Tag Archives: far east

The 2nd Norfolk Regiment from Le Paradis to Kohima by Peter Hart

This is yet another book in Pen and Sword‘s ‘Voices from the Front Series’, and this one again is authored by the Imperial War Museum‘s Oral History expert Peter Hart. The 2nd Norfolks began the war as a regular Battalion, and went to Northern France in 1939. During a tour on the Maginot Line the Norfolks won some of the British Army’s first gallantry medals of the war. Back with the BEF in May 1940, the Norfolks found themselves in the thick of the fighting back towards Dunkirk.

As interesting as Dunkirk was, it’s the chapters about the British Army in Britain in late 1940 and 1941 that really interested me. How a shattered Army rebuilt itself, and how regular Battalions found themselves diluted with territorials and conscripts, and how county regiments found themselves taking in recruits from all over the country and the Army abandoned its local recruiting policy. The Army – and its officers and men – had a lot of learning to do in a very short space of time, and the memories of ordinary soldiers during this period that I find fascinating. Much of this period was spent firstly guarding the coast against invasion, and secondly exercising and familiarising with new equipment.

After the threat of invasion subsided with Hitler’s invasion of Russia, Britain found herself facing a second theatre of war in the Far East. Accordingly the 2nd Norfolks were sent to the Far East. They landed first in India, and there are some fascinating stories about the passage East and the period spent acclimatising in the sub-continent. The Norfolks spent some time quelling civil distubance in India too, with the rise of Gandhi’s national congress beginning to pose problems for the Raj.

After acclimatising to the Far East – a difficult process for western constitutions – the Norfolks went up to Kohima, in time for the pivotal battles around the Indian-Burmese Border there and at Imphal. What follows is a most insightful account of a Battalion fighting in extremely trying circumstances, at a critical point of the war. One account tells of how a Norfolk soldier hid with his section in the jungle and observed hundreds of Japanese pass by, only yards away – such was the intensity of the war in Burma.

I am a great fan of these Oral Histories, and particularly those that focus on the experiences of ordinary soldiers and junior officers – so often the people at the point of the sword, but for so long the people we have heard the least from. Thank god for projects like this that finally give them a voice. And the experiences of this ‘ordinary’ Battalion, from the BEF to Burma, encapsulates the British Army’s journey from 1939 to 1945 perfectly.

The 2nd Norfolk Regiment – from Le Paradis to Kohima is published by Pen and Sword

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The location of War Graves: some aspects considered

My map of Portsmouth War Graves locations gives a pretty interesting insight not only into the conduct of the war between 1939 and 1945, but also into other factors, such as the policy of the War Graves registration units and the CWGC. Thinking about these issues helps us place in context war casualties, and probably goes a long way to solving a lot of mysteries about the location of war graves.

You can see from the location of War cemeteries and individual war graves where most of the heavy fighting took place – Northern France, in particular Normandy and the Pas-de-Calais, Belgium and southern Holland, Italy, North Africa, in particular Tunisia and Egypt, and the Far East, especially Burma, Thailand and India.

There are also some interesting variances in policy, it would seem. In some theatres, there are a large number of smaller cemeteries. In Normandy, for example, there are a relatively high number of war grave locations. In Burma and Thailand, however, almost all men were reburied in larger central cemeteries, even if they were some distance from their original burial site.

RAF casualties are also commemorated differently. Army dead were usually buried in larger war cemeteries, even if it meant exhumation and reburial after the war. Indeed, most men killed in action on land were invariably buried in a field grave near to the site of their death, and the details recorded for later reburial.

On the other hand if a Bomber crashed over occupied territory its dead crewmembers were almost always buried in the local churchyard, and most remain there to this day. Therefore many burials in parts of France, Belgium and Holland are in small local churchyards. You can almost plot the flight routes from their locations in relation to that nights target. Almost all Bomber sorties – and there were many from 1942 onwards – had to fly over parts of Northern France, Belgium or Holland. And these were where the Kammhuber line defences swung into action.

A large proportion of Portsmouth men are buried in Italy – this is due to the presence of four Battalions of the Hampshire Regiment in the Italian Campaign, compared to only two in North West Europe from Normandy onwards.

You can also tell how far-flung British forces were during the war years. Servicemen are buried in outposts such as The Gambia, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Uganda, Australia and New Zealand. None of these countries saw any fighting, but they were important stopping off points, for Royal Navy ships or for convoys. A number of British airmen are also buried in the US and in Canada – they were almost certainly there for training, and died either in accidents or of illness.

