When war was declared in 1939, the Surreys were on protection duties in Shanghai. In August 1940 all British troops were recalled from China and the Battalion was sent to Singapore for combat training headed by Lieutenant Colonel G.E. Swinton MC. Six months later they were sent north to Tanjon Pau, near Jitra, in the extreme north of Malaya where they continued training under the 11th Indian Division commanded by Major General Murray-Lyon. The only other British Battalion in the division was the 1st Leicesters.
On the 7th December 1941, the Japanese made two landings with strong forces of troops from northern Thailand and Indo-China on the North-East coast of Thailand close to the Malayan border at Singora and Patani, and one on the coast of Malaya itself at Badang.
The Japanese swept quickly down the main road towards Jitra, and on the 8th December the 11th Indian Division hurriedly set up defensive positions to try and protect the airfield at Alor Star. The divisional front was some 18,000 yards wide, mostly swampland, and positions were only partially prepared when the enemy launched a violent and determined attack down the main road in the early hours of the 11th December. This was the first time that British troops had faced an enemy making an extraordinary amount of noise. They screamed hysterically and used crackers, rattles and weird musical instruments. The Leicesters were hard pressed but held firm and the Surreys were not engaged but suffered some casualties from shell-fire in the initial attack. The whole situation was extremely confused as communications were poor and by the night of the 12th, the Japanese broke through the Jitra line on the right leaving the division badly mauled and the decision was made to fall back towards Gurun.
The Battle of Jitra was a major disaster for the 11th Indian Division who suffered severe losses: 15th Brigade lost three-quarters of its strength: in the 28th Brigade, one of the battalions was reduced to the strength of a company and the other two suffered over 100 casualties: 6th Brigade was seriously depleted. They incurred heavy losses of guns and transport and equipment and indeed it was a black beginning to the campaign to defend Malaya.
New defensive positions were set up three miles north of Gurun astride the road and railway, with the Surreys given a frontage of 1,500 yards to hold with A Company astride the vital road. The night of the 13th was relatively quiet for the Surreys but the Japanese suddenly attacked the 6th Brigade headquarters and overran it, isolating the whole Brigade. Major Dowling of the Surreys and the rest of the HQ staff were killed. B and C Companies, commanded by Captain Vickers and Captain O'N Wallis respectively disposed in a rubber plantation on the east of the road preventing the Japs infiltration from developing eastwards and bringing complete disaster on the rest of the Division.
With things in a total state of disorganisation, the Surreys split up. A number of men under Lieutenant Bateman managed to reach Taiping, sixty miles to the south, after struggling through the jungle for three weeks, only to find that by then it was in Japanese hands. Captain Kerrich commanding A Company was killed and the handful of men who were all that remained were killed or taken prisoner. The survivors of D Company, under Captain Carter, made their way westwards across country, got to the coast and so to the island of Penang in a native craft. The remaining two companies B and C were able to withdraw in good order with the 28th Ghurkha Brigade and reached Taiolin on the evening of the 16th December.
After four days of heroic action the East Surreys were reduced to 10 officers and 260 other ranks. It had been a gruelling and tragic experience and further retreat was still necessary as another Jap column was advancing southwards and accordingly the division fell back another sixty miles to Taipong near Ipoh.
The remnants of the Surreys had a three day respite at Taipong where drastic changes were made to knit together the battered units and formations of the division. On the 20th December the 2nd East Surreys and 1st Leicesters were merged to form the British Battalion with a compliment of 760 all ranks. The Commanding Officer was Lieutenant Colonel C.E. Morrison MC and second in command Major R.G.G.Harvey, both of the Leicesters. The Surreys provided the Adjutant, Major C. O'N Wallis along with Lieutenant Bingham and Captain Gingell. A and B companies were Leicesters, with C and D companies Surreys.
The Battalion then became part of the 6/15th Indian Infantry Brigade commanded by Brigadier Moorhead and whilst it had abundant transport, it was short of Bren Guns and Mortars. Vickers and Lewis guns were issued and deficiencies in clothing and boots were made up. From the start, this integration of the Leicesters and Surreys was a remarkable success, the esprit de corps and fighting spirit of the British Battalion was of the highest order. Refreshed by the brief rest and re-equipped, the Surreys and Leicesters were ready and willing to meet the enemy again.
