5th Suffolk Regiment
The following summary of the 5th Battalion, Suffolk Regiment has been taken from the War Memoirs of Ken Bailey who has given COFEPOW permission to use his work.
On 18th January 1940 many young men, barely out of their boyhood, were called up for military service. Those who were to become soldiers of the 5th Battalion of the Suffolk Regiment, a Territorial Unit, reported for training at North Walsham in Norfolk.
On arrival at North Walsham, introduction into the army began immediately with the issuing of uniforms and the commencement of training. The initial first few months in the Norfolk area consisted of performing guard duties at river bridges; coastal defence in the sand dunes of Hemsby (where the accommodation was in commandeered holiday bungalows), and also in and around stately homes.
The unit was then moved on to other locations, being stationed at Fulbourn near Cambridge, then to Hawick, Scotland; Liverpool; Isle of Anglesey; and finally Leominster in Herefordshire.
During this time and following several months of training, the pace quickened and they were introduced to the dangerous and frightening weapons of war - using live ammunition - and during one such exercise a shell dropped short amongst them, resulting in a number of serious injuries and the death of a Lance Corporal.
In early October 1941, whilst at Leominster (at which stage they were considered to be a fully trained, most efficient and well-equipped fighting unit), they were informed that they would be going overseas, possibly for service in the Middle East, being issued with khaki drill tunics, topis and the most ridiculous sloppy, button-down over-the-knees khaki drill shorts.
On 27th October they entrained for Liverpool Docks, there embarking on a troopship named the 'Reina del Pacifico', a twin-funnelled transport ship. Supporting units of the 54th Infantry Brigade occupied other troopships, the whole forming a convoy soon to leave for what was to prove ultimately, a great misadventure. Late that evening the convoy, including an escort of British destroyers, sailed from Liverpool and headed out into the Irish Sea and Atlantic Ocean. They were made aware that they would be sailing through dangerous waters laid with mines, but the immediate journey was uneventful.
Five days sailing time out from Liverpool they awoke in the morning to see a mass of ships approaching which was a convoy of merchant ships bound for England; this convoy being escorted by a fairly large American fleet of warships. In mid-ocean the fleet manoeuvred so that it had turned in a position to be then escorting the troop ships. Meanwhile the warships which had escorted them from Liverpool turned around heading back to England with the merchants. (It is worth noting that America did not enter the war officially as allies until 8th December 1941!)
Eventually, on 8th November, the ship docked at Halifax, Nova Scotia on the Canadian eastern seaboard, where the troops disembarked from the 'Reina del Pacifico' to board an American troopship, once an ocean-going cruise liner of 40,000 tons named the 'Wakefield'. Compared to the previous ship this was a magnificent looking transport, everything about it being first class, accommodation and food excellent and friendliness of the American crew could not have been better. After allocation of deck and bunk hammock spaces, they set sail the next day together with two other similar troopships, the 'Mount Vernon' and the 'West Point', both former American luxury liners of similar tonnage to the 'Wakefield' and carrying the 53rd Infantry Brigade. The convoy was escorted by American warships, including an aircraft carrier 'The Saratoga'.
After leaving Halifax they sailed south along the Eastern coast of America arriving at Port of Spain, Trinidad on 17th November for the purpose of refuelling and stock replenishment which was carried out in the harbour without docking and no shore leave. On 19th November the journey continued onward, crossing the Equator eastwards towards Cape Town in South Africa.
After almost three weeks sailing from Trinidad, on the 9th December, the convoy neared Cape Town's Table Bay, and were treated to a most wonderful sight of the phenomenal Table Mountain on the horizon. Here at Cape Town in glorious warm weather they were given three days leave.
At this time they were still under the impression that they were due for action in the Middle East, but learnt that Pearl Harbour had been attacked by the Japanese and that America was now involved in the war!
Leaving Cape Town on 13th December they were to enjoy some wonderful days sailing in the deep blue waters of the Indian Ocean; with cloudless skies and endless horizons, lapping up the brilliant sunshine,
The next port was Bombay, which was reached on the morning of 27th December and, disembarking, the troops boarded a train, the carriages of which were very unclean with hard wooden seats, the toilets being merely holes in the flooring above which users squatted or stood.After a long, overnight and most uncomfortable journey they arrived at Ahmadnagar, a small market town, and encamped at a former Indian Army barracks. The accommodation was quite substantial with the arid, dusty barrack square being centrally situated.
