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Suffolk soldiers remembered at Victory over Japan Day 75th anniversary commemoration in Bury St Edmunds




The soldiers of Suffolk who fought in the Far East during World War II will be remembered on Saturday.

Operating with Covid-19 safety guidelines, a gathering of 65 people will assemble to pay their respects in Bury St Edmunds.

These will include organiser Lady Clare, Countess of Euston, and Lord-Lieutenant of Suffolk, Vice-Lord, Robers and Teresa Rous, representatives from the county's armed services, veterans from Royal Air Force Association, The British Legion, the Australian High Commission, Suffolk civic dignitaries, Far East Associations and Suffolk's police and crime commissioner.

A patrol from 2nd Battalion, The Suffolk Regiment in the Arakan peninsular of Burma in 1943. Picture courtesy of the Suffolk Regiment Museum.
A patrol from 2nd Battalion, The Suffolk Regiment in the Arakan peninsular of Burma in 1943. Picture courtesy of the Suffolk Regiment Museum.

In this strange year of 2020, and despite of the rigours of the coronavirus outbreak, the new regulations issued by the government and the lockdown that affected the country, VE Day (Victory in Europe) was celebrated albeit with a greatly reduced display of style and festivities.

Victory over Japan Day, (VJ Day) however, is largely forgotten in most parts of the country.

In Suffolk, though, the bravery of its soldiers will be remembered, as will the terrible price they paid.

Lady Clare, Countess of Euston at the Battle of Britain Parade, Bury St Edmunds, 2019. Picture: Mark Westley.
Lady Clare, Countess of Euston at the Battle of Britain Parade, Bury St Edmunds, 2019. Picture: Mark Westley.

At the time, the stories of soldiers fighting in Japan were not followed as closely as those in Europe, simply because the European battles, were much closer to home.

But the atrocities the Far East soldiers saw, and suffered, the battles they fought, have left scars throughout the generations.

East Anglia, and Suffolk in particular, has many reasons to remember.

VJ Day is an incredibly important event to commemorate the valiant actions of our armed forces personnel but also to remember those that paid the ultimate price for freedom and those that suffered significantly at the hands of the enemy. Many of our Suffolk families lost loved ones throughout the campaign. Lady Euston
Soldiers from Suffolk paid the ultimate price. Suffolk Regiment Museum.
Soldiers from Suffolk paid the ultimate price. Suffolk Regiment Museum.

The County of Suffolk VJ Day Service of Remembrance at St Mary's Church, will include payers, readings, an address by the The Very Rev Joe Hawes, Dean of St Edmundsbury, and a two-minute silence, starting at 11am.

Other small gatherings, mostly limited to 30 people, will be held around the county, including Needham Market, Bungay, Beccles Woodbridge, Felixstowe and Saxmundham.

VJ Day still conjures many raw emotions for relatives of forebears, caught up in one of the Second World War’s greatest tragedies - the surrender of Singapore and the loss of Malays to the Japanese Imperial Army.

Ken Rowbottom, Suffolk County chairman of the Royal British Legion at the War Memorial in Bury St Edmunds. Picture: Mecha Morton.
Ken Rowbottom, Suffolk County chairman of the Royal British Legion at the War Memorial in Bury St Edmunds. Picture: Mecha Morton.

Whilst Victory in Europe (VE Day) marked the end of the war in Europe in May 1945, many thousands were still engaged in bitter fighting in the Far East.

And Victory over Japan would come at a heavy price.

Far East Prisoner of War camp. Suffolk Regiment Museum
Far East Prisoner of War camp. Suffolk Regiment Museum

Victory over Japan Day (VJ Day) marks the day Japan surrendered on the August 15, which in effect ended the Second World War.

Ken Rowbottom, chairman of the Suffolk County branch of the Royal British legion, said: "For those soldiers of the 4th and 5th Battalions, The Suffolk Regiment, who had survived the fighting, the following three and a half years became a grim battle for survival.

"A debilitating climate, tropical disease, starvation and ill-treatment, all contributed to the heavy losses suffered in captivity.

"In addition, the prisoners of war were made to work as slave labourers on the Burma -Siam railway, in coal mines on Formosa (Taiwan) and in the so called 'hell ships' running the gauntlet of American submarines en route to Japan.

Many who survived this captivity returned home after VJ Day, little more than human skeletons, who would be forever haunted by an experience that our language cannot adequately describe. Ken Rowbottom, Chairman of Suffolk County Royal British Legion.

