Photo courtesy of Nick Rothwell
Image from the Evening Star – 17th February 1942.
Born: 1918, Ipswich.
Died: 26th January 1942; Age: 23; Killed in action at a Japanese road block at Sengarang, North Johore, Malaya.
Residence: 165, Valley Road, Ipswich.
Employed: with R. & W. Paul Ltd., Ipswich.
Joined the Territorials in 1938 with several other Old Grammarians, Basil was called up at the beginning of the war.
Rank: Second Lieutenant; Service Number: 164500.
Regiment: Cambridgeshire Regiment, 2nd Battalion.
Final resting place unknown.
Father: Frank Benjamin Joseph Groom, born May 1883, Kensington, Middlesex.
Mother: Blanche Beatrice Groom (nee Barker), born August 1887, Ipswich.
Basil was educated at the Central School, Ipswich.
A member of the Old Grammarians Football Club, and of the Greyhound Cricket Club, and the Y.M.C.A.
Probate to Frank Benjamin Joseph Groom – father, a Corporation Officer.
On the 28th April 1933, at St. Margaret’s Church, Ipswich, Basil’s sister 19 year old Vera Muriel Groom, of Cemetery House, Cemetery Road, Ipswich married 45 year old widower, Owen Dudley Phillips, a Wholesale Clothier of ‘Verowen’ The Avenue, Park Road, Ipswich. In December 1942 – November 1943 Owen Phillips served as Mayor of Ipswich.
Before the fall of Singapore in February, fierce fighting took place against the Japanese. The British and allied forces held onto bridges causeways and railheads in an attempt to hold back the Japanese’s push across Malaya and onto Singapore. Singapore fell 16 February 1942 and 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.
An account of Ipswich man Pte. William John Schulen, of the 2nd Battalion, The Cambridgeshire Regiment can be read on Ronald Dowsing page. Ronald died from the affects of the prison camps in 1955.
In 1995 a campaign was underway to honor all the WW2 men and women who had been lost from Ipswich. At this point no memorial to WW2 had been added to Christchurch park’s memorial.
Campaigners were to raise £10,000 for bronze plaques and new stonework for the memorial as well as a roll of honor book.
Neville Groom (former ITFC player 1927-35), Basil’s brother is seen here from the local paper reading the book in 1995, the plaques were unveiled in 2004.
101 year old survivor of a Japanese prison of war camp pays tribute to an Ipswich man 2nd Lt Basil Groom, who’s death has stayed with him all his life. Due to Covid 19, tributes were paid on his behalf at Ipswich War Memorial, in a poignant wreath laying ceremony in Christchurch Park, as part of the commemorations of VJ day. The 75th Anniversary of the end of WW2.
The Mayor of Haverhill Cllr John Burns placed a wreath on his behalf.
Ernest Walter Brett is one of the last of few survivors left, who was a witness to the Fall of Singapore, and the building of the Burma Railway, that cost the lives of 99 Ipswich men. A further 22 Ipswich men died during the fighting in the Far East while many more Ipswich men died prematurely through poor health caused by their treatment as POW’s by the Japanese.
A video was made of the event as well as a document and unseen pictures of his friend, 2nd Lt. Basil Groom. These are to be presented to Ernie on the 15th August 2020, as a special surprise in his care home.
Basil was born in Ipswich in 1918. He worked before the War for R. & W. Paul Ltd, joining the T.A. Army in 1938. Basil’s family home was at 165, Valley Road, Ipswich. A keen sportsman, a member of the Old Grammarians Football Club, the Greyhound Cricket Club, and the Y.M.C.A. He lost his life fighting the Japanese at Sengarang, North Johore, Malaya, 26th January 1942. His final resting place is unknown, He was aged 23. Ernie was beside him as he fell.
