to to Roberts Lines. Once feeding arrangements had been sorted and the attached RASC and Regimental Cooks had worked their magic establishing cook-houses and messing for Officers, Sergeants and ORs, feeding was back into a normal, if highly rationed and controlled way. This luxury was not to last; protracted captivity and a constantly shifting tide of prisoners and an indifferent and unsympathetic IJA host would see to that.

Coombes (1948) gives us the clearest account of state of prisoner feeding, particularly in the earlier days in Changi. He recalls the supplementation of food grown in constructed kitchen gardens and that which was foraged. Some food was bought by the men, when they could, on the ‘Black Market’ at outrageous prices, sometimes subsidised from Mess funds or the PRI. Indeed arrangements were put in place to tax the pay of those who were working at a rate of up to 30% to pay for food essentials and little luxuries, like chocolate. Foraging parties were allowed to roam in the environs of the camp, until the camp was wired off. Trade through the wire, with locals and the Black Market seems impressive. During April and May, 1942, Coombes recounts 300 tins of Sardines, 200 tins of Jam, half a ton of vegetables and 400 Coconuts.

In terms of official food deliveries, The Jap authorities provided rice, flour, tea, sugar, milk, meat, salt, fat and occasional wheat, every 15 days, although the amount delivered equated to a single meal per man. The haul of tinned food liberated from the Singapore warehouses, and stored in Changi, prior to and just after the ‘Surrender’, was estimated to last about 80 days only.

According to Coombes, catering was supervised by a ‘Messing Officer’. Typical of the menu cycle was:

Breakfast – Boiled Rice, Fish Cake, Chauppatti and Tea
Tiffin – Boiled Rice, Soup or Sauce, or Rissoles of Beans or Fish, Sweet Rice Pudding, Tea
Supper – Stew or Meat Roll or Pastry or Meat Ball, Sweet Pastry – Biscuit, turnover or Boiled Dough & Sauce, Tea

By contrast, Toosey recalls an NCO of 135 Fd Regt’s description of the menu of 24 Feb 1942 in Changi:

Breakfast: 1 teaspoon of Sardine, 2 biscuits, 1 pint of tea.
Lunch: 1 pint of tea
Evening: Dessert spoon of stew, 3 biscuits, 1 pint of tea.

Later, the opportunities were greatly reduced. Rice became the staple food. Initially, it was an unfamiliar ingredient for the cooks who had to learn not just how to cook it but how to present it in forms acceptable to the men. Eventually rice would become the only food available and the calories it provided powered the back-breaking work the men undertook.

The same NCO recorded, in a letter to his wife, the following menu for the day:

Breakfast: Boiled rice, a spoon of milk, tea
Lunch: Boiled rice,mixed with tinned herring
Evening: Boiled rice and a little stew

The impact on the body of the inclusion of rice, raged from constant need to pee, to chronic diarrohea or constipation. It took weeks to adjust to the new diet.

With the financial supplements available, it’s also clear that the Officers Mess seemed to be able to pull all the stops out for Mess Dinners and for visiting Senior Officers, although sacrifices had to be made before and after, in order to provide for them. There is little reference to the catering for the ORs.

Coombes details the ‘Ration Scale’ at No1 Camp, Nong Pladuk & Ban Pong, June 1942, A base camp for work on the Thai-Burma Railway. (The Death Railway)..

Food Weight (gms) Calories
Rice 608 2027
Rice Flour 17 55
Tapioca Flour 16 18
Beef 35 60
Egg 11 20
Fish 9 10
Soya Beans 6 24
Peanuts 3 10
Sweet Potatoes 54 70
Pumpkin 36 4
Wax Gourd 17 2
Cucumber 8 1
Egg Plant 20 5
Greens 70 7
Onions 80 32
Chinese Radish 18 4
Coconut Oil 20 172
Sugar 16 64
Bean Shoots 80 16
Total 2601


  1. From Coombes, 1948, p118.
  2. Amounts per man per day.
  3. Includes all preparation waste.
  4. Grams at 32 per oz.
  5. Work and heat requirement at least 2500 Cals per day.

The ‘V-Scheme’

Mention of the ‘V-Scheme’ here is apposite, it enabled several thousand more survivors than otherwise be the case. Both Toosey and Coombes make reference to the scheme in their writings.

The Camp Medical Officers were well used to managing patients with care and compassion, in the absence of drugs, dressings and equipment. Camp SBOs like Toosey and Gill had both introduced a levi on any earnings from work done for the IJA, although this only amounted to little, it was used mainly to supplement food and medicines for the sick, whose number increased dramatically in number as the years went on.

