John Stanley Noel Myles
Known as Billy
18th Royal Garhwali Rifles
45th Indian Infantry Brigade
He was known to everyone as “Billy”. The son of Jack Barker “JB” Myles and Daisy Myles who lived at One Tree Hill in Singapore. Brother of Dulcie Rowena Myles who married Sq/Ldr Norman Henry Taylor in 1929.
When in 1940, Billy had reached the age of 18, he was called up and did his basic training with the Coldstream Guards. He later went to Sandhurst. On receiving his commission, he opted to join the Royal Garhwali Rifles, a regiment based in the same area of North India as the Gurkhas. Both regiments were sent to Singapore in 1941, the Garhwalis being based later near Kuantan in central east Malaya.
The following is Billy’s story
As told by Norman Henry Taylor
I think it was on Monday, 1 December 1941, that Billy arrived in Singapore from Kuantan on a training course. I know Monday was the day the course began because during the morning, in the middle of the first class, a message arrived to say that a “State of Emergency” had been declared and that all Officers were to return immediately to their units. Col. Hartigan, was also in Singapore at the time as he was on his way to India to spend a months Christmas leave with his wife. His leave was cancelled and he and Billy returned to Kuantan by the first train, the following evening – 2 December 1941.
Soon after midnight on Monday, 8 December, the Japanese attacked in several places on the East coast of Northern Malaya. On the 15 December we heard from Billy. He had been sitting up all that night by the telephone receiving reports of further landings just North of Kuantan. He said they were all rather tired, and that they had been bombed and machine gunned every day and that it was maddening to see the Japs hanging about quite unmolested.
The Gurkhas of their brigade had evidently put the kukri (combat knife) to good use further up country. Geoffrey Collins, who had been up in a special observation post on the coast some miles north of Kuantan with about three riflemen about 10 days before the Japs attacked, was taken very ill with malaria. He was sent down to Singapore by ambulance two or three days before the Kuantan area was actually involved in the fighting. Billy was the last person in the Regiment to whom Geoffrey spoke before the ambulance left. Geoffrey said how nice it was to hear Billy say everything would be alright and that he would ring up his parents in Singapore to let them know Geoffrey was on his way down there.
I am not at all sure of the exact date upon which the Regiment was involved in the fighting, but I think it was about mid-December. When I saw Billy, John Axtell and Bobby Hawke, afterwards, they described to me how they could see through their field glasses, the Japs coming down the coast. They knew that the tactics they had been ordered to use would be quite hopeless but those in command were too stubborn and it was then too late to change the tactics so they had to muddle on. I must explain that I do not understand anything about the tactics or what the orders were but I am trying to repeat as faithfully as possible what I remember of the boys’ conversation on various occasions, so that it may help to make some sort of a picture of what happened. I do know from what they had told me that the three Garhwali companies, including their British Officers, were positioned on the beach ten miles ahead of British Headquarters. One Company was Geoffrey Collins’ which had been taken over by John Axtell. They said the Japs had swarmed down on them. Hundreds of Japs were killed and the Garhwalis fighting was really magnificent; but they were hopelessly outnumbered. Brigades and brigades of Japs swarmed on them and they were without air support. Certain Air Force personnel previously stationed at Kuantan aerodrome mysteriously arrived in Kuala Lumpur a few days before the actual attack on Kuantan, saying that the Kuantan garrison had been massacred and that they were the only survivors.
After many hours of really ghastly fighting, two Garhwali companies were completely wiped out and their two officers, both Captains, were killed. John had only 45 odd men from his company left and successfully withdrew them into the jungle. He commandeered a boat and later got back to the British lines with his men, after being missing for 3 days. Geoffrey said how grateful he was to John for saving even 45 of his men. From that time onwards the Garhwalis had a very tough time – fighting all day and marching each night. The orders were to hold a position until a certain time and then withdraw under cover of darkness to another position which had to be held until an appointed time when they would probably be told again to withdraw. Whenever the Garhwalis were able to meet the Japs in hand to hand fighting, the Japs lost thirty to one and often threw up their hands and begged, in English, to be spared. The Japs avoided hand to hand fighting as much as possible and preferred to infiltrate through our lines and fire on our troops from above in the trees or from behind. This took the Indians to a certain extent by surprise, but they stood up to it well and were always only too anxious to get at the Japs. There was no air support; but they experienced plenty of systematic dive bombing and machine gunning by the enemy every day, as well as continuous unnerving fifth column activity. Billy told us that shortly after moving to a new camp they were badly bombed. When the attack was over, they found a huge white mosquito net lying on the ground near the camp as a “marker”. This sort of thing was continuously happening. Ordnance supplies were badly arranged and the troops often had to march and fight without food except for what they could get from kindly Chinese shopkeepers who often produced baskets of Eastern foodstuffs for the tired troops when they were given a short rest in some native village. (The Chinese probably did the same for the Jap troops a few hours later!) John described how they would call a short halt in the jungle to rest for half an hour and have a little food before struggling on. No sooner had they thrown themselves down on the ground to rest and they would be fired on, machine gun bullets flying in all directions. They would hastily get under any available cover and aim a few Bren guns into the trees, whereupon dozens of Japs would fall to the ground. The Japs seemed to be everywhere. Our troops seldom had any chance to rest. For weeks they had no proper sleep; just fighting each day and marching each night until they were exhausted. I received a letter from Billy dated January 21st. and 22nd.