Ernie holding his local newspaper which ran his story of survival as a Japanese POW August 2020
A message from Mr. Nick Rothwell 2020,
I am Nick Rothwell, Basil’s nephew. Joan Beatrice Groom’s son. Basil was the baby of the Groom family. The youngest of seven brothers and sisters. Unfortunately I never got the chance to meet Basil, as his life was cut short in Singapore, at the young age of 23.
(Basil far right, the “baby of the family”)
My mother and my Aunties and Uncles told me about him but the family never found out what happened to him, how he died, his body was never found. Thanks to Mr Ernie Brett and the Haverhill Family History Society this week, we have found out that he died on the battlefield next to his good friend, Mr Ernie Brett. We are glad he was with his comrade in his final moments and we are so pleased that someone thought so highly of Basil that he is helping him being honoured today. We are thankful for Ernie and the Haverhill FHS and Helen from the Ipswich War Memorial Project for getting in touch and bringing to light to his final moments. Basil was always talked about at family gatherings in Ipswich when I was a child and into my adulthood. He was always sorely missed, he was always the missing baby of the family. We are very sorry we were not able to attend in person, but we will thinking of you during the ceremony.
Ernest Walter Brett, 2nd Battalion Cambridgeshire Regiment
Information compiled by Charmian Thompson – Secretary, of the Family History (Haverhill) Group.
Mr. Ernest Walter Brett is the only FEPOW from the local area who is still alive and possibly the last surviving man from 2nd Cambridgeshires. This is his story, based on his own memories that he shared in 2015.
Ernest was called up in November 1939 and as a private in the Suffolk Regiment he completed his initial training at Gibraltar Barracks in Bury St Edmunds. As the best shot in his intake, he was sent to Romney, Kent to complete a sniper course. Ernest was relieved that he never was used in this capacity. He also completed some training about the use of explosives.
Ernest was transferred to the 2nd Battalion, Cambridgeshire Regiment and with them he completed training in Dumfries, Scotland prior to making the journey to Gourock on the Firth of Forth where they boarded ships for the first part of their journey to the Far East. The battalion began their journey on the Sobieski, a Polish ship used throughout the war for transporting troops. On arrival in Halifax, Nova Scotia they transferred to the USS Mount Vernon, one of three large American liners that had been requisitioned. These liners were large and would normally have been luxurious. Now they carried the men of the 18th Division. The journey from Canada took quite a while for the convoy had to zig zag its way across the ocean to avoid U boats. Eventually they docked in Mombasa where they spent Christmas. Ernest remembers that they should have been tucking into a Turkey dinner but the refrigeration failed and they had corned beef instead!
It was here that they learnt they were bound for Singapore.
Ernest recalls that after arriving on the 13th January 1942, they realised there were no tanks and no aircraft to support them. Within days they were sent up country to Batu Pahat where they had to hold the crossroads.
Ernest remembers 2nd Lt Basil Groom telling him to hop on the back of his motorbike and to bring a revolver with him. The duo were sent forward to do a recce. Ernest was quite worried because the motor bike was so noisy.
Holding the crossroads at Batu Pahat was far from easy. Over the next few days the Battalion suffered many causalties, one being 2nd Lt Groom who was shot when he was beside Ernest.
Ernest remembers the Japanese using German planes. With no RAF support there was nothing to stop them. With all transport destroyed a difficult decision was made. The wounded could not be evacuated so they were left with Padre Duckworth who Ernie remembers as a little man in stature, being the cox for a Cambridge University crew in the boat race. One of the wounded was Haverhill man Eric Thake. It was due only to the courage of the Padre in standing up against the Japanese who captured them that they survived.
The unwounded were told to make for the coast, every man for themselves. It was a treacherous journey through jungle and swamps. After lying in hiding for a couple of days they were finally picked up by the Royal Navy who returned them to Singapore.
After returning to the island the Battalion were defending an area at Braddell Road when news of the Surrender reached them. Ernest remembers not feeling good about this because the Cambridgeshires were doing so well. He also recalls that the Japanese threatened to poison the water supply. After capture he was taken to Changi and allotted the POW no. 576. He was one of the POWs who at this time was set to work unloading ships in the harbour. There was very little food, just plain rice and no milk.