It soon became clear that this stage of their overseas journey was an introduction to living it rough; the barrack rooms themselves being far from clean and having a definite Asian atmosphere about them. The beds were four-legged, rickety wooden frames with fibre-latticed bases and straw-filled mattresses on solid wooden bases. Despite the crudeness of these structures they gave reasonable comfort, particularly to men who were tired out after training and route marches in the scorching heat. While resting on these beds they were to encounter, for the first time, friendly lizards traversing the walls and ceilings snapping at the troublesome mosquitoes, a menace they had not encountered before but before too long many were to die from malaria as a result of being bitten by these deadly insects. During their time at Ahmadnagar, all regiments were set a regime of keeping fit with very hard training.
On 14th January 1942, having regained fitness with all the route marches, training exercises and sport after the long sea trip from England, they departed Ahmadnagar and rejoined their ship at Bombay the next day. They set sail for Singapore on 19th being told to be prepared for battle against the Japanese.
Now on the high seas again, sailing South back into the Indian Ocean, the troops headed East towards their final destination. As the convoy approached Singapore in line through the narrow Banka Straits, a single Japanese plane attacked unsuccessfully, its bombs surprisingly missing what appeared to be an easy target of some twelve ships. However, spouts of water could clearly be seen as the bombs missed the ships behind the Wakefield and fell into the sea.
On disembarking at Singapore on 29th January 1942, one fact was alarmingly obvious to the newly arriving troops. They saw another ship about to leave the docks and were surprised and more than a little dismayed to learn that on board were the remnants of the R.A.F. who were leaving Singapore to take up stations on Java. At that moment of disembarking they were under heavy attack from Japanese aircraft, and with the realisation that the R.A.F. were leaving the island, it was unmistakably and painfully obvious that they were doomed.
But they had come to fight and fight they did. Immediately on landing in Singapore some of the units of the 18th Division went straight into action in Malaya in support of the mainland force, the remainder occupying part of the island's defences. The 5th Suffolk's first encampment on the island was in a rubber plantation where they occupied tents next to the Gurkha regiment.
In the days to follow the situation became increasingly hopeless, as did the position of the Singapore population. With the exodus of the R.A.F. the morale of the defending troops was obviously sinking lower by the hour. To further the anguish, there was distressing news that Japanese forces were making a swift descent through Malaya. Those troops now making a stand around Singapore had to await the outcome of the rearguard action which was taking place in the South of Malaya by the British, Australian, Indian and Malayan troops. This combined force had fought valiantly from Northern Malaya, always it seemed against tremendous odds, the enemy appearing to have been well trained in jungle warfare and apparently being backed up by superior numbers of artillery, aircraft and mechanised units.
The 5th Suffolks now took up a position in the North East of the island where they were to suffer the first casualties caused by Japanese mortars which were operating from Southern Malaya. At this time it seemed that troops were still endeavouring to stem the tide of the enemy advance on the Malayan mainland whilst they were being continually attacked, not only by ground forces, but by Japanese aircraft, artillery and mortar fire as well. From the 5th Suffolks position at Ponggol Point, which overlooked the mile-wide Straits of Johore between Singapore and the South Coast of Malaya, they could plainly see enemy movements opposite and it was obvious that the enemy, too, were aware of the platoon's position. Not surprisingly, they were tied down by mortar fire for much of the time whilst occupying this position and sadly two men from the battalion were mortally wounded by mortar shrapnel.
Ponggol Point was right on the water's edge and the only defences were bundles of empty tin cans strung along and suspended on wire just above the waterline; this rudimentary system was to supposedly serve as an audible alarm against the enemy making landings at night. (Ponggol Point Beach was later to be the burial ground for hundreds of Chinese Singapore residents, rounded up by the Japs after Singapore fell, murdered and buried on this beach. When the allies reoccupied Singapore and Malaya in 1945 the hunt began by Allied investigators to identify and bring to trial the Japanese perpetrators of this and many other similar atrocities which the Japanese committed against the Chinese.)