Cary Owtram at Chunkai, Toosey at Tamarkan and Coombes and Gill at Nong Pladuc all describe how, in 1943, they were told by an allied interpreter, that it would be possible to make contact with a Thai trader called Boon Pong, in Bangkok. He would be willing to supply food, medicines and equipment (albeit in relatively small quantities, given the size of the camps)) in return for a letter guaranteeing repayment after the war. A short time later Owtram describes taking possession of 10,000 Thai Dollars, in notes, to provide initial help.

The ‘V-Scheme’ involved establishing a trading link between the camps and interred ‘Ex-Pat’ civilians in the capital Bangkok. The plan was to smuggle goods in to the camp under the noses of the IJA. Payment for the goods, mainly bought locally, would come from the ‘Tax’ levied on working prisoners, from small personal donations and from loans provided ‘through the wire’.

The trade benefits were not only one way. Information about troop and rail movements; bomb damage; details of enemy and allied casualties; prisoner sickness and death statistics. All transactions done in complete secrecy, with only very few having any knowledge of the arrangements. Risk of discovery was all consuming, the penalty would be summary execution.

The numbers of sick and dying were becoming exponential, as numbers in the work camps  increased. Coombes provided meticulous reports and statistics. A sample is found at Annexe ‘A’.

The relationship with Boon Pong would last until the end of the war and after. He would undoubtedly save the lives of thousands of allied prisoners, including many Blackpool boys.

The Thai-Burma Railway

The building of the railway was to enable logistic support for the invasion of Burma. It was an extension of the existing line, proposed and surveyed by the British in the late 1880s. It was thought to be too difficult because of the jungle terrain. At its peak over 180,000 civilians and about 60,000 military personnel would be engaged in the construction, 90,000 civilians and 12,000 Allied PoWs would die too. The railway ran from Ban Pong, Thailand in the south to Thanbyuzayat in Burma at the northern end.

A great deal has been written about the ‘Death Railway’ and there is no intention to write further here, however, some of the statistics are stark!

  • 3m Cubic Metres of Rock moved
  • 4m Cubic Metres of Earthworks built
  • 650 Cubic Ft of Timber poles
  • 688 Bridges
  • 415 Km of track
  • Work Camps every 5/10 Km

From Mitchell 1996, p105

Work on the railway was undertaken by ‘Battalions’ or ‘Forces’ of around 600 men.  ‘Force B’ from Changi included men from both 137 & 88 Regiments. ‘Force A’ had been assigned to Airfield Construction. The camps rarely had accommodation, the men having to construct it before they started work on the line. On 27 May 1943, some of the Blackpool boys with Col Eddie Gill were sent north in a group of 200, via Kinsayok, a camp of 1300 (200 of them suffering from Dysentry). Coombes provides diary details of the appalling and rellentless treatment and conditions on those northern reaches of the railway.  A typical workday (including rainy season days) is recorded by Coombes, thus:  07.15 Reveille; 07.45 Breakfast ; 08.25 Parade; 08.50 March to Nong Pladuc; 09.45 Work starts; 14.00 Lunch; 15.00 – 18.30 Work; 19.00 March Back; 20.00 Supper; Lights Out (where there was some) 22.00.

At Nong Pladuk, SBO Col Eddie Gill was concerned about the growth of unfit, sick and injured prisoners being forced to work, the impact of poor diet and poor medical support and the multiplying events which sought to separate allied officers from their men. Remonstrations with the IJA officers at all levels resulted in the regular response:

‘ The railway will be completed by August, 1943, irrespective of the loss in life of Prisoners of War.’

As planned, by August 1943 work on the railway was complete. The inmates of Kinsayok were split into two groups, the sick and unfit with Eddie Gill to go south via Nong Pladuk to Chunkai. On their return they were back with the CO 137, Cary Owtram and Col Toosey. The fit went further North to provide maintenance gangs for the railway.

Early in the New Year of 1945, the PoWs learned that they were to be separated from their officers. The intention was to further break the spirit of the men, and the officers. Most (successfully, for the men) handed over authority to the RSMs and NCOs. Both Toosey and Owtram had been keen to maintain contact with their own regiments, looking after the interests of the men in their charge. Both record that moving out was a terrible wrench. They were sent via Nong Pladuk to Kanburi at the north end of the track, near the town of Kanchanaburi. The camps held around 3000 Allied officers.


