125TH Anti-tank Regiment Royal Artillery
1939 - 1945
The following story was produced in a small blue book in December 1946 by the 125th Anti-Tank Regiment Relatives' Association. The graphic story of the Regiment's experiences was compiled by Captain Ridley and Major MacKenzie.
A copy of this book was in the personal effects of
Gunner Alexander John Turner No 1455465 of the 125th Anti-Tank Regiment
(This book is currently in the care of Carol Cooper)
THE 125TH ANTI-TANK REGIMENT has not a long history of which it can boast; but it has, in its comparatively short existence, passed through an epic experience which gives it the proud right to take its place alongside any of the veteran regiments whose exploits emblazon the pages of our history.
Volumes could be written about those experiences, but we shall attempt no more than try to sketch the course of the Regiment from its inception to the time when, six and a half years later, the survivors, still strong in spirit and with heads 'bloody but un-bowed', returned to their homes from Japanese prisoner-of-war camps, carrying sad thoughts of gallant comrades they had left behind, to whose memory we would first of all pay our humble tribute.
Early 1939 - with war clouds gathering over Europe, it was decided to double the strength of the Territorial Army and to form a second line to the 74th Field Regiment R.A. (50th Northumbrian Division) with headquarters at Sunderland. Local men rolled along to the Drill Hall and signed on the dotted line.
26th August l939 - The 2/74 Field Regiment R.A. set off for its first T.A. Camp at Whitby, to be recalled after barely a week.
September 1939 - war now an inescapable fact, the Unit was embodied into the Regular Army, and, under the new designation of the 125th Field Regiment R.A. (23rd Division), began serious training.
How we recall those first few months of training. Little or no equipment, digging trenches or gun emplacements one day and filling them in the next day. It was enough to break the heart of any man, but it was a part of our training, and even though there may have been feelings of dissatisfaction and frustration at this apparent 'mucking about' it was at any rate inculcating in the minds of one and all the necessity of instant obedience without any questioning. We were not slow to learn that lesson, and soon the corners were rounded off and we began to feel proud of the progress we were making. The stage appeared to be set for an early departure overseas.
About this time new blood was infused into the Regi-ment by the arrival of Army Class 'intakes' to replace the young 'immature' of the Unit whose age debarred them from service abroad.
Then came the tragedy of Dunkirk, and the re-shuffling of Units that followed. The 124th Field Regiment, of Newcastle, was posted to the 50th Division, and we were sent into Norfolk, among strangers, to join the 18th Division and to our dismay we learned that we were to change our role to 'Anti-Tank.' Quite apart from leaving our north country friends, this change was a bitter pill to swallow. Few, if any, of us had the least idea what an Anti-Tank gun looked like, let alone the working of a regiment of 48 guns. Still, like true soldiers, we adapted ourselves to the changed circumstances and men who, only a few months previously had been wearing 'mufti' were soon mastering the differences between the new 2 pounder and the 18 pounder and 4.5 Howitzer they had trained on. Further 'intakes' and a party from the 21st Anti-Tank Regiment joined us.
We had about this time to say goodbye to one of the most respected officers of the Regiment. Major Stanley Milburn, Second in Command, had earned the esteem of all ranks, and it was with very great regret we learned that he had been posted to a Home Service Unit. He left us with the good wishes of every officer and man.
By November 1940 the Regiment was placed under War Office orders and commenced to mobilise for service overseas. Equipment literally poured in. The fitting of tropical clothing caused quite a diversion, and in one instance gave rise to the rather caustic comment from one of the Warrant Officers in respect. of a 'topee' worn at the wrong angle that "this piece of headgear is for keeping the sun out of your eyes - NOT the dust out of the back of your boots."
Under extremely wintry conditions the Regiment moved into Scotland and there, with snow on the ground, 'desert' training was attempted.
Finally, in March 1941, we embarked at Gourock on the P.& O liner Strathaird. Again our luck seemed to be out, and, after being aboard for ten days and actually sailing, we were forced to return to anchorage for repairs. These proved to be so extensive that our move overseas was cancelled pro tem. So we said good-bye to all our equipment and started all over again.
Apparently the War Office could spare no equipment to re-fit us, and so began those seemingly endless days of doing civilian jobs of fire-watching at Glasgow, and later at Liverpool.
During Liverpool's heaviest 'blitz' period, the men of the 125th did wonderful service, for which we couldn't help but feel that we received little thanks. Night after night, parties stood by and helped the people of Liverpool while German planes droned overhead, showering ton after ton of bombs on the darkened city. Day after day we helped in the task of finding the remains of the un-fortunate victims from the previous night's raid.
It was during this period we suffered our first casualties, for, in the course of duty during air raids, three members of the Regiment: Sgt. E. V. Edge, Gnr. E. R. Allan and Gnr. G. Bannaghan, lost their lives.
Following this spell of duty at Liverpool, we settled down in Cheshire for further serious training, new equipment having been received.
Then came our visit to Trawsfyndd - the regimental wags soon had it re-christened 'Trousers'- for actual target practice. This experience provided the impetus we were needing after the 'browned-off' feeling that was beginning to develop and, almost overnight, a great rivalry showed itself. Each Battery was determined to show just how good it was. This keenness was demonstrated at the second shoot when the C.R.A. congratulated the Regiment on an extremely fine performance. Practically every target was destroyed in an incredibly short space of time and officers and men alike felt that at long last something worthwhile had been achieved. The Colonel's comment: "The time will not be far distant when the Regiment will give a good account of itself in the face of the enemy; you know you can depend on your weapons and I know I can depend on you," was quite sufficient to make everyone feel more confident.
A few weeks more of intensive training and then we received our final orders from the War Office.
No matter in what part of the country we had been stationed, we had invariably received a very warm welcome from the local residents, but none could surpass the hospitality shown to us by the good people of Cheshire and as the crunch - crunch - crunch of marching feet sounded down the streets of Heaton Moor and Middle-wich and as we made our way to the railway stations, those cheery folk came running from their homes to bid us God-speed and say a final word of good luck. We shall never forget the good friends who did so much to make our stay in Cheshire as happy as it possibly could be.
We embarked at Avonmouth on the S.S. Oronsay and sailed about midday on 28th October 1941. As the tugs came alongside and slowly edged the ship away from the dockside, our feelings were very mixed and, whilst looking forward with a certain amount of excitement to our voyage, we wondered when, if ever, we should see the shores of England again. So commenced our cruise of some 20,000 miles to our ultimate destination.
After a few hours in the Clyde we steamed north-west towards Iceland, with clear skies and little sea running but gradually the temperature dropped, skies became grey, a very slight swell (so we were told) made itself apparent, and quite soon many of the troops realised that they were still very much 'land-lubbers.' About seven days out we learned that our first port of call was to be Halifax, Nova Scotia and the same morning our small escort of destroyers left us and in their place a gigantic escort of American warships took charge - in fact it seemed to us that there were more escort vessels than 'troopers' and after passing through the most dangerous seas with our small British escort, this rather made us smile.