"This is why the 'Pain of Suffolk' is remembered, commemorated but not celebrated on VJ Day."

Seventy five years later as the nation commemorates VJ Day, there are very few if any, survivors from those battalions of The Suffolk Regiment who were present during the retreat from Malaya and the fall of Singapore.

VJ Day 2020
VJ Day 2020

The 4th and 5th Battalions of The Suffolk Regiment were territorial units who formed part of the 18th (East Anglian) Division. This Division was made up mostly of territorial units and had trained for war in the Middle East, but was then diverted to Malaya and Singapore, too late to affect the out come of the Japanese invasion.

Piers Pool, from Sudbourne, Woodbridge, whose father's wartime memories were documented in his autobiographical book: Course for Disaster – from Scapa Flow to the River Kwai, said:"My father, Commander Richard Pool, was a sub-lieutenant on the battle cruiser HMS Repulse which, together with HMS Prince of Wales, was sent out to Singapore in 1941 to counter the threat of the Japanese.

Commander Richard Pool, who later went on to found a fruit farm near Woodbridge, inspired by one of his fellow naval colleagues who had nursed him during the war. Picture: Courtesy of Piers Pool.
Commander Richard Pool, who later went on to found a fruit farm near Woodbridge, inspired by one of his fellow naval colleagues who had nursed him during the war. Picture: Courtesy of Piers Pool.

"Both ships were sunk by Japanese torpedo bombers in December of that year.

"My father survived and spent several months in Singapore running raids behind the Japanese lines as they advanced down the Malay peninsular. In one of these actions he was awarded the DSC.

"He evacuated Singapore with a party of 44 on a motor launch the night before the island fell to the Japanese.

"They motored South heading for Java but ran into the Japanese Navy and so had to beach on a desert island, Tjebia, during which manoeuvre the ML was damaged beyond repair.

"Many of the party died on the island. My father always believed that, their situation seeming hopeless, they simply gave up the will to live.

"Eventually my father repaired an old Malay fishing prahu and sailed to some neighbouring islands to get help. There they were betrayed to the Japanese and my father spent the rest of the war as a POW on the notorious Burma Railway.

On VJ day I will be thinking of all those who suffered the horrors of malnutrition, sickness, ill-treatment and forced labour, countless thousands of whom died in the process. Piers Pool, Sudbourne.

"I believe it behoves all of us to remember them and the sacrifices they made, and recognise that the courage and fortitude with which people like my father, as well as many others, faced these privations has enabled us to live in the relative peace and comfort that we do today."

The Real Meaning of Victory over Japan Day.

(St Mary's Commemoration Order of Service. Anon)

On August 15, 1945, Japan announced its surrender and this day was designated `Victory over Japan’ or VJ Day.For the United Kingdom this marked the official end of the Second World War.

Imperial Japan, which then included Korea and Taiwan, had a constitution and parliamentary system. It had been an effective British ally in the First World War.

Becoming more authoritarian and militarised, Japan occupied Manchuria in 1931, left the League of Nations in 1933, signed a pact with Nazi Germany in 1936 and invaded China in 1937, waging a brutal war there for the next eight years.

Britain was pre-occupied with the German threat, and through a combination of ignorance, cultural prejudice, complacency and delusional thinking, seriously underestimated Japan’s ambitions and warlike capabilities.

On December 8, 1941, Japan took control of French Indo-China and invaded Malaya, Thailand, Burma, and the Philippines.

FEPOW: Far East Prisoner or War. Suffolk Regiment Museum.
FEPOW: Far East Prisoner or War. Suffolk Regiment Museum.

HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse, sent to the Far East as a deterrent, against naval advice, were sunk by Japanese aircraft on December 10.'Fortress Singapore' fell on February 15.

By May, Burma had been captured, India threatened, Australia bombed and Japanese troops were pushing through New Guinea towards Queensland.

The British had been out-generaled and out-fought by smaller numbers but operationally experienced and fanatically brave Japanese.

It took nearly four years of intensely bitter fighting in gruelling physical conditions to achieve Victory over Japan: the Australians, with no assistance from Britain, recaptured New Guinea to secure their homeland; the Anglo-Indian 14th Army under General `Bill’ Slim, with Chinese help, re- captured Burma; the United States Navy, Army and Marines fought their way across the Pacific to the Japanese perimeter; the Soviet Union invaded Manchuria on August 8, 1945; and a devastating bombing campaign culminated with the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima (August 6) and Nagasaki (August 9).

