early 1938 the 2nd Battalion The East Surrey Regiment received
orders for overseas service while stationed in Colchester. The
Battalion was commanded by Lt Col E L L Acton, MC., the Adjutant
being Captain F A H Magee. Lieut W G Gingell MBE MM was the Quartermaster
and the Regimental Sergeant Major was RSM E Worsfold.
The Battalion was to move to Shanghai which was an exciting prospect!
Shanghai was a colossal city inhabited by people of many nations.
It contained an International Settlement and a French Concession.
The area was already densely populated and in addition over a
million refugees had arrived in the city to escape the Japanese
Army that had occupied vast tracts of China and had their greedy
eyes on Shanghai itself. All this made for an interesting and
Battalion sailed from Southampton in HMT Lancashire on
1st September 1938. A call was made at Port Sudan to pick up 3
officers and 150 men left by the 1st Battalion on their return
to the UK. The next calls were at Aden and Colombo where there
was an opportunity to go ashore.
As the situation in Europe was now extremely tense, the Battalion
was diverted to Singapore, disembarking on 29th September, to
augment the Garrison. After a fortnight ashore the tension had
eased and the Battalion was once more on its way. They left on
12th October on board the Submarine Depot Ship HMS Medway
and sailed for Hong Kong. The voyage with the Royal Navy was very
pleasant and some wags thought they were Marines once more! On
arrival on 17th October they were met by the Royal Scots who had
done everything to welcome the Surreys. The camp at Mount Nicholson,
although under canvas, was ready for them. After about a month
the Battalion once more were on their way and boarded the SS Santhia,
a British India cargo ship, for the final stage of their journey.
Although the variety of the journey was enjoyed, no one was sorry
to settle once again into barracks of their own and forget the
cries of 'starboard' and 'port'.
British Infantry battalions were stationed in Shanghai and the
Surreys joined the 1st Bn The Seaforth Highlanders who were accommodated
on the Race Course. The Surreys were in the main camp in Great
Western Road, a collection of wooden huts, forerunners of the
Nissen hut, partitioned into offices and rooms. A detachment of
two companies under command of Major F B B Dowling, MC., was two
miles away at Jessfield Park. Soon after arrival Lt Col G E Swinton,
MC., assumed command of the Battalion and the adjutancy passed
to Captain C E Poole.
2 Surreys leaving Southhampton in HT Lancashire, September 1938
The wire fence which separated the International Settlement from
the territory in Japanese occupation was near the camp, so the
Surrey sentries had not far to go to join the sentries from the
French and American units. They all stood cheek by jowl with the
Japanese, each quite unconcerned by the others proximity. This
wire boundary was along the Shanghai - Nanking railway and was
known as the 'Perimeter'. The Surreys always had a company on
guard under the command of a subaltern. The Japanese guarded their
side: Relations with them were formal but not friendly. The sports
facilities were all in the occupied territory. No one took much
notice of the to-ing and fro-ing. On the other hand when the Japanese
wanted to be unpleasant they would stop a soldier at their check
post and demand to see his cholera pass, a certificate that the
man had been inoculated against cholera within the last two months,
and keep him hanging around. One soldier remembers being ordered
off a train on his way to Tientsin and being kept in the snow
for two hours for no apparent reason. The Japanese were continually
brutal to the Chinese, ill-treating and killing them. Objection
was made when Chinese corpses were left on the road and a request
then had to be made to the municipal authorities for their removal.
It was soon found out that this pleased the Chinese as they obtained
Hardly had the companies settled in, before they were called out
to take over Perimeter duties from the Seaforths. This entailed
the manning of five level crossing sentry posts, two traffic control
posts and one motor patrol. The first time it was difficult to
take in all the complexities. At the first post a sentry had to
be posted where there was a French soldier and a Japanese one
already in position.
Sentries were about 20 yards apart with a patch of neutral ground
in the centre. The motor patrol proceeded round the Perimeter
every two hours to check everything was in order and that no one
had tampered with the barbed wire. Sometimes our sentries swapped
lumps of coal for bottles of milk with the Japanese. Other duties
had to be performed such as policing the large International Settlement,
which duties were shared with the Seaforths, and American, French
and Italian troops. A high standard of ceremonial was maintained.
Guards had to be provided for the British Ambassador and for the
Consul General. On occasions the battalion had to provide an in-lying
piquet, consisting of two platoons, to move at very short notice
to any emergency in the city.
Sgt A E C Holmes, already a veteran of India and the Sudan days
with the 1st Battalion, joined a draft on HT Nevasa.
