Ceremony honours fallen Ipswich soldier for Far East veteran ahead of VJ Day
PUBLISHED: 15:04 08 August 2020 | UPDATED: 16:36 08 August 2020
As the nation prepares to celebrate the 75th anniversary of VJ Day, a ceremony on behalf of a Suffolk war veteran has honoured the memory of an Ipswich soldier killed fighting the Japanese.
Ernie Brett from Haverhill is 101-years-old and one of the last surviving Far East prisoners of war in the UK.
Today - ahead of the August 15 anniversary marking the liberation of Allied forces in the Far East in 1945 and the end of World War II - Ernie’s family and supporters held an event at the war memorial in Christchurch Park in Ipswich in memory of Second Lieutenant Basil Raf Groom.
Lt Groom was Ernie’s platoon commander in the Cambridgeshire Regiment and was killed in action in the Japanese invasion of Singapore in January 1942.
Ernie was captured and spent the rest of the war as a prisoner, including working on the infamous Burma Railway in Thailand.
Due to shielding, Ernie - who now lives in Meadows Care Home - was unable to attend the ceremony, organised by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC), Haverhill Family History Society, Ipswich War Memorial Project, the Royal Anglian Regiment Association (Cambridgeshire), the Friends of the Suffolk Regiment and the Royal British Legion Ipswich Branch.
The event saw a bugler play the Last Post and the Kohima Epitaph and the Far East Prisoners of War prayer were read, along with a wreath laying.
Respects were also paid to the 32 other local men named on the memorial who died fighting in the Far East, the 99 named who died in Japanese POW camps, and those who died later in the UK from the effects of the camps.
His son John Brett, from Kedington, near Haverhill, said his father was very touched people were remembering his comrade on his behalf: “He had a great deal of respect for Lt Groom who had so much responsibility at such a young age. These were just young men from Suffolk – Dad was 22 and Lt Groom just 23 when he died beside him.
“They found themselves together in a terrifying situation, fighting for their lives in the jungles of the Far East.
“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.
“So, when the CWGC and the Haverhill Family History Society offered to honour someone on his behalf for VJ Day, my dad wanted it to be Lt Groom straight away.”
Ernie and Lt Groom served together before the fall of Singapore in 1942, when fierce fighting took place as the British and Allied forces held onto bridges causeways and railheads in an attempt to hold back the Japanese Imperial Army’s push down the Malayan Peninsula, and onto the island of Singapore.
Ernie had first joined the Suffolk Regiment, in 1939 aged just 20, training at the Gibraltar Barracks, in Bury St Edmunds.
He was then moved into the 2nd Battalion, The Cambridgeshire Regiment, one of six Haverhill men to serve in that battalion.
It landed at Singapore Naval Base on 13 January 1942, and within three days the men were pushed up to Malaya to reinforce the town of Batu Pahat.
They had no time to acclimatise, nor had they received any jungle warfare training.
The enemy had already advanced more than 500 miles down the entire length of the Peninsula, repeatedly outflanking and infiltrating British lines and, with total air and sea supremacy, they continually had the upper hand.
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Ernie remembers how Lt Groom had called to him to ‘hop on the back’ of his motorbike and told him to ‘grab a revolver’ as they were to go ahead to do a recce to the crossroads at Batu Pahat.
John said: “You can imagine Dad was really worried – the motorbike was really loud and perhaps not the best transport for a secret recce with the enemy all around.
“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.”
But the town was soon surrounded and the 18th Division defending force, including the Cambridgeshires, Suffolks and Royal Norfolks, fought on against a Japanese Imperial Guard Division for 10 days.
As the fighting intensified, and on the day a retreat was ordered, Lt Groom was killed.
“My father has never forgotten him. I think being of a similar age and with my dad going on to live his life while Lt Groom lost his at such a young age had an incredibly deep effect,” he said.
“Being able to show that Lt Groom is still remembered, and that his memory is held with such respect all these years later is extremely important to my father.”
The war was far from over for Ernie. With no tanks or aircraft to support them, and with the Japanese bombarding them, the troops were told to head for the west coast, whilst the main party navigated jungles and swamps heading south.
Ernie was picked up by a Royal Naval ship and taken back to defend Singapore, before it too was overcome by enemy forces.
The Fall of Singapore on 15 February 1942 saw the largest surrender of British-led military personnel in history - 80,000 British, Indian and Australian troops became prisoners of war, joining 50,000 taken by the Japanese in the earlier Malayan Campaign.
Ernie was taken to Changi, in Singapore, before being transported to Thailand to build POW huts and being used as forced labour on the notorious Death Railway.
Around 13,000 prisoners of war and 80,000 to 100,000 civilians died and were buried along the railway’s route during its construction from 1942 to 1943.
Most suffered from tropical diseases, nearly all had repeated bouts of malaria, and due to the combination of injuries sustained from their captors, poor diet and crippling exhaustion due to overwork, many sustained ulcerated limbs - a form of gangrene - and other septic infections.
“My dad was held for more than three and a half years by the Japanese,” said John.
“He lived on starvation rations in the cruellest of conditions. He contracted dysentery, malaria, Beri Beri, cholera, leg ulcers, and severely damaged the sight in one of his eyes working with explosives on the railway.”
Ernie was one of just 810 Cambridgeshires who returned home, where his fiancé, Catherine – working in a munitions factory during the war – was waiting for him.
The couple married in 1946 and had their only child, John. Ernie went back to his job working on the farms for the Sainsbury family, retiring in his early 60s.
John said: “Luckily, he had always been a strong, healthy man which probably helped him survive it all. I do remember him sweating and shaking in bed from malaria which continued to bother him at home. But he really didn’t talk much about what he had gone through, till much later in life.
“We are so touched and proud that because he has shared his story, the sacrifice made by so many in the Far East is not forgotten and this event can be held in Lt Groom’s honour. Perhaps, in some small way, it can help my father to lay some of his fellow servicemen to rest.”
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