VJ Day

It’s 74 years today since Victory against Japan was declared. The war in the Far East carries some shocking statistics: 36 million dead, of whom 18 million were Chinese civilians; 200,000 Allied PoWs; 32% mortality among Far East PoWs compared to 4% among PoWs in Europe; the fourth deadliest battle of WW2 was the Ichigo campaign in China 1944, with 1.3 million casualties. Do these numbers surprise you?

RFHG pic
Far East PoWs learn of Victory against Japan,
courtesy of RFHG

The Pacific War is not given the same level of attention as the war in Europe and yet it arguably presented a greater challenge. For example, the terrain and tropical climate supplied an additional enemy in terms of conducting a war, with its poor lines of sight, gruelling physical demands, attendant diseases and difficulties for managing wounds and infections. Land transport links were poor making battle supply, communication, management and support extremely difficult and hazardous. The theatre of battle was spread over a vast area, much of it only accessible by sea, requiring complex logistical planning and long range resource capability. The Japanese fought a lawless guerrilla war rather than a traditional war, so that the Allied forces had no safe rear area and no respite at night. Co-ordination between the air, land and sea forces was critical, quite unlike any other theatre and any previous war. The Japanese Imperial Army did not abide by international law on the treatment of PoWs or civilians. The local languages and peoples did not allow for easy disguise and, along with the inhospitable terrain, made escape more or less impossible.

Let us celebrate the extraordinary endurance of both the Allied Forces and the civilian populations, and honour the dead on both sides. The silence of the combatants, the bamboo curtain raised by the Chinese Communists and our post-war trading and political alliances with Japan have all succeeded in allowing the Pacific War to become unjustly forgotten. Let us rescue the stories of the Pacific War before they are lost forever and commemorate this extraordinary chapter in our history.

38 years perspective

Dad died 38 years ago today and I have been wondering what he would think of the world today. He would appreciate many of the technological advances that make farm admin, planning and management more efficient but I believe that the industrialisation of farming would have saddened him. He was a real countryman, in touch with the rhythms of nature and responsive to her needs – he was a proper husband to the land, not a rapist. Our insatiable demand for cheap food has led to denuded soils, poisoned and homeless wildlife, the brutalisation of our farm animals and almost universal separation between producer and consumer.

Our disconnection from the land has had disastrous consequences for us as well as the land and its flora and fauna. We get our water bottled, we take any means of transport that keeps us separate from the ground, we like our food adulterated out of all recognition from the original plants that grew or animals that lived, we want strawberries at Christmas, we don’t trust the air to dry our clothes, preferring the tumble dryer instead. We don’t trust ourselves – our body’s innate intelligence – its cries for nutrition, water and sleep go unheeded and we don’t trust it to heal our wounds, cure our sickness and prevent infection from invading us. Mistrust breeds fear and fear breeds contempt.

At local level our lost relationship with nature manifests as a disregard for our own health and for the health of our local environment. At a global level we are on the edge of catastrophe. If we stop meddling with nature, exploiting it, trying to control it; if we enter into a healthy relationship with it we might just save ourselves. I’m sick of the brutalist agenda and hope for the ascendancy of kindness.

The Peace of Wild Things by Wendell Berry

When despair grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting for their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

1950s Hong Kong

I’ve just been to the Regimental HQ for 19RA, who Dad commanded from 1955-1957, to look at the Regimental Diary for his time in command. It makes fascinating reading, as the regiment was in Korea during 1955, keeping the peace – or at least a truce – after the Korean war. At the beginning of 1956 the regiment moved to Hong Kong and Dad was busy training troops all round the Island, Kowloon and the New Territories. I wonder how he felt, revisiting the sites that had been battlefield during the Second World War? These days we would be concerned about PTSD but I have no record of his response to finding himself back at the site of the deaths of many of his colleagues.

At the end of 1957 Dad was leaving command of the regiment and they threw a party for him that is delightfully recorded in the Regimental Diary:

leaving party 1957

5 November 1957: Lt Colonel and Mrs JH Monro were dined out of the regiment at a Ladies Guest Night. The Colonel’s car was met outside of camp by two motorcycles who escorted his car into camp where he was invited to inspect a special quarter-guard composed of representatives from all sub-units of the regiment. During dinner Major W Hamilton RA delivered a speech on behalf of the hosts to which Colonel Monro replied.

After dinner Colonel Monro was towed, sitting on a trailers artillery, hooked into a gun, by the officers to the Warrant Officers and Sergeants Mess. His journey was accompanied by the noise of the horn of every vehicle in camp, the procession being led by the band of the 1st Battalion the East Lancashire Regiment and illuminated by the lights of the regiment’s vehicles. The band played the regimental quick march “The British Grenadiers”.

After Colonel and Mrs Monro had been entertained by RSM Shepherd and the members of the Sergeants Mess, the colonel was returned safely to the Officers Mess. Again the conveyance was the trailers artillery and gun, propelled this time by the motive power of members of the Warrant Officers and Sergeants Mess. The evening continued with an informal dance held in the Officers Mess, the music being delivered by the dance band section of the band of the 1st Bn East Lancashire Regiment. This made a very fitting end to a very memorable occasion.

