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.