Liberation, recovery, evacuation and repatriation

Coombes recounts being told of the Japanese surrender by Siamese civilians, on his way on a work party. On return to the Camp, the SBO Col Swinton was formally informed that the war was over, but that they must still regard themselves as prisoners until relieved by ‘his own people’. They must stay within the confines of the camp, because the Camp Commandant could not guarantee that all the outlying IJA troops were aware. Supplied were demanded and received, from warehouses that were stuffed full of Red Cross materiel sent to prisoners, but never distributed.

A few days later, representatives of RAPWI (Recovery Allied Prisoners of War and Internees) appeared to arrange repatriation.

Being told that the war was over, did not sit easily with prisoners. They had not dare believe any success stories heard from newly arrived prisoners, on illicit radios or from sympathetic Thais. One account recalls the suspicion held by the PoWs when men in green uniforms arrived in camp to inform them of their freedom and release. That suspicion eventually evaporating into uncontrolled joy by some and reflective silence by others, particularly for relatives and friends who had not survived.

The Japanese declared their intention to surrender on 10 September 1945. Toosey describes how, not until 17 August 1945, he heard the news and expressed his wish to rejoin the men of his Regiment he had left at Ubon. Cary Owtram, acting CO of 137, also sought assurance of the state of his own men. 234 Men had died, 71 of those in battle, the rest, 163, had died at the hands of the IJA, the remaining survivors were in various states of mental and physical health. The surviving 137 Regiment officers had been sent to Kanburi Camp, many the men distributed to camps along the route of the Thai-Burma railway.

Mitchell (1996) describes a typical reaction to an interruption during some community singing, being held in their camp at Tamuang : ‘.. two men appeared and strode to the front. They were dressed in green uniforms , one with a strange looking sub-machine gun, both with parachute emblems on their shirts, neither with any badge of rank. … Since the men did not know that the European war was over, had never seen Sten guns, nor British troops in green uniforms, nor British troops without badges of rank, nor knew of the formation of the parachute Regiment, …’

One of the two men was a Major, who explained the situation; The IJA guards had deserted their posts and fled the camp. They had been ‘shadowing’ the camp and waiting for the opportunity to move in for several days.

The Japanese surrender and pending liberation was a double-edged sword, freedom, yes but the real prospect of reprisals led to trepidation and an anxious wait until the arrival of Allied troops.

In 1943, the IJA High Command, through Commanding General of Military Police, issued orders to plan for the ‘Final Disposition of PoWs’, what was designated as ‘Document No. 2710’ of August 1st 1944. The methods to employ were included, under Section 2 of the Order:

  1. Whether they are destroyed individually or in groups, or however it is done, with mass bombing, poisonous smoke, poisons, drowning, decapitation, or what, dispose of them as the situation dictates.
  2. In any case it is the aim not to allow the escape of a single one, to annihilate them all, and not to leave any traces.

The document was used in the post war War-Crimes Trials. An official translation of Document 2701 below.


On 20 Aug 1945, following Surrender of Japanese forces, a further order was issued providing ‘authorization for Guards to flee because of mistreatment of POWs’  (National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), War Crimes, Japan, RG 24, Box 2011)

The initial declaration of the end of hostilities was made in Japan on August 15th, however, the formal signing of the Surrender document was not made until September 2nd.  We see later that some of the Blackpool boys, although liberated on 2nd of September, were not declared ‘No longer PoWs’ for several weeks or even months after. Finding and processing so many thousand prisoners on adding to the anguish at home.

Even from Dec 1942, efforts were under way by the International Red Cross (IRC) to locate PoW Camps in the Far East and those in the Japan mainland were also being sought, under the title of ‘Op Blacklist’. Few camps were liberated by Allied Troops, other than those discovered as occupied islands were liberated. On Surrender, many IJA  Guards simply melted into the surrounding countryside, abandoning their charges, some of the prisoners in the larger industrial concerns were wined and dined by their employers. Camps were sought mainly by air surveillance, which dropped much needed supplies when they were found. Others were well known, often by reputation! Special Forces, working alongside Thai and Chinese resistance were able to move quickly into camps. Some were too remote that news of the Surrender didn’t reach them for several weeks.

Efforts to provide supply drops of food and medicines by air continued, although Toosey describes a number of unwelcome drops of RICE! Sutcliffe’s diary records one air drop that killed a bullock and badly injured several men.

Meanwhile, preparations in the ‘known’ camps were being made to get the men back home. Time for some was used to update themselves; getting used to new, unfamiliar terms being used, like ‘D-Day’, ‘Bazooka’, ‘Atom Bomb’ or personalities ‘Ike’, ‘Slim’ and ‘Montgomery’.