Many thanks to Col Peter Beaumont, CO XIXRA, for his kindness in giving me access to this snippet of Dad’s military history.

Jerusalem

As the date of my first Women’s Institute talk approached, I realised that it coincided with the 75th anniversary of D-Day. It seemed appropriate to begin my talk with a silence, to honour all of those who took part in that momentous day. It suited me well to open with reflection, as it has become my mission to invite people to rescue the stories of their relatives who took part in the Second World War. The silent generation left most of us with a one sentence legend at best: ‘he fought in Italy’; ‘she drove an ambulance’; ‘he was a POW in Malaya’; or similar. The next generation down often don’t even have the one sentence legend and so, if we are to rescue these stories, it has to be done soon before they are lost forever.

The purpose of excavating these stories, bringing them into the light and making them widely available is multi-layered. At the beginning of the WI meeting we all sang Jerusalem. It’s such a part of our cultural heritage that it’s easy to sing it automatically and without really thinking about it. The last verse asks us to build Jerusalem/Heaven here and to never give up trying to achieve that:

I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In England’s green & pleasant Land

England's green & pleasant land
England’s Green & Pleasant Land

At the time of the Second World War this was an almost literal command, had Blake used ‘gun’ instead of ‘sword’. Delving into the lives of loved ones who took part helps us to convert the abstract idea of sacrifice into solid deeds and values. The realisation of the courage shown humbles us, especially when the person was youthful at the time. Would we have done that? Made that decision? Taken responsibility for other peoples’ lives? Faced with a similarly dire circumstance today, how would we respond?

It is not only us as individuals who can learn from deepening our understanding of that generation. As a nation we are struggling with our sense of identity. We have seen our ugliness unleashed – greed, selfishness, intolerance, ignorance, tribalism, pettiness, and cruelty bursting through our civilised veneer like an angry red pustule. Our response is, not unreasonably, despair and anxiety, but we know that we have a better self. If we have forgotten what it looks like, the Second World War generation can remind us. We carry them within us – in our genes, in our hearts and minds and in our capabilities.

Thanks to the prolonged peace in Europe we do not face a military threat, but we do face a global climate crisis that needs every ounce of commitment, intelligence, co-operation, ingenuity, and leadership that a war draws out of us. I hope the media coverage of 75th anniversaries over the next year will catalyse a transformation into a more positive national identity. Not a regressive restoration to a small-minded and outdated ’empire spirit’ nationalism, but a determination to be our best selves to respond to a challenging future.

Today would be Dad’s 105th birthday and it’s the first birthday of Stranger In My Heart. Happy birthday, dear book!

Stranger News

It is almost a year since Stranger In My Heart was launched. I have recently received my royalty statement from Unbound which said that, in the 9 months from June 2018 to March 2019 I sold about 1,000 copies, half e-book and half paperback edition. I’m told that I should be pleased about this, even if it seems small reward for the blood, sweat and tears that went into the project! It also means that I have over £800 to donate to the Riding for the Disabled Association. I am figuring out how to donate it for maximum impact and will keep you posted.

The TV company that are making a documentary series to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the outbreak of WW2 have told me that they won’t be filming me after all, but it will still be great to have the Hong Kong story told on prime time TV. The show will air in the autumn and they have said they’ll tell me when it is on.

Next week I have the first of several talks to Women’s Institutes in Wiltshire. As it is a lovely sunny day I thought I’d go and sit in the garden and read my book! As in read MY book. I’ve become so focused on my work in progress that I’ve forgotten the details of Stranger In My Heart and I don’t want to look an idiot by not being able to answer questions about it!

I just heard from the Commanding Officer of 19RA, the Regiment that Dad commanded in the 1950s. They have a scrapbook detailing what they were doing throughout his Command, including their activities in Korea and Hong Kong. I am going to go over to Larkhill in a few weeks to have a look at it. It will fill in an annoying gap in my knowledge of his army career. Here he is in front of his troops in Korea. It says it’s the Queen’s Birthday Parade, but 9th June is also Dad’s birthday.

19RA, Korea 1955
Dad in Korea with 19RA, 1955

Moving Pictures

Moving pictures of both kinds to discuss. I met a TV company in London who are making a series to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the outbreak of WW2, to be aired in the autumn on C4. They asked me all about the Battle of Hong Kong and the FEPoW experience at Sham Shui Po camp, as well as Dad’s escape. The celebrity who is presenting this episode is being flown out to Hong Kong – without me! – and the company may or may not want to interview me to fill in the gaps. They like that I am female in a male dominated topic, but I guess it depends how the filming goes in HK.