Letter dated "Jan 21st 17h00hrs - on the move". He complained of his "Ordnance Friends" in Singapore who were so slow about replacing equipment lost and said that they were all thoroughly tired, the thought of a bath and bed nearly drove them crazy. They had been sleeping in Chinese kampongs as well as and on the roadside. He described how he and his batman were searching for the Colonel on a bridge at 02h00am a day or two before, and had missed being blown up by our own sappers who luckily blew up another bridge two hundred yards away before blowing up the bridge he was on. He and the batman were blown off their feet and had quite a shaking. Billy said that they were just on the point of giving up on John Axtell and his Company, when they turned up across a bridge just at the very “eleventh hour” before it was destroyed. The Regiment moved on southwards. This was written a little South of Kluang on torn scraps of paper in pencil. There were vivid descriptions of the noise of the enemy guns and also of our own small arms fire crackling out, which Billy said sounded "pretty super”.
The part dated Jan 22nd ran - "We had to fight our way out of that last place with a big “effort”, and there are many Japs who will take no further part in the proceedings." This letter did not arrive in Singapore until after we saw Billy on Jan 31st. “They told me how the Japs tried to win the Indian troops over by dropping pamphlets urging them to shoot and desert their British Officers who did nothing but enjoy “themselves in safety” while the Indians fought and died. The Japs would urge the Indians (in Urdu) to join them as they were not only winning the war but also had plenty of food. At one stage, the Japs ambushed over thirty Garhwali’s, killing or wounding them. They dressed up in Garhwali uniforms and approached our lines calling out in Urdu "Don't shoot, we are Garhwalis". The Garhwali officer in charge of the section they approached, felt sure they were not Garhwalis and ordered his men to fire. Billy told me that sometimes the Japs came at them with a "Suicide Squad." Several Japs would come peddling furiously on bicycles towards our lines; our troops would open fire, killing the lot; then a huge Jap force would swarm down having thus discovered the exact position of our troops and guns. The Jap pamphlets had no effect on the Indians. They felt insulted that the Japs should suggest they would be anything but loyal”.
John Axtell arrived down in Singapore by ambulance on or about 26 January. He had been injured in an accident near Paloh in Jahore.
John had been so exhausted one night that he threw himself down at the side of the road and fell asleep. One of our own despatch riders came racing by on his motor-bike and failed to see John in the dark. The riders boot caught John right in the face causing him to be unconscious for about twelve hours. Another who was wounded at Paloh, was Bobby Hawke - he got a piece of mortar bomb in his back, and it was suggested that he should travel down to the nearest Emergency Dressing Station in one of the Bren-Gun Carriers which was going that way. Bobby flatly refused to travel in the carrier and took the only alternative which was to march for four days through the jungle. They had hardly any food and he told me they had to drink from filthy jungle streams, which however did not appear to have any bad effect upon them. The carrier Bobby refused to travel in was later ambushed and the Japanese ordered the passengers to surrender, and to come out one by one with their hands up. The Garhwali (Indian) officer in charge thought that by surrendering he would save the lives of the men with him, so he told them to do as the Japanese ordered. As each man crawled out he was shot - one man badly injured survived by crawling back to our lines. These carriers were considered quite useless. In Billy's letter written on Jan 21st, I remember he said, "These Bren Carriers are useless, and are death traps if one is caught in them”.