On reaching Hong Kong they were transferred to a smaller ship,
the Wu Sung. Accommodation was uncomfortable and cramped.
They met the tail end of a typhoon in the South China Sea, and
with the smell of cooking by the lascar crew and the ship breaking
down, it was a terrible journey. A great sigh of relief went up
when the ship docked at the Bund, Shanghai. After disembarkation,
the draft marched along Bubbling Well Road to Great Western Road
Barracks. Sgt Holmes was lucky not to encounter the pirates that
roamed the China Seas. In those days several such ships had been
captured by pirates who came on board disguised as passengers.
All these ships were fitted with massive steel bars preventing
any access between cabin and deck passengers. The latter had to
bring all their food, drink and bedding on board with them and
on embarkation they were searched. At the steel bars were police
guards armed with Thompson sub-machine guns, constantly watching
the deck passengers. Most of the men on this draft from the UK
had been issued with Battle Dress, which had not been seen in
China before. The Commanding Officer immediately had Service Dress
issued as being more appropriate for ceremonial duties.
When war with Germany broke out, the Battalion packed and crated
all its peacetime silver and chattels and went on to a war footing,
ready to move at short notice, and were effectively camping out
in their barracks. It soon became clear that it was not going
to get any embarkation orders, and apart from a few lucky officers
and men who went back to the UK, the rest stayed put. The Battalion
followed closely the events of the phoney war and the Dunkirk
campaign. Major parts of the city were now placed out of bounds,
life went on largely as before and the Battalion settled down
to playing a significant part in that strange rabbit warren of
a town. For example the Chinese were football mad, with professional
as well as amateur teams. The Battalion crowned its laurels by
beating them all to win the International Settlement Cup.
The Regimental Band
Lt Col G E Swinton, Bandmaster E Manley, Shanghai 1939
In December 1939 one company, made up to a strength of 200 men
under Major F B B Dowling, MC., was sent to carry out guard duties
at Tientsin, and Captain C O' N Wallis with 50 men was stationed
in Peking as Legation Guard. It was here that the men were issued
with Russian style fur hats on which the Regimental cap badge
was worn. Extra winter clothing also was issued against the extreme
It was difficult to find time for much organized sport, but Private
Dave Clemens, a long distance runner, was already well-known outside
the Battalion, winning many prizes for the Regiment and the Army.
Shanghai was full of highlights, a city of contrasts and conflicts,
the latter so common that only those involved took any notice.
It was a great commercial port where banking, shipping, opium
dens, prostitution, first class shops, restaurants, hotels and
schools went hand in hand with poverty and disease. Old-timers
remembered that it was a city where it felt great to be alive,
and had earned its title as "The Paris of the East".
A great attraction was how far the money went! A taxi cost fourpence.
In many bars drinks were not measured, the waiter went on pouring
until told to stop! The Japanese military were allowed into the
International Settlement provided they wore civilian clothes,
similarly our soldiers were allowed to cross the Perimeter with
the same proviso. Our Band was in constant demand for military
occasions, dances and concerts. The hundreds of night clubs were
reported to be full of gorgeous White Russian princesses, available
for dancing for 10 cents a dance. One young Lance Corporal met
five Russian princesses in one evening. He wanted to marry one
and become a prince, he said, because then he would not have to
be Orderly Corporal! What his Company Sergeant Major said is not
reported! Life was very hectic, burning the candle at both ends
- duties and night life.
It is not known how many of the soldiers married in Shanghai,
but no less than seven officers are known to have married there
- so there must have been some magic in the air! Although Shanghai
was not a Families Station, three officers' wives paid for their
passage out to join their husbands. Only one officer's wife followed
the Battalion to Singapore, and, after many difficulties was evacuated
to Australia. In August 1940 British troops were recalled from
China and accordingly the Surreys left Shanghai. It had been a
strange position to have been in, in the middle of the Second
World War, an inadvisable situation and although everyone would
have given their eye teeth to get back to the UK, or wherever
the action was, it was not to be, and it was with considerable
relief that the Battalion eventually embarked and left Shanghai
for a more normal soldiering theatre. The battalion was very appreciative
of the honour that the 4th US Marines paid the Regiment when they
'trooped' the Battalion out of Shanghai, the Marines'
Band leading as the Battalion made its farewell march through
the International Settlement into the Japanese Concession to the
Docks for embarkation for Singapore. The Tientsin and Peking detachments
rejoined the Battalion at Singapore on 3rd September 1940. Thus
ended the service of The East Surrey Regiment in China.