I have just returned from Shropshire where my brother showed me some old family photos. I took them to the nursing home to show my mum, Betty, and she really connected with them. It prompted her to tell some stories from her youth and it was so moving to see her enjoy her memories and to hold a coherent thread. It is rare treat nowadays to see her rise from a sea of confusion for a brief moment in the light of reason. I told her I loved her, always mindful that it may be the last time that I can be confident that the message will reach its destination.

These portraits of my parents are by society photographer, Madame Yevonde of Berkeley Square.

John Monro 1952
John Monro 1952
EL Monro 1952
Betty Monro 1952, aged 25

There was also a couple of pictures of Dora; with her brother Howard on a cruise to Australia in the 1970s, perhaps after husband John died in 1975? And with John in the 1930s.

Dora Metcalf cruise
Dora Metcalf, Frances & Howard Greene, 1970s?
John & Dora Metcalf
Capt John & Dora Metcalf

Escape Anniversary


On the night of 1st February 1942, Dad escaped with two colleagues from Sham Shui Po PoW camp in Hong Kong. They took some supplies with them to see them through the next week as they walked at night across the New Territories towards the Chinese border:

8 Tins Bully Beef, 1 Tin Mutton, 2 Tins Carnation Milk, 1 Packet Army Biscuits, 2 Emergency Rations, 2 Pints of Sugar (half in a tin; half wrapped in a piece of gas cape), 1 Tin of Salt, 7 Oxo Cubes, 80 handful of Dry beans stored in containers made by tying up the ends of the sleeves of a gas cape, 1 Jar Virol (malt based health drink).

From the Medical Officer: Some Biozygen (vitamin supplement), Quinine Tablets, Aspirin, Iodine, Pot Permang Tablets, Chloride of Lime, a very small bottle of brandy.              

An oil Prismatic compass, 4 Field Dressings, H.K.$ 180 in cash, 50 Camel Cigarettes, a 1/250,000 map of the Country to Waichow.

Quite a comprehensive list considering the camp conditions, but not much given that they had no idea where, when or how they would resupply. It was a bold move to escape into the unknown, not knowing if they would be recaptured, killed by the Japanese or betrayed by the Chinese. Dad was 27 years old.

A TV production company from London called, asking if I would contribute to a show they are making about Sham Shui Po and the Battle of Hong Kong. Not sure what that will mean just yet but will keep you posted. Exciting!

Wiltshire News

Stranger In My Heart was in the news again last week, this time in the Wiltshire Times. Since I added a media kit to the website the level of accuracy in news reports has definitely increased! If only I had a background in marketing I would probably do these things automatically. Sigh.

I am now booked to speak to three Wiltshire WIs in June and July, following my slightly terrifying audition back in November. I am sure it will be much more fun when I have longer to speak and there is a more cosy atmosphere. Other than these speaking engagements I am winding down the promotional activities a bit to devote more time to my next book.

This one will be about my great aunt Dora, who earned her mathematics degree aged nineteen in 1911, set up her own business selling calculating machines aged 24 and built a computing business that supplied the bombe machines to the Bletchley Park codebreakers and created one of the world’s first electronic computers. It’s going to be quite feminist!

Dora Metcalf
Dora Metcalf 1935

Anniversary of the Battle of Hong Kong

Battle of Hong Kong 1941

On 8 December 1941 began the battle of Hong Kong, now 77 years ago. Here is an extract from Dad’s diary of 10 December, recounting the first days of the Japanese invasion:

About 6:00am on Monday 8th I was woken up, called to the telephone and told that war was imminent with Japan.  By the time I got to H.Q. we were at war.  About 8:00am the first Japanese bombers came over.  They did a lot of damage at the Aerodrome, destroying 7 C.N.A.C. (Chinese National Aviation Corp) planes, The Clipper, most of the RAF planes and the two Walruses.  They were unopposed.  The volunteer A.A. (anti-aircraft) platoon had drawn no ammunition, I suppose because the day before was a Sunday.  The gunboat supposed to be in the seaplane anchorage was being used for something else.  The Japs made rapid progress down the Taipo Road, and by the evening we were back in Shatin.  H.Q. were gravely disappointed with the Stanley guns.  They have shot too big a line, boasted that they could get almost to Taipo, in actual fact they can only reach about 1500 yards beyond Shatin Station.  We were unable to answer several calls for fire as the targets have been out of range.

On Tuesday general skirmishing took place on the main approaches to the inner (Gin Drinkers) line, to which by nightfall all our forces had retired.  During the night Tuesday/Wednesday the Japs surprised and captured the Shing Mun Redoubt.  This is a severe loss.  Today there has been heavy fighting all along Smugglers Ridge and up towards Golden Hill.

The Allied forces had been on high alert for some time but, as each alarm turned out to be false, they became complacent and so weren’t fully prepared for the attack. When war did come, it was fierce and relentless, raging until Christmas Day when the Allies finally surrendered. For the people of Hong Kong, this year would always be known as Black Christmas.

It is hard for us to imagine what that must have been like, as we do our online shopping for Christmas presents, put on a load of laundry or take the dog for a walk. We must always remember what we owe this generation. Blessings for a peaceful Christmas 2018.