During the last week in January 1942, Billy, now acting as Q.M., was ordered to take all the transport and equipment ahead down to Singapore, as they decided the troops must be able to travel fast, and must not be hampered with any equipment that was not absolutely necessary. With Billy on this job was Teddy Puttock, who I think was the Transport Officer, and as far as I remember, the M.O., and also two hundred of the riflemen. When Billy got his orders, he turned back to collect Bobby Nesham who had been wounded in the leg and would have had great difficulty in marching with the others. Bobby Nesham really belonged to the 5th Bn. R.G.R., which had had a very bad time around Malacca. Bobby Nesham had managed to get through to the British lines and had become attached to the 2nd Battalion. Billy had to practically carry Bobby Nesham for some distance. At one stage Billy stopped a native driving a truck and ordered him to give them a lift. The driver refused, so Billy told him that unless he turned his truck around and obeyed, he would fire on him. The man agreed to do so, but instead, he accelerated and made off at such a speed that he evidently lost control of the wheel and the truck overturned in a ditch killing the treacherous driver, only a short distance down the road from where he had left Billy and Bobby Nesham. Billy, Teddy Puttock and Bobby Nesham and the M.O. and the two hundred riflemen arrived in Singapore on Thursday, 29 January. They expected the rest of the Regiment to arrive about thirty six hours later.
Later that morning, there was a terrific explosion which shook the whole of our house, (One Tree Hill). It was, we knew, a different type of explosion from the ones we were used to hearing. At tiffin time there was a rumour that the causeway had been blown up. Nobody could believe it.
Later on, we all went to see John and Bobby Hawke, in hospital. The latter seemed quite well and cheerful. John was in a very bad way - his injuries had much depressed him and he could hardly talk. We told him that we had been told of the splendid things he had done during the fighting and he turned to Billy and said bitterly, "lots of chaps did splendid things - didn't they Billy?" We all discussed the reason regarding the causeway, and as Billy and Bobby Nesham had up to that time no news of the arrival of the rest of the Regiment, they said that they could hardly believe the authorities would have blown up the causeway and left them on the wrong side. But, in spite of these hopes, a sense of foreboding seemed to come over us all, and before the party broke up we all felt extremely depressed.
When we left the hospital, I went ahead by car to direct Billy and Bobby Nesham to the Alexandra Military Hospital as they were trying to trace some other wounded British Officers from the Regiment. They were unsuccessful and so we parted company at the Hospital. They told us they were going to find out if the causeway had been blown up, and if it had, they would take some trucks with supplies of food and hot drinks and first aid equipment and wait for the Regiment to cross the Straits of Johore to the Naval Base, as they would surely turn up during the night.
The following afternoon, Sunday, 1st Feb, I went again to see John and Bobby Hawke. John was very much better, but Bobby's shoulder was paining him badly. Together, they shared a small ward on the second floor. In the night raids they said they lost no time in crawling onto the mattresses under their beds, and donning the tin hats which were placed in readiness there. They told us that they had heard from an Officer in another Regiment that the Garhwalis had not arrived the night before; and that twenty volunteers had been sent across to the mainland to contact them to give them instructions as to what part of the Jahore side of the Straits to wait, what signals to send, and what to expect back from the Naval Base.
The next day, Monday 2nd, Billy came to have tiffin with us. He told us that the volunteers had contacted our men and that on Sunday night quite a number of people had got across the Straits to the Naval Base. The Colonel of the 12th Sikhs (the Regiment which formed - with the Garhwalis - the 22nd Brigade) with two British Officers; fifty Sikhs, and thirty Garhwali Riflemen had arrived across in an exhausted condition. No other Garhwali Officers, British or Indian had turned up. Billy and Bobby Nesham had tried to find out news of the Regiment and the rest of the Brigade, but the Colonel of the 12th Sikhs was in too much of an exhausted and weak condition to be questioned. The only person in the party who had any news was a Subaltern (junior) in the Sikhs. His story was so ghastly, they refused to believe it unless it was confirmed by a person in a more responsible position. Billy said that he knew exactly how much food and ammunition the Regiment had when he had left them. They were carrying sufficient to get them to Singapore, which they were expecting to reach in thirty six hours time. He said they must now have been without food and ammunition for at least three days, and even if the Sikh Subaltern's account was not an accurate one, the position of the Regiment and the whole Brigade was now a desperate one.
Billy told us many stories of the Regiment and of the adventures they had on the way down. Once, driving along a road, he suddenly saw a whole lot of Japs with guns, sitting in the ditch at the side of the road. Evidently they were just as surprised as he was as they didn't fire, and he didn't linger. On the afternoon of Monday 2nd, Billy and I went up to the hospital again to see John and Bobby Hawke. Bevil, who had just arrived back from his course in India with a big convoy of Indian troops and some Garhwali Reinforcements, was there. Later, Bobby Nesham turned up. Billy and John told us about many of their mutual friends who were rubber planters in the Kuantan district. One English planter and his wife had large quantities of food hidden in the jungle and when the Jap attack came, they donned Malay dress and went to live in the jungle for the duration.
