On 8th December 2021 it is the 80th anniversary of the the Battle of Hong Kong (HK80), the point of Britain’s entry into the Pacific War. To commemorate the day I have written a blog post for the Researching FEPOW History Group website. Please click the link and have a read.
You may remember that a wee while ago I appeared on BBCR4’s Saturday Live show. A couple of weeks ago I received an email via the website from a lady called Sarah, saying she’d heard my interview and was desperate for a few copies of my book but couldn’t find any. Unfortunately she hadn’t noticed the opportunity to buy a copy that appears on the sidebar on the right of the page. Anyway, I emailed back, asking how many she wanted and offering to put some copies in the post. I didn’t hear anything for a couple of days and, as she has an unusual surname, I thought I’d look her up to see if I could find an address for her. To my surprise she lives about ten minutes walk from my house! I went to find it but couldn’t find the correct house name. I knocked on a likely looking door:
‘Is this the White House?’ I asked
‘Yes’ said a surprised looking man in his 70s
‘Are you Mr X?’
‘I might be…’ I could see him wondering who on earth I might be and not coming to any happy conclusions.
‘Is your wife called Sarah?’ Now he was intrigued.
‘Is she looking for some copies of this book?’
‘Oh! Come in, come in.’ We had a nice chat and Sarah called me later to say it was the most extraordinary coincidence of their lives. Another happy customer.
I have recently taken part in #HistoryWritersDay on Twitter which generated some interest. It was the brainchild of @books2cover and he managed to get 250 writers/publishers involved to create a bit of a splash. Great idea and one that I hope will be repeated.
I recently visited the Modern Art gallery in Edinburgh to see the Ray Harryhausen exhibition. He was an animator and creator of special effects for films such as One Million Years BC and Jason and the Argonauts. It turns out that he was inspired by the film King Kong (1933) made by Merian Cooper. You may remember that Cooper features in Stranger In My Heart, as during the Second World War he was made Chief of Staff to Gen. Claire Chennault of the USAF in China.
Cooper was a forward thinker and supported Chennault in creating a plan to defeat the Japanese using air power. Part of this plan involved retaking Hong Kong and thereby liberating the PoWs there, which was Dad’s ambition. Dad realised that rescuing troops unfit to fight would not be a strategic priority but, as part of a wider plan with the support of the Americans, it might have worked. Dad and Cooper had several meetings to build the plan in November 1942 and it was presented to the Heads of Government at the Washington Conference in May 1943. Although the plan was approved it never achieved the necessary resources to deliver it and the PoWs continued to suffer till the end of the war.
Post-war, Cooper made many films with his directing partner, John Ford, including Mighty Joe Young (1949) with Ray Harryhausen’s animated special effects.
It was interesting to see Harryhausen’s work and to discover the connection with Merian Cooper. There were some amazing models featured in the exhibition, see below. It’s on till Feb 2022 so if you’re in Edinburgh, go and see it!
Prof Kwong Chi Man of Hong Kong Baptist University and his fellow researchers have now launched their interactive map of the Battle of Hong Kong. This will be a wonderful resource for anyone searching for information about any aspect of the battle, from the positions of pillboxes to details about key characters in the battle. The map allows you to run the timeline of the battle, with the key events described (in English and Chinese) and shown on the map. You can zoom in and out as you please. Here is a screenshot to illustrate:
If you click on ‘Faces of War’ at the bottom left, it gives you a snapshot biography of key characters in the battle, showing where they were based or lost their lives. Below is the start of the entry for Dad, as an example.
This project has taken ten years to come to fruition and it is a very impressive achievement.
I was thrilled to be a guest on BBC R4’s Saturday Live show this weekend. You can listen to it on BBC Sounds if you missed the live show. It gave me a great opportunity to mention the forthcoming 80th anniversary of the Battle of Hong Kong, as well as talking about Dad’s story and my book. Sadly, they didn’t give me time to talk about Dad’s role as Assistant Military Attaché in Chongqing and his efforts to support and liberate the PoWs he’d left behind in Hong Kong.
