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Haverhill former prisoner of war Ernie Brett, 101, 'has never forgotten' fallen comrades



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A 101-year-old veteran who is one of the last surviving Far East prisoners of war has honoured the memory of his commanding officer killed while fighting beside him.

Ernest (Ernie) Brett, of Haverhill, is one of the few people still living who was forced to work on the notorious Burma-Siam ‘Death’ Railway during World War Two.

Ahead of the 75th anniversary of Victory over Japan, VJ Day, he has remembered his fellow servicemen who lost their lives fighting in the Far East including one he has ‘never forgotten’.

Ernie Brett (40071794)
Ernie Brett (40071794)

Last Saturday, his supporters held an event to commemorate Second Lieutenant Basil Raf Groom, who was shot dead by the Japanese Imperial Army as he fought beside Ernie in Singapore in 1942.

Ernie’s son John, of Kedington, said his father was ‘very touched’ by the memorial.

“These were just young men from Suffolk – dad was 22 and Lt Groom just 23 when he died beside him,” he said. “They found themselves together in a terrifying situation, fighting for their lives in the jungles of the Far East.

Second Lieutenant Basil Raf Groom, 2nd Battalion Cambridgeshire Regiment (40071356)
Second Lieutenant Basil Raf Groom, 2nd Battalion Cambridgeshire Regiment (40071356)

“The whole experience has never left dad, but like so many others who were Far East prisoners of war, for years he never talked about what he had seen and gone through.”

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) and the Haverhill Family History Group organised the ceremony on Ernie’s behalf at Ipswich War Memorial. Haverhill mayor John Burns laid a wreath on behalf of Ernie, who was unable to attend due to coronavirus shielding.

Lt Groom, who was from Ipswich, is remembered on the memorial and on the CWGC memorial wall, in Kranji, Singapore.

Ernie first joined the Suffolk Regiment in 1939, aged just 20, training at the Gibraltar Barracks, in Bury St Edmunds, and was then moved to the 2nd Battalion, The Cambridgeshire Regiment.

Ernie Brett during his service in the Second World War (40071358)
Ernie Brett during his service in the Second World War (40071358)

His battalion landed at Singapore naval base on January 13, 1942, and within three days were pushed up to Malaya to reinforce the town of Batu Pahat.

Ernie remembers how Lt Groom called to him to ‘hop on the back’ of his motorbike and told him to ‘grab a revolver’ to do a recce to crossroads at Batu Pahat.

John said: “You can imagine Dad was really worried. He may have been well-trained, and a crack shot, but he had come from a pretty normal background as a herdsman in rural Suffolk. Now he found himself, gun in hand, heading out to potentially meet the enemy in these alien, tropical conditions. Surprisingly, they got both away with it and returned safely behind friendly lines.”

John Linkin, Cambridgeshire Regiment Standard Bearer; Phil Hubert, bugler; Charmian Thompson, of Haverhill Family History Group; Taff Gillingham, of The Friends of the Suffolk Regiment; Mark Forsdike, Suffolk Regiment standard bearer; Martin Boswell, of the Royal Anglian Regiment Association; Lisa Mungham-Gray, Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) ); John Burns, Haverhill Town Mayor; John Downie, of Ipswich branch RBL
John Linkin, Cambridgeshire Regiment Standard Bearer; Phil Hubert, bugler; Charmian Thompson, of Haverhill Family History Group; Taff Gillingham, of The Friends of the Suffolk Regiment; Mark Forsdike, Suffolk Regiment standard bearer; Martin Boswell, of the Royal Anglian Regiment Association; Lisa Mungham-Gray, Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) ); John Burns, Haverhill Town Mayor; John Downie, of Ipswich branch RBL

The town was soon surrounded and they fought against a Japanese Imperial Guard Division for 10 days. On the day a retreat was ordered, Lt Groom was killed.

Ernie was picked up by a Royal Naval ship and taken to defend Singapore.

With the Fall of Singapore on February 15, 1942, Ernie was captured and transported to Thailand to build prisoner of war huts and used as forced labour on the Death Railway.

An aerial shot of the Singapore Memorial in Kranji (40071718)
An aerial shot of the Singapore Memorial in Kranji (40071718)

“My dad was held for more than three and a half years by the Japanese,” John said.

“He lived on starvation rations in the cruellest of conditions.

“He contracted dysentery, malaria, beriberi, cholera, leg ulcers, and severely damaged the sight in one of his eyes working with explosives on the railway.”

Lt Groom's name on Ipswich War Memorial (40216288)
Lt Groom's name on Ipswich War Memorial (40216288)

Despite it all, he survived and was reunited with fiance Catherine, who he married in 1946 and they had one child John.

Ernie returned to his job working on farms for the Sainsbury family, retiring in his early 60s.

At Saturday’s event in Ipswich, respect was also paid to the 32 other men named on the memorial who died fighting in the Far East.

The Singapore Memorial, in Kranji (40071362)
The Singapore Memorial, in Kranji (40071362)

John said. “Perhaps, in some small way, it can help my father to lay some of his fellow servicemen to rest.”

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