THE PLYMOUTH ARGYLL ROYAL MARINES



December 10th 1941

“I thought they were heroes,” an able seaman later commented, “because they fought non-stop and there were shell cartridges lying all over. They were kicking these over the side into the sea… they never stopped firing right up to the end.”
When the end came, aboard HMS Prince of Wales, turret captain Sgt Terry Brooks, the youngest sergeant in the Corps, ordered his men to remove their boots, inflate their rubber life jackets and jump into the sea. After going below to the ship’s magazine to bring out three more of his men, Sgt Brooks too plunged overboard. The escorting destroyers picked up survivors and returned them to Singapore.

Naval Battalion
A few days later the very basically re-kitted 210 Royal Marine detachment survivors from HMS Prince of Wales and Repulse, including the six officer, were formed into a Naval Battalion under Captain R.G.S. [Bob] Lang RM. They were deployed to guard the Naval Base, RN Wireless Transmission Station at Kranji and the RN Armaments Depot. Apart from Bob Lang the other officers were Captain Claude Derek Aylwin and Lts Charles Verdon, Jim Davis, Tom Sherdan and Geoffrey Hulton. On December 24th 1941, forty of these Royal Marines, after rudimentary jungle training, were sent up-country into Malaya to join Roseforce [Major Angus Rose 2A&SH] involved in special operations behind the Japanese lines. The speed of the Japanese advance, however, led to their employment in demolition work and they returned to Singapore on January 14th 1942.

Plymouth Argylls

On January 29th the 210 Royal Marines were moved to Tyersall Park Camp, Singapore, to join the 250 Argylls, all that remained of Lt Colonel Ian Stewart’s 2A&SH who had fought a gallant and effective delaying action in the north of Malaya before being decimated at Slim River on January 7th 1942. Subsequently, the survivors of the battalion had acted as rearguard during the crossing of the Causeway to Singapore. On February 3rd the Argylls and Marines were amalgamated into a composite battalion known as the Plymouth Argylls. The Argylls old association with Plymouth, their influence on the creation of its football team and the fact that the Marines were of the Plymouth Division were good reasons for this nickname. Lt Colonel Stewart trained the Plymouth Argylls emphasising cooperation between armoured cars and widely dispersed infantry.

Into Action
On the night of February 8th 1942 the Japanese successfully crossed the Straits of Johore and gained a foothold on Singapore’s north western shore. As exhausted and demoralised Australian defenders withdrew, the Plymouth Argylls were ordered late on the morning of February 9th to advance northwards up the Bukit Timah Road then westward along the Choa Chu Kang Road towards Tengah airfield. Shortly after debussing into the rubber and advancing on foot, the Royal Marines came under air attack and suffered casualties. Some sections became lost in wide nighttime dispersal in unfamiliar terraine. Two more days of fighting followed as the Plymouth Argylls engaged the Japanese between Tengah and the Dairy Farm that lay east of the Upper Bukit Timah Road. Most of the Argylls were cut off when the Japanese brought their tanks down the road, smashing through two Plymouth Argyll roadblocks. The main body of Royal Marines escaped across the Dairy Farm and down the Pipeline to the Golf Course, stretchering away a wounded Argyll officer. No sooner had they arrived back at Tyersall Park than the camp and the neighbouring Indian Military Hospital were destroyed in an air attack. In the confusion that followed and subsequent shelling and mortaring, there was a further dispersal of men including those wounded. When the surrender came on February 15th only some 40 Royal Marines remained in the trenches in the burnt out Tyersall Park.


Escape
Many Royal Marines, either deployed to Keppel Harbour or lost in the Bukit Timah fighting spent the final days before the surrender assisting with the evacuation of civilians from Singapore to Sumatra. 25 Marines were ordered aboard HMS Tapah [captured]; others on HMS Grasshopper [sunk] and Mata Hari [captured]. Some escaped on Chinese junks, prahus and yachts. Most of those who survived entered captivity in Sumatra at Palembang and Padang, but some 22 made it to Ceylon as did 52 Argylls. 31 Royal Marines were killed-in-action, died of wounds at Singapore or were lost at sea assisting in the evacuation of civilians to Sumatra.


Captivity
The Argylls and Marines at Tyersall Park were on February 17th ordered by the Japanese to march to Changi. Headed by Piper Charles Stuart they marched out of Tyersall Park. Hundreds of soldiers from other units stood to attention as they passed. In fact, Captains Aylwin, Lang and Slessor [2A&SH] had no intention that their men march to Changi. A few hundred yards along the way what was left of the battalion transport drew up and embussed them into captivity passed marching columns of POWs. At first the Plymouth Argylls were quartered in the Changi Village shops area. Many were subsequently sent to smaller work camps at River Valley, Havelock Road and Kranji.

Thailand and Japan
In June 1942 the movement of POWs from Changi to Thailand to build the Death Railway began. From Singapore to Ban Pong in crowded rice wagons then force marched to Kanchanaburi and Chungkai and then on to jungle camps further up the line to Burma. Many of those who survived this were sent in 1944 by sea to Japan as slave labour, many of the ships being sunk by Allied submarines on the journey with huge loss of life. When liberation finally came in September 1945 33 Plymouth Argyll Royal Marines had died in captivity.


Sources for researching the Plymouth Argylls:


Secondary sources:

  • Moon Over Malaya: A Tale of Argylls and Marines by Jonathan

  • Moffatt and Audrey Holmes McCormick [revised edition published by Tempus Publications of Stroud October 2001]

  • The Thin Red Line: 2nd Argylls in Malaya by Brigadier I. M. Stewart [Thomas Nelson 1947]

  • Who Dies Fighting by Angus Rose [ Jonathan Cape, London 1944]

Primary sources:

  • Captain R.G.S. Lang’s Report, Plymouth Argyll box and Peter Dunstan’s documentation of both Royal Marine Detachments can be viewed by appointment at the Royal Marines Museum Archive, Southsea

  • The Papers of Major C.D.Aylwin RM can be viewed at the Imperial War Museum Reading room by appointment. This includes a nominal roll of the Prince of Wales RM Detachment and a detailed captivity diary.

  • Jack Wardle, formerly HMS Repulse, has produced a nominal roll of the HMS Repulse RM Detachment

  • Researchers on the 2nd Argyll&Sutherland Highlanders will find a wealth of material in the Regimental Museum and Archive, Stirling Castle. Particularly interesting is the Battalion Record Book of QMS Aitken.

The author of this web page is presently researching on the Argylls and Marines who escaped Singapore and reached Ceylon via Sumatra. Any information would be most welcome.


This brief history has been compiled by Jon Moffat. We thank him for his contribution to our website.

Click here to order Moon over Malaya' written by Jonathan Moffat and Audrey McCormack