I was invited to join a fellow Unbound author, John-Paul Flintoff, on his desktop pilgrimage from London to Canterbury. Each day he asks people to ‘walk’ with him through a Google Maps section of the route. This time it was Bexley Heath to Swanley, escaping from the sprawl of London into proper countryside. You can see more about our walk here.
As we looked at the images, we talked about Dad’s escape across China in 1942 and my retracing of his route in 2013. It made me realise that as you walk through a landscape, talking about something else, you tend to ignore elements that don’t connect with your conversation. Instead you focus on things that do have a link. It’s as though the landscape is an active participant in whatever we are thinking or talking about.
When we choose to immerse ourselves in nature, when our thinking and what we are seeing are the same, we know that this is a balm to our mental health (see Lucy Jones’ book Losing Eden). When we allow the landscape to connect to our thoughts – in this case with some trees at the side of a busy motorway – we can be soothed as we remember. If we are searching our sometimes troubled inner landscape, the external landscape can anchor us in the present.
Pilgrimage, whether it has a spiritual drive or arises from a deep imperative to undertake a journey, is about a passage through landscape. If you just wanted to go to a sacred site, you could go straight to it. But it is the journey and the landscape as witness, inspiration, comforter, distractor, sanctuary and connector that enables our self exploration and expansion.
The Researching FEPOW History Group (RFHG) blog has published a post written by me about how Allied strategy prolonged the suffering of the Far East PoWs. Dad had what he called a ‘great thought’ about liberating the PoWs he’d left behind in Hong Kong. He teamed up with the US Air Force, who had a much bigger plan to win the war against the Japanese with air power. Retaking Hong Kong was part of their plan and this represented an opportunity to rescue the long suffering PoWs. Sadly, the plan was subverted at the highest level, in a battle of personality and attitude. If it had been properly resourced and supported it might have shortened the war by a year, saving millions of lives, in Europe and the Far East.
The RFHG was due to have a conference this June, at which I was going to discuss this. Sadly, it was a victim of Covid19, along with so many other events. I was looking forward to meeting fellow FEPOW families and hearing about their experiences. I hope there will be other opportunities to meet up and share these hidden histories of the Second World War.
You can still buy a signed copy of Stranger In My Heart in time for Christmas if you’re quick! 2020 has been so strange and sad, I’m sure we will all be glad to put it behind us. Whenever I start to flag with the relentlessness of it all, though, I have only to think of those brave souls who endured the privations of WW2 and I revive a little. Wishing all of you peace and joy at Christmas and looking forward to a Happy New Year.
A new piece of research on the British Army Aid Group (BAAG) has been published by the Hong Kong Baptist University. The BAAG both supported the PoWs in Hong Kong and supplied intelligence about Hong Kong to China Command in the wartime capital at Chongqing. Dad worked closely with BAAG founder, Col Lindsay Ride, during his time as Assistant Military Attaché, from August 1942 to January 1944. The HKBU research provides masses of interesting maps and images to give a visual history, from the Battle of Hong Kong to the founding of BAAG and its activities throughout the war.
BAAG was also known as MI9, acknowledging its intelligence role and its connection with Allied intelligence units in Europe. Dad’s plan to liberate the Hong Kong PoWs was predicated on BAAG’s intelligence as a support to General Chennault’s USAAF. Without US air power and local intelligence there was no hope of success. Unfortunately political shenanigans scuppered the plan, and with it the entire strategy for the Pacific War. See Stranger In My Heart for more details! For more about BAAG go to the Elizabeth Ride Archive, which contains a wide range of documents, from official reports to notes on strategy, personal diaries and links to further information.
The chief researcher at HKBU has kindly sent me a photo of 8th Coastal Brigade, who dad commanded for a time before the war, his Chinese troop. Unfortunately Dad isn’t in the photo but it is wonderful to see his men. I’m not sure when this photo was taken, possibly 1941.
There’s a sense of looking back and looking forward in the title ‘Remembrance 2020’ isn’t there? As always, we remember and honour those who fought and died for us. When I saw a poppy seller on the street a couple of weeks ago I thought ‘oh, no, I have no cash!’ So many retailers are card only now that I don’t carry any. I needn’t have worried. I approached the veteran and he showed me a text number (text POPPY to 70020 to make a £3 donation) and said I could also donate online at the Royal British Legion website.
Our knowledge of their sacrifice and suffering has become our lived experience this year, when we have all been at war with Sars-CoV-2. So many people have suffered loss, or have died alone and apart from their loved ones. Our elderly and vulnerable citizens have been prisoners of this war, cooped up at home or in care homes, including my poor old mum, isolated and with an uncertain future. We have all experienced deprivation – of connectedness, of liberty and, for many, of their livelihoods.
