The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders – the Argylls – were a pretty legendary Regiment, now a battalion of the Royal Regiment of Scotland. But who knows of the Plymouth Argylls?
This was a battalion formed in 1942 from the 250 survivors of the Second Battalion of the Argylls (2AS&H) and the 210 survivors of Royal Marine detachments on Repulse and Prince of Wales, both sunk in the far East in December 1941 by the Japanese airforce.
In 1942, 2AS&H fought under Lt Colonel Ian Stewart in Malaya in a delaying action which led to their decimation at Slim River on 7th January. Those who survived this engagement went on to take the rearguard at the crossing of the Causeway to Singapore. After this the membership of 2AS&H was down to 250.
Around the same time, after the start of the war in the Pacific on 8th December 1941, the British naval force known as Force Z left Singapore on an intercept with Japanese invasion convoys heading for Malaya. This group contained the battlecruiser Repulse and the fast battle ship, Prince of Wales, present when the German battleship, Bismarck, sank HMS Hood. (Both Prince of Wales and Repulse were part of the group involved in the consequent sinking of the Bismarck.)
On 10 December 1941, turning south after failing to find any Japanese invasion forces, Force Z spotted Japanese aircraft. A large force of around 85 Japanese aircraft from the 22nd Air Flotilla attacked and sank both Prince of Wales and Repulse.
Shortly afterwards, at Tyersall Park Camp in Singapore, the 210 survivors from the Royal marine detachment on Prince of Wales and Repulse were formed into a Naval Battalion under Capt. RGS Lang SM. After some workaday deployments they were sent back to Singapore on 14th January 1942.
On 3rd February 1942 the remnants of both 2AS&H and the Royal Marine detachments to Force Z were amalgamated at Tyersall Park Camp into a composite battalion called the Plymouth Argylls.
Why the name? The Argylls had a long association with Plymouth and were involved in the establishmnet of its football team. The Marines in the new composite battalion were part of the Plymouth Division of the Royal marines. Both partners were therefore linked to Plymouth so the nickname held good.
Lt Colonel Stewart, still with his men after surviving the Slim River massacre, trained the Plymouth Argylls in developing collaborative movements between armoured cars and dispersed infantry. Because of this they were one of the very few British units adequately prepared for jungle warfare in that country.
Six days after the Plymouth Argyll’s battalion was created it was in action, sent north and west from the camp to counter a successful Japanese invasion of Singapore’s north-western shore. In a rubber plantation they were caught between the Japanese airforce and their tanks, taking heavy casualties and suffering dispersal. Those who made it back to Tyersall Park Camp got there just in time for it to be destroyed by a air attack. In the chaotic conditions after this attack, the remnants of the battalion were further dispersed and when surrender was effected on 15th February 1942, only 40 men were left in the trenches of the wrecked camp. The Plymouth Argylls, effectively the regiment’s 2nd Battalion, had existed for a total of twelve days from its formation on 3rd May to its decimation before the Surrender of Singapore.
With other POWs they were taken to Thailand to build the Death Railway and to Burma to camps in the jungle. Many of those surviving these experiences were sent to Japan by sea in 1944 as slave labour with their transport ships attacked by Allied submarines, taking enormous numbers of lives.
Liberation in September 1945 revealed that 33 of the Plymouth Argyll’s Royal Marines had died in captivity.
On June 22nd 2002, on the Finlaystone Estate near Glasgow, a commemorative stone was unveiled on a hillside overlooking the Clyde. In the presence of veterans and families, it was dedicated to those of 2nd Battalion, Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders and others who died in the Malayan Campaign and in captivity as POWs.