For the Blackpool Regiment boys, Cary Owtram delayed his return home to locate and gather them in. Many were never to return, killed in action of dying at the hands of the IJA or as a result of disease, malnutrition or work accidents.

Prisoners were recovered and evacuated from the camps by all available means. All were medically assessed and encouraged to complete ‘Liberation Questionnaires’. Many did not complete them and most only the first page with basic information. The liberating authorities were dependent on covert admin records kept by PoWs. Official Japanese records were destroyed as camps were abandoned. Those unfit to travel were moved variously to Allied Hospital ships and Field Hospitals and clinics established by military medics.


The Repatriation Memorial, Liverpool. (Courtesy Creative Commons)

Those well enough to travel immediately were assembled at Air Fields and Ports in preparation for the journey home. Many passed through ‘Repatriation Holding Units’ or Transit Camp like No 5 FARHU, getting kitted out with clothing as they did so.

From the British Government’s point of view the preferred means was by sea, allowing time for PoWs to put some weight on, improve medically and reduce the shock for those at home! On board, personnel were briefed not to dwell on their experience, on conditions at home and what they might expect when they arrived, bearing in mind that many had spent over 3 years without any contact from home. Similarly, families were told not to ask questions and just get on with life. Many arrived back in the UK without welcome or fanfare

The newly liberated PoWs were told in no uncertain terms that they were not to recount their experiences until after a debrief by the Intelligence Officers of ALFSEA (Allied Land Forces South East Asia) and production of a written statement. Statement were to be of dates and places of internment, treatment and personalities involved. Speculation as to their use in tracing Japanese Escapees and War Crimes Trials was rife, but unconfirmed.

Ships assembled for invasion of Malaya and Singapore in Op Zipper, were reassigned to move PoWs.  All UK airports and ports were pressed in to service to receive PoWs back home. Those from the NW including 137, came back mainly via Liverpool, landed and given rail passes to get them to their home town, arriving at the homes in what they stood up in and little else, often with bewilderment and disbelief.

About 37,500 FEPOWs (20,000 via Liverpool) came home to UK normally by sea, taking several weeks, giving time for the men and women the chance to adjust to their freedom and to recuperate physically and to some extent mentally, in preparation for questioning by families and officials back home. Many received instructions not to talk about their experiences to their families, because ‘they wouldn’t understand’. Many were in poor physical and mental state: tropical illnesses and infections, malnutrition, being amongst the most common. Whilst there was a network of military hospitals for each of the services, many had minimum capability and capacity to cope with numbers of referrals.

The Journey Home

Those for repatriation were transported from camps by plane and train and assembled at the ports in Rangoon and Singapore, bound by initially for Bombay to handover the sick to Indian hospitals or Colombo, where they first tasted real freedom – shore leave. Ships were met there with bands playing. Their journey would usually take them via the Suez Canal, the Mediterranean, past Sicily, Malta and Gibraltar through the Bay of Biscay and home.

The journey home by ship provided much rest, rehabilitation and respite from the rigours of the camps, new kit, good food. Sutcliffe recalls the kindness of the military and civilian staff manning the reception and movement centres allocated for handling repatriation and the taste of tea with milk and sugar, of real bread and the tinned apricots that seemed to be served everywhere at all times.

The journey provided time for joy and regret, for grieving and for longing. Longing for family, wives and for sweethearts and for wondering what life at home would be like, back in the company of loved ones, with the ghosts of the last three and a half years constantly close by.  Some were cheered by recollections of home, some with dread of what they might find – some expectations would be met and others dashed in the months to come.

Few flew to UK. Onward journey to home from the Ports, was normally by Travel Warrant by train, to be met, or not, at local stations.

To confuse things, Britain in October/November 1945 was in the middle of a strike by Dockers. 2000 Returnees were delayed at Rangoon’s ‘Epilogue Camp’ – No 5 FARHU (Forward Area Holding Reception Unit), wrote to the British Press and the Government to complain about the delays to the ships – the RMS ‘Alcantara’ and MV ‘Llangibby Castle’, likely to make them miss their first Christmas at home for many years. (Discussion at: ‘Epilogue Camp, Rangoon, 1945′). They did so with full support of their Commanding Officer General Symes. Sutcliffe also comments with indignation, on the strike and its consequences for returning PoWs. He also criticises what he refers to as the ‘Gutter Press’ for their support of the action and the decay in life at home – reporting the strike, rationing, shortages and the like.