We sighted Nova Scotia on the morning of the 8th November and by midday the ship was tied up in Halifax harbour. Our hopes that we might be allowed ashore were soon dashed when we received orders to transfer to an American vessel and be ready to sail again by midnight. This almost impossible task was completed in time and we pulled out into the harbour, there to enjoy (at that period of the war) the novel spectacle of a town without 'black-out' restrictions in operation. Everywhere there was a blaze of light and the beams from the headlights of cars as they swept along a coast road, coupled with all the twinkling lights from the shore and the shipping in the harbour provided a picture that sent our thoughts racing back to pre-war days: only to bring them back with a jolt as we remembered the grim tasks that lay ahead before conditions such as these could once more be enjoyed in England.
By breakfast time on the 10th November, our convoy was slipping past the white granite cliffs outside Halifax and heading south-west for Trinidad. Our troopship was the United states ship Dickman. Everything seemed strange - Stars and Stripes fluttering over our heads, the American sailors wearing leather gloves when at work, the food we ate and the internal loudspeaker system. Some of those orders- 'Darken ship,' 'Sea Watch to muster,' etc., etc., will always be remembered with a smile.
Our course took us down the coast past New York and Carolina, then south-east by Florida, the Bahamas and through the Caribbean Sea to Trinidad. Again we were not allowed ashore and after both the ship and the American crew had been 're-fuelled' we sailed for Capetown, crossing the equator at Longitude 40º 27' West on the 23rd November.
Father Neptune and trusty scribe Davy Jones were there to welcome us and the ceremony of initiation into the Ancient Order of 'Shellbacks' provided a welcome entertainment. Some of us managed to hang on to our cards of enrolment into the Ancient Order throughout the grim days that followed and still retain them as a souvenir of the occasion.
At this period we appeared to steam in circles for about two days. Apparently an armed raider was somewhere south of us and was having the attention of the Americans. Eventually we nosed our way ahead in a dead calm sea and boiling heat. Cloudless skies, the deepest of blue sea, with nothing to look at apart from the rest of the convoy and the shoals of flying fish made the days drag. At night the ship was dreadfully hot, and those who were allowed to sleep on deck were extremely fortunate - down below one just lay and gasped for breath in a bath of perspiration.
As we got further south, the weather turned cooler and the flying fish were replaced by the Ancient Mariner's old friend the Albatross. Then we were into the Roaring Forties, and how the old ship rolled.
We had two days of very heavy seas just before we sighted land. Land.…. it seemed like years since we had last seen terra firma. Gradually, as the outline of Table Mountain began to take shape, the ships of the convoy formed a line ahead and, at Action Stations, we steamed ever so slowly through the mine-fields into Capetown.
Other than walking the few yards from ship to ship at Halifax, the majority of the Regiment had not set foot on land since leaving England on October 28th, and as it was now the 9th December, is it any wonder that everyone waited anxiously to hear if we were going to be allowed ashore. This time we were more fortunate, and four glorious never-to-be-forgotten days were spent in the shadow of Table Mountain. The hospitality extended to us by the people of Capetown will live long in the memories of all. How the many dances, tours into the surrounding country, and hosts of other pleasant things were arranged in so few hours seemed marvellous.
On 13th December we watched, with regret, the strip of water between the wharf and the ship gradually widen, and by about 10.30 a.m. we were again taking up our allotted position in the convoy. As we said our mental 'goodbyes' to Capetown and South Africa, the 'table-cloth' was spreading over Table Mountain as though after a hectic four days of entertaining the town was slowly closing its eyes for a brief rest until another convoy should arrive.
As we looked round we noticed that we had lost our huge American escort and instead the British cruiser Dorsetshire was in sole charge. The Americans on our ship were quite distressed at the reduction in the size of the escort but, after a bit of leg-pulling on our part, they eventually kept quiet.
Our course took us northwards through the Mozambique Channel and then, when off Mombassa, one ship left the convoy and that same night, yet another. At this stage we thought we were bound for the Middle East - as in fact we were - but soon our course was altered and we were heading for India. Christmas Day was spent in the Indian Ocean and we found that turkey with all the trimmings tasted just as good eaten under tropical conditions as in a colder climate. Two days later, at about 5.30 pm, Bombay was sighted through the heat haze. By 6.30 pm we were anchored and saw the long, low water front with the Gateway to India standing out like a giant entrance to an old castle; the world famous Taj Mahal Hotel, rearing above the surrounding buildings, was shown in sharp relief.
We were allowed ashore the following day and so had our first glimpse of the East. The roads leading from the docks were hot and dusty and one could almost taste the strange mixture of odours which emanated from the various stalls and street corners. Those members of the Regiment who had been to India previously were in great demand - for help in changing British to Indian currency and for information as to how to get to such places as - er - Grant Road.
The four days spent in Bombay were fully occupied in visiting places of interest. We thought the Towers of Silence, only a few minutes walk from the beautiful Hanging Gardens, must be about the most curious and gruesome spot in the world. On these towers the Parsees reverently expose their dead and, undefiled by fire, earth, or water, the bodies serve to feed the loathsome vultures that haunt the surrounding gardens. This method of disposal of their dead originated from the veneration the Parsees pay to the elements, Earth, Fire and Water, which cannot permit their pollution by the contact of dead bodies. It is laid down in their religion that the rich and poor shall meet as one in death and, so far as the human remains are concerned, this literally happens, for the skeletons, picked clean by the winged scavengers soon disintegrate by exposure to the sun, wind, and rain, and the crumbling bones fall through gratings in the towers and mingle as dust in the well below.
On New Year's Day we entrained for Ahmednagar, arriving there after an interesting journey at about 5.30 a.m. the following day. After breakfast at the station and a long hot march, we arrived at our new home at East Ridge. Here for three weeks we attempted to get used to working under tropical conditions, wondering all the while what was in store for us. All manner of rumours were circulated as to where our ultimate destination was to be - none of them proved to be correct. When we heard that the major portion of the 18th Division had left India we began to wonder if we had been forgotten. All that remained of the Division were the 18th Bn. Recce. Corps, 9th Northumberland Fusiliers, 251 Field Park Coy, 197 Field Ambulance, 18th Division Workshops and ourselves. When they did come, our marching orders arrived suddenly, and on the 23rd January, 1942, we were again on the docks at Bombay and embarking on the coal-burning C.P.R. liner Empress of Asia. What memories the mere mention of that old hulk bring back.
Lieut. Colonel Dean was detailed to be Officer Com-manding Troops on board and for a start, he refused to take over the ship owing to its filthy condition. Unfortunately the Principal Sea Transport Officer had his orders from higher authority that the ship had to sail on the afternoon tide no matter what happened. Orders were orders, so we were compelled to get a move on if we were to be loaded in time for sailing. The Empress of Asia had done trooping during the 1914-18 war and by the condition of things below decks it appeared as though she had never been cleaned since that period.