On 24th June 1942, Ernest was transported overland in the June Mainland Party in the 4th train from Singapore to Thailand. Once he arrived he was given a new POW number, II 3433.
This June Mainland Party was used to build huts for the men who came later to build the railway. Ernest was one of a group of men from different regiments who moved ahead of the railway building the huts until eventually he too was employed on the railway.
One of the jobs that Ernest did on the railway involved blasting rock faces. He thinks his training with explosives had something to do with this. Using a compressed air drill he drilled holes in the rock, packed them with plastic explosive and a short fuse before running for cover. One day when he was working with such a drill it blew rock chippings into his eyes. Initially there was no treatment resulting in his loss of sight. It was at this time that Ernest met Percy Shearman from Haverhill. Unable to see he was visited by a medic who asked where he was from. Not expecting anyone to know where Kedington and Haverhill were he was surprised to learn that there was a man from the town in the dysentery hut. This was Percy Shearman. He remembers saying to Percy Shearman that he thought he would never see home again and being comforted when he was told, “Of course you will.” Percy was a chemist by trade and was no doubt a great source of help in the huts. Ernest remembers that medical supplies were none existent. He suffered with malaria both in Thailand and back at home in later years and there was no quinine available in the camps to treat it. The men also suffered as a result of poor diet. Percy Shearman used boiled bullocks brains to provide much needed vitamins for his fellow POWs, including Ernest.
Fortunately Ernest’s sight did improve, though he has suffered poor vision in one eye due to a damaged cornea. Leg ulcers were a common problem, cuts would not heal in the climate. He remembers swimming in the river near Kwai Bridge where the fish nibbled at their legs cleaning their sores.
He recalls that in 1944 the Japanese came to the camp asking for volunteers to go to Japan to work in the docks or mines. Some other men from Haverhill and also his battalion were employed cutting logs for the trains and thought it couldn’t be worse than what they were experiencing at the time. Ernest was unable to go with them due to his leg ulcers. This turned out to be a saving grace as the men who went were transported on the cargo ship, Hofuku Maru. Unaware it had prisoners on board, the ship was sunk on 21st September 1944 by aircraft from an American carrier. Clifford Buttle and Stephen Radford from Haverhill, who were both 2nd Cambridgeshire men who had served with Ernest, perished in this tragedy.
Ernest describes this time in his life as ‘horrible days’. They had no radio, no letters from home and knew nothing at all about what was happening in Europe. Occasionally they were given cards to send to their next of kin. Simply a pre-printed card that stated, ‘I am happy. I am working hard. I am being paid’. As a single man these cards were sent to his next of kin, his father, at 13 Coronation Cottages, Great Wratting. One can only imagine how his family and fiancé back home managed the uncertainty of the situation.
One day, Ernest was working at the bottom of a well when he heard a right commotion above him. After shouting for them to get him out of there quickly, he emerged to find someone waving a Union Flag. Hidden somewhere in the Officers’ quarters, known about by only a few, was not only the flag but a radio on which they had heard the news that the Japanese had surrendered and the war in the Far East was over. No wonder there was a lot of noise!
After repatriation, Ernest went back to his job with Mr Sainsbury, completing 47 years before his retirement. He married his fiancé and lived in Kedington until they moved into Shearman Court, Haverhill. This was a new development of sheltered accommodation in Mill Road that opened in the early 1980s. It had been named after the man who Ernest had met in the camp – the man who had looked after him when he must have been a particularly low point in his life. Ernest and his wife lived there for nearly 28 years.
Another Far East POW and his wife also moved into Shearman Court. Eric Thake, the man who was so badly wounded he couldn’t be evacuated, also moved in with his wife Joan.
Percy Shearman BEM died in 1966. He ran what was previously his father’s chemists shop, in what is now Boots the Chemist, until he retired in the 1950s.