Saluting the Suffolks who served bravely

For nearly three centuries they fought from Ireland to Malaya for king - or queen - and country. We should remember them. Steven Russell visited somewhere that does: the regimental museumTIM Davies knows this room well, though it's changed a bit over five decades.

Steven Russell

For nearly three centuries they fought from Ireland to Malaya for king - or queen - and country. We should remember them. Steven Russell visited somewhere that does: the regimental museum

TIM Davies knows this room well, though it's changed a bit over five decades.

Today, it's home to The Suffolk Regiment museum, where he meets, greets and helps visitors trying to trace an ancestor or simply satisfying curiosity. Back then, it was the place where raw novices entered at one end and emerged fledgling soldiers at the other - ready to have their rough edges smoothed.

“In the national service days, in my day, there was a big long table down the middle and you came in that door, practically naked, you got all this stuff piled on you, and you went out that door fully kitted out as a soldier. Every national serviceman in The Suffolk Regiment came through this room,” says Tim, who joined the army in 1958 and served until 1994.

There's a photograph of him in one of the display cases of him at the age of 18 - a young soldier in Cyprus. The Suffolk Regiment colleague who took the snap was one Martin Bell, the Suffolk-born man who went on to become an esteemed BBC TV foreign correspondent and latterly an MP on an anti-sleaze ticket.

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Nowadays Tim's “rank” is gallery assistant at the museum, housed in the imposing Keep at Gibraltar Barracks, just off the mini-roundabout in Newmarket Road, Bury St Edmunds.

The room is full of intriguing objects: from an Imperial German flag - taken from the German governor's building in Togoland and almost certainly the first to be captured during the 1914-18 war - to a regimental drum that was hidden in occupied France and rediscovered years later.

Of course, the artefacts are but triggers - no pun intended - for behind each one is a human story.

Gwyn Thomas, honorary curator, recognises that an important role of the small corps of volunteers manning the museum is to talk to visitors and add “colour” to the displays - putting the objects in some context.

“There's so much up there that's marvellous that we just want to share it with the public,” he says.

In many ways, we're lucky to have it.

The museum was established in the officers' mess for the 250th anniversary of the regiment in 1935. The first acquisitions were things from even older collections of badges, medals and uniform-related items that had been on show in the mess since before The Great War.

In 1968 it moved to its current home in The Keep - growing, since then, in “a delightfully disorganised way”.

But there were dark clouds on the horizon. The Ministry of Defence, which had paid for a gallery assistant, rejigged its funding priorities and diverted the money elsewhere. The regimental museum had been open five days a week, albeit for limited hours, and the trustees didn't have the money to pay someone. From the mid-1990s to 2003/4, the museum was thus closed to the public.

All the records, documents and more than 20,000 photographs, went for safekeeping to the Suffolk Record Office, which is where they still lie. Available six days a week, they've turned out to be probably the single-most heavily used collection there.

A saviour arrived in the shape of local man Brian Allen, who served with the regiment in Malaya in 1950-52 and who left a substantial legacy in his will that has guaranteed the long-term future of the museum.

Word is that he made a packet on the stock market and said he wanted the money to keep the museum in Bury St Edmunds. (There were fears the collection could be moved to Duxford or Stowmarket's Museum of East Anglian Life.)

It's said that the bequest was around £500,000 . . .

At about the same time, the trustees decided on a major overhaul. All the objects were taken down, assessed, and rearranged in a more chronological sequence. Military historian Taff Gillingham, the museum's technical consultant and a man with a background in film and television design, was pivotal in achieving a clearer new look without losing the warm “Granny's attic” appeal. The showcases have been retained, for instance.

The museum welcomes about 1,000 visitors a year, and is hoping to see that rise. A very professional-looking gallery at Moyse's Hall, in the town centre, helps arouse interest and point people towards the main museum at Gibraltar Barracks.

Nowadays, many visitors are trying to flesh out the life stories of their ancestors - seeking details of their great-uncle, for instance, who was at the Battle of Arras in 1918. At the very least, museum volunteers can usually offer some detail and point visitors towards other good sources of information.

Brigadier Bill Deller, chairman of the trustees, is cheered by the apparent rise in interest in social history and pleased the institution can play its part. “We now get people bringing things into this museum” - old papers, pay-books and so - “that I suspect 25 years ago would have been thrown into a skip,” he says.

The Suffolk Regiment is something we should feel proud of.

“Basically, we should cherish it because it's part of the history of Suffolk. It recruited locally, so it's bound up with local life. It's part of the story of many Suffolk families down the ages. You've only got to look at the number of people who come in here and ask about grandfather . . .”

The Suffolk Regiment Museum in Newmarket Road, Bury St Edmunds, is open from 9.30am to 3.30pm on the first and third Wednesdays, and first Sunday, of each month. Admission is free, though donations are welcomed. Phone 01284 752 394.

PITY poor old J Lynch - the worst shot in the annual sergeants' mess shooting competitions in 1934. His name was added to a massive spoon, which had to be carried around for a day.

The forfeit for the worst shot in the corporals' mess was even more of a deterrent, explains Tim Davies. Again, there was a big spoon for the unfortunate soldier, “which they took back to the mess and filled it up with all the 'top shelf' - crème de menthe and all that sort of stuff - and he had to drink it. Again, he practised very well before next year; he wasn't going to go through that again!”

