World War II: Britain’s Forgotten Army
The contribution of the soldiers who saw action in the Far East in World War II is often forgotten with so much popular emphasis being placed on the war in Europe and the British Home Front. Three units from the Surrey regiments played a full part in the dramatic events of the war against Japan and this article looks at their contribution.
Following the fall of France in 1940, Britain, its Empire and the Commonwealth stood alone. In June 1941 Germany invaded the Soviet Union, and pushed the Soviet Army back to the gates of Moscow. Britain was forced to weaken its garrisons in the Far East to reinforce its war effort against Germany. Then on 7 December 1941 Japan attacked the American base of Pearl Harbour. This was the turning point of the Second World War, because not only did Adolf Hitler declare war on America a few days later, but knowing that the Japanese were interested in the Far East rather than war with Russia, Josef Stalin was able to call upon his Siberian Divisions to halt the German advance and ultimately drive them back to Berlin itself.
Although the attack on Pearl Harbour is the most famous incident, the Japanese also launched surprise assaults on Manila, Shanghai and Hong Kong and landed troops in South Thailand and at Badang in the north of the Malay peninsula. On 10 December 1941 HMS The Prince of Wales, with its escort ship were sunk. Among the British units stationed in the Far East was the 2nd Battalion, the East Surrey Regiment, and the 1st Battalion, the Queen’s Royal (West Surrey) Regiment, which was later joined by the 2nd Battalion. In 1943 these battalions became part of Britain’s 14th Army under the command of Lieutenant General William Slim, known as Britain’s Forgotten Army, since its exploits were rarely mentioned in the media of the time.
The 2nd Battalion, East Surrey Regiment
When the Japanese landed at Badang the 2nd Battalion, East Surrey Regiment, as part of the 11 Indian Division, was there to meet them and the two forces clashed at Jitra, a town in northern Kedah, Malaya (Malaysia), on 11 and 12 December. The division was forced back suffering heavy losses, with the battalion holding the bridges over which the division retreated. The battalion again clashed with the Japanese at Alor Star Bridge and then again at the battle of Gurun on 14-15 December. A Company and the battalion’s headquarters were quickly overrun, but B and C Companies held firm and withdrew on 15 December at about midday. By now the battalion was reduced to 10 officers and about 260 other ranks and so on 20 December it was decided to amalgamate these men with the remnants of the 1st Battalion, the Royal Leicestershire Regiment, which was also part of the 11 Indian Division. This new unit became known as the British Battalion, and replacements brought up the battalion’s strength to 760 all ranks.
During the last weeks of 1941 it was decided to hold a defensive line on Thompson’s Ridge, Green Ridge and Cemetery Ridge near Kampar, with the British Battalion holding the main road to Kampar. On 1 January 1942 at 7.00am after a heavy bombardment the Japanese launched a major offensive against these ridges. The fighting continued the following day and at midnight the British Battalion was ordered to withdraw. The battalion continued to fall back down in the length of the peninsula in the face of overwhelming numbers until finally on 25 January it was ordered to march to Singapore Island. On 29 January having found passage on HMS Scorpion and HMS Dragonfly the battalion finally arrived at Singapore. At the beginning of February the Japanese Army began its attack on the island. In the heavy fighting that followed the British Battalion was reduced to 265 officers and men. On the 15 February Singapore surrendered with thousands of British, Indian and Australian troops being taken prisoner, including the remnants of the British Battalion.
Of all the Japanese Prisoner of War camps the most notorious was probably Changi Prison, about 4km south of Singapore. It was designed to house 800 civilian prisoners before the war, but 8,000 allied PoWs were incarcerated there. A PoW’s diet was often just 600 calories a day, composed of a daily ration of 10 ounces of rice, plus two ounces of rotten pork and four ounces of fish per month. It has been estimated that because of these starvation rations coupled with disease, hard work and ill treatment and lack of medical care one in four prisoners died. Many prisoners were put to work building the Burma Railway with 13,000 PoWs dying out of more than 60,000. Civilian labourers who were forced to work on the railway also died in their 1000s.
The 1st Battalion, Queen’s Royal (West Surrey) Regiment
After the fall of Singapore the British were driven back to India, with Burma becoming the battleground. It was not until December 1942 that the 1 Queen’s, which had been involved in policing actions against the Faqir of Ipi, was called upon to fight the Japanese and it was not until August 1943 that the battalion moved to Arakan on the Burmese coast. On 26 November as part of 33 Brigade of the 7th Indian Division, the battalion was ordered to capture the road from Maungdaw to Buthidaung. After capturing Awlanbyn, the battalion was ordered to storm Hill 182, which they successfully did but a Japanese counter attack overran some of their positions, before being repulsed.