Only then did Japan surrender.

The human cost of this conflict was horrific. The Japanese regime was brutal,and its forces were responsible for terrible war crimes against civilian populations throughout China and South East Asia as well as Allied servicemen; prisoners of war taken in Singapore, the Philippines and elsewhere were used as slave labour in Japan and on the `Burma Railway’ in Thailand, as were tens of thousands of Asian civilians.

The cost to the Japanese was also high. Their servicemen tended to fight, with suicidal bravery `to the death’; Japanese civilians suffered severe privation from naval blockade and aerial bombing.

Many who fought were scarred by their experience. It was not just terrible physical conditions of jungle and mountain, harsh treatment, loss of friends and injuries, but how they were regarded at home.

14th Army in Burma called itself `the Forgotten Army’, as attention, resources and press coverage always focused on Europe.

For many who had fought for years or had been captured in the Far East, their return home did not happen until late 1945, and `life had moved on’.

FEPOW: Far East Prisoner of War. Suffolk Regiment Museum.
FEPOW: Far East Prisoner of War. Suffolk Regiment Museum.

Those at home had little comprehension of what they had experienced; those returning were disinclined to share their stories. Many captured at Singapore felt the bitterness of defeat and rancour at having been let down and abandoned.

No one in a victorious but exhausted Britain wanted to think about `Britain’s Greatest Defeat’.

The initial Japanese triumph over Europeans had not been lost on colonial countries and in 1945 Britain and others were already grappling with the consequences.

For Australians, who had spilt much blood for Britain in the First World War, and in the Western Desert, Greece and Malaya/Singapore in the Second, it was the United States, not Britain, who had saved them from invasion.

VJ has a particular meaning for many in East Anglia.

In October 1941 18th British Division, of which most units were Territorials from East Anglia, sailed from UK equipped to fight in the Middle East.

On December, 1, whilst at sea, the Division was diverted, by order of the War Cabinet, to Singapore, landing on 13 January. 4th and 5th Battalions of the Suffolk Regiment were involved in the fighting on Singapore Island in the 10 days before the surrender.

Like all the many other British, Australian and Indian soldiers involved, the Suffolks spent the next three and a half years in Japanese hands.

After nine months in Changi Jail on Singapore Island, they were moved to Thailand to build the Burma-Thailand Railway. When it was completed in August 1944 most survivors were taken to Japan to be employed as slave labour.

The casualty returns for 4th Battalion Suffolk Regiment are striking: 955 all ranks landed in Singapore. Of these 90 were killed in action or died of wounds; 375 died while Prisoners of War; 490 survived, but of these 90 died within one year. Figures for the 5th Battalion, and other units, are comparable.

Soldiers from Suffolk paid the ultimate price. Suffolk Regiment Museum.
Soldiers from Suffolk paid the ultimate price. Suffolk Regiment Museum.

Princess of Wales RAF Hospital Ely specialized for many years in the care of Far East Prisoners of War (FEPOWs). From 1982 to 1991 2000 FEPOWs attended checks for tropical diseases. Some 70 per cent were suffering from conditions attributed to war service, suggesting only 120 men (12 per cent) of the 4th Battalion survived without long term problems.

The figures take no account of mental issues – this was before PTSD was diagnosed. As an example, a hospital medical account of survivor Pte Ernest Warwick, 4th Suffolks stated in 1987:

He is haunted still by his years in captivity and today walks slowly and with painful difficulty as a direct result of his brutal torture and ill-treatment at the hands of the Japanese. In no way does he glorify war, but feels that as a proud nation we should always remember and honour our dead, who gave so much that we might live.

You can read Ken Rowbottom's full thoughts on VJ Day, entitled The Pain of Suffolk, in current issue of the Bury Free Press. (August 14 edition).

Other commemorative events, limited to up to 30 people, are taking place this weekend, at:

Bacton War Memorial.

Beccles War Memorial

Bungay War Memorial

Bury St Edmunds

(Abbey Gardens Rose Garden)

Felixstowe – town centre

Leiston Long Shop Museum

Needham Market War Memorial

Saxmundham War Memorial

Sudbury Town War Memorial

Woodbridge, Shire Hall

Wrentham village centre