John was improving enormously each day. Bobby Hawke was having a great deal of trouble with his shoulder. News of the 22nd Brigade seemed uncertain and confused. It was definite that their position was desperate even if the worst had not already happened. Bobby Nesham seemed to have taken charge of the group of Garhwalis in Singapore. He and Billy had waited all through the two previous nights at the Naval Base without being rewarded by the arrival of the Regiment. They said the 200 Riflemen they had with them in Singapore kept enquiring about their comrades and since Saturday they had been told to wait patiently and the rest of the Regiment would surely arrive. They felt they could not continue to hope, and were desperately worried as to how to break the news to the men.
Later, Billy, Bobby Nesham, Bevil and I went to Raffles Hotel to have a drink. The place was depressing. The band played, but there was nobody there. There were two other tables occupied besides ours, and around them sat a few dirty, unshaven, tired army officers. There was only one lady, a Mrs Russell-Roberts sitting in a party with her husband who had come across the Straits with another man the night before. Billy knew Major Russell-Roberts, and asked him for news of the Brigade. He came over and sat down at our table, and confirmed the story of the Sikh Subaltern. Just out of Johore Bahru, a party of Japs and Germans approached the Brigade Headquarters waving a white flag. They said that they were already in occupation of Johore Bahru, and if the 22nd Brigade proceeded they would be massacred by the thousands of Japs who were between the Brigade and the Straits. Nobody knows quite what happened. The Brigadier was not popular with the Garhwalis in Singapore and had ordered a surrender. The Colonel of the 12th Sikhs, who was with the small force already mentioned, was in a position five thousand yards beyond (Singapore side) of Brigade H.Q. He ignored the order to surrender and taking the men who were with him, made his way to the Straits. They encountered very little trouble. There were actually very few Japs in Johore Bahru - the "white flag" party had been a trap. As far as I know, the reason that the 22nd Brigade was left behind was that they were ordered to fight a delaying action with the Japs to enable most of the main body of troops to withdraw quickly to the island. They were told they must fight and then withdraw to a certain place where they would be met by the Argylls Brigade which would cover their final withdrawal.
However, the 22nd did later meet a much larger force of Japs than was anticipated and they were held up in fighting a fierce battle with this Jap force. They finally fought their way down to where they had arranged to meet the other Indian Brigade. In the meantime, the other Brigade, having waited for the 22nds for a considerable time was ordered to withdraw without them. The Authorities had felt that the breaching of the causeway could be delayed no longer, as the island was in peril. It was known that the volunteers sent across on Saturday night, had contacted the Brigade and given them instructions about escaping. Why advantage was not taken of these instructions and why a surrender was ordered, is not known.
Major Russell-Roberts had passed the 22nds, early on Sunday or Saturday the 31st. He said they were in a terrible condition, weak from lack of food and sleep, quite exhausted, and without any ammunition. He described it as one of the worst tragedies of the war. He said the British Officers were still struggling on, trying to rally the men. Perhaps the Brigadier felt that they were in such a hopeless condition it was useless to try to break through a large force of fresh enemy troops. While we were sitting at Raffles, two Military Policemen came up and asked Billy, Bevil and Bobby Nesham what Regiment they were in, and told them to return to their units immediately as the latest Malaya Command Orders issued that evening stated that all Officers and men had to be back in their camps by 18h30. The party hurriedly broke up.
Now of the Garhwalis in Singapore at that time, were Billy, Teddy Puttock, the M.O. and the 200 Riflemen. There was Bobby Nesham, some British and perhaps Indian officers from the 5th and some riflemen. There was also Bevil with his Garhwalis, fresh from India. All told, there were about 600 odd. Of these, many like Bobby Hawke would take months to recover completely. There may have been one or two like John who were released from hospital to fight again before the end. Except for those mentioned above, all the 2nd Battalion were still missing in Jahore. Among them Bill Cummins who had done a splendid job rounding up Japs in a secret hide-out up north a few days after the Japs declared war. There was Dick Nugent, another friend of John’s, Billy, Bevil’s and also Geoffrey Collins, who had returned to the Regiment when the fighting was in North Jahore. The boys did not think Geoffrey would try to escape on his own as he was, they said, a “loyal Garhwali" and would never abandon his men. They thought that Dick Nugent and Bill Cummins might make a dash for Singapore together though, rather than surrender. But they never got there, so perhaps they also thought it was hopeless.
