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.
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.
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.
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.
The snowday was a bother. We intended to go to Leeds, for my book talk, via Chester to visit my cousin and then via elderly friends in Yorkshire. I was feeling overwhelmed by impending deadlines so we dropped the Chester visit. Then Julian got a cold and it didn’t seem fair to inflict that on the elderly friends and then it began to snow. I booked a train to Leeds but on Sunday morning it was snowing heavily and the Cross Country Trains website warned of severe delays and cancellations, so I decided to stay home. Luckily I had recorded my 15 minute presentation and sent it to the FEPOW History team so that they could at least play that. I was very sad to miss the opportunity to meet them all though.
So, I had Saturday to Tuesday free to prepare my lecture on vascular changes at birth and to read the proofs for Stranger In My Heart. Phew! The proofs are my final chance to make any changes and correct any errors and it was essential to read all 75,000 words very carefully. It’s done and returned to the editorial department, along with all the permissions from other publishers allowing me to quote copyrighted works in my book. For my lecture I have to do a lot of research and it takes time to find relevant papers, read and understand them and then convert them into a clinically relevant presentation. I’m not there yet but I have made a good start. Best of all, it feels like the pressure is off a bit.
In other news, I’ve seen some draft designs for my book cover, but we’re not quite finalised yet. I’m also busy planning a party to celebrate the launch of the book. Exciting times!