How it was managed is still a mystery, but the old tub began to move slowly into mid-stream at about 3.45 p.m. Figures on the quayside dwindled with horrible deliberation, a few gulls wheeled over the shining water; we had started on the last lap of our journey to - where? We still did not know but felt certain it must be back to the Middle East. In any case, it couldn't possibly be Malaya - the show there was virtually over, we felt certain.
After leaving Ceylon on our port, the chart showed our course to be in a direct line for Australia. This course was kept up for a few days and then, when about 8º south of the equator, it changed suddenly and we passed through the Sunda Strait dividing Sumatra and Java. Here about half the convoy left us and went into Batavia while we continued on our course heading north. At long last we knew where we were bound for - Singapore - as reinforcements. Things looked pretty grim.
From the occasional radio bulletins we learned that the Japanese forces were having considerable success and were advancing rapidly down the Malay Peninsula. At that time it looked feasible that they intended to outflank Singapore by way of Sumatra. This impression was, of course, based on the belief we had so often heard ex-pressed by so-called Military Experts that Singapore was an impregnable fortress. On the assumption that the Japanese might attempt this out-flanking movement, extra precautions were taken on board the Asia. Every available L.M.G. that could be employed was brought out and men were detailed as gun crews under Captain Watts. The ship already had a 3 in. A.A. gun, a 6 in. Anti-submarine and Surface Raider weapon, 6 Oerlikons of approximately .55 calibre and 10 Lewis machine guns. To this complement was added 14 Brens from the Regi-ment, 10 from the Recce. Corps, and two, with 100-round containers, from Divisional Workshops. The ship was literally bristling with guns and should we be attacked by low-flying aircraft we felt sure we should be in a position to give a good account of ourselves.
We found that the captain of the Asia had more to worry about than fire-power. He was not at all happy about his stokers, who had already given evidence of being an unreliable lot - leaving their posts at the first sign of danger.
After leaving Batavia we saw an occasional fighter aircraft, and one day a Catalina kept us company for a short time. This all went to make us feel a little more secure in those narrow waters.
Standing Orders in the event of enemy attack were posted throughout the ship and everyone became quite conversant with them. We had been given a few practice 'Alarms' and the best and quickest method of getting to Action Stations had been developed to a fine art.
The morning of February 4th dawned with little cloud and the deep blue sea was scarcely disturbed by a single ripple. About 11 a.m. the alarm sounded and this time it was no practice. A formation of 27 Japanese bombers was flying over the convoy at a very high altitude. At first we fondly imagined that they were Allied planes, but we were soon disillusioned when our escort broke convoy and commenced to zigzag. Three months had elapsed since we had heard a gun fired or a bomb explode and now, after sailing over 20,000 miles and arriving within 24 hours run of our destination, we heard again that familiar whistle. A number of bombs were dropped encircling the ship, the nearest falling into the sea within 60 yards of our starboard side. Apart from holing some of the lifeboats, buckling a few plates and shattering some wooden partitions, we took no harm.
However, whilst little damage had been done, our fears about the stokers proved to have been well founded, for they deserted the stoke hold immediately the bombs were heard to explode, and made their way to the 'fiddley-deck.' Before they returned to their posts steam had been lost and our speed was reduced to about 10 knots. That afternoon the convoy split, the faster portion going on ahead whilst we wallowed along as best we could with the Felix Roussel and the Canterbury as company. We all felt that the planes had been returning from a bombing raid, and we realised that now we had been spotted we could expect a further visitation.
In the light of subsequent events it would seem that the Colonel must have had psychic powers that after-noon. He decided to alter the existing Standing Orders and, after drafting new Orders and getting the Captain to agree to them, he called a meeting of all Commanding Officers and gave out his amended orders, which were to become operative at once. In future, instead of all officers not on duty collecting in the Officers' Lounge, only Commanding Officers, Adjutants, Battery Commanders and a maximum of one other officer from each Unit would muster there. All the remaining officers would go with their men to troop decks. Likewise, W.O's. and Sergts. were to keep away from their cabins and W.O's. Lounge and proceed to troop decks. In response to an appeal for men to act as stokers in the event of a repetition of that morning's regrettable in-cident, about 50% of the troops volunteered for this unsavoury task.
Final arrangements were made for disembarking on the following day when we were due to arrive at Singapore and it was a case of early to bed wondering what the morrow would bring.
After an uneventful night, the morning of the never-to-be-forgotten 5th February duly arrived. Away on the horizon, dead ahead, was a black smudge which everyone thought was a cloud - we later found that it was Singapore with a pall of black smoke hanging over it. Arrangements made for the stacking of kits, and with-drawal of the remaining arms and ammunition from the armoury were progressing excellently when the warning sounded again. With the experience of the previous day still fresh in our minds no time was wasted and within 2½ minutes everyone was at Action Stations. Again we saw a formation of 27 planes, this time travelling away from us towards the island. The warning had been given by our own ship, not by the escort vessel, and after a few minutes, as nothing happened, the 'all clear' was given from the bridge. Within four minutes the A.A. guns of our escort opened fire, and, without waiting to hear any further warning from our own ship, everyone was back at Action Stations. This time there was no mistaking the intention of the planes. From the forma-tion, aircraft were seen to peel off ringed by the bursts of A.A. fire. The channel through which we were passing was fairly narrow, and the depth of water did not allow ships of deep draught to swing - consequently we had to carry on and hope for the best.
The Felix Roussel was the first ship to receive a direct hit and was soon on fire. Luckily, a second direct hit landed in a water tank which burst and the rush of the escaping water put out the flames. Then it was our turn. The curtain of fire from the Asia must have been intensive and the first wave of aircraft dropped their load all wide of the ship. With a roar they passed over our heads followed by a second wave almost on their tail. Columns of water spouted all round the ship, but still we were untouched. Then a single plane appeared from out of the blue. For a second we were able to see a bomb released from the aircraft and then all we could hear above the din from our own guns was that long swish-sh-sh getting louder and louder and ending with a sickening thud. The bomb had passed over the bridge, through the roof of the Officers' Lounge and exploded somewhere below. Fourteen officers were collected in the lounge at the time and in a flash a scorching, searing flame which removed hair and eyebrows filled the room, followed by dense fumes which made the smoke laden atmosphere too hot to breathe. Tin hats, water-bottles and haver-sacks were torn from the officers' bodies by the suction created by the bursting bomb. Amidst the smoke, those who were able fumbled their way to the boat deck, there to gulp fresh air into their lungs. One officer of the Regiment was killed, and two were seriously injured.
At this stage the enemy bombers turned their attention to our escort, H.M.S. Exeter, but by skilful manoeuvring and intense A.A. fire, no hits were registered and again the attack was switched to the Asia. Magazine after magazine was emptied as our men stood up to their first real encounter with the enemy - each man an example to his neighbour, but by this time the fire had got a real hold on the tinder-dry woodwork and the 'fiddley deck', where the guns were sited, was enveloped in smoke which made it impossible to see more than a few yards. More planes came over and further bombs made hits on the ship. Meanwhile the party of volunteer stokers had proceeded to 'A' deck aft, amidst the wreckage of cabins and bathrooms. They ran out a hose, but on turning the cock all they were able to get was a mere trickle of water. Had the circumstances not been so serious we could have appreciated the humour of the situation. If only water had been available, the story might have been different, but for some unknown reason, probably damage done below by the explosion, all pumps ceased to function from the time the first bomb landed on the ship.