A typical journey home is covered fully in Lt Sutcliffe’s diary. Another, for one of the Blackpool men of 88 Fd Regt can be found in Annex ’B’.


The treatment of POWs differed between those from Europe, where there had been a declared victory and those from the FE where their capture was a result of capitulation. There were questions to be asked about how and why; as opposed to the questions from the European perspective which concentrated on what and who. The latter featured people, the former, circumstances.

Officially, PoWs were regarded as Casualties and as such should be expected to attend a ‘resettlement’ programme in order to rehabilitate them back into society. Early in 1945 a pilot ‘Civil Resettlement Unit’ (CRU) was established by the Army, in response to the increasing number of repatriates, either from escapes from captivity, or on medical grounds via the International Red Cross (IRC). By the end of 1945, a network of 20 residential CRU’s had been established. The four-week programme at these units, was designed to ‘re-socialise’ ex-prisoners and attend to their mental, physical and social wellbeing and help with employment, with in a safe and familiar military setting. In general, the CRUs were regarded as successful, judging by the number of attendees regarded as ‘Well adjusted’, suggesting a genuine benefit in the therapy given and received. Whether the families at home regarded the therapy as beneficial is not known.

cru leaflet

Extract from ‘The New Plan’ pamphlet, given to returning PoWs

Leading light in developing care for returning FEPOWs Brig Phillip Toosey CBE. As Lt Col he was CO 135 Fd Regt RA, the remnants of 137’s 350 Battery were allocated to his command on their return to Singapore. Toosey, a Wirral TA Officer was captured in Singapore and was SBO in the infamous Camp at Tamarkan (Tha Makhan, on the River Mae Klong), from where the Prisoners built and died working on what the film the ‘Bridge on the River Kwai’ was based.

Parks & Gill, (2014), describe how he helped FEPOWs obtain medical help after their return (no NHS at this time) and how he later established a close bond between them and the consultants working to help those with what was at the time TDI ‘Tropical Disease Investigations’ at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine. It was a relationship that would last over six decades.

Parkes quotes Hately-Broad (2013) suggesting that the lack of information and a consistent policy looking after PoW’s families promoted fear, isolation and frustration for both PoW and their family. The Belfield Report of 1919 spelt out the importance of a rational, navigable and sympathetic support systems for serving soldier’s and PoW’s families, following the experiences in world War 1. However, nothing came of its recommendations, leaving families and PoWs in an information and support ‘Limbo’. Traditionally, Regiments generally carried the burden of supporting families of its servicemen. In the case of FEPOW many of those Regiments, like the ‘Blackpool Regiment’ just ceased to exist, in practical terms.

The Blackpool Experience

By the time of repatriation, more Blackpool boys had died in the camps than were Killed or ‘Died of Wounds’ in Action; more were to die of or with the physical and mental effects of their experiences, once they were home.

Lack of information and speculation played havoc with both authorities and families, A quick analysis of the Official Notifications to the families of the men’s capture, shows something of the anguish felt at home, not knowing if loved ones were dead or alive. Both fear and dread at the prospect of loss and then jubilation and thanksgiving for some.  A sample of three Blackpool men’s records illustrate the point:

Gunner Reginald Leonard ‘Reggie’ Dunne

15 Feb 1942       Reported ‘Missing’
05 Nov 1942       Reported as a PoW
02 Sep 1945       Liberated
10 Oct 1945        Declared ‘No Longer PoW’

I.e. 9 Months between notifications of being ‘Missing’ and being a PoW; then over a month between Liberation and being declared ‘No longer a PoW’

LBdr Charles William ‘Chuck’ Jackson

15 Feb 1942       Reported ‘Missing’
09 Jun 1943        Reported as a PoW
02 Sep 1945       Liberated
26 Oct 1945        Declared ‘No Longer a PoW’

I.e. 17 Months between notifications of being ‘Missing’ and being a PoW; then 2 months between Liberation and being declared ‘No longer a PoW’

Maj WE ‘Eddie’ Gill

15 Feb 1942       Reported ‘Missing’
23 Sep 1942       Reported as a PoW
02 Sep 1945       Liberated
14 Sep 1945       Declared ‘No longer a PoW’

I.e. Officers fared a little better – 7 Months between notifications of being ‘Missing’ and being a PoW; then just 12 Days between Liberation and being declared ‘No longer a PoW’

Because the Blackpool Regiment were distributed around the Japanese occupied territories, their experiences differed hugely. From September to December 1945, The Gazette was filled with reports of returning PoWs and accounts of their treatment.