The battalion defended the Arakan area until 3 April 1944 when they were ordered to reinforce the Anglo-Indian line resisting a major offensive by the Japanese on Kohima, a town in India. The battle of Kohima was to last from 4 April to 22 June, although 1 Queen’s did not arrive until 6 May 1944. The battalion was immediately thrown into action. Kohima was the scene of fierce fighting with wave after wave of Japanese attacks, followed by allied counter-attacks. Finally due to lack of provisions the Japanese were forced to retreat and the invasion of India was over.
After the battle 1 Queen’s were sent to Shillong for a rest and it was not until 6 March 1945 that the battalion was ordered to the Front again to resist a Japanese attempt to cross the Irrawaddy and Chindwin Rivers. They would spend the next two months in mopping up operations until 20 June when they were once more withdrawn from the line. The battalion would again see action at the Battle of the Sittang Bend in Burma, which took place between 2 July and 7 August 1945. This was the battalion’s last battle of the war and it was posted to Bangkok early in October.
The 2nd Battalion, the Queen’s Royal (West Surrey) Regiment
Of the three Surrey battalions who fought the Japanese, the 2nd Battalion, the Queen’s Royal (West Surrey) Regiment, was the most experienced since it had seen service in North Africa fighting the Germans and the Italians, and even Vichy French forces. In March 1942 it was sent to Ceylon (present day Sri Lanka) as part of 16 Infantry Brigade to prevent any Japanese offensive. With no attack forthcoming, in February the following year it was decided to transfer 16 Infantry Brigade to India.
It was decided that the 16 Infantry Brigade should be divided into eight columns and used as part of a long range penetration force. 2 Queen’s formed two of these columns, numbered 21 and 22, in total 400 men, with 75 mules to carry the column’s heavy weapons and ammunition and 12 ponies for the wounded (although in reality many of the wounded would be left behind). Each man was to carry five days rations and the columns were to be resupplied from the air in what was estimated to be a three month operation. The soldiers would be known officially as Special Force, but since these columns were to operate in the vicinity of the Chindwin River, they became known as Chindits, under the overall command of General Orde Wingate, who had led a similar column the previous year.
On 23 January 1944 2 Queen’s arrived in Northern Assam from where they set off in secrecy to Tagap Ga, where they arrived on 31 January. On 5 February 21 and 22 columns set out into the jungle reaching the Chindwin River at the end of February. Wingate had set up a number of fortified positions in the jungle, with the 16 Brigade being allocated the stronghold named as Aberdeen, where the Queen’s arrived on 19 March. On 21 March 21 Column set out, while 22 Column set out the following day. Their aim was to attack Indaw, although a mix up in communications meant that 21 Column did not join in this attack and 22 Column remained in reserve. Following the death in March of Wingate in a plane crash the Chindits came under the command of the American General Joseph Stilwell who criticised their tactics and ordered them back to their bases and so the 21 and 22 Columns returned to Aberdeen on 10 and 13 April respectively and then returned to India.
Soon 2 Queen’s were again ordered into action, this time going to the stronghold known as Broadway, and from there to Mawlu and thence to the Indaw-Myitkina Railway. For the next three months the 21 and 22 Columns were to march, skirmish with the Japanese and endure the weather and jungle conditions.
On 21 May 1944 they moved to Bidadi Camp, near Bangalore in India, where the battalion transferred to the 23 Infantry Brigade. Despite their jungle experience they went into training once more, but in February 1945 it was decided to disband Special Force. A proposal to convert the battalion to paratroopers was quickly dropped and on 21 June it was ordered to Poona for more training.
Meanwhile events were moving in other theatres of war and with Victory in Europe (VE Day) on 8 May 1945 both Britain and America turned their attention to defeating Japan. As early as November 1943 Stalin had agreed that once Germany had been defeated the Soviet Union would also declare war on Japan, a fact that Winston Churchill and Theodore Roosevelt reminded Stalin of at the Yalta Conference in February 1945. Therefore on 8 August the Soviet Union declared war on Japan. In the face of Soviet troops attacking from the north and American and British Empire troops from the south and west and after Atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima (6 August) and Nagasaki (9 August) the Japanese had no option but to surrender.
15 August 1945 was declared VJ Day, which brought the Second World War to an end. However, it would be some time before the Prisoners of War were freed and it was not until 5 September 1945 that Changi Prison was liberated by 5 Indian Division.
Written by Laurence Spring