Meanwhile Medical Officers and First Aid parties were doing wonderful work in the hospital and at various first-aid points throughout the ship. The hospital was cut off and the M.O. in charge had to evacuate his patients by pushing them through the portholes into the sea. Down in the mess decks, troops, under responsible officers, were sitting at their mess tables well below the water line, singing and joking. Their lot was by no means an enviable one, shut off from everything except the noise of the guns, and with no idea of what was happening above, yet there was not a single suggestion of panic.
The ship was burning furiously and although the Captain did his utmost to prevent the flames from spread-ing by swinging as much as he dare, it soon became quite evident that unless a miracle happened the Asia would soon be burning from end to end. The bridge was burnt out and the Colonel had joined the Captain on the flying bridge, but soon even this position had to be abandoned and the senior officers who had gathered there climbed down a rope to the forward well-deck.
The atmosphere between decks was by this time unbearable. Instead of fresh air being drawn into the ship, smoke was circulating, and it became absolutely necessary to order all men up on deck. The Asia was virtually cut in two, with about 90% of the Regiment forward. The Colonel was an inspiration to all, standing on a bollard giving orders as though on parade, whilst aircraft still flew overhead. Ropes were lowered, rafts slung overboard and everything possible done in readiness for the order which we knew must follow very soon. The deck was almost too hot to stand on when, with the help of the men, the Captain lowered first one anchor and then the other. At approximately 1.0 p.m. the order 'Abandon ship' was given. Those who were able to swim were ordered to leave first, and within about twenty minutes everyone except the Captain, the Colonel, the S.M.O., the ship's Chief Officer and Padre Jackson were clear of the ship.
One A.A. team from the Regiment actually jumped from their gun position on the 'fiddley-deck' into the sea after they were cut off. All men forward had to leave the ship down a 60 ft rope into the water. Those aft were fortunate enough to be taken off on a destroyer. Burning pieces of wreckage were falling into the sea, and small arms ammunition was exploding the whole time and no matter where one looked, heads could be seen bobbing about in the water. Eventually all survivors were picked up and taken ashore (some six miles distant) and the job of collecting the Regiment together again was commenced. Incidentally, some three days later, the burning ship having settled on a sandbank, attempts were made by the Captain to get back on board, but it was found impossible even after that period to get within 10 ft of the red-hot hull.
The relief of getting off the flaming ship blotted out to a large extent any sentimental feelings we may have had about being compelled to leave behind our equipment and personal belongings, some of which we could never replace. When we landed we were a sorry sight - some without shirts, some without shorts and the majority without footwear. The following morning about 60 men were still missing, but by the following day, late in the afternoon, we were in a position to account for everyone. Our only death was Lieut. R. B. Wilson, but about 62% of the personnel of the Regiment were suffering from burns and wounds which kept the Medical Officer, his orderly and his driver busy for many hours.
On the morning of the 8th February a message arrived from Divisional Headquarters which read:-
FOLLOWING FROM HMS DANAE BEGINS STOP FROM THE ACCOUNTS I HAVE RECEIVED FROM VARIOUS OFFICERS THE TENACITY AND STEADINESS OF THE MILITARY IN THE EMPRESS OF ASIA IS WORTHY OF THE HIGHEST PRAISE STOP ENDS GOC MALAYA AND DIVISION CONGRATULATE ALL RANKS ON THEIR SOLDIERLY CONDUCT.
Eventually we moved into the line - A. and C. Batteries and R.H.Q. to Serangoon, on the 9th February. Here patrols off the coast of Johore in darkness were not very pleasant. As we had no equipment we were acting as Infantry. H Troop was the only exception, being the proud possessors of four anti -tank guns.
The story of the battle for Singapore was not a long one as far as we were concerned. The campaign was practically lost before we left India. The enemy made a landing on the island on the night of the 7/8th with, it was thought, one Division and one Brigade strength. Their main drive was towards the reservoirs from the West coast. Reinforcements had been drafted towards the Western front, but apparently they were unable to stem the attack as the enemy literally poured fresh men into the drive. Everywhere there was lack of informa-tion, and fifth column work of unbelievable proportions. All that remained of the Air Force when we arrived was about nine Brewster Buffaloes, which were quite useless. It appeared that their instructions were to get off the ground and keep clear when the enemy came over. On the evening of Tuesday, February 10th, all planes and the remaining personnel from the Air Force left the island.
A and C Batteries were separated from the Regiment and came under control of 154 Infantry Brigade and they did not rejoin until after hostilities ceased. After leaving Serangoon area they spent the remainder of the battle on the Bukit Timor Road. B and D Batteries and R.H.Q. went from Divisional Reserve to Seletar Aerodrome alongside some Tynesiders from the Northumberland Fusiliers, there taking up positions along the coast line and airport. From this area they withdrew to the perimeter defence of the town taking up positions on Grave Hill, as unpleasant a spot from a shelling point of view as its name implied.
By the morning of that ill-fated 15th February, we were being shelled from almost every angle except dead in rear, which was the centre of the town. The enemy actually had an observation balloon up for about three hours, and owing to our lack of aircraft, we were power-less to do anything about it. About 3.0 p.m. the Colonel arrived at R.H.Q. with news which at first we just couldn't believe. We knew the position was grave and that the water supply had been cut; but - surrender - the very idea had never entered our heads. However, it was only too true and, acting according to orders, the 'cease-fire' sounded at 4-0 p.m., although the enemy were still dropping bombs on the town as late as 6.45 p.m.
After the initial shock of receiving this humiliating order, the Colonel was bombarded with questions, and it appeared that the main reasons that had induced the G.O.C. to capitulate were:-
1. Lack of artillery ammunition, there wasn't 100 rounds per gun left. In many cases only five rounds per gun remained.
2. The enemy had possession of the reservoirs and had cut the water supply to the town. In a tropical country it can easily be imagined what the ulti-mate result of this step would be.
3. An ultimatum had been given by the enemy that unless there was unconditional surrender, every European on the island would be annihilated. (The authorities knew from experiences up-country that this was no idle threat).
That evening, as we sat talking, everything seemed very strange and unreal. Hushed was the never ending shriek and scream and banging of artillery fire; now all was deathly quiet, Here and there could be seen the odd light from some un-screened window, and all around the sky was red with the glow from fires burning in the city. No one spoke, everyone was too busy with his own thoughts, wondering what the morning would bring. We had heard from Captain McNamara of the Police (who had been attached to us for the battle) how the Japanese treated their prisoners up country and the prospect was far from rosy. The following day was one of further suspense. At 8.0 a.m. the Japanese Army marched into Singapore, and the flag of the Rising Sun was hoisted over the Government buildings. We were, however, left pretty much to ourselves during that day.