But now, the skies above their heads were soon black with Japanese bombers in their usual formation of 27 at a time, dropping bombs, unmolested by British fighters. The only 'friendly' planes spotted were Vildebeeste and Brewster Buffalo, both being ageing aircraft.
The situation became progressively worse, forcing the 5ths to withdraw to the area of Bukit Timah Road, some miles South West and they knew they were in a very serious situation, having been informed that the mainland troops were about to retire to Singapore, after which the Johore Causeway between the mainland and Singapore island was to be destroyed. Shortly after withdrawing they felt utter despair and dejection on hearing the bagpipes of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders leaving the mainland on the retreat from Malaya across the Causeway.
They didn't have long to wait before being given the fateful news that the Japanese now had a foothold on the island.
They received no orders or instructions concerning battle plans nor enemy troop movements at that time - the whole unit felt completely isolated and unattached. Another disheartening happening was the sight of clouds of smoke billowing from oil tanks set on fire by British troops in a 'scorched earth' policy to prevent them from falling into Japanese hands. It was so obvious at this time that the troops on the ground, the infantrymen, were getting no support at all from mechanised units. They were forced to just wait for the inevitable.
The 5th Suffolks, still in their position at Bukit Timah Road, were amongst trees and mangrove shrubs just a short distance in front of Raffles' College, which was the Battalion Headquarters. Now they were subjected to attack by machine gun and rifle fire, and also by mortar bombs. Resulting from this ensuing onslaught, two 'Suffolk' stretcher-bearers lost their lives in going to the aid of men who had been injured in the attack. Those remaining could do nothing but just wait there with no chance of moving for fear of becoming easy, open targets.
After a night of almost continual attack by Japanese fire, accompanied by screams of the injured and dying, the morning of Sunday 15th February 1942 dawned with no indication that the situation might improve. News came that the water supply on the Island had been severed and also that the civilian population and the City were being heavily bombed.
During that late afternoon from their position at Bukit Timah Road they saw, some few hundred yards in front of them, a small convoy of open military vehicles moving away to their left. It was very plain that in one of these vehicles a Union Jack was being held aloft by someone, and in another a large white flag was displayed. Later that day the order was given to lay down their arms as Singapore had surrendered.
As a result, being thoroughly confused and disheartened, they disposed of rifles, machine guns, small arms ammunition and grenades by dropping them in the malarial drains and amongst the mangroves. The unit later moved into Raffles' College where they found food, drinks and beds still complete with white sheets and pillows. That night was spent fairly comfortably, although with some trepidation, not knowing what was to become of them and not looking forward to the arrival of their captors.
Now came the realisation that the 5th Battalion of The Suffolk Regiment, part of a Brigade considered to be a most efficient and well-trained fighting force, had travelled 20,000 miles simply to surrender. The culpable lack of information, instruction and physical back-up support whilst occupying a front line disposition meant they had been absolutely static. In that situation they were given no chance to prove themselves in actual combat. How different things would have been had they and other similar units received the logistic support which they expected and which they should surely have received.
The next day they assembled in the grounds of the College and saw for the first time a close-up of their captors; a bunch of scruffy, slant-eyed little men, many of them bespectacled, dressed in dirty green uniform, rubber shoes, peaked caps and wearing puttees up to their knees.
Ken Bailey wrote - "To say that we were humiliated by what we were seeing as victors in a conflict against a supposedly top class army as ourselves, would be a gross understatement. We were all naturally ashamed and disgusted, although knowing that from the very outset, we had lacked the necessary support". Now came the official order that all weapons were to be handed over to the enemy, followed by much activity between British officers and the Japanese. That night they slept out in the open, bedding down on the grass and wondering what the future had in store.
Douglas Harvey was a wheelwright when he became a Private in the 5th Suffolk Regiment at the outset of war, but was later transferred into the Catering Corps. He told COFEPOW this story:
He arrived in Singapore, along with hundreds of other young men, eager to play his part in bringing an end to the Japanese invasion as they were swarming down through Malaya. But of all the absurdities and blunders associated with the Fall of Singapore was the fact that Doug Harvey remembers that he and many others arriving at the docks were issued with a rifle minus any bolt or ammunition. Eventually, along with many others he was soon to find himself in captivity and marched to Changi and some time later was transferred to a camp on the Bukit Timah Road.
