By Andrew Easterbrook, a documentary researcher in Vancouver, Canada
Among the possessions my grandfather, Joe Harper, saved until the end of his life was a photograph taken at Clacton on 8 Nov 1941, days before his deployment overseas. The image shows his 251 Battery of the 85th Anti-Tank Regiment, RA, who were fated to sail to Singapore and become prisoners of the Japanese.
The photo came into my possession when my grandmother died in 2009. Since then, I have often wondered what happened to the 140 smiling young men in the picture. What were their fates? Without their names, an examination of the usual official sources wasn’t much help. The breakthrough came when I discovered a list of surnames written in pencil on the back of an envelope Joe received from my grandmother, while he was a POW on the Burma-Thailand railway in the summer of 1944. Knowing that Joe was a meticulous man, I counted the names: exactly 140 in all. They were even arranged in six rows. It was a clue to the identities of the names of the men in the photo! With an initial list of names, the hard work could begin.
For this I teamed up with Mick Luxford, Editor of the Queen’s Own Oxfordshire Hussars (QOOH) Association’s newsletter, and a fount of knowledge concerning Oxfordshire Regiments – from which 251 Battery originally came. The nominal roll of the 85th at the National Archives in Kew filled in some of the blanks, but some names on my list were duplicates, and others were unreadable. Clearly some detective work would be needed. A trawl of primary and secondary published and unpublished material, along with a deep dive into Regimental publications and memories, slowly began to produce results. After much hard work, we believe that we have identified 122 of the men in the Battery photograph, with nine ‘probables’, and another nine currently unknown.
The 140 men from all over Britain assembled on that autumn day met fates that were as varied as those of the British Army in Singapore as a whole. Some were killed in action in Singapore shortly after their arrival. Many went to Thailand to work on the Burma-Thailand Railway; many of those died while doing so. Some went further, to Taiwan and Japan; some of those men died in hellships on the way. But many returned to Britain, lived long lives, and had families just like mine.
We have begun to reach out to some of families of men we have identified, many of whom are unaware of the photograph, and are delighted to see a new image of their relative. Work continues to identify the remaining men and find their families. Our small group of researchers next hopes to unearth the missing pre-departure photos of the other three Batteries of the wartime 85th (45, 270 and 281), and begin work to identify those men. If your relative was in the 85th (especially 251 Battery), or you know of those pictures, please do get in touch.
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