On the 17th we marched to Changi, some twenty miles from the centre of the city, and commenced our 3½ year captivity. In olden days the experiences that followed might have formed the inspiration for a huge tapestry, the main motif inevitably of dark and sombre hue, but running through the entire pattern a continuous golden thread of the firmest comradeship and unquenchable cheerfulness.
'Austerity' is too mild a term to use when thinking of the diet on which the men of the Regiment worked in equatorial heat, even in those early days, hewing timber and transporting it to camp. A veritable slimming diet it was, the majority of us losing in two short months up to a third of our weight. As Peter Fleming once wrote "if we had had access to them, the contents of your dustbins would not have been inviolate."
Whilst at Changi nominal rolls were prepared many times and handed to the Japanese for transmission to England showing battle casualties, but it was not until a few months later that we were allowed to send our first postcard home. We were told we must only write three simple sentences - and how we longed to say more.
During March, the Japs segregated all the sick at Changi and called for working parties to go to Singapore. By being firm the Colonel was able to prevent the splitting up of the Regiment into odd sections and on April 3rd, the majority moved into Singapore to River Valley Camp. Some were lucky and after the first few miles of marching were conveyed in trucks for the remainder of the twenty miles, but most of us had to march all the way. When we arrived at the camp, a wonderful sight met our eyes. Some Chinese were standing near to the entrance, their arms full of rolls of freshly baked bread. BREAD - we had not tasted bread since 15th February, and on the Asiatic diet we were forever hungry. Needless to say, the bread soon dis-appeared and after we had been counted again and again by grunting little Japanese, we were at last allowed to attempt to get settled in our new home. What a home it was. Everywhere the grass was long and soaking wet, the ground was pitted with shell holes and bomb craters full of water and covered with frog spawn, latrines were conspicuous by their absence, there was no cookhouse, the huts were dark and dirty and lizards flitted about everywhere. However, bad as the conditions were, we did at any rate go to bed that first night without the eternal gnawing pain that we had experienced at Changi through want of food. Sleep was impossible - will any of us forget the croaking of those bull-frogs which com-menced about an hour after dusk and continued all night until, like magic, it stopped with the dawn.
Easter Day 1942 saw a steady stream of men, just as dawn was breaking, heading for the rice hut. At that time there was no padre in the camp, but Major Wylie was fortunately able to step into the breach and, under the most primitive conditions, in semi-darkness and surrounded by bags of rice, Holy Communion was celebrated. As the early morning light filtered into the hut, one could see that, in addition to our own men, the congregation included troops from almost every part of the world - Canada, India, Malaya, New Zealand, etc.
Soon after our arrival at River Valley we were put to work and for most of the time we were in Singapore we helped to clear up the debris, pushing handcarts about from point to point loaded with sand and bricks. Officers at this stage were not forced to work, and usually they went out with the working parties and acted as 'buffers' between the Japanese guards and the men. The Japanese took a delight in attempting to belittle us in the sight of the native population - little did they know that those natives, and we ourselves, were smiling inwardly at what was taking place under the very noses of our guards. Sgt. Oag, our Regimental Armourer, who was the son of an Armourer, was quietly working in camp repairing arms for the Chinese underground organisation. Hun-dreds of rifles and revolvers and at least three L.M.G.'s were serviced and returned safely. All these weapons were smuggled into camp in various ways and, after the necessary repairs had been completed, were pushed under the wire at night. This was all Sgt. Oag's own work and for quite a time even men living quite close to him were unaware of the dangerous work he was performing.
During August rumours were rife that all prisoners were to be taken off the island and sent up-country or to Japan. A small party had already left for Siam and soon all senior officers above the rank of Lieut-Colonel were sent overseas.
Before leaving the Divisional Commander sent this message:-
"On my departure for Japan I wish to take what may be my last chance to thank all ranks of the 18th Division for their cheerful service and loyal support on many shores and seas during the two years I have had the honour to command the Division.
I regret I have been unable to lead you to the success in battle to which your cause and sacrifice is entitled, and although I leave you with a heavy heart, I carry with me many precious memories and a sense of comradeship such as could only have been inspired by the trials and disappointments which we have shared in the last few months.
Difficult days may still be ahead, but I know that the spirit which today animates all ranks of the Division will prevail and will form the corner-stone on which one day a just and lasting peace will be found.
God grant that day may not be long delayed and that we may soon meet again.
Meanwhile GOOD LUCK, HEADS UP, KEEP SMILING.
(Sgd.) M. BECKWITH-SMITH Major General. 18th August 1942
We regret that the hope of meeting again was never realised for Major General Merton Beckwith-Smith D.S.O. M.C. died in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp in November 1942.
We continued at work in Singapore until, in September 1942, we were left with only 12 officers and 240 men from the original 25 officers and 400 men who had arrived at River Valley in April. The rest had been evacuated to Changi as being too sick to work.
One incident that happened at this period of our captivity we feel we ought to mention as being typical of the mentality of the inhuman enemy who had us in their power. At the end of August 1942, Colonel Fukue, the Japanese Commander, called upon every prisoner-of-war in Singapore, irrespective of rank, to sign a certificate that he would not attempt to escape.
EVERY MAN REFUSED TO SIGN. As a result on the 2nd September, the Jap Commander ordered all ranks (except those sick in hospital) to proceed to Selerang. The barracks at this place consisted of blocks of buildings forming three sides of a rectangle with an asphalt square in the centre. In peace time the maximum accommodation was for 850 men. Into the square and the surrounding buildings the Japs squeezed approximately 16,000 men.
It was late evening before the final party arrived. There were no sanitary arrangements and it was imperative that something drastic be done immediately. No time was lost and by the aid of the flickering light from oil lamps men worked all that night digging deep trenches all over the square. The cheerful spirit in which they carried on their job seemed to annoy our hosts. Rations (which were scarce) were cut and the water supply was barely sufficient for drinking purposes. There was not room for everyone to lie down under cover of the buildings and all kinds of contraptions were erected where possible in the square to provide cover from rain and sun.
After the first day threats were made to cut still further the supply of both rations and water. Within 48 hours, cases of dysentery, etc., were reported and the sick men were taken to an improvised shelter, used as a makeshift hospital, to await transportation to Changi. The Senior Officers were in consultation almost continuously, but it was soon apparent that the Japs were determined to have their own way. They made a further threat that unless we signed soon all the patients from Changi Hospital would be moved to Selerang to swell the already hopelessly overcrowded army of men pent up in the restricted area.
Arguments for and against signing were put forward, but it was obvious that unless the Japs relented, or we signed, epidemics would soon break out. On the third day the position was desperate and, acting on the advice of the Senior Medical Officer, the British Commandant ordered the forms to be signed under duress. The troops returned to their camps on 5th September. About this time we were informed that we had to provide a party for overseas. It was decided that we must at all costs try and keep pals together as far as possible. Only one officer was to be sent, so names were put into a hat, and Lieut. W. Carter's name was drawn. B Battery men were therefore the obvious choice to go with him. The Regiment was now split into several parties, the sick at Changi under the Colonel, the overseas party under Lieut. Carter, D Battery up-country party under Lieut. Rich and the balance up-country party under Major Brodie.