On 23rd December the Brigade was ordered to take up positions at Kampar some forty miles to the south where it was intended to halt the Japanese advance. The British Battalion was deployed to hold the northern face of the perimeter. The Two Leicester companies held three ridges on the east of the road. C Company of the Surreys held a position eight hundred yards long on the west of the road with D company held in reserve.
The Battalion spent ten days including Christmas day in the Kampar positions. Quartermaster Captain Gingell lived up to his reputation by producing a traditional Christmas dinner of turkey along with a free issue of beer, and the memory of that special dinner had to last the Battalion throughout the bitter years of captivity that was to follow.
The Japanese attacked the Kampar positions at seven o'clock in the morning of New Year's Day 1942. The Battalion held fast and drove back the screaming hordes with steady fire. Throughout the day the enemy continued to press against the east flank where Captain Thomas of the Leicesters was among those killed. The Leicesters fought stubbornly under extreme pressure and by dusk the enemy attacks ceased allowing the Battalion to take stock of its position. A Japanese report on the battle shows how it appeared from the other side, but it seems that they thought that they were up against the Australians rather than the British. 'For the first time in the West Coast campaign two complete Japanese Divisions were employed simultaneously, but in spite of all they could do they were unable to dislodge the Australians from any but the most advanced positions. During the day three onslaughts were repulsed by the defending troops'.
The Kampar position was held stoutly for two days but by the evening of 2nd January news came in to the Battalion that the Japanese were massing new troops for a heavier attack and it became obvious that the Kampar position could not be held indefinitely. Accordingly orders were given for the Battalion to abandon their forward positions and fall back through the 28th Indian Brigade. By hard fighting the British Battalion got away from their positions in Kampar, just in time to escape a very heavy all-out attack which might well have pinned them down and annihilated them. The whole brunt of the Japanese attack had been borne by the British Battalion, which suffered over 100 casualties, almost all of them in A and D Companies.
Twelve confused days of retreat southwards followed through and beyond Kuala Lumpar with the Battalion covering the withdrawal of other units on several occasions. There was great confusion during this retreat but the British Battalion, though weary and bewildered, was kept together; it fought a succession of small but bitter actions and its morale never wavered. By the 14th January they arrived at Kluang where it was intended that they would have a weeks rest, but there was little rest for anyone in Malaya at that time as two days later the Japanese made new landings on the west coast of Malaya near Muar only thirty miles to the west of the Battalion's base.
On the 17th January the Surreys and Leicesters handed over to the 2nd Cambridgeshires and the 5th and 6th Norfolks recently arrived in Singapore.
The Battalion was to have 7 - 10 days rest at Kluang, but after one day they were ordered to the Ayer Hitam cross-roads to intercept the newly landed Japanese forces. C company was fired on by the Japanese from a nearby hill but when they advanced the enemy withdrew and no further contact was made. The British Battalion joined forces with the Cambridgeshires and the Norfolks around Ayer Hitam but on the 23rd January they moved to patrol the coastal road leaving the Cambridgeshires and Norfolks in Batu Pahat.
On the 27th January the situation in Malaya had deteriorated and the Battalion withdrew once again to Ponggor on the coast. This march was a nightmare for the exhausted troops as they struggled through streams and ditches. Crossings were quagmires where men floundered up to their knees in mud. At Ponggor the Royal Navy arrived and although embarkation was difficult most of the Battalion boarded the gunboats Dragonfly and Scorpion and taken to Singapore.
The British Battalion landed at Singapore docks on the 29th January and the third act of their tragic campaign began. They were allocated positions on the north of the Island just east of the naval base. All was not well with the anxious people in Singapore. The seasoned troops such as the British Battalion had no doubts as to their duty but many of the troops on the Island were newly arrived from home, only partly trained and out of condition.