About 500 Mums, wives and girlfriends attended a briefing at Blackpool Library, given by Professor BG Magrath, Principal of the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine. The newspaper report headlined ‘HOW TO TREAT POWs BACK FROM THE FAR EAST’ suggested that they left ‘looking brighter’. The Professor gave them up beat advice on diet, ailments the men may suffer from and when and how to get medical help and advice. Finally, ‘Don’t let your man over eat!’.

Reception at home was mixed. One Mother meeting her son, said ‘At least you didn’t have to face the Blitz, like us!’, and another ‘Well you weren’t fighting for long!’. Families wanting to know why, how and what they’d been through; some accepting a quiet resignation not to speak about it. Other returnees eager to share experiences, not just with family, but with anyone eager to listen, including the Press. Local papers just as eager to tell tales of atrocities and of heroic deeds.

Adjusting must have been difficult in all cases. Rawlings describes how his family failed to understand or tolerate what was simply referred to as ‘Battle and Stress Fatigue’ and the role that alcohol played in offering brief spells of respite. He was clear that return to civilian life was too quick for ‘…sanity to establish itself decisively’.

Some consolation was garnered when the Blackpool Branches of Far East Prisoners of War Association and Burma Star Association were formed in the early 1950s, with several thousand founder members across the UK. Both provided opportunities for comradeship, collective memory and mutual support.

Free from captivity didn’t mean free from torment and ordeal. Feelings and emotions suppressed for years were now unleashed on families ill-equipped to cope or make sense of it. Families that had been advised not to talk about their experiences and not expect too much; Families that took second place to fellow PoWs. Families that despite the privations of war at home, knew absolutely nothing of what these shadows of their former selves had experienced. Families that couldn’t make sense of ‘new’ irrational behaviours. Behaviours that had maintained some kind of survival, sanity and normality in a captive, totally alien world. In the longer term, these men expected that, as time moved on the rest of the world would forget what they had been through. Adding to the mix of non-communication, returnees too had been instructed’ to ‘Guard your tongue’ in an official leaflet given to them on the way home.

GuardYrMouth2 (2)

The ‘Guard Your Tongue’ Leaflet

After varying times for recuperation and recovery, many went back to work. Work as therapy; Work as a distraction; work to earn a living. Some enlightened sympathetic employers held jobs open. Others made use of the facilities laid on by local and central government employment agencies.

Returning to work for some was relatively easy. Professional folk and some tradesmen found it easy and gratifying to slip back into work. Others, who may have lost skills over their captivity, or who had lost physical faculties, found it more difficult. Some of course would never be able to hold down a job ever again, helped only by the rehabilitation, benefit and therapeutic services on offer at the time. Senior Officers of local units, like Toosey, Owtram and Gill, appear to have played a crucial role in assisting returnees, either to therapy or into work. 137’s 2i/c Cary Outram’s family describe their fathers re-integration, following a long spell of paid leave: ‘…we were much impressed by the many responsibilities he was soon taking on..’, ‘…he kept in touch with other ex-prisoners, attending FEPOW Reunions in London.’

In June 2008, The Gazette reported the anniversary of ‘Eddie’ Gill’s death in 1968. One of 137’s Battery Commanders, launched himself into local service as a Councillor, and as a keen supporter of the military and service organisations in Blackpool, including FEPOW and the British Legion. Gunner ‘Reggie’ Dunne, whose brother Fred also a Gunner in 137, became a teacher of Science at John Vianney School. I remember him in the late 50s, with some affection as a tough, quiet and patient man who earned the respect of his pupils. He filled his days working with ex-POWs in several organisations including FEPOW. In a Gazette report on his funeral in 2003, is wife declared He made everyone have a laugh and got on with life. He spoke about being in the POW Camp but he always saw the good side, all the men had such great comradeship.’.

FEPOW & Burma Star Association

DSC09045The need for association with contemporaries and those who shared the experience of captivity in the Far East seemed strong. By 1946 the move from informal and local self-help groups was made to form National Association of  Far East Prisoners Of War Clubs and Associations in 1947. Not all the returnees engaged, Parkes & Gill suggest that about a third were involved, leaving the remainder, unsure or unwilling to share, talk and listen. Probably preferring to suppress dreadful memories. Initially, the ‘Returned British Prisoners of War Association’ attempted to deal with the men and women that had been through the Japanese experience. It was clear that the experiences of the German PoWs was a world away. The National Association of FEPOWs grew out of the differing set of needs. Toosey describes the most common symptoms suffered by the men and their families were ‘anxiety, restlessness and nightmares’.