A portrayal of a neatly-turned-out soldier in his dormitory bed-space, kit such as a 2oz tube of Mollé brushless shaving cream laid out on the rough-looking blankets, is a popular exhibit.

“People who have been through national service love this,” says Tim. “And we get young soldiers who come in and say 'We've all got duvets today.' The hardest things to find were the pin-ups; we had to go to a specialist shop. Heaven knows what they stick in their wardrobes these days . . .”

It's authentic apart from the dimensions of the bed, where some artistic licence has had to be applied. A bed of proper length would have jutted out against other displays, so this one is slightly sawn off.

The story of the Roubaix drum is worth telling.

During the allied retreat to Dunkirk in 1940, British forces were told to ditch all non-essential equipment, such as PE kit. But the commanding officer of the Suffolk's 1st Battalion couldn't face abandoning the regimental drums. Instead, they were handed to sympathetic French folk who hid them in boxes in a hat factory.

In 1944, when the battalion returned to the area, soldiers asked about the drums and discovered three had survived. One was later destroyed in action, but two were reunited with the drum platoon.

Many, many years later, military historian Taff Gillingham spotted one being sold on eBay, the bottom skin signed by an adjutant. The museum now proudly displays a Roubaix drum - and there's potentially another one out there, somewhere.

By the end wall is a chronological collection of many of the weapons used by the regiment - such as Lee-Enfields and M1 Carbines - or captured in action.

Of course, at the heart of military history are the stories of people, not objects. A glance at a display case, showing pictures of emaciated Far Eastern prisoners of war, tugs at the heartstrings.

Less savage is the tale of Harvey Frost, known locally as a builder of repute and his service as mayor. There's a photograph from 1915 showing him as a dashing member of the 9th (Service) Battalion.

Mr Frost was something of a squirrel in terms of keeping mementos, and the museum thus has a considerable collection of objects related to him, including a charred twig from a Cupressus in his father's garden in King's Road, Bury St Edmunds. The tree was burned by an incendiary bomb dropped on the town by a German Zeppelin in 1915.

The most interesting artefact, however, is his Burberry overcoat - “holed”, he wrote, “by a whiff of shrapnel” as he emerged from a dugout in a baker's kiln at St Jean, near Ypres, after a gas attack on December 19, 1915.

“He thought 'To hell with this for a game of soldiers' . . . he joined the air force!” says Tim.

Mind you, life was no less dangerous after his transfer to No 5 Squadron Royal Flying Corps. Flying in a fighter-plane, Mr Frost was manning the machine-gun at the front of the aircraft, with the pilot behind him.

“After an engagement, he looked behind him and the pilot was unconscious, so he had to climb over the fuselage, sit on this feller's lap, and land the thing - which he managed to do - wounding himself in the process. But he was the wrong side of the line, so he got captured.

“He was taken to Holland, where the nuns treated his wounds. The Germans nicked his coat and boots, but the nuns nicked them back again and gave them back to him!”

Then there's a tale from time when the 1st Battalion was in Malaya in the late 1940s and early 1950s, helping to deal with communist terrorists.

A national service officer, 2nd Lieutenant LR Hands, was leading a patrol that surprised three terrorists in swampland. One was killed, and Hands chased and despatched another. After splashing through the swamp for about 150 yards, the officer caught and killed the third.

This final member of the trio turned out to be a prize catch: notorious bandit leader Lieu Kon Kim, “the bearded wonder”. The Federation of Malaya Police had put a $20,000 bounty on his head.

On show in the museum is a 9mm Browning pistol that Lt Hands shot from Lieu Kon Kim's grip.

Moments in time: selected milestones in the history of The Suffolk Regiment

Effectively formed in 1685 when King James II ordered the Duke of Norfolk to raise a regiment against the threatened Monmouth Rebellion. This grouping, The XIIth Regiment of Foot, included men from Norfolk and Suffolk

In 1730 and 1741 the regiment was spread around the Suffolk-Essex border, with an HQ in lpswich

In 1743 it was involved in the victory over the French at the Battle of Dettingen in Germany - the last campaign in which an English king, in this instance George II, led his troops into battle

On August 1, 1759, came the Battle of Minden. Six British regiments, including the XIIth Foot, braved cannon fire, withstood six French cavalry charges, and confused their foes

Eric Lummis's history of the regiment states that “everything conspired to defeat the British Infantry . . . Nevertheless, with grim determination and supreme courage, the British soldiers won through to a complete and annihilating victory. As they passed through some gardens that morning the men plucked roses and wore them in their hats. No wonder their successors through the years have been proud to commemorate the anniversary of Minden by continuing this custom”.

The regiment's depot was established at Bury St Edmunds in the late 1800s

In 1881, the force became The Suffolk Regiment

By the end of the century 90% of the men hailed from the county

Two Suffolk men won Victoria Crosses in the 1914-18 War: a Corporal Day and Sergeant Saunders. Despite injuries that cost him a leg, the latter's actions helped the wounded Lieutenant Christison survive and go on to celebrate his 100th birthday in 1993!

The First Battalion fought in France and Belgium in 1940, and landed as part of the Assault Brigade on Sword Beach, Normandy, in June, 1944

The 4th and 5th Battalions fought in the battle for Singapore but numerous men became prisoners of war and worked on the Burma railway, which cost many of them their lives

In the late summer of 1959 The Suffolk Regiment amalgamated with The Royal Norfolks to form The East Anglian Regiment, later to become the Royal Anglians

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