Twice during this week, Billy dropped in to see us in the evening, usually arriving in an enormous armoured truck. He told me of how they heard that the Garhwalis were to be broken up and attached to other Regiments. He also told us of his and Bevil’s frantic efforts to persuade H.Q. to allow them to remain together, as a Garhwali Battalion. They even went to Fort Canning, and after pleading for a considerable time with a very Big Brass Hat, he gave in for peace sake.
On Thursday, 5th Feb, I went with Lt. Young the M.O. of the Malay Regiment, to see John and Bobby Hawke. Bobby was not feeling any better and was hoping to be evacuated on a hospital ship to the B.M.H. in Madras. John was very much better. On our way out of the hospital we saw the men of the Royal Navy who were injured on the "Empress of Asia" being brought in. They had been bombed and sunk off Singapore that afternoon.
On Sunday, 8th Feb, the Japs landed on the island about 21h30 pm and the dreadful barrage began. On Monday morning, 9th Feb, John, who was recuperating at Mrs Myles house, phoned to say it had just come over the radio that the Japs had landed and there was fighting on the island. A short time afterwards, Billy and Bevil arrived at One Tree Hill on a few hours leave. Billy phoned me to come round to spend the morning with them. We had a very enjoyable morning together, talking about the fighting on the mainland, our friends, the evacuation, and even some light hearted things. The wireless was on the whole time giving the latest news of the battle which was raging, only twenty minutes driving distance from where we sat calmly drinking lime squash.
John was almost better except for occasional giddiness. He was expecting to be released from sick leave and hospital the following day, and would be sent to a mixed Reinforcement Camp in spite of Billy and Bevil's efforts to get him back into the Regiment.
We had a very good mah-mee tiffin and the Garhwali driver sat on the porch steps while “cookie” took him food. Afterwards we took a lot of snapshots. Then Billy, Bevil and I left John and drove off in the truck to Raffles. They had arranged to collect an officer at Raffles. Billy couldn't find him; and as they were in a hurry to get back, they didn't wait. We drove back to Swettenham Road like the wind, on the way just missing a collision with a Chinese lorry by a hair's breadth. If Bevil had not swerved in time, I'm sure we would not have taken any further interest in the Far East or any other part of the world. It was about 14h30, when they drove away back to their station. Next evening, Tuesday, 10th Feb, John was sent to a Mixed Reinforcement Camp as he had been passed by the hospital that afternoon “fit for fighting”.
The next day, Wednesday the 11th, when we were on T.S.M.V. "Empire Star", alongside the docks all day, I was talking to Captain Moss, the Transport Officer of the Argylls, who was on embarkation duty on the ship. I asked if he knew of the fate of the 22nd Brigade. He said that he had heard that very few had survived and that it was considered a great tragedy. He said their fighting had been magnificent and that it was only due to the marvellous way the Garhwalis and Sikhs had held up the Jap advance that a great part of our forces had been able to withdraw to Singapore.
As mentioned before, later that same day, we heard that on 10 Feb 1942, Billy and his colleagues had been killed. Billy had gone forward with the Colonel, the Signals Officer and several others to reconnoitre a Japanese position in a wood. They were spotted by the Japs and in his haste to withdraw, the driver stalled the jeep. The Japs opened fire and they were all killed instantly. For good measure, the Japs flung a few hand grenades into the jeep. Billy was buried near the junction of Thomson Rd and Mandai Road.
Billy’s name : J.S.N. Myles, and rank appears on the War Memorial at Kranji in Singapore.
I have done my best to put down what I know of the story of the Garhwalis during the Malayan Campaign. My knowledge is made up from what I remember of conversations with Billy, John, Bobby Hawke, Geoffrey Collins and Bobby Nesham; and although I have put everything down as accurately as I can, I would not recommend this as the basis for a historical record of the campaign.
NORMAN HENRY TAYLOR
11 February 1942
[Additional Reference on Billy’s death] taken from “The Fall of Singapore”, by Justin and Robin Corfield'.
'By this time [early hours of the morning] the Japanese were fighting their way through plantations. The Garhwali Rifles which was made up of the 2nd and 5th Battalions, and some new recruits, was mauled by the Japanese in a rubber estate. Their commander, Lt Colonel Smith was hit in the knee then loaded onto a carrier to be taken for treatment. Lt Colonel Claud Hutchinson Smith of the 3rd Battalion 18th RGR was killed in an ambush soon afterwards, when the carrier was attacked. From the 2nd Battalion 18th RGR, Lt John Stanley Noel Myles was killed as was Captain Bevil Gilbert Truscott.