Our experience in 2020 has been valuable in highlighting what is really important in our lives: friends and family, community, the value of the unsung heroes in our workforce – not just the frontline workers but people like the delivery drivers, the shelf stackers and the café workers. What helped me to get through some of the moments of anxiety and dread was reading, watching the series of plays offered online, for free, by the National Theatre, and catching up on TV and movies. Nature played her part too, reminding us of the continuity of life in spite of it all, and feeding our souls with beauty and joy.
The terrible suffering of the Second World War has been redeemed by 75 years (so far) of peace in Europe and amicable relationships in the Far East. As we look forward, Covid is steering us toward a different relationship with nature. And a stark realisation that poverty and inequality leave people vulnerable to deadly disease. And an appreciation of the value of the arts. Hope begins today, when Covid has contributed to the ousting of Trump. I saw on Facebook a post that said “Make America Kind Again” and that is a meme for this side of the pond too. Let’s pray for a new era of kindness during the silence for Remembrance 2020.
On 15 August 2020 it will be 75 years since the Second World War came to an end with victory over Japan, commemorated as VJ75. Those who lived through that conflict, or died in it, deserve a special place in our hearts. Some fought at the front, others suffered as Prisoners of War, some nursed the wounded, grew food, were cruelly persecuted, were torn from their families as children, had their homes bombed or were forced to flee for their lives. They all experienced something that the rest of us can barely imagine.
The Forgotten War?
Perhaps the Far East war receives less attention in the UK because the veterans and their families are scattered around the world – Commonwealth forces made a major contribution to Allied efforts in the Far East. Our Chinese allies disappeared behind the ‘bamboo curtain’ with the Communist takeover in 1949, obscuring their contribution to the Allied victory. The Far East battlefields are distant and it is more expensive and difficult to visit Burma or Singapore than to visit the Normandy beaches or Montecassino. Or, perhaps, it is because Japan never attacked the UK, bringing the threat of destruction to our front door. Whatever the reason, it is time to bring remembrance of the Far East war to the foreground, to honour all those who fought and died there.
Researching Family History
Many of us have a one sentence legend about what our ancestors did in the war. Even that little snippet is at risk of being lost, so now is the time to investigate the legend and find out more about your family history. It has never been easier to do the research, but it helps if you have a starting point, such as a military service record or letters and diaries that the person left behind. Did you know that batteries, squadrons and other military units kept diaries, recording day to day events and troop movements? The service record will tell you which units your ancestor was attached to, and the unit diaries help you learn where your ancestor was and what they were doing.
The history of the Second World War will not be complete without these stories, which often uncover little known aspects of the war. We have much to learn from veterans’ experiences, especially in this Covid year, when our resilience, adaptability and capacity to work together for the common good are being tested in ways that they probably haven’t since 1945. You can now purchase a signed copy of my father’s story Stranger In My Heart from my website. I hope it will inspire you to research your own family history and give you some strength to cope with these difficult times.
Commemorations of VJ Day 2020 in the UK
I made this 5 minute film to recap my father’s story. BBC1 is showing a service from the National Memorial Arboretum on Saturday 15 August from 09.30 – 11.30am, which will include testimonies from veterans and families of those who served in the Far East. There is also a show on BBC1 at 8.30pm, commemorating VJ75. The Royal British Legion website has comprehensive coverage of the war in the Far East, particularly commemorating the role of forces from all over the commonwealth. They are featuring Dad’s story here. The Sun newspaper is offering a four-page pullout feature commemorating VJ Day. They interviewed me for it, so there may be coverage of Dad’s story there too. We will remember them.
Stranger In My Heart was born on 9th June 2018, so it is the book’s 2nd birthday today (and Dad’s 106th)! I have learned a lot about book marketing over the last two and a half years, not least that it is time consuming and requires constant attention to Twitter, Facebook and the rest. I did my best and I really enjoyed the launch party and the various events that I spoke at. Thankyou to everyone who helped along the way, with support, encouragement, book buying, review writing, tea, cake and general loveliness. Sales naturally slow down after a while, especially when events that might have been useful in promoting the book have all been cancelled…
I was supposed to speak at a conference in June, commemorating the 75th anniversary of VJ day (VJ75). I was looking forward to talking about Dad’s efforts to liberate the PoWs he’d left behind in Hong Kong, and meeting veterans and their families. The conference is rescheduled for next year so I hope to speak then. VJ75 is a major milestone, conference or no, but it is very much the poor relation compared to the attention paid to VE day. Perhaps by August 15 we will be able to get together to mark VJ75, sort of in lieu of the celebrations that were supposed to be held on VE75. If so, that might raise awareness in the wider population of the war in the Far East. Every cloud…
I am thoroughly fed up with lockdown now. All my favourite events have been cancelled and everything that was in the diary between now and the year end has gradually been deleted. I have enjoyed the opportunity to get on with writing my book about my great aunt, and we are loving exploring Edinburgh, but I miss seeing people and going places and eating out and holidays. I know I am immensely privileged to have a happy home, good health, reliable internet and enough money to keep me going and I do count my blessings. But, well, you know. Stay safe and well and we’ll meet again…
The production company who made My Grandparents’ War have been in touch to say that the Mark Rylance episode is being shown again on Saturday 4 April at 7pm on Channel 4. I know you won’t be going out, so why not watch the show?! It gives a real insight into the role of the battle of Hong Kong in World War II and looks at the conditions of the PoWs from all angles.