The assault on Singapore began against the northwest shore on the evening of 8th February. The British Battalion was moved from its coastal sector defence to a line on the Jurong road. The Japanese attacked the 'stop-line' position and although the British Battalion was not engaged in close fighting, it was heavily shelled and bombed. D Company was sent to secure the road on the Battalion's left flank, taking up a position on high ground, This exposed the flanks of C company, which was soon attacked in strength, the Japanese advancing a considerable distance behind the company and threatening to encircle it. They were ordered to withdraw to a new position three miles to the east to get into line with other brigades and they took up a position in reserve. On that day the British Battalion lost Captain Andrews and Lieutenants Cross and Humphries wounded and Lieutenant Bobe of the Surreys killed along with Second Lieutenant Chippington, Newland and Rogers of the Leicesters.
On the 11th February, C company came in for particularly violent attention from the Japs, first by mortar fire and then by attacks of mass infantry. The Battalion headed down towards Bukit Timah in a state of disarray and at Bukit Timah it was realised how seriously they had suffered. They were placed under the command of the 22nd Australian Brigade on the 11th February and soon came under heavy artillery fire. There were more casualties with RSM Meredith wounded and later the Battalion re-organised into 2 companies - one Leicesters and one Surreys and were attached to the 44th Indian Brigade.
On the 12th February confusion rained through the Island. The British Battalion were not directly involved in fighting although furious fighting continued all around its position. By the 13th February the Battalion was too weakened in numbers to be an effective fighting unit and it was put into reserve and spent a quiet and gloomy day. Captain Gingell of the Surreys and Captain St. McNair of the Leicesters were sent with twenty five men on board a gunboat, the Dragonfly, up the Yangtze river to go to India to form cadres of the new battalions. Unfortunately it was sunk shortly after leaving Singapore and although wounded Captain Gingell swam for 7 seven hours before landing and jumping on a Dutch boat heading for the safety of Colombo in Ceylon.
In Singapore the British Battalion moved for the last time on Saturday 14th February and took up what was to be its final position of the campaign on a hill among villas. Sunday 15th opened with heavy mortaring, shelling and bombing of the Battalion's positions and there were more casualties, especially when two trenches occupied by the Surreys received direct hits. In the afternoon the Battalion was ordered to attack Japanese positions on the golf course opposite but the attack was soon cancelled. During that Sunday afternoon a strange and heavy silence fell upon Singapore and at twenty to nine in the evening Singapore surrendered and the Battalion stacked arms.
On the 20th December 1940 when the British Battalion was formed its strength was 786 all ranks; on 15th February 1941 it was 265. The sequel was three and half years of captivity, a story of fortitude and faith under terrible conditions of barbarism and cruelty. During that time Lieutenant Colonel Morrison remained in command of the constantly diminishing British Battalion, helped by Lieutenant Colonel Swinton and Major Wallis and Lieutenant Sharland. The medical officer of the Battalion, Captain Roy, never spared himself to look after the sick and the padre Rev Babb was outstanding in his devotion to the Battalion.
In June 1944 a number of prisoners were sent from Thailand to Japan and when their ship was torpedoed by an American submarine, twenty-three Surreys were drowned. One other later died in Japan.
The spirit and comradeship between the officers and men of the 2nd East Surreys and 1st Leicester's who served together in the British Battalion was forged in battle and enriched in hardship and suffering shared. It lasted throughout the years of captivity and has become a real and permanent friendship. Each year on 20th December the toast of the British Battalion is drunk by the 1st Battalion the Queens Regiment (Queens Surreys) and the 4th (Leicestershire) Battalion the Royal Anglican Regiment as direct inheritors of the traditions, honours and distinctions of the former 1st Battalion The Leicestershire Regiment and the 2nd Battalion the East Surrey Regiment.
Don't flurry or worry the boys of East Surrey
Will pull you through all right
Midst fun and noise, they're real good boys
And lads that love a fight
Station them here or station them there
In fact you can station them anywhere
They're British lads without a care
And boys that have made the whole world stare
Fearless and bold, like the lads of old
They are born of the bulldog strain
With plenty of grit, they do their bit
And their colours bear no stain
But VALOUR is their motto
And they boast a brave VC
Whilst they pride themselves of honour
On land as well as sea
So we're proud of the East Surrey Regiment
(The above is an abridged and edited version of Chapter 5 of the History of the East Surrey Regiment 1920 -1952 by David Scott Daniel. Only 100 copies of this book were produced.)