Wednesday, 15 February 2012

The Plymouth Argylls Surrender - On the day in Scottish Military History - 70 years ago

It has been widely recognised that of all the troops in Malaya in December 1941 when the Japanese attacked, the 2nd Battalion Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders were one of the most prepared for war*. The unreal situation in Singapore, of almost peacetime conditions whilst London was burning under the Blitz and Britain and her empire stood alone against the Nazis did not impress the officer commanding the Argylls.

Lieutenant Colonel Ian Stewart wanted his men in the jungle to learn how to fight amongst the tropical rainforest and not be tied to the roads like the other units tasked with defending 'the Gibraltar of the East'. Many senior officers in Singapore dismissed the threat of the Japanese but the soldiers they under-estimated had been fighting a hard war in China for five long years. Many of the British Imperial troops defending Malaya and Singapore had never even fired a shot in anger so had little basis for their feelings of superiority over the supposedly  short-sighted enemy. Stewart was more of a realist and knew he had to get his men out into the steaming jungles if they wanted to stand a chance. At the time he was mocked by some of his peers for training his 'Jungle Beasts' but when the invasion came in December 1941 Stewart's Argylls were ready when many units looked amateurish.

It was soon obvious to the army commanders that the Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders were the men to hold the line while they retreated back to Singapore. Time and again as the Japanese poured through the jungle and outflanked the British the Argylls were the fire-fighters who saved the day. One battalion could not stop the invading Japanese and they were decimated at Slim River on 7th January 1942. The remnants were withdrawn back to Singapore and formed the rearguard at The Causeway to Singapore on 31st January.

In Singapore the 250 men left of the battalion had returned to their pre-war home of Tyersall Park Camp where they had been joined on 29th January by The Naval Battalion. Five days later the two units merged to form a composite battalion. The 210 Royal Marines of the Naval Battalion had survived the sinking of HMSs 'Prince of Wales' and 'Repulse' off Malaya on 10th December 1941. They had since been engaged in guard duties at Naval Establishments in Singapore over the previous month and some had been seconded for a few weeks to Roseforce (a small saboteur force which worked behind Japanese lines, led by Major Angus Rose of the Argylls) but now they were regrouped to fight in the front line against the impending Japanese invasion of Singapore.

The home port of both ships and men who manned the two sunken warships was Plymouth so the composite unit formed from both depleted battalions soon became known as the Plymouth Argylls. Plymouth's football team had taken the name Argyle in 1886 and one theory is that it was taken from the successful Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders football team of that time (however it is just as likely that it was from the name of a local pub where the team met - The Argyle Tavern). Plymouth Argyll therefore seemed an appropriate, if unofficial, name for the combined unit when they were formed to take part in the defence of Singapore Island.

Lieutenant Colonel Ian Stewart commanded the new unit but had less than a week to train his new command before the Japanese crossed the Straits of Johore in strength. The Plymouth Argylls were rushed forward and were in action on the 9th of January near Tengah airfield. There was bitter fighting over the next two day but they were too lightly armed to put up much resistance to the combined Japanese attacks by land and air and the final straw was an attack by a Japanese armoured column.

In the confused situation in the next few days the companies lost contact with each other. Some men headed back to their camp at Tyersall Park; others headed for the port where some were allocated as guards on the ships taking civilians to Sumatra. Many ships were sunk or captured and some were captured in Sumatra when the Japanese arrived but seventy four men of the composite unit avoided Japanese bombers and warships and made it back on the ships which reached Ceylon.

For the men of the Plymouth Argylls who had not been killed in the fighting, or escaped on one of the evacuation ships, the end came quickly. On this day seventy years ago, just twelve days after it had been formed, and six days after first going into action, General Percival ordered the surrender of all Allied troops in Singapore and the composite battalion of Royal Marines and Highlanders ceased to exist. Two days later the survivors of the Plymouth Argylls marched into captivity behind a piper after having added fresh laurels to the reputations of its parent units.

* Field Marshall Lord Wavell - "There was one battalion, a battalion of Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, commanded by a remarkable commanding officer, which he had trained most intensively in jungle fighting. "  

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