My friend Joanna nominated me as a guest for the show, unbeknown to me. She rang me when the producer got back to her and said they were interested. I remember saying WHAT??!! several times, as it came totally out of the blue. I wish I’d thought of it myself when the book was first launched but it seemed over ambitious at the time.
As you can imagine I was quite nervous about appearing on the show. The BBC sent me a headset to use and we did sound checks beforehand, so far, so good. Then at 3 minutes to 9am Zoom dropped me out of the meeting. I had to force quit Zoom, reload it and then rejoin the meeting in time to go on air at 09.02am. By this time my heart was pounding in my chest and my system was flooded with adrenaline and cortisol! They’d told me I would be first guest but I was very relieved that in the end they interviewed me just before the 10am news. Safe to say that’s the first time I have spoken to an audience of 2.4 million listeners.
I had a photograph of Dad next to the computer screen to remind me that talking to people on the radio requires less courage than escaping across China during a war. He smiled at me encouragingly and I hope he’d think I did a good job.
It’s the 76th anniversary of VJ day on Sunday 15th August 2021, and the end of the Second World War. This year there are going to be actual live events, after the pandemic induced difficulties of VJ75 in 2020.
This December it will be the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Hong Kong, 8-25 December 1941. The Chinese government is unlikely to have an appetite for commemorations but I have been in touch with Professor Kwong Chi Man at Hong Kong Baptist University. He is creating an interactive map of the battle, showing the “Faces of War”, to which I have contributed a summary of Dad’s story. The map will be available to view in English and Chinese. As soon as there is a live link I will post it here.
It was the 40th anniversary of Dad’s death on 25 July 2021. I happened to be in England that weekend so I visited my mother at her nursing home on the anniversary. She has severe dementia and doesn’t recognise me, not helped by the fact that I haven’t seen her for a year and covid precautions meant I had to wear a mask, gloves and an apron. I must have been quite an alarming stranger to find in her room! I showed her a photo of my father in dress uniform, taken in 1952 when they were first married. Sadly she didn’t seem to recognise him either. It was very distressing for me to see her oblivious to the love of her life. I understand that memory recedes to further and further back in someone’s life, but I thought she might still have Dad in her mind. She lost the grandchildren first, then us children and now her husband and brother. It’s unbearably sad to witness and it must be very lonely for her.
This just strengthens my view that we must preserve the stories of our loved ones as they may otherwise vanish with the death or memory loss of those who knew them personally. What do you know of your parents’ lives? Your grandparents and other relatives? Find out and write it down! Research what they can’t tell you or remember – it’s never been easier with all the resources of the internet at your disposal. I promise you, there will be some amazing stories in there.
9 June is the birthday of Stranger In My Heart (2018) and Dad (1914). I’m offering a birthday gift of a signed, dedicated copy of the Stranger In My Heart paperback for the special discounted price of £9.99 including UK postage. You also get a free SIMH bookmark with each copy. Limited period only, order via the Paypal link in the sidebar and message me via the Contact page if you want a dedication for anyone other than the purchaser.
Military historian Kwong Chi Man sent me this picture of Dad via Twitter. He found it in the WWII Veteran Association Clubhouse in Hong Kong. Dad looks very young and the photo was taken at the “Vienna Studio Bombay” so I am guessing it was taken on his way out to HK in 1937, when he was a young Second Lieutenant on his first posting.
The book has been an interesting way of connecting with all sorts of people – distant relations, families of men mentioned in Dad’s account of the battle of Hong Kong and his escape, military historians and the many veterans’ families who share a connection to the Pacific War. I hope the book contributes to a more complete history of the Second World War, along with the many other stories that families are now able to discover for themselves about their ancestors. It’s not all about the big battles and the strategic moves – it’s a human history of bravery, resilience and suffering. We shall remember them.
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.