Every effort was made to keep a reasonable sized party together wherever possible, together with at least one officer; but there were odd cases where a small party of men were on their own. At this very opportune time, just prior to the dispersal of the various parties, a consignment of South African Red Cross food and clothing arrived at Singapore and was distributed among the troops. Lieut. Rich's party left River Valley on October 12th, to be followed by Major Brodie's party on the 14th; the Colonel followed some fourteen days later from Changi with all the fit personnel he could muster.
The overseas party left a few days after the up-country parties and proceeded to Formosa under the vilest conditions imaginable. We had now reached the parting of the ways and, for a while, we will follow the fortunes of the up-country parties, for the major portion of the Regiment was destined to spend the weary months of captivity in the jungle and the prisoner-of-war camps of Siam. The train journey into Siam was a veritable nightmare. With an average of 32 men packed into a steel truck the going was pretty grim to say the least. We soon found that for anyone to get even a suggestion of rest we must adopt some workable system. In the majority of cases this was accomplished by half the men standing close together at one end of the truck whilst the remainder lay curled up on the floor. After a reasonable period, the position was reversed so that every man got his turn to lie down. The heat was intense and many of us remember yet the relief we felt when at one of the stops we were able to stand for a few moments under the outlet of a locomotive water tank by the side of the railway. What a Godsend were those Red Cross supplies, we had got before leaving, during those four nights and three days on that ghastly journey.
The landscape altered little until we crossed the border at Padang Besar. Up till then there had been the eternal rubber plantations, coconut palms and rugged high ground in the distance but, once past the frontier, the rubber plantations gradually decreased and were re-placed by paddy-fields, which increased until after a few miles inside the border they stretched as far as the eye could see. We arrived at Ban Pong on the morning of the 18th October and were marched to a staging camp. After a rest our trek into the interior commenced. Early parties marched the whole distance to Tonchan by way of Kanburi and then through the jungle. Later parties had the help of transport as far as Kanburi. Once on the working site, however, much the same conditions existed throughout the whole length of the railway we were to construct.
Tropical rains, tropical diseases, little food and less medical supplies, with hard work the whole time interspersed with regular beatings-up made life very difficult. One could easily fill a book on our experiences and the incidents of those days, but the majority of those incidents are perhaps best treated as a bad dream which we want to do our best to forget. Mingled with the daily round of hard work, there was, however, that unconquerable never failing sense of humour so typical of the Britisher, even under the very worst of conditions. S'truth, it was only that indomitable spirit that kept us sane. In the early days we remember a working party of 25 men parading under a Korean guard in two ranks and proceeding to number off: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, Jack, Queen, King, to which the Korean replied with a perfectly straight face "O.K March." Later we were ordered to number off in Japanese. Can any of the old 'F' Bn. forget the nights with Conlin and Carney and their famous "Come on and join us" act? In the very darkest days there was always some wag to relieve the tension by a touch of humour.
Necessity they say is the mother of invention. Truly out of our necessity there were devised some of the most ingenious, if Heath Robinson type, of gadgets. On that subject alone a whole volume could be written. We recall the guitar that Bdr. Len. Gibson constructed out of an old packing case, but where did he get those strings? Many a night's entertainment do we owe to the Bombardier's ingenuity and his love for his old 'music box'.
One little band of men we should never forget - the cooks. How those men worked. The cookhouse, a region haunted by sweating men in 'G' strings, was a scene of activity from 4.0 a.m. until dusk. It must have been soul destroying for them to have so little to offer us in the way of a change in our diet. For ourselves gone now was the conventional groaning with which the British soldier invariably greets the appearance of stew. What a luxury a good old British Army stew would have been to us in those days. Now when the cry of "What's for the meal," brought the monotonous reply, "Rice" we managed to force a grin and rejoin "Grand, a nice change." RICE - every man was heartily sick of the very word. Large inroads had by this time been made into the 11½ cwts. of the product of the paddy field that fate decreed every survivor must consume before his packet of Player's cigarettes was dropped from the air in August, '45. Living off the land was not easy, the land had so little to offer, but it did not take long for Sgt. Minto to discover the merits of stewed snake and Lieut. Barney Hodgkiss of the 'Recce' was an expert at trapping and cooking the elusive but edible lizard.
Mail from home commenced to arrive about June 1943. Personnel in Singapore received their portion much earlier and it appeared the further one progressed into the jungle the later one got mail.
The excitement which greeted the arrival of mail was terrific, and without a shadow of doubt put new life into everyone. Even those who were not fortunate enough to get any mail at all (and there were quite a number) soon had a reasonable picture of what was happening back in the 'old country' by means of odd scraps of news issued in bulletin form. The amount of interest created was amazing, and gave everyone something to talk about for weeks and weeks. Letters were treasured and months later were brought out and read and re-read until every word was known by heart.
In the early days the Japanese censored only about one in ten letters and so as a general rule once mail arrived in camp we could depend on getting our letters within about a week. Later, however, in the officers' camp at Kanburi, they insisted on censoring every postcard and should there be any letters they were totally ignored. On an average 12 postcards per day were released. In many cases mail which arrived in camp in March 1945 was not received by the individual for whom it was intended until after we were freed.
The Burma-Siam railway, previously surveyed by both British and German engineers, and in each case turned down as being too expensive in the inevitable loss of man-power, was slowly growing under the harsh drive of the Japanese. The Regiment was spread in groups along the whole length of the proposed railway in Siam from Chungkai to Niki. The Japanese orders were that, irrespective of any conditions whatsoever, the railway MUST be completed by a certain date. That date was rapidly drawing near, and in true Japanese fashion the guards and the engineers strove to carry out their orders even though men were dropping dead at work. Every few minutes the command "Speedo Speed Bugaro" would be screamed by one or more irate Jap, and more often than not the command was accom-panied by a lash from bamboo rods. Is it to be wondered at that our treatment during those ghastly months did not tend to improve the love we had for our temporary masters? In one camp of 1,500 men, where a small con-tingent of our boys was working, after three months there remained only one officer and five men fit to go out to work. Officers were compelled to work about February 1943, and at one time a party of some 300 officers was brought from Changi supposedly for a rest and change of air and put straight on to railway work and felling trees.
By November 1943 the railway was through, and a few months later those of us who remained were gradually sent down-river and congregated at base camps in the Tamuang, Kanburi, Chungkai area. Everyone heaved a sigh of relief that at long last we were out of that hated jungle. Although we had only been there some sixteen months the time had seemed like an eternity. We had moved from camp to camp the whole time and never been allowed to get settled in one place before we were off to another piece of railway. Each move meant leaving behind some treasured possession - it may be merely an old tin can, but under the conditions in which we existed one prized a strange collection of oddments which, at home, even the rag and bone man would have turned up his nose.
