The Japanese had fought their way down the Malayan peninsula and were now poised to invade the island of Singapore itself. Chaos reigned in the town as Japanese bombers attacked the civilian population at will, bombing casualties rose from 500 a day to 2000 a day during this period.
More troops were still arriving in the port, some of them barely trained, none of them ready for the desperate situation that greeted them. The Singapore Government had discouraged civilians from departing in December because they did not want to cause alarm – then many of the liners and troop transport ships had left empty. Now crowds of men, women and children were lining the quaysides struggling to get on any ship or boat that was available. Many fell victim to the bombing.
While some military units began to disintegrate others pulled together for the final stand. The survivors from the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, who had lost many men in the retreat through Malaya, now joined up with men from the Royal Marines, survivors from the sinking of the Prince of Wales and the Repulse. Since these two ships came from Plymouth the new battalion became known as the ‘Plymouth Argylls’ – a unique fighting unit combining the Army and the Royal Navy at arms:
The Japanese attack on Singapore began in the early hours of 9th February, 1942. The Plymouth Argylls were despatched to Bukit Timah, four miles from the city. The Japanese were shelling the causeway, and the lorries were dive-bombed and machine-gunned continuously. It became necessary to abandon them when the Japanese artillery got the range of the road.
The Royal Marines and the Highlanders marched through rubber plantations to their allotted positions, where they began to dig themselves in, suffering many casualties from the air raids. Blazing oil tanks lit up the sky and made it as bright as day. The tropical rain poured down and filled the trenches, so that the troops spent half the night up to their waists in water, while covering the withdrawal of the Australians.
One of the armoured cars manned by the Marines made periodical sorties to a point on the causeway where it could fire effectively on the Japanese working parties.
At 6 a.m. next morning Marine R. W. Seddon was ‘ ‘having a bit of swill in a claypit,” as he put it, when he heard the sound of rifle fire. Captain Lang had been surrounded. Seddon thus described the incident: “Colonel Stewart cried, ‘Come on, Marines,’ and we charged forward with our Bren guns. The Japs wore all sorts of rigs. Some were in shorts, some with equipment, others without ; some wore only sarongs. You couldn’t tell whether they were Japs or Malays or Chinese. The undergrowth was very dense, and we had to open up at random. I was doing a bit of spraying with my tommy gun and got some of them. Captain Lang had defended himself with his revolver and joined up with us.
That night we had no sleep. The Japs must have been within 50 yards of us. We could hear them shouting: ‘Any British or Indian troops here ? If so, come out, the war is over’ We went on a bit of a patrol next day and saw half a dozen strutting along. At the time we weren’t sure what they were, so I challenged them. They answered, ‘Punjabis.’ After going a few paces farther they suddenly opened on us, hitting an Argyll officer.”
With Seddon was one of the boy-buglers from the Prince of Wales. He was then “nearly fifteen.” “On the night the Japs invaded the island everything went haywire,” he said. “During the fighting a Jap sniper who had been hiding up a tree jumped down on me and wounded me in the wrist with his bayonet. I couldn’t stick him myself, so I called the sergeant, who finished him off.”
This account appeared in The Ministry of Information booklet The Royal Marines: The Admiralty Account Of Their Achievement 1939-43, published in 1943.