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Singapore

Upon the outbreak of the Second World War the 1st battalion of the Leicestershire Regiment was still in India, serving on the North West Frontier. The worsening political situation in the Far East however meant that it did not return to Europe but instead in 1941 it was deployed to Penang, and then to Jitra, in order to protect Britain’s vital rubber supplies in Malaya against the threat from Japan.

On 7 December 1941 the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour, and on the following day their troops landed in Malaya. The war in the Far East had begun. On 11 December the battalion fought a major battle at Jitra, holding its positions until ordered to withdraw. At this point however it became separated into isolated groups, only some of which succeeded in escaping. The survivors were subsequently formed, with the survivors of the East Surrey Regiment, into the ‘British Battalion’.

WOI John T.Meredith DCM (left) had been RSM of the 1st Leicesters and was also RSM of the British Battalion. He is seen here after receiving his DCM at Buckingham Palace in 1946, for leadership in Malaya and in captivity

Thus began the fighting retreat down through Malaya to Singapore. Heavy casualties were inflicted upon the Japanese during this retreat, later estimated at 60,000 for the entire campaign, but each time a stand was made, the Japanese were able to outflank it by landing further down the coast. British attempts to hold onto positions around Johore came to nothing, and the survivors were evacuated to Singapore.

In the face of heavy resistance, the Japanese landed on Singapore Island on 8 February 1942. After seven days of fighting the garrison finally surrendered, chiefly to spare the civilian population from further Japanese air strikes. Some members of the British battalion managed to escape, but the remainder found themselves Prisoners of War. Housed in Changi Camp, adjacent to the infamous Changi Jail, their new Japanese masters initially showed little interest in their new captives, leaving them largely to their own devices. This changed however, once work began upon the new railway which the Japanese were building in Thailand to supply their troops in Burma. Working parties were organised from among the POWs, and sent up country. In appalling conditions the ‘Railway of Death’ was forced through the jungles and over ravines.

In building the Bridge on the River Kwai and other parts of the railway, British soldiers, Leicesters included, died in their hundreds, from jungle diseases, malnutrition and overwork.

The Road to Dunkirk

Disaster in France

Seldom in the history of warfare can two sides have been so unequal than in the case of the 2nd/5th Leicesters, and the German forces which faced them in France in May 1940. The 2nd/5th battalion, which had only been in existence for just over a year, faced the crack divisions of the Wehrmacht, as the allied armies in France crumbled under the weight of the German blitzkrieg.

The 2nd/5th battalion was formed in 1938 when the 5th battalion was split to form a 1st/5th and a 2nd/5th, as the British government tried desperately to expand the Territorial Army following the Munich crisis. The newer formation had no heavy equipment and was desperately short of even the most basic requirements like rifles. The battalion was initially based in factories in Leicester, but then moved to the Filbert Street ground of Leicester City Football Club.

When the battalion was sent to France to join the BEF in April 1940, its intended roles were to be labouring duties and further training. On 10 May however the German blitzkrieg erupted against France, with German aircraft and armour making lightening strikes against the disorganised and demoralised Anglo-French forces.

In spite of its lack of preparedness the battalion was sent into the line on 25 May 1940 to try to stem the German advance. Strung out over more than a mile, with only demoralised French colonial troops in support, this was a desperate move on the part of British High Command.

Hopelessly outgunned, the battalion was first divebombed and then attacked by infantry. Most of its members were killed or captured. Only B Company and a few other stragglers escaped the debacle, and began the journey toward the coast and the town of Dunkirk, where the remnants of the BEF were being evacuated. In small numbers they made their way back to England.

Norway

Battle in the Snow

The heroic but disastrous Norway expedition, upon which the 1st/5th battalion embarked in April 1940, typified the futile and ill-thought out operations of the early part of the Second World War. When, without warning, Nazi Germany invaded Norway, Britain set out to send a force to bolster the resistance of the Norwegian army. However, the speed with which the Wehrmacht advanced, and the paucity of British military resources, meant that two understrength bridgades became effectively tasked with liberating an occupied country.

The advanced party of the 1st/5th battalion under Lieutenant Colonel Guy German landed at Andalsnes on 18 April 1940. Upon arrival he was informed by the local Norwegian commanders that they would surrender if they did not receive immediate assistance. There was little choice but to comply and so the battalion headed south by train to meet the German advance from Oslo. On the way their train was bombed and machine gunned by enemy aircraft. Transferring to lorries, they continued their journey, until on 21 April they made contact with the enemy near Lake Mjosa. A sharp action followed, with several men of the Leicesters killed.