In other news, Unbound are promoting ALL of their e-books to give people a good value read to fill the ‘staycation’ hours. Mine is on offer at £5 if you would like a copy of the digital edition. Check out the other great titles on there while you are at it – I have read several Unbound books now and they are a diverse bunch of interesting ideas: fiction, non-fiction, graphic books, all sorts. If you would like a copy of the paperback of Stranger In My Heart, I have a stash at home that I can send you, for £12 each including post and packing. Signed by the author, naturally. Contact me via the website.
It is well worth reading these stories from the Second World War at this strange time. Whenever I start feeling cooped up and grumpy at the restrictions on my lifestyle, I just think of the lot of the PoW. No food, no medicines, no entertainment, no work, no prospect of release, every chance of dying in captivity. Their fortitude is humbling and a lesson to us all.
I have seen that in any great undertaking it is not enough for a man to depend simply upon himself.
On the night of 1st February 1942 Dad escaped from Sham Shui Po camp in Hong Kong and set off towards an uncertain future in China. He might have felt that he was taking back control of his destiny and in some senses he was. But he was heavily dependent on having companions for support and points of safety, resupply, information, healthcare, transport and finance along the way. He was escaping into an allied country, supported by British and American military missions. For all that, he and his companions were still destitute refugees who had to successfully navigate territory occupied by enemy troops, who would certainly have killed them if they had been discovered.
The choice to escape must balance the possible hazards along the way with the likelihood of reaching the desired outcome. And what might be the cost of staying put? We know that many of Dad’s colleagues who remained in the camp had a miserable time and some did not survive. The worst outcome of both choices was death, but the best outcome of escape was freedom and agency.
The diminished, demoralised and degraded group of men who remained in the PoW camp were to become Dad’s mission when he was appointed Assistant Military Attaché in Chongqing. Their appalling treatment in camp meant that they were no longer fit to escape – it would have to be mass liberation. Sadly, the fate of Hong Kong PoWs was not a strategic priority and Dad’s rescue plan – although agreed at the most senior levels as part of a bold strategy to win the Pacific War – was not actioned. An arrogant personality clash among the military leadership led to a different strategy, the consequent suffering of many and the loss of millions of lives.
On 25th December 1941 The Allied Forces surrendered Hong Kong to the Japanese, beginning their rout of Allied territories in the Far East. It became known as “Black Christmas” to acknowledge the losses suffered by the military and civilian populations there. This year will be the 78th anniversary of that sad Christmas Day. Stranger In My Heart, which describes the battle and its wartime context, is available online if you have any friends or family who haven’t read it yet!
I hope you have managed to see some of the “My Grandparents’ War” series on C4. It has thrown light on some of the lesser known aspects of WW2 but, perhaps more importantly, has reminded us of the character of that generation. The acceptance of the horrors that they witnessed, the hardships they endured, their bravery under fire or persecution, their indomitable spirit and their mental resilience are beacons to light our way. Our lives in the present are extremely stressful and many are suffering or in difficulty, but I wonder if we have lost that ‘feel the fear and do it anyway’ attitude? Those participants in WW2 may have felt terrified, appalled, inadequate to the task, unprepared for what they faced, imperilled, confused, but they continued to do what was asked of them for the protection of their colleagues and for the greater good.
Let’s hope that 2020 will be a year of clearsightedness, when we set our priorities straight and work together for the greater good.
The Clearing by Martha Postlethwaite
Do not try to save the whole world or do anything grandiose. Instead, create a clearing in the dense forest of your life and wait there patiently, until the song that is yours alone to sing falls into your open cupped hands and you recognise and greet it. Only then will you know how to give yourself to this world so worthy of rescue.
Merry Festive Greetings and very best wishes for the New Year!