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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
Oh brilliant, I forgot to bring the melatonin, so did NOT get a good night’s sleep. Also it was rather warm (sorry folks but daytime is about 23C and night not much less) so I felt restless. This morning I met Martin Heyes, of Walk Hong Kong, who is an expert on the WW2 history of Hong Kong. My Dad spent most of his time at the Battle Box, the Allied HQ on HK island. Needless to say it has been destroyed and the spot is now occupied by the British Consulate. We went and had a look at the site, just so that I could orientate myself when reading his story.
British Consulate, HK
We then headed uphill to Wong Nai Chung gap, the site of the decisive battle for HK. Martin walked me round a ‘discovery trail’ (with some limited printed information) bringing alive the battle – the tactical errors, the stories of survivors, the history of the Japanese in China and the roles of the various regiments and battalions. The British were utterly under-staffed and under-prepared, especially for an attack from land. The view from the UK War Office was that they didn’t stand a chance of succeeding and it seems that they didn’t want to waste resources (men, artillery or supporting troops) on a lost cause. Under the circumstances the Allies did well to last as long as they did! Here is a film of Martin Heyes describing the battle of Hong Kong:
Cricket ground, 1942
Cricket ground, 2013
While we were surveying the scene over the cricket ground and Happy Valley racecourse, 2 kites flew overhead. I love these birds – we often see several on our way to visit horsey clients along the M4. Julian and I have seen one or two when we’vc visited Roger’s grave in Wales – they always seem to be there, regardless of the weather.
Somehow it seemed like a wave from Dad – he was a keen birdwatcher and got very excited if he saw a kite (they were pretty rare in the ‘70s). I have fond, if slightly terrified, memories of travelling through Wales on the way to our annual holiday (a picnic on the beach at Aberdovey) with Dad birdspotting whilst driving on winding mountain roads with a substantial drop off.