Cecil Lowry
ARRSE Rating
4.5 Mushroom Heads
In 1938 the 2nd Bn East Surreys, a regular army battalion, were sent to Shanghai to guard the International Compound during the Japan-China War. Brought up to war establishment for this posting the Battalion soon settled in to what was, in effect, a large prison, freedom of movement was not encouraged. While there, the Battalion found it difficult to carry out much military training so it became mainly a round of guard duties and sports activities. This posting brought them in to contact with the Japanese who were their effective gaolers. They witnessed some of the brutality that the Japanese meted out to the Chinese yet were powerless to stop it.

1939 saw then stuck in Shanghai while the world went to war. This was a surreal time for the Battalion, receiving intelligence reports from back home plus the intelligence on the expected actions of Japan. In 1940 Shanghai was abandoned and the Battalion moved to Malaya, still in a surreal situation with the war raging in Europe and N Africa. The Battalion lost some of their officers and SNCOs to postings to replace losses, but on the whole, remained intact.

1941 and tensions were racking up in Malaya and scenarios were gamed to work out where the Japanese would attack. While not far wrong the Battalion, as was the whole of the British and Commonwealth troops in the area, were totally wrong footed by the Japanese and never regained the initiative from them. Fighting down the Malayan Peninsula the Battalion lost more than half of their strength and the author gives good account of the confused battles the Battalion took part in. Eventually their strength was such that they merged the Battalion with 1st Leicesters and became known as “The British Battalion” with a strength of 790 officers and men. Each of the battles has little vignettes by men who were there putting flesh of the dry history and making the book even more readable. Fighting back to Singapore they were placed in a defensive position, but we all know what the outcome there was and the Battalion went in to the camp at Changi Peninsula.

This is where the story takes a different tone as the Battalion, while still a formed body of men, were PoWs and it is this part that takes up the remainder of this fine book.

The movement of men, losses in camps and on transport ships is finely detailed and credit for this is given to the Chief Clerk, ORQMS Camp who kept a secret diary listing where every man of the 2nd East Surreys went, who died, which camp/train/ship that it happened which allowed a complete nominal roll of men of the Battalion, showing who was killed, died and survived to be given. This is then broken down into where these people lost their lives, again by battle, camp or transport ship. Had this been discovered by the Japanese then ORQMS Camp would have been severely punished or even executed.

While in Singapore the Japanese selected men for work on the Burma railway, initially by saying that life in the work camps would be better, good rations and working conditions. Again, as we know, that was not exactly true! I have read many of the books on the construction of the Burma Railway and always marvel that any of them actually survived the war. Many didn’t of course but many did and the horrors they endured astound me – this Battalion is no different. I don’t want to go in to the details as that is the book matter and I would recommend that you read it yourself if you have an interest in this era and phase of the Second World War. When the railway was completed some men were retained to maintain and rebuild bits that were bombed by the Allies and conditions in the camps changed, very slightly, for the better. It left thousands of men no longer needed to work on the railway. This brings us to the next stage in the storey – the Hellships.

Men were transported to Japan and other areas where they were used as slave labour. Herded on to ships, crammed in so there is no room to move around with little food and less water. Some stayed in the holds of these ships for weeks and months. Disease is rife and many men die, just to be landed and put to work. Many of the ships were sunk by submarines as they were not parked in any way as POW ships. Hundreds of men were lost this way. In many ways the ships were even worse than the Burma rail camps.

The story ends of course with the war ending and members of the Battalion spread all over the area occupied by the Japanese. Rations are dropped to the PoWs with warnings not to overeat but several men could not help themselves and some died because their stomachs and bodies could not cope. It took quite some time for the PoWs to be brought together, treated and started on their road to recovery. They were then put on ships, in a lot more comfort than the Japanese ships and started their journey home. Each man was given a document telling them what they were entitled to in pay, leave, rank and what to do at the end of their leave. They were also told not to talk about their experiences in Japanese PoW camps. A poor decision which affected many men unable to talk about and get release for their condition. Arriving in the UK there were no bands to greet them, no welcoming committee, just stuck on trains, taken to a depot and sent on leave. A poor end to an horrendous experience for these men.

At the back of the book are several Annexes. Annex 1 is a nice bit about brothers serving in the Battalion, noting that some got home, some only one got home and some neither survived. It is worth noting the effect this has on the respective families.

Annex 2 is the Notice to Returning PoWs in which their rights are listed and tells them not to talk about their experiences.

Appendix 3 is the Battalion Roll of Honour with Appendix 4 being the full Battalion nominal roll with the individual outcome noted i.e. Killed in battle or Died in captivity.

There are many books in the same vein, but so what. This is a story of great endurance, personal courage and Regimental pride so deserves to be told, and re-told so we never forget.

4.5 for a wonderful story of courage and a fine Regiment.

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