A Short History of The Royal Leicestershire Regiment
PART IV - THE SECOND WORLD WAR: 1939-1945
At the outbreak of the Second World War in September 1939, the 1st Battalion was in India and the 2nd Battalion in Palestine, engaged in the Arab rebellion. At home the two Territorial Battalions, the 1/5thand the 2/5th, had been mobilised. By the time the war had ended the Regiment’s battalions had served in action in every theatre of the war, a record which is claimed to be unique.
The 1st Battalion remained in India until February 1941 when it moved to Penang. In May it sailed for the mainland of Malaya and was stationed at Sungei Patani. When Japan declared war on 7 December 1941, the Battalion was in position at Jitra. On the night of the 10/11 December contact was made with the enemy and from then on the Battalion was continually in action until the final surrender of Singapore in February 1942. During this time the Battalion fought hard and well against a little known enemy. Groups of men were continually being cut off, but in most cases fought their way back to the main body. Due to heavy casualties in both Battalions, on 20 December the 1st Battalion amalgamated with the 2nd Battalion The East Surrey Regiment to form the famous British Battalion. Actions which will always be remembered were fought at Jitra, Kampar, Bata-Pa-Hat and Gurun Road. When the British Commonwealth Forces in Singapore surrendered to the Japanese in February 1942, men of the Battalion became prisoners of war until 1945.
In September 1939 the 2nd Battalion in Palestine formed part of, and, except in Crete in 1941, remained with the 16th Infantry Brigade throughout the war. In September 1940 it moved to the Western Desert and took part in the December “push” of Wavell’s 30,000. It was engaged at Sidi Barrani and again at Bardia, advancing through Buq Buq and Solhuh. In April 1941 it helped stem the German advance at Mersa Matruh. From there it was rushed in two cruisers to Heraklion to take part in the bitter fighting in the May battle of Crete against the German paratroops. After being evacuated to Egypt, the Battalion was hurried off in June 1941 to fight the Vichy French on the Damascus front as part of the 6th (later renumbered 70th) Division. In September 1941 the Battalion was despatched with the remainder of the Division to relieve the Australians in the defence of Tobruk. There it remained for three months and took part in the breakout and made subsequent contact with the newly formed 8th Army.
Leaving the Western Desert in December 1941, the 2nd Battalion went to Ceylon in February 1942 and together with 16th Infantry Brigade rejoined 70th Division in India in January 1943. In August the Division became part of Major-General Orde Wingate’s Special Force (the Chindits). In January 1944 the Battalion marched into Burma from the Ledo Road with the 16th Infantry Brigade, the epic march over the Naga Hills to the River Chindwin, which drew from General Wingate the signal “Well done Leicestershire Regiment – Hannibal eclipsed.” The Battalion took part with distinction in several battles round Indaw, some two hundred miles behind the enemy’s lines. By the time it was flown out in May 1944 it had covered some 500 miles on foot with mule transport only and entirely supported by air supply.
The Battalion, which later incorporated the 7th Battalion (also returned from Chindit exploits), did not go into action again. The Japanese surrendered before the planned invasion of Malaya, in which the Battalion was due to take part.
The 1/5th Battalion carried out its training in County Durham and in April 1940 took part in the landing in Norway and the subsequent withdrawal. It then moved to Northern Ireland and in July 1942 to Wrotham, in Kent. From then until the end of the war it was engaged in Pre-OCTU training.
The 2/5th Battalion, also mobilised in 1939, went to France in 1940 as part of the 46th Division, and, after being evacuated through Dunkirk, it spent 2½ years in England. In January 1943 the Battalion took part in the 1st Army’s landing in North Africa, and heavy casualties were sustained in the Kassarine. The Battalion next saw action at Salerno in Italy, followed by actions at the crossing of the Volturna and Teano Rivers, and at Mount Camino. It spent the first half of 1944 in the Middle East, training and re-equipping and being brought up to strength. It returned to Italy in time to take part in the battle against the Gothic Line in August 1944. In December 1944 the Battalion was moved by air to Athens where it took part in the fighting and remained until the Greek Government was restored in the Epirus. It then returned to Italy and after the Armistice was moved into Austria, where it remained until disbandment.
The 7th Battalion was formed at Nottingham in July 1940, and its first role was beach defence. In September 1942 it embarked for India. The Battalion was selected as the only non-regular Battalion for General Wingate’s Chindits, the Regiment thus being one of the very few to have two Battalions in the Chindit Force. By April 1944 the Battalion was firmly settled in the Jap’s rear, where it remained for five months – “milling around”, creating havoc with Japanese communications and ambushing reinforcements, until withdrawn in August.
After its exhausted men had been dispersed to hospitals all over India for treatment and rehabilitation, the Battalion re-formed at Bangalore. But so great had been the casualties sustained by it and the 2nd Battalion, that it was decided that those in the 7th Battalion who were fit for service should be transferred to the 2nd Battalion, and on 31 December 1944 the 7th Battalion ceased to exist.
The 8th Battalion, formed in Leicestershire in 1940, changed its designation to 1st Battalion in May 1942, to replace and carry on the high tradition of the old 1st which was lost when Singapore fell. It landed in Normandy on 3 July 1944, came under command of 147th Brigade of the 49th Division. After taking part in the fighting in the bridgehead, it advanced to the Seine and took part in the capture of Le Havre. From there it carried out some short, sharp engagements against the retreating enemy in Belgium and Holland. Such places as Merxplas, Stonebridge, Brembosch and Rosendaal are names that will be remembered.
When the situation eventually became more static, the Battalion was in the Nijmegen Bridgehead and finally took part in the capture of Arnhem. When the war ended, it moved into Germany and remained with the Army of the Rhine until December 1947.
Thirteen battalions of the Regiment formed the local Home Guard from 1940 to 1944 for the defence of the City and County.
In 1944 the Regiment was granted the Freedom of the City of Leicester. In November 1946 in recognition of the fact that a battalion of the Regiment had fought with distinction in every major theatre of the war, King George VI paid the Regiment the great honour of making it a Royal Regiment. Twenty-three new Battle Honours were won.