Occasionally the Japanese had a 'hate' campaign and removed all tins which we used for collecting water for washing purposes. Their excuse when tackled on the subject was that they "were wanted for other purposes." Weeks later the tins would still be lying in the Jap store, at any rate those would that had not surreptitiously found their way back to our lines.
With the exception of an occasional issue of Thai Red Cross supplies, which usually took the form of sacks of dried beans, locally grown tobacco, sugar and soap, we had not seen a Red Cross parcel since leaving Singapore. About May 1944 American Red Cross parcels arrived. These were supposed to be individual parcels but their distribution was on the scale of one parcel between 6+ men. Incidentally we discovered later that every Japanese soldier who passed up the railway into Burma received one complete parcel, while every Jap officer collected two parcels.
The food at the base camps was quite good in comparison with that we had been receiving up river, the work was not too heavy, and many men were soon beginning to pick up in health. The respite was too good to last long. Orders were received that all men who were below a medical standard fixed by the Japs were to be evacuated to the rapidly growing hospital camp at Nakom Pathom. No one knew what was behind this move, but we were not kept guessing very long. All the remaining fit personnel were to be sent overseas and the first party had to be detailed forthwith. From the Regiment we were to send one officer.
It was agreed that the only fair way was to resort to the old hat once more. Doc. Bennett drew Capt. Keys, and so, with men from all Batteries, the Captain left us in July 1944.
The parade ground was a strange sight as the party fell in to leave on that long and fateful voyage through a net of American submarines to the Japanese mainland. Off they went, the camp band playing them out to the tune of 'Blaydon Races', their comrades of later parties to follow shouting their cheery greetings, smiling but heavy-hearted, each one realising only too well the rapidly lengthening odds against a safe trip. "See you at the Palatine" they shouted, hoping against hope.
It was with sad hearts we learned some time later of the tragic end of that ill-fated voyage and of the loss of Capt. Keys, B.S.M. Dick Wylde and so many more of our gallant comrades.
By this time the Allied Air Force had got busy on the railway. Many and many a time had we referred to that 'blasted' railway - now it was in very truth being literally 'blasted'. Unfortunately, this meant that maintenance parties, irrespective of fitness, had to go back up river to repair the damage to bridges, etc. It was heartbreaking for those who had the unpleasant duty to detail men who were far from fit to go back into that hated jungle.
In January 1945 officers and men were separated and after spending so long together the break was felt very keenly by all ranks. The officers were concentrated at Kanburi, where for six months the Japanese took a delight in meting out the heaviest punishments and imposed more restrictions than had ever been known before. Severe beatings were a daily occurrence and on a number of occasions officers were taken away from the camp and really mauled by the Kempi.
By the end of June rumours were again prevalent that there was to be a further move. The Japs had found it impossible to evacuate any more parties to Japan and they now commenced to move everyone away from the railway. Air raids were almost a daily occurrence and unfortunately we suffered far more casualties than the Japs although the main objectives were invariably damaged. Some parties were sent to build a road as a retreat line for the forces in Burma, while others went to various camps north-east of Bangkok, there to build ammunition dumps for the Jap forces collecting in that area.
The officers were again moved and some from the Regiment took part in that arduous march from the railway to Nakom Nyoke, a distance of 30 miles in l7½ hours, only to find on arrival that there was not even the semblance of a camp to accommodate them and they had, under the most appalling conditions, to start to clear a site and carry bamboo from a dump three miles away before building could commence.
Little did they realise as they staggered along that long and weary road that they were on their last march as prisoners-of-war. The sands were running out for the Japanese War Lords. Meanwhile what had been happening to our comrades in other areas? Let us go back and see how they had fared.
Major Harvard with a small number of 'other ranks' of the Regiment, mostly sick cases, had remained in Changi Camp, Singapore, The men, apart from the hospital cases, were employed on work in the Camp gardens, on aerodrome construction parties and other similar jobs under the direction of the Japanese. In 1944, the Camp was broken up and all personnel were sent either to the Changi gaol and its surrounds or to a hospital camp which had been formed at Kranji about 13 miles from Singapore city.
(Incidentally Kranji has been selected by the Graves' Commission as the site for a large new cemetery where the remains of those who lost their lives in the Singapore area are now being re-interred reverently under the careful supervision of members of Graves' Concentration Units).
It was during 1944 that the food situation in Singapore, never good, showed definite signs of deterioration, and, by 1945, malnutrition had taken its toll and sickness was rampant. The personnel of the 125th stood up to their ordeal well but, while losses were not so heavy as in some Units, we regret to say that the names of more gallant men were added to our casualty list.
During the early months of 1945 the few remaining members of the Regiment on Singapore island were further split up when the Japanese sent out working parties to various parts of the island for the purpose of constructing fortifications and in these small groups they remained until the end of hostilities.
Lieut. Carter, with a party of 42 other ranks, sailed from Singapore on 29th October 1942 bound for FORMOSA. Conditions on the Japanese troopship were appalling, over 3,000 prisoners-of-war being cooped up in one hold, with little food, little ventilation and a pitifully meagre ration of water.
Up to the time of their arrival at SAIGON (Indo-China) on 3rd November, they were allowed on deck in small parties for brief spells, but for the remainder of the voyage the hatches were closed and they were confined to the hold. It was a hellish trip and by the time they reached Formosa, on the 13th November, dysentery had broken out and a number of prisoners had died. The 125th party fortunately escaped loss.
With officers from other regiments, Lieut. Carter was set to work tending and supervising the gardens and the O.R's. were sent out working on a river scheme, exceptionally hard graft in the tropical heat. Subsequently, some of the 'other ranks' were sent to the south of the island to work in sugar factories, while others went north to the infamous coal mines.
In June 1944 Lieut Carter was moved to SHIRAKAWA, a camp with a bad reputation. There was an exceptionally bitter anti-British and anti-Allies feeling in this camp, which found its expression in the forcing of all officers, from subalterns to Major-General, to work hard under the usual Japanese method of persuasion, the bamboo pole plied by the heavy hands of Jap O.R's. Further members of the Regiment arrived in Formosa in September 1944 after an adventurous trip from Siam.
About the middle of February 1945 Lieut. Carter and a number of 'other ranks' of the Regiment were included in a party which sailed for Japan under conditions as bad, or even worse, than those which had been experienced on the voyage from Singapore. Clad only in tropical kit, such as it was, they journeyed northwards into a climate where the temperature was below Zero, eventually arriving in Kyushu the southern island of Japan to find that conditions worse than anything they had so far endured awaited them. Officers and other ranks were put in factories, dockyards, and coal mines. They were not supplied with any warm clothing to meet the changed conditions - many were without footwear of any kind and the diet consisted solely of rice and little of that. Conditions during this period seem to have been comparable with those experienced on the Siam railway during its worst phase.
News of the events taking place in Europe did filter through to the prisoners-of-war, but it was impossible to find out what was really happening in the Far East. The one heartening sign was the increasing number of American planes that came over.