While at this camp he was put to work, along with other POWs in the centre of Singapore, building a Japanese shrine (which was later demolished at the end of the war).
Ken Bailey also wrote of the camp at Bukit Timah and working on the Japanese shrine:-
After a short time at the barracks a party of us was moved to a small, former R.A.F. camp situated close to the Singapore Bukit Timah Golf Club and adjacent to the McRitchie Reservoir. The huts at this camp, all ground floor buildings, were rather dilapidated having the appearance that the former occupants had attempted to destroy everything within. In the absence of any kind of furniture we all searched around in order to find anything that would help to make the place more habitable. As a result, bed frames were fashioned from timber; sacking or other material which could be found being utilised as mattresses or blankets.
In the same vicinity, some under canvas, fellow prisoners from the Norfolk Regiment, Cambridgeshire's and other units joined us to await whatever the Japanese had in store for us.We were soon to learn that our job here was to build a shrine on a hill on the far side of the reservoir, apparently in honour of the Japanese troops who had perished on the island. This assignment first entailed digging up the fairways and greens of the golf course to make roads leading to a wooden bridge which was being built over the reservoir by other prisoners. The roads having been completed, the next step was to build a walkway from the foot of the hill on the other side of the reservoir up to the site of the proposed shrine at the summit. This was not an unpleasant job, we having now become accustomed to enforced manual work. Most of the time the weather was fine and very, very hot. Our food, still mainly boiled rice, was necessarily becoming more acceptable, at times with the addition of fruit - bananas and pineapples - and some eggs. These items could be purchased from native Malays or Chinese who now and again were allowed up to the site perimeter.
Doug Harvey continues:-
At the end of each day after cutting up trees for the Shrine, the POWs used to take small broken pieces of wood back to the camp to light up the fires to boil their rice. After one back-breaking day, Doug Harvey picked up a small round section of a teak tree and took it back to the Bukit Timah camp with the other pieces of wood intended for burning, but he kept and hid the small round section.
He had also managed to hide his Army jack knife and he now took this to pieces and to each piece he fitted a piece of bamboo which formed a handle and this gave him a small selection of tools. Even the spring attached to the large blade was taken out, straightened and fixed into a piece of bamboo.
With his piece of round teak and array of tools he began to secretly carve his piece of wood into the insignia of his regiment - The 5th Suffolks.
Before he could finish this, he was moved up country into Thailand and put to work on the railway. He was in Tamakan when he completed his masterpiece and fearing it would be found he buried it under his hut. With his skill at woodwork, he was one of the first men to make wooden legs for the many amputees who lost their limbs through contracting tropical ulcers. He was then forced to leave Tamakan and moved on to other camps further north.
When the railway was finished in October 1943 he was moved back and fortunately went back to the hospital camp at Tamakan. Very cautiously, in the dark he managed to locate his old hut and frantically dug where he had hidden his plaque and found it. He managed to conceal this in the bottom of his kit bag and was later moved back to Changi Jail where he remained for the duration of his captivity.
Now in his eighties and mostly reliant on his wheel chair, Douglas Harvey has offered to loan COFEPOW his most treasured possession to go into our Memorial Building where we hope to display many artefacts to educate future generations exactly how resourceful the FEPOWS were during their captivity.
We are indebted to him and his family for allowing us to use his plaque for the interest of others.
Ken left Singapore and was sent overland to Thailand and the Burma railway where he worked for the most part at Chungkai. On completion of the railway he was sent back to Singapore and the camp at River Valley Road. A few days after Christmas, 1944, he was eventually put aboard a small, dirty, rusty old merchant ship of Dutch origin, the 'Fuij Nord' built in 1909, tonnage 3,500. The 2,500 prisoners were forced into the hold of the ship until it became full.
Eventually the ship moved out of Singapore heading East and then North, with most of the men under the impression that their destination was Japan but on the 8th February 1945, the ship docked at Saigon, Indo-China where Ken remained for the duration of his captivity.