DAVID ARNOLD - When HMS Sussex was beside the sea in surrendered Singapore

HMS Sussex
HMS Sussex

I do believe that dear old Sussex is the only English county to have its own anthem.

“Sussex by the Sea” was written in 1907 by William War-Higgs and went on to gain enduring popularity in the course of the First World War when it was the marching song of the Royal Sussex Regiment. Ironically, War-Higgs only lived in Sussex for half a dozen years.

The Royal Sussex Regiment’s website records how War-Higgs “took a great interest in the County and the County Regiment, and was moved to try to produce a marching song in praise of Sussex. ‘Sussex by the Sea’ was the result”. A slightly conflicting story has it that the song was a gift to his favourite sister-in-law, Gladys, and was written to celebrate her engagement to Captain Roland Waithman of the Regiment’s 2nd Battalion.

What is known for certain is that once published, copies of the tune were indeed sent to an officer of the 2nd Battalion and it must be presumed that this was Captain Waithman. The song was first performed publicly in September 1908 by that same officer at concerts at Ballykinlar Camp, County Down, where the unit was stationed. The tune at once became popular, and has remained so ever since.

It quickly became well known all over Sussex and in time was adopted as the school march of Christ’s Hospital, the battle cry of Brighton & Hove Albion football club and the Sussex cricket
team. It is also regularly sung at events throughout the county and can be heard most spiritedly during the Lewes and other Sussex bonfire celebrations. The song is very popular with marching bands and even Morris dancers throughout the county.

At the end of World War II in the Far East, a Royal Marines band aboard the heavy cruiser HMS Sussex played “Sussex by the Sea” as the ship entered the harbour of Singapore in September 1945. HMS Sussex was the flagship of the Allied fleet. The war against Japan had ended a few weeks earlier following the dropping of the atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki but it was not known if all the forces commanded by Emperor Hirohito would follow his instructions to surrender.

The Royal Navy arrived in Singapore on 4 September 1945, fortunately meeting no opposition. Whether that was down to the strains of “Sussex by the Sea” pacifying the Japanese is not known. However, there was one naval casualty when the French battleship Richelieu struck a magnetic mine on the morning of 9 September while passing down the Straits of Malacca. She eventually limped into Singapore on 11 September.

Before that the Japanese commander, General Itagaki and his aides were brought aboard HMS Sussex in Keppel Harbour to discuss the surrender with British officers. A tense encounter began when a Japanese officer reportedly remarked, “You are two hours late,” only to be met with the reply, “We don’t keep Tokyo time here”. By early evening, the Japanese had surrendered the island. An estimated 77,000 garrison troops from Singapore were captured, plus another 26,000 from Malaya.

HMS Sussex was a County Class heavy cruiser launched in 1928. She served in the Med until 1934 and was then transferred to do time with the Royal Australian Navy in the Far East until 1936. Once back in the Med she was deployed protecting British and other neutral shipping from interference by the combatants in the Spanish Civil War.

Following the outbreak of World War II in September 1939, she operated with Force H in the South Atlantic during the search for the German raider Admiral Graf Spee. On 2 December, she and HMS Renown intercepted the German passenger ship Watussi. Before the German ship could be captured she was sunk by her own crew. Following the scuttling of the Graf Spee just outside the Uruguayan harbour of Montevideo in December 1939, HMS Sussex sailed back to Britain and next served with the Home Fleet during the ill-fated Norwegian Campaign of 1940.

In August her engineers discovered a serious problem with her propulsion machinery so she was sent to Glasgow for repair. While undergoing work, she was the target of a German bombing raid on 18 September 1940. The resulting fires gutted the after end causing the ship to settle on the bottom while listing to one side. Even more extensive repairs were necessary and the vessel was not ready to return to active service until August 1942.

Next she sailed to the Far East where, in February 1943, she was fortunate to evade no less than four torpedoes fired at her by the German submarine U-264. HMS Sussex was in the Pacific on 26 July 1945 when the fleet she accompanied came under attack by Japanese Kamikazi dive-bombers.

Despite such a distinguished career, HMS Sussex, like the vast majority of redundant Royal Navy ships, was destined for an ignominious end on the scrapheap, being broken up in Scotland in February 1950.

It is a shame that the ship couldn’t have been saved for posterity, especially as there hasn’t been a successor in the navy bearing the same name. Given the maritime heritage of the Sussex coast, these days I’m sure the ship would have made a major tourist attraction for a port such as Newhaven that desperately needs such an attraction to boost visitor numbers. Of course, I have no idea if a ship the size of HMS Sussex would fit into Newhaven but maybe a compromise would have been to save a gun turret or two and preserve the anchor for display.

At least the ship’s bell was saved and today it proudly hangs in Chichester Cathedral.