Capitulation Day came at last with all its joy and relief, but two days later the Jap Commandant ordered all Allied officers to parade and after having them all soundly beaten, with the apparently ubiquitous bamboo rods, told them the war had started again and set them back to work. They found out later that he had taken matters into his own hands, and declared "No peace". Fortunately, the following day the Japanese guards disappeared and American planes came over and dropped food supplies.
Isolated members of the Regiment had from time to time been sent to prisoner-of-war camps in Japan away from their comrades and to the harsh treatment they received, very much on the lines of that experienced by their friends in other areas, was the added mental anxiety of being out of contact with the Regiment and with all those little items of news which can always be shared where there are a number of pals together.
Like their comrades in Siam and in Malaya, the men of the 125th Regiment in Formosa and in Japan earned the praise of the British officers in charge of the camps in which they served, and their good conduct, cheerful behaviour and staunch comradeship was frequently commented upon by those in authority.
And so we come to AUGUST 1945. Yes underline and in block capitals Mr. Printer please, for that was a milestone that stands out pre-eminently above everything else in the course of our lives.
After enduring 3½ years of the nearest approach to Hell that one could imagine, was it really possible that the end of our captivity was actually drawing near? So often had we been fooled by false hopes, so often had we experienced the depths of disappointment that followed shattered dreams that we were hesitant about once more allowing ourselves to harbour the thought, but this time there were significant features that had been absent on previous occasions.
The date of the termination of the war, so far as we were individually concerned, depended upon the location of the camp in which we were imprisoned, but when at last we knew beyond all shadow of doubt that our freedom was an accomplished fact, wherever we were, there are no words that could express adequately the thoughts and the feelings that overwhelmed us.
At last we dare attempt to take stock of ourselves, and of each other. We had changed - yes, changed in more than merely the physical sense. Many of us had left home little more than boys now we were men and everyone of us had stared death in the face not once but many times. Out there we had learned how deep is the love a man can have for his homeland and we had learned too, by practical experience, the value of true comradeship. Things that once we took for granted were now of the very highest value. Hatred we knew for we had suffered under an enemy capable of expressing hatred in its most degrading and humiliating form. The Japanese loathed us, they hated us with a blind fury, because they envied our position in the world.
But now the nightmare was ended and we waited eagerly for our repatriation. The long looked for day dawned at last, the day we had at times almost despaired of seeing. The Rising Sun was now the Setting Sun for the Japs and as we said our goodbye to all that fact symbolised there was not a single man amongst us whose thoughts did not turn to those gallant comrades who were missing from our ranks. Each and everyone of us was leaving behind some pal who would not see his loved ones again. For every three men who walked up the gangway at Avonmouth in October 1941 one was not returning and of those who had survived many were maimed for life. There's not the shadow of doubt that had the members of the Regiment not stuck together through thick and thin, the casualties would have been even heavier.
At all times and in all places 'share and share alike' was their motto and 'never despair' their inspiration. It was this fellow-feeling and indomitable spirit, so frequently commented upon by other Units, that brought home those of us who were spared.
During our captivity, we had lived in a very small world of our own seeing the same old faces, day in, day out, though our thoughts were often far away and naturally we were eagerly looking forward to meeting people from the outside world. Judge the thrill and the pleasant surprise therefore when one of the first Regimental parties to leave Bangkok was met on arrival at the airfield by a shout of "Any 125 men there?" It was our first greeting from someone 'outside' and it came from the pilot of one of the planes that were to fly us to Rangoon, Flying Officer Watson, a Sunderland ex-Police Constable. He took us in charge, and was soon being bombarded with questions about our home town. Needless to say, he worked things so that we could fly with him, and in a short time we were taking a last look, from the air, at that notorious railway on which we had toiled so long. The trip to Rangoon passed very quickly, Flying Officer Watson leaving his 'ship' in the capable hands of his second in command, while he gave us all the latest news from home and supplied us with Air Mail letters which he posted for us on landing.
Shall we ever forget the welcome we received at Rangoon. At last we were back in civilisation every-thing so clean, tables, chairs, even white tablecloths and REAL BREAD. Three years without bread - we had dreamed of this day so often. Surely this was heaven, but we were not allowed to linger and after a meal we had to make way for others while we were sent off to hospital. Another foretaste of heaven - at last we could dump our foul rags of clothing and, after a hot shower, clad in clean pyjamas, we enjoyed the most glorious thrill of all - a real bed with spotless linen sheets and a snow-white mosquito-net which moved gently in the breeze in the well ventilated building.
The first repatriation ship was due to leave in a few days, and by a stroke of luck about thirty members of the Regiment were among the passengers who embarked on the P. & 0. liner Corfu when she sailed from Rangoon. At long last we were saying goodbye to the 'Glamorous(?) East' and were homeward bound.
A few hours in Colombo and then on to Suez. As the liner tied up at the quay the combined bands of the Seventh Queen's Own Hussars and the 2nd Bn. Dorset Regiment on the dockside crashed out the strains of 'Rule Britannia'. Hundreds of we exiles jammed tight against the rails, the majority stripped to the waist, deeply tanned bodies gleaming in the midday sun cheered ourselves hoarse...'Britons never, never, never shall be slaves'. . . the words had a meaning for us they never had before.
Everything that ingenuity and kindly thought could devise was done by the authorities to ensure that our short stay was a happy one. Even the gantries and cranes on the dockside were festooned with flags and bunting. There were great painted banners saying: "Welcome from the M.E.F." and "Bon voyage on your way home."
A gaily decorated engine hauled the special train from the quay to ADABIYA, where we were equipped with winter clothing. Organisation certainly excelled itself at Adabiya. A shed nearly 100 yards long had been transformed into a Red Sea edition of a London departmental store with separate departments for servicemen and civilian ex-prisoners - men, women and children. Every-thing was thought of even to a specially constructed beach with brand new buckets and spades and plenty of amusements for those poor youngsters who were yet to come from internment camps.
Fitted now to face the journey into the colder climate that lay ahead we were soon on the last lap of our voyage - on through the Mediterranean, past Gibraltar on 4th October and so to the tumultuous welcome that awaited us at Southampton. Nothing will ever erase the memory of our reception in the old country and the thrill and joy of our reunion with the dear ones who had waited so long and so anxiously for our return.
As we look back over this narrative we are fully conscious of all the things we have left unsaid, all those incidents which, individually, could be enlarged to fill a book themselves, but our task of sketching the course of the Regiment is accomplished and it only remains for us to make a final comment.
This is not the journal of a mutual admiration society, it is the plain unvarnished chronicle of our own experiences, but we feel that neither officers nor men of the Regiment would forgive us if we did not, for once, avoid generalisation in order that we may pay our tribute to the stirring leadership, the spiritual toughness and the inspiring example of our respected Commanding Officer, Lieut.Colonel Dean, and his worthy Second-in-Command, Major Brodie. No words can express what that leadership and that example meant to those of us who were in contact with them during those dark days.
To our fellow prisoners-of-war, who came through the ordeal with us, our greetings and good wishes. We trust this little booklet may be a reminder of staunch comradeship forged in the fires of privation and suffering.
M.M. and S.R.