The aim was to provide support for each other and their families, indeed ‘To keep the spirit that kept us going’.  Simply to be able to talk and listen, usually organised by the men themselves or former NCO’s. Officers were also welcome of course and some took on leading roles in the grown of what became a movement. As time moved on it was clear that health and welfare needs were beyond ‘helping each other’. In the North West, Philip Toosey, local business man and Banker provided enabling force to develop not just the FEPOW presence but also the early and  close collaboration between the Far East veterans and Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine. Toosey, ex Senior British Officer in the Tamarkan Camp, later Knighted, worked tirelessly for the FEPOW cause until his death in1975, as did Col Eddie Gill and Cary Owtram.

In spite of dwindling numbers of members of FEPOW, the Children Of Far East Prisoners of War (COFEPOW), continue to perpetuate their memory and host research.

The Final Legacy

In 1946, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (then the Imperial War Graves Commission) started gathering together the remains of those that had fallen on the island from the cemeteries at and around Changi and the rest of the island, mainly located at the sites of PoW Camps. Together with those in Thailand and Burma (now Myanmar). The legacy of those years of conflict and imprisonment is written in the names, accounts of the battles and prisons of those British, Commonwealth, American and Dutch who are commemorated there. To name a few: Kranji including Singapore commemorates 24,000; Rangoon, 27,000; Kanchanaburi, 5080; Thanbyuzat, 3150;


Kranji War Memorial, Singapore. (Courtesy Creative Commons)

Chunkai. 1420. Those numbers don’t include the civilians who died, fighting and suffering at the Singapore hands of the IJA. The Kranji Memorial includes memorials to ‘Unmaintainable Graves’ and one to ‘The Singapore Civil Hospital Graves Memorial’, remembering those who died and were buried in the grounds of the Hospital in such numbers ‘.. that burial in the normal manner was impossible. Before the war, an emergency water tank had been dug in the grounds of the hospital and this was used as a grave for more than 400 civilians and Commonwealth servicemen’ (CWGC).

The troops serving in the Far East regarded themselves as ‘The Forgotten Army’, we pray that the graves and memorials and sacrifices made by the Blackpool Regiment and all others, are never forgotten.


A cursory review of the Casualty List shows the Regiment was in action as soon as it arrived in Jitra in the north of Malaya. The War Diary records the losses objectively, dispassionately: ’23 Dec 41, …4 Killed, 6 Wounded, 2 vehicles destroyed…’. Like many others, our Regiment was made up of fit young men, average age 27, the youngest just 20 and judging the the men’s numbers, made up of both experienced and fresh and inexperienced, perhaps caught up in the recruitment frenzy in 1939.  Also interesting are the names shown as ‘Killed in Action’ long after the Surrender, as late as September and December 1944. Sad to read are the long list of those who died as Prisoners of War, especially those who died just before, during and just after ‘Liberation’.

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.

Accounts of conditions and treatment in the camps are widely available, much less so are the accounts of treatment on liberation, repatriation and home-coming. Perhaps an opportunity for further research.

The stories of those prisoners that 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 and 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 1: Oct/Nov 2015
Part 2: Jul/Aug 2018

Authors Note:  Like the first part of this History of the Blackpool Regiment, this is a reduced version. The full story with Annexed documents is available at Blackpool Central Library, Local History Section.


References, Sources and Further Research


Background to the Fall of Singapore
Isaacs, J., 1973, BBC Series ‘World at War’, Ep 6 Banzai! Japan (1931–1942), Thames Television

Lt Sutcliffes Diary (‘D’ Tp, 350 Bty, 137 Fd Regt RA)
Personal Papers of Lt Robert Sutcliffe, 350 Battery, 137 Fd Regt RA TA. At Imperial War Museum, Library, Ref: Docs18749

Personal Diary of CO of 88 Fd Regt
D’Arbuz, History of the 88th Fd Regt RA In Malaya 1941/42, Unpublished. At IWM Library, Ref: LBY K.84/2318

Accounts of Captivity
Vart, R., Experience of Captivity with 137 Fd Regt RA, Sound Recording, at: Lancashire Archive, Ref: 1995.0231


Details of Japanese Prison Camps; locations and life in the camps at:

Clark T.(Ed) 2008, The ‘Bushido’ Code at:

Conditions on Thai- Burma Railway at:
Coombes, J.H.H., (1948), Banpong Express, available at:

Jap PoW Index Cards;  PoWs held in Singapore Camps at NA WO367 and Find My Past; Hospital Registers for PoW Camps in the Far East (1942-1947) at NA WO 347 via:

Researching FEPOW History 2015 Conference Papers, Surviving Far East Captivity and the Aftermath: 70 Years On

Accounts of the Sumatra Railway construction

Entertainment in camps at:

Experience of PoW’s Families via Google Books, search ‘War and Welfare: British Prisoner of War Families, 1939-45’ at:

Information on Civil Resettlement Units at:

The Sporting Lives of Sir Shenton Thomas and the Male European Internees at Changi Prison Camp During the Japanese Occupation of Singapore, 1942–1945, Peng Han Lim and Mohd Salleh Aman at:

Document 2701, etc.  at:

Leaflets ‘Guard your Tongue’, etc at:
Oliver, L., 2017, Prisoners of the Sumatra Railway: Narratives of History and Memory, Bloomsbury Publishing. Available on Google Books, search ‘Guard Your Tongue’

Photo of Repatriation Memorial Liverpool By Rodhullandemu [CC BY-SA 4.0], from Wikimedia Commons

Photo of Kranji War Memorial By Oorlogsgraven stichting [CC BY 2.5, via Wikimedia Commons

‘Epilogue Camp’, Discussion and documents at:

Brig EW Goodman account of time in Malaya, including capture, imprisonment, liberation and repatriation at:

WW2 Forum at:

Thai-Burma Railway map at:

No 1 Nong Pladuc Camp and Group 1 Movements at:

‘The New Plan’


Blackburn, K, & Hack, K., 2007, Forgotten Captives in Japanese-Occupied Asia, Routledge

Bull, S., 1999, Lancashire Gunners at War: the 88th Lancashire Field Regiment, 1939-1945, Carnegie Publishers

Chesworth, A., (2017), Planning and Realities: The Recovery of Britain’s Far East Prisoners Of War 1941-1945, PhD. Thesis, Dept of History, University of Sheffield. Available at:

Coombes, J.H.H., (1948), Banpong Express, Self Published, Printed by Wm Dresser & Sons, Darlington

Davies, P., (2013), The Man Behind the Bridge: Colonel Toosey and the River Kwai, A&C Black

Daws, G., 1996, Prisoners of the Japanese: POWs of World War II in the Pacific Paperback, William Morrow Paperbacks

Eldredge, SE., 2014, Captive Audiences / Captive Performers: Music and Theatre as Strategies for Survival on the Thailand – Burma Railway 1942-1945, Macalester College

Farrell, B., (2005), The Defence and Fall of Singapore (2nd Ed, 2015), Monsoon Books, Singapore

Hately-Broad, B., 2013, War and Welfare: British Prisoner of War Families, 1939-45, Manchester University Press,

Mitchell, I., 1996, Prisoners of the Emperor Paperback, The Pentland Press

Monument, G., 1996, An Angel on my Shoulder, A Lane Publishers,

Parkes, M. & Gill G., (2015) , Captive Memories: Starvation, Disease, Survival, Palatine Books.

Parkes, M., 2002, ‘Notify Alec Rattray…’, Kranji Publications

Parkes, M., 2003, ‘…A.A. Duncan is OK’, Kranji Publications

Summers, J., 2005, The Colonel of Tamarkan: Philip Toosey and the Bridge on the River Kwai, Simon & Shuster UK Ltd.

Taylor, E., 2018, Captivity: Prisoners of the Japanese – Their ordeal and the Legacy, Pen & Sword Military,

Woodburn-Kirby, S.,et al.,  (1957), The War Against Japan: The Loss of Singapore (Official History), Vol 1, HMSO, London. Republished 2015 by 232 Celcius.


The ‘Blackpool Regiment’: A brief history of 137 (A) Fd Regt RA

RA Badge

Cap Badge of the Royal Artillery

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.


Yorkshire Street Drill Hall

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.


Blackpool Recruits

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.

137MapsAThe 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.


Drawing of 350 Battery locations, from Leo Rawlings book

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.


The Battery disposition, at Trolak and the Slim River, early January 1942.  (Adapted from Coombes, 1948, p 41)

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.

The Surrender

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.

image001The 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.

Oct/Nov 2015

Editors Note:
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:

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:

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:

Permanent Exhibition at the National Memorial Arboretum, at:

Other Sources

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:

Yorkshire Street Drill Hall:  Courtesy of

Blackpool Recruits: Evening Gazette, 29/04/1952

Burma Peninsula Map: Courtesy of and adapted from Taylor, R., 2003 above.