At length they reached Tretten, where alongside the River Laagen the battered remains of the expeditionary force were to make a stand. It was to be an unequal struggle. The men of the Leicesters, poorly armed and without food or sleep for 36 hours, faced tanks and artillery as the Germans attempted to force their way through. PSM John Sheppard was in command of a small force on the right flank. Across the river he noticed a force of enemy tanks approaching. Taking a Boyes Anti-Tank Rifle (which he had never before fired) he took up a position and fired three rounds at each, destroying two. These were to be the first enemy tanks destroyed by British forces in the Second World War. The situation overall however was bleak. The Leicesters were clearly outnumbered and although some stragglers managed to escape from Norway, the majority were captured.

Tigers on the Veldt

South Africa 1899-1902

The 1st battalion of the regiment was stationed in South Africa upon the outbreak of the conflict there, and was on active service from the first shots of the war until the signing of peace. It fought at Talana, Ladysmith, Laing’s Nek, Burgendaal and Lydenburg. After Ladysmith, the battalion was joined by The Volunteer Service Company, raised from the 1st Volunteer Battalion in England. In 1902, during the closing months of the conflict, the 3rd (Militia) battalion also arrived in South Africa, and was primarily invloved in the guarding of blockhouse lines.

The Tigers fought a sharp action at Talana Hill on 20 October 1899, as part of a British force which came off worst against superior Boer opposition. Among the casualties were Lieutenant William Hannah killed, and Lieutenant Weldon (below right) wounded. The Leicesters then began the long retreat from Dundee, across the fortunately dry bed of the Sunday River, into Ladysmith, which they reached on ‘Mournful Monday.’

The Leicesters were forced to abandon much equipment during the retreat, including the drum (right) which was salvaged by a Boer fighter, who presented it back to the regiment in the 1930s.

Lieutenant William Hannah

Lieutenant B. De A. Weldon

Looking across Ladysmith during the siege

The siege lasted 118 days, by which time the garrison were wracked by dysentery and enteric fever, and had been forced to eat their horses. However their stubborn defence tied up large numbers of Boer soldiers and enabled reinfocements to arrive.

After Ladysmith the Leicesters carried the war into the Transvaal, clearing the Boers from the Laing’s Nek and Burgendaal (Belfast) positions, before fighting their last major battle at Lydenburg.

 

Pte W.H.Foxon (above) served throughout the Siege of Ladysmith,

earning the Queen’s & King’s South Africa medals (below)

 

Issuing rations of horsemeat in Ladysmith

Soldiers’ Stories……

A Son of Sussex……


Among the first casualties sustained by the 1st battalion Leicestershire Regiment in the Boer War was Lieutenant W.J.Hannah, killed by a Boer shell at the Battle of Talana on 21 October 1899. The Hannah brothers were the sons of the Reverend J.J. Hannah, Vicar of Brighton at St Peter’s Church.

At the time of Lt Hannah’s death a new chancel was being constructed at St Peter’s. In his memory ‘his sorrowing friends’ paid for a chancel pillar on which is carved a fine stone memorial with an excellent colour depiction of the Leicestershire Regiment’s tiger.
The surviving sibling, I.C. Hannah later wrote a guide book entitled, The Sussex Coast (T.Fisher Unwin, 1912). It is a literary memorial, being dedicated :-

to
A Sussex Worthy
who rests in a distant land;
MY BROTHER
who fell fighting that Sussex and South Africa
might share a flag;
this work is dedicated
with affection and with reverence

Research

If you had a relative or forebear who served with the Tigers, and you would like to know more about their service history, please get in touch. If we can help you directly we will, if not, we will at least try to point you in the right direction. If you have a photo, please send a scan of it with your enquiry. A picture paints a thousand words and sometimes the information you are seeking is right there, if you know what to look for!

Send your email to: webmaster@green-tiger.co.uk

Research Resources are held at:

Record Office for Leicester, Leicestershire & Rutland
Long Street
Wigston
Leicester
http://www.leics.gov.uk/index/community/museums/record_office.htm

War Diaries, photographs, regimental histories

Museum of the Royal Leicestershire Regiment
Newarke Houses Museum
Leicester
http://www.leicestermuseums.ac.uk/museums/newark.html

Regimental collection including silver, medals, uniforms

The National Archives
Kew
Surrey
http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/

Medal Index Cards, Medal Rolls, Soldiers’ Papers from WW1 and earlier