But by far the most casualties are buried at home in Britain. They died at home of natural causes, illness, wounds received in action, or were victims of Bombing while on leave. Normally the authorities allowed families to bury their dead in their local cemetery – and happened with my Great-Uncle – but there do seem to have been exceptions. For example, the dead recovered from the sinking of the Royal Oak were buried in a nearby churchyard – the public health implication of transporting a large number of bodies around Britain from Scap Flow did not bear thinking about.

I also suspect that where men were the victims of explosions, for example, they were buried quickly in a local cemetery rather than being handed over to the family. This may have been to prevent the family from having to go through the ordeal of seeing the body. Also, when a large number of people were killed in one go – say in a bombing raid, for example – the priority of the authorities was to safely bury bodies to prevent disease spreading.

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The Battle for Burma: Roy Conyers Nesbit

Burma

Perhaps the most well-known fact about the war in Burma is that the men who fought in Burma are often regarded as the ‘Forgotten Army’. What I’ve always found most curious about this epitaph – which is quite accurate – is that people are willing to agree with it, but not to actually remedy it. Here Roy Conyers Nesbit makes a strong contribution to giving the Burma campaign the profile that it deserves.

Not content to simply give us a narrative about Burma, Nesbit starts by introducing the issues that underpinned the decline in Ango-Japanese relations, and also the effect that the fall of Singapore had on the war against the Japanese – not only strategic, but also psychological. Burma was definitely a long hard slog – that impression is made lucidly. Along the way we read about Orde Wingate and the Chindits, the Burma Railway and characters such as William Slim, Harold Alexander and Lord Louis Mountbatten. After suffering serious reverses in 1942 and 1943, in 1944 the counter-offensive at Imphal and Kohima turned the tide leading to the liberation of Burma shortly before Victory over Japan.

A page from Battle for Burma

This book is most timely, as I have recently been researching the men from Portsmouth who fought and died in Burma – including a member of the Chindits, men who are buried at Imphal and Kohima, and men who died whilst working on the Burma Railway. Having read Battle or Burma, I can already visualise what those brave men must have been through.

Accompanied by over 200 original black and white photographs, and contemporary maps, this is a first class book indeed and a must-read for any military history enthusiast. This is already a contender for my ‘military history book of the year’. Not bad at all for a book released on 7 January!

The Battle for Burma is published by Pen and Sword

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Portsmouth men at the fall of Singapore

Percival surrendering to the Japanese at Singapore

Percival surrendering to the Japanese at Singapore

The fall of Singapore on 15 February 1942 was perhaps the biggest and most terrible defeat that British forces have ever suffered.

Singapore, described as ‘the Gibraltar of the East’, had been identified as a crucial point in the British Empire that was vulnerable to Japanese attack as early as the 1930’s. But in the style of France’s Maginot line, the only defences built were some formidable gun emplacements built facing out to sea, to protect the Dockyard. It was thought impossible that the Japanese would come overland.

But come overland they did. The Japanese invaded further up the Malay peninsula on 8 December 1941, almost simultaneously with their attack on Pearl Harbour. Their 30,000 troops were easily outnumbered by the 50,000 British defenders, however the Japanese troops took well to fighting in the Jungle environment, and could call on strong air and naval support, particularly after HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse had been sunk off the coast. The few British aircraft in Singapore were obsolete.

Given these handicaps the British commander, Lieutenant-General Arthur Percival, could not have done much better. By 15 February 1942 the Japanese had broken through the last line of defence and the British forces were running out of food and ammunition. Percival opted to surrender.

2,000 men were killed in the fighting. From Portsmouth, Gunner Gordon Drew (20, Cosham), Sergeant Ernest Bacon (30, Portsmouth), Sergeant Victor Cole (27, Milton), Private Henry Aldridge (36, Landport), Private Frank Cockles (31, Southsea) and Lance Corporal Harold Bravington (23, Southsea) were killed. They have no known graves, and are remembered on the Singapore Memorial.

Almost 50,000 British servicemen were captured at Singapore. Their fight for survivial was only just beginning. The Japanese kept Prisoners of war in barbaric conditions, and many were used for slave labour.Gunner Arthur Denmead (22, Fratton) died in June 1943, and is buried in Thailand. He had been working on the infamous Burma Railway. Lieutenant Cecil Edwards (41, Southsea) died on 24 September 1943, in Singapore. Gunner Walter Cottrell (19, Southsea) died 22 October 1943, also in Thailand. As did Lance-Corporal Derek Foster (29, Southsea) who died on 27 November 1943). Gunner Stanley Bannier (31, Southsea), Gunner Eric Donachie (25, Southsea) and Corporal John Karmy (23, Southsea) died in Singapore in September 1944.

We cannot even begin to imagine the kind of suffering and brutality that these brave young men endured in their years of captivity.

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